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!

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.