Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Art of Solo Saxophone: Part I

A solo saxophone jazz performance can be a challenge of the highest degree for the performer as well as the listener. And it’s certainly understandable. Even though it’s just one person on stage, we naturally want to hear melody, harmony, rhythm, variety, tension and release, clarity, and all of the other things we take for granted with groups of a more conventional size.

As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about these things, here are three (3) suggestions that might help your solo outing go more smoothly.

1. Be prepared

I’ve found that the best way insure that most, if not all of the aforementioned things are realized is to be prepared. I always say that you have to know the material well enough that you smoothly recover from your mistakes. Nothing kills the momentum of a solo performance, especially playing a wind instrument, then playing that noticable "clonker." Nothing goes unnoticed when playing solo. Everything is subject to micro-scrutinization. When playing with a rhythm section, covering ones tracks after a fluff or clonker is easy to do. Often times you’re the only one to notice. When playing solo, however, that cracked or out of tune note can jump out at you like the boogey man on Halloween.

2. Know when to move on

Another important thing to remember is knowing when to move on to the next idea once you’ve made your point. Knowing when to stop is can be the key factor in whether or not a tune comes off great or just OK. My concerts and recordings tend to flow much better when the pieces are more compact. This can mean not fleshing the melody out too long or soloing too long. When you’re playing alone there’s natural tendency to want to overplay to make up for lack of any accompanying instrument. But oddly enough, that’s actually to time to exercise restraint and become more selective with your ideas.

When I’m preparing material for a live concert or recording, I often record myself and listen back for what I call the “bored factor.” Meaning, at what point does this start to get boring. Typically it’s when I play too long, spend too much time on one idea, or spend too much time in the same sonic space, that the b-factor starts to set in. I’m usually pretty amazed at how much of a difference 45 – 60 seconds can make. When playing solo, the version that’s 3:20 in length can seem like eternity compared to the 2:40 version.

3. Think like a story-teller

When it comes right down to it, solo playing is comparable to being a great storyteller, or even a joke teller, for that matter. If you study stand-up comics, every second of their routine is accounted for. In fact, music and comedy are two mediums that are both about controlled chaos. Sometimes it’s just the impression of being spontaneous and totally in the moment. If you hear a stand up perform his or her routine a few nights in a row, you’d be surprised at how little of it is off the cuff. Even those seemingly in the moment verbal exchanges with hecklers are typically from their expansive arsenal of insults and comebacks.

Like great musicians, great comics have impeccable timing and pacing. And when pared with equally great material—which can be jokes or a musical vocabulary—the results can be incomparable. That’s why great comics like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld can walk on stage with just a microphone and have you on the edge of your seat more than multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster movie. Or great musicians like Sonny Rollins or Steve Lacy can walk on stage just their saxophones and take you on a musical journey more exciting than listening to an 18-piece big band. Clarity and vision can go a long way in the world of improvisation.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Exploring the Soprano's Basement

One of my favorite books for learning about jazz history and to get a quick dose of musical inspiration is Steve Lacy: Conversations by Jason Weiss. This book is a collection of Steve Lacy interviews where he talks about life, music, and most times the soprano.

Here's one excerpt that I found particularly enlightening where he talks about the bottom register of the soprano.

"The main disappointment is that hardly anybody has developed the bottom of this instrument. I must be the only one that’s really opened up the bottom. I’m waiting for somebody else to really have founded something downstairs. That’s perhaps the most interesting part of the horn, the most beautiful part, it’s most pleasant part.”

I couldn't agree with Lacy more about this. The lower register of the soprano is without a doubt the most neglected part of the instrument, second only to the altissimo. In general, this area of the saxophone is not considered part of the instrument's practical range--which is understandable with the larger members of the saxophone family; melodies and lines played on those instruments tend to sound muffled down there. On the soprano, however, this neglected area is the warmest part of the horn.

Most of us, myself included, are influenced by Coltrane's approach to the instrument, who favored the higher register, as he did on tenor. Which is great, mind you, for a certain thing--mainly intensity and cutting through the rhythm section. Intensity, however, is only a small part of what the soprano is capable of. To get to the instrument's real beauty, you have to go down stairs to the basement, so to speak. As you find with most basements (If I may keep this analogy going), it will be dirty, cluttered, and unsettling in the beginning. But once you clean it up you will discover a new place of comfort.

I suggest starting off spending a good two weeks only practicing melodies and your musical ideas only using the notes between Bb1 (low Bb) - Bb2. It's uncomfortable in the beginning, but after a few days you start to find your way though the dark, so to speak.

One of the things I like to do is practice Charlie Parker's tune "Now's the Time" in the key of Eb concert. This puts the melody right in the very bottom of the horn. You can do this with any melody, but this is a good place to start.

In the words of President Obama, "Real change happens from the bottom up."

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...