If you only have a few minutes to listen to one song by Sam Newsome…try “Sakura, Sakura.” Sam’s inventiveness shines on, and in fact, you’re going to need sunglasses.
Performing solo on the skinniest of saxes, the soprano, Sam’s affection for and far-reaching understanding of his horn is nothing short of astounding. Entrepreneurial, even. Somehow, he digs deep and reaches the dark/rich wood tones of a clarinet (or bassoon)? – then with his tongue, taps the reed percussively, chameleoning a guitar-picked string – and soaring, takes the notes up in the stratosphere of a flute. As if that surprising tour of the woodwind family weren’t enough, he then, Johnny Appleseed-like, sways and spreads the notes out and around him, side to side, physicality with a purpose: to direct the music in multiple, crossing paths causing a fascinating build-up of tones and waves.
Mixing into a busy stew with congas, baritone sax and upright bass in “Spirit One Voice” the soprano soars obligingly; Sam plays coolly in unison with the foundation of the bari. Whereas soprano can be harshly overblown, cutting like a knife, he wields it (again) flute-like, soft with wings that fly up to that high register, then dipping below.
How did you decide you wanted to do this for a living?
The first time I took an improvised solo during my junior high school jazz concert, it was a very surreal experience. I was on a natural high for two days afterward. I didn’t know for sure that I would become a musician at that moment, but I realized that I’d been exposed to a whole new way of experiencing music that was going to play a huge role in my life from that point on.
Why do you prefer the soprano over the other members of the sax family?
Sound-wise, the soprano has a sonic directness that enables me to hear my ideas with more clarity. Consequently, I don’t feel a need to overplay or fill up the space with notes. I feel like I can make a musical statement just with my sound.
Secondly, I like the fact the soprano is under-explored. Let’s face it, the tenor saxophone legacy is pretty vast and thorough, so it’s almost impossible to come up with anything that doesn’t sound imitative. The soprano is more of a clean slate, so I feel freer to create my own sound without a concern of sounding like a poor imitation of someone else.
You like to interview musicians too. Why?
On my blog Soprano Sax Talk, I usually only interview soprano sax specialists. There are not many platforms for our small demographic, so my blog gives fellow straight- hornists an opportunity to let the world know who they are and what they do. Look at the DownBeat Critic’s Polls, for instance. Many of those saxophonists hardly play the instrument. But because of their name recognition, they’re listed over players who play it exclusively.
Also, I found that soprano players usually have an interesting story to tell. Many are drawn to the instrument because of a personal relationship to it, not just because they heard someone else play it. I know numerous alto players who play the alto because of Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley, not necessarily because of their own personal experience with the instrument.
We tend to come at it differently. A soprano player’s journey is not only musical, but a journey to discover oneself. This is one of the reasons we tend not to be as competitive. With tenor saxophonists, however, it’s often about outplaying your competition. It’s a very Darwinian culture.
That type of cut-throat environment does not exist among soprano players. For us, it’s just about being the best us that we can be. In my experience, I found that with an amazing tenor player often lies a mediocre artist—but a great craftsman. But with a mediocre soprano player, often lies an amazing artist. I find them all very fascinating.
Besides its high range, what are some of the unique qualities and challenges of the soprano?
Because the soprano has a much smaller column of air, it’s more focused. This is also one of the problems. Since the column of air is shorter, there’s less room for error; therefore, playing in tune is often an issue.
Great article about seven reasons why musicians should be reading DownBeat. What’s the key to getting exposure?
Thanks. I thought I would get some criticism for defending DownBeat. It’s almost as risky as saying something nice about Trump. But folks were very receptive to my points.
As far as getting exposure, the single most effective way is by just getting out there and doing your thing. Musicians must be in circulation. Get to the bandstand by any means necessary. Drummer Art Blakey used to say that in the business, “You’re either appearing, or you’re disappearing.” But nowadays, via the internet, musicians have options of appearing in virtual and physical worlds.
Personally, I try to have a merited reason to reach out to the music community—whether it’s a new blog post, an inspirational tweet, a gig or something interesting about my personal life I’m willing to share.
Sometimes it’s difficult for musicians to self-promote. They often feel limited to just talking about upcoming gigs and new CDs. These things are necessary, mind you. But frankly, only talking about these things gets boring—for the reader and the person posting them. That’s why it’s good to focus on sharing a broader spectrum of who you are and what you do. This will enable folks to connect with your personal story and not just all the shit you’re playing. The former is much more impactful.
What are the top concerns of soprano players?
I can’t speak for all soprano players, but I feel what we mainly want is an opportunity to play, and to have more respect given to those who specialize on the instrument.
As I said earlier regarding the DownBeat Critic’s Polls, soprano players are hardly mentioned. As soprano players, I feel we’d like more awareness about who we are, what we do and more opportunities to build audiences for ourselves. But I’m very hopeful that these things will come with time.
What’s the hot news right now in NYC clubs?
I’m very excited about how many young and talented players there are these days—on the straight-ahead and improvised music scenes. It’s a great time to be a free-thinker and an experimenter of new and under-explored ideas.
There are few gate-keepers with narrow perspectives determining who’s worthy and who’s not. We don’t have to wait to be picked. We can pick ourselves.
Your favorite venue or festival?
I’ve always loved the North Sea Jazz Festival. Not so much the festival venue, but the hang. Everybody’s there. You could be sitting in the hotel lobby, and you might see Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner—all of your heroes. It’s an experience like no other.
Place you always wanted to perform?
I’ve always wanted to lead my own band at the Village Vanguard. I haven’t given up on that happening. These will occur in their own time. And even if they don’t that’s OK, too.
Most memorable gig as a sideman?
I would say the five years I played in the band of Terence Blanchard. It was the first platform through which musicians, fans and critics got exposure to me and my playing. And I was very fortunate to be able to do that on a high-profile gig where we played major festivals and clubs, played on movie soundtracks, and I even got to do some television appearances. It was all very exhilarating.
Your hobby balloon twisting – helps your dexterity with the sax?
Twisting balloon helps me more mentally than technically. It relaxes my mind by allowing me to escape into a non-musical dimension. We need outlets other than the bandstand to channel our creative energies. Miles Davis painted. I twist balloons.
What was it like to record with Global Unity?
Global Unity was one of the first bands I formed that featured me as a soprano player. And our debut CD was released on Columbia/Sony. I considered the band a cross-cultural jazz group. It had all of the trappings of a jazz band: group interaction, lengthy improvised solos and we often improvised over chords progressions and common jazz forms. The difference is that the music was channeled through a world music lens. Instead of a drummer playing on a trap set, I used several percussionists; instead of having a saxophonist or trumpet player as a part of my front line, I used a vocalist; and instead of piano, I often used exotic string instruments like the oud, sitar, and sometimes the Greek bouzouki.
We were all jazz musicians with a world music sensibility. The core members consisted of Elisabeth Kontomanou on vocals, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, Amos Hoffman on oud, Gilad and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion—and a rotating cast of special guests.
I was very proud of what I did artistically, but it really hurt me career-wise. The jazz world just did not like it, and I wasn’t exotic enough or avant-garde enough to be on any other music scene. It took me several years to recover from the negative effects of having formed that group. But it was an important part of my journey. So I have no regrets. Ironically, when you hear the music, it seems almost mind-boggling that such pure and organic music could have negative effects on someone’s career.
Our version of “Caravan” was a good example of how we took classic repertoire and strained it though a “world music lens.” The vocalist, Elisabeth Kontomanou, who is of Greco-Guinean descent, really brought something special to the music. She is one of a kind—on and off the bandstand.
What was it like to perform with Dave Liebman? And how do two soprano sax players collaborate?
Liebman had always been extremely supportive and generous with me. He has always treated me with nothing but mutual respect. And regarding our two-soprano collaboration, it has been nothing less than a blast, and it never felt competitive. It was always just about two voices having a conversation, not some cutting session.
Playing beside him really brought home the importance of having one’s own voice. I learned that even if your voice is less accomplished and less refined, it’s okay. The important thing is that you have one.
You teach multi-phonics on YouTube. What is this?
Playing multi-phonics means to add more harmonic texture to my improvisations. In the beginning stages of studying them, I was only able to integrate when I played solo saxophone concerts. However, nowadays, I can implement them in any context. They are now an integral component of my musical language.
You’ve collaborated with your wife, violinist Meg Okura. Does that make it easier to anticipate the melodic direction of a song?
Collaborating with my wife has been great–particularly with her band, the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble. She often writes things that are specifically composed for me and many of the things that I do. She’ll write specific multi-phonics into the music that I play, or she might write in the percussive slap tongue that I often use.
This is great for me because I have to learn to fine-tune these extended techniques in order to be as consistent as I am with conventional notes and sounds.
What inspired your most recent CDs?
I released two CDs in 2017, “Sopranoville” and “Magic Circle.” The first is a solo saxophone recording, with lots of soprano multi-tracking, and the second is a duo recording with Jean-Michel Pilc.
“Sopranoville” is mostly original pieces with two standards, and “Magic Circle” contains mostly standards and two originals.
Typically, I release music because there is something I want to hear and it does not exist. So I put it out there in the sphere. This was certainly more the case with “Sopranoville.”
If you had to pick your favorite song on them?
Interestingly enough, my favorite track on both CDs is my version of “Giant Steps.” I just like the fact that it sounds radically different from any other version I’ve heard.
Do you sound a lot different than when you started your career?
As far as the sound of my instrument, I have a much broader range of textures and dynamics to draw from. When most saxophonists play the soprano, they basically fill up the horn with air and hope for the best; and I sense very little deliberateness with regards to texture and dynamics. Which is understandable. It takes a lot of control to do these things, and the only way to do it is to play the instrument all the time.
The soprano is a much different animal. Musically speaking, my sound has become more abstract; this often the case with many artists. In fact, Wynton Marsalis is one of the few contemporary jazz musicians that I know whose music has become more conservative as he has gotten older.
Will jazz continue to evolve melodically, rhythmically, compositionally?
Jazz is already pretty developed in all of these areas. For my tastes, I’d like musicians to explore saying more with less. Space is always a good thing for the music. Technically, it’s the easiest thing to do, but musically, it’s very difficult.
Anyone can play a lot of notes, but it takes real courage and confidence to play nothing. It’s the strangest thing.
Goals for 2018?
One career goal is to play more outside of New York. With a full-time teaching position and family obligations, traveling has not been my priority during the past 10 years or so. But it’s getting to the point where I’m feeling more of a need to share my music with people in different parts of world.
Secondly, I’d like to record my trio with bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Reggie Nicholson. It’s been a long time since people have heard me record a CD with a rhythm section. For the past 10 years, I’ve been primarily working in the solo saxophone format. So this will be a welcomed change, I’m sure.
For more information, visit www.sopranosaxtalk.blogspot.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Sam Newsome.
© Debbie Burke 2018