Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Listening Guide to Understanding Wayne Shorter

Creating listening guides to follow for while you're listening to music is a great way to develop a "big picture" understanding of what's going on during a musical performance. 

As musicians, we sometimes get so bogged down with the notes that are played, that we fail to see how they actually function in the larger context of the music. Listening guides give us a second to second account of the musical activity of the piece, highlighting not only the important moments that propel the music forward, but the various performance practices used to create these moments.

Here's one I created from a duo performance by saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Esperanza Spaulding playing "Footprints" on the Tavis Smiley show.

Wayne Shorter & Esperanza Spalding - "Footprints" from the Tavis Smiley Show.

0:33 - Shorter begins the melody, unaccompanied, soon joined by Esperanza in the 3rd measure.


0:55 - Shorter plays the melody for the 2nd chorus, embellishing it at the end of the second bar, using one of his common techniques of playing the phrase an octave higher. This is a very effective way of giving the listener one of those unexpected twists and turns.


1:19 - When the top of the third chorus begins, Shorter doesn’t begin his improvised solo right away. He pauses for one measure, giving the music a chance to breath, creating tension from the anticipation of what he’s about to play next. At first, it seems insignificant, but this is one of those subtle things that separate “hot shots” from master storytellers. Often times our real genius comes not from what we play, but what we don’t play.

1:37 - Shorter quotes the melody for the last two bars of the chorus, which also may seem insignificant at first.  But again, this is one of those subtle things that Shorter does which gives his solos clarity. Having different parts of the melody reoccur during your improvised solo provides depth and a sense of purpose for the other things that you've played.


1:42 - Shorter begins his third chorus playing the melody for the first measure and then uses the rhythm from the melody as the basis for his improvisation for measures 2, 3, and 4.

1:55 - Again, he quotes the melody in measure 9.


2:03 - He starts off his solo with a rhythmic motif that he develops until he gets to measure 9, after which he plays one of his signature phrases that descend in whole steps.


2:25 - He begins the chorus with a new rhythmic motif, only this time phrasing it in 4/4 time against the 6/4 time.


2:48 – He plays the melody out, phrasing it again in 4/4 time, which Esperanza quickly picks up on.

3:07 – Beginning in the 11th measure he plays a rhythmic pattern, two against six, which he continues until they fade at the end.

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...