Sam Newsome

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

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Talking Shop with Soprano Saxophonist Jane Bunnett

Have you ever wondered about the setups other saxophonists are playing on soprano? 

NOW you can find out!

During this installment, we will be talking shop with soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett. Jane, who's based in Toronto, Canada is mostly known for her Afro Cuban explorations. Her most recent being with the Grammy-nominated group Maqueque; this being her fourth Grammy nomination in total. Jane has also won numerous Juno Awards, Jazz Journalists Awards, and has won both the Downbeat Critics and Readers polls in the Rising Star Flute categories.

So I am extremely grateful she was generous enough to take time from her busy schedule to talk shop with us.

Sam Newsome: Hi Jane, so let’s get down to business.  What type of soprano saxophone do you play?

Jane Bunnett: I play a Selmer Mark VI.

Jane's soprano

SN: Is this something you settled on immediately or was it a lot of trial and error until you found one that worked for you?

JB: It was what Steve Lacy played. I wanted that!

SN: Say no more. If it’s good enough for Steve Almighty….

So what is your take on some of the newer, built-to-perfection sopranos played by saxophonists these days? Or do you resist the urge to experiment?

JB: A little. The newer horns are not made out of the same metal. You cannot compare them, in my opinion. Even if you can get around with the fingering, play faster, and it’s not as awkward, the sound is not there for me. I prefer a great sound, a warm sound. On the Mark VI you must work hard at the tuning, but still, the sound is great. 

SN: I agree. And that seems to be a reoccurring sentiment with soprano saxophone specialists. We are willing to work hard for the sound. There’s certainly a no-pain-no-gain sound production philosophy that we seem to embrace.

What kind of setup do you play on? First, the mouthpiece.

JB: I had a metal Dave Guardala mouthpiece. I loved it! Played it for many years along with the ligature that came with it. Then the ligature rotted on the mouthpiece and fell apart. So I was looking for a long time for another. I used a Selmer ligature, and then it broke. The ultimate disaster came when the mouthpiece just went kaput! I did not have a backup. It was strange because I thought that my horn was broken. I went to the shop, tried different mouthpieces, and it sounded fine. The mouthpiece just bailed on me overnight. So I began the long road of looking for a new mouthpiece and ligature. Nothing was close. But I settled on a metal SR Technologies Soprano Legend mouthpiece, with a Selmer  (Paris) silver plated ligature, with a medium La Voz reed.

Jane's SR Technologies "Legend" metal soprano mouthpiece

SN: I can certainly empathize with you. When something as integral to your sound as a mouthpiece or horn gives out on you, it’s as though an essential part of your musical identity disappears along with it. 

So Jane, being someone who plays in a lot in large ensembles where projecting might be a challenge, do you ever have to resist the urge to switch to one of those high baffle mouthpieces that’s more easy blowing and projects more easily? Or maybe what you’re currently playing on gives you precisely what you need. And for the record, it doesn’t sound like you need to change a thing.

JB: I gotta just work with what I got!

SN: I think that’s the best way. Tinkering with your setup only hurdles you over issues, it doesn’t address them head-on.

Do you fiddle around with different types of ligatures, or do you just keep it simple? For me, I do notice a big difference in the beginning when I switch ligatures, but then the same issues seem to surface once I get used to it. 

JB: Nope. I should experiment more, but I prefer to just work it out.

Jane's silver Selmer (Paris) soprano saxophone ligature

SN: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That definitely works for me. 

How about reeds? 

You stated earlier that you play medium La Voz soprano reeds. Do you ever find that you alter your reed strength depending on the musical setting? For example, playing with Maqueque might demand a different kind of reed response than playing duo, as you did on Double Time with pianist Paul Bley— an excellent recording, by the way.

JB:  Thanks, and no.  Same old answer: same gear.

Jane's brand of reeds and strength

SN: Speaking of Steve Almighty. I know that you studied with Lacy. What lessons did you learn from him as far as sound, and maybe even setups?

JB: Sound is everything. Different sounds. Still, I do not experiment like you and Lacy. I should do more. But between all the stuff--composing, band-leading, administrative responsibilities, setting up--you just have to decide on what feels good, and work on it. I do not want to spend my time shopping around.

SN: That’s smart. You don’t want to create problems where none exist. Life is never stingy with giving us legitimate worries to agonize over.

Lastly, what’s new in the world of Jane Bunnett? I know you’ve been tearing up the road playing with Maqueque—your all-female group from Cuba. And congratulations on all of your success. It is indeed well deserved. 

Do you have a new project on the horizon, or will you be releasing a follow-up Jane Bunnett & Maqueque CD?

JB: We have been doing a lot of touring--the USA, Brazil...The group has really developed into something special. And audiences love the vibe of the group. I think we are inspiring a lot of young women. And that was our intention from the get-go. The last CD, Oddara, our second, received a 2017 Grammy nomination. We are now working on our third CD, yet to be named. It will feature many young women artists that have been playing with us in our short history. The group was founded in 2013.

SN: That’s so inspiring.

JB: Thanks again for your interest. You are an inspiration to me with all that you do, too, Sam!

SN: It means a lot coming from you. And I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. All the best!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Art of Sound Exploration - The Sam Newsome Trio: Live at Smalls

My take on free jazz is a little different from some in that my commitment is more to the in-depth sonic exploration of my instrument than solely using it as a means of playing lines and patterns. My musical philosophy is rooted in the idea that if you’d like to arrive at unconventional sonic outcomes, the process through which you produce sound must also be conventional. And like many free jazzers, I do enjoy my noise and screeching moments, but overall, I find it much more satisfying creating music that’s nuanced with a wide dynamic range.

The following are the four sets I played at Smalls Jazz Club on Friday, May 18, 2018, and Saturday, May 19, 2018., with bassist Hill Greene on bass and drummer Reggie Nicholson. Two veterans practitioners of freer styles of jazz

My weekend at Smalls is significant to me for two reasons: One, being that Smalls is known for presenting more mainstream groups,  it was rare to have a group perform there playing totally improvised music. This type of jazz is more common in the East Village and Brooklyn than in the West Village. Much to my surprise, the crowd was really into it. Which proves my belief that's it's the musicians and industry folks who polarize music more so than the listeners. 

Secondly, this trio format allows me to showcase many of my sound explorations and extended techniques in the context of a rhythm section, and not just hearing me play them solo. Using them in a more interactive context is certainly more challenging, but these performances do prove that it is indeed possible.

I've also taken the time to catalog the different sonic explorations and extended techniques used in each set. This is helpful to those interested in analytical listening. 

But do check out both nights. There's a lot of interesting ideas and concepts being explored. Each set is a basket full of musical fruit for thought.

And shout out to Don Mount for the nice camera work. 

Friday, May 18, 2018 - First Set 

00:00 - Pitched lap tonging

06:25 - Doppler effect

10:53 - Harmon mute, Doppler effect and circular breathing

14:17 - Hanging wind chimes

23:34 - Tube extensions

31:06 - Aluminum foil

38:00 - Hanging 260 balloons

Friday, May 18, 2018 - Second Set

00:00 - Groan tube noisemaker inside of soprano

8:45 - Wood chimes

21:35 - Short tube extension with Doppler effect

25:23 - Short tube extension with flugelhorn bubble mute

37:14 - Long tube extension with aluminum foil and circular breathing

Saturday, May 19, 2018 - First Set

00:00 - Saxophone without the mouthpiece

08:02 - Tube extensions

21:40 - Hanging chimes

27:42 - 5 inch round balloons

31:52 - Aluminum foil

45:59 - Tube extension and flugelhorn bubble mute

47:53 - Flugelhorn bubble mute

48:24 - Trumpet Harmon mute

Saturday, May 19, 2018 - Second Set

00:00 -  Hanging chimes

05:40 – Harmon mute and Doppler effect

14:10 – Tube extensions, flugelhorn bubble mute and Doppler effect.

16:50 - Tube extension and mouthpiece only

17:40 - 5 inch round balloons

20:04 – Aluminum foil and Doppler effect

31:04 – Long chimes

49:55 – Tube extensions and circular breathing

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Prepared Saxophone with Balloons: Kayla Milmine-Abbott

This prepared saxophone submission is by Toronto-based soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine-Abbott. In addition to being a solo saxophone performer, Kayla co-leads the Toronto Improvisers Orchestra (TIO) as well as FASTER, a sax/guitar duo with her husband Brian Abbott, also heard on the featured track “Nuclear Fishin.”

Like myself, Kayla is very much interested in making horn preparations as a means of arriving at unexpected sonic outcomes by altering the way in which air enters and passes through the instrument. Kayla’s saxophone preparation involves an un-inflated round balloon placed over the neck opening of the soprano.

In describing how this works, Kayla said, “... basically half of the hole in the neck of the horn has to be uncovered in order to get sound to play. Also, I cut the part of the balloon off that you blow the air through because it was too tight around the cork - I place the mouthpiece on the very end of the neck, so that the rubber and cork don't have too much contact, as it squeezes the cork, and causes it to chip.”

In describing the different sounds produced, Kayla said: “I especially like the multi-phonics in the low register." This sonic reference can be heard at 3:12 of the recording. (The featured track below)

When I first heard Kayla use this technique, the rubbery/latex aspects were pretty apparent. There seemed to be a built-in glissando effect in the sound.

But do check out it. And check out the entire recording. Pretty innovative stuff!

Stay tuned!




Nuclear Fishin'

Nuclear Fishin' by FASTER
Kayla Milmine-Abbott - Soprano Sax
Brian Abbott - Guitar

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Moral Licensing: Balancing Good and Bad

Moral licensing is a phenomenon where we're less bothered acting less virtuous after doing something virtuous. Simply put:  After a positive action, we feel less guilty doing something negative. 

If you work out before going to dinner, you're more likely to have a dessert or eat more carbs than usual. 

Let's say you've spent considerable time advocating on behalf of a group outside of your own race, religion or culture, and have invested significant time nurturing meaningful relationships with folks from these groups. You'll feel less guilty about saying something that's culturally inappropriate to or about them.  

Remember Bill Maher's public blunder? He probably felt he had a moral license to say "house nigger" since he's dated black women and often advocates on behalf of blacks and other minority groups on his television show. When he said it, he probably felt, "Hey, I'm Bill Maher, the super liberal, they know that I'm cool." I have no doubt that it was coming from a harmless place. However, someone who's a stark conservative and has little association with blacks would never feel comfortable saying that publicly and so nonchalantly.

How does this affect us as musicians? 

  •  If you have a gig where you're able to pay your band handsomely, you won't feel guilty about not paying for dinner or offering to cover the car fare. 
  • Maybe your gig from the night before goes really well, you're more likely to take the next day or two off. I'm guilty of this more times than I want to admit.
  • Let's say after a gig everyone is telling you what a great sound you have,  the next day, we're more likely to skip the long tones portion of our practice routine. Again, guilty as charged.
  • You're doing well career-wise.  Now you're more likely to skip practicing, altogether, especially if you're playing a lot. 
  • Here's one I'm sure many can relate to. Let's say we're having a good year financially, you're probably less prudent with your spending. Instead of putting away the extra income for a rainy day, we're more likely to spend it foolishly. In fact, we probably spend more wisely when we're making less.

But as you can see, moral licensing can lead us to less productive and regressive places.  

What's the remedy? Moderation.

This is one of the reasons I stress maintaining an equal-tempered perspective on things that happen to us--the good, and the bad. 

With the exception of stopping practicing altogether, none of the aforementioned are catastrophic. But it’s good to understand moral licensing so that we can embrace progressive behavior, instead of regressive behavior as a consequence of doing something positive. 

Move towards the sun, not towards the dark.

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...