Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy



Monday, December 19, 2011

Steve Lacy Re-Imagined




Steve Lacy was probably one the most prolific and idiosyncratic composers in jazz. He has made over 200 recordings with numerous ensemble configurations from large chamber groups, with and without text; to solo saxophone, with and without text.

One of my favorites is “Bone.” I first heard Lacy play this piece solo on his CD, Snips:Live at Environ. It was part of a eight-part suite called the “Tao Suite.”

It’s pretty common knowledge that Lacy was heavily influenced by Monk, but on this piece it’s pretty apparent, to me, anyway. If you were to compare “Bone” to the first two bars of Thelonious Monk’s composition “Thelonious,” you can definitely hear the similarities and influence. Of course, for the bridge, they each travel their own unique paths.

Lacy was also the consummate minimalist, as a composer and improviser—a few notes, a few chords, and lots of possibilities. Which is why his tunes are ideal for re-imagining. Especially for me, since I’m into always having the melody present--whether it’s playing it as a motif during my solo, or using it as an interlude.

My initial arrangement of this tune was for a gig with Dave Liebman, with two sopranos, bass and drums. However, in this video clip of my concert at Smalls Jazz Club with Ethan Iverson on piano, Gregg August on bass, and EJ Strickland on drums, I had the piano play the 2nd soprano part.

I’m looking forward to exploring more of Lacy’s stuff in the future.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Four (4) Schools of Solo Saxophone Playing

Since I began exploring this path of playing in the unaccompanied format almost 10 years ago, my style of solo saxophone playing has come to integrate four distinct approaches, ones best named by the players who developed them: 1) Anthony Braxton, 2) Evan Parker, 3) Steve Lacy, and 4) Sonny Rollins.

1) Anthony Braxton - Compositional/Improvisational

 When listening to Braxton play solo saxophone, it can be hard to distinguish between what’s written out and what’s improvised. He often combines 20th century classical composition with improvisation in its most general sense, and not necessarily jazz improvisation--where blues, swing and syncopated rhythms are at the core of the music’s aesthetic. However, the end results are always very musical. Whenever I improvise a piece on the spot, I can rarely do so without thinking about Braxton. The musical equivalent would be playing a sax and drum duo and not think of Coltrane and Elvin.


2.  Evan Parker - Sonic/Soundscape

Evan's  approach is probably the most radical and inventive of the aforementioned players because it has less to do with traditional ways of thinking about music with regards to form, rhythm, and harmony. It's more about exploring the numerous and often unexplored sonic possibilities of the instrument through the use of circular breathing and extending saxophone techniques. While studying Evan Parker’s music I thought it would be interesting to use the concept of playing multiphonics--playing two or more notes simultaneously--out of their usual role of noise and textures, and apply them in a more traditional way, such as using them to create chordal accompaniment. This potentially poses problems when playing with conventionally tuned pianos and guitars, since many of the chords produced using multiphonics are hybrid chords, borrowing from the microtonal and equal temperament scale systems.

3)  Steve Lacy - Head-Solo-Head

Steve Lacy’s style of solo saxophone is the same format used in most traditional jazz performances. Unlike Braxton, Lacy rarely wrote pieces specifically for solo saxophone. He would often take tunes that he played in duo, trios, quartets, quintets, etc., and play them solo. Of course, the solo interpretations sound a lot more free and elastic. Not to mention, that his approach is the most minimal of the four. With Lacy, it's all about sound, not virtuosity. You might say that his virtuosity comes from the way in which he deals with sound. I feel that's why he sometimes he barely improvises. He was able to make his statement with how he played the melody.



4)  Sonny Rollins - Extended Cadenza

I feel Sonny's solo saxophone approach was heavily influenced by the extended cadenzas played by John Coltrane during mid-late sixties, where Coltrane would often play cadenzas at the end of piece, usually ballads that were often longer than the piece itself. Sonny created a style of solo saxophone playing that often takes the listener on a melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and historical journey--drawing heavily upon his calypso background. Sonny’s approach is probably more closely related to Steve Lacy’s, of the aforementioned saxophonists. The big difference being that Sonny usually played on the tune’s harmonic structure (or some type of  harmonic structure), whereas Steve Lacy’s rarely followed as easily identifiable progression. As a matter of fact, he usually played free.


Of course, they are a lot of practitioners of the solo saxophone format that are not on this list. But I narrowed it down to the four whom I think have been the most influential on me. And I can't end this post without a special shout out to Dave Liebman, Lol Coxhill, John Butcher, and of course, Coleman Hawkins, who actually started it all.

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