Sam Newsome

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



Sam Newsome Quartet @ Smalls Jazz Club

Friday, November 29, 2013

78th Annual-Readers Poll (The Soprano Saxophone Category)


I was happy to see that I had made the 78th Annual-Readers Poll in Downbeat magazine. I'm always grateful for any kind of public acknowledgment. It took almost 15 years just for people to start calling me a soprano saxophonist. So for me to appear in any poll in the soprano saxophone category is a milestone as far as I'm concerned. That being said, I always hoping see more people listed in the soprano saxophone category who actually play the instrument.

And I do understand why soprano specialists are often overlooked. One reason is that polls such as this are more about name recognition, than that person's contribution on  his or her instrument. An alto or tenor player on Blue Note or Concord Records, who doubles on the soprano will get many more votes than some idiosyncratic DIY soprano player, just from name recognition--regardless of the significance of their work.

Also, soprano players rarely get a chance to piggyback the success of others. If you're a tenor saxophonist, you could gain notoriety by performing in the band of some high profile trumpet or piano player. I call it GBA (Great by Association). Soprano players don't typically get hired to play in other people groups; we have to path our own way--which is often a more difficult and slower route. I probably get hired to play in other people's groups than most soprano-specialists, but it's pale in comparison to sax players who play the alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones.

But I'm fortunate to have found all my fellow straight-hornists whom I've connected with from around the world. When I first switched to the soprano 18 years ago, the only living soprano-specialists I knew about were Steve Lacy and Jane Ira Bloom. Today, that list has grown significantly: Gianni Mimmo, Harri Sjostrom, Bhob Rainey, Heath Watts, Jane Bunnett,  Joe Giardullo, Kayla Milmine, Lol Coxhill (RIP), Michel Doneda, Nikolas Skordas, Petras Vysniauskas, Stefano Scippa, and Michael Veal. And the list is steadily growing.

 
But I feel very positive about the future of the "problem child" of the saxophone family --a soprano sobriquet used by Steve Lacy. As more and more soprano-specialists emerge, and continue to document great work showcasing the beauty and uniqueness of the instrument, we'll see fewer and fewer doublelers flooding these polls. In the meanwhile we have to stay ubiquitous and document our work. And, hopefully, in the process, we'll catch the critics and general jazz public up to speed.

In closing, congratulations Mr. Shorter. Well-deserved!


78th Annual Reader's Polls (Soprano Saxophone Category)

WAYNE SHORTER (3,501 votes)
Branford Marsalis (1,872 votes)
Dave Liebman (1,167 votes)
Joshua Redman (879 votes)
Chris Potter  (874 votes)
Kenny    Garrett (735 votes)
Ravi Coltrane (684 votes)
Anat Cohen (657 votes)
Joe Lovano (611 votes)
Steve Wilson (498 votes)
Evan Parker (408 votes)
Jimmy Greene (396 votes)
Jane Ira Bloom (384 votes)
Lee Konitz (372 votes)
James Carter (369 votes)
Roscoe Mitchell (297 votes)
Sam Newsome (288 votes)
Jane Bunnett (255 votes)
Donny McCaslin (222 votes)
Tony Malaby (210 votes)


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Jazz Improvisation 101: A Two-Sided Coin

In order to be more effective at improvising, one needs to draw information from two primary sources.  The first being theory (scales and chords) ; the second being language (licks, patterns, and standard jazz vocabularies).


As a teacher, I found that theory is by far the easier of the two to teach. Theory, unlike language, follows a specific set of rules. And once you understand the vertical and linear relationships,  you can cognitively understand how to put it together.

Language on the other hand is a bit more complex. One, it's not as easily codified. There are  many languages which have evolved from the many styles of jazz, and there many interpreters who have created these different languages. In addition to the innumerable note to rhythm combinations, language can only mastered through the experience gained from years of playing, imitating and listening to others who have mastered the particular vernacular you're trying to perform.


As a jazz student, it's important to remember that just because you got an "A" in  Jazz Improvisation 101, you could still, however, lack the performance skills needed to be an effective improviser. It it for this reason that I always stress that you take the necessary steps to complete the other half of this puzzle--which is learning the language on which the theory is based and honing that language through playing.


What you can learn from a book in the classroom has it's limitations, whereas, the possibilities of what can be learned on the bandstand are limitless.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Listening Guide to Understanding Wayne Shorter


Creating listening guides to follow along with for music that you're listening to is a great way to develop a "big picture" understanding of what's going on during a musical performance. 

As musicians we sometimes get so bogged down with the notes that are played, that we fail to see how they actually function in the larger context of the music. Listening guides such as this give us a second to second account of the musical activity of the piece, highlighting not only the important moments that propel the music forward, but the various performance practices used to create these moments.

Here's one I created from a duo performance by saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Esperanza Spalding playing "Footprints" on the Tavis Smiley show.


LISTENING GUIDE: 
Wayne Shorter & Esperanza Spalding - "Footprints" from the Tavis Smiley Show.


FIRST CHORUS
:
0:33 - Wayne begins the melody, unaccompanied, soon joined by Esperanza in the 3rd measure.

SECOND CHORUS

0:55 - Wayne plays the melody for the 2nd chorus, embellishing it at the end of the second bar, using one of his common techniques of playing the phrase an octave higher. This is a very effective way of giving the listener one of those unexpected twists and turns.

THIRD CHORUS

1:19 - When the top of the third chorus begins, Wayne doesn’t begin his improvised solo right away. He pauses for one measure, giving the music a chance to breath, creating tension from the anticipation of what he’s about to play next. At first it seems insignificant, but this is one of those subtle things that separates “hot shots” from master storytellers. Often times our real genius comes not from what we play, but what we don’t play.

1:37 - Wayne quotes the melody for the last two bars of the chorus, which also may seem insignificant at first.  But again, this is one of those subtle things that Wayne does which gives his solos clarity. Having different parts of the melody reoccur during your improvised solo provides depth and a sense of purpose for the other things that you've played.

FOURTH CHORUS

1:42 - Wayne begins his third chorus playing the melody for the first measure and then uses the rhythm from the melody as the basis for his improvisation for measures 2, 3, and 4.

1:55 - Again, he quotes the melody in measure 9.

FIFTH CHORUS

2:03 - He starts off his solo with a rhythmic motif that he develops until he gets to measure 9, after which he plays one of his signature phrases that descends in whole steps.

SIXTH CHORUS

2:25 - He begins the chorus with a new rhythmic motif, only this time phrasing it in 4/4 time against the 6/4 time.

SEVENTH CHORUS

2:48 – He plays the melody out, phrasing it again in 4/4 time, which Esperanza quickly picks up on.

3:07 – Beginning in the 11th measure he plays a rhythmic pattern, two against six, which he continues until they fade at the end.



Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunk Cost Fallacy: Art and Economics


In the field of economics, sunk costs are costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. These costs can be investments in time and/or money.  The Sunk Cost Fallacy, on the other hand, is a mistake in reasoning in which you only consider the sunk costs of an activity when you’re trying to decide whether or not to continue with the activity. In other words, you’re thinking retrospectively (in the past) rather than prospectively (in the future).

Here are a couple of statements you might hear people in the workforce say who have fallen for the sunk cost fallacy trap:

Statement #1: “Even though this business isn’t making any money, if I sell it now, all of my time and efforts would be wasted.

Statement #2:  “I’ve already put in 5 years as an associate in this law firm if I leave before I make partner, that will be five years down the drain.

So I think you can begin to see the pattern of thought of people grappling with costs—whether it time, emotional, or financial—that can’t be recovered.

As a musician, thinking about artistic sunk costs constantly gets in the way of making good creative and career decisions. Think of how many times we’ve insisted on using a certain section of a tune that didn’t quite work, simply because we've already invested time in writing it. Or how we’ve continued using a certain player in our group whose not quite working out, simply because we’ve already rehearsed with him or her.  And the one none of us wants to confront: Putting out that recording, not because we like it, but because we’ve already spent a lot of time and money making it.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is sunk cost fallacy. Let me also add that the one thing that all three scenarios have in common is that in the end, nobody wins.

First of all, having members of your group play material that they can’t sink their teeth into can  be uninspiring, and consequently, can result in a poor performance. This is a drag, not only for the members of your band but the audience members that have paid money to hear you. Secondly, continuing to use someone who's not working out in your group, simply because you’ve already rehearsed them, is harmful to your music and to the person you’ve hired, since they cannot be a positive contributor to the situation. Thirdly, releasing a recording, not because you like it, but because you’ve spent money and time recording it, hurts because, now, you have to devote six months to a year of your life, promoting something you don’t like, instead of creating something different that you do like.

The most difficult time in my life  when I've had to wrestle with my artistic sunk costs was when I stopped playing the tenor saxophone to begin focusing on the soprano.  As you can imagine, I had been a tenor player for around 16 years. So talking about time invested. 

But it seemed silly to continue down a path simply because I had invested many years pursuing it. And what kept me from falling into the sunk cost fallacy trap was instead of thinking about what I would lose, I thought about what I would miss out on by not pursuing this different path--something economists call opportunity cost.

On the topic of opportunity cost, economist David R. Henderson writes:

When economists refer to the “opportunity cost” of a resource, they mean the value of the next-highest-valued alternative use of that resource. If, for example, you spend time and money going to a movie, you cannot spend that time at home reading a book, and you cannot spend the money on something else. If your next-best alternative to seeing the movie is reading the book, then the opportunity cost of seeing the movie is the money spent plus the pleasure you forgo by not reading the book.


In my case, I thought the opportunity cost of continuing to play the tenor saxophone was not being able to find my own voice on the soprano.   Every moment I spent pursing tenor-saxophone-oriented goals, was time taking away from me not being able to pursue soprano-saxophone-oriented goals.

More simply put: The question was not whether I could afford to abandon the tenor, but whether I could afford not to.

In more recent times, I find myself weighing the opportunity cost of playing other people's music--especially since what I do is so specific.  And this is something that creates a lot of conflict with me. Because on one hand, I like the connection aspect of working with others and it does give me another perspective and a different set of challenges. But the fact of the matter is that this is valuable time I could be developing my own thing. So being a successful and active freelancer does have significant opportunity costs.

In conclusion, I just wanted to say that the reality of the situation is this: No matter what path you find yourself on; no matter how much time you invest in an idea, only to find yourself having to later abort it; no matter how much money you spend on something only to find that you can’t use it; the one thing that you will bring away from all of these situations will be the experience. No value can be put on this.  Experience is a gift to you from life. In the end, nothing is actually in vain. It's all about having the proper perspective.

Worrying about wasted time, is a waste of time.

It's ALL good!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

61st Annual Downbeat Critics Poll


First of all, kudos to Wayne Shorter for winning in the Jazz Artist, Jazz Album, Jazz Group, and Soprano Sax categories.This was definitely the year of Wayne Shorter. I was also happy to see that I got a nice placement in the Soprano Saxophone category. The number four spot is not a bad place to be, especially when the top three spots are occupied by Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, and Branford Marsalis. This is especially exciting for me, since I didn't even place in the Soprano Sax category until three years ago. And of course, I was way at the bottom. But hey, I was happy just to be recognized. I played the soprano exclusively for almost five years before critics stop speaking of me as a tenor player who plays the soprano. I imagine at this point, they've realized that I'm never coming back--at least no time soon.

But I would like to thank all of the critics who voted for me. And I'd especially like to give a shout out to all the devotees of the straight-horn who are helping to give the soprano its long overdue presence as a primary instrument and not some secondary horn played by tenor and alto saxophonists on waltzes and straight-eighth ballads.

And I'm purposefully not mentioning the Rising Star category. I think it has become somewhat of a joke over the years. At times, I feel it's treated as a throwaway category. It doesn't seem like much thought goes into who they vote for. But hopefully, if we have enough soprano players putting out recordings and having a real presence, critics will start to vote more responsibly. 

On a more positive note, I'll be featuring the music of some of the aforementioned soprano players in the upcoming weeks. So please keep a look out for that. 

In the meantime, keep recording, keep performing, and keep the straighthorn-bell displayed high and proud!








Monday, June 3, 2013

The Fruition-Realization Formula

Being a jazz musician requires us to be somewhat of a visionary--on small and large scales. The improvisatory nature of the music forces us to envision far beyond what's there. And there are different levels of envisioning. There's envisioning how to navigate your way through a set of chord changes; envisioning how to compose a tune: and some take it as far as envisioning a new concept. And envisioning an idea is one thing; however, bringing it to fruition is another. 

Experience has taught me that in order to bring an idea or vision to fruition, three things must be in order: (1) a clear mind, (2) a clear vision, and (3) the skills to execute. 

In other words, a clear mind + clear vision + skills to execute = fruition.

And I don't mean to presume that having these three things guarantee success, but they do increase the likelihood of success.

(1) A clear mind:
If you think of the creative mind as a canvass, it would be very difficult to create anything new if your canvass is cluttered with other things. Simply put, junk. And these things could be anything from negative thoughts to past and future endeavors. Having a completely clear mind can take years of practice. I suggest aiming at having a less-cluttered mind. It's at least a good place to start. 
 
(2) A clear vision:
If you're not sure of where you want to go or how to get there, you're almost certain to be derailed off your path. Racecar drivers are taught that if their car goes into a tailspin, they should always keep their eyes on where they want to go. If their focus is on driving into a wall, then they probably will. 

(3) Skills to execute:
This may be one of the most important components of the fruition-realization equation. You might have a clear mind, a clear idea of what you want to do, but if you don't have the skills to execute it, bringing it to fruition is not very likely. Just imagine you're going a vacation and you know exactly where you want to go, you have a map explaining exactly how to get there, yet, you have no gas in the car. It might make things a tad bit difficult.



So the next time you set out to realize an idea or vision, make sure you run it through this checklist. It could mean the difference between hitting your mark and hitting a wall.








Thursday, May 30, 2013

Remembering Mulgrew MIller

I first met Mulgrew back in the early nineties. I was 24 years old, wet behind the ears, and I had just signed a contract to do a couple of records with the Criss Cross label. Gerry Teekens, the label’s owner/producer was always very quick to remind me that I was a young-unknown and that I needed to surround myself with name players. This was during a time when recording companies, large and small, actually expected to see a profit. 


When we were trying to decide on the personnel for the bass, drums, and another horn, we went through a long list of people. However, when we were deciding on whom to get on piano, once Mulgrew’s name was mentioned, that was it--no other pianists ever came up.
  
When Mulgrew graciously accepted to do the date, I was very ecstatic. I was going to get a chance to play with the person whose playing I had grown to admire on classic albums such as Woody Shaw’s United, Art Blakey & the Jazz Messenger’s The New York Scene, and Kenny Garrett’s debut CD on Criss Cross, Introducing Kenny Garrett. These were all 1980s gems, back when you had to leave your home and go to a record store if you wanted to purchase someone’s music.



I was so nervous about my record date that I didn’t sleep or eat the night before. Those who know me know that these are two areas that I don’t usually skimp on. I had Steve Nelson on vibes (instead of another horn)  Billy Drummond on drums, James Genus on bass, and of course, Mulgrew Miller on piano. That session was a particularly difficult one for me, emotionally--not only was I was a nervous wreck, but nobody seemed interested in my performance. That’s how I felt anyway. It seemed like all of the band members, the producer and the engineer were too busy in awe of Mulgrew.  

Every time we listened back to a take in the studio, all I heard was “Yeah, Mulgrew.” Mulgrew Miller, Damn!” “Mulgrew, you sound great.” “Grew!” After a while, I was starting to wonder whose date it was. I wouldn't have been surprised if I had been asked to sit out on a couple of tunes. And I did realize that all of the real time praise that he was receiving was well deserved. After all, he was ripping it up on every tune—thoroughly.

Eventually I did my put insecurities aside and rose to the occasion—the best that I could.  Trust me, it’s not a good feeling just trying to hold your own on your own record date. But it was what it was. When you decide to play with the big boys, getting slapped around a little bit comes with the territory.

After the dust had settled, I’m happy to say that I came away having made a nice record--and it made the New York Times 2005 Top Ten Albums List. So not a bad ending for what started off as not a pleasant day.

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to play with Mulgrew again after that date. We shared the same billing many times, but that’s as close as it got.

Here’s one of my favorite solos of his from Sam I Am. This is my arrangement of “Indiana.” On this take, you’ll definitely hear what I meant when I said that he was "ripping it up." Oh yeah, and Steve Nelson is bringing it pretty hard too.

 
Thanks, Mulgrew, for your beautiful music and your beautiful spirit. RIP.

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