Sam Newsome

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

Podcast for Rhizome's 2022 Catalytic Sound Festival with Layne Garrett

411 Kent - Wednesday, August 17, 2022 @ 8:00PM

411 Kent - Wednesday, August 17, 2022 @ 8:00PM

2022 Vision Festival

2022 Vision Festival
Reserve your tickets now!

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Why Wayne Shorter Mattered

It goes without saying that an institution of musical thought and creative generosity has left the planet. But, on a positive note, also left behind is a body of work that will serve as a source of musical study, musical inspiration and enjoyment. Maybe until the end of mankind.

Before Wayne came along, a lot of jazz evolved around musical callisthenics. Virtuosity at the highest level, peppered with interludes of heartfelt blues and infectious swing—particularly amongst saxophonists. Not to misconstrue what I'm saying in terms of virtuosity. Wayne had plenty in the bank. 

Here's how Wayne differed. His virtuosity surfaced as a byproduct of making a solid musical statement. It wasn't about running the horn, or making the changes. Even though those two performance practices were on heavy display. Instead, it was about making music inspired by the moment, never to be reproduced again.

When we're taught to improvise in the early stages of our development, we're taught that jazz improvisation is a spontaneous creation of a melody. That's the rhetoric, anyway. However, that intention quickly becomes a lifelong devotion to arpeggiated lines that outline the chords, with a side order of chromaticism that alludes them. Not in Wayne's case. His music was the embodiment of this definition of jazz improvisation. This is heard from the early days with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, through Weather Report, to his last working quartet. No matter what group Wayne played with, he was always the voice of musical reason. Whenever he started to play, there was always this feeling like, "OK, things are going to be ok now."

When I was a young Berklee student, Wayne was my go-to guy for when I needed a musical pick me up. When you're at institutions like Berklee, surrounded by many high-performing students, it can play mind games on you. One begins to think that if you can't play fast or "Cherokee" through the keys, maybe a music career is not for you. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, many of those high performers did not become the jazz stars that their peers anticipated. My theory: Flash and virtuosity can't sustain a career, only great music. Listeners get bored of being wowed. Eventually, they want to be moved. And this is why Wayne Shorter mattered. He taught us that improvisation has to be nuanced with emotion and vulnerbility, subtlety and fire, whispers and roars, and most of all, patience. It's not about showing your musicianship but your humanity. Only a small number of us were born with the ability to be virtuosic, being able to regurgitate musical information in an encyclopedic fashion. But everyone has humanity. A lesson taught by Wayne Shorter every time he graced the stage. Playing his memorable solos that were often simple, in terms of notes, but deeply profound in terms of meaning and emotional impact.

Wayne will be missed. His sound, melodic compositions, harmonic sophistication, cryptic way of speaking, and of course, his warmth and unwavering generosity.

 R.I.P. and thank you!

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Remembering Ron Miles: A Gentle Man and Gentle Spirit

The jazz world has lost not only a really great musician but a really nice one. I met Ron Miles in October of 2014 at Duke University as part of the Bad Plus Science Fiction project, along with Tim Berne on alto saxophone. The group performed as a part the University's Duke Performances series, which commissions musicians to present eclectic music.

I remember running into him in the hotel's lobby, right before our first rehearsal and soundcheck. We connected immediately. I imagined he did this with most people. Ron was an interesting mix of lucid humility, restrained confidence, and exorbitant kindness. For some reason, I was a little nervous meeting him, but that all went away within seconds of shaking his frail hand. He immediately told me that he was a fan. I was delightfully surprised that he was very familiar with my solo work and was a frequent reader of my blog. I remember thinking that if Ron Miles is reading my shit, I must be doing something right.

During the two years that the group was together, I was always impressed with how Ron approached each performance with a Zen-like patience. As a result, every solo was melodic, heartfelt, and memorable. He never forced the music. It always surfaced organically, like a spring flower.

At one point during our European tour, in the spring of 2015, I was having difficulty interpreting the Bad Plus's itinerary. It was packed with a lot of info, and I often had trouble deciphering what I needed to know. While in Germany, we were supposed to catch an 11:00 am train. And I thought it was an 11:00 am lobby call. Needless to say, I missed its departure. I did catch a later train and made the gig, thank goodness. 

At one point, one of the Bad Plus members was showing great impatience, and Ron sensed it, and for the remainder of the tour, always reached out to me to make sure I understood the travel plans. He was never condescending, which I appreciated. He sincerely just wanted to help. The challenge about the tour was that there was no tour manager, so we were basically on our own. As I've stated, I struggled with this.

The last time I saw Ron was on September 4, 2016, at the Chicago Jazz Festival. We played right before Anat Cohen's quartet on the beautiful Millennial Stage. We had a lot of downtime before the concert and  had the best time talking about music, being college professors, and the new O.J. Simpson mini series, The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. We both thought it was brilliant. He even told me he was close to being ordained as a priest. I just remember thinking, "How much more virtuous does this guy want to be?"

R.I.P. You will be missed by everyone who had the good fortune of crossing your path, with and without your horn.

Please enjoy what I believe is the only documentation of the Science Fiction project. This was filmed and recorded on September 12, 2015, at Jazz à la Villette, in Paris, France.

* Ron died on Tuesday at his home in Denver due to complications from Polycythemia vera, a rare blood disorder. He was 58 years old. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

How to Start of Movement

The TED Talk by Derek Sivers "How to Start a Movement" may be only three minutes in length, but it has given me years of inspiration and courage. It has played a significant role in how I manage my career and how I interact with others.

The talk is centered around a video of a young kid at the beach who demonstrates the courage to make a fool of himself. And as Sivers points out, this what it takes to start a movement. 

Key points from his talk:

  1. A leader needs the guts to stand out and be ridiculed. 
  2. The leader must embrace his or her FIRST follower as an EQUAL and not a follower. This way it’s about the movement, not the leader.
  3. As Sivers points out, "The first follower transforms the lone nut into a leader."
  4. The first follower, as Siver's also points out, is an "underestimated form of leadership."  He or she demonstrates just as much courage as the leader. 
  5. New followers, ultimately emulate the first follower, not the leader. 
  6. As more people join in, following the "lone nut" becomes less risky. 
  7. Overtime it become more risky not to follow the leader and the crowd of others following the leader.
  8. And before you know it, a new movement is born. 

This video is short and simple, but so profound. As I see it, it's bigger message is about being selfish enough to pursue that which makes you happy. And self-less enough to allow others to take ownership of the fruits of your courage. 

Thanks for your time!

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Relying Too Much on Talent May be Your Problem.

Talent versus genius has been a topic I’ve been fascinated with for many years now. Something that doesn’t get talked about often enough.

Rather than boring you with a long drawn out prologue, I’ll just get right into it.

"Talent enables you to play great. Genius enables you to arrive at greatness."

Let’s get into it!

Talent is what we’re taught to nurture from the first time we touch our instrument. Talent enables you to play your instrument well. It enables you to sight-read music perfectly. It enables you to flawlessly navigate your way through a challenging set of chord changes.

As creative artists we have a partnership with talent. (Here, I'm paraphrasing writer Jack Grapes.) We say to talent, make me sound good and I’ll always make you number one. And talent says to the creative artist, make me number one and I’ll always make you sound good. And the two of you move through your musical life joined at the hip. 

Genius works differently. 

You can’t have a partnership with genius. Whereas talent does what it can. Genius does what it must (to paraphrase Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.) Here’s how I see genius. Genius is like a superhero that jumps in and saves you when you fall off a building. Or right before you get run over by a moving train. That’s how genius works. 

At this point we all understand how to access our talent: practice, practice, and more practice. Talent is very linear. Genius is like a bad boy figure: illusive and unpredictable.

If this is the case, how do we access genius? Unfortunately, you can’t control genius, you can only set the stage for it. Since genius does what it must, then we must create an environment that allows genius to come to our rescue.

As I see it, we need three things to allow our genius to surface.

  1. Stillness
  2. Hyperawareness
  3. Danger

Let’s unpack this, shall well.

1. Stillness

What is stillness? Simply put, stillness in the quieting of the mind. All thoughts compromise the creative process. The good and the bad. Thoughts are like a hard protective layer that prevents things from seeping through. Whereas stillness provides a much more porous surface between your creative process and genius. In other words, if genius does decided to drop by, then you need to create a way for it to get in.

2. Hyper-awareness

Once the mind is quiet, then you need to beware of the thoughts, ideas, and inspirations that surface. Otherwise, you’ve created a way for genius to get through, but your mind is too focused on other things and can't recognize the great things that are happening, or have the potential to happen.  

I look at it this way. 

Imagine you’re walking to the train station. During the first scenario, you’re talking on your cellphone, arguing with your partner. If anything beautiful is along the way, you’re not going to have any idea. You’re too wrapped up in something else. Now, scenario two. You’re walking to the subway, now your cellphone is your pocket. You’re looking up at the clouds, you’re observing the songs being sung by the birds. You notice the cool rhythms the cars make as they cross bumps in the road. You take in the different aromas from the different trees, bushes and flowers that you pass. Now, instead of you simply going from point A to point B. It has become a journey filled with sensory illumination. This is the type of awareness you need to recognize genius.

3. Danger

Let talk about the most radical one, danger. This is what most try to avoid, however, it’s the most essential to us experiencing genius. When we put ourselves in creative danger, we create a situation where genius does what it must. Go back to our superhero analogy. When does Superman appear? When you’re driving and the bridge collapses as you’re crossing it. When does Spiderman appear? When you’ve fallen out of the 12-story window and are about to crash onto the sidewalk. Without eminent danger, they would rarely show up. Well, genius works similarly.

Let's look at danger in the creative realm: What is it and how do you access it? 

We often feel like we’re in danger when we feel that our existence is threatened. Or when we’ve lost control for something we value. Simply put. Danger is that which scares us. Next question: How do we leave ourselves frightened? By moving outside of our comfort zone. Nothing scares us more than the unknown. Not knowing. 

What does this have to do with genius? When you’re in danger, you become more vulnerable. When you become more vulnerable, you create an environment where genius can do what it needs to—which is to save you and take you to new heights. 

Some examples on how to put yourself in danger.

  1. Do something you’re not good at.
  2. Hang out with people who think differently than you. 
  3. Wing it sometimes.
  4. Fail on purpose.

What do all of the suggestions have in common? They all scare us. And we have no idea what the outcome will be. And this is the magic of danger. We’re no longer in the driver's seat but have become an observant passenger. It’s like that saying: “A blank page is God’s way of showing us how hard it is to be God.”

When you learn to dance with fear, magic happens.

Now, here is where is gets tricky. Unlike super heroes, genius does not always save you. It might let you fail a few times before swooping down and carrying you into safety. You may seriously begin to question your actions, and certainly the whole idea of genius. This is where being still becomes crucial. It allows you to shut off your brain when it goes into doubt-mode. But when genius does kick in, everything you went through up until then would have been worth it. Regarding doubt-mode. Remember that ALL thoughts are lies. The good and the bad. It's just as harmful to be full of yourself then it is to be full of doubt.

So I know this is a lot to take in. And I won’t attempt to recap what I just said. 

But just remember this: Relying on your talent may take you from point A to point B, but it won't enable you to experience greatness. Relying on your talent is safe way to move through your musical life. Taping into your genius will be life changing.

Please check out my new book: Be Inspired, Stay Focused: Creativity, Learning and the Business of Music

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Are You Trying to be Human or Perfect?

I’ve often written about why some players inspire us and others leave us shaking in our improvisatory boots. Or worse, leave us harboring feelings of resentment towards their musical existence.

Rather than rehash previous thoughts from earlier posts, I’ll just delve into new revelations.

“Intimidating players demonstrate what it’s like to be perfect. Inspiring players reveal to us what it’s like to be human.”

Let’s unpack this.

We’ve all heard that player with unlimited technical skills, the ability to play in any key, in any time signature, at any tempo. They are seemingly the perfect player. They never have bad nights, only great nights. On occasion, even better nights. Perfect! So much so, that young players from universities around the globe, follow this path because it’s the surest way to peer acceptance, and the surest way to get employment. I get it.

Here’s the problem.

With so many players aiming for machine-like perfection, the music starts to sound like an aesthetic race to the bottom. I’ve always felt that musicians should strive to play in a fashion that would be impossible to recreate via a machine. You can transcribe a solo by any number of revered players today, type those notes in Finale, press PLAY, and hear a very close replica. Try doing that with Ornettre Coleman or Albert Ayker. It would be nearly impossible. This is how it should be be.

Why have we ended up in this place? Easy. We’re only exploring perfect outcomes, and are failing to address human ones.

Let’s take this out of the musical realm for one moment. In fiction writing, budding authors are instructed to never write characters that are perfect. For a few reasons:

  1. They are one-dimensional. Or flat. 
  2. They are uninteresting.
  3. And the reader can’t relate to them.

Again, why?

Because human beings are flawed. It’s what makes us human. It’s what makes each and every one of us unique and interesting. It makes us likable. This is why politicians have such a difficult time. They have to pretend to be perfect and usually end up failing in a big way.

So why do imperfect people appeal to us? Look at any reality show. Basketball Wives, The Housewives of Atlanta, Hanging with the Kardashians. It’s because we, too, are imperfect. We find comfort in knowing that others are like us, even those who seemingly have everything. We feel less lonely. Our quirks in the realm of humanness are not abnormalities, but things which make us as we were meant to be. 

Quick story: Years ago, I used to live in this huge house in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Many musicians resided there over the years. Whenever I invited friends over, I was known for always making them wait in the living room, the common area, while I went up stairs and made sure my room was tidied up  perfectly and was suited entertaining. One day, following my usual modus operandi, one of friends stop me before I headed up the stairs to do my usual pre-entertaining clean up. They said I didn't have to clean up. for them. That it was OK for me to show them my mess. They said it made me seem more human. This really resonated with me and certainly had some influence on this piece.

Let’s go back to music. The imperfections we’re taught to correct, can give our playing character. There are a lot of alto players who had better intonation than Jackie McClean, but they’re much less interesting. There were plenty of trumpet players who could play faster, louder, and higher than Don Cherry. But many of them were no where near as charismatic nor with the ability to move all of those within ear reach. Thank goodness they never settled for perfection. At least machine-like perfection.

There are numerous examples like this. Even looking at my own playing. I am so flawed. Sometimes I’m amazed that I have any career at all. By then again, I’m proof that it’s not about checking all of the boxes. Sometimes it’s about thinking outside of the box. 

The reality is this. All that we so desperately try to sweep under the rug, sometimes needs to be put on a silver platter and set at the center of our musical table. The world needs that which makes you imperfect. The world needs what which makes you human.

My tweet from a few years ago sums this up perfectly.

Please check out my new book: Be Inspired, Stay Focused: Creativity, Learning, and the Business of Music

Why Wayne Shorter Mattered

It goes without saying that an institution of musical thought and creative generosity has left the planet. But, on a positive note, also lef...