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!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Judgment Day: Will You Be Ready?

I often tell my students that contrary to their popular belief, they're not always going to be young and cute--metaphorically speaking. The older they get, the more harsh and less forgiving people we become of their playing. A young child gets away with everything, an adult gets away with nothing--especially when they're playing an instrument.

Knowing this is important because it lets us know the level of urgency with which we need to improve our weaknesses and to take our playing to the next level of musicianship. As I said earlier, the older we are, the more harshly we are judged.

Throughout this piece we will examine ones development over the four years it takes to get a bachelor's degree. The different levels of criticism will be labeled as categories 1 - 4.

To begin,  let's say that someone hears you play as a freshman. And we will assume that you're 18 years old, straight out of high school--or as we used to say on the Eastern shore of Maryland, "straight off the cucumber truck." An average player at this age usually has a certain amount of things together--or else they probably wouldn't have been accepted into the music program. They typically now a few tunes, they have basic working knowledge of scales and chords, and they typically have adequate technical facility, enabling them to modestly get around their instrument. 

Now that we have a starting point, a tangible point of reference, I will now discuss the four categories of judgment an average student might be subjected to during the four years it might take them to get an undergraduate music degree.

Category 1: Most people when hearing you at this stage will be somewhat forgiving of most, if not all of your shortcomings. Mainly because they're projecting that most of your weaknesses will be corrected in the upcoming years. So the evaluation they're most likely to give you is "You've Got Potential" or "You're Going to be Alright."

Category 2: Now's let's look at the following year and you're still grappling with the same issues you were struggling with as a freshman, they're going to judge you at level 2, which is "You Need to Work Harder." So as you can see , this level of judgment is slightly harsher than category 1.

Category 3: Let's say that they hear your in year three and you've made a few improvements, but not enough to leave the impression that you've been working really hard. Now you havte moved to category three: "You Really Need to get Your Sh#t Together!" This is a dangerous category because now they're starting to lose confidence in you and question whether you have the drive and maybe even the talent to get i together musically. And this is a dangerous place to be in, because teachers will be less inclined to make that extra effort for you: recommending you for gigs, turning you on to recordings, sharing special anecdotes with you. You'll be reduced to the category of "Just Another Student."

Category 4: Now here's the fourth and most dangerous category. This is when you've made very little effort and consequently, little improvement from day 1. You're skating on the changes, or as we used to say, pulling a Tonya Harding; you sound more like an OK freshman than a soon-to-be newcomer to the coveted jazz scene. You have now entered that danger zone known as the "He (or She) Ain't Serious" zone. This is when you have gone from a potnetial asset to the music department to being a potential burden to it. Every time someone mentions your name, all that your professors can do is roll their eyes or shake their heads.    

I've seen many with potential wind up in this category, with me being the one rolling my eyes and shaking my head. It's disappointing to see it happen, but it does happen. If you don't want to end up here, the antidote is simple: practice, work hard and work long hours. Keep in mind that to get to the level where you sounded like a college freshman with potential took close to 8 years. However, to play at the level where you sound like a young professional with potential, you have to work twice as hard. To borrow from Martin Luther King, everything you do as a college student needs to be dealt with the  "fierce urgency of now'."

To give you an idea of how important this time is, I guess honestly say that fifty percent of my musical vocabulary was learned in college. Of course, I spent the next 30 years fine-tuning what I'd learned. But the initial gathering of information stage happened between the ages of 17 - 22.  Sixty percent of the tunes I know were learned during this period and seventy-five percent of my practice regimen was established during this time. Not only did I learn what and how to practice, this where I put in the time. I'm not saying that during this period I put in my 10,000 hours, but certainly over 5,000 of them.

Now, I could go on and on citing examples of the amount of things I accomplished during this period, bdut the fact of the matter is this: Time passes by very quickly. Before you know it, you're wearing your cap and gown, marching to the beat of "Pomp and Circumstance," being handed a rolled up fancy piece of paper, which, if you can't play, won't guarantee you anything but a huge loan to pay back over the next 20 years.

So my advice is to stop poking your chest out and spouting that you're only 18 years old, as though that's an accomplishment. When you get to be 100 years old, then you can pop open that bottle of Champaign. Otherwise, the only thing you should be popping open is the door to the practice room.  Time is ticking. Tick, tock, tick, tock...  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Downbeat Editor's Pick

Sam Newsome, The Straight Horn Of Africa (Some New Music)

Soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome has been on a path to liberation for years, most notably with his solo albums Blue Soliloquy (2010) and The Art Of The Soprano, Vol. 1 (2012). Now, with The Straight Horn Of Africa: A Path To Liberation, Newsome has truly freed himself, and his instrument, from traditional roles and expectations. 

Newsome has not only discovered a continuum that exists between Western harmony, Eastern music and the avant-garde; he has also unlocked the straight horn’s potential for extended techniques in a manner that brings to mind the groundbreaking work of virtuoso soprano sax visionaries such as the great Steve Lacy (1934–2004). Newsome’s music evokes ancient peoples and places, revealing the African origins of jazz and popular music—a connection often overshadowed by those genres’ deep-seated reliance on Western harmony. 

He pulls out all of the stops on the soprano, employing multiphonics, microtonality, slap-tonguing, circular breathing, vocalizations, talking drum-like key thumps and physical movement to create his melodies, rhythms and harmonies. Some tracks are layered via studio multitracking, with interlocking grooves and cyclical ostinatos pushing the simple themes along. Others are solo explorations that increase in complexity over the course of the album, ultimately yielding otherworldly sounding results. The sounds that Newsome seeks, and ultimately finds, are ones that date back to periods long before jazz existed but that informed its origins and consequent development. You won’t hear any direct references to straightahead repertoire here: This is naked soprano sax devoid of modern concepts—a pure voice achieved by an absolute master of the instrument.

 It’s extremely difficult to produce such palatable and emotionally stirring art by pushing an instrument so far beyond its traditional limits, but Newsome has refined his unconventional techniques to the point of creating a modern masterpiece. The Straight Horn Of Africa (which Newsome has subtitled The Art Of The Soprano, Vol. 2) will entrance you. Be prepared to shed any preconceived notions of the soprano saxophone and to let Newsome insightfully upend your understanding of how all the music styles of the world are interrelated.