Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy



Please check out my interview on THE JAZZ SESSION w/Jason Crane

Monday, May 20, 2019

Intimidation or Inspiration: Which Do You Project on the Bandstand?


A colleague once expressed to me that a saxophonist with whom he was performing was playing so much shit it intimated him and made him not want to play—as though this is something commendable. A word from the wise: If you’re scaring the musicians you’re playing with and not inspiring them. You’re drawing from the wrong musical well.

Let’s look a this from a couple of perspectives.

One observation: Why is it that when we hear certain musicians play, we get inspired and think, “Yes, I can become a great player." While with others, we can feel discouraged and come away thinking “Man, maybe I'll never get my act together.”  Some make us want to take our horn out of our case, while others make us want to pack it away. 
  
Second observation: When someone intimidates us, we refer to them in aggressive descriptors like beast, monster, killing, or badass. We say things like “they destroyed it,” or that they “tore it up.” Whereas we refer to those who inspire us in softer terms like original, spiritual, soulful, swinging, moving, or expressive.

For my own taste, I lean more toward inspirational qualities in terms of what I like to listen to and what I like to play. It has taken a long time to come to terms with this too. When one lives in a competitive place like New York City, where competition is fierce, these types of metrics dominate our musical value system. In fact, our whole musical practice is often centered around becoming a beast, killing it, destroying it. Rarely do we pick up our instruments and try to figure out how to inspire, how to move, how to be an original. This is not our culture. This is why players who win competitions—especially jazz--rarely inspire me. Let’s face it, their whole aesthetic is about destroying it. That’s the nature of the game.

Typically, when I hear this type of player, I come away thinking, “Man, I need to practice.” I’ve rarely come away with the feeling of being inspired to play music. It’s funny how I’ve never heard Wayne Shorter and felt I needed to “go home and shed.” If anything, I want to pick up my instrument because I’m inspired.

During my younger and more formative years, I was often accused of being jealous or of hating on some of the more popular players. Ok, I’ll confess, there may have a been some of that. I’m only human. However, at the end of the day, I just did not like what I was hearing. In terms of metrics, I could appreciate their flawless technique, their impeccable time, their never-ending flow of ideas, their basic overall command of the musical situation. But...and this is a BIG but.

I simply was not moved by what I was hearing. 

It’s like when you read great book. What makes a book fun to read is not just the author’s command of the language, but his or her ability to tell a compelling story.

Several years ago, I did a tour with one of my bands, and there was another group sharing the bill. The group was excellent. Everyone played great. Very high level, actually. But certainly not moving in any way. I personally don’t criticize for this reason. If it’s not there, it’s not there. I usually deal with what is there. However, during their set,  a gentleman sitting next to me asked me what I thought, and I told him that I thought they sounded good—which they did. So, of course, I asked what he thought. And I must say that I was surprised by his answer. He simply said, “Personally, I need a little bit more poetry.” 

At that moment, it really dawned on me that it’s ok not to settle for not being inspired or moved. As professional musicians, we sometimes choose not to celebrate these qualities and opt for the latter. This is understandable. Intimidating skill sets are more widely accepted and easier to assess.

All that said, we probably want exude a little bit of both. Maybe we can be spiritual while killing it. Be inspiring while in beast mode. Be original while playing lots of shit. As with many situations in life, both sides often have good points.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Websites: Relevant or Relic?



Music consultants say that a great website is paramount. Not sure I totally agree. Yes, you need one. But I think we can take it’s-good-enough attitude with them, too. As long as your website is easy to find, up-to-date, and enables folks to find you—job done! People don’t often visit your website to check out your music. They usually go for pics, bios, and to see where you’re playing.

Here’s an observation: One mistake folks make is that their websites don’t really reflect who they are or their career status. A colleague once joked with me that if you went to my website (my former one) you’d think I was making $100,000 per year—certainly laughable back then. This was something to think about. It’s a little misleading to create an impression of being a multi-platinum artist, and you’ve got three door-gigs in Bushwick listed in the SHOWS section.

Nowadays, fans and colleagues are used to being able to engage with us in delayed and real-time, whether it emails, the World Wide Web, or social media. These are the areas you want to stay on top of.

Regarding emails: Be prompt with them and make sure they are well-written. This is the next best thing to having a conversation. I’ve seen plenty of musicians who have fancy websites, who don’t respond to emails promptly, and when they do send them, they’re often not professional.

Social media: I see social media as the great squandering of the 21st century. Again, a fantastic opportunity to let folks know who we are and what we’re about (and it’s totally free, by the way), and we betray people’s trust by having nothing to say and showing up empty-handed. It reminds me back when I was a kid, and we’d go over to a friend’s house and ring his/her doorbell and then run and hide in the bushes before he/she came to the door. As you probably guessed, they eventually stopped responding to our ringing. Why? Because we betrayed their trust. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram—all great mediums for engagement. Now it’s up to us to show up to the table with something worth serving.

YouTube: This is another area musicians don’t take advantage enough. With video recording being so easy to make, there’s no excuse not to have at least five new videos posted on YouTube per year. This enables folks to remain current on our musical activities. Being current is one of the most positive images of the project. It
shows that you care, and consequently, makes others care. And besides, there’s transparency in videos that lets folks know precisely what they’re getting. They might be more likely to trust poorly shoot YouTube video than a slick, well-produced recording.

Blogging: Some may not feel this is for them. But I’m here to disagree. Everyone has a perspective on the world, or at least an area of expertise. So blogging helps you to articulate this. Doing this is two-fold: 1) it helps to organize your thoughts, and 2) lets others know who you really are. The more deeply they feel they know you, the more likely they are to follow you and your music. You don’t need to wait for DownBeat or JazzTimes to interview you. Become your own publicist.

So as you can see, there are many aspects to getting yourself out there. I’m not saying websites are unimportant. Only that other more effective mediums exist.

As long as folks access to pictures, bios, know where you’re playing, and can find out how to contact you immediately, that’s all that’s needed. 

One last point about being reachable.

Listing your European booking, your North American booking agent, your manager, your publicist—all of these folks are fine—but also have a way you can be reached directly.
  
As I see it, a website is your ticket to the game. The other mediums are your means through which to play it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Acute and Chronic Practicing



I’d like to talk a little bit about acute practicing versus chronic practicing. Typically we associate these terms with diseases, but they have more straightforward definitions as well. Acute means merely short term or short period. And chronic just means ongoing or an extended period.

Now that we’ve established an understanding of these terms, here's how they apply to practice. Acute practicing as I understand it is goal-oriented and time-specific. For example, practicing your scales from noon - 1:00 PM. Or working on a particular piece from 4:00 PM - 5:00pm. This is how we typically approach it. Chronic practicing is not necessarily goal oriented (but could be) nor time specific. Chronic practicing could be passively hearing those skills while we do other things. Or rehearsing that piece we were working on in our head all throughout the day, long after we’ve put our instruments away. We’ve all heard horn players humming or whistling ideas that they’re working on, almost on a subconscious level. The same can be said for drummers who are always tapping out grooves and rhythms, no matter how annoying to those around them.

These are all classic examples of chronic practicing.

In medicine, chronic diseases are often much more deadly than acute ones because one, you don’t know have it until it starts to aggressively attack your body or immune system; and two, it affects a larger area of your body, perhaps your immune system as a whole. Chronic practicing is similar in that its effects can run much broader, and the information and skills get absorbed more deeply and tend to be more long-lasting.

Branford Marsalis often talks about a chronic practicing approach to transcribing (this is my assessment, not his), where the first step is to listen to a solo a million times, then when he gets it in his ear solid enough where he’s able to sing every note, then he transcribes it. This certainly differs from the acute practicing method where you pull out the manuscript paper and write it down, let's say from 1:30 PM - 3:30 PM--a methodology I often employ. It's important to recognize that both approaches have their advantages.

I do something similar when I’m confronted with something rhythmically challenging. Before attempting to play it on my instrument, I spend a week or so singing it, tapping it out, humming it, anything to get it embedded into my system.


One might conclude that acute practicing is done with one’s instrument and chronic practicing is done without. In many instances this is true, but certainly not exclusive. More simply stated: Acute practicing as the method for getting it under your fingers and chronic practicing as how you get it into your system.

As I often say, this is not hard science, but a mere softer way of learning.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Soprano Saxophone: A Personal Journey with the Straight Horn ( A Bruce Ackley Lecture)

Bruce Ackley photo
The following is the press release by the San Francisco Public Library.

Soprano saxophonist and new music practitioner, Bruce Ackley, will present a brief and informal survey of the history of the barely tamable, and little celebrated, soprano saxophone. 


Through conversation and live music examples, he will explore the use of the straight horn in traditional and contemporary jazz and the alternate universe of improvised music. 

Ackley has dedicated nearly 50 years to study of woodwinds and improvisation, concentrating almost exclusively on the soprano sax, and will present original works, improvisations, and pieces by soprano masters John Coltrane, Steve Lacy, Sidney Bechet, and Johnny Hodges. 

Preceding the live performance, Ackley will present a short slideshow introduction to the soprano sax, and discuss the players who have demonstrated the power and depth of the straight horn through their work.

Bruce Ackley began studying saxophone in Detroit in 1970. Having emerged from a visual arts background, he worked with fellow artists-musicians to create freely improvised music before relocating to San Francisco in 1971. On the west coast, Ackley began the study of jazz and contemporary music. He soon became an active participant in San Francisco’s exploratory music scene, a vibrant community that combines composition, strategy, and improvisation in new ways to create exciting musical forms. 

In the late 1970s, he formed Rova Saxophone Quartet with like-minded players—musicians who embrace structural innovation, improvisation, and community as guiding principles in music making. Now in its 5th decade of presenting adventurous music for sax quartet and expanded ensembles, Rova continues to serve as an ideal vehicle for Ackley’s development as a composer, improviser, and soprano saxophonist. Ackley has worked intermittently as a solo performer and also leads other music ensembles.

April 13, 2019
4:00 PM - 5:00 PM
Richmond Meeting Room
351 9th Ave
San Francisco, 94118
(415) 355-5600

Please check out some of Bruce's wonderful experimental work with vocalist Aurora Josephson and percussionist Gino Robair.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Vuvuzela Straight Horn: Making The Soprano More South African

I was strolling down 125th Street in Harlem a few days ago, and I spotted a party supply store across the street. Of course, the creative bells went off. I did not know if I'd find anything I could use for sure, but I did feel it was highly likely. What I found was a vuvuzela horn. These are plastic horns commonly used during football matches in South Africa.

Fortunately, this smaller cut version sold by this store fitted perfectly into the bell of the soprano saxophone. It's still in the beginning stages, but I already like how it helps to direct the sound as it comes out of the soprano's bell. 

  • Volume-wise, it certainly louder. 
  • Range-wise, I"m able to play much lower. Not necessarily conventional, 12TET notes, but those notes produced when playing extended techniques such as multiphonics and percussive slap tongue tones (PSTs). The video demonstrates the latter.

The process:

         1. You need a soprano sax                                   2. The vuvuzela horn


                                           3. Them place horn inside the bell of the soprano



In this video, I'm demonstrating how it sounds when employing the PST technique. 
As you'll hear, the notes are:

1. deeper
2. more resonant
3. significantly louder

This particular piece is relatively new to my sonic arsenal. But I'm very excited to see what other musical and sonic gems surface as a result. And it's nice to know that these horns now have another purpose other than distracting the opposing team during a South African football game.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

A Musical Silent Partner: The Importance of Space



A colleague once asked me how I deal with space when playing in a solo context. More specifically, how do I deal with the challenge of filling up the space. I explained that it’s not an issue of filling up the space, but coming to terms with it. Space is the straight man of a comedy bit: giving your ideas clarity and a strong sense of purpose.

Seeing space as something you need to fill up is implying there’s something wrong with it being there—like the need to fill up a hole. Musical space is hardly a hole. It’s not something you fall into or stumble over. It’s something you lean on. It’s the yin to yang; the up to the down; the peace to the chaos.

As I think about this, more and more, here are a few things which come to mind as ways in which space can assist us, not only when playing solo, but while improvising, in general.

1. Gives clarity to your ideas.

2. Allows us more time to think.

3. It’s an opportunity to rest. Something we need when playing an extended solo saxophone set.

4. A chance for us and the listener to digest what was previously played.

5. Creates more excitement and anticipation for the ideas are to follow. 

Going back to my straight man analogy, imagine Laurel with no Hardy. Penn with no Teller. Abbott with no Costello. Space is an important member of the team. The strong and silent type, if you will.

It’s a pretty radical concept to think that the most profound thing we can play is nothing. Or that the most healthy thing we can eat is nothing. Or that the most effective solution to a problem is to do nothing. Space, silence, nothing—they’re our most effective creative allies. All that we have to do is give them a chance.





Friday, March 29, 2019

Prepared Saxophone (Without the Saxophone) and Extended Techniques

In more recent weeks, I've been experimenting with playing my tube extensions unattached from my soprano.

This particular concoction is made up of five (5) parts.

1. Coiled plastic tube: This is where the sound travels through.




2. Plastic funnel: This attaches to the end of the funnel to help direct the sound. Similar to an instrument's bell.





3. Balloons: This is attached to the funnel. The dry rice inside of them helps to create a rattling effect when needed.





4. Book (or flat surface): This helps to create the plunger effect heard--enabling me slightly vary the sound.




5. Mouthpiece: This, of course, is where the sound is generated.



The piece: In order to perform this, it helps to be able to circular breath. The drone effect gives it more sonic continuity. As with most of my sonic improvs, this piece follows an ABA form.

A section: Main melody--usually in time.
B section: Improvisation--usually non-metered and sound based.
A section: Main melody returns.



Enjoy. And stay tuned for more!





Search This Blog

Blog Archive