Sam Newsome

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

Now available of Bandcamp!

Now available on Bandcamp!

Now available on Bandcamp!

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