Sam Newsome

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

Video Feature: Sam Newsome, Ben Stapp, and Joanna Mattrey

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Low Hanging Fruit or High Hanging Fruit: How Do You Feed Your Creativity?

A few months back, I did an interview piece for the New York City Jazz Record. Throughout the interview, I touched on many topics, but one point I remember making was this: Those of us looking to carve out a niche for ourselves need to be willing to do the work that others are not. We need the courage to walk down that musical back alley that would scare most away. And must be willing to surround ourselves with the musical company of like-minded thinkers, no matter how popular or unpopular they may be.

In my case, I was referring to my willingness to be committed only to the soprano as well as being open to drawing influences from those not a part of the typical jazz canon. I call this philosophy picking from the high hanging fruits. In other words, experimenting with ideas and studying players that are considered atypical. And low hanging fruits are ideas and players that are more commonplace.

Most contemporary jazz musicians were raised on the low hanging fruits from the jazz tree of knowledge. Usually, these are players introduced to them by their private teachers, high school band directors, and college music professors. And I'm speaking of the usual suspects who have come to define jazz history: Louis Armstrong, Bird, Dizzy, Miles, Coltrane, Rollins, Herbie--and the list goes on and on.

Let me stress that there is nothing wrong with studying these players. It would be foolish not to. My issue is that students around the globe often end up studying the same 10 players on their respective instruments. Again, this is great when students are at the stage of just taking it all in. But when these same players remain their paths of study for the entirety of their careers, typically what grows artistically lacks originality. Only nurturing our creative aspirations on the low hanging fruits can potentially prevent us from finding a musical voice that it uniquely our own. This is especially true in this stage information accessibility. And let me be clear: I do realize that this way of viewing things is somewhat shortsighted. Whom we study is just half the battle. What we do with the information is what counts.  

Having said that, I am convinced that growing your musical concept on the nutrients of the low hanging fruits is certainly the safer of the two. Who's going to criticize you if your concept is a cleverly crafted blend of Coltrane, Rollins, Bird, and Chris Potter? From these players, you'll get the vocabulary to navigate your way through most musical settings. And because most will already be familiar with this ideas, they're unlikely to criticize your efforts, unless they're done badly.

Challenging the status quo is a lot more risky, not to mention that you become more susceptible to critique, even if you are excellent. No one ever questioned Cecil Taylor's ability to play the piano or execute his ideas. What they often viewed with an air of suspicion, were his ideas--his aesthetical judgment, if you will.

This is the double-edged sword of growing your musical concept on the high hanging fruits. It's a harder path. And it's a path that can leave you with little company. One might be inclined to ask "Why to bother?" And for me, the only answer have is "Because I have no choice."

I hope that one day I can arrive at the covenant status of high hanging fruit. That which is mostly consumed by connoisseurs of unconventionality and experimentation. At the end of the day, I may not feed many, but at least I know that I will at least feed the hungry.

Anyway, check out my new CD, Sopranoville: New Works for Prepared and Non-Prepared Saxophone. Let me know what you think. Send me your address, and I'll even mail you a copy.

Warm regards,

Sam Newsome


  1. Very nice, thoughtful article. I imagine it is especially frustrating for you to see what usually happens when someone plays soprano. Coltrane's influence is so strong, 50 years after his passing, that respected tenor players lose all individuality on the straight horn. From a nasal tone to flat copying Trane's cliches throughout every solo, I hear a lot of great players who haven't put in the time to really say anything of their own on the horn. I'm guessing you might be thinking that soprano players should stop treating the horn the way they usually do and branch out beyond Trane. You are famous and have a nice blog, you can be more diplomatic than a crazy old guy like me. My new CD has George Cables and Victor Lewis on it, should be out in a few weeks. Keep playing, exploring and living through your horn, I hear you my freind!

  2. Hi Bill - Thanks for reaching out. And to answer you question: No, I'm not frustrated by hearing surfaced level soprano playing. I realize that cats are just doing their thing. And I know it's hard to go deeper into the sound--which is an article to itself. I'm been there myself. But I hope that approach--and the approach of others, many of whom I've written about on my blog--will at least help to expand to the sonic lexicon of the soprano to show that there are more options. But please send me a link to your CD. I'd love to order it. Keep in touch!


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