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.