Sam Newsome

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

Preorder new CD

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Improvisation Workshop Project (IWP): Redefining Jazz Composition

Sam Newsome and Kevin Dean: Photo by Conor Nickerson
Last week, violinist Meg Okura and I had the pleasure of visiting McGill University in Montreal, Canada, to participate in the Improvisation Workshop Project (IWP), the brainchild of pianist and McGill University professor, Jean-Michel Pilc.  The IWP brings together musicians of all backgrounds and experience levels (students and professional musicians, jazz and classical) to explore the tradition of jazz as “improvised chamber music” based on collective improvisation.

The project includes weekly playing sessions that brings to together diverse groups of musicians to try new ideas and interpret new material brought in by Jean-Michel Pilc and other participants. Using an “improvisation as instant composition" approach and the collective improvisational process, the IWP investigates how such diverse disciplines as composition, orchestration, musical interpretation and improvisation combine organically into a coherent whole in jazz music, and also how a diverse lineup of musicians can hold natural and meaningful musical conversations. 

The project's innovative research approach involves thorough documentation of the creative improvisation process, including post-playing session journals logged by all participants, allowing them to share their thoughts on the artistic process. By drawing from musicians’ insider perspectives, this archive provides a unique research resource for the study of improvisation-composition within a variable medium-size jazz ensemble.

This performance took place on Saturday, February 23, 2019, at 8pm @ Tanna Schulich Hall of Schulich School of Music of McGill University. It featured two groups made up of some on Montreal's finest improvisers. Violinist Meg Okura and I were the two invited guests from New York City.

And what's really impressive about this gathering is not so much that it's all improvised, but the clarity and musicality that's achieved throughout. It has certainly made me rethink jazz composition.


Group 1
Meg Okura (violin)
Sam Newsome (soprano saxophone)
Kevin Dean (trumpet)
Jonathan Orland (alto saxophone)
Juan Sebastian Delgado (cello)
Pierre Mendola (flute)
Cole Birney-Stewart (bass)
Michel Lambert (drums)
Jean-Michel Pilc (piano and conducting)

Group 2
Meg Okura (violin)
Sam Newsome (soprano saxophone)
Kevin Dean (trumpet)
Jonathan Orland (alto saxophone)
Annie Dominique (bass clarinet & tenor saxophone) 
Edouard Touchette (trombone) 
Summer Kodama (bass) 
Thom Gossage (drums)
Jean-Michel Pilc (piano and conducting)

* The IWP is funded by the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC).

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Social Anxiety, the Serenity Prayer and Creativity

I haven’t told many this, but I’ve always struggled with social anxiety for most of my life.  I’m happy to say that it has become less of an issue the older I've gotten. This is a good thing. Because when you’re five years old, people think that social awkwardness is cute. However, when you’re 50, people think that you’re strange. Let’s just say I’ve come a long way from my early childhood when I battled selective mutism

It’s funny how during high school people used to always think that I was happy because I was always smiling. When actually, incessant smiling is a common symptom of social anxiety. Smiling in the face of misery. I call it the SITFOM effect.

To help conquer this issue, my mother did two things: One, she put me in as many social situations as possible. If your kid is afraid of the water, solution: Throw him or her in the pool, face first. I was fortunate in that she signed me up for a lot of music and art classes. The art classes enabled me to explore my creativity, and the music classes allowed me to be social while having a musical instrument to hide behind. A crutch that's still used to this day.  Secondly, to help ease my mind when feeling stressful she'd have me recite the “Serenity Prayer.”

If you're not familiar with it, this is the abridged version my mom would have me say:

“Dear Lord, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.


I’m mentioning this because this prayer has served as a foundation for how I now navigate life and creativity.

My advice to students and friends is usually to "focus on you can control, not on what you can’t."

If I get too focused on my career, my music, or life, in general, I ask myself: Are you eating enough healthy food? Is your living environment clean and organized? Are you drinking enough water every day? Or, what can you do to help others? I really focus on the basics—things that I am sure are within my control.

I’m a firm believer that directing one's energy towards these kinds of things creates good karma that will, in turn, put one in the mindset to make their more lofty goals more attainable.

And besides, focusing on these basic, less self-centered things gives me a stronger sense of satisfaction. I see myself as being in control of my life, rather than being a victim of circumstance. 

From a creative perspective, I try not to spend energy on what I can’t do, but instead, try to focus on what I can do very easily, something I've come to identify as my natural genius: doing that which you might see as being too easy. 

I love this quote credited to Albert Einstein:

 “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

I'm sure we've all been fish trying desperately to climb trees. Society has conditioned us to believe that we need to be good at everything--especially music education. Which goes against the grain of tapping into your natural genius.

The hardest thing about embracing your natural genius is giving yourself permission to do so. We've convinced ourselves that if struggling is not built into what we do, that it’s not valid. It’s as though we need to feel like victims of creative circumstance.

Is a meal that takes five minutes to prepare less delicious or healthy than one that takes five hours to prepare? I think not. 

Surrender. Relinquish control. Leave it to fate. Put it into the hands of the Lord. Take the path of least resistance. However you choose to look at it, remember that the clearer the mind, the clearer you’ll be able to see things, consequently, making better decisions. 

As far as my social anxiety issues. They still exist. But I try to focus more on what others might be feeling and their needs, rather than thinking that everybody is watching me and is out to get me. Seems to work. Oh...and if you are a fish, stay out of trees, and if you're a monkey, don't try to make your home in the deep sea. Life can be difficult enough being where we're supposed to be, no need living your life of as a primate swimming with the dolphins.

* Regarding the Einstein quote, there's no concrete proof that he actually said it.  But it is a wise quote, nonetheless.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Private Keep Out: Making Your Club Exclusive

Being in the music business, we’re often taught to focus on growing our audience. Court as many folks as you can. I propose this: How about we purposely keep our core audience as small as possible—an exclusive club if you will. Why? Because sometimes we have to be willing to say, “Take it or leave it. This is what I do.”

I’m a firm believer that if you’re making music for everyone, then you’re not making music for anyone.

Try this: The next time you go into a Starbucks, ask for a two-piece with a biscuit and mashed potatoes. They’ll probably send you to the nearest KFC. (Keeping the food analogy.) If someone came to my gig expecting to hear jazz saxophone playing correctly over the chord changes, I’d probably recommend Smoke Jazz Club, or perhaps Small’s on West 10th, and respectfully explain that what they’re looking for is not on my musical menu.

As artists, just trying to survive doing what we do, we can be too willing to alter what we do to fit in. The flip side of earning permission to join Club Popularity, is you’ve now given people permission to ignore you. I guess the grass is greener on the other side.

I’m reminded of a micro-short story I wrote called “The Invisible Man.”

Young boy: Were you always invisible?

Invisible man: No. At one time I was prominently seen by all.

Young man: What happened?

Invisible man: I tried to become like everybody else, and succeeded.

There are a few benefits to excluding certain people and catering to a select membership.

  • We have people in our circle who really want to be there.
  • Not having naysayers and skeptics in our inner circle, allows us to maintain our artistic focus.
  • We’re more likely to have folks around us who will help spread the word about what we do.

Instead of casting a wide net, I suggest casting a purposeful one. Keep those unwanted fish at bay. Invite only those whom you wish to devour to your musical plate.

I was inspired to write this piece after a recent performance at the Hartford Public Library as a part of their Baby Grand Jazz Series. I played there with Cooper Moore on piano, Hilliard Greene on bass, and Reggie Nicholson on drums.

It’s difficult to see on the video, but the crowd was really into it. They even gave us a standing ovation. But then there were several people who couldn't get out of there fast enough. In fact, many saw fit to get up and leave, very early into our set. Probably not the brand of jazz they were looking to consume. And I’m glad they did. (Another food analogy.) If we’re grilling burgers, I don’t want folks hanging out, getting pouty because they’re no hot dogs. “Nathan’s is down the street,” I say to those folks.

 Enjoy our set!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Teacher and Student: Then What?

Student: I really want to have a more significant social media presence.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: I can let more folks know what I’m up to.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If I have a gig, I can inform more people 

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If more people know about my gig, more will show up.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If the club is packed, I can get another gig.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If the word gets out that I can pack a club, more places will want to book me.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If I’m playing all over the place, then I can start playing festivals.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: Playing festivals will get me a high ranking in the critic's polls.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: If I do it long enough I can become number one.

Teacher: Then what?

Student: What else is there?

Teacher: How about family, friends, physical and mental health?

Student. I forgot to consider those things.

Teacher: Now what?

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...