Sam Newsome

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

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Saturday, February 29, 2020

Man versus the Machine: More Prepared Saxophone Ideas

When performing this technique it's important to note that sound is produced by inhaling and exhaling through the dishwasher hose.

As far as the balloon, I'm simply creating sporadic percussive sounds that allow me to create a rhythmic accompanying space. This pulls the ear back and forth between two very different sonic spheres.

Material needed:

  1. soprano saxophone
  2. a deflated balloon with the tip cut off
  3. dishwasher drain hose

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Toronto-based Improvisers Making a Difference

Wearing many hats comes with the territory as a musician in 2020. Well, try adding festival-organizer to your list of duties!

Meet alto saxophonist/visual artist Bea Labikova and soprano saxophonist Kayla MilmineThese two Toronto-based improvisers are impacting their creative community in a really big way--with and without their instruments. 

From March 5, 2020, to March 8, 2020, Bea and Kayla will present their second annual Women From Space festival, presenting sixteen women-led ensembles over the course of four days. The festival will take place during International Women's Day weekend.

Some featured performers include Susan Alcorn, Kris Davis, William Parker, Ingrid Laubrock, and many others.

1. Sam Newsome: Congrats on your second year with the Women from Space festival! So, how did you come up with the name? Was Sun Ra an inspiration in some way?

Kayla Milmine: I came up with the name “Women from Space” for a music series I ran at Tranzac. When we decided to create the festival, we thought this was a unique and fitting name, as the festival happens over International Women’s Day weekend. I did draw inspiration from Sun Ra, especially the film “Space is the Place”. I like the idea of ‘women from space’ exploring the universe for new musical sounds and ideas and featuring them in this festival.
Bea Labikova: Oh and there is also that  ‘women from space - space for women’ aspect of the name. 

2. SN: That makes total sense. And Bea, in addition to being an accomplished saxophonist and improviser, you’re also a great visual artist. Did you create that amazing picture for the festival advertisements? It looks very Frida Kalo-inspired. Is she an inspiration?
 BL: Thanks, Sam! Ha, Frida. Yes, I can see it, especially in her direct look, but I didn’t think of it before!  Each year we want to have a different space-woman featured, hoping that in several years we will have a nice portrait collection of different kickass space-women. In general, I want all the artwork to convey empowerment, spaciness and lots of colors! So I went from there, followed my imagination and tried to create something I am excited about.  

3. SN: You've definitely made your point. And Kayla, with you hailing from Montreal and Bea, your roots being of Slovak origin, how did the two of you meet?

KM: We met in Toronto about five years ago – shortly after I moved here from Montreal. I believe we first played together in a saxophone quartet, and then our musical relationship grew and since then we’ve played in several various projects together.

BL: Haha, the first time we met was actually at an improvised shadow puppet / Halloween house concert at my place. Kayla was performing in a noise-trio with a friend we have in common. I think half of the band showed up in pink unicorn onesies? I was dressed as a deciduous tree.

4. SN: That sounds fascinating. I'd love to see some pics!

Another question:  Even though the festival is centered around women players, I see there are also some men performing as well. 

KM: Yes, our mission is to be inclusive of everyone. Our goal was to create a festival that is majority women-performers, but not exclusively women. I do my best to present the festival as a celebration of International Women’s Day – which anyone and everyone can/should celebrate!
BL: Yes, everyone is celebrating! I would just add that the men performers are mostly in supportive roles...all 16 sets of the festival are featuring and focusing on the work of women as improvisers, composers and bandleaders. 

5. SN: It looks like a great line-up!

Also, it seems as though the music industry—particularly in jazz and improvised music—has been making a serious effort to address gender inequality. I’ve certainly noticed this in the United States. Have you felt the effects of this in Canada? And has it made it easier to get funding, or just support in general?

KM: Yes – I think the awareness of gender inequality is at the forefront of the arts right now, as it is something that needs to be addressed and changed. I think that because of the nature of the Women from Space festival being majority female performers, we are able to make a good case as to why this festival is significant. We are overwhelmed with the amount of support we have, especially since it is only our second year of the festival.
BL: I would say that awareness about gender inequality, but also all around diversity including artists of all backgrounds and cultures, indigenous performers, LGBTQ identified is becoming at the forefront of the arts. Projects that are actively working on creating this balance stand a good chance of being supported by the municipal, provincial and national arts council here in Canada.  

6. SN: Toronto seems to have a pretty thriving improvised music scene. And there seems to be an already a sizable female presence, even without having a festival that’s female-focused. Is there any truth to this?

BL: I would say yes and no. The jazz and improvisation scene is changing with there being so many more women now - as compared to even 10 years ago. Despite encouraging trends, I still see a gender imbalance on stage as well as in the audience...for example for certain instruments like bass, guitar, and drums, the disproportion is quite obvious.  But I can proudly say that we are not the only ones who are thinking along these lines. There are many curators, promoters and bandleaders here in Toronto who work very hard to present shows that are more gender-balanced and more diverse all around. This is inspiring to see...but I think there is still a long way to go to reach the point when such balance occurs effortlessly.

7. SN: This is a great thing. Certainly long overdue.

Also, what is your selection process like for booking acts? Is it more you reaching out to musicians, or are you having your inboxes flooded with submissions?

KM: We did put out a call for submissions, as well as selected acts that we thought would fit nicely in the festival. We also put together a couple of the acts; asking specific musicians if they were interested in playing/working together. So I guess it’s a mix of everything!
BL: We received many more applications than we expected actually...and they keep coming. It’s great to see the interest and support and it feels like we tapped into something that is important and pressing.  

8. SN: Right now, the WFS festival seems to be a two-person operation. Any plans to expand your team in the future? Assuming you plan to make this an annual event. 
KM: I would like to expand our team over the next few years. We would like to make WFS an annual event, so having more people on board would be most helpful. All in due time!
BL: Yes - expanding on the team is in the future! 

9. SN: I'm sure you won't have trouble finding eager participants to join your team. 

Last question. If there are other young aspiring women festival organizers out there looking to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

BL: Well to be absolutely honest, we are still quite new to this….we are doing our best while learning as we go!  I made a special effort this year to meet with a few people who have been running various arts organizations for a long time to talk about their experience and pretty much pick their brains. That was really helpful for me and I very much recommend that...people are generally happy to share their wisdom! 

10. SN:  I'd like to thank you both for your time, and I wish you the best of luck with the festival.

For more information about the Women from Space Festival, please visit

And all other questions can be directed to Bea and Kayla at

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Solo Saxophone Through the Words of Jan Freeman

In December of 2019, I had the pleasure of performing a solo concert in Holyoke, Massachusetts presented by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares. It was one of my more memorable experiences performing solo.

The folks of Holyoke were very welcoming and very appreciative. It was a cold night out, too. As we were leaving the venue to attend the post-concert reception sponsored by one of the guests, Glen Siegal, the director of Pioneer Jazz Shares, and his wife Priscilla Page informed me that the temperature was three degrees. Which explained my uncontrollable shivering. I'm mentioning this only to point out that even though Mother Nature had given the concert-goers reasons enough to stay home for the evening, the Wistariahurst Museum on 238 Cabot Street was still packed with folks providing much-welcomed warmth and enthusiasm for the evening's concert.

One of the concert attendees was Jan Freeman, an award-winning poet from the western Massachusett's area. Jan's work is extensive. She is the author of Simon Says, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Jan's poems have appeared in many anthologies and journals, including American Poetry Review, The Women's Review of Books, The Southern Review, to name a few. She is currently at work on a new collection of poems, Mobius.

So, I was honored that she was gracious enough to lend her talents to write a poem inspired by the evening's concert. The poem is entitled The Door Is in Front of You (For Sam Newsome).

Look! Open your eyes
Music rises from the keyhole
You see only walls without windows
but the windows are here!
The door looks like a wall
but it is a wall on a hinge
Notes slip through the keyhole
Sound flows in and flows out
You are not tethered to the silent house
Darkness does not protect you
The entire world is the four notes
of the saxophone responding faster and faster
until you see the light in the keyhole
You see the hinge and you step forward
You press your hand against the thick wooden surface
and push yourself in as you push yourself out
Here the door exists, the walls that are not the door

Below is the concert. A special thanks to Dennis Steiner on the wonderful camera work and video production.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Tracy Morgan and Extended Saxophone Techniques

What do comedian Tracy Morgan and I have in common? Yes, I did flirt with doing stand-up comedy in an earlier life. Enough said about that. But that's not it. Believe or not, we share a similar idea on how to push the sonic boundaries on the saxophone.

Trumpeter Bruce Harris actually brought this to my attention. About a year ago I posted something on Facebook showcasing a new idea I was working on (at least I thought so at the time) involving using a toy kazoo in place of the saxophone's mouthpiece. Apparently, Tracy Morgan had the same idea for a bit on the 1990s sitcom Martin, where he played a character named Hustle Marsalis, Wynton and Branford's baby brother, but with different fathers.

Pretty funny stuff! Check it out.

My use of the kazoo is certainly more artsy and hopefully does not conjure up as much laughter. This is from a concert for Pioneer Jazz Shares at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, MA.

I call this "Sax-o-kazoo-o-phone."

Lesson: You can learn something about music and creativity from almost anybody. Even a stand up comedian!

Monday, February 10, 2020

Moody's Mood of Positivity

Most of my Zen-like tweets were inspired by musical and career issues that I'm thinking about. These are not always things that I'm personally dealing with. In some cases, they are inspired by conversations had with students and other musicians. The one below is different because it's a riff on the Zen parable Moving to a City.

                    Moving to a New City
A person was coming to a new village, relocating, and he was wondering if he would like it there, so he went to the Zen master and asked: do you think I will like it in this village? Are the people friendly? 
The master asked back: How were the people in the town where you come from? “They were nasty and greedy, they were angry and lived for cheating and stealing,” said the newcomer. Those are precisely the type of people we have in this village, said the master.
Another newcomer to the village visited the master and asked the same question. To which the master asked: How were the people in the town where you come from? “They were sweet and lived in harmony, they cared for one another and for the land, they respected each other, and they were seekers of spirit,” he replied. Those are precisely the type of people we have in this village, said the master.

Now, let's do some unpacking!

This parable speaks to the simple idea that situations are what we make them. A picture-perfect scenario can merely be a state of mind. Some naturally see possibilities, others are programmed to only see obstacles.

In the early nineties, as a young whippersnapper trying to make it in the big city, I had the good fortune of running into James Moody at Sam Ash on West 46th Street. We struck up a very inspiring conversation.

First off, you might be wondering why a jazz legend like James Moody would strike up a conversation with a wet-behind-the-ears, recent Berklee graduate. Well, several months prior, we actually played together. Regrettably, it was a one-off, never to present itself again. Not during a public performance, anyways.

Almost one month after graduation, I started touring with trumpeter Donald Byrd, and our first stop was New York City. The Hudson River, more specifically. We performed on the NYC Jazz Cruise, and James Moody was the special guest with Byrd’s quintet. During four choruses of “Rhythm Changes,” Moody gave me a crash course on how to play the saxophone and how to play jazz. And little did I know, a more profound lesson was soon to follow.

When I bumped into him months later at Sam Ash, he actually remembered meeting and playing together.

Our conversation went something like this:

Moody: Hey, man, how’s it going?
Me: It’s OK.
Moody: Have you been working?
Me: Not so much.
Moody: Why not?
Me: No one’s been calling.
Moody: Have you tried booking your own gigs?
Me: Not really.
Moody: How come?
Me: I don’t have a demo.
Moody: Do you have a tape recorder?
Me: Yes.
Moody: Do you have a rhythm section you like to work with.
Me. I do.
Moody: Do this. Call up three or four cats you like to work with; rehearse a couple of times; record four or five tunes you like; take the tape around to these different clubs and restaurants and get some gigs. And if they don’t have music, offer music!

Hearing how he automatically went into problem-solving mode was very eye-opening. Back then, I walked conjoined with Mr. Victim Mentality like he was my Siamese twin. Moody, by merely being himself, enlightened me on the importance of personal responsibility. A lesson that has become the centerpiece of my very existence.

Back to the Zen parable. Here's what I took away: we see what we want to see. As I sometimes like to put it: how we’ve programmed ourselves to see. I prefer the word “program” because it does allow hope to peek from behind its mother’s dress. If something can be programmed, then it can be deprogrammed. In many cases, who we are and where we are in life is simply a choice or state of mind. 

"There I go, there I go, there I go.  There I go..."

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Patience, Anyone?

First, check out this parable, and then delve into the piece. 

When we study music, most receive what I think of as a "good education.” Meaning, we learned to play our instruments properly, we leave with working knowledge of rhythm and harmony, and we know who the cats are, so if we need to grab some information off recordings--or books, for that matter--we know where to go. So from this perspective, it’s safe to say that most of us are taught well.

An area where most teachers drop the ball is when they don’t teach students the importance of patience. Of course, students have to also bare some of the responsibility. And I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. The whole idea of weekly lessons goes against the grain of patience. 

And before I continue, I’m reminded of a story one of my grad-school professors once told during class.

Apparently, there was this one guitar teacher in the area, sort of your typical guru-type: eccentric but brilliant. One day he agreed to take on a new student who had been hounding him about lessons. Much to the student’s surprise, the lesson surpassed anything he ever expected. They delved into all sorts of chords, reharmonizations, fingerings, obscure tunes, different rhythmic interpretations, the wholes nine yards. The lesson was easily three hours long, packed with educational gems. So the student, very satisfied and excited, pulled out his wallet to pay for the lesson. And after giving the teacher payment, he pulled out his datebook to see when they could schedule another lesson. As far as he was concerned, this was “the best lesson ever.” 

Their exchange went something like this:
Student: When can we get together again? 
Teacher: (Looking perplexed) Why would we get together again? 
Student: For another lesson. I want to learn more.  
Teacher: There are no more lessons. That was it!

So as you can see, this teacher was ignorant of the concept of meeting every week. His approach: teach them what you know and send them on their way. Plant the seeds of knowledge and leave the harvesting to the student. 

Of course, this is more applicable to advanced level students. But it does speak to my broader point about patience. Sometimes, it’s not about continuing to give students more information. At some point, time must be allowed for the information previously received to be absorbed. And for students to figure out what their relationship is going to be with the knowledge. My theory is that many students seek lessons, not because they lack knowledge, but because they lack patience. 

So before you plop down $150.00 for a 60-minute lesson with your favorite jazz cat, you might want to continue watering what’s already in your garden of knowledge. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Another Bad Review...

This particular tweet is one I often have to revisit.

Getting reviews and having aesthetical assessors rate our work is par to the course of being in the performing arts. It doesn't matter if you're a musician, actor,  playwright, or a choreographer, at some point, you'll have your publicly released work reviewed by appointed experts in the field.

I think I share the sentiment of many when I say receiving a great review can make you want to hold your head high and shout to the world, "See, I told you so." Adversely speaking, having your work misunderstood or worse, publicly picked apart will breed feelings of resentment, despair, or flat out anger. One can make you feel like the king of the mountain, the others like you want to crawl under a rock.

I see it like this: we need both. It helps to know what folks like about our work and what they don't. Or if they're getting it at all. The words written are not as important as how we respond to them.

The fact of the matter is that the opinions of no one should drastically swing our pendulum of self-worth in one direction or the other. The most relevant review is the impact that your work has on listeners when performed live. This is the review we should be concerned with.

Which matters more? The laughter a stand-up comic receives after telling a joke, or what someone writes about the joke the next day?

I feel that this is one of the reasons that musicians who perform frequently are less concerned with the later. They're often getting the validation that they need in realtime: from the musicians that they play with and the audiences that they play for.

Moral of the story: All of these factors play a role in our musical journey. All that we have to decide is who's playing the lead and who's merely an extra.

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...