Courage and vision in the creation of art are rarely rewarded commercially. Sam Newsome proved it does occasionally happen, though the outcome is never certain. After years spent developing a reputation as a first-rate tenor saxophonist alongside Terrance Blanchard, Donald Byrd and Lionel Hampton, Newsome gave up the tenor to concentrate exclusively on the soprano sax. It was a risk, but he developed a musical identity on soprano, and eventually a forward-looking, "cross-cultural jazz" group to present it. His reward came in a deal with Columbia Records. Sam Newsome & Global Unity
was released worldwide in 1999 to enthusiastic praise from musicians and admirers. It failed to reach a wider audience, though, and Columbia dropped the group and its leader this year. For some, that might have been the end of the journey, but for Sam Newsome it's proving to be another step forward.
All About Jazz: Why did you switch to soprano?
Sam Newsome: Basically, I wanted to get to something more lyrical, because I felt like when I was playing the tenor I would rely more on things I had worked out while I was practicing. But I felt like when I was playing the soprano I was able to be more in the moment.
Having played the tenor for so longjust the whole process of learning to play, it's like you're coming out of bebop so you have that whole lineage with you every time you play. Sometimes it's kind of hard to shake that and move on to the next level where it's more about just being yourself. So I guess switching to soprano was a way of getting to that.
AAJ: Since you were known as a tenor player, what did making the switch do to your career?
SN: Well, basically I found myself pretty much alone in a lot of ways because all the people who were supporters of my tenor playingpeople who would hire me for gigs and that kind of thingI think a lot of them were kind of angry at me, because on the one hand my soprano playing wasn't as good as the tenor, and also because [as a tenor player] I was a part of what they were doing. It was like they couldn't really see the vision that I had. So basically it left me alone to kind of create my own scene.
AAJ: Is it harder to get work now?
SN: Actually, at the moment in a lot of ways it's increasing my gig potential. I think before, someone just playing soprano was never that much of an option, I think because people just naturally associate jazz saxophone playing with tenor and alto and some baritone. Soprano is thought of as an instrument someone doubles on. So people don't often get to hear the result of someone spending three or four hours a day just playing it for many yearsthey don't realize the potential of the instrument. So what I found lately is that a lot of people call me just to do what I do. When they hire me they don't hire me as a soprano playerit's like they are just looking for a voice. I think ultimately you want to get to that. Most of the situations I'm in now it's like I do records where people write tunes with me in mind. As I develop more as a player I think people will start to hear it more and I think I probably will get more work as a sideman.
AAJ: Is there a philosophy, artistic or political, behind Global Unity?
SN: I wasn't thinking along those lines. It started off basically as a jazz trio, so I was writing for the soprano, bass and drums. As it developed I started to add different instruments. I added a percussionist, and this particular guy played the berimbau, djimbehe played a variety of thingsso I got introduced to a lot of sounds. I started writing having these sounds in mind, and the more I got into it I started to hear more textures and I just started bringing in more different instruments. And as it went on I heard different people. And I wasn't necessarily thinking "world" per se, but for whatever reason these particular instruments like the voice and the oud, and different percussion instruments like the dumbek and djimbe, the timbre of the instruments just seemed to blend well with the soprano. I think it just happened to be like "world music"instruments that are associated with world music.
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 nowcombing 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 changesyou 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.
AAJ: I understand you've been writing lyrics for your vocalist to sing.
SN: I was last year. I don't know; I guess I was always fascinated how you can have lyrics to a melody or vice versa and it just seems to come alive in a way that's really hard to get to when you're playing something that's just totally instrumental. It's almost like you can take a picture and when you add the lyrics it becomes 3D.
AAJ: So how did you feel it turned out? I gather you're not doing it as much now.
SN: No I'm not. The stuff I wrote I felt like was pretty good. But it's weird, I guess at the time I wasn't so much into being just a player. I was more into being a conceptualist or a bandleader. It was almost like I heard the rest of the people in my group almost like an extension of my voice, in a way. I felt like the focus wasn't just on my playing. But the past four or five months it's kind of shifted and it's like I'm back in this space where I really want to play. You know, I'm practicing a lot every day and it's just like I'm really into the sound of the instrument and just playing with people. Now I feel like where I was when I was playing tenor before I stopped. You're just into playing. You're not thinking about other people so much. So that's kind of like where I'm at now.
AAJ: How did you connect with Columbia records?
SN: Well, the group had started to gel and I had all the instrumentsit just started to feel really good and I just felt like, "I really need to record this now." It felt like it was at a place where I felt like the three or four years I had been putting into itI think it had finally gotten to a place where it was time to document it. So I went into the studio and I recorded a CD.