Sam Newsome

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

Preorder new CD

Monday, February 6, 2017

In Search of a New Soprano: Me and the Yanagisawa S901 (Unlacquered One-Piece)

During the past couple of weeks, I've done a few gigs on the Yanagisawa S901 (the unlacquered one-piece), thanks to the generosity of saxophonist Alonzo Wright. It's the first time I've played an unlacquered horn in my life. Which is ironic, because while playing my silver YSS 62, I felt the silver got in the way of me opening up the sound. It was only after playing it twenty years, and the silver becoming tarnished, that I was able to produce a more organic sound.

I actually like it when the sound of my instrument is not built in. It can be difficult to differentiate between the pure quality of an instrument's metal and the sonic tampering heard with over-lacquering. I find this especially true with silver lacquered horns.

The latter is a little bit like having sonic training wheels. But training wheels are only useful when you don't know what you're doing. However, when you learn how to really ride your bike, metaphorically speaking, then the training wheels become more of an obstacle than an aid.

Now, having said that, I do find that the sound of this unlacquered horn to be non-specific: meaning that the instrument doesn't do the work for you. It's comparable to eating plain yogurt versus eating the kind that comes sweetened with bananas and strawberries. Which is fine by me. I'd like to think that I can provide my own charisma, my own sweetness if you will. I don't need a pre-fixed sonic template.

And I can certainly understand why saxophonists who don't play the soprano on a regular basis would choose not to play one that is unlacquered. I've found that you have to work much harder to get a sound that's unique or special in some way. This is something that many don't have the patience for--sometimes I don't have it myself.

Just over the last week, I put this horn to the challenge on three gigs. The first was a synagig (this a linguistic blend of synagogue and gig) at the Temple Israel New York for their annual Martin Luther King Shabbat service, for which my wife arranged all the tunes beautifully. The second was at the Downtown Music Gallery for a double-bill solo concert I shared with saxophonist Mikko Innanen. And the third was at the Art for Art series with Francisco Mora Catlett and AfroHorn. These were three very different gigs, which was great because it gave me an opportunity to explore the instrument's range.

The first concert, the tribute to MLK, allowed me to explore its sensitive side. As many are aware, the soprano has no problems being loud and blaring. However, playing it softly and in tune is a much bigger challenge. The instrumentation was for soprano, violin, voice, acoustic guitar, bass, and percussion. So I could not come out of my Coltrane "Live at Birdland" bag. I'm happy to say that I was successfully able to blend in and do my thing without distracting from what the other players were doing--which is not always the case. In fact, playing in tune and softly was even very difficult on my YSS 62--especially as the instrument became more worn.

During my second concert, my solo show at DMG, I got a chance to hear how well it responds to extended techniques, which can be kind of tricky--particularly the multi-phonics. It took me a few tunes to find my sound, but when I did, I was able to get into a comfortable creative zone.

The third performance at Art for Art was more typical as far as the kinds of gigs I do--meaning that it was experimental and volume heavy. I found that the instrument didn't have the muscularity of other horns I've played, but it seemed to have a broad dynamic range that allowed me to push its volume level without the instrument giving in. It's hard finding a soprano that allows you to play pianissimo to forte while staying pretty much in tune. Being comfortable with extremes is one of the challenges of playing the soprano. Having the flexibility of going from loud to soft; high to low; and sensitive to aggressive can be very difficult to achieve. And being improvising artists, not being able to touch on any of these areas during the inspired moments of a concert can make one feel creatively restive.

However,  as I've said in earlier writings about this issue, finding a good horn is not like finding a good reed. You're not going to pull one out of the case and find a halo around the bell. The performer/instrument relationship sometimes needs to be nurtured over time before you figure each other out.

But the search continues.

Blank Page Syndrome

Sydney Sheldon's poignant quote, "A blank piece of paper is God's way of showing you how hard it is to be God," deeply res...