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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Letters to a Young Soprano Saxophonist: Part 2

Dear Jesse,

I was very excited to read in your last email that you’re planning to move to New York in the fall. Living in New York is an experience unlike anything you can experience anywhere else.  Even though I went to school in Boston, not exactly a small town, I still was not prepared for the daily hustle and bustle that came with being a first-time New Yorker. But it was worth it.

First of all, I made the tragic mistake of coming here with only two months rent and change. Huge mistake! Like I said, I was totally unprepared. Typically I shy away from blaming things on extenuating circumstances, but I’ll make an exception this time.

So here's my explanation for my dearth of cash.

A month or so after I’d graduated from Berklee, I started playing in the band of trumpeter Donald Byrd. Playing with him had looked like it was going to be my ticket to making a name for myself in New York as well paying the bills.  The gig with Byrd seemed to be the answer to the three questions that dominates the thoughts of most college music students about to graduate with a degree in jazz studies: Where will I play? With whom will I play? And how will I make money doing it? Like most curve balls thrown by life, I was not prepared for the unexpected. Many people did not know this, but Donald Byrd was a diabetic and his health was not good. He should not have been on the road, at least not without someone at his side to monitor his health. Long story short, a few weeks after our European tour he was hospitalized due to complications related to diabetes. I didn’t get a chance to see him in the hospital, but it was pretty serious. They didn’t know if was going to pull through. But miraculously he did. He was a pretty strong dude. In fact, a lot of musicians from his era were. Those cats were cut from a different cloth. Needless to say, all of the things we had lined up that fall were cancelled.

And what can I say? So the struggle began!

But I did survive, as most do. As I’m sure you will too.   

You mentioned that you were worried about having to work a day job and not have enough time to practice and play music. And those are legitimate concerns.  During my first year in New York, trying to practice and stay on top of my game proved more difficult than I ever imagined. It was hard. The irony was that I had moved to New York to show people what I could do; however, due to extenuating circumstances,  I was only able to show a poor representation. But I did figure it out. As jazz musicians, just as we’re resourceful with musical language, we eventually learn how to be equally as resourceful in trying to figure out how to survive.

Back to your question.

As far as sustaining yourself financially, while pursuing “the dream,” there are a few ways I’ve seen musicians go about it. One, is to move here with enough savings to hold you over for about a year or so until you get enough things happening musically. Which can be difficult, especially if you’ve just graduated from college. Chances are that most of your and your parent’s resources went into paying for your college education. Two, have a steady gig playing somebody’s band before you get here or soon after. Back in the eighties and early nineties the sought after gigs were with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Tony Williams, Art Taylor and Taylor’s Wailers, Nat Adderely, Wynton Marsalis. These were bandleaders who’d had a history of hiring young players on the scene, giving them enough exposure and experience that they were eventually able to start their own bands--and this happened with Wynton Marsalis to a lesser extent.  Consequently, these players would go on hire young players on the scene, who’d eventually step out on their own--thus creating an environment of passing the torch. However, in today’s musical climate, there aren’t that many musicians who have enough steady work where someone could make a living only playing with them. And the third way that aspiring musicians have sustained themselves financially is by getting a day job—which is what I had to do. 

Unfortunately, I had a degree in jazz studies. So that and a Metro-card got me on the subway. Back then it was a subway token. And I would be lying if I said that trying to do both is not extremely difficult. It will challenge you to contemplate whether not this is really what you want to do. And I’ve seen a few to fall by the wayside. My situation was especially rough. One, I was living in Rego Park, Queens, which might as well have been New Jersey; two, I couldn’t practice in the apartment that I was sharing with a friend that I had moved down from Boston with. It was a luxury coop building that his father owned an apartment in. Mostly irritable seniors lived in the building. So they had zero tolerance for musicians making noise; and three, the temp job that I had paid minimum wage, as it should have, being that I had no skill sets on than playing changes--even that was shaky at times.

But I think in some ways, you’re more fortunate, since musicians from your generation tend to be a lot more resourceful.  One, you don’t need to jump through the hoops of an A & R guy to have the opportunity to make a record. I can't begin to count the number of cassette tapes I tried to get into the hands of people who held the title of "gatekeeper."  Two, you can be more entrepreneurial with teaching. You're not confined to doing it out of a music shop. You can teach via SKYPE, sell books, or even form your own collective.  And three,  it’s a lot easier to network and get the know other musicians. We had to pay money to go inside of a jazz club just to be able to meet other players. Unless you were fortunate enough to get on the coveted guest list. Nowadays, you can make a lot of worthwhile connections on Facebook and Twitter.

Jesse, I will say this. If you do end up coming to New York, just make sure you’re equipped with these three things: thick skin, lots of musical ability, and a nice little financial nest egg to nurse on. If you’re deficient in any of these areas, your time here will be very, very difficult. So practice your horn and save your money.

Keep me posted.


Sam Newsome

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Letters to a Young Soprano Player: Part 1


Dear Jesse,

Thanks so much for sending me your CD and the flattering note that accompanied it. I know that as an aspiring young saxophonist, reaching out to older musicians that you’ve never met can be an intimidating thing to do. Actually, when I think about it, it’s probably less frightening of an experience, nowadays, than it used to be. Nowadays, you can just do it over the Internet. When I was your age, the only way we could pick the brains of older musicians was to call them on the phone, go to their gig, or show up at their house. Now that’s what I call frightening.  God forbid you should try that with the wrong person. I recall making a few cold calls to older musicians, only to be greeted with 15 seconds of dead silence, which felt like an hour. One of the reasons I try to be welcoming and encouraging to up and coming players like you is because I do remember so vividly what it was like to be on the other side.

And I do appreciate your kind words about my music. I’ve made many artistic decisions through the years that have made me wonder if anyone would ever like what I do. As an artist, I do want to connect with people on the most basic of levels. But I don’t want to pander to them. I want to play what I hear, not what I think others want to hear. To do this would under-mind the very quality that drew them to my music in the beginning.

When I first switch to the soprano saxophone almost 19 years, I did so not knowing what the future would hold for me. I’ve often likened the process to being like jumping off a cliff and having to grow wings on the way down. Thank goodness I stuck with my guns and didn’t give in to the naysayers. And trust me, there were plenty. All in all it’s a decision that I've never regretted. It has been a life-changing journey that has restored my curiosity and excitement about music. And without a doubt, has strengthened me as a saxophonist, artist and person.

But I do want to honor your request, and give you some constructive feedback on your music—specifically on your soprano playing. And I must say, one of the advantages of seeing yourself as an aspiring jazz musician versus an established one, is that you are open to constructive feedback. Unfortunately, once you graduate from college and start working as a professional, other musicians are usually hesitant to offer feedback--unless you’ve already established a teacher-student dynamic. Otherwise, if they like what you do, they’ll call you back. If they don’t, you won’t hear from them again. That’s the harsh reality of New York. No one is going to say, “Hey, work on these things for six months and give me a call.” They’ll just say, “he plays out of tune,” or “he can’t play changes, or “he doesn’t know any tunes,” or ”he can’t keep good time.”  And that will become your label, at least until they hear you again and you’re able to remove all doubt through your progress.

Now keep in mind that I’m just hearing you on three tunes from a recording, which is lot different from hearing someone live.  The first thing that struck me was that your approach had very little to do with the soprano. It sounded like you were just playing all of the things you'd probably play on tenor, up an octave—which is common. Saxophonists rarely deal with the soprano as though it’s deserving of special treatment different than what’s given to the other saxophones.  The soprano lends itself to a more sound-centered approach to improvisation, versus the idea-centered approach favored by most. 

 Let me clarify how these things differ.

First, let’s start with idea-centered playing. This is when you first realize the idea, and the sound produced is a by-product of implementing the idea. In other words, you think of something to play, and your sound is what’s heard as a result of trying to play it. There are a few advantages this approach. One, you are playing something that’s well rehearsed, so the execution of the idea is often precise and accurate. Two, you have the comfort of knowing that the idea will serve a particular function melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically.

One of the cons, however, is that the idea might sound forced. It might work melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically, but not musically. While I was a student at the Berklee of College of Music, I attended numerous jam-sessions, knowing what lick I was going to play, on which tune and chord. Like many developing players, I figured why practice it if you’re not going to play it--even if the situation doesn’t call for it.

Frankly, approaching music this way can sound uncommunicative, isolated, and technical. And by technical I mean playing ideas that sound calculated and premeditated rather than inspired. Technique in this instance is not a means to an end. It is the means. Just as a side note: If you notice someone’s technique apart from their music, it means they haven’t figured out how to integrate with their music. This is one of the inspiring things about Thelonious Monk. Even though he had a great command of the piano, he never used technique to play a lot of notes. Instead, he used it to play each note with great depth and beauty.

Let me explain sound-centered playing: This is when the primary focus is on sound production, and the ideas heard are mere by-products of the various ways in which you manipulate the sound. One advantage to this approach is that now that you are maximizing each note, which, on the soprano, fully allows you exploring its timbre and textural possibilities before moving on to the next note. Your ideas now take on a more vocal-like quality, which plays to the inherent expressive nature of the instrument. Not to mention, with your sound at the forefront, listeners can now tune into its subtleties—which, by the way, is how listeners will ultimately come to recognize you. 

Jesse, keep in mind that many of these things that I’m mentioning regarding sound should be applied to any instrument that you play. But I am speaking to the soprano, specifically, because this is what I do.

But on a more positive note, I do find your intonation to be pretty accurate. Which is no small feat, especially for someone who hasn’t been playing it that long. I remember when I had just graduated from college, I could barely two consecutive notes in tune. So you’re much further along than I was. But if you’re really serious about getting your soprano chops together, you can’t be satisfied with just being able to play in tune. Maybe 30 – 40 years ago when all sopranos were horrible, maybe you could rest your hat on just being able to play in tune. But nowadays you need to bring much more than that to the table. Nowadays, you need think about developing a voice. And the only way to do that is by thoroughly investigating into the way sound is produced on the instrument and all of its nuances.

So my advice to you is listen, practice and play. And when finish doing that, listen, practice and play some more.  Thanks again for sharing with me your music.  And I hope that you’ll find some of the things I’ve said here useful. If not now, hopefully, in the future.

Take care,
Sam Newsome

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Steve Lacy and the Legacy He Left Behind

In the Peter L. Bull documentary Lift the Bandstand, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy said that in 1960, that he and John Coltrane were the only modern jazz soprano saxophonists. Today, Mr. Lacy would be very happy to know that this is no longer the case. 

Since that time, the soprano has found it's way into the hands of many.  And I think Wayne Shorter summed it up best when he said that "Anyone who plays soprano orientates himself on Steve Lacy." And of course, there was a lot done with the soprano that I'm sure Lacy would not want to take credit for--or at least he would not want to have it blamed on him. But all in all, it has been a positive journey for this enigmatic instrument that Lacy affectionately calls "the difficult child" of the saxophone family.  

Now the focus of this article was to highlight saxophonists who identify themselves as soprano specialists. I say this because many saxophonists who are actually great soprano players have been left off this list: Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell, John Butcher, Evan Parker, just to name of few. But I felt in order to truly commemorate Lacy's legacy, it would be most fitting to highlight soprano specialists, being that we are the ones who are doing as he did, which is to forge a path in jazz that's solely centered around the soprano and all of its many sonic possibilities.  

I'm sure if you were to compare my list with that of the 62 Annual Downbeat Critics Poll (the Soprano Saxophone and the Soprano Saxophone Rising Star categories) there would be little overlap--which is an article all to itself.  In addition to aforementioned reason,  I'm keeping the scope of this list very narrow because (1) to name all of the saxophonists who double and dabble on the soprano would be too exhaustive, and (2) players who specialize on the soprano are often overlooked by the popular jazz press, such as Downbeat, Jazz Times, Jazz Improv, etc. So this is an opportunity bring some attention to players whom jazz audiences should know, but don't, simply because of the instrument that they play as well as having a musical aesthetic that is not in alliance with popular trends in contemporary jazz. And as an aside, many of soprano players listed actually had the opportunity to study with and play alongside Lacy. One cannot help but to envy that. 

The players are not listed in any order of importance. It's simply what felt right at that moment. And if I left anyone off this list, it was not intentional.  It's only because I was not aware of what you do. So please reach out to me, I'd love to hear from you.

David Liebman (Stroudsburg, PA)

Sam Newsome (New York NY)

Jasmine Lovell Smith (Wellington, New Zealand)

 Gilles Laheurte (New York, NY) 1946 - 2014

Kayla Milmine (Montreal, Canada)

Harri Sjöström (Turku, Finland)

Michel Doneda (Toulouse, France)

Petras Vysniauskas (Plunge, Lithuania)


Gene Coleman (New York, NY)

Gianni Mimmo (Pavia, Italy)

Heath Watts (Philadelphia, Penn)

Jane Bunnett (Toronto, CN)

Nikolas Skordas (Thessaloniki, Greece)

Jane Ira Bloom (New York, NY)

Lol Coxhill (London, UK) 1932 - 2012



Joe Giardullo (Stone Ridge, NY)

Andrew Raffo Dewar (Tucaloosa, AL)

Yanni Hat (Athens, Greece)

Bhob Rainey (Boston, Mass)

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lacy. And thank you for the legacy you've left behind.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Remembering Soprano Saxophonist Gilles Laheurte

I was saddened to hear that we had lost one of our brothers of the straight horn, soprano saxophonist Gilles Laheurte. Gilles had been battling pancreatic cancer--probably one of the most difficult fights that one could have.

I first met Gilles back in 2003, while playing at the Jazz Standard with Jean Michel Pilc’s group Cardinal Points. Gilles came up to me during the break and jokingly said to me that it sounds like I like to listen to Steve Lacy. I guess it was pretty obvious, even back then. At the time, I didn’t know that he played the soprano, nor that he had worked beside and studied with Lacy for several years.  He was pretty humble about sharing that information. Many would have led with that upon the introduction—which gives some testament to his humility. And playing the soprano was just one of his many talents. He was a Renaissance man in the truest sense. In All About Jazz, he describes himself as an “architect / planner, an artist, a writer, a poet, a stage actor, a photographer and an [amateur jazz] musician."

Gilles had brought with him that night a relatively new solo recording of Lacy’s titled 10 of Dukes + 6 Originals (2002) that was released on the Senator’s record label, which he was heavily involved with as an associate producer--a label that was devoted solely to the music of Steve Lacy. He graciously gave me a copy of the CD, which, by the way, stayed in high rotation in my CD player for months. In fact, it was a big inspiration to the way that I sequenced the tunes on many of my CDs. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

After my encounter with him that night, I only recently connected with Gilles again in Feburary of 2014, via Facebook; he was a part of the Facebook group called the Soprano Sax Fellowship, created by soprano saxophonist Yanni Hat.  It was then that I sent him a digital download of my new recording, The Solo Concert: Sam Newsome Plays Monk and Ellington. Afterwards, he graciously sent me a very moving and thoughtful letter expressing his admiration for my CD as well as explaining the details of his illness.

Here are some of the brave and inspirational words that he shared with me in his letter. I’ve omitted details about his illness as well as the things he said about my CD.

My philosophy is that we all have to go some day. We come to this planet like Broadway actors going on stage, playing their roles, removing their make-up and going home when the show is over…Despite the shocking news, I remain serene, fearless, and determined to enjoy whatever time is left, which is totally unpredictable. Enjoying the moment, the present moment…which is eternal since it’s always here, is all that matters. We all have to cross the inevitable finish line at some point. I often think of the magnificent Korean movie: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring…still so totally inspiring some 12 years after I saw it the first time…but I do believe that the power of the mind is stronger and is what can REALLY and CONCRETELY make the difference. Like Albert Ayler said it so well: “Music is the healing for of the universe.” I believe in this, I believe in its power, and am determined to live till age 104 (it feels like a good number to me!) and to keep on playing soprano and sopranino!!! Time will tell…

As you can imagine, I was pretty moved by his words. When someone is having to go through chemotherapy, numerous trips to the doctor, and an overwhelming regimen of medications and supplements, just to exist is extremely challenging. So the fact that he took the time write me a letter and to share his music with me, is a true testament to his kindness, bravery, and passion for life and people.

Along with this letter, he included a copy of his CD, Wings of Light, which features him on soprano sax and percussion. And I was happy to see that The New York Jazz Record had reviewed it in their June, 2014 issue, along with my mine and Steve Lacy’s. I’m sure it must have brought him great joy to see his CD reviewed alongside his longtime friend and mentor.

 This track is called "Moon Zen Twilight Zen New Moon." I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. And we thank you Gilles for leaving us with such inspirational words, friendship, and beautiful music. RIP

Here are some words of appreciation about Gilles' music from his Soprano Sax Fellowship:

"...a palette of sounds that I think really captures his genius." - Adrien Varachaud, soprano saxophonist

"...is like poetry, small sentences of wisdom that you need to listen to carefully to get the meaning of it."
- Yanni Hat, soprano saxophonist

"Deeply moving..." - Guillaume Tarche, writer and soprano saxophonist

"Quiet playing of the man who let many drink the wine of the gods and almost touch New York skies."  - Stefano Scippa, soprano saxophonist

"Gilles has beautifully distilled the wisdom of Steve Lacy in his playing and made it his own." - Paul Bennett, soprano saxophonist

"He is one of the fe soprano players who really seem to have figured out how to approach Lacy's sound." - Paul Shambles, soprano saxophonist

"The music is light, deep, calm, and assertive, dramatic and embracing. And Japanese - definitely" - Gianni Mimmo, soprano saxophonist

"Gilles is a prince, a poet, a friend to everyone who is looking for something real. I am blessed a hundred times to know him." - Joe Giardullo, soprano saxophonist

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Soprano Summit/Steve Lacy Tribute

For all of you who were not able to make the Soprano Summit/Steve Lacy Tribute at Michiko studios last night, you can check it out here. I'm not sure how long it will be available, so I suggest watching it sooner and than later. There was a lot of inspired music that night.

I had a great time playing with Dave Liebman, soprano sax; Heath Watts, soprano sax; Matt Engle, bass; and Michael Szekely, drums. And kudos to Patrick McGhee for sitting in on soprano.  One of Dave's "best students."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Talent or Genius: Which Do You Nurture?

--> I was reading a new book I recently came across written by my good friend and amazing pianist Jean-Michel Pilc. The book is called It’s About Music: The Art and Heart of Improvisation. Throughout the book Jean-Michel discusses his approach to teaching improvisation in which he encourages his students to embrace their own originality rather than training them to be regurgitates of theories and tried and tested jazz language. He uses a lot of aphorisms throughout the book that succinctly shed light on a lot of problems and misunderstandings in the way that people learn and view jazz and art, in general. The one aphorism that really struck a chord with me was the one by French impressionist painter Eugene Delacroix, who said that “Talent does whatever it wants to do, genius does only what it can.

This is definitely something that I’ve felt for many years, probably since I was a student at Berklee—which is definitely a hot bed of young, hot talent. I think one of the reasons that musicians find themselves hitting a creative wall or find themselves lacking artistic vision is that they do spend too much time nurturing their talent and not enough time nurturing their genius. Meaning too much time is spent trying to become well- rounded and all encompassing and not enough is spent nurturing what makes us unique.

Now let’s decipher what Delacroix was saying:

Talent does whatever it wants…”

I interpret this as using talent to become a craftsman,  a Jack-of-all-trades, being able to do a lot of different things. Some simply call it being versatile. Some call it playing a lot of shit. Some call it knowing a lot of music. Some call it being able to come out of a lot of different bags. But whatever way you look at it, it comes down to not really making a commitment to anything—most of all, not making a commitment to being like yourself. Nurturing that special thing that only you can do. Talent is a great thing, but it’s dangerous thing when used carelessly. I think we have more talented people jazz than ever before in the history. High School kids are effortlessly playing in 15/8 and 13/8 time signatures. College students can play on the most complicated harmonies and musical forms, at any tempo. Young professional jazz musicians have already written dozens of tunes, can play any style, and are often well versed on many instruments. So as you can see, the jazz world has talent coming out the wazoo! But oddly enough, the music scene still has a huge void—especially when compared to the golden age of yesteryear.

Why is this the case? Why is it that all of this talent does not produce profound work?  Often times talent produces work which creates feelings of competitiveness and intimidation, not feelings of inspiration and enlightenment. Pianists didn’t listen to Thelonious Monk and say, “I can play just as dissonant as him.” Saxophonists didn’t listen to John Coltrane and say, “I can play just as fast and complicated as him.” When you hear someone who’s just being the very best them that they can be, it inspires you--because you’re shown the beauty and the magic that grows out of originality and individuality. It certainly does not conjure feelings of competitiveness. It would actually sound kind of silly for someone to say, “I can be him just as good as he can be himself.” I couldn’t even write this without chuckling!

Let’s look at the second part of Delacroix’s statement.

….genius does only what it can.”

Nurturing ones genius can be somewhat intimidating. One, it takes you out of the competition. And I’ll be the first to admit, competition is fun—especially if you’re the winner. But the problem is that you spend all of your time trying to do what everyone else does, only better, rather than “being most like yourself”—if I may paraphrase Monk. Nurturing genius forces you to spend a lot of time in the place Wayne Shorter refers to as the “unknown.” Who in their right mind would want to go there? Who wouldn’t want to go to the place where everybody goes? The popular place differently feels more secure. But I guess the problem is this: By being in the popular place, you set yourself for being just one of many crabs in a barrel rather than a fisherman. And there are many sayings that make this point. “You can read a book or write one.” “You can drive the bus or just be a passenger.” Whatever the case maybe, the bottom line is that by nurturing your genius, you’re calling your own shots. If the world is your stage, nurturing your genius allows you write, produce and star in your own production. It allows you to not to only discover yourself, but to share your self-discovery with the world.

Here's a little quiz you can take to find out whether you know if you’re nurturing  (A) talent or (B) genius.

1.     _____ Things you create come from an inspired place.

2.     _____ Things you create can be easily explained by tried and tested theoretical formulas.

3.     _____ You have very little in common with many of your peers.

4.     _____ You have no idea how you arrived at many of your creations.

5.     _____ Everyone loves what you do.

6.     _____ You often find yourself in unfamiliar territory.

7.     _____ You create things that are easy to emulate.

8.     _____ You often feel lonely and isolated and feel compelled to create your own universe.

9.     _____ Things you create often defy all theoretical conventions.

10. _____ Things you create appeal to the majority in your field.

11. _____ Your music sounds strange when you compare it to that of your peers.

12. _____ People are constantly comparing what you do to others.

Answers: 1(B), 2 (A), 3(B), 4(B), 5 (A), 6 (B), 7(A), 8(B), 9(B), 10(A), 11(B), 12(A)

If I had the time, I’m sure I could come up with something more in-depth. But I thought this was interesting.

I’d like to end with a funny story I heard years ago, probably while I was a student at Berklee.

This guitarist went up to saxophonist Eddie Harris one day, and said, “Hey Eddie, I really want me to hear me play.” Eddie was like, “Oh yeah?” The guitarist said, “Yeah man, I really want you to check me out.” So Eddie’s sad-as-mother-fucker radar went up and he started toying with the guy. So Eddie says to the guitarist, “Do other musicians like the way you play?” The guitarist responds, “Yeah man, all the cats around town dig what I do.” Then Eddie says, ‘Do critics like what you do?” The guitarist enthusiastically responds, “Absolutely! I get rave reviews on all of my recordings and live gigs.” And then Eddie asks, “How about your relatives? Do they like what you do? The guitarist, get’s even more excited and says, ”Oh yes! My mother, my father, my brothers and sisters, even all of aunts and uncles love what I do.”

So Eddie having heard enough, looks the guy in the face, and says, “Well, I actually I don't need to hear you. I already know you ain't playing shit. All of the baddest cats I’ve ever heard, nobody liked what they did in the beginning.”

So like everything I write, these are not scientific theories, just fruit for thought!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Five (5) Benefits of Playing Free Jazz

Playing free jazz (or improvised music) is something I find myself doing more and more. Even though I consider myself a straight-ahead player at heart, playing improvised music has increasingly become a significant part of my musical identity. Many who knew me as a budding young tenor player at the Berklee College of Music, knew I didn't like playing anything that wasn't in 4/4 time, with at least one chord change per bar. In recent years, I've gotten use to the unlimited freedom afforded to me in the free jazz context.

Coming from a straight-ahead background, I understand why certain musicians might not embrace free playing. It is true that it’s not as demanding harmonically and rhythmically—two hurdles separating the boys from the men in the world of hard bop. And free jazz sometimes attracts less disciplined players, who use the title of "free player" as a crutch for not studying the history of  jazz. So I do understand these criticisms.

Being that as it may,  after having played numerous free jazz gigs, there are certain things I have discovered which can be gained from playing in this style—even if it's not your preferred musical context.

1. You learn to  play more spontaneously.

While most styles of jazz require you to be spontaneous; however, free jazz requires you to bring logic and order to the music from scratch, while being in the moment. This happens as a soloist and collectively. Being able to perform from a space with no agenda other than making music is a good skill, no matter what style of music you're playing.  Playing free jazz is a constant negotiation between satisfying your agenda as a soloist and being in tune to what's happening within the ensemble. To perform in front of a live audience with no idea of what you're going to play for the next hour is frightening, yet liberating.

2. You're forced to listen to others more intently.

Playing in a more conventional setting, you're not always required to listen as intently as one might think--musicians are performing a set role; therefore, you could conceivably play your improvised solo with little regard to what the other members of the ensemble are doing. And trust me, I've heard many do just that.

In fact, I remember once at a Dave Liebman master class, while discussing the importance of listening, he told this humorous anecdote about a well-known tenor player who already knew what he was going to play on the tunes before he even got to the gig. When performing in a freer context, perfunctory roles are not so easily performed.  Anything can happen at any time. Musicians may not even be playing their instruments in conventional ways. You have to listen intently just to hear the direction the piece is going.

3. You learn to think more about texture and dynamics.

Playing jazz in a more conventional format, you tend to play lines and patterns. Whereas, free playing is more inviting for exploring sound and texture. Since the music can be static--meaning that the pulse is not always being driven by walking bass lines or the driving ride cymbal of the drummer. This allows players to think more about creating moods and texture, than playing with rhythmic and harmonic accuracy.

4. It's good platform for extended techniques.

The free jazz platform is where players display their sonic vocabulary of extended techniques, playing everything from two-fisted chordal clusters, to saxophone multi-phonics, to hitting the drums with a set of eating utensils. Again, because the music is static, utilizing sound and texture become more viable options. In fact, many free jazz saxophonists I like sound like they don’t know the tradition of jazz very well. And that's OK. If I want to hear the tradition played authentically, I'll listen to traditional players.

5. You're forced to think more about the pacing of your solo:

In a more conventional format, an improviser mainly thinks about how to get from point A to point B. So your only concern musically is navigating the harmonic hurdles along your path. In a free jazz context, it’s a bit more complex. You have to create form as you go along--thinking like an improviser, a composer, and an orchestrator.

After the first set of a free jazz gig I played at Smalls Jazz Club with Andrew Cyrille, Ethan Iverson, and Oliver Lake, someone came up to me and asked, "Who wrote that last piece?" It was nice to be able to say, "We all did."


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