Sam Newsome

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



Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Creative Box Principle: The Possibilities within Restraint

The Creative Box Principle is the belief that thinking inside the box spawns more creative ideas than thinking outside of one. The idea is that having limitations, or a very measured parameter through which to create,  prevents us from arriving at typical outcomes. This goes against the grain of what we are commonly taught. Most believe that freedom and inhibition are the active agents generating creative fluidity. In many cases, this is not true.

Whenever I ask students, or even professionals for that matter, who typically plays more traditional forms of jazz, to all of the sudden to start playing free, their improvisation usually becomes more restrictive, not free flowing. I’ve heard many give up mid-solo, exclaiming that they don’t know what to play. The endless possibilities become too much to negotiate. They would feel much freer being directed in which time signature to play in, which chords to play on, and which form to follow. And think about the writers who sit down to write that 300-page New York Times best-seller only to end up with writer's block. However, I’ve never heard anyone getting writer's block from composing a tweet. In fact, only having 140 characters to work with, many find that they now have too many ideas. And this goes back to my theory that people think more creatively and divergently when forced to create inside of a box.

It has been said that what made many of Miles Davis's groups unique and original sounding, wasn’t so much what they played, but what they didn’t play. And this is the best-kept secret among most great artists. Their originality and seemingly endless flow of new and under-explored emerge from limitations, not freedom. Take the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollack. Many see him as the embodiment of unrestraint. Not true. Pollack’s work is filled with restraint. He restrained himself from using conventional shapes and colors. He restrained himself from applying paint to the canvas using conventional methods. And typically restrained he from painting onto a canvas sitting upright onto an easel.

Now you can begin to see my point of how creating within a box forces us to be even more creative.

Me making the conscious decision to only play the soprano saxophone is another prime example. For me, much of the tenor and alto saxophone vocabulary I had acquired did not translate over smoothly to the soprano. Consequently, I had to go deeper into the sonic sphere at hand. Because of my lower range limitations, I was forced to extend my upper range. Because of the few number of soprano players in jazz at the time, I was forced to seek out improvisatory styles in non-jazz genres, played on instruments with a similar timbre likeness. I could list numerous examples, and they all would prove my point that I was not thinking outside of the box, but inside of one. My box was to play the soprano exclusively. 

I spoke earlier of players who have trouble playing free music because they are unable to negotiate the innumerable possibilities. My advice to them is usually to apply the creative box principle.  And stress that they should not see free playing as a sea of endless possibilities, but a small lagoon from which they can negotiate a limited set of ideas effortlessly. One might even call it the Twitter method. Limiting themselves to the metaphorical 140 characters would often leave their creative appetites hungry for more. Many of the greatest free players had this. Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, and Albert Ayler,  all improvised in the free context with great clarity. It was pretty apparent that they were not creating in the metaphorical vastness of the sea. Their solos are often melodic, musical, and easy to follow—beautiful lagoons if you will.

I will continue to write about this because it's an interesting perspective that I feel warrants much deeper exploration. But in closing, I'd like to stress that when applying the creative box principle as a means to unconventional outcomes, you have to remember to be patient. It sort of like when you walk into a dark room, you have to give your senses a chance to adapt to the lack thereof.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

10 Rules for Success as an Artist

The following is a list of guiding principles that have kept me continually inspired, and have given me the courage and tenacity to stay focused over the years. And for the record, I hardly consider myself a success. I and my work will always be a work in progress--this is the path I have chosen. Now all of these rules are not for everybody, but I'm sure there's a little something in here for everyone. 

1. Learn to see yourself as a business of which you are the CEO.
When we see ourselves as part of a business, instead of as a business, we spend all of our time competing as metaphorical employees, rather than claiming our own artistic turf as CEOs. Originality is the surest way to hover above our competitors. 

2. Do one thing uniquely well.
In order to stand out from the crowd, your artistic vision should be narrowly focused. Being jacks-of-all-trades certainly increases our work opportunities, but these are not the kinds of opportunities that lead to us becoming stand alone entities.

3. Aim for an artistic monopoly.
We have our whole lives to branch out. The first thing we should focus on is establishing ourselves as experts in a particular area, and then branch out. Whatever we do, we have to first own it, and then build on that foundation. Take Google and Amazon for example.

4. Have a plan, but be willing to revise it.
Planning and being creative are not linear processes. You have to start with a plan, but realize that it’s just the first draft. Like any book, it will never be great without serious editing and revise. And even then, it's hit or miss.

5. We must be narcissistic, yet humble.
Narcissism gives us the courage and confidence to go against the grain of popular opinions. Humility enables us to hear the opinions that really matter.

6. Embrace failure.
Failure is absolutely necessary for growth. A willingness to fail keeps us adventurous and unafraid to try new things. Many failures are just unexpected outcomes. Sometimes the unexpected is even better than the expected.

7. Be selfish as an artist, and altruistic with what you create.
As artists, we must be selfish. Otherwise, we spend all of our efforts trying to satisfy others, rather than pursuing that which is inspiring us. Then of course, once we bring that which is inspiring us to fruition, then my advice is to give, give, give; and share, share, share.

8. Believe that anything is possible, but then know your limitations.
As artists, we cannot be afraid to dream. The world needs to be our canvass. However, knowing our limitations keeps us from pursuing paths that will yield few positive outcomes.

9. Be willing to lose those who are close to you.
Not everyone in our inner circle is going to follow us. When we are pursuing change and people who are close to us are not, we might have to leave them behind. And in some instances, they eventually come around.

10. Treat your art and career like a flower: plant the seeds in healthy soil, nurture them over time, and wait patiently for them to bloom.
Anything of substance, especially the new and underexplored, is going to take time. So as long as your vision is unwavering, and your foundation is solid, all you have to do is to keep watering it, and watch it grow.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Frida Khalo Effect: Redefining the Artistic Selfie

The Frida Khalo Effect is a term I‘ve coined that speaks to creative works in which the subject appears in numerous representations. Examples of this can be seen in movies, paintings, cartoons, and music. The Mexican-born surrealist painter Frida Khalo personified this to the most extreme degree. It's not uncommon for Khalo to appear in one of her paintings in numerous representations. She is the sole subject--the protagonist, the antagonist, and all the players in between. Self-exploitation is her brand. Mind you, much of her fascination with this idea results from her having had to spend time in isolation, first from having contracted polio as a child and then having to be bedridden, months at a time due to back and hip injuries that resulted when a wooden bus that she was riding in was hit by a train--injuries that plagued her most of her life. As Khalo put it, she painted what was around her, and mostly what she saw was herself.

On my new recording, I've also experimented with this idea of self-exploitation, the aural selfie, if you will, through the use of over-dubbing. On Sopranoville, the soprano appears in a wide range of configurations from duos to quindectets, as well as textures: flutter tonguing, squawks, multi-phonics, Doppler Effects, you name it.

In the world of painting, self-portraits are considered one of the most difficult to paint. Similarly, in jazz, solo recordings are the most difficult--particularly for wind players. And this is how I've used the work of Frida Khalo as a source of inspiration. She not only created self-portraits, she redefined the idea by creating portraits with multiple selves. And my approach to Sopranoville was similar in that I not only took on the challenge but I also heavily explored the idea of multiple selves, along with redefining the roles of those multiple selves.

I'm a huge fan of taking that which is a novelty and making it into an art form. Jackson Pollack did something similarly with his drip style. He was not the first experiment with these alternative methods of applying paint to canvasses, but he was the first to go as deeply into it as he did.

The uniqueness of the music sample I'm using is three-fold: One, its "Giant Steps" stripped of its rhythmic framework. So the rhythm that you hear is the natural rhythm that is heard when all of the notes of the melody are played in succession with no rhythmic specificity. Two, this piece features the interplay between three sopranos, thus creating what I call the Frida Khalo Effect. Third, the soprano sound is being filtered through an acoustic sound altering phenomenon known as sympathetic resonance, which explains the lush reverb heard.

It's not apparent to everyone that this is "Giant Steps," but it is.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the track and feel free to listen to the entire CD if you get a chance. There are a lot of interesting things going on.

Enjoy!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Are Publicists Really Necessary?

The following piece is from a chapter in my book Life Lessons from the Horn: Essays on Jazz, Originality and Being a Working Musician. This is my take on publicists. Let me know what you think. And get the book if you have a chance.  

Producing my own recordings -- evidently like 90 per cent of other jazz musicians releasing recordings these days -- I think a lot about publicists. Are they really necessary in a day and age when it's so easy to connect with people from disparate parts of the world, virtually or literally for free? Not to judge harshly, but I see them as the last remnants of the system as it was when record companies were gatekeepers, deciding whose music gets released and who doesn’t. Publicists acted as their foot soldiers, working tirelessly to promote the musicians record companies deemed worthy of their backing. For a fee, mind you.

Today, when many musicians self-release their music, we hire publicists in hopes of gaining more presence for our recordings in the ever-more-competitive yet release-flush market. It's great to live in a time when anybody with musical ideas and access to recording equipment can put out a CD. It's also terrible that these days anybody with musical ideas and access to recording equipment can put out a CD.

Independent publicists are not inexpensive. They may charge from $1,500 to $3,000 per month, which an artist pays hoping one of the three major U.S. jazz publications, the New York Times and/or Wall Street Journal, someone reporting for the innumerable smaller publications, one of an army of bloggers or maybe even someone at NPR will review their recording.

To indulge in a little truth-telling: A rave review won’t pack a club or pay the bills.
However, reviews do play an important role in (1) helping to spread the word about our music to wider audiences, and (2) helping to serve as a means through music is held to certain standards, differentiating the good from the bad. Jazz reviews serve as the antidote to the commonly held idea of musical relativism that asserts that all music is the same, that it is no good and bad. And, essentially, that the colors black and white do not exist -- only the color gray. Jazz criticism does provide important platforms by which truly exceptional work can receive special accolades, gaining well-deserved attention. And this is a good thing. The positive effect makes us all try harder.

I predict that print publications will eventually fade, along with the industry paradigm they once supported (and which supported them). They probably won’t disappear altogether, but rather they will lose some of their relevance. Internet blogs can be a lot more interesting to read because they’re free to be interesting. Writers tend to be more concerned with expressing their true opinions about something or someone, instead of adhering to the aesthetics of an editor or publisher who’s worried about alienating advertisers. Blogs are not financially motivated, they’re free and operate under the age old adage that art and commerce don’t mix. The writing on blogs may be unpolished and unedited, but the ideas are often strong, compelling and original -- which is hard to say what’s in the print magazines, sadly.

Back to publicists: I understand the attraction of getting someone else to do your dirty work. We're musicians. We don't want to spend hours every day emailing journalists, magazine editors and radio stations with news about our new releases. We could be working on new music for our next releases. I'm sure we'd all rather spend our time in our practice rooms than at the post office or on our computers.

But one could argue that the existence of publicists keeps the level of the music low. Here me out: Basically we hire publicists because we want them to help us create a buzz about our recording. But the catch is: Sometimes the music is not buzz-worthy. This is harsh but true. Some music is very middle-of-the-road and doesn't deserve a $3,000 to $5,000 publicity campaign. Of course, no publicist is going to tell you that.

My point is that if we didn’t think there were a chance publicists could somehow pull off a miracle and have everybody raving about our music, who knows? We might not even bother recording it at all. We might wait until we've created something that is of more musical and cultural relevance.

Yes, that’s a tough one. That call's on us. We’d all like to think that everything we put out has musical and cultural relevance. I guess on a basic level we do assume that. From the mere fact that we’re participating in the music scene, we are, we believe, affecting it.

But what often happens is that we make a recording, then hire a publicist to promote it to the jazz media, then wait to see who takes the bait. Instead, we might first find an audience, then create a CD for that audience -- which would totally change the game.

That would put us in the driver’s seat, fostering community and allowing us to think about the longevity of what we’re doing, rather than trying win critical acclaim in the lottery of jazz reviews.  We might better become the shapers of our own future.

I once told a fellow musician about a project I was working on, and he said that there are probably 10 people in the world interested in the kind of music of was speaking of.  But I did not see that as a negative, because it’s that very type of person, on the fringes, who is actually looking for something different. If you’re offering something that speaks to them, they will most likely listen. Moreover, if those 10 people are enthusiastic enough about your music, they’ll tell their friends, and they’ll tell their friends, and that modest number of 10   multiplies into several hundred. And you didn’t spend a dime: no ad was bought, your friends were not spammed, your fans helped you spread your music.

I’ve noticed that publicists spend a lot of time going after what I call the Kind of Blue audience. These are diehard jazz fans and industry people who love the classics. They are only interested in new music if it sounds in some way like the classic records we have plenty of. We fail to realize that this audience already has a full collection. If they never hear a new CD for the rest of their lives, they’ll probably live just fine. It seems self-defeating to make chasing this crowd the focus of a publicity campaign, with the financing coming out of our own pockets.

Let's face it: Some CDs are best left as musical business cards, simply letting people know who we are and what we do. I can be totally content with that. Every recording doesn’t have to make a big splash. That sort of thinking is carried over from a time when record companies tried to break a new artist by outspending other companies promoting their flavors of the month. Imagine a visual artist holding a showing at a gallery every time he or she completed a new piece.

Publicists exploit our somewhat naive desire to want to build a career from one or two recordings. I don’t want to demonize them, I know they’re just offering a service, and if the artist has his or her act together, having a publicist can be beneficial for all parties involved. It can be a great partnership. But that’s often not the case if we just hand over our product to them, without any direction or purpose other than "get me some publicity."
I feel that musicians have come a long ways since the days of putting their demo tapes into the hands of a&r (artist and repertoire) executives, hoping they would listen to it and deem him or her worthy of being contracted. In hindsight, it’s pretty humorous that we gave these people so much power. However, we never really gave them that power, they just happened to be arbitrators of circumstance.

Marketing guru Seth Godin often talks about creating music that’s remarkable. Not remarkable as being extremely good, but remarkable as in being worth making a remark about. To do so takes imagination, patience, and most of all courage. You have to be willing to go out on the limb and fall on your face. Or as Wayne Shorter says, “Go down with the ship.”

My own experience with a publicist produced great results. The money it cost was well spent. I'm not convinced that was because my publicist ran a great publicity campaign. What happened with my CDs, I speculating, is that they went into the mail along with several others that week the publicists were hired to promote, and when someone took the bait, then I won. If not . . . oh well, maybe next time. In many cases, I did win, and I received a lot of positive press. You never know how journalists and editors are going to respond to our music. Our worst fear may be that our CD ends up in the hands of someone who finds the same faults with our music that we do. We’ve all been there -- praying that no one hears how we fluffed the eighth note at the end of the 13th bar of the third chorus of the sax solo.

Many musicians have argued that the amount of money they make from CD sales does not justify the price of a publicist. On the surface, that seems a logical claim. If you spend $3,000 on a publicist and sell only 20 CDs on CD Baby and Amazon for $15.99, what’s the point? I empathize with those who take this position, but it is shortsighted.

Let’s look at what a publicist’s job could be. A good publicity campaign should be in conjunction with a record-release tour, so as you travel from city to city, state to state, country to country, the publicist could work to plug your record in everywhere you’re playing, trying to get you radio spots, television appearances and features in local publications by any means at their disposal. Unfortunately, the industry has changed. There aren’t enough clubs and concerts to support the extensive tours that used to be viable with support funds from record labels.  

This used to be the recording artist paradigm:
1.     Labels would sign artists
2.     Artists would record and release a CD
3.    Labels would work with managers in overseeing the artist’s career
4.     Managers would work with booking agents
5.     Booking agents would work with music presenters to get the artist gigs, and with labels to get tour support to supplement the income from the tour
6.     Publicists would work with various media people wherever you played, which helped get people to your gigs and perhaps to the record store to buy your record.

In our current business model, only numbers two and six are still in widespread practice. Yet the publicist’s price remains the same (and now musicians, not record companies, pay it). This is why see ever more musicians ask “Is a publicist worth it?”  If you only look at publicist’s services = CDs sold, the answer will be a definite “no.”

However, if you look at it as publicist’s services = more awareness of you and for your music, then the answer is yes. Without the other components of the recording artist paradigm, you can’t have the same expectations of results from the publicist’s work. Now, exposure is the only thing that they can really offer you, and CD sales are but a small part of that of that exposure. You see financial rewards in a more indirect way.

A rave review in the New York Times might make more musicians aware of what you do, and they might be more inclined to hire you for their own gigs. By you working with a wider range of musicians, you’re also being exposed to more presenters and bookers, and by getting exposed to more presenters and bookers, you can get more work for your band. By working more with your band, more people will hear and learn about your music, consequently buying more of your recordings. So hiring a publicist can pay off financially, but indirectly.

Even viewing things from this perspective, it’s hard to say definitively that a publicist is worth their price.  Maybe only time will tell. I imagine people, myself included, won't abandon the idea of hiring a publicist to promote their new releases anytime soon. But I do know this: If publicists have only cookie-cutter approaches, like the much used  “let me put it in the mail and see what happens” strategy, they will find themselves on the sidelines along with a&r reps and many record producers watching an industry move on without them. Just as musicians and artists have had to change how we go about things, so do they.


Monday, April 3, 2017

A Needle in a Haystack: Getting Inspiration from Unlikely Places

As an artist, I often feel like a fraud. Little of what I do and what I play is anything that I created. My real talent is not coming up with original thoughts, but being able to see the parallels between the commonplace and the under-explored. What appears as random occurrences to others, often appear to me as logical sequences in perfect chaotic order. 

One of the reasons that I enjoy listening to experimental music is that I'm able to take away from the listening experience a new order of constructing musical ideas, producing unconventional sounds, and hearing the order in chaos. In some cases, finding that which is great is like hunting for a needle in a haystack. And I've rummaged through numerous stacks in recent years. 

Many don't have the patience to await the sporadic moments of greatness to emerge from much of the music I listen to. That's not how we are conditioned to appreciate music during this age of shortened attention spans. I get it. I've been there numerous times myself. We need to have a comprehensive understanding of the piece in the first 8 bars, and there must be transcribe-worthy ideas played with in the first chorus of the solo. Again, I've been there many times. But what I'm often seeking is the under-explored, or if I'm lucky, something new. 

When you don't limit yourself to the typical go-to players, the types of players you end up listening to run the gamut as far as ability and historical significance. 

I've often listened to recordings or watched YouTube clips of someone who was hardly considered "one of the cats." But then he or she would play something that would make me go "Wow! What was that?!" In some cases that would be all that was played which caught my attention. But if that one idea enabled me to see things from a new perspective, then in my mind, it was well worth it. Just check out one of those 20-minute Evan Parker circular breathing solos. Every moment is not going to be utter brilliance. But around 5:22 into it, he might place something that will make you rethink the sonic possibilities of the saxophone. Many ideas with the potential to impact us musically, are not always going to have the easy Kenny Garrett and Mark Turner accessibility and/or applicability. 

Just as the creative process is not linear, neither should the stage of information gathering. And in closing,  I'd like to leave you with a little biblical verse--not to go all Jesus-freak on you:  
"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." Matthew 7:7

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Marcel Duchamp Approach to Music

I have always loved the Marcel Duchamp idea of turning everyday life into art. Taking that which is personal and private and bearing it front and center for the world to see. Those of you not familiar with Marcel Duchamp, he was a 20th-century French painter and sculpturer who was considered the father of conceptual art. He coined the phrase "readymade," which referred the mass-produced everyday objects taken out of their usual context and presented through a more high art lens. 

How did I translate this to music?


Well, fidgeting with the instruments keys is a saxophonist's most frequent and subconscious pass time. We do it before we really play. After we really play, and often while others are playing. But what if these moments that we unconsciously dismiss as mere perfunctory movements of our fingers were viewed as creative gardens where profound musical moments are grown. And not just perfunctory sounds we make to pass the time.

On my new recording, Sopranoville: New Works for Prepared and Non-Prepared Saxophone, I recorded three pieces that demonstrate this in true Marcel Duchamp fashion. It was an interesting experiment to try. Going into it, I had no idea how it would unfold. But much to my surprise, the results were pleasurable. I was most excited in that I had stumbled onto a new sound--at least one that was new for me. These pieces reaffirmed one of my affirmations, which is that if you want unconventional results, the process through which you create must also be unconventional. You can practice the C major scale until the cow's come home, and it will only produce a C major scale, just faster and cleaner. 

Thinking in this non-linear way inspired many of the pieces I created on this recording. As artists, once we get over the initial fear of producing creative flops, we liberate ourselves in the process. When I'm putting together these improvisatory type albums, such as Sopranoville, often what I create is a dismal failure, I must humbly admit. But, occasionally I will have a creative breakthrough that will make it all worth it. This is life. Sometimes you have to just go for it, and be patient for the gems that emerge from the creative rubble. 


This piece is from the Clicktopia series on the recording. This is called Clicktopia Part 1: Music for Six Sopranos. Let me know what you think. There will be more to come. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

SOlo CoNCeRt at the 440 Gallery: Next Sunday!




On Sunday, April 2, 2017, at 4:40 pm at the 440 Gallery at 440 6th Avenue in Brooklyn (Do you see a pattern here?),  I will be performing works from my new solo recording Sopranoville: New Works for Prepared and Non-Prepared Saxophone. This performance is a part of the “Me, Myself, and I” solo concert series presented by Michel Gentile. And I have to say, I'm really excited and really nervous about the release of this CD.  Over the past few years, I've gotten used to rattling the cage-of-conventionalityBut now, I've taken that cage, thrown it on the ground and kicked it a few times. It's been fun pushing my own limits. However, I'm still amazed at how scary the thought of releasing the results of these new limits into the world are.

Just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about: During the final session, I recorded one piece titled "Micro-Suite for 15 Sopranos, " which on the surface sounds pretty insane. One soprano without accompaniment sounds strange enough,  but 15 is over the top. And there were a few moments while listening to the playback where I thought, "Wow, this is new territory." Not necessarily good territory, but certainly new. And it's scary to think that over-dubbing 15 sopranos will someday be my normal. In some ways,  I guess it already is. 

Thanks to my recent NYFA fellowship, I was afforded the resources to go into the studio five or six times from August of 2016 to November of 2016, with no tunes, no written notes, and no idea of what I was going to record. My only agenda was to have fun--which I did. Exploring the concept of prepared soprano was new for me. But it is quickly becoming my new normal.

And I realize that the soprano sax played in a conventional way can be a bit much for people, so I can only imagine the response to hearing the soprano altered (or prepared) by attaching aluminum foil to the bell or covering the opening the neck with scotch tape and punching small holes inside for bursts of air to escape through. Pretty wild stuff. Certainly a creative framework I'd like to explore further.

But it was wonderful to be able to compile these several hours of sonic exploration and adventure into a full-length CD. I went into this recording thinking that it might be my last one for a while. But who knows, maybe I have a few more left in me. I guess only time will tell.


And once again, the set at 440 Gallery begins at 4:40 PM. Copies of my new CD will also be available. Maybe I'll even sell them for $4.40 per CD! OK. You can STOP laughing now!

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