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!

Monday, November 30, 2015

The University of the Streets Fallacy

Does anybody really ever learn jazz in the streets?

This is a claim made by older musicians when sermonizing to the "privileged" younger generation on how "they" had to learn jazz under much rougher conditions. They were not shielded by the cushy walls of the university classroom. These musical soldiers had to learn to swing on the rough and tough pedagogical pavements of the University of the Streets--so they say.

Let me first clarify that buskers do actually exist. These are musicians and artists who make their living performing on the streets. However, the musicians I'm speaking of aren't referring to anything as tangible. They're referencing some glorified set of conditions where only the bold and strong survived. Like those who say, "I was in Nam."

The truth is that the conditions under which players learned jazz in the 1940s is not much different from conditions under which players learn today--and I'm referring to musical conditions, not social ones. I can't even imagine the emotional wear and tear that living in Jim Crow America must have had on black folks, on and off the bandstand.

Now regarding merely learning to play, there are basically three things you have to do:  (1) You have to study--the gathering of information; (2) You have to listen to recordings and live performances of players with much more experience than yourself; and (3) You have to play with others, either playing sessions or in front of a live audience. The process through which musicians went about doing these things in the 1940s is not that much different than how musicians today go about it.

As far as studying or gathering information, this is done through studying with someone privately or in a master class setting, which is usually held in someone's apartment or rehearsal space, which is inside, I might add. The university setting isn't much different. Most of your training as it pertains to your instrument, is done in a one-on-one setting with a private instructor. And typically your private instructor will teach you knowledge gained from his or her own experiences, and not from this one Jazz Theory Doctrine that many claim that all jazz students learn from. Some of the more common assertions are: "They all sound like they studied jazz from the same book." Or "it's all the same stuff played on different instruments." And there is some ounce of truth to these assertions, but not all of it is due to musicians having learned in the university instead of the streets.

I can certainly understand why many feel that there's a lack of originality in today's musical climate. But I argue that it has anything to do with students having been taught in the university.

This might sound kind of bold, but I think many players subscribe to an aesthetic that I call artistic colonialism. This is a policy or practice of acquiring full or partial artistic control over another person's ideas or musical vision, sharing it with others, and exploiting it economically.

For instance: Many have no problems playing segments of other player's solos during their gigs as a badge of honor or rite of passage--often high five (ing) themselves for having done the deed. We've taking musical practices that ordinarily would be restricted to the practice room, and have now made them a part of our onstage performance. We've all practiced other people's solos. Guilty as charged. That's just a part of the learning process. This is understood. But like our understanding of Las Vegas, we also presume that "What happens in the practice room, stays in the practice room."  Something similar can be seen in reality TV shows, where we've taken very private moments from our personal lives, moments no one is ever supposed to see, and we now bare them to the world in front of a camera.
Musically speaking, people are not only stealing concepts of others but in some cases, they're playing entire solos, note for note. The group Mostly Other People Do the Killing went so far as covering the entire Kind of Blue album, even improvised solos. This sort of thing has a great novelty factor, but little artistic merit. And it proves the points that (1) artistic colonialism is alive and well, and (2) that we have become all too comfortable with filtering our art through this reality-show-type paradigm.

One of the reasons that the they-all-sound-the-same narrative is so pervasive is that many of our role models don't represent the custom of originality that has defined jazz. Much of it has to do with our rush to find jazz stars. We have a tendency to prop up under-developed players as the bearers of the torch whether they're ready or not. There was a time when many of the jazz star types of today who are revered as one of the cats, would have found a home as lead soloists in the Buddy Rich big band or the Maynard Ferguson band—similarly to players like Steve Marcus and Sal Nestico. These guys were not propped up as one of the cats—understandably so. Their musical concepts were built more on flash than vision. They sounded amazing on two choruses of “I Got Rhythm” changes or a 32 bar solo with backgrounds. But their music did not have the depth nor vision to hold one's interest over several recordings. And I'm not here to drag them through the mud. As I said earlier, they were amazing players. I heard them both while still in high school and was completely blown away.

Once I got to college, however, I discovered much younger contemporaries who were paving the way in New York--musicians like Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Branford Marsalis and Kenny Garrett. Their music seemed to be coming from a much deeper place. In fact, I'm not sure if any of them would have shined in the Buddy Rich or Woody Herman bands. Kenny Garrett actually played in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. And I feel many of the other soloists in that band shined much more than him in that setting. However, history has proven that Kenny was going after something a lot deeper than playing in a section offered.

I feel that we have to demand more out of our jazz stars. With success comes responsibility. Even if you're not trying to lead by deliberate persuasion, you are leading by example, just by your mere visibility. We can not continue attaching ourselves to someone else's musical vision and calling it progress. Otherwise, we become musical versions of knockoff bags. The label might say Prada, but it's really made in China.

And as far as learning jazz in the streets, the only thing the streets are good for is finding your way indoors. Unless you are a muralist, stop glorifying having honed your craft in the streets. The truth of the matter is this: If you are in fact in the streets, you're probably not learning to play. My guess is that you're doing everything but.

Throughout history, musicians have made the grave error of glorifying negative behavior, as though it has any positive effects on one's musical abilities. Charlie Parker was not great because he was addicted to heroin; he was great despite being a heroin addict. That was his true genius.

In closing, let me leave you with this: People learn to play in two places and two places only--the practice room and the bandstand. Like having eggs and pancakes for breakfast, some things will never change.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Helpful Hints on Putting Together a Good Set

Putting together a set of tunes to play for a concert can seem as difficult as securing the gig itself. Having led a band at one point or another, most of us can empathize with being backstage and having your band members come up to you with the $10,000 question: "What tune do you want to start with?" Or "what's the first set going to be?"

It seems as though no matter how long you're in the business, or how many gigs you've done, figuring out which tunes to play and what order to play them never gets easier.

I'm far from an expert, but here are a few pointers that I use to make the process a little easier.

1. Start with something that you and your band can sink your teeth into.
I've been in numerous situations where the leader was determined to start with the most difficult tune in the book. Unless the band is well-rehearsed or have been playing the material for awhile, this can be a bad idea for a few reasons. One, the audience does not get a chance to hear the group at their best, which could leave a negative impression; and two, if the performance of the tune does not go well, it could shake the confidence of some of the members of the group.

2. Make sure that the tempo of the first tune is not too fast or too slow
Starting with extreme tempos is uncomfortable for the players and the listeners. It does not allow players to properly sync with each other and it's difficult for the audience to get into a good listening zone for your music.

3. The first tune should represent the group's vision or concept. 
If you have a straight ahead jazz group, don't start with the one free piece in the book, and vise versa. Save the oddities in your book for the middle or at the end of the set.

4. As the leader, make sure you start with something you don't have to read.
I always feel it's good for the leader to be able to observe what's happening on the bandstand, musically and personally. If nothing else, this will enable you to make sure everyone is comfortable. This is difficult to do if all of your energy is going into reading and/or counting.

5. Make sure the first tune isn't too long
It's good to let the audience hear a range of what you do before the middle of the set. This is difficult to do if the first tune lasts for 20-minutes. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

6. Change the instrumentation when possible. 
If you're leading a quartet, having all four musicians play all the time can become predictable. Playing solo, duo or trio can be a welcomed deviation from the norm.

7. Keep the talking to a minimum. 
People go to jazz clubs to hear music, not lectures. An entertaining anecdote to set-up a tune can be a nice transition. For the most part, you just want to give the audience pertinent information: who's playing and what tunes are being played. Talking too much during the set prevents listeners and players from losing themselves in the music.

8. Make sure that you don't play more than two consecutive tunes with a similar feel and tempo. 
Unless you are a trained musician, the subtle differences between tunes can be difficult to detect. This is why it's good to choose material that takes the listener and the music into unique and distinct areas.

9. Plan the set far in advance
Trying to put together a set five minutes before the downbeat can be nerve racking. I would start thinking about what to play as far as a week before. This way you have a chance to weigh the different possibilities. So even if you do put together your set last minute, you will have spent quality time weighing the different tune sequence possibilities.

10. Have more than one tune option ready. 
Sometimes it is difficult deciding between which two tunes to play. Instead of agonizing over them, just have them both ready. Sometimes you have to go with what's inspiring you at the moment.

As I said earlier, I'm far from an expert at this sort of thing. Picking a good sequence of tunes to play is not an exact science. But these aforementioned suggestions can make the process easier. And no matter what order you play your tunes, the most important thing is to have fun playing them.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Lower Register: The Most Neglected Part of the Horn

The main disappointment is that hardly anybody has developed the bottom of this instrument.
- Steve Lacy

  • Increased sound control in the lower register
  • Increased dexterity in the lower register
  • Increased breath support
  • Increased ability to play at different dynamic levels in the lower register

I’ve often expressed to students the importance of the developing the lower register of the soprano. There’s a tendency to only play in the instrument’s high and middle registers. This is understandable being that they’re the most comfortable parts of the instrument to play in--not to mention that they’re the most practical ranges on the other saxes.

However, on the soprano, the low Bb to low F is actually in the practical range, too, similar to the Bb trumpet. Not to mention that saxophonists often the approach instrument from a non-soprano perspective, causing us to lack the vision to tap into the things that makes the instrument unique.

Three reasons why developing the lower register of the soprano is so important:

1.     You can extend practical range, given you more notes to work with.
2.     You can play in the same transposed range as the other saxophones, particular the alto and tenor. 
3.     You can play with more fluidity in the darkest and warmest part of the instruments

Most saxophonists don’t play melodies using notes below the low F (or F1), which makes sense on the larger saxes. The tenor saxophone, for instance, transposes up a major 9th. That means if you play an F1 on the instrument, it will sound as a concert Eb one octave below—which definitely gets into the muddy range of the piano. And this especially holds true for the bari sax, which transposes an octave and a 6th;  therefore, if you play an F1 on the bari sax, it will sound a concert Ab two octaves below, which is even muddier. However, on the soprano sax, if you play an F1 it will sound the Eb1, which still in the practical range since it’s a minor 3rd above middle C.

Because we don’t typically think of the soprano in terms of transposition, we play it in alto, tenor, and bari sax registers—which, consequently, leaves us always playing in the higher and brighter register of the instrument.. However, if we were to begin playing our ideas from the low Bb, instead of middle Bb, we would find ourselves playing in a register that gives us that same warmth and full-bodied ness as the larger members of the saxophone family.

Because we don’t typically think of the soprano in terms of transposition, we play it in alto, tenor, and bari sax registers—which, consequently, leaves us always playing in the higher and brighter register of the instrument.. However, if we were to begin playing our ideas from the low Bb, instead of middle Bb, we would find ourselves playing in a register that gives us that same warmth and full-bodied ness as the larger members of the saxophone family.

Here’s an except from the book, Conversations, where Steve Lacy gives his view on the bottom register of the soprano:
The main disappointment is that hardly anybody has developed the bottom of this instrument. I must be the only one that’s really opened up the bottom. I’m waiting for somebody else to really have founded something downstairs. That’s perhaps the most interesting part of the horn, the most beautiful part, it’s most pleasant part.

I agree with Lacy in that the bottom is “the most interesting part of the horn.” I’m not so sure it’s the “most beautiful part,” but definitely the warmest and most neglected, second only to the altissimo. In general, this area of the saxophone is not considered part of the instrument's practical range, as I’ve stated earlier--which is understandable with the larger members of the saxophone family; melodies and lines played on those instruments in the lower register tend to sound muddy. On the soprano, however, this “neglected area” has a lot more melodic possibilities.

Let's look at how to tackle this neglected area: 

Suggestion/Exercise #1: I suggest starting with practicing melodies and your musical ideas, using only the notes between Bb1 (low Bb) - Bb2. You’ll need to practice this way for a few weeks to really see results. It's uncomfortable in the beginning, but after a few days you will start to make the necessary embouchure, breathing, and aural adjustment, that will make it feel more natural.

Suggestion/Exercise #2: Another thing I like to do is practice Charlie Parker's tune "Now's the Time" in the key of Eb concert. When I transpose it to the soprano’s key, the melody is right in the very bottom of the horn.

When practicing “Now’s the Time” in this key, here are a few things to pay attention to:

  1. The lower register tends to be sharper than the middle, so make sure you practice it with a tuner.
  2. Aim for the same evenness and clarity that you would have if you played it on the tenor sax and octave above. Look at it from a soprano perspective.

One Lacy tune that I recommend, if you’re looking for an exercise to strengthen your lower register control as well as a cool tune to play is “Blues for Aida”. I’ve heard Lacy play this tune in solo and duo settings with pianist Mal Waldron, a long-time Lacy collaborator. And like most of his compositions, it will pretty much work in any context. This tune is in concert Bb minor, which is C minor in the key of the soprano.  The melodic range of the tune extends from low C to middle C on the soprano.

Blues for Aida

Soprano sax

This tune is loosely based on a five note Japanese scale called the miyako-bushi as shown in Example 1.  This is the scale on which many of the traditional Japanese tunes are built—particularly ones written for the koto.

This scale has a sound that’s very identifiable, exotic and soulful—similar to the blues. The difference being that in the  “blues scale” the essential notes are #9, #11, and b7, whereas the blues notes in the “miyako-bushi” are b9 and b13.

Example 1:  The miyako-bushi pentatonic scale

As shown in Example 1, this penta-tonic is very different from the major and minor penta-tonics found in most Western, Asian, and West African music. You’ll find that the main differences occur between the 1st and 2nd tones, and the 4th and 5th, both spanning the interval of a ½ step. 


Lower Register Studies 1 – 4: The following four (4) exercises focuses on developing the lower register. Each exercise should be practiced using the suggested articulations.

Suggested articulations:

Exercise #1

Exercise #2

Exercise #3

Exercise #4

Here are a few things to keep in mind when practicing these exercises:
  •  Playing these at softer volumes forces you to play with better breath support.
  • Notes in this register tend to be on the sharp side.
  • The notes will often sound very harsh, so try to aim for a middle register smoothness.
  •  It’s good to imagine you’re playing the oboe or trumpet, it will raise your standard for what is an acceptable sound.
  • Aim for the same fluidity that you would in the other registers.                                     

Let me know how they work out. I'm curious to know.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Uncovering the Hidden Musical Treasures: The Power of Observation

One valuable lesson I try to instill in aspiring students is the importance of exploring their music far beyond it's surface--almost to the point where it feels extreme. Then when it feels like you can't go any further, go a little deeper. And if you're lucky, you might scratch the surface of what you're capable of.

When I first began exploring extended techniques on the soprano almost 15 years ago, I never imagined the possibilities existed that I've now discovered. I hope that I will look back 15 years from now and feel the same way. In fact, last fall when writer Phil Lutz interviewed me for my feature in DownBeat in March of 2015, he asked me where else is there to go musically after my CD, The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation. At the time, I told him I had no idea, but I knew that if I kept digging I would discover many more sonic treasures.

I sometimes conduct this one experiment with students that teaches them to see beyond the obvious--which is basically what we do as artists. During this experiment, they are to look at the picture on the left and tell me how many faces they see.

At first glance, most see the head of the man with the white beard in the center looking to the left (face #1).

After a few more minutes they'll notice the man in the center carrying the walking stick, whose head is the eye of the first man (face #2).

Minutes later,  they'll notice the lady (face #3) and the baby (face #4) to the right of the man carrying the walking stick.

Then this is where it gets tricky.

I then tell them there are actually nine faces in the picture and they've only discovered four. This is when I really start to see the powers of observation go into over-drive.

After five minutes or so, many still don't see the other five faces and begin questioning whether or not I'm being deceitful. Assuring them that five additional faces do exist, they begin focusing harder trying to discover them.

A few minutes later they'll discover the profile of the woman facing to the right just above the right hand column (face #5). Then they'll notice the woman just above the woman of the left hand column (face #6). Then another face in profile directly above her, in which the bird forms the nose and forehead (face #7). And below her is a sideview of a woman looking to the right (face #8), and she is connected to a face looking directly at you, located on the far left (face #9).

Of course after discovering the mystery faces, they all seem so obvious, which is usually the case. 

"This is how you should deal with your music," I then explain. Music may not have nine faces, but it does have many layers. Like this picture, only a few are apparent at first glance. But if you stay committed to what you're doing long enough and truly believe that deeper aspects really exist, eventually they will reveal themselves, as they did in this experiment.  In fact, my first experience with multi-phonics began as mere split tones and cracked notes, but I kept exploring those typically- regarded-as-wrong notes until I was able to understand them on a much deeper level. And you can take this approach with any musical material that you're working on: composing tunes, big band arrangements, shedding ii-V-1s, practicing long tones, practicing technical etudes, learning tunes, you name it.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, when you feel you can't dig any deeper when working on any of these aforementioned things, go a little deeper, and that's where the fun begins. And most of all, have patience and never lose your faith.

Blank Page Syndrome

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