In his teachings, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki emphasized the importance of maintaining a beginner’s mind, which is open to endless as opposed to an expert’s mind, which often limits itself to a narrow set of beliefs. He encouraged his followers to approach each moment with a fresh perspective and view it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Saxophonist Sam Newsome and Jean-Michel Pilc put this concept into practice on their new album, Cosmic Unconsciousness Unplugged. The duo entered the studio without preconceived notions about what they would create, allowing the music to emerge spontaneously. According to Newsome, there needed to be discussion about the music beforehand, rehearsals, or second takes. Their only goal was to let the music reveal itself without interfering with their agendas.
The music of Newsome and Pilc is characterized by a constant sense of restlessness and a desire to push against boundaries and explore new sounds. They achieve this through spontaneous improvisation and by transforming familiar tunes from the canon. Both musicians experiment with their instruments to create new sounds – Newsome using tube extensions and noise makers for his soprano saxophone and Pilc via prepared piano. On Cosmic Unconsciousness Unplugged, it can be difficult to distinguish which player is making which sound, which allows the listener to enjoy the overall experience without getting lost in the details.
This album is a sequel to Magic Circle, the critically acclaimed duet album released in 2017. Since the first album, Newsome has expanded his sonic range by using special modifications on his instrument. “My sonic repertoire has increased significantly since we recorded the first one,” Newsome said. He was keen to see how his new sounds would work in a duo context with Pilc. One of the most striking sounds is the digeridoo-like low tone produced by his modified soprano saxophone, prominently featured on “Serenading Seismic Waves.” Newsome first recorded an ostinato with the modified horn, over which he and Pilc improvised. That haunting sound is heard again on their version of Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is The Ocean,” a daring take on the standard that gives the question of the title a foreboding quality.
Newsome is happy to mine the jazz canon for inspiration, taking a cue from guitarist Bern Nix’s “avant-traditionalist” idea.
“It’s very important to maintain those ties to the tradition,” said Newsome, “but I want to do it my way. I record those tunes when I feel free not to have to ‘switch bags’ and become a straight-ahead player. I’m still operating within this experimental mindset. Being free to be traditional or more exploratory at a moment’s notice.”
Newsome said he chooses songs that have “been done to death” to highlight the available possibilities: “What makes it effective is to find new ways of playing that kind of tune, and then you can give the listener insight into the uniqueness of what you do. In that framework, it becomes easier to appreciate and understand what I’m doing.”
The musical connection between Newsome and Pilc is apparent from the very first notes of the opening track, “Sounds From My Morning Window.” They create a gentle atmosphere by blending piano and chimes, which gradually builds into a powerful rhythmic pattern. Newsome’s soaring soprano saxophone takes the lead as the piece expands. It’s hard to believe that it all started from scratch. Other notable moments on the album include Newsome’s phased soprano sound on “Dancing Like No One’s Watching (But Everyone Is),” Pilc’s delicate and spacious intro to “Skyward Lullaby,” and their tightrope walk on “All The Things You Are.”
Cosmic Unconsciousness Unplugged results from two exceptionally talented musicians coming together in the studio with no predetermined plan but simply listening to each other and creating music. It’s a true collaboration between two master players at the top of their game.
Sam Newsome is a saxophonist and composer based in New York. He was born in Hampton, Virginia in 1965. Newsome is known for his solo saxophone performances, which have earned him critical acclaim worldwide. He gained particular recognition for his 2009 album “Blue Soliloquy: Solo Works for Soprano Saxophone,” which received a five-star review in Downbeat Magazine. Newsome has released several other solo saxophone albums that have also been well-received by critics, including “Sonic Journey: Live at the Red Room” (2020), “Chaos Theory: Song Cycles for Prepared Saxophone” (2019), and “Sopranoville: Works for Prepared and Non-Prepared Saxophone” (2017).
Newsome’s compositions and improvisations often incorporate extended techniques and saxophone preparations. He attaches tube extensions to the neck of the soprano saxophone to significantly change its timbre and extend its range by an octave or two. Newsome considers himself more like a visual artist who paints with notes and sounds than a traditional musician who works with shapes and colors. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including the 2020 Instant Award in Improvised Music, which he shared with avant-garde musicians Peter Brotzmann and John Butcher. He was also nominated for Soprano Saxophonist of the Year by the 2020 Jazz Journalist Association. Newsome leads a trio with Hilliard Greene and Reggie Nicholson and often collaborates with drummer Andrew Cyrille and vocalist Fay Victor. He regularly tours with Pepperland, a music and dance work by Mark Morris and Ethan Iverson that pays tribute to The Beatles. Newsome has received several awards and grants for his work, including the 2018 New Music USA Grant, the 2018 Alpert/Ragdale Prize in Music Composition, and the 2016 NYFA Fellowship for Music Composition. His album “The Straight Horn of Africa” was called “a modern masterpiece” by Downbeat Magazine’s Ed Enright.
Praised for his improvisations, pianist and composer, Jean-Michel Pilc has performed with numerous jazz giants. He worked with Harry Belafonte as his musical director and pianist. He performed a duet with the legendary opera singer Jessye Norman.
Since becoming a professional musician in the late 80’s, Jean-Michel has constantly been active internationally, touring over 60 countries. He moved to New York City in 1995 and formed his legendary trio with François Moutin (bass) and Ari Hoenig (drums). They recorded a one-week engagement at the legendary jazz club Sweet Basil and, in 2000, released two CDs: Together – Live at Sweet Basil, NYC – Vol. 1 & 2. During the following years, he released several other trio piano recordings that strengthened his reputation as an innovative and unique piano trio leader.
An active solo performer, Jean-Michel has released five critically acclaimed solo piano records: Follow Me (2004), Essential (2011), and What Is This Thing Called? (2015), Parallel (2018) and Symphony (2023).
Jean-Michel is now a Justin Time Recording Artist. He has released three albums on the label: Alive – Live at Dièse Onze, Montréal with RémiJean-Leblanc & Jim Doxas, the solo CD Symphony, and the Pilc Moutin Hoenig album You Are The Song. Several solo singles and EPs have also been released on the same label.
Jean-Michel has built a strong international reputation as a unique educator. In September 2015, he joined the Jazz Faculty at The Schulich School of Music of McGill University in Montreal. He has become a very active constituent of the local jazz scene, participating in many Montreal-based projects as a leader, co-leader, and sideman. He continues to perform with NYC-based groups such as Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig and his US Trio with Sam Minaie and Jerad Lippi.