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Meet Sam Newsome

By Published: August 3, 2007

AAJ: Had you been listening to world music before this?

SN: Not a lot. I had a few records like with African drum groups and different kinds of world beat records where they were kind of doing what I'm doing now—combing different elements. But it wasn't really a conscious thing: "I'm going to play world music and I'm going to have this kind of instrument, that kind of instrument." I just got into hiring different personalities.

AAJ: So, how did you encounter these people?

SN: From having played out around and people having heard the music, they were suggesting, you know, "I heard this guy playing the oud and I think that would definitely sound good with your group." So, it mainly just came from being open. In New York there are so many different scenes, so many different musicians that you can pretty much find anything here, any kind of instrument from any country. It's just a matter of having your eyes and ears open.

AAJ: Did you have to practice particular harmonic and rhythmic ideas to play this music?

SN: Sometimes there are certain scales I may improvise on. There's one certain Turkish scale that I use and there's a Japanese scale I use sometimes and there are certain kinds of Indian scales. But mainly I just try to play the way I normally would play because I think with the music I'm playing now you can't really play jazz licks. You have to approach it like a long-distance runner, in a way. You have to start off with a motif and develop it over a long period of time. It's almost like a lot of folk music where it's very simple and it changes and as you get into it before you know it it's very complex.

AAJ: That must have been a challenge to make the transition from approaching soloing as a jazz musician to having that different vision.

SN: Yeah, it is challenging. I think in a lot of ways it makes playing jazz easier because when you have to create your own path, and then you're given chord changes, you're guided in a lot of ways, so it's a lot easier now. One would think that just playing over one chord or one sound would decrease your ability to play changes, but I think it's actually improved it because it's allowed me to play from a very relaxed space because I don't feel the pressure to make every change. It's like I'm more in the moment. I find that when I'm playing changes now that I'm learning to play colors and textures against the changes and not even think about the changes. It's like you see the overall picture of it. The changes are just changes—you don't really have to play them. It's like you create colors that can go along with the changes as well. It's a like a certain density you can put against them. It's the same concept as superimposing harmonic devices over something, only it's more abstract.

AAJ: What do you see as the connection between the music you play now and the mainstream of jazz? Is there an overlap?

SN: I guess what I do is mainly about melody and rhythm. Playing changes is almost like jumping over hurdles. With my thing it's more like traveling a straight path, but when I play changes it's like it's just a matter of jumping the hurdles as I try to get to where I'm going.

AAJ: Do you use different compositional techniques to write for the group than you would use for an ordinary jazz group?

SN: Not really. I guess the main thing that's different is that I see where the person is and I kind of cater to their strengths. I mean if you have someone playing the oud you can't just put a chord chart in front of them the way you could a guitarist. So I guess what I've learned to able to do is to see where people are at. It's almost like you're a coach in a way, you're just trying to bring [out] the best of what they have to offer. A lot of it has to do with me just getting with them one-on-one and just kind of playing and maybe just playing a vamp or something and just seeing what they come up with naturally, and just taking it from there.

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