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TERRY GROSS, host:

New York's Sam Newsome started out playing straight-ahead jazz on tenor saxophone with trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Later, Newsome switched to the smaller soprano saxophone and blended jazz and various global musics. In recent years, he's turned more and more to playing unaccompanied soprano. Newsome recently released his second solo album.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's some kind of knockout.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Soprano saxophone can be an unforgiving instrument. It's hard to play in tune, and some players get a pinched tone like it has a bad cold. Still, a number of modern musicians have mastered the horn, like Steve Lacy, Lol Coxhill, Evan Parker and now Sam Newsome, as announced by his CD "Blue Soliloquy."

He's obviously listened to his forerunners, Lacy especially. But Newsome puts his own stamp on the soprano, with eerie-sounding, hoarse and hollow split-tones - two notes sound at once, through tricky fingerings and precise breath control. Often he'll volley between pure tones and split ones, for self-contained call and response.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Sam Newsome's solo music departs from the opulent sound of his old world music inflected jazz band Global Unity. Still, on the album "Blue Soliloquy," Newsome draws on global traditions like split-tone Tuvan throat singing, and bamboo flute musics from Japan and the Indian subcontinent. And he also uses 1920s-style slap-tongue saxophone technique to turn his horn into a sub-Saharan percussion instrument.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Newsome is also interested in quarter-tones: playing notes between the ones on piano as part of a 24-note scale. It's a way to use soprano's dicey intonation to advantage. The one borrowed tune on his new album is Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk," radically recast in a quarter-tone version. Squeezing his in-between notes into Monk's blues melody, Newsome holds it up to a funhouse mirror.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Monk")

WHITEHEAD: One way solo saxophonists keep everything from sounding the same is to concentrate on one particular technique or idea per piece. Sam Newsome, for example, might zero in on the practice of circular breathing, a technique that lets him keep playing continuously even while drawing a breath.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Like fellow soprano ace Jane Ira Bloom, Newsome may fine-tune his pitches by swinging the bell of his horn past the microphone to exploit the Doppler effect: the way a sound moving toward you appears higher pitched than one moving away. Think of how the tone of a train whistle drops as it passes. Newsome at his most radical blends his various strategies together, juggling quarter-tones and circular breathing and the Doppler effect to make music that sounds like nothing else I know, except maybe the bagpipes.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Newsome says all the pieces on "Blue Soliloquy" are blues of one kind or another. In truth, the connection to blues form is often tenuous. Yet there's a striking unity of effect: His varied blues that lay out and loop back to a handful of techniques create their own acoustical space, whether an individual piece is simple or complex, harsh or conventionally beautiful. Like other soprano virtuosos, Sam Newsome coaxes a world of music from one reluctant horn.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He's currently roaming the country. He reviewed "Blue Soliloquy" by soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome.

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