Monday, October 02, 2017

Straight Horning: Sam Newsome - Blue Soliloquy

Originally planned for last week, this post was placed on hold due to the Coltrane birthday postThe upshot being I was able to spent a little more time with Blue Soliloquy this week.

I’ve only heard Sam Newsome live once. It was a few years ago at Smalls along with Tim Berne, Andrew Cyrille, and Ethan Iverson - a pretty interesting lineup. I think it was a one-off gig, but I really enjoyed the two sets of free improvisation (not what you really expect at Smalls) and hoped that they would make a record together. That hasn’t happened (yet!) and Newsome has continued to focus on solo recordings. But last week he posted about his upcoming release - Magic Circle, a duo with pianist Jean-Michel Pilc - and it made me reach for Blue Soliloquy.

Life Lessons from the Horn Soprano Saxophone
The first time I heard this album I was struck by Newsome’s upper registers (3rd & 4th octaves). It had been quite a while between spins, but once again it was the upper register playing that really popped out at me. He has a really full tone, with a laser-like focus, that doesn’t thin out or get overly bright as he hits the upper reaches (“Blue Beijing” "Blue Sunday"). The evenness across the entire range of the horn is a standout and I recommend soprano players to check him out - if they haven't already (even if they aren’t investigating the upper register). An added bonus of a solo recording is that it can allow you to hear nuances that may have been hidden by an ensemble.

I like how Newsome presents techniques in way a that may be a bit more palatable to more mainstream audiences. Multiphonics (“Blue Swagger”), quartertones (“Blue Monk”), and slap tongue (“Mandela’s Blue Mbira”) are just some examples that appear in his album-long exploration of the blues. But it’s not just a string of variations of the usual 12-bar format; instead Newsome delves into various musics from around the globe as inspiration for blues exploration. Also, these techniques add plenty in terms of colour and texture, preventing the album from getting bogged down by streams of single note lines (not that this is necessarily a problem, but you have to be pretty special to pull that off of an entire solo sax album).

Sometimes I feel that Newsome’s playing is a little too “arranged.” And while it could be viewed as weakness, I’ve come to view it as adding strength to his solo recordings. It brings focus to the pieces and cuts down on the possibility of them drifting (for what it’s worth… I didn’t have this “arranged” feeling when I heard him live). The length of the pieces, 15 tracks running between 2 and 5 minutes (with only “Blue Sunday” clocking in at 7:45), makes for a program of tunes that remain on the move, and again makes the pieces quite approachable to listeners that may not be accustomed to solo recordings or the “exotic” sounds employed by Newsome.

Also on the cards last week was re-reading various chapters of Newsome's book. I tend to prefer books on jazz from the artists point of view (such as Art Taylor’s Notes and Tones, Ran Blake’s Primacy of the Ear, the Arcana series, Lacy’s Findings and some of Liebman’s books). Life Lessons from the Horn, pulls together short essays on his approach and philosophy of practicing and playing makes for some interesting reading in a very digestible form (adapted from his blog posts).

In a music where everyone struggles to “find” his or her voice, Sam Newsome definitely has one that is his own (and Life Lessons details some of that journey). If anything, Blue Soliloquy has reminded me I need to listen to more Sam Newsome. Eventually, I would like to work through some of his earlier soprano albums (such as his pre-solo work on Steeplechase), but the newly released Magic Circle will likely be my next stop.

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