Photograph by Guy Fonck
Uneasy rests the saxophonist being juxtaposed against John Coltrane, in general — and with regard to his monumental 1965 release A Love Supreme, in particular. Sam Newsome, however, sidesteps such direct comparisons on the forthcoming Art of the Soprano, Vol. 1 by stripping the spiritually charged suite down to just a solo soprano.
Contrasts are easier to hear, while the easily discernible similarities more difficult to pinpoint — not just on his passionately conveyed takes on Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalm” sprinkled throughout this new offering, but also on Newsome’s trio of Duke Ellington interpretations. The saxist rounds out the new project, set for release on September 25, 2012, by stitching in a series of original themes focusing on the continent of Africa.
The effect is distinctly unreverential, and thus far more exciting at this late date. I loved the way he moved through main themes on familiar Ellington vehicles like “Caravan” and “In a Sentimental Mood” (embedded below) toward a place that is brilliantly off script — adding these mystery-laded Middle Eastern-inspired lines to the former, and then (through a method called circular breathing) creating a series of dramatic, etude-esque arpeggios.
Meanwhile, Newsome’s challenge on the more rhythmic Ellington cuts was to replicate the memorable percussion elements all by himself, and he expertly achieves this effect by using an intriguing slap-tongue technique on both “Caravan” and “In a Mellow Tone.” The technique (which I always reference back to Rahsaan Roland Kirk) is then utilized on a grand scale throughout his sweeping Africa-themed compositions, creating competing conversations within the music that sometimes have the tandem complexity of overdubs — but are, in fact, once again achieved all alone.
With its familiar song selections and proximity to the stellar 2010 release Blue Soliloquy, I suspected at first that Art of the Soprano might end up as something of a valedictory. After all, this is actually Newsome’s third solo soprano project, following 2007′s Monk Abstractions. Who could blame Newsome for taking a sort of victory lap through some of jazz music’s most memorable moments, with a few compatible originals in place to bring home the point?
But the work itself, furiously inventive, muscular and uncompromising, belies that notion. Then, there’s the album title: “Vol. 1,” he says? Sam Newsome, even after all this time, even after all of this success, is just getting started.