Sam Newsome

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

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Now available on Bandcamp!

Now available on Bandcamp!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Soprano Saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith: The Flying Kiwi

Saxophonist Jasmine-Lovell Smith is unique in two ways. One, she one the few young jazz musicians living in the United States who hail from New Zealand (along with bassist Matt Penman); and two, she is a soprano saxophonist. 

I first met Jasmine in 2010, back when I was teaching at one of the summer intensives presented by the School for Improvisational Music (SIM). She was in one of my ensembles. I could tell even them, that she was an artist traveling a different path with aesthetic that was left of center. 

So it was no surprise when I started reading wonderful things about her 2012 CD, Fortune Songs (with her band Towering Poppies) a couple of years later. In his plauditory review, jazz writer Dan McClenaghan (All About Jazz) wrote, “It is a superb debut by an artist and a band that does much more than run with the pack.” 

If I had to describe Lovell-Smith’s playing in one word, it would be lyrical. She lives in a space that most of us only visit occasionally. In this very illuminating interview, Lovell-Smith discusses growing up in New Zealand, the challenges and joys of playing the soprano, and working alongside Anthony Braxton as his teaching assistant at Wesleyan University.

So, Jasmine, of all of the saxophones, why did you choose the soprano? Were there some players who inspired you—locally and/or on recordings?

It took me quite a while to choose the soprano. I started out on tenor sax at age 14, since that was the sax that my high school had available for me to hire. That was fine with me because one of my first favorite saxophone players was Stan Getz. A few years later when I had started university. I had an opportunity to buy a second-hand soprano from one of my teachers. By that time I was starting to really love the music of Wayne Shorter, so I think that was part of the reason I was drawn to soprano. Locally, two people that come to mind who I saw playing soprano were another teacher of mine, Colin Hemmingsen, and Lucien Johnson.

Are they still active of the jazz scene there? And what city are you speaking of?

I'm speaking now about Wellington, New Zealand, where I went to University. It is the capital city and, though not the largest city in the country, is known for having a great music scene. Yes, as far as I know Colin and Lucien are both active there, although in different ways. Lucien is also a composer and bandleader and plays a lot of tenor as well.  Colin is more active within the educational scene, I believe he was in fact the person who actually founded the first ever jazz university program in New Zealand. He's also a great bassoon player and last time I heard him play (several years ago - I haven't spent much time in New Zealand in several years) the concert was focused on jazz bassoon.

At that time the tenor was still my main horn, and with the soprano it was usually one step forward and two steps back. I would play it for a while, then put it down for several months, then pick it up again and find it terribly hard. I found this so discouraging that I mostly left the soprano in the case for the next 8 or 9 years.

What was discouraging about it?

I couldn't play anywhere close to in tune! But also, it was difficult just to produce a consistent sound that I liked without it dissolving into a crack or squawk. This was exacerbated by the fact that I was playing on a setup that didn't make things easy for me. When I first got the horn I asked a more experienced saxophone player friend what mouthpiece I should get, and he recommended a Selmer Super Session I. The local Selmer dealer didn't have the I in stock, so I got a J. At the time, my understanding was that having a harder setup would be good for me. But I consistently found this mouthpiece really difficult to use. Later, once I seriously took up soprano I went to a music store to try some mouthpieces and ended up buying a new Otto Link Tone Edge 7. I had been playing an Otto Link on tenor for awhile, so that's probably part of why this worked well for me, and I also found the intonation was a lot easier to control. I'm still using the same mouthpiece. I'm not one of those saxophone players who spends a lot of time reevaluating their setup - I try to find something I like, and then just stick with it. 

When I did pick it up again, it was at the end of a period where I had given up playing saxophone almost completely for an entire year. I was picking it up with a sense of curiosity rather than ambition, and a willingness to sound as bad as I needed to sound in order to finally figure out to play the instrument. Playing the soprano turned out to be part of my path to rededicating myself to a career in music. Somehow I feel much more free on the instrument. I think this has a lot to to with the soprano's less standard usage in jazz. It feels comparatively unexplored.

Why did you stop playing for a year? And also, how old were you at the time?

I was 26. It's hard to say. It was largely a personal and emotional issue. I think I hadn't found the right community of musicians with similar interests to play with in Wellington (there are great musicians there, but I think I hadn't found the right part of the scene) and I was very self critical, lacking confidence in my own aesthetic sensibility. I felt like I had to be a virtuoso for anyone to care about what I was doing as a saxophonist. Also, though I had been very interested in composition for a long time, I wasn't actively pursuing my own projects, but instead was doing mostly standards gigs with thrown together bands playing background music, and I found it unsatisfying. Eventually the whole subject became kind of emotionally charged for me and painful to think about, and I decided I would be happier not doing music at all. I was interested in completely changing careers at this point, and so I went back to University to explore something else I had been passionate about, which was English literature and creative writing.

After a year of that, I ended up discovering that if I was going to go down a path related to my love of writing, I was most interested in writing poetry - which is one of the few things I can think of that is less financially viable than being a jazz musician! Plus, I discovered that I wasn't as accomplished at it, at least not yet - I just wasn't as far down the path. In the end, once I started playing music again my need to write poetry disappeared. For me, both things satisfied a similar urge that I have to be creative. I guess what I needed to start playing music again was to realize that I still really wanted to express myself through music and, knowing that, to fully accept my own limitations and decided to evolve from there. Getting out of an environment where I had been feeling stuck and going traveling definitely helped with that.

I don’t come across many jazz musicians from New Zealand. Is there a burgeoning jazz scene there? If so, who are some of the players we should know about?

The New Zealand jazz scene is small but pretty active, especially considering the size of the population (which is tiny, about 4.5 million people). There are four different undergrad jazz programs in the country pumping out new grads every year, plus a coterie of more established players and teachers, many who have spent time working and playing in Australia, the UK or the USA and brought that knowledge back home.  One downside to the scene is, due to New Zealand's fairly isolated position in the world, the scene can get a bit stagnant, with comparatively few new musicians coming and going as they would in larger cities in America or Europe.

You don't meet many kiwi jazz musicians in North America - it's more common for kiwi's to move to Australia or the UK as its much easier immigration-wise. Personally, I have an American mother, so that obstacle wasn't an issue for me. Some of the more well known jazz exports from NZ include bassist Matt Penman, sax player Hayden Chisholm, and pianists Mike Nock and Jonathan Crayford. Some of the other kiwi sax players that are amongst my favorites (all who currently live in NZ) include Reuben Derrick, Lucien Johnson, Blair Latham,  and (of course) Jeff Henderson, who has been a huge figure in nurturing the avant garde free improv scene there.

How did you find your way from New Zealand to New York--and now, Mexico?

I decided to move to NYC fairly impulsively, after I had spent several months traveling around the United States. This was in a very transitional period in my life, when I was uncertain what I wanted to do with myself or where I wanted to live, shortly after I started seriously working on the soprano sax and rediscovered my love for music. The initial reason for my trip to NY was to take part in the school for improvisational music summer intensive, and before I arrived I decided that while I was there I might as well try out living in New York for awhile. I ended up staying for 2 years. The things that really made me want to live in New York were the opportunities to hear live music, and the amazing musicians I was meeting and playing with. It was a struggle as well, working day jobs and trying to find time for my music, and I ended up deciding to do my masters degree in composition at Wesleyan in Connecticut so I could focus more on music. It was also close enough to maintain some degree of connection to the NY scene. While at Wesleyan, I fell in love with one of my fellow composers in the MA program, who is from Mexico, and I moved here to be with him once we finished our studies in mid 2014.

Often times with soprano saxophone specialists, they’re usually coming out of the New Orleans/Sidney Bechet thing, or the avant garde/experimental thing. But your approach is different. It’s neither period music nor is it experimental. It’s great “modern jazz” for lack of a better term.  Is that a correct assessment?

Thank you! It seems like a good assessment to me. I think that perhaps one thing that's different about jazz in New Zealand is that there's less of a traditionalist emphasis in jazz education. At least for me, I learned to improvise first by using my ears, and from the beginning I was encouraged to approach improvisation with what I would call a compositional approach, rather than to be a perfect stylist, or to exactly replicate the sound of players that I admired.  I haven't listened to a huge amount of early jazz and didn't really check out Sidney Bechet until after my soprano sound was more developed, so he wasn't a big influence (though one thing I love about earlier jazz is the strong melodic focus, and I do think that's something that's present in my work). My soprano influences are mostly Wayne Shorter and Steve Lacy, both of whom I relate to a lot because they are also composers and their improvisation and composition are so connected. But I've also been very influenced by singers, especially Joni Mitchell. Speaking of the avant garde, I'm drawn a lot more to consonance than most people in the so called 'avant garde' - but I do feel like I have many common interests with people who are part of that community. Basically, I don't think about my music in terms of genre, and whenever I'm called to it's a bit confusing. I guess I would call it contemporary chamber jazz with a strong melodic emphasis.

I’ve found that many players that have come out of the Wesleyan University scene, tend to be very much influenced by the experimental aesthetics of Anthony Braxton. But you have something very unique. It sounds modern, fresh, and with a strong sense of melody and groove. Again, let me know if I’m off base.

Well, the Wesleyan composition scene definitely has a long history of experimentalism, including a lot of computer music and post Cage experimental music as well as Braxton's musical world. I arrived there interested in learning about those things but without knowing too much about any of them. I think people have an idea of what the Wesleyan sound or aesthetic is, but as my advisor Paula Matthusen said to me, "the point is that there is no style." I wanted to work with Braxton, and was lucky enough to be his teaching assistant for a semester and to have him as one of my thesis advisors. Probably a lot of the Wesleyan composers who worked with Braxton went there having already been writing in a musical world that was more similar to his than mine was, but the fact that my music was much more 'straight ahead' didn't seem to be a problem for our working relationship. One great thing about Braxton is that he can discuss anyone's music, but he'll do it through a very unique lens and with his own terminology. I learned a lot from our conversations, from his lectures, and especially from playing his music in his Wesleyan ensemble class. I really admire the breadth of his conceptual thinking - he's so creative in his approaches to structuring music.

Anyway, to elaborate on the lack of an overtly 'experimental' aesthetic in my music, something that I sometimes find difficult about experimental or avant garde music (particularly free improvisation) is that it's often very dense, and I am really drawn to clarity and space. While I like to use free elements in my music, I'm most interested in free time as juxtaposed against metric time, or in some kind of combination of the two. I'm interested in dissonance as contrasted with consonance - an hour of dissonant music is not usually going to be my favorite thing. All this being said, I recorded 'Fortune Songs' before arriving at Wesleyan, so I expect it will be the next album I record that demonstrates how I have reconciled (or not reconciled) what I learned at Wesleyan with my existing style.

Let’s talk about your project Towering Poppies. How did this project come about? Did you take your working band into the studio or did you record it and then developed the music afterwards?—which is sometimes the case.

Towering Poppies was a band that I started more or less by accident. I called a session with some friends, including two musicians I met in 2008 at the Banff International workshop in Jazz and creative music, and then nobody brought anything to play except me, so we just played a few of my compositions. Then I found a gig for us, and then another, and it grew from there. We had been playing together for perhaps 5 months or so before we went into the studio to record. So a number of those pieces had been in our live repertoire for a little while, though a couple were written fairly quickly before the recording session. We've continued to work on and develop the same repertoire, and new repertoire, since then. We haven't played in quite a while as I now live in Mexico, but I'm planning to be back in NY for a visit later in 2015 so I hope to pick up where we left off then.

What challenges did you find as a soprano player trying to break onto the New York jazz scene? We all know it’s already difficult playing the alto and tenor saxes, but I imagine just playing the soprano, it becomes double the challenge.

Well, for me I would say that it wasn't my goal in the first place to 'break onto the New York Scene' - that sounds terrifying! When I arrived in New York I was in a very adventurous point in my life, and I really just wanted to have the experience of living there for a while. Whilst there I reconnected with various people that I had met at Banff, and those people would become my friends and collaborators from that point on. It was the people I was playing with, and all of the energy and great music I heard while living in the city, that combined to give me the inspiration to start performing my music. Playing only soprano doesn't seem to me like an obvious choice if you want to do a lot of work as a sideman, but that wasn't what I was looking to do. I identify as a composer as much or more so than as a saxophone player, and I was pretty clear by that point that what interested me about music was playing original music, so that was the only thing I focused on in NY.

Do people think that it’s strange that you’re a soprano specialist? Or maybe they’re more used to it since I switched to soprano 20 years ago.

I definitely think people are more used to it since you switched, and of course because of Steve Lacy. I remember meeting one person in New Zealand who only played soprano back when I was in university and at the time I thought that was an odd choice. But by the time I made that decision, it seemed like people in New York accepted it and dug it. They didn't necessarily hire me for gigs, but that was ok because I didn't expect them to. I was just focusing on what interested me, and trying to do something that felt genuine and honest. I think one of the reasons the soprano is a good fit for me is that I sang a lot before I played saxophone, and when I sing I'm a soprano. So the transition from my singing voice to my playing voice is more seamless this way. And generally, the music I compose seems to fit well within the soprano range.

This makes a lot of sense….

Regarding your set-up, what kind of horn, mouthpiece and reed do you play on?

My soprano is a newish Selmer, a super action 80 series 2. My tenor (which was my main instrument previously) is also a new Selmer (series 3) so it was a comfortable transition as far as the keywork. I was fortunate that my first soprano is a really nice one and, as mentioned earlier, once I find something I like, I just stick with it. My mouthpiece, as mentioned earlier, is a new Otto Link Tone Edge 7 - just straight out of the box, it hasn't been refaced or anything, though I'm kind of intrigued about the idea of having that done. I generally play Vandoren blue box #3 reeds. I also use a Cebulla neckstrap, which I love. For a while there I was playing without a neckstrap, but I definitely like using this one a lot better.

I think the most important thing in a setup is that everything is in good working order and also, especially for beginners, not too extreme (no super hard reeds or super open mouthpieces). I like my setup because it is what I'm used to, and over time working with it I have developed a sound on it that I like. The sound I'm looking for is quite direct, not too bright, not too reedy, just a straight, natural tone.

Many people who play soprano, doublers and specialists, often struggle with intonation. What kinds of things do you do to "tame the wild bore," as Lacy used to say?

Working on intonation is definitely an ongoing process on soprano. For me, the first step was accepting the out-of-tuneness and continuing to play anyway, feeling out the natural tendencies of the instrument and listening to what it wanted to do intonation-wise. Other things that I think can be quite crucial are figuring out where to place the mouthpiece on the cork, and of course the formation of the embouchure (figuring out the right amount of pressure). I don't have any hard and fast rules about these things, but I learned a lot from trial and error, a few hints from teachers and also reading various perspectives about this online (the Sax on the Web forum is a wealth of information!)

I really love Steve Lacy's book 'Findings,' and I've really enjoyed some of the exercizes in there, particularly 'bugle boy,' which is great for comparing intonation between 5ths and octaves through the whole range of the horn. I've also spent time working out by playing long notes with a chromatic tuner.  I think it's important to practice intonation in real life situations as well, by playing with other people (ideally starting with something slow, so the pitch has a chance to settle and you can really listen) and also by playing along with recordings. I remember playing along with Joni Mitchell songs at times when I was trying to work on my intonation, and it made the process a bit more fun and musical.

I've noticed that many saxophonists who have chosen to make the soprano their main instrument are people who think outside the box, or at least try to create their own box.  What's your take on it?

Yes, that resonates with me. I am definitely seeking to create my own box rather than fitting into a pre existing one. Most of the musicians I most admire and am most interested have (according to my interpretation) gone their own way, listened to their inner voice and ended up in interesting places because of it. I hope to do the same.

As you may or may nor know, playing solo has become a very concentrated area of focus for me over the past eight years or so. Do you have any plans to record or perform in solo pieces? As a soprano player, it seems almost i-n-e-v-i-t-a-b-l-e.

Oh no, I had no idea it was inevitable! Joking of course, but for me playing solo is quite terrifying. That probably means it would be beneficial to do it. It's something I would like to spend some time working on for sure, though there are no plans for a solo album at this point.

Fair enough.  And let me ask you this: What major thing would like to accomplish in the next five years?

Shorter term (in the next year or so) my goal is to release a new album - I'm planning a recording session for that in April, so preparing for that will be a big focus until then. More generally speaking, I would say my goal is to integrate what I focused on in my MA in composition (which was mostly writing fully composed and chamber music) with my practice as a jazz composer and improvisor. I'm continuing to study composition here in Mexico as part of a workshop with Hebert Vázquez, and there is a lot more I would like to learn about composition and orchestration from the western classical and new music realm. I also hope to realize some music for large ensemble.

Lastly, I’m going to list some soprano players, that you may or may not know, and I want you to tell me the first word that pops into your mind.

I have to confess that I am not familiar with several of these soprano players. I'm realizing that I haven't made checking out other soprano players much of a priority - maybe out of a fear of being influenced of intimidated. Anyway, thank you for the list, and I will take this as a cue to spend time checking out those that I am not familiar with!

Steve Lacy
- space 

Evan Parker - squawk 
Branford Marsalis - power 
Dave Liebman - evolution 
Lol Coxhill - (no answer) 
Michel Doneda - (no answer) 
Lucky Thompson - (no answer) 
Sidney Bechet - joy

Thanks, Jamine, for doing this interview. I’m looking forward to hearing more from you in the future.

And please check out a track from Jasmine's CD, Fortunes.

1 comment:

Richard Kamins said...

Thanks Sam for posting this fine interview. I had the opportunity to meet with and interview Jasmine for my radio here in Middletown. She's a fine composer/musician and a good person.

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