Sam Newsome

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

Monday, November 12, 2012

Oral Cavity Manipulation

I started incorporating this exercise into my practice routine almost eight years ago.  And the results have been amazing. It has given me the oral cavity and tongue placement awareness that has afforded to be able to play and hear far beyond the original scoped of the instrument.

 It felt very strange in the beginning because it forced me to place my tongue in a very awkward place, which, of course, I later discovered was imperative for playing extended techniques such as multi-phonics and the altissimo.

This exercise requires you to play notes and bend them down a considerable distance, sometimes resembling a police siren. Just to get use to it,  I began with  C# above the staff—since this is a note that bends more easily than some of the others--and tried to bend it down as far as possible without changing fingerings or moving my embouchure or jaw. As I became more comfortable with the various tongue positions, I soon began noticing an increase in the distance that I was able to bend the pitches before they “broke.

When attempting to bend notes down, flatten the tongue as if to say the syllable “taw.” Try not to move the jaw or embouchure, and allow the throat to remain relaxed. We are better able to control the various placements of the tongue in the oral cavity than we are trying to manipulate the throat. Attempting to open and close the throat usually just creates tension and a restricted airway. Once I had achieved some success with the C#, I gradually moved up by half steps, being certain to accomplish the same degree of pitch bending success with each subsequent note.

“Pitch bending,” as described here, does not exactly imitate the oral cavity positions needed to produce altissimo notes. These exercises do, however, develop the awareness and flexibility necessary for eventual success in the range above F#. Now whatever you do, don’t become frustrated.  It may take a while before you’re able to play the exercises in the attachment. 

My advice to students is usually: Do what you can and count your blessings. Because when you are able to master this technique, a whole new world will open up to you.

Have fun. And most of all, be patient!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Me, Myself, and I: Reflections on Solo Playing

Is playing a concert solo without any rhythmic or chordal accompaniment such an unnatural way to perform? As instrumentalists, it’s not like we never play by ourselves.  Just think of how much time we spend sitting alone in the practice room or warming up before a gig in solitude. And compare that to the amount of time that a musician spends playing with others during a concert.

A professional jazz musician probably practices in solitude anywhere between one and three hours a day--college students probably a little more.  And of course this is going to vary depending on how much he or she performs. Now let’s compare this to the amount of actual playing time during a gig: An average performance in a jazz club lasts anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour per set, and it’s usually two sets per nightly performance.  During a one hour performance by a jazz quartet, the average group might play anywhere between five to seven tunes--sometimes fewer, for those particularly inspired moments. During those five to seven tunes, a horn player--including playing the melody, taking an improvised solo, trading fours with the drummer, and playing the melody out—probably plays a total of five minutes per tune. Which averages out to 30 minutes of playing time per set, and 60 minutes for a two-set gig.

Now my point is not to inundate you with averages and percentages, but to demonstrate that when you look at the amount of time that a horn player spends playing alone, compared to playing with others, on average he or she spends twice as much time playing solo or in solitude. Leaving me to conclude that playing solo is a state in which we are equally as comfortable, if not more. Yet, it’s a musical setting few of us get a chance to perform in.

But who knows, maybe one day this will all change. Steve Lacy's vast body of unaccompanied work could be just the tip of the iceberg. It's not such an anomaly is classical music. In fact, it's pretty commonplace. Maybe soon this "ugly duckling" format in jazz will grow up to be a beautiful swan.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Meeting David S. Ware

The first time I met David S. Ware was in the spring of 1999 in Paris.  I can’t remember the name of the festival, I think it was the Banlieues Bleues Festival, but I can’t be sure. He was there with his energy-charged quartet with Matthew Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass, and Guillermo E. Brown, who had just replaced Susie Ibarra on drums. We both had new CDs out on Columbia/Sony at the time, so a couple of the record label people from their France division took me to the concert. I was on tour with the Jacky Terrason group, and we just happened to have that particular night off. The timing couldn't have been better.

Before David's group played that evening, several free jazz/improvised music groups went on before him. I remember that a lot of it sounded very weird to me at the time. I hadn’t really gotten into improvised music back then.  For me to listen to esoteric ensembles made up of just two saxophones; or trumpet, cello and drums playing noise and texture, and squeaks and squawks--not caring whether you liked it or not--was way too outside of my post-young-lions comfort zone. I would probably dig that type of thing much more now, and in some cases, possibly prefer it.  You might say it was my first live experience with Euro-free jazz.

When David’s quartet finally played,  it probably sounded the tamest of all the bands I heard that night, which is saying a lot considering the raw, unapologetic recklessness with which his quartet would often swarm the bandstand. Being that they had all of the conventions of a typical jazz group---a melody instrument supported by a rhythm section, they were playing over grooves, forms, and chord changes, in the loosest sense of the word—they were by far the most conventional group on the bill. And I guess it’s all relative. If that very quartet played at the Village Vanguard, Smalls, or The Jazz Standard, it would have sounded far from "tame."

After the show, one of the label people who was chaperoning me that evening took me backstage to meet him. I remember as we were walking down the dark corridor toward his dressing room, I saw a light at the end of the hall, and from it I could hear a voice speaking very loudly and passionately, as through an altercation was about to transpire. But as we got closer, we realized that it was David. He was prancing around the room, speaking to a small audience of band members, festival workers, and fans about having heard John Coltrane in 1967.  Listening to the passion with which spoke about Coltrane's music made me envious that I never got a chance to experience the spirituality and the intensity of his music live.  Even thirty years after, David was still speaking about it as though he had just heard him the night before. He kept saying, almost as a chant,
 "John Coltrane. 1967. I was there. Don’t tell me. I was there. 1967.” It was like someone remembering meeting a messiah. Someone who after meeting once, totally changed your life. It reminded me of when I was growing up in Virginia,  and I used to witness people in the church find Jesus during the Sunday morning service.

Hearing him speak this way, even three decades later, you get an insight into how Coltrane’s music, mainly from the album Expression, recorded months before his death, shaped David’s aesthetic. This recording with Pharoah Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, Rashied Ali, and Alice Coltrane, was by far some of his most spiritually reaching music. In some ways, it bypassed much of the complexity found in a lot of his previous work. It has the calmness, tranquility, and contentedness of someone who has finally seen peace with himself and was ready to take that long-awaited journey home.

After David had come out of his Coltrane-induced trance, we were finally introduced. And when he found out that we were both on the same label, his eyes developed a little sparkle of interest. David told me that Branford Marsalis, who was the acting A & R person at the time, and who was one of the people instrumental in signing us, gave him a stack of CDs of new Columba/Sony releases. He said that he hadn’t yet heard mine,  but he was looking forward to checking it out.

Unfortunately, our paths never did cross again after meeting him on that memorable evening. However, his bright spirit and uninhibited music will be forever engraved in my memory.  His imposing height, his wardrobe of African garb and basketball sneakers, the cryptic-like metaphors he used when talking about music, his slow and confident walk with a slight limp, the way he would canvass the room with his eyes, as though he was trying to size up everything and everyone in his periphery, it all symbolized a man who was as individualistic off the bandstand as he was on.  Matthew Shipp summed it up best when he said that David was "the last of the Mohicans." And I’m sure wherever his spirit is now, he’s impacting everyone and everything along the way, the way he influenced all who stood in his dressing room that night, the way Coltrane obviously changed him during that vital concert in 1967.  R.I.P.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Keep it Simple

One of my favorite jokes is the one about the two tabla players: the guru and the disciple. One day while the disciple was playing for the guru, trying to show off his technical prowess in 15/8 time,  the guru being unimpressed, stopped him abruptly and scolded him, saying “ Quit playing all of this fancy crap and just lay down the 7 and 15.”

Now the moral of the story is “keep it simple,” no matter how complicated the circumstance. Which seems to be easier said than done. Whenever I’m conducting a master class or directing a jazz ensemble, I’m always amazed at the difficulty students have playing simple ideas. It's as though anything that's obvious or easily recognizable is not worth playing. That way of thinking could not be further from the truth. It's the easy to recognize and easy to play types of ideas that grounds the music. It provides a neutral territory for everyone to musically convene. If the basic premise of jazz is that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, then our job as soloists and accompanists is to make everyone comfortable. It's OK to push your fellow man, but you have to be careful not to knock him over.

As I get older, I find myself using space a lot more and playing fewer complicated ideas. It can be pretty humbling to find that your comfort zone isn't as vast and complicated as you thought or hoped it would be. But once you recognize and embrace your limitations, that's when you're truly on your way to getting to your thing. Otherwise, you will embark upon a lifetime journey of hit or miss performances.

So the next time, you decide to go out on a limb like a tight-rope walker from the circus, just remember that the real you is probably down below waiting for you with open arms.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The New York Times Review

Jazz critic Ben Ratliff gave my new CD, The Art of the Soprano, Vol. 1, a great review in today's New York Times, Arts & Leisure section.

It was nice that he was able to trace the arc of growth between the three solo CDs: Monk Abstractions (2007),  Blue Soliloquy (2010) and The Art of the Soprano, Vol. 1 (2012). And let me just say that this is one of the benefits of being a do-it-yourself artist.  No label will just sit back and patiently let you work out your thing, over the course of five years, while you make three solo soprano saxophone recordings. And understandably so. Art and commerce don't mix. Sort of like oil and water.

What's really interesting, is that I almost didn't release it. Like with most recordings, after I made this one, I went through Post-Recording-Depression (PRD). This is where after you record it, you think, "Wow, this is a great CD!" Then three-months later, you're wondering how you could have allowed such a tragedy to take place. You start to focus on that one note that was out of tune, that one phrase played slightly out of time, that extra chorus of rambling, that second take, which may have been the better of the two, and the list goes on and on.

So I guess the lesson is: You just never know.

At one point I even told myself--as I tried to rationalize why I should just go ahead and release it--that if it does get trashed, I'll just try to learn from my mistakes and do a better job the next time. When I sent it to  Disc Makers, I literally closed my eyes as I dropped it in the mailbox.

I'm glad I didn't listen to Mr. Voice of Doubt. Once again, he would have led me down the wrong path.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

From Starving Artist to Tenured Professor

It's been a long and bumpy road, but I'm happy to say that this will be my first semester of teaching at LIU Brooklyn with tenure. And as itinerant musicians, the whole idea of being in one place for the rest of one's life can seem pretty scary, and downright unlikely--unless, of course, it's a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan.

When you're awarded tenure nothing magical happens like a halo appearing over your head or the dark clouds beginning to part, allowing the illuminating sun to shine. There was, however, a sense of relief that came from knowing that looking for employment was not something I was going to have to think about for awhile--especially considering how broke I was back in early 2000. I remember searching Craigslist for odd jobs as a part of my daily routine. It was during this period that I had to sell my tenor sax. Dark times, to say the least.

And the fact that I ended up as a tenured university professor after all of this, still leaves me scratching my head in disbelief. For most of my life I had done very little teaching. As a matter of fact, I took one education course while I was at the Berklee College of Music back in the 1980s, and I ended up dropping it after the second week; it was starting to conflict with my rigorous practice routine. As a young student who really wanted to play, the thought of ending up in a classroom with an overhead projector and a pointer stick, was unthinkable.

It really wasn't until the mid-1990s, after I had switched to the soprano that I taught with any regularity. And as you can imagine it was more out of financial need than the need to share my knowledge and wisdom with the youth of tomorrow. I actually used to wish I had a few soprano students. That would have been fun. At the time, I don't think I played it well enough that other sax players felt that they could learn something from studying with me. But most of what I did was teach little kids beginner saxophone at the Brooklyn College Preparatory Center. And that had it's benefits, too. Since I was newly discovering the soprano, I was also dealing a lot with the basics of playing the instrument. So I was able to relate to them in a way that I wouldn't have had I not recently started over myself.

In 2004, saxophonist Pete Yellin, the director of the jazz studies program at LIU Brooklyn at the time, contacted me about taking over his classes as well as directing the jazz ensemble. He was about to go on a well-deserved sabbatical and needed someone to cover for him. And I had almost refused his offer.  I would have been teaching in an adjunct faculty capacity, and  I only had a bachelor's degree. So the pay rate for someone in my position was very low. I wasn't sure if all of the work and preparation that the job would have required would have been worth it. However, with my wife's insistence, I agreed to take it.

During that time, I was actually doing a lot of classroom teaching. Back in 2003, I started working as a teaching artist for this organization called 144 Music and Art. They used to send out-of-work musicians and artists like myself to elementary and middle schools throughout the five boroughs to teach everything from beginner recorder classes to beginner band.  And I was fortunate enough not to have been one of the unlucky "schmucks" who had to teach in Staten Island. Can you imagine living in Brooklyn and having to be in Staten Island to teach at 9:00 AM recorder class? Yikes!

But besides from the steady money, one of the best things that came out of this experience was that they required all of the teachers to attend their monthly classroom teaching seminars, where they would instruct you on everything from developing lesson plans to classroom management. So after having spent a year or so teaching at two schools a day (at times) and attending monthly teaching seminars, I had some serious teaching chops by the time Pete Yellin contacted me. 

Since these were college students and I didn't have to tell them to sit down and shut up every five minutes, I was really able to put all of the techniques I had learned through my experience as a teaching artist. And as a result I was really able to hit it off with the students, personally and pedagogically. 

One year later, Pete Yellin decided to retire after having given over 20 years of service. And as you can imagine, I was eager to take the position. However, there was some concern. Since I only had a bachelor's degree, the chair of the music program wasn't sure if I would be eligible. But after a few meetings, the dean of the college told him that he would allow me to apply for the position, provided that I agreed to get my master's degree within three years of the date hired, if hired.

With a university position, even if the department heads like you, and want you there, they still by law, have to do a nation-wide search and go through the rigorous ordeal of sifting through dozens of resumes and interviewing numerous candidates. My first interview during one of the earlier rounds was horrible. I was so nervous that my mouth went totally dry. I felt like I had just returned from eating cottonball sandwiches in the Sahara Desert. Not to mention that everything I said was totally incoherent--at least it felt that way. Had they not known me and my work from having taught there, I feel doubtful that I would have advanced to the final round--fortunately I did. 

During the last round, the final three candidates, we had to demonstrate our abilities in the classroom. I felt more confident about this part of the interview process, since I had been doing this for the past two years anyway. We had to teach a twenty minute class, which could have been in the style of a rehearsal or a lecture. I strategically chose the teach a lecture. I felt that one, it would show my versatility as a teacher, and two, there were a few non-musicians on the search committee, so I felt they could more easily identify with something that was more along the lines of music appreciation than musical technique.

Besides from playing music, I worked harder on this 20 minute presentation than I had on anything else in my life. I felt that so much was riding on me doing well. Besides, I really bombed my first interview, so I knew that I had to redeem myself.  I must have practiced and tweaked it for several hours a day for almost a week. So it goes without saying that I was ready. Even minutes before I was about to present,  I was walking through the halls rehearsing what I was going to say. It reminded me of my earlier years of when I used to experiment with stand up comedy. After I finished my presentation, I looked at the smiles on some of the faces of the professors on the search committee and I knew I had knocked it out of the park.

Needless to say, I got the job. And now, after 4 cds, several published articles, a few European tours, numerous committees and meetings, countless final exams and badly written papers graded,  one master's degree, six grueling tenure and promotion processes,  a twenty pound weight gain, and numerous 5:30 AM subway rides to work, here I am. And being a archetypical workaholic, I'm already plotting on how to go up for full professor.

 But first things first. Boys and girls, can you
 say, "Sabbatical"?

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Soprano de Africana Suite

The following excerpt is from the liner notes of The Art of the Soprano, Vol.1 

When composing and performing this suite I used a variety of African folk instruments as sources of inspiration: the mbira, the thumb piano from Zimbabwe; the balaphone, a xylophone-like instrument common through out West Africa; and the countless flutes and double reed instruments from indigenous places throughout the African continent as a whole.

By design, West African instruments are made to play simple melodies, usually based on pentatonic scales, with the musical emphasis being on groove, strong rhythm and call and response—contrary to the instrumental virtuosity and harmonic sophistication aesthetic, which is revered in most Western music.

Saxophonist Sonny Rollins said in a recent interview that he finds himself in his later years moving towards an approach that’s more primitive and less conservatory training oriented--referring to his Calypso roots, I imagine. He’s describes it as approaching the instrument the way he did when he was eight years old--that childlike discovery in which you approach things with a certain curiosity, innocence, and fearlessness.  Pablo Picasso also spoke of this, saying how it took him four years to learn to paint like Renaissance painter Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), but a lifetime to paint like a child. As artists, it seems to be a natural evolution to return to our primitive, childlike beginnings.

This notion of approaching the instrument from a “primitive” viewpoint served as the basis for many of the tunes in this suite. When trying to come up with ideas, I often asked myself this: If some musician from a small, remote village in West Africa found a soprano, and had no prior knowledge about how it should sound, what would he do with it? And this is what I came up with.

This track is titled "Burkino Faso" from the Soprano de Africana suite.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Sam Newsome / Ethan Iverson Duo

On Saturday, September 15, 2012, I’ll be performing with my comrade, pianist Ethan Iverson at the Greenwich House as a part of the "Sound it Out" music series curated by Bradley Bambarger. This will be our second duo gig together, not including the open rehearsal/mini recital we held at his practice loft in Brooklyn last March.

Ethan and I started to appear in each other's peripheries back in the spring of 2010, a few months after the release of my CD, Blue Soliloquy. While I was touring Romania with another piano cohort, Lucian Ban, I received an email from Ethan telling me how much he enjoyed my CD.  Of course, I was pleasantly surprised. My first thought initially was, “Hey, he’s the big Bad Plus guy, why does he know about my little solo saxophone CD?” And I never did ask him how he came across it, but I imagined it was the live review by Kevin Whitehead on NPR.  And let me just go on record to say that NPR rules! When they did the piece on my CD, I felt like the unknown author getting his book talked about on Oprah!

After a few email exchanges we got together to play in duo and to hang a bit. With Ethan being a big Mal Waldron fan, and my affinity for Steve Lacy, us collaborating seemed almost inevitable. Looking back on our first meeting, I don’t remember actually playing for that long.  We were kind of feeling each other out, seeing if there was something there worth exploring. After about an hour or so of trying out different songs and seeing what things he could come up with to go with the extended saxophone techniques I was experimenting with at the time, we mutually agreed that we had something that warranted further investigation.

Bowery Ballroom
Our first gig together, and I mean that loosely, was in the fall of 2010 when Ethan asked me to open for The Bad Plus as a solo act at the Bowery Ballroom, which was a monumental performance for the group as they celebrated their 10-year anniversary together. I must say that that was the largest and the most enthusiastic crowd I had ever performed for solo.

The following clip is from our first official gig together as a duo, which was at Cornelia Street Café on March 2, 2012. This may have been the first piece of the night and definitely one of the more special moments from the gig. And I’m pretty sure this is just one of many more to come.

We hope to see you at the Greenwich House this Saturday.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Eight Ways to Give Your Soprano Sound More Presence

1. Develop your lower register: 
Without a developed lower register your soprano sound will never have much range nor depth. It’s comparable to listening to your stereo system with no bass, only treble; It always feels like there’s something missing. The lower register is the most masculine and the warmest part of the horn. So by not utilizing it, your voice on the instrument ends up being somewhat incomplete.  And I think a lot of this stems from the instrument being viewed and played as an extension of a much larger horn.

2. Integrate multi-phinics into your sonic vocabulary:
Playing multi-phonics is a great way to give weight to your notes. Keeping in mind, of course, that the brashness and harshness of the multi-phonic is not always suitable for more delicate musical settings. It may not always be pretty, but it’s presence will definitely be felt.

3. Alternate between extreme registers:
When you alternate between high and low registers during your solos, you not only play different levels of intensity, but different timbres. And this also keeps you from sounding predictable and monotonous. It can seem somewhat “schizo” in the beginning, but it’s very effective.

4. Utilize the Doppler Effect:
The Doppler effect is a technique where you sway the horn from side to side, or up and down to change the direction in which the listener is hearing the sound.  Doing this while sustaining notes in the lower register, especially from Bb1 –D1, helps the notes to sing in an almost surreal like manner. Jane Ira Bloom popularized this technique .

5. Listen to and emulate exotic wind instruments:
Checking out exotic instruments like the ney, musette, or shenai teaches you how to maximize each note.  Too often we only play notes as straight tones, not really exploring all of the nuances and timbres available within each note.  Since the aforemnentioned instruments are folk instruments, playing chromatic melodies and fast lines aren’t really applicable, which makes timbre exploration even more important.

6. Play without the octave key:
If you play without the octave key from D2 – C3, you can get more harmonics resonating in those notes. The sound, however, becomes a bit more raunchy, so it doesn’t work in every setting. When I'm going for something a bit more raw and organic, I often use this. When I hear Keith Jarrett play the soprano, it sounds like he's doing a lot. 

7. Substitute conventional notes with ones from the overtone series:
Practicing your scales using the overtone series is a great way to learn how to use the overtones in a melodic context. Not to mention, it’s great for sound control and intonation.. On the tenor saxophone, Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker used this technique quite a bit, and quite effectively, I might add.

8. Utilize the growl effect:
This is probably one of the first techniques I used when I first started playing the soprano. I think it had to do with the fact that my sound was so squeaky clean, and I desperately wanted to find a way to dirty it up a bit.  And since you’re actually growling through the instrument while playing, your sound becomes very intense, which is great for creating drama. I first heard Pharoah Sanders do this on soprano, and I said to myself, “Man, I gotta learn how to do that!”

Check out this track where I'm utilizing numbers 3 and 5.

 Blue Monk from Sam Newsome's Blue Soliloquy by Sam Newsome 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Living in a Post Scarcity Mentality Jazz Era

Author Steven R. Covey in his 1989 self-help book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People discusses the differences in the Scarcity Mentality and Abundance Mentality.

In Mr. Covey’s own words, he wrote:

Most people are deeply scripted in what I call the Scarcity Mentality. They see life as having only so much, as though there were only one pie out there. And if someone were to get a big piece of the pie, it would mean less for everybody else. The Scarcity Mentality is the zero-sum paradigm of life. People with a Scarcity Mentality have a very difficult time-sharing recognition and credit, power or profit – even with those who help in the production. The also have a very hard time being genuinely happy for the success of other people.

The Abundance Mentality, on the other hand, flows out of a deep inner sense of personal worth and security. It is the paradigm that there is plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody. It results in sharing of prestige, of recognition, of profits, of decision-making. It opens possibilities, options, alternatives, and creativity.

The Harper Brothers
As someone who started his professional career in the early nineties, I came onto the jazz scene during what I consider the height of the Scarcity Mentality era.  During this period there were only a few ways that musicians saw themselves as being able to make a living playing jazz: One was serving an apprenticeship in the band of some well-established musician, the other was getting signed by a record label.

As far as apprenticeships, in the straight-ahead jazz world, the crème de la crème gig was with drummer Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Or as a lot of my peers would say, “the Buhaina gig. ” Sometimes his name was shortened to just “Bu.” And just to throw in a little jazz trivia: Art Blakey was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which was founded in 1889 in India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian. And after converting to Islam, Blakey’s muslim name became Abdullah Ibn Buhaina.

In addition to being a great drummer and bandleader, Blakey was known for launching the careers of many of the jazz greats: Hank Mobley, Bobby Timmons, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, and many others. And the former messenger who helped to restore Blakey’s popularity in the 1980s was trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. He was later followed by people like Terence Blanchard, Mulgrew Miller, and Donald Harrison--all of whom went on to having successful careers in their own right after having served their apprenticeships with the late the drum master..

Having only a handful of jobs around where players could get discovered and break onto the scene, created a very competitive environment, especially amongst the younger musicians. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t uncommon to get heavily “vibed” by some of the members of Blakey’s band if you happen to be a young musician in the audience with his or her horn. After all, they had to protect their scarce opportunity to build a career for themselves.

There were also a few other gig desirables that became known for nurturing young talent back then: Betty Carter, Horace Silver, Roy Haynes, Nat Adderly, and Tony Williams. And eventually some of the stars of the now defunct Columbia/Sony jazz label went on to bear the torch of giving young upstarts their first opportunity on the national and international stages: Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., and Terence Blanchard. And given the amount of musicians in New York at the time, these were not nearly enough opportunities, especially when you consider that it was in the pre-internet, pre-do-it-yourself era. And this fueled the Scarcity Mentality described by Covey where people felt that “there was only one pie out there.”

Getting signed to a record label was another means by which players got noticed by others. Back in those days, musicians had several major and independent label options. Some of the major labels around were RCA Victor, Blue Note, Verve, Warner Brothers, GRP, and Columbia/Sony, just to name a few. And indie labels were also in abundance--especially when you considered some of the active ones out of Japan, Germany, and France. Again, at first glance it seems like a lot of opportunities to get your music recorded. However, when you factor in all of the musicians, not just in New York, but Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, Boston, etc., it's still not enough to harbor all of the budding talent--and this is not even including musicians abroad. So when you put it in its proper perspective it proves to be a breeding ground for Scarcity Mentality. Because once again Scarcity Mentality is all about getting your piece of the pie, then protecting it from others.

Jeff Levenson
During this era, A & R executives and label heads were very powerful people.  After all, they held the pie that all of the musicians wanted a piece of--or at least they held the knife that divvied it up. They received numerous demo tape submissions and an equal amount of invitations to live performances. These were the go-to guys.

Now fast forward several years later to the year 2012, only a handful of those aforementioned opportunities for getting discovered and claiming ones stake in the jazz world even exist. The person who’s in a position to employ others is not necessarily the jazz legend who has paid his or her dues serving apprenticeships with the mentors of their time, but business savvy youngsters that have mastered the art of generating angles that draw attention to them.

And this is actually a good thing. Because now we’re in a more democratic era where a few, select gatekeepers do not regulate opportunity for the masses. With the advent of the internet, digital downloads, CD Baby, and the numerous social media networks, opportunity belongs to whoever has the vision and courage to cease it. We are now in an Abundance Mentality era, in which there “is plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody.”

Abundance mentality fosters a much less competitive environment. Let’s take recording CDs for example. Now that all of the opportunities to record are not regulated by a few record company executives, most of whom have their own agendas, we are free to create our own recording opportunities as well as help others find their way. The more do-it-yourself musicians who breakthrough, creatively using today’s mediums to bring wider attention to their music, the more new paradigms are created for others to follow or at least learn from. Whereas during the Scarcity Mentality era, the people who were picked by record companies were looked at as the privileged—the haves in the world of haves and have-nots. Nowadays you can just pick yourself—provided you deem yourself as being worthy. You can even pick others.

Drawing from my personal experience: I could very well only talk about my own music on my blog, and that certainly would be justified. But sharing the music and ideas of fellow soprano players, makes my blog about something much bigger than myself.   Now, if I can get all Zen-like on you: “Its much better to see yourself as part of an ocean than just a mere drop of water.”

In conclusion, having experienced the jazz scene in both eras, I can say with certainty that I like being a jazz musician in the Abundance Mentality era much better. Not only are the feelings of competitiveness and envy not as prevalent, but also new opportunities have presented themselves for building strong communities and alliances, creativity, and most of all, happiness.

Monday, August 13, 2012

My Five (5) Favorite Steve Lacy Quotes

Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy not only gave us great music to appreciate and learn from, but he always had a very poetic way of speaking—filled with insight, wit, and wisdom. Here are a few wise words from Lacy, most of which addressing the importance of originality and doing your own thing. Many of these quotes are from the Jason Weiss book Conversations, a collection of interviews by Lacy.

1. You have to sound sad first of all, then maybe later you can sound good.

I totally agree with him. Getting to something really great or profound musically, doesn’t come without a lot of trial and error.

2. People don't want to suffer. They want to sound good immediately, and this is one of the biggest problems in the world.

I have witnessed this many times just hearing people practice. It’s as though they rather sacrifice improving than having a bystander hear them sound awful. Kenny Werner often says that we often play when we should be practicing, and we practice when we should be playing.

3. Jazz is like wine. When it is new, it is only for the experts, but when it gets older, everybody wants it. 

I've definitely seen this happen with bebop. When it first came into existence it received a lot of criticism because it created a new paradigm for how jazz was created and appreciated. Nowadays people are listening to Bird and Monk in the background while sipping on their Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccinos at Starbucks.

4. There is an awful lot of what I call recreational jazz going on, where people go out and learn a particular language or style and become real sharks on somebody else's language. 

This is probably more prevalent today than at any other time in history. Many musicians don’t seem to be taking the extra step of after learning a language, personalizing it and making it their own. Here’s an interesting story. A friend of mine went over to Ron Carter’s place. I can't remember the reason. I think it was something to the affect that their wives were friends. But when he arrived he was surprised to find Ron Carter in his music room transcribing Paul Chambers. Apparently he does this a lot. I think this is a classic case of what I mean by taking it the extra step. Because Ron didn’t let the process stop at him playing Paul Chambers' ideas. And he certainly didn't choose to make a career out of it--which happens a lot today with many contemporary players. He used him as a way of getting to his own thing. And that’s what it’s all about. No matter what you're learning, never loose sight of the target you're aiming for--which is you.

 5. It starts with a single sound. If there's something in that sound, then it's worth continuing. 

I think many soprano players can relate to this. Many players that I’ve interviewed often spoke of being intrigued by a single sound, which sent them on a journey of a lifetime—myself included!

Embracing Authentic Confidence, Beyond the Illusion of Perfection

My struggles with confidence has been a constant companion throughout my life's journey, with and without my horn. I certainly have my g...