Sam Newsome: Straight Horn of Africa: Path to Liberation

Sam Newsome: Straight Horn of Africa: Path to Liberation
Title: Straight Horn of Africa: Path to Liberation
Label: CD Baby

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 it's own voice. By the end of it's 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 sensi

1.1 Echos from MT. Kilimanjaro
1.2 The Straight Horn of Africa
1.3 Explorations of An African Horn, Pt. 1
1.4 The Obama Song: The Man from Kenya
1.5 Ethiopian Jews
1.6 Explorations of An African Horn, Pt. 2
1.7 N.D. Nile
1.8 The Snake Charmer of Tangier
1.9 Microtonal Nubian Horn, Pt. 1
1.10 Good Golly Miss Mali
1.11 African Conundrum
1.12 Sounds of Somalia
1.13 When the Drum Speaks
1.14 Microtonal Nubian Horn, Pt. 2
1.15 Dark Continent Dialogues
1.16 African Nomads
1.17 Microtonal Nubian Horn, Pt. 3
1.18 Nightfall on the Owani Desert
1.19 The Day and Life of a Hunter-Gatherer
1.20 Microtonal Nubian Horn, Pt. 4
1.21 Highlife

Sam Newsome: Straight Horn of Africa: Path to Liberation

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