Solo soprano saxophone albums are very rare. This need not to be a freak show however given that rarity.
Are you tough enough for Sonic Journey: Live at the Red Room from saxophonist Sam Newsome? The saxophonist is known for his work with Terence Blanchard in the 1990s and for solo work since particularly in all relevance 2012's The Art of the Soprano, Vol. 1 that ruminated often gloriously around Coltrane, Ellington and his own 'Soprano de Africana' explorations.
Coltrane, key in the soprano saxophone story: think 1961 album My Favorite Things when he played it for the first time on a recording, gets a reference again on the second track of this new album in this case 'Giant Steps' note as you never have heard it and Monk in 'Misterioso' and 'Monk's Dream'.
Actually you do not need to be tough at all or even a give-it-a-go sort of person. You'll be hooked soon enough by the ideas delivered on this unusual canvas and what Newsome does is far from inaccessible unless you are the sort of person who needs a repetitive backbeat lasered into the mix. There is none of that here. Instead there is timbral mastery, using overblowing in a controlled way part of this, a blues connotation and tonal density as just some of the building blocks that Newcome makes use of and customises according to his own method.
The American pulls off the impossible and makes solo soprano listenable. He is a master of tone and the notoriously difficult tuning of the soprano saxophone is never an issue. Actually the fact of it being a solo saxophone album soon fades because this album is about pure improvisation (ie: creativity is not forgotten) not in some sort of bravado sensational spirit, or playing almost as if sleep walking old patterns, how a jazz musician can actually compose or recompose as the case may be via the process that is the essence of jazz itself.
You can't fake this sort of thing and with Newsome, and anyone who has followed his career will know, is a big thinker and certainly an obvious virtuoso, will need this new thesis because it extends the parameters of tbe instrument once again. 'Giant Steps' in his hands becomes more architectural and not only about the chord changes and the speed. The 'Sonic Journey' suite, takes up most of the space on the record and you could imagine this, in particular the chime laden second part, as a contender to be rearranged for small chamber orchestra, because there is a clear narrative and range of texture that Newcome carefully unpeels and makes highly flexible.
The album is not free improv in the sense of how we usually take it (squalling, atonal, anarchic) although it has an open abstract feel in certain parts but it also manages to harness melodic fragments and somehow seem bigger than itself all through. 'Monk's Dream' has an ancient mood to it and Newsome is good at changing mood as he does throughout the piece and you can get both a sense of jazz history as well as the future unknown on the record without being at all po-faced. Ignore Monk's quirkiness at your peril, he doesn't. What he does do throughout is make you think inside the tunes that you actually know and as for the ones you don't, imagine the sheer possibilities just one man and his straight horn can do as a solo improviser and has just done right there in front of you. SG Out now via Bandcamp as is Newsome's new trio album Free Wyoming