Always a pleasure to share the musical airwaves with Mr. Dave Liebman. It's a little weird playing with someone when you just want to stop playing, listen and enjoy. But it was wonderful hearing Dave respond to some of my preparations. I didn't give him any idea of what I was going to do just to see how he'd react. And, of course, all of his musical responses were perfect. There's even a second set of this that may be even better. Not sure when I'll release it, but I'm sure it will be sometime soon.
This site was created as a platform to share my thoughts on music and politics; my music; and to connect with fellow sax players committed to sharing ideas about the soprano saxophone.
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy
Podcast for Rhizome's 2022 Catalytic Sound Festival with Layne Garrett
411 Kent - Wednesday, August 17, 2022 @ 8:00PM
Monday, October 11, 2021
Saturday, September 25, 2021
Bringing Musical Life to the Dead
When I received an email from vocalist Gelsey Bell asking me if I was available to play as gig at a cemetery, I wasn't sure what to expect. But after doing some research, I found it wasn't just any cemetery but the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY, the eternal residence to such luminaries at Jean-Michel Basquiat and Leonard Bernstein.
The evening featured a wonderful cast of improvisers in solo, duo, and trio settings for 15-minute increments at a time.
I'm not sure if I'll be invited to do something like this again, but I hope everyone gets a chance to experience some like this at least once. Hats off to Gelsey Bell for having the vision to put this together.
Please check the New York Times article below.
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
Friday, August 6, 2021
Just Play and Play Some More
This particular exchange from one of my Twitter posts resonates with me because as someone who spends a great deal of time in the classroom, I’m often inundated with questions from students wanting know "when" and "how." As teachers and mentors we want to be able to bring a magic formula with your pedagogical offerings. But the reality is that no advice offered would be a dealbreaker.
Tuesday, July 27, 2021
Are Your Musical Standards Too High?
Lowering the bar is the antithesis of what we’re taught. Go for the gusto. Be number one. Never accept anything less than the best. We’re told never to settle. I used to believe the same thing, until I discovered that so-called settling brought me much more than I imagined.
A little anecdotal knowledge here: The times I played the worst was when I really wanted to play well. Right before a performance, I’d be running scales and patterns seconds before I hit bandstand. Mind you, sometimes this can be a good thing, especially if you’re not warmed up or if there are few musical passages that you’re still not solid on. My situation was different. I was plenty loosened up physically. It was my mental and spiritual states that were tight and rigid. It was difficult for my creativity to seep through the cloud of neurosis that was defining my musical existence.
Even career wise, the times I was doing the worst in my career was when I I really wanted to be a jazz star. I would be on a huge stage of a major festival playing for a few thousand people, upset about not getting my due. Sounds insane, I know. The funny thing is that if I had put all of that negativity aside and had just try to have fun, I would have played better and possibly put myself in a position to receive more career success.
Today, I’m happy to say that I’m not like that nor do I want any of that. And consequently, I continue to receive more than I ever had when I desperately wanted it. Life is funny this way.
Several years ago, I was hanging out with a colleague. Let’s just say he’s not lacking in the ambition department. During our conversation he mentioned the typical things ambitious musicians discuss: festivals desired, promoters whose rosters we want to get on, labels we want to sign us, etc. He began noticing I had relatively little interest in these things, and he said to me. “Man, now I see why you’re not affected by any of this stuff. You’ve basically given up.”
Of course, this made me laugh. I explained that yes, I had retired my neurotic business obsessions. I wasn’t concerned about playing at the Village Vanguard, or getting signed to Blue Note, or topping the critics polls. I was, however, more concerned with having health insurance, saving for my retirement; and musically speaking, having fun with my musical experiments and connecting with like-minded people. None of these things will get me on the cover of DownBeat, on a major festival or a feature in the New York Times. Why? Because this is all very average stuff. Maybe even stuff that someone who has lowered the bar for themselves would be concerned with.
And this is fine. My goal is to be average. Having just enough to do what I need to do. No more, no less. Trying to be great doesn’t work for me. This is a life lesson that has taken a few decades to learn.
Back to my career-ambitious friend, what he perceived as settling or giving up, I saw as establishing a solid foundation for obtaining happiness. Consequently, my goals are low but my spirits are high. Even in terms of improvisation, I no longer practice to become great, I practice to become solid. Cover the basics and be done with it. If most people heard me practicing, they’d think I was an 18-year-old student attending Berklee. I practice ii-Vs through the keys, patterns, and swinging over standards. Nothing to write home about.
But I’ve discovered that keeping my musical ambitions within limited parameters, lowering the bar, if you will, aiming to simply build a solid foundation, enables me to tap into more under-explored and un-expected territories while improvising. It's similar to the principle of opposites I often talk about.
- If you want to play fast, practice playing slow.
- If you want a big, robust sound, practice playing soft.
- If you want to be become a great player achieving lots of notoriety, strive just to be an average, solid player, known by only a few.
You’d be amazed by the results!
Thursday, July 22, 2021
Life Lessons from the Garden
Long story short, I recently inherited a very vibrant flower-garden, complete with two
kinds of hibiscus trees, and red, white and pink roses bushes. Let’s just say
that the mornings are very colorful. And I was exchanging flower pics with my good
friend Leslie, a more experienced gardener, who's been mentoring me, and she suggested that I stay on top of deadheading my flowers.
Of course, I had NO idea what this meant. In fact, until a few weeks ago, I had very little interest in flowers unless it was February 14th.
So all of you who are novices like me, deadheading means: to remove dead flower heads from a plant to encourage further blooming. The idea is that energy that goes into trying to maintain the dying flower head can actually be put towards a newer and healthier bloom. Immediately, I thought: there’s a profound life lesson to be learned here. At one time or another, we’ve all been told this message in different ways.
Focus of the positive not the negative.
Close old doors and new doors will open.
Clear your mind so that your spirit can shine.
You get the point.
As I interpreted this whole deadheading thing from a philosophical perspective, I saw it as being about letting go.
Better yet: letting go of the past and embracing the here and now so that you can enjoy a
bloom-.heavy future. Furthermore, it’s about getting rid of that which can no
longer serve its original purpose in a positive way.
In the beginning deadheading was very difficult for me. Even
though the flowers were brown and shriveled, and obviously past their prime, I somehow felt I was destroying a
valuable part of the flower. One might call this a type of botanical hoarding.
We all know that this type of thinking extends far beyond the garden. We hold on to hole-ridden t-shirts, worn shoes, old magazines, you name it. Things that should have been thrown out five years earlier. Not to mention the emotional junk we carry around. That thing someone said to you ten years ago. That record date you didn't get the call. That tour that your student got picked to do over you. Again, withered leaves that should be deadheaded instead of being allowed to contaminate your daily vine.
So here are the three life lessons from the garden I learned:
- If it’s unhealthy, get rid of it. Save the good, not the bad.
- It’s all about re-directing the energy away from the unhealthy, towards the healthy bloom.
- If you don’t get rid of the dead flowers, they will only get in the way.
Friday, July 2, 2021
This particular exchange strikes a chord with me because I’ve always been the type of person who likes to help others. As I’m learning, this is not always productive. On the surface lending a helping hand is a good thing to do. We all should do it more. Where it gets tricky is when we extend our hand more than we should. Some folks see this helping hand as some form of assistance, while others may see it as merely something to slap away.
To elaborate on this further, let’s look the whole idea of misery. It took me years to learn that being miserable and being unhappy are not the same. For some, misery is the most comfortable and preferred state of being. It’s a very deliberate emotional and spiritual choice that many make. One that does not necessarily make one sad.
One of the reasons that I’m such a glass-is-half-full kind of guy is that I don't like being angry and filled with angst. Most of all, I don’t like feeling like a helpless victim. It really makes me uncomfortable. So, I do everything in my power not to stay in this negative space for very long. Consequently, if someone offers me advice, I tend not to dismiss it. One, I'm grateful that they care enough to try and make me feel better. Secondly, I’m more likely already thinking along those lines anyway. These word-comforters are most likely reinforcing what I’m already thinking.
This is very different from those who reject any positive offerings from caring friends and family, always countering with something negative. Those who get lured into this world of negativity can feel it’s their fault that their friend or family member feels bad. Why? Because in their mind, they failed to offer good advice. Here's the kicker: for some, there is no good advice. There is nothing that can be said or done that would make them see things differently. Because this is the state they want to be in. This is their preferred state of being.
A wise musician once told me that most people have the potential to be everything that they are. I now understand it. Not everyone has the same measurement of happiness. Some prefer having the heads hung low, some would not settle for anything less than the sky.
I know my assessment of how people feel and internalize things is simplistic. However, there's no denying that it comes down to a choice. Choices we make each and every day. And consequently, have to live with.
So back to the above exchange between the teacher and the student. This teacher is correct. Just because we, ourselves would feel a certain way in certain situations, it is not the default response for all. The student was incorrect is assuming that his friend’s constant worrying only brought him unhappiness. The reality is this: For some, they would not have it any other way. There are those who prefer the smiles upside down.
Saturday, June 26, 2021
Sam Newsome Trio + Amir Bey | AFA On_Line Salon
The following performance is titled Sam Newsome Trio + Amir Bey | AFA On_Line Salon. This was streamed live on Feb 18, 2021. It features an improvised musical performance by my trio with Hilliard Greene and Reggie Nicholson and some captivating visual art by Amir Bey. Arts for Art began taping the On_Line Salon series to provide performance opportunities for our artists who lost all in-person gigs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, they've presented over 40 performances featuring over 100 artists. Before the concert I was asked to give a brief statement about the music I'd be making. Here's what I wrote:
"The visual and aural aspects of the artistic expression, collectively serve as vestibules to the most vulnerable areas of our humanity. They can expose the least compromised parts of our soul. My goal as a performer has always been to speak to the eyes as well as the ears. .
A little about my trio:
The Sam Newsome Trio was formed in the fall of 2017 initially to perform as a part of the 2017 InGardens / Arts of Art Series. The chemistry was so strong, that I knew this collaboration needed to be explored further. This inspired ME to book several gigs around New York to give them a platform to find their sound.The trio performs all improvised music, often taking visual and sound oriented musical cues from Newsome on the soprano saxophone, dictated from any number of his prepared and extended saxophones techniques—ranging from hanging chimes from his horn,balloons, tube extensions,and various sound manipulations such multi-phonics and unconventional tonguing techniques. As far the music, Newsome says, “Our goal is to take the listener on a sonic journey. There will pretty moments and ugly moments. But we all come out on the other side having experienced something very magical.
And we can't forget Amir Bey:
Amir Bey is a multi-discipline artist whose installations, costumes, instruments, and performances have been used in collaborative Happenings with varieties of musicians and visual artists in the US, Japan, Turkey, and France in the past few years. Recently he has been painting 11 foot scrolls in Sumi ink for themes ranging from “Lockdown,” (our current state!) to “Horizon,” (Sky and Earth).
Wednesday, May 5, 2021
Sam Newsome & Francisco Mora Catlett: Sax & Drums
Thursday, April 22, 2021
Everything Saxophone Podcast w/ Donna Schwartz
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
Wait and See: The Art of Patience
Here's a novel thought: Sometimes the answer is that there is NO answer—at least not at that moment. Sometimes the best solution to our musical problems is to WAIT and SEE. This is my view when teaching the daunting task of improvising, and sometimes lessons about life.
One of the biggest mistakes we make trying to help a student work out some improvisational kinks is trying to solve the problem for them right at that moment. This happens frequently. I can introduce students to strategies, but ultimately, they have to solve the problem. Some get it right away. Some take a little longer. Some never get it. As a teacher, that’s their problem, not ours. In some instances, they may discover answers to issues initially not perceived. This is one of the many beauties of traveling a path of discovery. You never know what will turn up.
For those looking to test the improvisational waters, the first thing you should do is play. And after that, play some more. I'm saying this jokingly, but I do feel this is one of the most important steps to take.
Here’s one strategy: Set the alarm for five minutes, and play the first thing that comes to mind. If nothing comes to mind, silence is the best filler. Don’t judge, don’t record, trust your improvisational instincts.
I’d give this a try a few weeks or more. But do it consistently.
The next step: Record yourself. Please do not listen to it until the next day. Do this every time you practice. Again, don’t judge. Just trust your improvisational instincts. Just let it be what it is, because it’s going to change whether you want it to or not. I’d give this a try for a week or two.
Next step: Play with another person. The first two steps teaches you trust your own inner-directed instincts. This teaches you to respond to others. Playing with others is a different beast altogether, but a necessary one. No matter what kind of language you’re learning, the only way to truly master it is to learn to converse with others.
After that: Listen to recordings. Transcribe ideas. Seek advice on the kinds of strategies used by more experienced players. But by all means, keep playing. Keep improvising. These strategies are all unique in their own way, each playing an important role in helping you to master your newly acquired improvisational language.
A Jerry Seinfeld story: During one episode of his show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Seinfeld and his guest started goofing on stand-up comedy classes.
Both felt that these kinds of classes are on the silly side.
I’m paraphrasing here, but Seinfeld said this is how comedy classes should be taught.
“Go home and write jokes.
Try those jokes in front of an audience.
Then go home and write more jokes.
End of class!”
He said what I’ve been saying throughout this piece: sometimes there are no immediate answers or solutions, maybe other than time and patience.
Here’s what life has taught me: The answers to your questions will come when you’re READY for them, NOT when you ASK for them.
Monday, January 11, 2021
The Reason I Like to Play Experimental Music
I’ve often heard musicians suggest that those who play experimental music or free jazz are either too lazy to really learn how to play, or they're charlatans faking their way through an abstract musical life. In this world, “being able to play” simply means being able to improvise over moderate to advanced harmonic structures in sync with a moderate to advanced rhythmic backdrop. Easier said than done, mind you. This is something I still practice.
And I’m only mentioning this to give you some context of the common narrative regarding this type of music. Now, before I explain why I disagree with the above assertions and why I focus more experimental concepts, I want to talk about the NASA imagination test.
This was a test conducted by Dr. George Land and Beth Jarman. They were hired by NASA to develop an imagination test to measure the creative potential of their rocket scientists and engineers. They wanted to see who the latent game changers were. As many anticipated, the test was very successful. However, being scientists, Land and Jarman decided measure how the test faired with children, so consequently, it was given to 1,600 children between the ages 4 and 5.
Well, here’s the stat that knocked everyone off their feet. Ninety eight percent of the children scored in the genius category of being able to come up with innovative ideas or solutions to problems.
But it gets better.
Then they decided to make it a long-term study and test the same children five years later when they are ten-years-old. Equally as surprising, now only 30 percent of the children scored in the category of genius. The number dropped 68 percent. In other words, they became 13.6 percent less creative each year.
At fifteen, the number dropped more than half to 12 percent.
Here’s the number that’s more staggering than the first. Amongst adults, which is categorized as people over the age of 31, the number fell to a shocking two percent. Yes, two percent!
Some questions you might be asking yourselves.
Some questions you might be asking yourselves.
- Are we becoming less smart?
- Are we digressing intellectually?
Just the opposite.
As far as conventional methods of measuring intelligence and mental capabilities, a fifteen-year-old is by far smarter than a five-year-old.
However, while we become better at math and gain a greater command of language, we do become less imaginative, the older we become. Or as some would say, “the more educated we become.”
To give us a deeper understanding as to why it’s important to understand how we learn and how we think.
There are two main ways we learn: through divergent thinking and convergent thinking.
Divergent thinking uses the imagination to create new possibilities to take us down new or under-explored avenues. Convergent thinking uses the brain to judge, critique, evaluate, and arrive at the one correct answer. All of the skill sets needed to get a good grade.
So back to my original statement: The reason I like to play experimental music.
Simply put, I’m trying to tap into the imaginative genius I probably had as a five-year-old. Looking to recapture that which was taught out of me through an educational system that only looked for correct answers, not the creative ones. Even though I was a lot more skilled when I left Berklee, I was probably a lot more imaginative when I was in high school. This is what happens when you move through a convergent-centered educational system.
Years ago, I was touring the West Coast with drummer Leon Parker and we gave a clinic at one of the colleges on the tour. I remember that Leon was pretty unimpressed with the students who played for us. Then this 12-year-old kid got up and played. He had limited skills on the saxophone and little knowledge of theory and harmony. But Leon was very impressed that he could hear this kid's imagination. Whereas the older students we trapped inside the left sides of their brains.
This is not uncommon. Many students will graduate from college music programs less creative than when they were in junior and high schools. Of course, they’ll be more skilled and more employable, but most will find it difficult to move out of the mode of convergent thinking. This is also one of the reasons why young jazz stars are often very linear. They were groomed in an environment where they're taught that playing it correctly is the final musical destination.
When I teach music-appreciation classes and we're discussing jazz, one exercise I conduct with them to better explain how improvisation works, is that I have them collectively create a story on the spot.
And I lay out a few ground rules:
- Whatever is said must be in some way connected to what was said before.
- Keep statements short.
- Don't overthink it!
Much to my surprise, the college students between the ages of 18 - 21, really struggle with this. I always get the feeling it was their first time being asked to find creative a solution rather than a correct one.
They often say things like:
- "I don't know what say."
- "Nothing is coming to me."
- "This is too hard."
- They're having fun.
- They say silly things.
- Most importantly, they're being spontaneous.
Again, as far as my relationship with experimental music...I'm drawn to it because it lends itself to more divergent-centered thinking, and this keeps me inspired, young in mind and in spirit. I'm as equally inspired today as I was in junior high. Knock on wood! I've seen some of my peers with whom I moved to New York in the 1990s, struggling to keep music fun and exciting. It's certainly understandable. Many have been traveling the same path for over thirty years. It's difficult watching the same movie when you know how it's going to end.
After hearing someone play in a way that might be seen as jive or bullshitting, it would behoove you to consider what they might be trying to tap into and why. Sometimes unleashing this inner creative child takes precedence over swinging and playing correctly over chord changes. It’s not always about sounding beautiful in the conventional sense, but sounding free, being free. Or as I like to look at it, sounding optimistic and spreading sonic hope that the possibilities are endless and boundless. It’s the same feeling that I get when I look up at the sky, versus looking at the ground. Very different emotions and thoughts are conjured up. I prefer the former. I also think this is one of the reason many artists' work becomes more abstract the older they get. It allows them to make more divergent-centered connections.
Picasso articulated it best when he said that it took him four years to learn to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. He, too, was just trying to get back to where he started: five years old and genius level.
Sunday, January 3, 2021
Perfect Intonation: Three Approaches to Sound Control
Most of us know that practicing long tones is our path to a great sound and great intonation. And we know how to do them. So, no need to preach to the choir here. But the question I pose is this: how do we assess them?
I utilize three methods. I’m sure there’s are more, but these work best me.
- Pitch matching
- Cents monitoring
- Parallel intervals
Pitch matching is taking an external pitch and trying to match or blend with it.
When using this method, having an outside sound source is necessary. I advise using a chromatic tuner, but certainly playing notes on a piano or keyboard instrument will do. Though not the most reliable, even having another person play a note while you try to match it can also be helpful. The effective part of this method is that you have to really hear the note. There’s no subjective rationalization, it’s either in tune or out of tune. To further make this point, I suggest wearing headphones and turning the reference note way up. It’s very humbling! When I first have players do this, they usually take off the headphones after 30 seconds. The truth can sometimes be a hard pill to swallow.
Cents monitoring is using the light or needle on the metronome to see whether you're flat or sharp.
This method is all visual. Again, you’re taking your cue from the needle or the light. You’re either to the left of the center (flat), to the right (sharp), or dead center (in tune). Another visual component to this is that when the pitch is flat or sharp a red light appears. It's green when the note is in tune. This method is great because your eyes can see what your ears sometimes can’t hear. Which is ok, too. As long as you can hear where the issues are.
Parallel interval practicing is when you match up intervals against each other in different keys.
I find this approach to be the least accurate but the most helpful. Sometimes it’s not so much about being in tune with the tuner but being able to play in tune with the person or persons you’re playing with. So practicing intervals does this.
If you're not clear on what this, this is what I mean:
Take the upper register for example. Play a series of perfect fourth intervals. A to D; Bb to Eb; B to E; C to F, etc. This method is less about matching A - 440 and more about matching the person or sound source you're playing with.
I’ll post some exercises later, but this should get you started in thinking about long tones in different ways. Or at least having different ways to approach them.
Until next time...
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