Sam Newsome

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Straight Horn of Keith Jarrett

As someone who plays soprano exclusively, you might figure me for someone with unusual and eclectic musical taste.

One of those unusual and eclectic gems I like to enjoy is the soprano saxophone playing of Keith Jarrett. Musicians typically look at me with an air of suspicion whenever I mention him as one of my favorite soprano players. Their response is usually,  "Keith Jarrett, the piano player?"

I always thought it would be hilarious if there actually was a guy out there named Keith Jarrett who only played the soprano. That would be funny!

In this post, I'm going to examine Jarrett's progression on the soprano saxophone from 1968, while a member of the Charles Lloyd Quartet, to 1976, when he was leading his acclaimed American Quartet.

Being first a piano player, Jarrett has an aesthetical advantage in that he can play the soprano from the perspective of someone who is not doubling on it. His approach sounds solely soprano-centered. I can't say for certain, but I imagined he didn't start off playing alto and tenor in the junior high stage band and later developed the soprano as an extension of one of the much larger saxophones.

He approaches the soprano like it's a folk instrument. It's very primitive, in many respects. You don't hear the typical post-Coltrane language commonly played by saxophonists during that time. Most of what he plays is organic, melodic language. In fact, he sounds more from the Ornette Coleman lineage than anyone else.

VIDEO 1: The first video features Jarrett playing with the Charles Lloyd Quartet on a television series called Jazz Casual, hosted by jazz critic Ralph Gleason on National Educational Television (NET), the predecessor what we now know as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). It was based out of San Francisco, California and featured 30-minute performances by legendary jazz groups such as the John Coltrane Quartet, MJQ, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. It was quite an oasis.

The first clip is from June 18, 1968, when the Charles Lloyd Quartet appeared on the show with Lloyd on tenor saxophone, Ron McClure on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and the 23-year-old Jarrett on piano and soprano saxophone.

During this period, you can hear that Jarrett is still grappling with the instrument. His sound is not yet developed nor distinctive, and he seems unable to keep up with Lloyd's sheer power and energy.  Mind you, he is only 23 and is first an accomplished pianist, so we can probably cut him some slack. But you can still hear that there's something there--a uniqueness that will be more evident in later clips.

VIDEO 2: This second clip features Jarrett alongside his working trio with Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motion on drums. Recorded in 1970 at a concert in Germany, here, we hear a 25-year-old Jarrett, who's starting to come into his own in terms of sound and overall comfort with the instrument. His tone is more distinctive, fuller, more in tune, he's utilizing the different registers, and you can hear him starting to employ what became known as his signature throat growl. What I like most about the clip is how he utilizes space. I imagine part of this stems from his limitations on the instrument along with his innate sense of musicality. I would have loved to have heard an entire set of Jarrett in this configuration.

VIDEO 3: This next clip features a 29-year-old Jarrett on soprano with his American Quartet with Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone, Charlie Haden on bass, and Paul Motion on drums. It was recorded March 5, 1974, at the Jazz Workshop, located in the basement of the Inner Circle Restaurant at 733 Boylston Street in Boston, Massachusetts. The Jazz Workshop was another one of these now defunct musical oases that featured groups led by jazz greats passing through Beantown, like John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

Here, we are going to listen to a piano-less quartet with Jarrett and his group exploring the type of free-form improvisation and group interplay forged by Ornette Coleman’s free jazz trios and quartets and those inspired by them. I love the chemistry between Jarrett and Redman. Jarrett has a lot more command of the instrument than he did with the Charles Lloyd group and is able to hold his own with Redman—and in many cases being the initiator of musical directions. You can also hear some of the Redman influence has rubbed off on Jarrett in terms of language and tonal inflections. There are even times, I feel he sounds like Dewey up an octave. Let me know what you think.

VIDEO 4: This fourth and final clip is from a live concert recorded at the Theater am Kornmarkt, Bregenz in Austria in May of 1976--unfortunately, this is just audio. It was later released on a 1979 ECM recording titled The Eye of the Heart, which featured the members of his American Quartet with Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone, Charlie Haden on bass, and Paul Motion on drums.

Now we hear a 31-year-old Jarrett who now has a fully developed musical voice on the instrument. And many ways, Jarrett was extremely lucky in that he spent years working with three of the most distinctive sounding saxophonists: Charles Lloyd, Dewey Redman, and Jan Garbarek. In fact, Jarrett's sound seems almost a mixture of the three, topped with lots of Jarrett, mind you.

CONCLUSION: It's interesting hearing Jarrett's progress on the soprano throughout the years. It almost seems unfair that he has distinctive voices on instruments from two entirely different musical families. But I guess some of us have it like that. And I'm glad he does. It's great that we get a chance to hear the soprano from a new and unique perspective.

One funny anecdote, before I go: Several years ago,  I was taking the Amtrak with Dewey Redman, going from New York to Boston to play a gig with the Matt Wilson Quartet at the Regatta Bar. This was a cool gig, by the way, with Joel Frahm playing tenor saxophone, Yosuke Inoue on bass, and Matt Wilson on drums.  Matt and the others drove up, and I was asked to ride with Dewey to make sure he got there "safely." A few hours into our trip, after hearing all of his amazing stories about Coltrane and Ornette, I asked how he liked Jarrett's soprano playing. I thought for sure he was going to share my sentiment about his unique and original approach to the instrument. I imagine we'd be like two connoisseurs of rare wine bonding over a $23,000.00 bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Wrong! His response was nothing like I expected. His exact words were, "Man, every time he pulled out that thing, I would cringe!" Ouch! I was crushed. But I was not about to debate him. After all, he was Dewey Redman. Even though he said that I'm convinced he meant it. It's obvious that Jarrett was no hack. 

But then I thought, maybe it's a straight horn thing.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Albert Ayler on Soprano Saxophone

Many know saxophonist Albert Ayler as the 1960s free jazz tenor saxophonist with the big and brawny sound, infused with blues, gospel, and R&B. He was also an interesting soprano player.

Let me begin by saying that refined is not the first thought that comes to mind when you hear him work out his ideas on the straight horn. Spirited is probably a more accurate summation.

The recording, My Name is Ayler, is his first as a leader on the Debut label, a small Dutch record company based in Copenhagen. This album features Ayler wailing and screaming his way through five jazz classics and an original titled “C.T.”

 It is on the Ray Henderson/Mort Dixon piece “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” that we hear Ayler on the soprano. After hearing only a couple of bars, there is no hiding that Ayler was influenced by Coltrane’s extended version of the song (17 minutes and 55 seconds, to be exact) which he recorded on the tenor saxophone two years earlier on an album of the same name on Pablo Records. Coltrane was a mentor to Ayler, often loaning him money for food and bills, and was even the catalyst behind Ayler getting signed to the Impulse! label in 1964, which afforded him the financial stability he hadn't yet experienced during his career.

Ayler's approach to the soprano is undoubtedly more textural than melodic. I imagine he didn’t feel comfortable enough on the instrument to play it melodically. This is often the case. Typically a saxophonist playing the soprano has two choices to make: Either rein it in or let the instrument run amuck, like a wild boar. Personally, I like hearing both—and even playing both ways when I’m able. One of the paradoxes of the soprano is that it’s an instrument on which it's much easier to play wild and uninhibited than to play simple and melodic.

And to say that Ayler is over blowing the soprano on this recording would be a gross understatement. In fact, he sounds like he's dismantling the conventional concept of notes and is veering straight into the realm of noise. Which was not uncommon for him, even on the tenor. I'd be curious to know if Ayler is using the stiff synthetic Fibrecane reeds that he typically used on tenor. This would certainly explain the coarseness of his sound.

What I also find interesting was Ayler's tonal flexibility. He seemed to be able to employ the long glissandos for which he was known on tenor, giving his soprano playing a primitive but vocal-like quality.

The other players heard on this track are Niels Brosted on piano, Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson on bass, and Ronnie Gardiner on drums. As you’ll hear, his sidemen take a more conventional approach to the song. In fact, in his Allmusic review, jazz critic Thom Jurek, who gave the album three stars, wrote, "This is a strange record, like a soloist mismatched with the recording of another band…”

Even though the recording is aesthetically imbalanced, as suggested by Jurek, containing only the extremes of avant-garde improvisation and straight ahead swing, there is something very cool about hearing Ayler doing his thing on soprano, no matter how raw and unrefined.  But enough said. Check it out. Let me know what you think.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Outer- and Inner-Directed Forms of Improvisation

Since my last recording,  I've come to realize that I rely heavily on two distinct forms of improvisation: outer-directed and inner-directed. Outer-directed improvisations are those heavily influenced by the musical values of those with whom we're playing. Simply put, our improvisations are shaped by external influences. Whereas with inner-directed improvisation our musical ideas are direct results of our own musical values and thoughts. Our improvisations are shaped by few if any external influences. This is very common with solo performances; this is also one of the reasons why playing solo is so difficult. 

Jazz by its very construct is an other-directed improvisational process. Being the communal art form that it is, what we create is heavily influenced by those around us, whether it be a rhythm section player, another horn player, or a singer that we are accompanying. Our ideas are often reciprocations of their musical influence. This is the norm in jazz--which is why we are very careful about who we choose to hire or even accept gigs with.

Inner-directed improvisation, like many of the pieces on Sopranoville, is a different creative animal. The improvisational reciprocations are to my own prerecorded musical ideas, which were composed in real time. This is one of the reasons I've likened my inner-directed form of improvisation to the self-appropriated portraits of Frida Khalo. She, too, found the inner-direction to be the mode of choice.

Inner-directed improvisation certainly has its pros and cons.

  • It's easier to obtain musical clarity.
  • Having sonic uniformity is less challenging.
  • There's more textural uniformity.
  • Performers have more aesthetical control of the music.

  • Music can lack variety.
  • Music can become too predictable.
  • Music can become emotionally leveling.

Now, the same can be said for outer-directed improvisation.

  • There are more musical ideas to be influenced by.
  • There is more musical synergy between the performers.
  • Performers have to work less hard to stay inspired.

  • Sometimes you cannot control the direction of the music.
  • Too many musical influences can create less clarity.
  • Having the correct assemblage of performers is a must.

I would not say that one approach is better than the other. But outer-directed improvisation certainly is less limiting, which is why it's probably more commonplace. But then again, inner-directed improvisation might allow you to arrive at music that sounds original. It forces you to go more deep into yourself. When it's just you, you have no choice. My advice:  Give them both a try. Weave in and out of them as you venture down your artistic journey. 

And check out the most recent review of Sopranoville by Raul da Gama

Friday, June 2, 2017

Zen Parable: Maybe (The Art of Indifference)

Zen parable: Maybe

 Once upon a time, there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

  “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

  The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

  “Maybe,” replied the old man.

  The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

  “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

  The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

  “Maybe,” said the farmer.
This story is a reminder that there's a natural order to life. Within this order, there are highs and lows, sunny days and cloudy days, good times and bad times--none of which do know will bring us fortune or misfortune. These things are out of our control. Life is a perfect chain of events, connected by perfectly arranged and imperfect links.

For each event that happened in the farmer's life, he had the wisdom not to get too excited over the good things, nor too upset over the bad--for all were necessary for his journey. And where each of these events eventually led, were revealed in due time.

As musicians, we must approach our music and careers with the same wisdom. Whether we're seeking the high-profile gig, the sweet record deal, top billing on festivals, or accolades from those in the industry, we should not put too much importance in any of these. Some of these things will lead to our happiness, some will leave us perpetually sad. And as demonstrated in the story about the farmer, you just never know.

I used to be roommates with a guy named John, who kind of approached life in this way. John always appeared negative or pessimistic, because every time something seemingly good happened, he would always respond with "We'll see." Our conversations we're usually Like this:

Me: Hey, John, your two-week tour in Europe should be nice.
John: We'll see.
Me: John, when your record comes out, that's going to be some great exposure.
John: We'll see.
Me: John, your new girlfriend seems nice.
John: We'll see.

I always looked at John as a skeptic. He was never really emotionally invested one way or the other. Today, however, I understand his feelings. 

Thinking about all of these things takes me back to 1999 when I got signed to a record deal with Columbia/Sony. I finally thought that I had a chance of having a career as a solo artist. Unfortunately, I was dropped from the label a year later. As you can imagine, I was pretty devastated. But like the unfortunate events in the farmer's life, this, too, ended up being a blessing in disguise.

Losing my recording contract taught me that relying on others for my sound was artistically too risky because all of my success was too beholden to others. Consequently, I was forced to dig deeper to find my own sound, which I was able to do through recording solo saxophone CDs. Playing solo taught me how to be interesting as a player and tap into that which is uniquely me. I never would have discovered this with my group Global Unity. I was too preoccupied with trying to project my vision through the members of my band rather than through my own instrument. So where I lost an opportunity to have a successful career as a solo artist, what I gained was a musical voice--which is much more valuable.

As musicians, we must approach life, our music, and careers with a certain level of indifference. Like the farmer, we must not get too emotionally invested, one way or the other. Our story and the effects of our music will continue long after we're gone. That album you released that only got two stars in Downbeat, might change lives decades later. That tune that you wrote, last minute, might define your legacy. You just never know.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Cup of Tea: A Parable about the Dangers of the Ego

A Zen Parable: A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” 

I think the lesson to be learned from this is pretty simple. To get the most out of life and our daily encounters, on and off the bandstand, we must approach life with an open mind and an open heart. 

Musically speaking, if you go into playing situations with a pre-fixed musical agenda, other than to get out of the way of the music, you’ll probably be oblivious to all of the music that's being created in real time--more important, all of the music that wants to be created. In fact, I remember attending a Dave Liebman clinic a few years back, where he was discussing the importance of listening to all of the members of the band. As an example of the antithesis to this idea, he mentioned a young tenor player who already knew what licks he was going to play, on which tunes, before he even got to the gig. 

I still laugh when I think about it. 

But the point that Liebman was making speaks exactly to the lesson of the parable. Like the professor who was “full of his own opinions and speculations,” the young tenor player also came with a full musical cup and was not able to make room for any new music that transpired during the performance. 

Approaching music this way is harmful for a few reasons:
  1. You end up only listening to yourself, and not the members of the band.
  2. The band never gets a chance to create the chemistry that makes jazz magical.
  3. You as the improviser, never really learn the true art of improvisation. 
  4. And most tragically, you will always be an ego-centered player, and will never experience enlightenment through music.
The story of the professor is very telling about the destructiveness of the ego. It’s sort of like a drug. It gives us short term satisfaction, but long term it makes us very miserable, and could possibly destroy us. And musically speaking, it stunts our growth, our careers, and ultimately our happiness. 

So as Nan-in tried to teach the professor:  In life, we must empty our cups. This is the only way to make room for the knowledge and wisdom that makes us better musicians, better people, and better spirits.

As Bruce Lee so eloquently put it:  "The usefulness of the cup, is its emptiness."

Monday, May 15, 2017

Working Very Hard: The Pitfalls of Shortcuts

Working Very Hard (Zen parable)

A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”

The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice every day, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”

The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”

For many, the lesson to be learned from this story is obvious. But to those who may not quite see it, let’s unpack it a bit.  The teacher informed the student that if he did what he was supposed to do, which was to follow and absorb his teachings to the fullest extent, or in a modern educational context, master his curriculum, “Ten years” would be how long it would take the student to move through his program, receiving his metaphorical degree in this martial system, along with accompanying skill sets. However, the student did not have the patience to devote this amount of time to learning the system, so he began to inquire about shortcuts, which the teacher explained would end up taking him twice as long.

This story really struck a chord with me, because while I was a student at Berklee, back in the eighties, I encountered many students such as the one in this story. I knew many who spent more time trying to figure out how to keep from practicing than it would have taken them to practice the material at hand.

I once had a roommate named Mark who was impressed with how fast I grew in one semester, so I explained to him that I accomplished this by practicing vocabulary building. I would take one lick or ii-V pattern and practice that one idea through all 12 keys for an entire week until I had thoroughly absorbed it.  Then, after I felt like I really had full command of it, I would practice playing it on different tunes. Once I felt comfortable with this, I would start the process over the next week with a different pattern.

After hearing my story, he became inspired to do the same thing. However, my process sounded too slow for him, so he decided to speed up things up a bit,  and work on two to three pages of licks at a time. He was also playing catch up because now that he was competing with me, he felt like he was behind. At one point, his obsession with speeding up the process became almost comical. He would sometimes show up at jam sessions with his folder of ii-V patterns and would read them as a part of his improvisation. I wish I was joking!

Long story short: He did not improve. He did not “catch up” with me. He eventually dropped out and stopped playing music altogether.

But Mark’s story is a similar one. I’ve seen it in musicians on a macro-level from trying to rush their careers, to micro-levels in rushing the learning process of material they are trying to absorb. And it always ends up with them having to go back to the drawing board to start over again. I call it the groundhogs day effect. Where every day is like starting from scratch.

The lesson of the “Working Very Hard” parable is one that most of us struggle with over a lifetime. There’s really only one remedy: Enjoy the process. Focus on the here and now, not the end result. Approach it as though there is no end, only the journey. And you’ll be amazed at how fast you get there.

Lesson Learned:

There are no short cuts when comes to learning how to play. Be patient with the learning process. Develop a passion for the process, not the result.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Chasing Two Rabbits: A Story of Commitment

Chasing two rabbits: (Zen parable)

A martial arts student approached his teacher with a question. “I’d like to improve my knowledge of the martial arts. In addition to learning from you, I’d like to study with another teacher in order to learn another style. What do you think of this idea?”
“The hunter who chases two rabbits,” answered the master, “catches neither one.”
Now, to truly understand this story, you have to first imagine what chasing two rabbits would actually entail. For starters, you would have to be in two places at once—unless, of course, the rabbits were tied to each other. So to even attempt to do this, you have to first run right, and then left; north, then south; east, then west. Never able to commit to any action fully—not exactly what one would call productive efforts.
It is for this reason I have always been a proponent of narrowing one's artistic focus to a single area. Like the martial arts student chasing the two rabbits, efforts in multiple directions seemed to negate each other. In economics, they call this opportunity costs—which is the value of what must be given up to acquire or achieve something else. In this case, the opportunity cost of trying to catch two rabbits is catching zero rabbits.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture of multi-tasking. Most can’t even walk down the street without talking on the phone or texting. Not only do we not smell the roses, we don’t even know that they exist.
As artists, we must eventually let the second rabbit of life go, and make an unwavering commitment to the one rabbit at hand—our work. It’s not easy. It goes against the grain of societal norm. But it’s only once we make the real commitment to our art, to our vision, to our music, that we find it’s depth, its real beauty, the pearl at the center of its oyster. And with hard work and dedication, we can also pave the way for others to see it, too.

 Lesson Learned

If you have something you’re passionate about, stick to it.  Jumping around from one thing to the next only slows down your growth.

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