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The Singular Path of Sam Newsome

Before sounding a note, soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome told the 70 of us gathered at Holyoke’s Wistariahurst Museum about four epiphanies he’s had in his life. The first one, in middle school, was his realization that music would be central to his life. After establishing a career as a tenor saxophonist, his second epiphany was to forsake the tenor for a new instrument: the soprano saxophone. Then, after hearing a Steve Lacy solo album, Newsome dedicated himself to the art of playing alone. Finally, he committed to concentrating on the broadest manifestation of sound.


His preamble provided a helpful frame of reference for the beguiling, highly original 70 minutes of music that followed. The December 19th event was Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ fifth concert of the season.


Describing the evening by listing all the extraordinary treatments that Newsome employed to alter his soprano, would be to miss the significance, and impact, of his devotion to basic sound science. The concert was more than a succession of innovative techniques; each segment moved us, made us laugh, forced us to ponder assumptions and possibilities.


At two different points in the concert he hooked chimes, one metal, one wood, to his horn. With the chimes dangling, Newsome swayed and created a beautiful tapestry of sound that had a wind-blown randomness, coupled with conscious chromatic intent. During other segments, he attached coiled plastic tubing between his mouthpiece and the body of his instrument, deepening the sound and changing the resonance to resemble a bass clarinet.


He folded a tin pie plate over the bell of his horn after putting objects inside (dried beans? small marbles?) and shook it like a shekere. He produced flatulent, duck-like noises. He attached four balloons to his soprano, creating rubbed percussion. He leaned into the body of the grand piano onstage and blew, creating notes that decayed throughout the lovely Wistariahurst Music Room.


One could describe Newsome’s music as “other-worldly,” but then I had an epiphany of my own: these sounds are not from another world, they were produced by a human being standing right in front of me, using familiar objects. Perhaps it is the narrowness of our experience within the infinite sound world that cause us to characterize these sounds as foreign. Newsome’s commanding technique and fertile imagination elevated the music beyond novelty, to something profound.


Newsome had arranged his accoutrements on the small stage and played in front of it. The flat seating meant that those towards the back had difficulty seeing how he was doing what he was doing. I like to close my eyes when listening to music, but so much sounded so novel, that I, and many others, were craning our necks and shaking our heads throughout.


Newsome employed circular breathing and rapid fingering to produce what I swear was audio signal processing. Some of the most sublime moments occurred when Newsome played it “straight,” with no effects or extended techniques. He played, then deconstructed Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” and later Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” allowing these iconic melodies to shine. At these moments we could fully appreciate Newsome’s virtuosity.


Newsome is an integral part of Darius Jones’ Shades of Black Quartet and Fay Victor’s SoundNoiseFUNK Quartet, but there are few musicians who have devoted such a large portion of their professional life to performing alone. Since 2006 Newsome has released seven solo soprano saxophone recordings. His latest is Chaos Theory: Song Cycles for Prepared Saxophone.


“I’ve always felt playing music must be about more than chasing opportunities to make money and being famous,” Newsome writes in the introduction to his book, Life Lessons from the Horn: Essays on Jazz, Originality and Being a Working Musician. “Since gaining the adulation of strangers has never been high among my desires and none of these different kinds of fame provide anything extra to our music, I’ve concluded that my creative production is in itself more important.”


We are inspired by, and thankful for this attitude. It is one of the most important criteria we use in programming Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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