Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sound and Silence: The Democratic Aspects of Improvisation

Through the lens of politics, jazz is democracy in action--individual and collective liberties being negotiated in real time on the bandstand. Jazz, since it's inception has operated under the basic principle that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, a brand new shiny Yamaha soprano saxophone that is completely disassembled and displayed as keys, pads, screws, springs, corks and various pieces of metal is almost worthless in comparison to the perfectly assembled and functioning one, complete with all of its parts working individually and collectively  as a conduit for expressing musical ideas.

This concept is probably more easily seen in a group comprised of several players. But how can this type of democracy be seen when playing solo?--particularly solo saxophone. The answer: silence.

Silence, when used effectively, allows the performer to create a type of call and response during the performance. It's similar to comparing giving a speech (playing without silence) to giving a sermon (playing with silence). During a sermon, particularly those given in African American churches, it's usually a dialogue; a call and response between the pastor and the congregation. The democracy is seen in the respect each has for each other's role during the sermon. The pastor feels less mobilized  without the countenance of shouts and amens of the congregation. And the congregation is without direction and purposed without the pastor's spiritual and fiery message. Again, an affirmation of the democratic process in action. 

I have often spoken of silence as the quiet partner of a solo saxophone performance. The sonic yang to the improvisational yin. In some ways, it almost sounds too easy. Not play? Make music by doing nothing? The reality is that it is very difficult to make use of silence. Which almost sounds humorous to insinuate that they hardest part of playing is not playing. Well, it is true. I have plenty of recordings, my own included, that proves this true over and over again.

On the following video, I'm performing a solo rendition of "Blue in Green." As with most of my solo works, I'm operating within extremes: sporadic and circular breathed phrases; loud and soft dynamic levels; legato and percussive attacks; melodic as well as abstract lines, and so on. Even though I'd hardly call myself a master of the using silence in the ways in which I spoke of earlier, I do feel that my intent can be heard.

The important musical events are as follows:

0:00 -  Silence. I've learned you don't always have to begin your solo with sound.

0:10 - I play the first half of my motif.

0:14 - I left six seconds of silence--which can seem like an eternity while you're in the throws of a performance.

0:20 - I began playing into the strings of the piano, which, while pressing down the damper pedal, allows you to create a very lush natural reverb from the strings vibrating. During this section, you hear the back and forth between sound production and sound reverberation. Again, staying true to the democratic principle of everyone having a say.

1:22 - The melody is played using the technique of circular breathing. This enables me to play the entire melody without a break in sound. This also creates a drone-like effect that adds to the drama. Occasionally I added to this drama by swinging the horn back and forth to create a Doppler-like effect.

2:00 - The melody is played the second time with slightly more drama using increased volume and by swinging my horn back and forth more frequently and rapidly.

2:29 - The melody ends on the V7 to i cadence.

2:31 - Three seconds of silence.

2:35 - The improvised solo over the tune's chord progression begins. This is where the dialogue between sound and space starts to unfold. The democratic negotiations between the yin and the yang, if you will.

4:29 - The melody is played the last time, re-implementing the circular breathing technique until the tune's ending.

So, as you can see, pulling off a solo performance is a delicately nuanced process. It's not just about you playing your ideas or getting to your "shit," as they say. You have to be very much aware of the democracy within the creative process--even if it is between you and your silent partner. You'd be surprised at how profound he can be when given a chance.

And as an addendum, I have two solo concerts coming up this month:

Saturday, March 26, 2016
Rocky Mountain Saxophone Summitt @ Colorado State University
(Masterclass and solo concert)

Thursday, March 31, 2016
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem
(Lecture and solo concert)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

My appearance as a guest on "The Radical Imagination" on Firehouse TV

On this episode of “The Radical Imagination,” co-hosts Michael Pelias of LIU Brooklyn (shown 2nd from the left)  and Jim Vrettos of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (shown on the far left)  sit down with world-renowned jazz artists, Sam Newsome and Stan Harrison to discuss the future of jazz, their individual creative processes and the inspiration behind their music. Plus, watch clips of performances by each of the artists.

Sam Newsome is a soprano saxophonist, composer and jazz studies professor at LIU Brooklyn. He is most known for his time in the Terence Blanchard Quintet and Global Unity. He has also released six solo saxophone albums and most recently authored a book entitled “Life Lessons from the Horn.”

Stan Harrison is a saxophonist, composer and founder of the Mud Music Ensemble. He has toured across the country with artists including David Bowie, Radiohead and Bruce Springsteen as well as written music for television.

Firehouse TV’s “The Radical Imagination” airs every Sunday at 8:00 pm on MNN1 (TWC 34 & 1995, RCN 82, FiOS 33 or streaming live) and repeats every Thursday at 8:00 pm on MNN4 (FiOS 36, RCN 85, TWC 67 & 1998 or streaming live).

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Jazz Jam Session: Using the Wally's Model in the Classroom

The jazz jam session is a very important entity that has been instrumental in shaping the very essence of the music: the ethos of fierce competition wrapped in benevolent camaraderie. The jazz jam session can be so cut throat that I could see certain musicians "cutting" their own mother if she didn't ascent to the musical occasion. It truly is survival of the fittest being acted out not in the jungles of the Amazon, but during the democratic forum of the bandstand. Not to mention, it's also a great model for teaching in the classroom.

The classroom is often looked at as a safe haven for intellectual nourishment. But sometimes safe is not always a good thing, especially if it means stunted growth and an unrealistic perception of one's abilities and understanding of the material being taught. A classroom that's too safe won't give students a realistic perspective of their capabilities. And this is where the jazz jam session becomes a great model for learning and self-assessing.

While I was a student at Berklee, my saxophone instructor Andy McGhee always encouraged me to go and play at Wally's Café, a nearby jazz club located in the South End section of Boston, affectionately known as just Wally’s. The club itself was not very impressive aesthetically, as is the case with most jazz clubs, but it's role and importance in the development of generations of jazz players is immeasurable. In fact, the smoke in Wally's was so thick that your clothes would be un-wearable the next day due to the stench of cigarettes and cheap cologne.

Typically the musicians who played there were juniors and seniors, who in my opinion at the time already played at a professional level. I used to think, "Why are they even in school. They should be in New York making thousands of dollars." I was so naive back then.

But they all were excellent players. Most of them did go on to do great things. While I was in Boston, we used to sit in with people like Bruce "Bud" Revels, James "Saxmo" Gates, and Ron Savage. They sent me and my Berklee classmates home many a night depressed and hopeless that we would never learn how to play. We called it being sent back to the shed.

What's most revealing about jazz jam sessions, like those that took place at Wally's, is that your strengths and weaknesses become very apparent--much more than when you do a regular performance, where you are well-rehearsed, knowing exactly who you're playing with, and how long you'll be playing. Jazz jam sessions are more about surviving than just showing off your talents. You're constantly on your toes, never quite sure what’s coming down the pike. You're forced to improvise. So after a jazz jam session you know if your sound is big or small, if your rhythm needs improving, and how well you can hear chord changes--especially at those sessions where musicians are playing songs in unconventional key signatures. Most of all, you come away knowing that you have much work to do.

How can this understanding help you in the classroom?

The jazz jam session in many ways is nothing more than a pop quiz. A pop quiz on how well you know jazz tunes, how well you can play in different keys, how well you can play fast tempos, etc. The one thing that jazz jam sessions and pop quizzes teach us is where our strengths and weaknesses lie. We know exactly what we need to do in order to improve those areas in which we are deficient. Wally's taught this to me more profoundly than any of my final exams at Berklee. 

As educators, we need to take our students to the bandstand of the classroom and put them in situations that challenge them and force them to assess the various aspects of their learning, the way that a jazz musician does when confronted with the challenge of having to play "Cherokee" in the key of B major. I'm not just speaking of music-related learning, either. And these pop-quizzes can come in many forms of assessment: written essays, oral presentations, multiple choice, fill-in the blank, or sometimes just talking off the cuff. Comparable to when we're performing at a jazz jam session, we can even have students collectively elaborate on a related topic--complete with background figures and all. 

As a teacher, your main job should be to get your students started, or count off that metaphorical tune, but then let them intellectually fend for themselves. Like the jazz jam session, this is an opportunity to take information and deal with it in an informal way. This is a chance not only for the students to take chances but also for teachers. In order to create new perspectives on learning, you have to just try things, you have to experiment. Otherwise, you’ll just keep repeating the same thing over and over. In fact, the jazz jam session is one of my favorite contexts to hear musicians play. Not only do they sound more relaxed, but they are often taking chances in ways that they don't when performing during more formal settings. I have fond memories of hearing many of the jazz stars of today at Wally's in a relaxed and informal setting: Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, Don Byron, Jeff "Tain" Watts, and numerous others. One night, Freddie Hubbard even stopped by and played a couple of tunes. But, unfortunately, I was working elsewhere on that particular evening. 

Besides, as professors, due to the fact we are a part of the university paradigm, we can't totally replicate the informality of the jazz jam session--particularly 1980s Wally's.  After all, we have various members of the administration to answer to. Be that as it may, just by merely borrowing from the jazz jam session’s model of informality, it will allow us to get away from our syllabus just long enough to take notice of the latent opportunities for learning just waiting to reveal themselves. Frankly, speaking, If we aren't putting ourselves in the position where we are always the smartest ones in the classroom, we will allow ourselves to also learn while teaching. And as teachers, anytime that we can replenish our pedagogical licks, we, too, will become more inspired, and maybe even more inspiring to those around us.

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...