SAM NEWSOME - THE ART OF THE SOPRANO SAXOPHONIST
“The potential for the saxophone is unlimited.”
The above quote from saxophonist Steve Lacy has proven itself time and time again throughout the history of jazz, with its practitioners constantly pushing themselves and their instruments. From Lester Young ‘s use of alternate fingerings to subtly vary the pitch of a note, to circular breathing, multiphonics and complex cross fingering techniques employed by many of today’s contemporary players. And perhaps this dictum plays an even larger part in the development of the soprano saxophone.
The soprano saxophone has held a peculiar fascination for many, but few have chosen to focus their energies primarily through the straight horn. A quick head count of those that have will start with Sidney Bechet and then jumping ahead a few decades to Steve Lacy, with other significant voices including Wayne Shorter, Jane Ira Bloom, Jane Bunnett, Dave Liebman and Brits Lol Coxhill and Evan Parker. And added to this list, with a major new statement under his belt, is Sam Newsome.
After garnering a formidable reputation in the early nineties as a tenor saxophonist, Newsome became dissatisfied with his playing. Finding it increasingly difficult to find his own place in the music, and searching for his own concept and that ever illusive personal sound on the instrument, he eschewed the tenor and instead took the decision to make the soprano not just his principle instrument, but his only instrument.
With the release of his new solo soprano album, The Art of the Soprano, Vol.1, his third such project, not only has he shown himself to have a highly developed personal vision, but has also pushed the envelope with respect to utilizing extended techniques to such completely satisfying musical ends.
Interviewing Sam Newsome shortly after the release of The Art of the Soprano, Vol.1, I began by asking if after deciding to switch to soprano was there any change in how he approached his music, or if the stylistic nature of his playing was affected? “It was the way that I was able to approach the music that led me to become exclusively a soprano player. When I played the soprano I felt like I was able to tell a story with only my sound. So my playing, as a result, became more lyrical, organic, and more emotional. It was less about licks, and more about making music in the purest sense” explained Sam. “Also, as a soprano specialist, and putting the whole intonation thing aside for a moment, the biggest challenge I had was learning how to play the instrument at different dynamic levels and levels of intensity. When Coltrane came along, he popularized the soprano as the energy saxophone - which was good in that he inspired more saxophonists to want to play it. However, it hurt the instrument in that people didn’t always associate it with warmth and beauty, only something that was played loudly and intensely. When Wayne Shorter came along, he was instrumental in showing the instrument’s more subtle and vulnerable side.”
As far as direct influences on his playing are concerned, Newsome acknowledges a debt to players such as Sonny Rollins, Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker, and inevitably Steve Lacy. “Yes, Lacy was a big influence. But not in the conventional way of having been influential on my sound and musical vocabulary, but influential in teaching me that as a soprano player you have to create your own world. It’s not a follow the pack kind of instrument. The soprano is an ugly duckling belonging to a very small family of beautiful swans.”
As with each of his solo albums, Newsome has thought long and hard about the concept of his music and the preparation of the chosen material. So I asked how he went about deciding upon the overall theme of the album and choosing the individual pieces. “The concept of the CD was to feature three suites” said Sam,” which is usually how I play my live solo shows. Focusing on the work of a specific composer inspires ideas that are specific to his or her style of writing. An Ellington piece is going to inspire you to hear things that you wouldn’t on a Coltrane piece, or at least the Coltrane pieces I recorded. However, after I recorded the three suites, I decided to shuffle the pieces around instead of playing the movements of the suites in succession, in this way the uniqueness of each suite is heard throughout the entire CD, instead of only appearing in one small section of the recording.”
It is a huge undertaking to tackle any of Coltrane’s compositions, especially from A Love Supreme. Why did you decide to play these particular pieces, and how did you arrive at the finished versions presented on The Art of the Soprano? “ I first heard soprano saxophonist Joe Giardullo play it on his CD, Weather. He played ‘Acknowledgement’, the first movement of the suite” replied Newsome. “Hearing how he played it slow and reflective, gave me many ideas on how the entire suite could be adapted to the solo saxophone format. I basically tackled each piece one by one, trying to find something new and interesting I could bring to each movement. I didn’t want it to sound like the original without a rhythm section. If that were the goal, why bother.”
With this in mind, and conscious of the fact that the standard repertoire has been represented in many different formats, I asked how he would ‘shape a composition for a performance or recording? “When creating pieces to be performed solo, I tend to think more like a visual artist than a composer”, he replied. “Instead of using brushes and paint I use sound and texture. So when working on a new solo piece, whether it’s a solo saxophone arrangement of a standard or an original composition, I tend to think of the melody as a canvas and I use various sounds and extended techniques I’ve developed to paint a sonic picture. And I’m finding that the more developed my concept becomes, the more I’m able to apply my ideas to almost any tune, whether it’s as harmonically sparse as Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’ or as harmonically dense as John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’.
The Art of the Soprano is your third solo soprano saxophone recording, having previously presented a programme of music by Thelonious Monk on the 2007 album Monk Abstractions and the more recent Blue Soliloquy. How would you say the three solo discs differ? “I feel that my three CDs differ from the simple fact that I increasingly become more comfortable playing in the solo saxophone format with each one. Whether or not the listener hears it that way, I’m not sure. For example when I recorded Monk Abstractions, there were probably two songs that were usable from the first day of recording. When I first heard the tracks played back in the studio, it became pretty obvious whether or not what I just recorded could withstand the test of repeated listening. And I actually canned a lot of those takes. When I recorded Blue Soliloquy, however, there were more usable things from the first day. Subsequently by the time I got to The Art of the Soprano, Vol.1, it was less of a guessing game. I felt like I knew what I was doing. If something didn’t work, it was because I didn’t play it very well, not that the concept didn’t work. So I would like to think that the main way in which my solo CDs differ is that my concept becomes clearer and more defined with each one.”
Apart from your solo performances, what other contexts do you find yourself playing in? I know you co-lead a two soprano frontline quartet with Dave Liebman, how did this particular partnership come about? “Yes, I do play in contexts other than solo saxophone. To me, the solo format is where I refuel, where I go deeper in search of my own unique artistic voice. And after honing the things that I discover in that deep and sometimes lonely place, I’m able to apply them in almost any context, whether it’s solo, duo, trio, or quartet. The solo format happens to be the place where I feel I’m able to make the biggest impact, musically. Not to mention it’s the least historically codified of the aforementioned, so I feel freer to push the envelope.”
Continuing, Newsome said “My relationship with Dave Liebman began almost 5 years ago after I had contacted him about doing a double-bill solo-saxophone concert, which I ended up cancelling because I felt I wasn’t ready. I had just started my full-time teaching position at Long Island University, and I didn't have much time to practice nor think about my own music. So I was feeling very insecure during that period.
“However, a couple years later, we ended up sharing the bill for a concert at the music series curated by Roberto Romeo in the restaurant downstairs from his shop on W. 46th Street in Manhattan. I was playing with my trio and Dave was there with his quartet. After I finished my set, Liebman stood up and applauded, which was a great surprise. At best, I had hoped that he didn’t hate it. Then he came up to me and said that Steve Lacy was probably looking down on me right at that moment, smiling. Which meant the world coming from Dave Liebman. I knew of his reputation of breaking musicians down, letting them know what they needed to work on. So as you can imagine, I was happy he didn’t ream into me after my set. After that night, we decided to seriously think about trying to do something together; whether it was just two sopranos, or with an entire band. And after several months or so of tossing around ideas, he decided to book a gig at Cornelia Street Café just to get the ball rolling. It was a quartet with two sopranos, bass and drums. And we’ve been playing together ever since.”
A mouth watering prospect indeed, and for those of us not fortunate to be in New York, is there plans to record the quartet I enquired? “I’m not sure if the quartet is something that will get recorded. Dave and I are both taking it one gig at a time. Right now, it’s just something that’s fun to do.”
Looking at another context, you also have a duo with pianist, Ethan Iverson, how did that come about? Was it just a one of a gig or is it going to be a long term partnership? “Ethan and I first started hanging out in 2010. He contacted me after he heard my CD, Blue Soliloquy. I was very happy that someone of his stature had even known about it, never mind actually digging it enough to tell other people. So I was very grateful for that. So we got together to play soon after, and we’ve been playing or at least talking about playing ever since. And our duo is a little different from the quartet I have with Liebman. We’re definitely thinking long term, which is rare. People don’t usually say, ‘Let’s form a duo.’ It’s usually something along the lines of, ‘Would you like to play a duo gig?’ We’re actually looking to record in early February or March. So you’ll hear more about our project sooner rather than later.”
And finally Sam, what long-term goals do you have for the future? “My goal will be just as it has always been. I’ll continue my ongoing research of exploring both the under explored and unexplored sonic terrains of the soprano. And this will be done, not only through solo playing, but various collaborations - duos, trios, all soprano groups, you name it. My solo CDs are merely the seeds I’m using to grow what I hope will prosper into a field of soprano saxophone-centered music. I have always said that my mission is that the soprano will someday be on top, not just in terms of range, but reverence. I named my latest CD The Art of the Soprano, Vol. 1 just to send the message that I’m just starting to hit my stride.”
You can buy The Art of the Soprano: Vol. 1 by Sam Newsome from www.cdbaby.com