Sam Newsome

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

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The New York City Jazz Record (Best of 2017)

It was terrific seeing both Sopranoville and Magic Circle included in The New York City Jazz Record (Best of 2017) list.

The folks at NYCJR have always been very supportive of what I do; I've always been very appreciative, too. I remember the days when I could not get writers to even recognize that I no longer played the tenor and was now self-identifying as a soprano player. I still remember doing a gig as a soprano player in the late 90s and the title of the review in The New York Times was "Tenor Saxophonist Probing in the Shadows." At the time I took it as the writer saying, "You might now call yourself a soprano saxophonist, but you will ALWAYS be a tenor saxophonist to ME! But I was patient and they eventually came around.

 Also, big congrats to the many great musicians also included. As you know, today's music scene is very saturated, so getting noticed is even more of a feat. When I first came on the scene back in the 90s, recognition did not necessarily go to those making the most exciting music. Often times, it was about the artists whose CDs record companies were throwing the most money at. During the era of the Record Company Industrial Complex, it was all about outspending your competitors. There was no way a DIY artist could compete with Columbia/Sony, Warner Brothers, and RCA, and Blue Note. These were the head honchos during my youth. Fortunately, they don't yield the same power these days. Thank god for Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, the Napster guys who first threw the grenades of opportunity into their monopoly.

But I'm glad we're living in this more democratic society, where the power belongs not just to those with the deepest pockets, but those with the ability to create excitement about their music, often through vision, courage, and persistence.

Happy 2018!

Monday, December 25, 2017

Prepared Soprano Saxophone w/ Plastic Tube Extensions

Below are six examples of the soprano saxophone prepared by attaching plastic tubes of varying lengths to the neck of the instrument. In doing so, I'm able to extend the lower range of the soprano. Of course, the longer the tube, the lower the pitch.

There are a few challenges:

(1) I'm often limited to 2 - 3 notes. Which means that I'm limited to playing drones, rhythmical figures, ostinatos, and noise-like effects.

(2) To get the full effect of the tubes, I do find it necessary to circular breath.

(3) Don't try this thinking you're going to have a new lower octave to the soprano. This serves primarily as a textual effect, not a melodic function.

(4) Keep in mind that these excerpts were recorded on my iPhone, so the sound quality is pretty low. I even suggest that you listen with headphones in order to hear the full effect. However, even without them, the original intent is still audible.

Let me know what you think!

Prepared Soprano Saxophone #1: Tube Extensions w/Harmon Mute (This example almost has an electronica sound, even though it's all acoustic. This is achieved by playing a Harmon mute into the bell of the horn.)

Prepared Soprano Saxophone #2: Tube Extensions W/ Overtone Whistle Tones (On this example, I begin with some percussive slap tonguing, that almost sounds like a bass guitar string, segueing into a 3/4 ostinato. And by slightly over-blowing I'm able to achieve the whistle tones.)

Prepared Soprano Saxophone #3: Short Tube Extension in 4/4 (On this example, you can hear that it's a much shorter tube, producing a much higher pitch. This is also the only example where there is a more discernable melodic content.)

Prepared Soprano Saxophone #4: Medium Tube Extension (One this example, you can that the tube is slightly longer than example 3. And through oral cavity manipulation, I'm able to produce some interesting tone distortions.)

Prepared Soprano Saxophone #5: Tube Extension, Playing Textural Flurries (On this example, you can hear that the tube is slightly larger.)

Prepared Soprano Saxophone #6: Tube Extensions w/ Aluminum Foil (On this example, I created a 3/4 ostinato with a drone effect. And by attaching aluminum foil to the end of the bell, I'm able to create a cool buzzing effect.)

Monday, December 18, 2017

My Top Inspirational Tweets of 2017

Tweeting is not something that I do every day. And I tend to only do it when I feel I have something interesting to say. My tweets tend to fall into one of three categories: 

1) gig and CD announcements;

2) notifications about my new blog posts;

3) interesting and insightful statements that I don't have time to turn in to full-fledged articles.

However, posting them as tweets allows me to at least document the ideas before they get lost. And I'm usually creating them as a reminder to myself. Posting them on Twitter allows me to make them more tangible. 

I hope you find these inspirational. I'll certainly be fleshing out these ideas over the next year or so as blog posts. Enjoy!

1. April 13, 2017

2. April 13, 2017

3. April 16, 2017

4. April 23, 2017

5. April 27, 2017

6. September 23, 2017

7. September 25, 2017

8. September 26, 2017

9. October 1, 2017

10. October 18, 2017

11. October 11, 2017

12. November 1, 2017

13. November 3, 2017

14. November 3, 2017

15. November 3, 2017

16. November 5, 2017

17. December 2, 2017

18. December 12, 2017

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Downbeat Magazine - Best Albums of 2017 (Sopranoville)

It was nice seeing Sopranoville included in Downbeat's Best Albums of 2017 listing, especially in the "Masterpieces" category. As I've expressed my times, I was very nervous about releasing this CD. I ventured into some new areas musically, and I was concerned it might have gone over folks' heads. But I guess I was wrong. At least it did not go over the right folks' head.

And it reaffirms one of my basic beliefs, which is that you can push your music to the stratosphere with regards to experimentation. But as long as it's musical, people will get it. And again, I stress, the right people.

"The wonder of Newsome is the way he allies geeky experimentalism with controlled musicality." - Downbeat

Full steam ahead!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Arts for Art "Justice is Compassion / Action is Power" Festival: Dec. 7 – Jan. 12

PERFORMANCE: 80 sets of music, dance, and poetry + visual art exhibit over 6 weeks
ART INSTALLATION: Jackson Krall & Tine Kindermann

WHEN: Monday – Saturday, December 7 – January 12, 7pm / 8pm / 9pm

Arts for Art is proud to announce the return of our winter Evolving free jazz series. The Evolving series focuses on the work of younger, forward-thinking artists exploring a range of contemporary creative possibilities through music, dance, and poetry.

Thursday 12/07
7pm: Art Opening
8pm: Taylor Ho Bynum / Kris Davis
Taylor Ho Bynum – cornet / Kris Davis – piano
9pm: Victor / Vatcher / Stewart
Fay Victor – voice / Luke Stewart – bass / Michael Vatcher – drums

Friday 12/08
7pm: Kirk Knuffke Trio
Kirk Knuffke – cornet / Bill Goodwin – drums / Stomu Takeishi – bass guitar
8pm: Common Sense Gun Legislation
Steve Swell – trombone / William Parker – bass / TA Thompson – drums
9pm: Daniel Levin / Joe Morris
Daniel Levin – cello / Joe Morris – guitar

Saturday 12/09
7pm: Sean Conly Trio
Sean Conly – bass / Darius Jones – alto sax / Mike Pride – drums
8pm: Joe Morris / Mark Feldman
Joe Morris – guitar / Mark Feldman – violin
9pm: Rob Brown / JP Carletti
Rob Brown – alto sax / Juan Pablo Carletti – drums

Monday 12/11
7pm: Marty Ehrlich Trio Exaltation
Marty Ehrlich – reeds / John Hebert – bass / Nasheet Waits – drums
8pm: Richard Keene Group
Richard Keene – reeds / Charles Downs – drums / Leonid Galaganov – percussion / Larry Roland – bass / Billy Stein – guitar
9pm: Sam Newsome Trio
Sam Newsome – soprano sax / Hilliard Greene – bass / Reggie Nicholson – drums

Tuesday 12/12
7pm: crosscut metagroovia
patrick brennan – alto sax / Hill Greene – bass / TA Thompson – drums
8pm: Leila Bordreuil / Charmaine Lee
Leila Bordreuil – cello / Charmaine Lee – voice
9pm: Jon Irabagon / Dan Weiss
Jon Irabagon – sax / Dan Weiss – drums

Wednesday 12/13
7pm: Angelica Sanchez Trio
Angelica Sanchez – piano / Michael Formanek – bass / Kenny Wollesen – drums
8pm: Andrew Drury’s ContenTrio
Andrew Drury – drums / Briggan Krauss – alto sax / Brandon Seabrook – guitar
9pm: Jaimie Branch Trio
Jaimie Branch – trumpet / Luke Stewart – bass / Mike Pride – drums

Thursday 12/14
7pm: Steve Dalachinsky / Billy Cancel / Jane Omerod – poetry
8pm: Human Rites Trio
Jason Kao Hwang – violin / Andrew Drury – drums / Ken Filiano – bass
9pm: Yoni Kretzmer 5
Yoni Kretzmer – sax / Steve Swell – trombone / Thomas Heberer – trumpet / Max Johnson – bass / Thomas Fujiwara – drums

Friday 12/15
7pm: Singchronicities
Goussy Celestin – dance, music
8pm: Rosenbloom / Grimes / Conly
Mara Rosenbloom – piano / Henry Grimes – bass / Sean Conly – bass
9pm: Darius Jones Trio
Darius Jones – sax / Charlie Looker – guitar / Michael Vatcher – drums

Saturday 12/16
7pm: AfroHorn Super Special
Francisco Mora Catlett – drums / Ahmed Abdullah – trumpet / Bob Stewart – tuba / Aruan Ortiz – piano / Rashaan Carter – bass / Roman Diaz – percussion / Sam Newsome – soprano sax / Alex Harding – baritone sax
8pm: Newman Taylor Washboard XT
Newman Taylor Baker – washboard
9pm: Cooper-Moore / Brian Price
Cooper-Moore – instruments / Brian Price – reeds

Monday 12/18 – honoring Connie Crothers
7pm: Andrea Wolper Trio
Andrea Wolper – voice / Patricia Nicholson – dance / TA Thompson – drums
8pm: Double Duo
Jay Clayton – voice / Ken Filiano – bass
9pm: Carol Liebowitz Trio
Carol Liebowitz – piano, voice / Adam Lane – bass / Andrew Drury – drums

Tuesday 12/19 – honoring Connie Crothers
7pm: Virg Dzurinko / Ryan Messina
Virg Dzurinko – piano / Ryan Messina – trumpet
8pm: Tidepool Fauna 4
Kyoko Kitamura – voice / Ingrid Laubrock – sax / Ken Filiano – bass / Da Yeon Seok – Korean drum
9pm: Nick Lyons Trio
Nick Lyons – alto sax / Roger Mancuso – drums / Adam Lane – bass

Wednesday 12/20
7pm: Miriam Parker – dance / Rob Brown – alto sax
7:30: Christine Bonansea – dance
8pm: Vincent Chancey Trio
Vincent Chancey – french horn, panderia / Joe Fonda – bass / Jeremy Carlstedt – drums
9pm: Bob Stewart / Curtis Stewart
Bob Stewart – tuba / Curtis Stewart – violin

Thursday 12/21
7pm: Gyname
Michael Wimberly – drums / Nioka Workman – cello
8pm: Music for a Free World Trio
Dave Sewelson – bari sax / William Parker – bass / Marvin Bugalu Smith – drums
9pm: WISQtet
Warren Smith – percussion / Andrew Lamb – reeds / Larry Roland – bass / Jose Abreu – percussion

Friday 12/22
7pm: Lisa Sokolov
Lisa Sokolov – voice, piano
8pm: Andrew Lamb Quintet
Andrew Lamb – reeds / Ahmed Abdullah – trumpet / William Parker – bass / Newman Taylor Baker – drums / Michael Wimberly – percussion
9pm: Secret Music Society
Jackson Krall – drums / Mark Hennen – piano / Larry Roland – bass / Elliott Levin – reeds / JD Parran – woodwinds / Juan Quinones – guitar

Thursday 12/28
7pm: Ned Rothenberg
8pm: Bisio / Fefer / Dalachinsky
Michael Bisio – bass / Avram Fefer – reeds / Steve Dalachinsky – poetry
9pm: Clarinet Madness
Jay Rosen – drums / Perry Robinson – clarinet / Michael Marcus – clarinet

Friday 12/29
8pm: Foster / Lopez / Weston
Michael Foster – sax / Brandon Lopez – bass / Matt Weston – percussion, electronics
7pm: Jochem Van Dijk Quartet
Jochem van Dijk – bass guitar / Dave Gould – drums / Evan Gallagher – piano / Sana Nagano – violin
9pm: Sarah Bernstein Quartet
Sarah Bernstein – violin / Ron Stabinsky – piano / Stuart Popejoy – bass / Satoshi Takeishi – drums

Saturday 12/30
7pm: Jeff Lederer / Kirk Knuffke
Jeff Lederer – clarinet / Kirk Knuffke – cornet
8pm: Jemeel Moondoc
9pm: Karen Borca Quartet
Karen Borca – bassoon / Hill Greene – bass / Warren Smith – vibes / Jackson Krall – drums

Tuesday 01/02 – honoring Amiri Baraka
7pm: Amina Baraka & the Red Microphone
Amina Baraka – poetry / John Pietaro – drums / Ras Moshe – reeds / Rocco John Lacovone – reeds / Laurie Towers – bass guitar
8pm: Melanie Dyer’s Baraka Project
Melanie Dyer – viola / Gwen Laster – violin / Patricia Nicholson – dance
9pm: Joe McPhee Trio
Joe McPhee – reeds / Billy Stein – guitar / Charles Downs – drums

Wednesday 01/03 – honoring Amiri Baraka
7pm: Raymond Nat Turner / Larry Roland – poetry
8pm: Hooker / Parker Duo
William Hooker – drums / William Parker – bass
9pm: Heroes are Gang Leaders Abridged
Thomas Sayers Ellis – voice / Randall Horton – voice / Luke Stewart – bass / Warren Crudup III – drums / James Brandon Lewis – tenor sax

Thursday 01/04
7pm: Ensemble Fanaa
Dan Kurfirst – percussion / Daro Behroozi – reeds / John Murchison – bass, gimbri
8pm: Whit Dickey / Mat Maneri
Whit Dickey – drums / Mat Maneri – violin
9pm: Wooley / Lopez / Foster / Bennett
Nate Wooley – trumpet / Brandon Lopez – bass / Michael Foster – reeds / Ben Bennett – percussion

Friday 01/05
7pm: LIP
K.J. Holmes – dance / Jeremy Carlstedt – drums
7:30pm: David Henderson – poetry
8pm: Jeremy Carlstedt Quartet
Jeremy Carlstedt – drums / Brian Settles – sax / Anders Nilsson – guitar / Sean Conly – bass
9pm: Tablopan
Juanma Trujillo – guitar / Hery Paz – tenor sax / Andrew Schiller – bass /
Robin Baytas & Daniel Prim – percussion

Saturday 01/06
7pm: Ronnie Burrage / Greg Lewis
Ronnie Burrage – drums / Greg Lewis – Hammond B3
8pm: Deep Ecology Trio +
JD Parron – winds / Cristian Amigo – guitar / Andrew Drury – perc / Jackson Krall – perc
9pm: Weasel Walter Quintet
Weasel Walter – drums / Michael Foster – sax / Leila Bordreuil – cello / Brandon Lopez – bass / Jaimie Branch – trumpet

Monday 01/08
7pm: Yoshiko Chuma – dance / Megumi Eda – dance / Jason Kao Hwang – violin
7:30pm: Nicole Peyrafitte – poetry
8pm: JP Carletti Xul Trio
Juan Pablo Carletti – drums / Jon Irabagon – reeds / William Parker – bass
9pm: Jeb Bishop Quartet
Jeb Bishop – trombone / Yoni Kretzmer – sax / Damon Smith – bass / Tom Rainey – drums

Tuesday 01/09
7pm: Devin Brahja Waldman
Devin Waldman – sax / Hilliard Greene – bass / Reggie Sylvester – drums
8pm: James Brandon Lewis / Aruan Ortiz
James Brandon Lewis – tenor sax / Aruan Ortiz – piano
9pm: Amirtha Kidambi / Sam Newsome
Amirtha Kidambi – voice / Sam Newsome – soprano sax

Wednesday 01/10
7pm: Daro Behroozi Quintet
Daro Behroozi – reeds / Alexis Marcelo – piano / Daniel Carter – reeds / Dan Kurfirst – percussion / Leonid Galaganov – percussion
8pm: Sana Nagano Quartet
Sana Nagano – violin / Ken Filiano – bass / Peter Apfelbaum – reeds / Max Jaffe – drums
9pm: Songs for a Free World
William Parker – bass / Rob Brown – alto sax / Jason Kao Hwang – violin / Melanie Dyer – viola / Fay Victor – voice / Gerald Cleaver – drums

Thursday 01/11
7pm: On Ka’a Davis Trio
On Ka’a Davis – guitar / Juini Booth – bass / Lamy Istrefi Jr. – drums
8pm: Nasheet Waits
9pm: Gerald Cleaver Quartet
Gerald Cleaver – drums / Chris Potter – sax / David Virelles – piano / Trevor Dunn – bass

Friday 01/12
7pm: The Mess
Brandon Lopez – bass / Sam Yulsman – piano / Chris Corsano – drums
8pm: Mixashawn / Joseph Palmer
Mixashawn – sax / Joseph Herrington Palmer – drums
9pm: Revolution Resurrection

Patricia Nicholson – dance / Jason Jordan – dance / Jason Kao Hwang – violin / TA Thompson – drums / Bill Mazza – live art

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Seven (7) Reasons to Support Downbeat Magazine (And Other Publications Like Them)

I wish I had a dollar for every time a musician said to me "Man, I can never read Downbeat. It's too depressing." 

I totally get it.

The late bassist Dwayne Burno often referred to Downbeat as "Beat Down" and Jazz Times as "No Time." 

Again, I felt his frustration.

Flipping through an issue of one of these magazines, seeing dozens of musicians being featured and not you, is very depressing. We've all stumbled across that cover story on some young upstart still figuring out who they are and thought to ourselves "Wait! What? You can't be serious!"

 But I'm here to tell you that even though seeing others getting picked over you can be discouraging and downright angering, you still must support these magazines. Because like it or not, they are here to stay. And they play a vital role in promoting the music. 

So here are seven reasons to actually give these magazines a chance. Hear me out!

1. They are an excellent resource for club and festival listings. 
Putting aside the issues where they purposely list jazz clubs and festivals featuring jazz on a regular basis, you can also get a sense of who's playing and where just from the stories they cover about musicians and various events. This is helpful when you're looking to book yourself or perhaps another band, or maybe just looking for someone to go hear. And their info tends to be current.

2. You learn which record labels are signing musicians.
I know it's difficult seeing a full-page ad by a label featuring a roster of musicians you've never heard of. But you're looking at it from the wrong perspective. The thing to focus on is that now you have a sense of which record labels are signing artists and the kind music and players that they are interested in. These companies are always interested in new and exciting music. Maybe even yours.

3. They showcase up-and-coming players. There's always room in these magazines for an up-and-coming player feature. Apparently, this is great for those new on the scene, but even for us mid-career folks, it keeps us informed about who's doing what. The person being featured might be perfect for our music, or they might be someone we can learn from. And if we want future torch bearers, we must make way for them to be heard. 

4. An excellent resource for critical and descriptive writing about jazz. 
As 21st century musicians, knowing how to write about our music is paramount, whether we're blogging, applying for grants, or writing our own liner notes. These magazines are an excellent resource for learning how to put what we do into words. Mind you, they don't always get it correct with regards to whose doing noteworthy things and who is not; however, I think the writers are pretty good. Personally, I'm always lifting something from a review or article that I then apply to my own writing. And let me be clear, you certainly have clueless ones out there, spreading their misguided points of view. But I don't think they're as commonplace as many says--especially with print publications. Their articles go through more of a screening process than blogs and online magazines. So they're not going to be filled with a bunch of typos and misinformation.

5. A useful jazz education resource.
Many of these magazines have a strong educational component. I've seen numerous articles about improvising, the music business, and informative interviews with musicians revealing exciting aspects of their life and music I never knew. Being someone who creates and dispenses knowledge for living, this turns out to be an invaluable resource for me. I'm always getting some fresh ideas from one of their articles.

6. An excellent resource for finding out the latest trends in jazz, nationally and internationally
As discouraging as critics and readers polls can be, it's always useful to know who's getting people excited, and more importantly, why. Also, it's great that we can pick up one of these magazines and find out what's going on in disparate parts of the world from Nigeria to Australia. This kind of coverage helps to unify the jazz community globally.

7. A great way to make your music available to an international audience
These magazines are great for getting the word out about you and your music throughout the United States and abroad. Being someone who self-publishes, I've noticed that appearing in Downbeat and The New York Times generates a noticeable bump in sales and general interest in my music. Receiving acknowledgment in these publications has more impact than we think. It won't translate into an immediate three-week European tour, but it will help you create a following, little by little. Which is how it should be done.

So, as you can see, if you put your initial reaction aside, these publications serve a much higher purpose than toilet paper substitutes.

And please don't think that I'm saying that they are without fault. 

Do they cater more to artists with label support and endorsements? Absolutely. These companies provide lots of the advertising revenue that magazines need to stay afloat. The person who gives a $50.00 donation to an organization is going to get a thank you note; while the person who gave five million is getting a building named after them. That's just the nature of the business. 

But as I said throughout, I would not be so quick to dismiss "Beat Down" and "No Time" as an unfortunate waste of trees. Try flipping through them with an open mind. You might be amazed at how useful they can actually be. And maybe even less depressing. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

82nd Annual Downbeat Readers Poll

It was nice to see that I appeared twice in the December 2017 issue of Downbeat: the 82 Annual Readers Poll in the Soprano Saxophone category,  and a nice 4-star review by Howard Mandel.

Good times! In the meantime I'm working the music for a new CD, to be tentatively titled Improvised Music for Prepared Saxophone. This is going to be the craziest one yet!





Friday, October 20, 2017

5 Ways to Ignite Your Creativity

Staying inspired and finding ways of making what we do exciting to us is an ongoing challenge. Simply put, we spend a lifetime looking for different ways to play the same 12 notes.

Having said that, here are five things that I do that keeps me out of those seemly unavoidable creative ruts. Hopefully, you'll find a few of these helpful, too.

1. Make non-linear connections
The surest way to derail your creativity is to only look at things in linear ways. No matter how many times you slice it, 1 + 1 will always equal 2. It can one apple, one orange, one banana. The end result will be two of the same thing. However, try looking it from a non-accumulative perspective, then you'll find yourself arriving at new outcomes. I have one for you: mobile phone + computer = smartphone. You dig!

2. Pretend you are someone else
Channeling other people's way of thinking teaches us to think of a different mindset. The next time you play "Giant Steps," look at it from a Sidney Bechet perspective and see what different kinds of ideas transpire. Or vice versa, the next time you play "When the Saints Go Marching In," pretend you're playing it like John Coltrane. Sometimes when I'm in an uncomfortable social situation, I think of someone I know with really excellent social skills, and I try to channel their way of thinking. Works like a charm!

3. Think like a child
One of the beautiful things about small children is how they see and have a great appreciation for things that are not even on the periphery of most grown-ups. A child will become enthralled by blooming flowers planted outside an NYC building. Or will become fascinated with the patterns of the floor tiles at the Supermarket. Like the young child, learn to find beauty and excitement in the obvious or even the mundane. It's incredible how life instantly becomes more exciting and enriching.

4. Do something new and different
Doing things that take us out of our everyday routine is excellent for stimulating new ideas. For me, I take writing classes or my publicly known fascination with making balloon animals. I find that I always return to music with a much higher appreciation. But you can take an art class, a business class, a cooking class, etc. One of the most immediate things that you notice is how much fun you're having. That's s because we don't have the same pressure to be great that we have when we play music. Sometimes all that we need is a reminder that it's ok to have fun. This can carry us a long way.

5. Rest
 One thing that we've all learned from working with computers and various electronic gadgets is at some point you have to reboot them. You have to either restart them or sometimes just turn them off and let them rest. It seems too simple, but sometimes that's all that is needed to increase efficiency. Give it a try. Right after you finish sharing this blog post.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Three Important Goals For All Artists

1. Get noticed:
How does one get noticed? By going out on a limb and doing interesting things that get the attention of people looking for something different. And it’s really great when you get the attention of those who are not looking for what you do.

2. Gain trust:
How does one gain trust? By being consistent through your work. A clear vision lets people know where you stand. And if they want a particular type of experience, a certain kind of thing,  they will know that they can depend on you.

3. Accessibility:
How does one become more accessible? Easy. Just make yourself and what you do available. Social media, websites, live performances, or just by showing up—these are all beneficial. When folks out there are looking for new experiences, trying to find someone they can trust, let them know that you’re their guy! And if what you offer is free, even better.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

An Interview with Soprano Saxophonist Heath Watts: Life as a Scientist and an Improviser

When he’s not working remotely from his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso, as a postdoctoral researcher, soprano saxophonist Heath Watts spends his time researching the sonic probabilities of his instrument. To say that Heath’s career trajectory is non-linear would be an understatement.  There are few free jazz soprano saxophonists, maybe none, who can say that they got their start as a blues singer back in Butte, Montana, only to be converted after hearing Lacy perform in concert in his hometown. This is just one of many interesting facts about Heath's musical path that makes him such a unique artist. So please check out this fascinating interview, where we discuss Heath's life as a scientist, as an improviser, and his new recording with bassist Blue Armstrong, titled Bright Yellow with Bass, released on the independent British label  Leo Records.

Sam Newsome: You describe your music as non-idiomatic improvisation. When and why did you decide to define your music as such?

Heath Watts: I adopted the term “non-idiomatic” from guitarist Derek Bailey, but I’m not sure that I (would still describe my music that way. Bailey argued that there are forms of improvisation such as jazz, Indian classical, and Flamenco music that are distinct idioms, but that free improvisation is not an idiom. Free improvisation has been around for more than fifty years, and although there are many free players with distinctive styles, I believe that the general sound of free improvisation is recognizable as an idiom.

SN: I read that while living in Butte, Montana, you were a blues guitarist and singer. How did this come about? And for how long did you do this?

HW: I discovered the blues in my early twenties through the Beatles and other 1960s rock. From there I discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, BB King, Buddy Guy, et al., who then led me to Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis, and other country blues guitarists. I love country blues music and still listen to it frequently. After a couple years of playing guitar, I decided to start a blues band. I found a group of players who were much more experienced and better players than I was. We had a Hammond organ, a horn section with two saxes, trumpet, and trombone, bass, drums, and myself on guitar. I called it “Blues By Five”, named after the Miles Davis song.  My later jazz group was “Blue 7” after Sonny Rollins’ song, which confused people because the group was usually a sextet or larger. We only performed for about two years, but I learned a lot about leading a band and working with a team of musicians. The blues are a big influence on me.

SN: Did singing and playing blues guitar shape your saxophone playing?

HW: I think that singing helped with the transition to the saxophone. I learned how to breathe and phrase somewhat from singing. I really enjoyed practicing scales on my guitar, and that transferred to the saxophone. I like to study the basics of sound and technique, and I still focus on those when I practice. I play overtones, long tones, intervals, multiphonics, altissimo exercises, and other basic things every day. My goal is to continue to gain greater control of my saxophone and then “let go” when I play. I seldom practice improvising, because I try to enter each playing situation without pre-conceived or prepared material. The guitar gave me a good foundation of scale and chord theory and dexterity that I could apply to the saxophone.

SN: You’ve said that after hearing Steve Lacy play in concert in Montana, you were inspired to switch from the tenor to the soprano saxophone. Can you tell us a little about that concert? And did you get a chance to meet and talk to Lacy?

HW: Few people went to the concert, which is a shame, but I’m so happy that I did. Lacy played solo in the show as well as played with a drummer and bassist from Montana. He didn’t say too much from the stage. Coltrane led me to the soprano, and Lacy opened the world of the soprano to me. I focused on tenor for about five years and used my soprano as a second voice. About sixteen years ago, I stopped playing tenor and have focused on soprano since then. I spoke to Lacy at the end of the show and told him how much I enjoyed it. I wish I had been more familiar with his work at that time; I would have had a lot of questions for him. Fortunately, he left us the book “Findings” and so many interesting interviews.

SN: I agree. Many jazz greats have left behind their body of work, but few have documented and left behind their methodology.

HW: Other than Steve Lacy’s book, I’ve found Dave Liebman’s various books very useful over the years.

SN: I’ve been described as someone with an affinity for playing solo. However, the duo seems to be your musical setting of choice. You’ve recorded two CDs on Leo Records. The first with drummer Dan Pell titled Breathe if You Can (2008) and more recently Bright Yellow With Bass (2017) recorded with bassist Blue Armstrong. What is it about playing duo that you find musically appealing, or even liberating, for that matter?

HW: Solo playing is something I enjoy as well. I have about six albums worth of solo material that I recorded over a two-year period that I plan to release at some point. Freely improvised solo work is fun because the sky is the limit.  Duet playing is appealing because it is an intensely intimate interaction; you have to listen all the time, and you have to contribute, whether through sound or silence I do like to play with larger groups, but duets seem to provide the greatest freedom to interaction ratio.

SN: Regarding your documented solo work, how did you come to accumulate six albums worth of material in such a short period of time? Do you just book studio time on a regular basis when you’re feeling inspired? For my past two solo efforts, that’s kind of how I worked.

HW: I have a couple of good microphones, a USB interface, and Logic Pro on my MacBook, so I’ve been able to do the solo recordings myself. Mixing isn’t an issue with one microphone and mastering the soprano takes some experimentation, but I’ve found some suitable plugins that help. I set up my gear in my kitchen and don’t worry about ambient sounds too much. The train roars by our house regularly, so listeners will be able to hear it on some of my solo albums when I release them. Dan Pell and I mixed and mastered “Breathe If You Can” together. We recorded that album in his basement with one overhead microphone on the drums and one on the soprano saxophone. Even with just two microphones involved, mixing and mastering becomes a more complicated process.

SN: How did you and Blue Armstrong become musical collaborators?  And what is it about his approach that makes him ideal for duo collaborations?

HW: Blue brought free improvisation to Montana when he moved there from Michigan. He started playing with a number of people in Montana who I met before I met Blue. When I was playing tenor primarily and leading my group Blue 7, I was a serious composer of jazz heads and it took a while to hear what was happening with free music, but once I began to understand it, it became my favorite means of playing. Blue listens intensely and responds instantly to the situation; those are necessary traits for playing free improvisation. I also like to play with musicians who are nice people, and he’s a great person.

SN: Is there an improvised or creative music scene in Butte, Montana? Just from the fact that Lacy appeared there tells me that there is a community there with sophisticated taste.

HW: In and around Butte there are a number of good improvisers. I hope to be releasing a quartet recording soon on Leo with trombonist MJ Williams, violinist Nancy Owens, and Blue Armstrong on bass. It will be a fully improvised album like my other two Leo releases, but the quartet provided an interesting set of new challenges and adventures. I saw Lacy in Helena, which is about sixty miles from Butte. In the 1980s and early 1990s, a promoter in Helena brought in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ned Rothenberg, and other great players. Unfortunately, that scene disappeared before I became involved; however, MJ is trying to revitalize it. She is promoting shows in Helena again, which is very exciting.

SN: On your CD Bright Yellow With Bass, you and Blue were effective at making each track sound different, which is not easy to do, when all the music is improvised. Did you discuss concepts or musical direction ahead of time, or did you just allow the musical chips fall where they may?

HW: It’s all improvised and I believe that it is either in the order we recorded it or nearly in the order. We didn’t discuss the music before playing, and we hadn’t seen each other or heard each other in about six months before we recorded the album. Because we live far from each other, we don’t get to play often. During the time between our meetings, Blue explores his bass and I my soprano. Then we come together and fit our new ideas together. It’s always surprising to hear the great new ideas that he has each time we meet.

SN: Yes, it’s great when you can come together with a like-minded person and discover new ideas together.

Now, let’s talk about Heath Watts, the scientist.  I know that you have a Ph.D. in geochemistry. Unfortunately, I’m not smart enough to have a conversation with you about your scientific work, but I am wondering if you see a connection between conducting scientific experiments and playing music? Many scientists are pretty passionate about music. We all know Albert Einstein was pretty serious about playing the violin. Pianist Jean-Michel Pilc worked as an aerospace engineer becoming a distinctive voice in jazz. I just purchased a book called The Jazz of Physics by theoretical physicist Stephan Alexander, who is a professor of physics at Brown University and a tenor saxophonist. And I think it’s pretty common knowledge that Vijay Iyer studied physics and mathematics at Yale. So you can start to see the pattern.

What do you see the connection as being?

HW: You’re certainly smart enough, but science isn’t your area of focus. I think that you’d make a good scientist because as a musician, you find problems that you’d like to solve and you would systematically solve them. If something doesn’t work, you change your plan and work until you solve the problem at hand. Along the way, you discover things that you hadn’t expected. Science is similar, but the questions and problems differ and the path to solving them involves tools that differ from those of music. For example, when you and I played the first time, I couldn’t do slap tonguing—that was the problem I wanted to solve. I listened to the way you did it that day, listened to your albums and those of others who slap tongue, bought some books that described the technique, and watched YouTube videos. A few hundred hours later, I could do it; I don’t sound like you, but I think that I’ve developed my own thing. Humans like to solve problems, whether the problems involve mathematical proofs, understanding chemistry, perfecting a musical technique,  or writing a good poem. Some people solve problems better than others do, and we each work on problems that interest us.

SN: What musical problems are you trying to currently solve?

HW: I’m very interested in developing my altissimo range. There are soprano saxophonists who have developed the altissimo range, but I want to find a way to use it that is unique to me. I can play two octaves above high F and sometimes a little more, but I want to keep working on it to make it something special and interesting. I’m also interested in the notes below low B-flat; I can bend down to low F#, but again, I need to keep searching for ways to make those notes fit more seamlessly into my improvisations. Mastering and incorporating a growing library of multiphonics into my improvisations is also an ongoing project that I enjoy.

SN: Have you ever been working on something scientific and have gotten inspired musically?

HW: What I do scientifically is very specific and it’s usually difficult to see a connection with music, but I do have some ideas. For example, bonds between atoms in molecules vibrate at particular frequencies and we can use those frequencies to identify molecules. I’ve converted the vibrational frequencies of simple molecules such as water and carbon dioxide to musically playable frequencies and the results are interesting. It might be fun to explore this further using larger molecules. What sounds could be made from the vibrational frequencies of a strand of DNA? I’m not sure if anyone has done something similar.

SN: That sounds fascinating. You should post some of those vibrational frequencies you’ve converted. I’d love to hear what they sound like.

HW: Thanks, I think that it could be. I’m still in my laboratory with regard to that project and I hope that I’ll have an interesting breakthrough soon.

SN: Being someone who does not depend on performing as your sole means of income, do you find that to be a hindrance, or do you find it liberating? And the reason I’m asking is that I went into academia is that I wanted the freedom to be singular in my creative efforts. Free-lancing certainly has its advantages, but it does tend to pull you in many directions.

HW: I find it more liberating in that I don’t have to take gigs that I don’t find interesting; however, there are not a lot of gigs available. I spent a couple of years playing Mustang Sally in smoky bars with my blues group. It was fun for a while, but then it becomes work. Not relying on music for my income means that it does not become work and that I can completely control my musical direction.

SN: Back to your new CD, Bright Yellow With Bass, can we expect any live performances from you and Blue?

HW: I hope so. If we can coordinate our schedules, I’d love to do some performances with Blue; we don’t get to perform often because of our locations. I’m always open to new venues.

SN: Is there a track or tracks on Bright Yellow with Bass that’s your favorite? I found that it’s always nice when you tap into a new zone while recording. It becomes this unexpected moment or moments that you get to enjoy for eternity.

HW: I like the whole album. There are always things that I think could be improved in my playing, but it is a good representation of what I was capable of on that day. At about 5’20” to about 6’15” on track 9, non-standard issue, I played some very low sounds that sound to me a bit like a didgeridoo and a bit like a low-pitched shakuhachi. I had never played like that previously, and I haven’t been able to replicate those sounds since then, which is frustrating. However, much of what I played on the album was in the moment; sounds that will only happen once in that way and for that particular recording. I have my clichés, but I’d like to have a larger sonic palette so that I can avoid overplaying them.

SN: Here are a few general questions: What is your set-up?

HW: I played a Borgani Jubilee Pearl Silver straight soprano on Bright Yellow With Bass using a Soprano Planet Open Sky mouthpiece (0.085) and a Hahn synthetic #2 reed. I played a Keiwerth SX90 black gold on Breathe If You Can using a Pillinger mouthpiece (0.105) and a Fibercell MS reed. I don’t remember which ligature I used on those albums. For the past four years, I’ve primarily used my Borgani with a Theo Wanne Gaia1 (0.085), a Bambú woven ligature, and a Hemke #2 reed. The Gaia1 gave me an extra octave of altissimo; it’s not a perfect mouthpiece, but it does what I require for now.

SN: Are there any soprano saxophonists out there that we may not have heard of whom you’d like to bring to our attention?

HW: There are so many great soprano saxophonists that it’s difficult to choose from among them. I would suggest that people listen to Gianni Mimmo, Harri Sjöström, Paul Bennett, Joe Giardullo, Bhob Rainey, Michel Doneda, and Kayla Milmine among others.

SN: I agree. When I first started playing the soprano exclusively, I felt there were only a handful of people truly devoted to playing the instrument. And I’m happy to say that today this is no longer the case.

HW: Yes. There are many other soprano saxophonists who deserve more attention including Jack Wright, John Butcher, Ned Rothenberg, Evan Parker, Trevor Watts, and Dave Liebman to name a few. I once performed an improvisation with eleven saxophonists in a large resonant hall in Philadelphia under the leadership of Jack Wright (Saxophone Soup) where I was the only soprano saxophonist in the group. I’d like to play a similar improvisation with a large group of soprano saxophonists.

SN: Lastly, any words of advice for young soprano saxophonist looking to carve out a career for themselves as improvising musicians?

HW: Play with others when you can and not just in performance but in private sessions. Practice your soprano saxophone a lot and focus on sound quality as much as you focus on technique. Long tones, interval studies for ear training, overtones (e.g., Raschèr, Sinta, and Allard), and so-called extended techniques (multiphonics, slap tongue, altissimo, etc.). The larger your sound reservoir, the greater your potential to produce interesting improvisations will be. Ten thousand hours is just the beginning, it’s similar the satori in Buddhism. If you put in a certain amount of time, you might be awakened to your true musical nature; you’ll be able to control and experience certain aspects of your playing that you could not without putting in the time. However, I don’t think that it is possible to attain mastery, some people come closer than others, but there is always more to learn.

SN: Thank, Heath. It’s been a pleasure!

Listen here to "Non-Standard Issue"

Purchase Heath's new CD here on Leo Records:

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