Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, July 23, 2017

10 Reasons Why You Might Have Problems with Rhythm

As teachers and performers, we often prescribe the metronome as the all-purpose solution to most of our rhythmic and metronomic ailments. In most instances, practicing with the metronome is the best resolve for these matters. But not always. Sometimes these issues result from things we are doing incorrectly, or just simply not doing. 

In this piece, I've identified 10 reasons why you might have problems in some of the aforementioned areas as well as a few prescribed remedies. These are hardly the laws of the land, just a few pointers that have helped me over the years.

1. You have not thoroughly absorbed the material at hand.  Trying to play things before we have thoroughly absorbed them is one of the surest ways towards rhythmic calamities. When creating in real time, there's plenty of room for error, but little room for hesitation. In general, we tend to be more hesitant with things with which we are uncertain. 

2. Playing outside of your comfort zoneTypically when we go for things outside of our musical reach, we tend to get into rhythmic trouble. The solution: Play less, and play what you know. Sometimes it's ok to drive under the speed limit. You don't always have to burn rubber.

3. Don't spend enough time listening to music. Writers understand that if they want to write well, they have to constantly read. As musicians, we tend to forget that listening is just as important as playing. Chances are that if you're constantly listening to players with great rhythm, you'll probably instinctively begin to play that way. Or at least you'll have a clearer understanding of how things are supposed to sound.

4. Need to play more. There's no better way to improve at something than by simply doing it. Playing allows you to assess what you can and can not do in real-time. It also gives you a more realistic perspective of your musical comfort zones.

5. Mentally unfocused. Sometimes our minds are just not in our work. And this is where practicing with a metronome helps. Having constant rhythmic accountability enables us to practice from a more heightening state, which will usually translate into you performing from the same state of mind.

6. Technical difficulty. Let's face it. If we can't technically execute something, it's not going to be rhythmically sound. This is usually the result of needing better instrumental control or just needing to get our ideas better under our fingers.  

7. Uncomfortable with our sound. People often underestimate the importance of sound. Being comfortable with our sound helps us to be more centered. And if you're centered and relaxed when you play, that will be reflected rhythmically, and definitely musically.

8. Thinking too rigidly about time and rhythm. If we're constantly looking at these musical components through narrow and limited scopes, we may never find what works best for us. Imagine that Ornette only interpreted time from the perspective of Sonny Rollins. Or what if Cecil Taylor only viewed time through the rhythmic lens of McCoy Tyner. Neither of them would have experienced the rhythmic liberation that enabled them to change the way we think about music.

9. Practicing with the metronome too much. There is such a thing as over doing it with the metronome. I've certainly been there. In doing so we don't allow ourselves to connect with our own internal clock. More importantly, we don't learn to trust our musical instincts. And ultimately this is our most valuable metronomic resource. 

10. Have not embraced your own unique relationship with rhythm and time. The fact of the matter is that everyone has their own unique relationship with these musical components, as they do with sound, melody, harmony, etc. And we have to learn to embrace this aspect of playing music. Some play perpetually ahead of the beat, some seem comfortable just a little behind it. Some are masters at swinging and playing over complex chord progressions, some make their most profound musical statements during free improvisation. Whatever the case may be, do what you do and be the best at it. Own it!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Transcription and Analysis of Steve Lacy's Solo on "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise"

Steve Lacy's improvised solo on the Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein composition "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" was transcribed from the album Jazz Idiom recorded in 1954 on Jaguar Records. It was recorded by the Dick Sutton Sextet which featured Dick Sutton on trumpet,
Ray Anderson on trombone, Steve Lacy on soprano sax, Don Sitterlex on baritone sax, Mark Trail on bass, and Billy DeHay on drums.

Although Sidney Bechet was the first to be prominently featured on the soprano sax, it was Steve Lacy who gave the soprano a home in modern jazz. Unlike many of his peers, he managed to sidestep the complexities of bebop and hard bop. He went directly from Dixieland to more progressive and avant-garde styles of jazz.

The melody of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" follows a 32 bar AABA structure, both during the melody and the improvised solos. The A section is in C min and it modulates to Eb Major for the B section. 

Even though this version of the song is credited as "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," there is actually a new melody written for the A sections of the first chorus, but the B section, however, does contain the original melody. Therefore,  this version of the song is only a partial contrafact. Contrafact is a term coined by David Baker which describes when a new melody is written on a pre-existing set of chord changes. This practice was used quite commonly during the bebop era. The other method of interpreting standard repertoire is through the use of a composition technique known as reharmonizing. This is when you take a pre-existing melody and set it to a new harmonic structure. 

The band does, however, play the original melody during the first two A sections on the head out, performed in the contrapuntal Dixieland style, before returning to the contrafact melody for the last A section.

The improvised solo

First two A sections

As shown in the transcriptions below, Lacy's solo is pretty diatonic. For the first two A sections, he primarily improvises of the progression C min / Dmin7(b5) G7(b9) using the tonic harmonic minor scale; however, using the scale's flatted 6th and major 7th, sparingly. 

In fact, the only non-diatonic note used is the sharp 4. And this is primarily used in the context of blues, as shown on bars 6, 8, 9, and 10. This is very idiomatic for this period. Scales like the dorian, mixolydian, and the multiple variations of the bebop scales, were more of a modern jazz phenomenon. Players from this era kept it pretty bare bones. Much of their improvisational acumen was demonstrated through their inventiveness with melody, rhythm, the blues, and often times, awe-inspiring dexterity on their instruments.

B section

During the first two bars of the B section, when it modulates to Eb major,  Lacy improvises on the major scale of the chord, also known as the Ionian mode. In the 4th bar of the B section, he plays F harmonic minor on the E dim. Players often play a G min7(b5) C7(b9) instead of the E min in order to create a more interesting harmonic motion,  thus, create more possibilities during their improvisation. Using the Roman numeral analysis, it would be the #I dim substituted by the ii7(b5) and its related V7(b9).

Last A section

In the first bar of the last A, Lacy emphasizes the major 7th, which at first creates a lot of tension,  but resolves smoothly to the tonic. From there, he continues playing over the C minor using the harmonic minor scale.

The transcription of Lacy's solo appears in concert, Bb, and Eb keys. 

After listening closely to this recording, practice it at different tempos with the metronome clicking on beats 2 and 4. This will help you dig more deeply into the time, consequently, strengthening your swing feel.

Please note that this transcription is absent of dynamics, phrase markings, and articulations. This is intentional.  In order to truly capture the essence of an improvised solo, you have to listen to it, again and again, until you start to hear all of its subtle nuances.  This is when you truly start to understand what improvisation is all about. Jazz is "off the page music." Its essence is not found in what is written, but in what is not.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

5 Star Review in Downbeat

This five-star review is from the June 2017 edition of Downbeat magazine, with Diana Krall on the cover. For some reason, I forgot to post this. I probably got caught up in a million and one things. Better late than never. And a special shout out to Michael Jackson for being generous with the stars.

I was actually very nervous about putting this recording out, seeing how it pushes the envelope more than usual. I never know how these outside of the box projects are going to be received. Fortunately, the feedback has been positive. So I guess you never know. Onward and upward!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Young Steve Lacy (1954): The Bechet Period

In 1954, while still a student at the Manhattan School of Music, Steve Lacy was performing regularly with a Dixieland repertory band called the Dick Sutton Sextet on both soprano and clarinet. The band wasn’t Dixieland in the strictest sense. At times, they sounded more hard bop and West Coast than Dixieland. 

Lacy recorded two albums with Sutton, the young trumpeter. The first was August 8, 1954, on an album titled Jazz Idiom, and the second was November 24, 1954, on an album titled Progressive Dixieland.

During this period, the Sidney Bechet influence on the 20-year-old Lacy is very evident from his use of the fast and wide vibrato that defined Bechet; his penchant for arpeggiated lines that outlined the chord structure, versus the chromaticism pervasive in the bebop vocabularies; and of course, how he maintains very close ties to the blues when playing the melody and while improvising. He often exclaims that he picked up the clarinet after hearing Bechet’s version of Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche, recorded in 1941.

Before we hear Lacy with Dick Sutton's group, let's first listen to the recording that inspired him to take up the clarinet, showing his entree into jazz. In this version of "The Mooche" recorded on October 14, 1941, we hear Bechet on clarinet, Henry Goodwin on trumpet, Vic Dickerson on trombone, Don Donaldson on piano, Ernest Williamson on bass, and Manzie Johnson on drums. 

On this recording, Bechet does not take an improvised solo. He makes his musical statement solely from how he plays the melody. One of the paramount lessons Lacy probably learned from Bechet was the importance of being able to tell a story with one's sound--something Lacy seemed to have learned well. With regards to Bechet's sound, Lacy had this to say: 

“Many did not care for his sound owing to his excessive use of a very wide vibrato. My own feeling is that this was a means, perhaps, of covering the natural inaccuracy of any given note on the horn itself." 

And this is another tip I imagined Lacy learned from Bechet, when striving to achieve pitch ascendancy over the defiant horn.

After Lacy took up the clarinet in 1949 at the age of 15, he began hanging out at the Stuyvesant Casino, a music venue located at 140 Second Ave., at Ninth Street, that primarily featured Dixieland bands. In this picture, we see a young 19-year-old alongside many of mentors at the time,  such as clarinetist Pee Wee Russell (far right), saxophonist and clarinetist Cecil Scott, who taught Lacy clarinet and the soprano saxophone when he 16 years old, (left of Pee Wee Russell) and trumpeter Harry Hot Lips Page (left of Cecil Scott). This was pre-Monk and Cecil Taylor, mind you. 
In 1951, Lacy played his first gig at the Stuyvesant Casino as the featured performer. The club billed it as “Bechet of the Today.” Something he certainly felt embarrassed about.

Stuyvesant Casino (bandstand)

Stuyvesant Casino at 140 Second Ave., at Ninth Street, New York City 

The following tracks are from the two aforementioned Dick Sutton Sextet albums recorded on Jaguar Records in 1954. What’s really remarkable is that even though Lacy had only been playing the soprano for four years, he already has a personal sound (though influenced by Bechet), excellent sound control, and a good amount of technical fluency. It’s as though he was meant to play the instrument.

Track 1:  "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" was recorded on the album titled  Jazz Idiom in 1954 on Jaguar Records.

Dick Sutton - trumpet
Ray Anderson - trombone 
Steve Lacy - clarinet, soprano sax
Don Sitterlex - baritone sax
Mark Trail - bass
Billy DeHay - drums

Track 2:  "Let's Get Away from it All" was recorded on an album titled Progressive Dixieland in 1954 on Jaguar Records.

Dick Sutton - trumpet
John Welch - trombone
Steve Lacy - soprano sax
Frank Caputo baritone sax
Mark Trail - bass
Billy DeHay - drums

Track 3:  "Avalon" was recorded on the album titled Jazz Idiom in 1954 on Jaguar Records. 

Dick Sutton - trumpet
Ray Anderson - trombone 
Steve Lacy - soprano sax
Don Sitterlex - baritone sax
Mark Trail - bass
Billy DeHay - drums

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Soprano Stylings of Dexter Gordon

My first time hearing Dexter Gordon playing the soprano saxophone was in the 1986 film Round Midnight by Bertrand Taverier and David Rayfiel, for which Dexter was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and won a Grammy for the film's soundtrack titled The Other Side of Round Midnight in the category for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Soloist.  The two pieces on which I heard him was Herbie Hancock’s “Time Still” and Dexters “Tivoli.”

As is the case with many doubling on the instrument, his soprano sounded like his main horn up an octave. In Dexter's case, this was not a bad thing. His soprano had many of the qualities that defined his tenor sound: it was deep, full-bodied, and laced with his signature slow and wavering vibrato. In the past, I've been critical of hearing alto and tenor saxophonists using the soprano solely as the third and fourth octave of their larger horns.  All to often, I felt we were only left with a compromised soprano sound, and so much a musical voice. 

This was not true with Dexter.

There was no "cringe factor" with he played the soprano. However, like many who don’t play it all the time, he struggled with the instrument's inherent pitch problems. All things considered, he brought the same warmth to the soprano that was ubiquitous in his tenor playing. Consequently, we got to hear is his sound concept from a new perspective, instead of a higher-pitched, compromised version of it.

Another reason I feel Dexter’s concept worked well on the soprano is that his approach is sound centered: meaning that the sound used to support his ideas are equally as important as the ideas, if not more. This was true for most of the musicians during this era. You could not separate their ideas from their sound. Joe Henderson would have sounded silly playing Wayne Shorter's ideas, and vice versa. Amongst many modern players, this is not always true. In fact, you could take five of the top young saxophonists, have them play each other's ideas verbatim, and it would not sound the least bit out a context. That's because their concepts are more idea-centered. Their sound often serves no other purpose than to deliver their ideas--sound is not viewed as a separate entity. In the era of sound centered concepts, you had a Lester Young school of sound, a Coleman Hawkins school of sound, a John Coltrane school of sound, etc. And even in modern times, we have David Sanborn and Michael Brecker schools of sound.  However, amongst many of today's practitioners, this commitment to sound is becoming increasingly elusive--myself included.

And I actually see the soprano as more of a sound instrument, anyway. A topic I will discuss in more detail in a future post.

These six performances are neither in chronological nor any order of importance. But I did decide to start and end with the two performances from the movie Round Midnight since this was my introduction to the straight horn side of Dexter.

"Tivoli" is from the album The Other Side of Round Midnight, recorded in 1985, and released in 1986 on Blue Note Records.

Dexter Gordon - soprano saxophone
Palle Mikkelborg - trumpet
Cedar Walton - piano
Mads Vinding - bass
Billy Higgins - drums
Composed by Dexter Gordon

“In a Sentimental Mood” from his album Stable Mable, released in 1975 on Steeplechase Records.

Dexter Gordon – soprano saxophone
Horace Parlan – piano
Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen – bass
Tony Inzalaco · drums
Composed by Duke Ellington


“How Insensitive “ from his album Sophisticated Giant, released in 1977 on Columbia Records.

Dexter Gordon – soprano saxophone
Frank Wess - alto saxophone, flute, piccolo
Howard Johnson - baritone saxophone
Woody Shaw - flugelhorn, trumpet
Benny Bailey - flugelhorn, trumpet
Wayne Andre - trombone: 
Slide Hampton - trombone, arranger
George Cables - piano
Rufus Reid - bass
Victor Lewis - drums 
Composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim

“Blues for Gates” is from the album Total Swing, Vol. 4, released in 2001 on Starburst Records.

Dexter Gordon – soprano saxophone
Lionel Hampton - vibraphone
Bucky Pizzarelli - guitar
Hank Jones – piano
George Duvivier – bass
Oliver Jackson – drums
Candido (Camero) - congas
Composed by Lionel Hampton

”Seven Comes Eleven” is from the album Total Swing, Vol. 4, released in 2001 on Starburst Records.

Dexter Gordon – soprano saxophone
Lionel Hampton - vibraphone
Bucky Pizzarelli - guitar
Hank Jones – piano
George Duvivier – bass
Oliver Jackson – drums
Candido (Camero) - congas
Composed by Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman

"Still Time" is from the album Round Midnight (The Movie Soundtrack), recorded in 1985, and released in 1986 on Blue Note Records.

Dexter Gordon - soprano saxophone
Herbie Hancock - piano
Pierre Michelot - bass
Billy Higgins - drums
Composed by Herbie Hancock

And here's a clip of Herbie receiving an Oscar for Best Original Score for Round Midnight at the 59th Annual Academy Awards. He had some pretty stiff competition.  At 3:45 we get to see a short segment with Dexter looking happy and proud, just as he should have been.

As an aspiring jazz musician attending the Berklee College of Music at the time, seeing jazz and jazz musicians that we admired being recognized on network television, during prime time, in front of millions of viewers, gave us tremendous hope regarding our future. And Herbie's speech was pretty cool, too.

Please check out my book Life Lessons from the Horn and my new CD, Sopranoville.

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