Sam Newsome

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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Remembering Mulgrew MIller

I first met Mulgrew back in the early nineties. I was 24 years old, wet behind the ears, and I had just signed a contract to do a couple of records with the Criss Cross label. Gerry Teekens, the label’s owner/producer was always very quick to remind me that I was a young-unknown and that I needed to surround myself with name players. This was during a time when recording companies, large and small, actually expected to see a profit. 

When we were trying to decide on the personnel for the bass, drums, and another horn, we went through a long list of people. However, when we were deciding on whom to get on piano, once Mulgrew’s name was mentioned, that was it--no other pianists ever came up.
When Mulgrew graciously accepted to do the date, I was very ecstatic. I was going to get a chance to play with the person whose playing I had grown to admire on classic albums such as Woody Shaw’s United, Art Blakey & the Jazz Messenger’s The New York Scene, and Kenny Garrett’s debut CD on Criss Cross, Introducing Kenny Garrett. These were all 1980s gems, back when you had to leave your home and go to a record store if you wanted to purchase someone’s music.

I was so nervous about my record date that I didn’t sleep or eat the night before. Those who know me know that these are two areas that I don’t usually skimp on. I had Steve Nelson on vibes (instead of another horn)  Billy Drummond on drums, James Genus on bass, and of course, Mulgrew Miller on piano. That session was a particularly difficult one for me, emotionally--not only was I was a nervous wreck, but nobody seemed interested in my performance. That’s how I felt anyway. It seemed like all of the band members, the producer and the engineer were too busy in awe of Mulgrew.  

Every time we listened back to a take in the studio, all I heard was “Yeah, Mulgrew.” Mulgrew Miller, Damn!” “Mulgrew, you sound great.” “Grew!” After a while, I was starting to wonder whose date it was. I wouldn't have been surprised if I had been asked to sit out on a couple of tunes. And I did realize that all of the real time praise that he was receiving was well deserved. After all, he was ripping it up on every tune—thoroughly.

Eventually I did my put insecurities aside and rose to the occasion—the best that I could.  Trust me, it’s not a good feeling just trying to hold your own on your own record date. But it was what it was. When you decide to play with the big boys, getting slapped around a little bit comes with the territory.

After the dust had settled, I’m happy to say that I came away having made a nice record--and it made the New York Times 2005 Top Ten Albums List. So not a bad ending for what started off as not a pleasant day.

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to play with Mulgrew again after that date. We shared the same billing many times, but that’s as close as it got.

Here’s one of my favorite solos of his from Sam I Am. This is my arrangement of “Indiana.” On this take, you’ll definitely hear what I meant when I said that he was "ripping it up." Oh yeah, and Steve Nelson is bringing it pretty hard too.

Thanks, Mulgrew, for your beautiful music and your beautiful spirit. RIP.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The 10,000-Hour Soprano Rule

In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2010 best selling book, Outliers, he discusses what he calls the "10,000-hour rule."  He arrived at this number by surveying several classical musicians, discovering that in order for them to reach the level of musicianship where they could perform as a concert player, they needed at least 10,000 hours of practice--which comes out to roughly 3 hours a day for 10 years.  This rule, of course, extends far beyond music; it applies to tennis players, golfers, pool-players--you name it.

When I first read this, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a record producer who told me that I shouldn’t play the soprano exclusively because it was too limiting. But I explained to him that it wasn’t so much that the soprano is limiting as it is people don’t get a chance to hear the result of someone having spent several years, solely committed to developing a voice on the instrument. In other words, very few people have put in their 10,000 hours mastering its ins and outs and all of its idiosyncrasies.

I didn’t start playing the soprano exclusively until I was 30. And it really wasn’t until I was 40 that I started to feel like I had a good understanding of how to play it. Up until then, I was always at the mercy of my reed and mouthpiece. It was only after I put in my 10,000 hours that I started to develop the chops and a deep enough understanding of the instrument to even attempt something as difficult as playing solo—not to mention being able to play all of the extended techniques that have now become part of my sonic repertoire.

Another factor to consider regarding the 10,000-hour soprano rule is that one also needs to put in several hours of soprano-centric listening to gain a true understanding of how it should sound.  When I first started playing the soprano exclusively, my sound was a lot louder. I could hold my own with trumpet players. But I wasn’t producing a soprano sound. It was the tenor sax 8va, which is what I hear a lot nowadays--either that, or alto. 

I actually went through a transformation period of only listening exclusively to soprano players, as a way of erasing the sound of the tenor's lower range from my ears. I remember that I played a tenor saxophone a few years back and I was amazed at how high I was able to play. Mind you, when I only played the tenor, I could barely play a high G.  Even while playing in the altissimo of the tenor, it never felt high enough.  By that time, I was definitely hearing the higher range of the soprano.

 I could never say in good faith and with certainty that 10,000 hours plus practice equals a master soprano player (10,000 + p = msp).  But it does equal a better understanding of the instrument and all of its quirks.

Another thing I’ve noticed, too, is that, since players have already reach a certain level of proficiency on one of the other saxophones, they’re not striving as hard to develop the soprano to the next level. Typically what happens is once players have a pretty good handle on how to play it in tune and develop and certain level of instrumental dexterity, much of time is spent trying out the latest mouthpiece and horn--which I ultimately see as the beginning of the downward spiral. Many of the new horns give players a false sense of accomplishment. The instrument is easier to play in tune, but you don’t develop the skills necessary for real instrumental control. Newer model horns and mouthpieces don’t solve problems, they just enable players to mask them. And eventually they surface again.

You don’t have to use 10,000 soprano rule in the literal sense, but it is good use metaphorically to understand that in order to play the soprano well, it takes time, patience, and many, many hours of practice—sometimes 10,000 of them.

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...