Sam Newsome Explores Ellington, Coltrane and African Suites on Third in a Trilogy of Solo Soprano Sax Releases.


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Following such acclaimed projects as 2010's Blue Soliloquy (which received a five-star rating from Downbeat and was named one the Best CDs of 2010  by All About Jazz) and 2007's Monk Abstractions, virtuoso saxophonist Sam Newsome unveils the third in a trilogy of potent solo soprano recordings, The Art of the Soprano, Vol. 1. Utilizing an array of extended techniques on the straighthorn, from circular breathing to multiphonics to slap-tongue percussive effects, Newsome puts his own personal stamp on John Coltrane's  A Love Supreme suite and on three tunes by Duke Ellington while also weaving in strikingly original themes relating to the continent of Africa. With this boldly adventurous outing, Newsome continues to expand on the experimental vocabulary created by such sax pioneers as Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker.

While the prospect of tackling Coltrane's most potent and spiritually-charged suite might be a daunting task for most saxophonists, Newsome felt free to extrapolate on the familiar “Acknowledgement," “Resolution," “Pursuance" and “Psalm" themes with impunity. “The fact that I'm playing it solo saxophone made the process less intimidating because there's less comparison to be made with the original," says Newsome. “For instance, Branford Marsalis probably felt more self-conscious about being compared to John Coltrane when he recorded A Love Supreme, since he was performing it with the same instrumentation—which made it easier for people to compare and contrast. However, what I'm doing is so vastly different from the original, that I feel people can listen to it and accept it on its own merits.

“Playing solo sax is very liberating for me," he adds. “It's a format that isn't as historically codified as the conventional sax, piano, bass, and drum setting. So I feel freer to experiment and switch things around as I please."

His rendition of Ellington's “In a Mellow Tone" shows his sheer command of slap tonguing, which gives the effect of a tuned percussion instrument. His version of Duke's hauntingly beautiful “In a Sentimental Mood" is a showcase of circular breathing that allows him to create dazzling arpeggios while his “Caravan" incorporates slap tonguing, multiphonics and insinuating Middle Eastern lines. Regarding his extraordinary mastery of slap tongue technique, Newsome says, “A lot of people think that I'm pressing down the keys to get the percussive sound, but it's actually done with the tongue. It's the suction on reed that's creating the popping sound. There's also a wood block slap tongue, which has no discernable pitch, just a loud timbre, like the sound of two pieces of wood being hit together. The pitched slap tongue, which I'm using throughout this album, is where you can hear the percussive sound with a discernable pitch. I think it's closer in sound to the African baliphone, which has more of a woody sound as well as distinct musical pitches."

That tuned percussion sound is a natural for the four original pieces comprising Newsome's “Soprano de African Suite" - “Burkino Faso," “Zulu Witch," the grooving 12/8 “Fela!" and the remarkable “Sub Sahara Dialogue," which incorporates daring  intervallic leaps and a kind of call-and-response interplay like the two hands of a pianist simultaneously comping and playing melody lines.

Regarding his use of multiphonics throughout The Art of Sopano, Vol. 1, Newsome says, “The first time I ever heard multiphonics was on John Coltrane's 1964 record Coltrane's Sound, on a tune called 'Harmonique." I read that he discovered multiphonics while rehearsing with Thelonious Monk and Monk was fascinated by the different fingering combinations he made when he played the saxophone. So Monk said to him,'What would happen if while playing this note you lifted up this finger?' And when he did, he discovered what became known as multiphonics, which led him to investigate them further. So in a round about way, one might say that Thelonious Monk actually started it all."

Newsome adds this his use such kinetic arpeggios on pieces like “In a Sentimental Mood" came from having practiced so many classical etudes in his earlier years while trying to develop his technique. “There are a lot of classical etudes written for the saxophone that spell out harmonic progressions simlar to what I did on “In a Sentimental Mood."

“I started playing arpeggios more after checking out Sidney Bechet. His style of playing was very arpeggiated, which may stem from the fact that his concept originated from the clarinet. But whatever the case, that way of playing seems to work really well on the soprano."

The native of Salisbury, Maryland (born April 28, 1965) grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where he began on alto saxophone at age nine before switching to tenor sax at age 13. He studied Jazz Composition and Arranging at the Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1983 to 1987 and ended up touring Europe during the summer of 1987 with trumpeter Donald Byrd. After relocating to New York City, he joined trumpeter Terence Blanchard's quintet in 1989 and remained in the group until 1993, recording several CDs on the Columbia label, including Terence Blanchard, Simply Stated and the Malcolm X Jazz Suite. His debut recording as a leader, 1990's Sam I Am, was named one of the top 10 CDs of the year by New York Times jazz critic Peter Watrous. In 1995, he switched to soprano sax exclusively and formed his cross-cultural Global Unity band, which featured vocalist Elisabeth Kontomanou and violinist Meg Okura (whom he later married in 2004).

In 2005, after several years of playing with Global Unity, Newsome decided to take a hiatus from performing as a leader to develop his musical concept for solo soprano saxophone. “When you're playing solo, the key is to trust your instincts," he says. “There is an immediate response that you get from other players when you're in a band that enables you to see how well things are going musically. It could be anything from the way they're comping behind you to some type of verbal affirmation. However, when you're playing solo, it's just you, and you're not always sure if what you're doing is OK.  You're just trusting that you're making the right musical decisions. I constantly have to remind myself to just get out of the way of the music."

He released his first solo soprano album, Monk Abstractions, in 2007 and followed with the acclaimed Blue Soliloquy in 2010. In 2011, the Jazz Journalists Association named Newsome as one of its finalists for “Soprano Saxophonists of the Year," along with nominees Dave Liebman, Jane Ira Bloom, Jane Burnett, Wayne Shorter and Evan Parker. With The Art of Soprano, Vol. 1, Newsome takes the next incremental leap in his stellar career.

“Initially when I first decided to release this CD, I had made up my mind that this was going to be the final act in this triology of solo recordings," says Newsome. “However, it didn't really feel like the end. I still felt like I had so much more to say. That's when I decided to changed the title of it to Vol. 1, as a way of pushing myself to continue down this path, forcing me to go even deeper into it."

Stay tuned for more extraordinary sounds from this remarkably unique musician.

This story appears courtesy of Two for the Show Media.
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