Sam Newsome

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

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:

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

2017 Downtown Music Gallery Reviews - Bruce Gallanter


Featuring Sam Newsome on soprano sax and Jean-Michel Pilc on piano. After five discs of solo soprano sax (!?!), Sam Newsome decided to try something different so he organized a duo session with French ex-pat pianist Jean-Michel Pilc. It turns out that Mr. Newsome and Mr. Pilc have been collaborating for a while with Newsome being a member of Pilc’s quartet (CD on Dreyfus). The duo cover seven well-known standards (Ellington, Monk & Coltrane) but do them in a unique way. Most of the songs are first (and only) takes, hence they sound fresh. “Autumn Leaves” has been covered by just about everyone, but I must admit that I dig this version since the duo seem to jump in and out of the stream, leaving space for the listener to add his or her own central current/flow (ongoing melody or structure). The music is exquisite, without too much embellishment or too many notes when a few will do. After concentrating on playing soprano sax exclusively for a number of years, Mr. Newsome has a wealth of ways to play and alter his approach, coming up with novel sounds for his special sax. He often bends and stretches his notes out, notes expanding and contracting in completely distinctive ways. Their version of Ellington, “In a Sentimental Mood” is sparse and filled with suspense, using as few notes as possible yet somehow most effective. Mr. Pilc spins a thick web of lines on “Giant Steps” when it begins while Mr. Newsome softly adds spiraling notes on top, the tempo increasing as it evolves. Pilc mutes a few of the strings, giving them a slightly bent yet playful quality on “In a Mellow Tone”. At times it sounds as if the duo are heading in opposite directions yet end up back together when we least expect it, especially the two pieces which are freely improvised and move in odd directions. Even when the duo play a bebop standard like “Out of Nowhere”, they seem to spin it in their own way. Mr. Plic does a marvelous job of playing two separate themes with each hand while Mr. Newsome plays those twisted notes on top. Considering that this discs features merely a duo, these two master musicians have found ways to reinvent the many different ways that they can work together in a fascinating, surprising dialogue. Excellent! - Bruce Lee Gallanter, DMG

SAM NEWSOME - Sopranoville: New Works for Prepared and Non-Prepared Saxophone

Featuring Sam Newsome on prepared and unprepared soprano saxes. One saxist Sam Newsome sold his tenor sax and picked up the soprano, he became a man on a mission to explore the depths of playing solo soprano sax. This is Mr. Newsome’s fifth disc of solo soprano sax and one might think that he is running out of ideas but this is far from the case. Actually, Mr. Newsome has gone even further this time by experimenting on several levels: overdubbing numerous soprano saxes and altering the sopranos with varied manipulations: aluminum foil, scotch tape, making reeds out of straws and adding chimes or other percussive effects. There are some 22 pieces here and each one explores the soprano(s) in many different ways. Starting with, “The Quiet Before the Storm”, a stark, hypnotic, solemn intro for lone soprano with soft chimes, a great way to begin our journey. “The Doppler Effect” is for three soprano saxes in circular motion, spinning together in a most mesmerizing way. Even better is “Horns of Plenty” for 15 sopranos, interlocking in strong rhythmic patterns. The aptly titled “Hiss and Kiss” is for three mouthpieces, bending and twisting their sounds just right. For Mr. Newsome’s previous CD, ‘The Straight Horn of Africa’, Sam worked on setting up African rhythms by tapping on the keys of the sax. He continues to experiment with similar rhythms here, creating shifting patterns with one of more saxes, interlinking their lines. in “Micro-Suite for Fifteen Sopranos”, Newsome layers a number of slightly bent notes in a most fascinating way, the haze of notes being somewhat disorienting. The are only two songs covered in this collection: one is John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” for three sopranos played into a piano for resonance, all saxes swirling around one another until they play in unison near the end, all to great effect. Newsome has obviously worked hard at exploring a good deal of extended technique sounds, like using this odd flutter-tongue sounds which have been more common in recent years yet still sound fresh if one goes beyond their superficial use. I dig the way Newsome stacks up layers of bent note lines on “Soprano-ology”, combining alien sounds with something somehow familiar to those who enjoy taking chances, never knowing where things will end up. Sam Newsome has worked hard and created his own sonic world. well-with exploring. - Bruce Lee Gallanter, DMG 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Four "Musts" for Awakening Your Inner Artist

Being and thinking like an artist is no easy task. Not just because of the ability, patience, and courage required, but because you must be primed to receive and deliver your ideas from such a creative head space. Like anything else, this requires a certain conditioning. Below are four "musts" that I've identified that might help you to get closer to thinking and creating from an artist's mindset.

1. Must be a blank slate.
Being a blank slate is so important because you don't want new ideas to be covered by old molds of thought. This will prevent you from realizing their potential. Imagine you're about to paint a picture. You will have a much different relationship with those new images when applied to a clean canvass versus painting over an old one. And sometimes being a blank slate is the willingness to let the former die so that you can be reborn.

2. Must be willing to be vulnerable in front of the world.
One of the things that all artists possess is a willingness to bare their souls in front of all. Great artists let it all hang out. Artists like Charlie Parker, Jackson Pollock, and Marlon Brando left nothing to the imagination. They embodied total spiritual and emotional transparency. You have to be willing to show the world your bad as well as your good, and all that's in between.

3. Must be aware

Being aware is crucial. Great art is not only a reflection of the times but what artists often reflect is how things could be different or maybe even better. This is why John Coltrane's A Love Supreme could not have been created during the 1940s, or why Albert Ayler would not have existed during the 1930s. There was nothing going on to inspire those types of creations. If we as artists are going to be a step or two ahead of popular trends and modes of thought, we have to be aware enough to know what we're getting ahead of.

4. Must have skills sets
You can be the most creative and innovative thinker in modern times; however, if you don't have the skill sets to bring those creative and innovative thoughts to fruition, they won't amount to a hill of beans. Often times, this is where people drop the ball. I've encountered many who come across as imposing figures on paper, or they may talk a good game; yet, they appear flat when you actually hear them play. This is because they lack the musical, mental, and instrument control to allow their ideas to prevail uncompromised. This takes work. I don't have an answer as to how to make this happen. All I can say is, "Make it happen, any way you can."


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...