Sam Newsome

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

Monday, January 27, 2020

Shredding: A Saxophonist’s Dilemma

Do we, as saxophonists, have a shredding complex? Before answering this question, you probably want to know what shredding is? Shred is defined as a verb meaning to "play a very fast, intricate style of rock lead guitar." Jimi Hendricks probably comes to mind for most. The saxophone, second only to the electric guitar, is perhaps most shred-friendly. I feel this is why saxophonists receive the brief 8 and 16 bar solos in big bands. Saxophonists are more trained at turning that shred button on at a moment's notice.

Shredding was never really my forte. I did it to the best of my abilities when the situation called for it. In general, I'm more of a thinker. I guess I still am. I've always tried to milk each note for its sonic worth, and sometimes it's swing currency. This goes against the grain of shredding. I don't mean to knock this performance practice. There's nothing like a shred moment to breathe excitement into an improvised solo.

My biggest issue is that musicality often takes a backseat. 

Of the saxophone family, alto and tenor players probably act on their shred impulses most frequently—tenor players maybe slightly more. I could be wrong. Soprano players, we tend to be a different breed. We're often more economical and conceptual in our approach. Unless one is doubling, then there's a tendency to approach the instrument with a shredder's mindset. This is also how I often discern the straight horn visitor from the specialist. Straight horn specialists are rarely shredders.

Coltrane can be credited with bringing shredding to the soprano—Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman coming a close second. I'm not sure it was necessarily a good thing. I'm not knocking them; they're all great. However, the door was opened for others to take up the soprano solely for its ability to cut through unapologetic bashing and high-intensity band interplay levels. Consequently, saxophonists began to favor a one-dimensional vision for the instrument: top-register heavy, bright, and pitch optional. While it did increase the instrument's popularity, longterm, I felt a negative stigma was attached to the instrument that it still has not been able to shake. The soprano became unconsciously thought of as an instrument of lesser importance.

I think this is changing for many reasons, which I'll get into in a later posting. 

With the criticisms of smooth jazz, one positive aspect of this subgenre is that it created a platform for the soprano where sensuousness was valued. In most instances, smooth jazz is a little too sweet for my taste. Nonetheless, it was a welcomed non-shredding alternative.

One reason I put down the tenor was that I didn't want to feel compelled to create in the expected spirit of competition. I figured it had to be more to music than alpha male domination. 

Becoming a soprano player, I discovered a world of sensitivity, nuance, and texture. Of course, the alpha male shred monster always lurks within. The difference is that it is no longer my default creative mode. 

Let me also note that players like Evan Parker made shredding on the soprano into a unique and attractive art form. And Branford Marsalis introduced a shredding approach that was less shrill, more nuanced, and swinging. So I'm not saying it's always a bad thing. 

Again, do saxophonists have a shredding complex? Absolutely. Cynically speaking, how else are we going to command attention in this era of limited attention spans? If we want more saxophonists having the courage to step forward as musical poets, not only musical slayers, we need to start celebrating the former. 

Sometimes we all need a reminder, myself included, that it is ok to leave rose petals on the bandstand. It does not always have to be rolling heads!

* This post was inspired by a thread on titled Do sax players "shred"?

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Prepared Saxophone with Balloons: Getting a Default Multiphonic Response

As some of you may know, I've been working with balloons for the past few years as a means of arriving at unconventional sonic outcomes. I recently had a two soprano gathering with Toronto-based soprano saxophonist and improviser Kayla Milmine. We tried out one of her discoveries using balloons which I jokingly called "The Milmine-Method."

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 the 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." 

When playing the soprano in this prepared state, multiphonics is the default sound between the range of Bb1 - Ab1. Of course, this can vary between set-ups. Also, note that conventional multiphonic fingerings don't work in this context. It is only necessary to use conventional fingerings.

Please see the three-step preparation process below:




This performance was recorded on January 10, 2020, at LIU Brooklyn in the Barbara Elliot Performing Arts Studio. 

And thank you to Kayla for sharing her discovery!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Suite No. 1 for Four Prepared Soprano Saxophones

The following is a new work that I've been working on with my ensemble Chaos Theory Unit (CTU). The current working title is "Suite No. 1 for Four Prepared Soprano Saxophones."

The ensemble features:

  • Caroline Davis, soprano saxophone
  • Catherine Sikora, soprano saxophone
  • Don Chapman, soprano saxophone
  • Sam Newsome, soprano saxophone

My simplistic way of understanding the work is that it is a four-dimensional perspective of the soprano saxophone. Each dimension being channeled through a different player. The piece is composed of the following parts:

Part I: Doppler
Part II: Birds
Part III: Balloons
Part IV: Drone
Part V: Drum
Part VII: Doppler Revisited

The titles of each of the sections reflect the horn preparations as well as the deliberate sonic realms that players are instructed to improvise within. There are no pre-composed parts. The compositional arc and incidental harmonies that ensue stem from the improvisational interplay.

Below is the video of our performance, along with a listening guide further detailing the musical activities throughout.

Musical activity
00:00 – 03:03
Solo improvisation by Newsome. The improvisation is multiphonic-centered.
Part 1: Doppler
03:03 – 05:58
The ensemble joins in playing sustained tones centered around concert C Phrygian. The ensemble sways instruments from side to side to create the Doppler effect. 

5:50  - 05:59
Ensemble sustains an impromptu chord.

6:00 – 08:54
Davis begins an unaccompanied solo.
Part II - Birds
08:55 -11:04
The ensemble begins improvising bird sounds underneath Davis until she fades out. The ensemble morphs into collective improvisations of bird sounds

11:05 – 14:23
Newsome and Davis begin improvising against the bird- sound backdrop without their instruments being prepared.

14:23 – 14:34
Newsome and Davis conclude their improvisations playing sustained tones.

14:35 – 15:40
Sikora and Chapman continue the bird-sound backdrop, while Newsome and Davis setup with balloon preparations
Part III - Balloons
15:41 – 19:22
Sikora and Chapman end playing bird sounds while Newsome and Davis begin to assert the balloon rattlings, which morphs into a sparse collective improvisation, featuring Chapman playing against a backdrop of balloon sounds and sparse ensemble improvisations.

19:23 – 20:24
Chapman solo concludes, and the ensemble continues to play the balloon-rattling backdrops, while Newsome prepares his instrument with the tube extension to begin the drone.

20:25 – 21:56
Newsome begins drone against the balloon-rattling backdrop
Part IV: Drone
21:57 – 23:40
The ensemble joins Newsome playing drone-like sound while instruments are prepared with tube extensions.

23:41 – 26:44
Sikora begins improvising against the droning backdrop

26:45 – 27:43
The ensemble fades out and Sikora continues her solo unaccompanied. While Sikora is improvising, the ensemble begins to make preparations for the next piece entitled "Drum.”

27:44 – 28:24
The ensemble begins playing drum sounds as Sikora fades out her solo.
Part V: Drum
28:25 – 29:30
The ensemble plays drum sounds, while Chapman continues the drone.

29”31 – 30:18
The ensemble begins to play sparsely over the drone while continuing to play drum sounds.

30:19 – 33:18
The ensemble begins to collectively improvise over the drone.

33:19 – 36:45
The drone ends and the ensemble plays as a collective. The ensemble builds gradually.
Part VI: Doppler Revisited
36:46 – 40:18
The nsemble morphs into "Doppler Revisited." The ensemble plays sustainethed tones over the C Phrygian scale until the end.

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