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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sam Newsome - Monk Abstractions (SomeNewMusic, 2007) ***½

Sam Newsome certainly is an excellent soprano saxophonist, but his take on some of Thelonious Monk's more known compositions, also is more than a little ambitious. Ambitious in the sense that it's already a challenge in itself to fill an entire album with unaccompanied sax, but to use this restriction to bring a tribute to Monk, is setting not only limitations, but also adding real high hurdles. And Newsome has technical skills, and they're a real pleasure to listen to, but to me it just doesn't always mix with Monk's music, which is all about melody, harmony and rhythm pushed into a unique envelope, rich and soulful, which once transformed by Newsome's sax sound too distant, cerebral and cold, with too much focus on the instrument instead of the music itself. Despite the music's intrinsic qualities, like musical drive, playfulness, even fun and joy, nothing much of it transpires here (listen to Ben Goldberg's tribute to notice the difference). Sure, there are some fun things, as his tongue-slapping percussive alternation with the more melodic blowing of the tune in "Rhytm-a-ning". And his "Misterioso" is great too, with circular breathing, percussive sounds and even classical flights. On the other hand, he does not give us the richness and creative angle of other solo saxophonists like Evan Parker or Steve Lacy, because the focus is too much on the skills, often too self-conscously. The technique is all there, and for sax-players there will be a lot to enjoy and learn, yet the musical project suffers from it, with a few exceptions, like the real winner of the album, "Ugly Beauty", which gets a tentative, deeply emotional rendition. If the whole record had been like this song, it would have been a major success.

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Marv Friedenn said...

In the notes to “Monk Abstractions,” solo works for solo soprano saxophone, Sam Newsome cites among other influences Sonny Rollins and in turn John Coltrane for introducing and developing the extended cadenza in modern (post-modern?) improvisation. As musicians know, the cadenza is a classical form which allows a soloist to play the composed music at his or her own pace, while the orchestra waits in silence like a cat about to pounce on a mouse. The cadenza is classical music’s single window into improvisation. Sam reconstructs that window into a vitrine where he lovingly exhibits, like the pieces of a valuable art collection, not only samples of Monk but of the history of jazz. Now, the wonderful thing about the cadenza form is that it allows the performer to retard the rhythmic pulse (without, however, losing the beat; for the implied time casts a shadow without a sound but for all that not less steadily) to exactly that degree which invites the player to express his ideas with perfect clarity. Yes, above all else Sam serves clarity. And it is his devotion to clarity that accounts for the cold beauty of the music. But the coldness paradoxically is a symptom of heat as when a marble statue breaks into a cold sweat.

Jazz improvisation is restless. Sam arrests that restlessness without depriving it of movement. When that happens jazz and classical disappear into each other and become simply music. I regret that Lennie Tristano, John LaPorta, Charles Mingus and Rahsaan Roland Kirk are not alive to witness that conversion. Because, although Sam doesn’t mention them in his notes to the album, they too believed that the difference between jazz and classical was historical and not aesthetic.