Photo by Salvatore Corso

Sam Newsome is a soprano saxophonist intent on exploring the outer limits of the instrument’s range and capabilities. Otto Kokke of Dutch saxophone-drums duo Dead Neanderthals, a longtime friend of Burning Ambulance, volunteered to review Newsome’s latest album, Sopranoville, which will be released April 7.

Phil Freeman

I used the word soprano close to 20 times in this review and it’s not enough. There’s just one word needed to describe this album. Yeah, it’s aptly titled.

Legendary soprano saxophone player Steve Lacy once said, “The potential for the saxophone is unlimited.” Well, Sam Newsome took that to heart. Now, Sam would be what I call a Respectable American Jazz Musician. You know, the teaching position, CDs of Monk tunes, big festivals, etc. Being a soprano player myself, though far from respectable, not American and probably not even jazz, I’m usually kind of wary of records that come from this corner of the music industry. Most times, the only surprise I find there is how much it makes me yawn. So that’s kind of what I expected from someone like Sam.

But boy, was I wrong. Sam took Lacy’s statement, applied it to soprano and hit it out of the park. This is very much not a Respectable American Jazz album. This is a soprano saxophone album. Aside from some knick-knacks from the free jazz repository of “things that make percussive sounds,” it is soprano only. And on this album Sam takes his soprano off its leash and lets it go wherever it feels like going. And it goes everywhere. This album is nuts! It’s beyond eclectic, it’s all over the place. He makes every sound you can get from a soprano. He does it all. Everything. Without any sense of fixed direction or style. Corny, jazzy, cheesy, Disney, weird, ethnic, mellow, screeching, popping, irritating, overwhelming. Anything he was able to wrench out of his soprano, he did it. It’s bizarre. People will hate it. I love it.

Most of the 22 short songs are semi- or minimal compositions with a lot of room for improvisation and a lot of overdubbing action. If all you have is a soprano and you love it, you’d overdub the hell out of it too. In that sense, “Micro-Suite for Fifteen Sopranos” may be the magnum opus of the album.

To give an impression of the range of Sam’s ideas on Sopranoville, the album starts off with the aptly titled “The Quiet Before the Storm,” a song with some cheesy chimes and mellow, wistful soprano melodies. It is followed by a classical composition for soprano, some abstract compositions and explorations of extended techniques for soprano, some gimmicky percussive pieces using only the sound of closing keys on the soprano. There’s experimentation with “prepared soprano” techniques consisting of modifying the horn with paper, straws, tinfoil, and even hanging wind chimes off his horn. Most songs are a simple exploration of one basic idea, which makes the album quite easy to process despite the wide range of ideas and lack of coherence between them. But it’s all soprano, and that ties everything together. A cult classic, for the soprano cult.

Otto Kokke

Dead NeanderthalsLive at Roadburn 2016 is available now. Get it on Bandcamp.

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