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Sam Newsome | The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation (The Art of the Soprano, Vol. 2)

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Jazz: Modern Free Jazz Avant Garde: Free Improvisation Moods: Featuring Saxophone
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The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation (The Art of the Soprano, Vol. 2)

by Sam Newsome

This solo saxophone outing combines jazz improvisation and microtonal textures, laced over diasporic African grooves created on the soprano saxophone, using multi-track recording.
Genre: Jazz: Modern Free Jazz
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  Song Share Time Download
1. Echos from Mt. Kilimanjaro
1:43 $0.99
2. The Straight Horn of Africa
3:45 $0.99
3. Explorations of an African Horn, Pt. 1
1:20 $0.99
4. The Obama Song: The Man from Kenya
3:39 $0.99
5. Ethiopian Jews
1:40 $0.99
6. Explorations of an African Horn, Pt. 2
1:36 $0.99
7. N.D. Nile
2:10 $0.99
8. The Snake Charmer of Tangier
2:25 $0.99
9. Microtonal Nubian Horn, Pt. 1
4:16 $0.99
10. Good Golly Miss Mali
1:50 $0.99
11. African Conundrum
1:19 $0.99
12. Sounds of Somalia
2:37 $0.99
13. When the Drum Speaks
1:35 $0.99
14. Microtonal Nubian Horn, Pt. 2
3:58 $0.99
15. Dark Continent Dialogues
2:45 $0.99
16. African Nomads
3:12 $0.99
17. Microtonal Nubian Horn, Pt. 3
4:13 $0.99
18. Nightfall On the Owani Desert
1:45 $0.99
19. The Day and Life of a Hunter-Gatherer
3:00 $0.99
20. Microtonal Nubian Horn, Pt. 4
3:06 $0.99
21. Highlife
3:11 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation

When something like this comes out, it’s just as transcendental as John Coltrane’s recording “Africa.”

These comments by Francisco Mora Catlett, Sam Newsome's frequent collaborator in Catlett's AfroHorn Ensemble, speak to the power and clarity of expression contained in this CD. Newsome's work on THE STRAIGHT HORN OF AFRICA is about exploration. It is about searching. More importantly, it is about liberation. Newsome puts it best when he says, "liberation is a means by which others free themselves from traditional roles and expectations as well as forces of oppression. Liberation fills the void in one's sense of humanity."

Jazz has traditionally been considered the sound of black American liberation, but even jazz itself needs liberating every now and again. But, in the words of Mora Catlett: “We have to know what we are being liberated from.” Mora Catlett explains that the jazz impulse towards liberation is directly opposed to the European tradition, which he describes as a “dictatorship—a system built on subjugation.” The conductor (and the composer beyond that) establishes the contexts in which the musicians and audiences act and react. “Nobody there is independent—nothing outside—of that; there is nothing outside of that,” Mora Catlett adds. “The proposition of jazz, of this tradition that African American people developed in this country, is to liberate themselves from that.”

On this album, Newsome uses the solo soprano saxophone (the “straight horn,” so to speak) as a means of searching out and extending the limits of this musical freedom. Through the use of multi-track recording, and extended techniques like multiphonics (a method of playing more than one note at once), slap tonguing (a percussive effect using the tongue and mouthpiece only), and circular breathing (the ability to play for extended periods without stopping to breathe), he takes the listener on a sojourn through striking sonic landscapes. All the sounds you hear on this CD were made by one man, on one instrument—the soprano saxophone.

The soprano sax itself poses a number of challenges to even the most gifted straight-ahead performers, from pitch and intonation problems, to preventing the sound from becoming too harsh or strident. This explains why saxophonists utilize it so rarely, and even fewer focus on it exclusively. Newsome has embraced the soprano sax as his primary instrument more or less because of these challenges. They prove to be liberating, forcing the player to view their instrument from a different perspective. In attempting to “solve” the problems inherent in the instrument, you discover new techniques, sounds, and abilities that help to redefine your aesthetic parameters. Newsome draws inspiration from Sonny Rollins, who describes his own perspective as one of “childlike discovery in which you approach things with a certain curiosity, innocence, and fearlessness.” For Newsome, this open, liberated approach to the horn frees his mind to experience the music differently. Or, as he puts it, “the freer I am instrumentally, the freer I become artistically.”

Make no mistake: Newsome has the heart of a straight-ahead player (and the chops to match, I might add), but he has the soul of an explorer. Like Coltrane's "Africa," Newsome's performances on THE STRAIGHT HORN are not meant to evoke any specific performances; these are not arrangements of traditional songs. Instead Newsome’s works are informed by the spirit and energy of the continent. This recording—taken as a whole—works more like an exploration of African aesthetics, recognizing Africa as a starting point, not a physically delimited geographic space.

Those expecting to hear Newsome faithfully emulate the instruments or traditions of specific African countries are going to be sorely disappointed—but only so far as that expectation goes. The 21 tracks on this CD do not disappoint. They are evocative, not descriptive or reductive. They showcase possibilities, and in doing so represent the truest spirit of exploration. For that reason, I find it all the more remarkable that we can hear connections to African musics in several of these tracks. The filulu, the kra, the kora are all evoked at various points—but then again, so are John Coltrane, Steve Lacy, and Harry Partch. Newsome's performances are intensely human, they speak to the interconnectedness of humankind, and in doing so, decenter Western European claims at cultural (or musical) superiority.

Mora Catlett calls Newsome’s work on the soprano saxophone "the greatest contributions to the instrument since Sidney Bechet." To be sure, Newsome participates in a long, if spotty, tradition on the instrument. Most immediately, Newsome cites Steve Lacy as a major influence, not just in his use of the instrument, but also in his approach to improvisation. Lacy's debt to Thelonious Monk (whose work Newsome also tackled in 2007's Monk Abstractions) is evident in his use of short, idiosyncratic motives as a focus of his improvisations, and this can be heard in Newsome, as well.
Newsome also cites Anthony Braxton as a major influence (for his ability to blur the lines between improvisation/composition and jazz/art music) as well as British saxophonist Evan Parker's exploration of the sonic frontiers of the instrument through extended techniques as further inspirations. And, though Newsome doesn't name him explicitly, the listener would not be wrong if they sense a bit of Rahsaan Roland Kirk—if only in spirit—in the dense layering of blues, African, Eastern, and avant-garde elements, which Newsome expertly weaves together throughout the recording.

Many of Newsome's track are intimate, drawing the listener into his unique aural environment. The effect leaves Newsome incredibly exposed, with every sound and color carrying great meaning. The opening track, Echoes of Kilimanjaro, unfolds like a prayer, or perhaps a memory, conjuring up images of spaciousness, subtle power, and beauty. Kilimanjaro, the African continent's tallest point, rests in Tanzania, near the border with Kenya. This idea of borders, of gateways to the new and unknown, appears as a recurrent theme in this recording. Newsome’s straight horn becomes the vehicle through which he will explore new sonic landscapes and frontiers.

Echoes introduces the essential elements of the sonic palette Newsome will employ throughout, built upon his mastery of the extended techniques described above. These techniques are extremely virtuosic, and Newsome's fluidity with them enables him to use them not merely as special effects, but as tools to realize his musical goals. The first track opens with small gestures—calls, chants, and vocalizations—intimate sounds that draw you into a sonically rich world of color and texture. Echoes portends the world possibilities that await the listener on the remainder of the CD.

Tracks like The Straight Horn of Africa deliver on this promise. Through the use of multi-track recording, Newsome creates a multi-layered texture wherein he is able to engage in call-and-response patterns—in effect, a conversation. Here, these layers are all realized by one instrument, but they evoke the spirit of African collectivity. Rhythmic ostinato patterns intertwine with off-beat cries, establishing a background groove for playful, dance-like melodies. These sections form a type of refrain, interrupted periodically by episodes that explore increasingly adventurous areas at the edges of the instrument's range.

Explorations of an African Horn: Part 1 begins with small utterances, slowly carving sounds out of the silence, like a child discovering its own voice. By the end of its companion track, Explorations of an African Horn: Part 2, these utterances have evolved. Now, the power of the voice is understood as the ability to speak worlds into existence. The fragile, evocative sounds Newsome draws from the horn on these tracks are a testament both to his sensitivity, and his remarkable control. Flutter-tonguing (think of rolling your tongue like the Spanish "rr" sound) mixes with the subtle use of ghostly upper harmonics on the instrument, and Newsome exploits them to great effect.

On The Obama Song: The Man from Kenya, Newsome layers cyclical melodic fragments over traditional-sounding interlocking African motives. The result is a surprisingly modern multi-meter groove in 7/4 time. Rather than sounding disjunct, the combination highlights continuities, reminding us of how African modes of expression form the heart of much of the American popular music landscape. This awareness—of the US's indebtedness to Africa—perhaps finds no better personification than President Barack Obama.

For centuries, the Horn of Africa has served as the home of a large community of Ethiopians of Jewish faith, known traditionally as Beta Israel ("House of Israel") or the falasha. Centuries of marginalization and persecution have not withered their spirit or diminished their numbers—they were eventually allowed to immigrate to Israel in 1975. Newsome’s Ethiopian Jews does not draw directly from the musical traditions of the falasha, but nevertheless serves as a reminder of the wide cultural variations that exist within in the continent.

The title N.D. Nile plays on popular notions of Egypt. The percussive use of his slap tongue technique recalls the goblet-shaped drums of North Africa and the Middle East, which is played with the fingers, enabling the player to draw out a variety of sounds and colors. Here, Newsome puts this concept into practice, layering dense, interlocking patterns underneath a soaring mizmar-like melodic line. The end result is evocative, but not a copy. Newsome, instead, explores the sonic possibilities of the soprano sax, and in doing so links traditions from across the globe.

There are few images of North Africa more ingrained in the popular imagination than that of the snake charmer. On The Snake Charmer of Tangier, Newsome plays on our expectations, crafting a track that strikes the listener as both meditative and fresh at the same time. The melodic line, which is built on an Arabic maqam called the hijaz, perhaps represents the most traditional usage of the soprano saxophone on the entire CD, but against the backdrop of the focused, insistent, repeated mulit-tracked (and slightly detuned) ostinato, it is recontextualized. The juxtaposition of the minimalist-inspired accompaniment and the sinewy blues-via-North Africa soprano line comes across as decidedly postmodern.

Perhaps most impressive from a purely technical standpoint, the quartet of tracks entitled Microtonal Nubian Horn: Parts 1 – 4, essentially serve as the backbone of the CD. In the 20th Century, practitioners of Western art music "discovered" micro-tonality. I should say "rediscovered," because, though we often credit composers like Busoni, Ives, and Partch for inspiring its use in the avant-garde, the practice predates the Western European system by thousands of years. It permeates the musics of Africa and the Middle- and Far East. Newsome's use of microtones speaks to the spirit of his project—highlighting the continuity of musical expressions between the East and West, traditional and avant-garde. Peppered across the album, these tracks almost work like “sound palette cleansers,” the explorations growing more adventurous with each iteration. They recall the more experimental nature of the recording and resist the listener's tendency to read the whole CD as merely a reworking of African music. Newsome successfully blurs the lines between the practices of the avant-garde and non-western music, placing them on equal footing as sonic landscapes to explore.
We haven’t to this point addressed the use of Newsome's titles, but Good Golly Miss Mali forces the issue. This kind of world play is indicative of the African American expressive practice some scholars have described as signifyin'. Signifyin'—or as musicologist Sam Floyd calls it, "repetition with difference"—operates as a major trope in African American culture, and is linked to earlier practices and approaches in African traditions. In effect, this is what Newsome is engaged in throughout this recording, repetition with difference. In his playful title (and in his sonic evocation of the West African kora) he signifies on Eurocentric conceptions of music: namely, that art music must be taken seriously, and that African music is frozen and “traditional.” In doing so, he redefines our experience of the music, and we begin to see music as a continuum, as a way of expressing ourselves as species, rather than as a fixed idea or product.

In subsequent tracks like African Conundrum, When the Drum Speaks, and African Nomads, Newsome provides beautiful examples of using multi-track recording to build rich, multi-layered musical tapestries—using the saxophone as a type of inverted talking drum. The trope of the talking drum—a pitched West African drum that mimics human speech—informs many long-held Western ideas about African musical aesthetics. Using a drum to play melodic contours is a prime example of the new and foreign practices Europeans observed upon first visiting the continent. On When the Drum Speaks, however, Newsome inverts this perspective. Reversing the talking drum's practices of playing melodic figures on a percussion instrument, he takes a traditionally melodic instrument (saxophone) and makes it percussive. As European practices are made to feel exotic from the African point of view, so to are power relationships likewise inverted, or at the very least, questioned.

The virtuosity on African Nomads is astounding, a fact which is especially evident in the control he exhibits in the upper register obligato lines. The use of cyclical rhythms on all of these tracks recall not only the rhythms of North Africa and the Middle East, but also the rhythmic structures of Western contemporary music like minimalism. Sounds of Somalia is perhaps the most exposed track on the recording. His use of the extreme ranges of the instrument poses myriad challenges, and the solo medium allows little room for error. The high, glassy melodic contours recall the sounds of Somalian reeds like the siinbaar or the sumari. That being said, specific musical references are likely not intentional—nor are they particularly important. Rather, the point is use of the soprano saxophone to tap into new musical traditions.

Like with The Drum Speaks, the effect of Dark Continent Dialogues is a decentralizing of Western musical language. Here, familiar instruments (the saxophone and piano) are utilized in unfamiliar ways. Newsome employs the piano's body as a resonating chamber for the saxophone, striking and scraping the strings of the instrument with his horn. Just as with his soprano, his use of the piano continually calls into question the limits we impose upon ourselves within the western tradition, and force us to ask what possibilities may lie outside.

Nightfall on the Owani Desert and The Day in the Life of a Hunter-Gatherer seem to form a pair of musical portraits. Nightfall, a drum inspired rhythmic groove in 13/4, speaks to the intimacy I spoke of earlier. The solo line emerges from below a quiet aural horizon. The image of the desert as a vast, open space reminds us of our smallness, and commands our respect. By comparison, The Day in the Life seems almost frenetic. The athletic angularity of the solo line contrasts with the deliberate, structured organization of the backgrounds. Aesthetically, we are grounded by the comfort and predictability of these repeated figures, but Newsome pulls us away, disorients us, forcing us to scamper to regain our footing. The effect is both unsettling and highly satisfying.

The final track, Highlife, is a nod to a popular music genre that started in Ghana, and shares connections to a wide range of West African, Caribbean, and African American popular musics. The familiar guitar rhythm that is ubiquitous in Ghanaian highlife is reimagined here as a slightly mis-aligned multilayered groove. Over this Newsome plays a bright, almost effervescent, melody. It seems fitting that the closing track calls to mind a wealth of connections—from Ghanaian popular music, to Caribbean calypso and junkanoo, to latin son montuno, to jazz. Mora Catlett sums up the effect of Newsome’s project thusly, “He has done an amazing job of finding alternative sounds on the instrument; not just for aesthetic or experimental pursuits, but in order to liberate the instrument from the European system.” Ultimately, this is Newsome’s greatest achievement. The musical content, the approach to the instrument, and even the recording techniques employed all attempt to push at the borders of musical experience. Mora Catlett sees this as fundamentally African: “When Sam took time off (from his working band at the time, Global Unity) to explore this instrument and to find out what the alternatives are, this is part of a tradition. It is part of the African idea of finding out what else is there to this? And where can we go from here?” This, fundamentally, connects these performances to the jazz tradition. This challenging, liberating urge for discovery represents the truest spirit of jazz.

There are no straight lines on the globe. Even the seemingly shortest path always takes you in roundabout ways. Eurocentrism ignores this logic. It invests in a narrative of linear development, a direct line connecting the past to the present, and the non-Western to the Western, all in the name of progress. It accepts the thinking that the West has evolved beyond the rest of the world, and that Africa has little to offer modernity. Thankfully, the world is more complex and more exciting than that, as Newsome masterfully demonstrates on this recording. Endings are always also beginnings, and vice/versa. You can travel due East and end up West of your starting point. When thought of in this way, direction is almost arbitrary. New things await you everywhere, often hiding in plain sight. It takes courage to explore the world in this way, to seek out new perspectives and opportunities in those things we have long since abandoned in the name of "modernity." This is what Newsome does here: he explores paths, both old and new, paths that curve and twist and lead in new directions, and he arrives back at home transformed. Thankfully, he takes us with him, and the journey changes us, too.

Liner notes: Charles D. Carson – Ph. D
Assistant Professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology
Butler School of Music
Affiliated Faculty,
Warfield Center for African &
African American Studies
and The Center for American Music
University of Texas at Austin



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