Saturday, February 26, 2011

An Informal Session with Adam Niewood And Chris Higgins

Adam Niewood
 I spent much of last summer in New York. During my time there, I tried to take advantage of the wealth of high level players and have what we call "sessions". A "session" to me is derived from the jam session, but it has a more private and more organized feeling to it. I called tenor saxophonist Adam Niewood and bassist Chris Higgins to do some playing and we met at Niewood's apartment in Harlem. We played for a few hours: we mixed it up with original music and some standards. There was a really positive group energy that made me wish I had an opportunity to book the band somewhere! After the session, we sat down and spoke. This is an excerpt of the conversation. I didn't edit much.

Chris Higgins
GC: We are here talking with Adam Niewood And Chris Higgins. We just finished playing a very exciting jam session at Adam's house. Adam is a tenor saxophone player, and drummer...I mostly played drums today, but I played some piano, which seemed to be a big hit....(laughter)...Chris Higgins merely played the bass....oh wait, he did play some solo piano, which I was very impressed with...Ok, in all seriousness, let's talk a little bit about doing sessions; when I moved here in 1995, and even before when I would just come to New York for a visit, I found that doing sessions was very important for my development , and also it was a way to network and meet other jazz musicians. Some of the sessions then, and some of the sessions now, I have found them to be oftentimes more exciting than some of the gigs! What are your thoughts on this? What are the pros and cons of doing sessions?
AN: I would agree, of course...sessions are really's the way we work on our craft. I feel like if I don't play a session for two or three weeks, and then I have a professional engagement, or anything where I have to really be on, then I feel like I have to dust off the cobwebs. I don't feel as loose of as fluid, musically. Playing sessions regularly, reading people's music, playing standards you aren't familiar with, are all part of our process. In a session you have the ability to start and stop, you can try the tunes a second time, you can even discuss how it felt and how you could improve, try different tempos...we can work on the group dynamic and so forth.
CH: I look at it as practicing together. You can practice at home and that's great, but you can practice with other people, as long as there are other musicians around to play with. Taking advantage of that is part of being in New York. I think it probably doesn't happen in other cities as much. But in New York, it's unique because you can get pretty much anybody to play sessions.
GC: I would agree, because I felt that in Baltimore and Washington D.C., it was harder to just get together for sessions with some of the players, because they were so busy doing gigs. It was sort of beneath them to get together to work on original music. That was one great thing about moving to New York...I met Mark Turner at a session! I tagged along at a very informal session with Tom Harrell...he just felt like playing! Over the years, I played sessions with Bill Stewart, Chris Potter, Brian Blade, Joshua Redman....But some people aren't interested...
AN: Sometimes you do run into people who don't want to play....sometimes I'm one of them! It depends what's going on in your life at the moment. It's not always convenient. It also depends on who else wants to play, as well... If everyone's head is in the same space, if everyone on the session is open to improving themselves, and  making art...that's what we are doing, we are making art on the spot. If you are playing with people like that, then it's fun. But sometimes the sessions are not about that, some musicians have ulterior motives, where they are looking at it purely as a networking thing. One thing I've noticed in the last few years is that we are all in the same boat with the gig situation, or lack thereof.... you know what I mean, I just don't like it when people come to the session with strings attached, with another agenda. I'm sure you have had similar situations?
GC: Absolutely. I have my own theory about networking, which is that the goal is that whomever is doing the networking gets the call for the gig!
AN: But that's what I mean, when the sole motivation of the session is for me to stop calling my regular players and call that person for a when all of the conversation between tunes is like...
CH: "Yeah, we should hook up a gig..."(laughter)
AN: So that's the thing about sessions, it depends on who you are playing with and what their vibe is towards the session and about music.
GC: So you've done sessions with people who only came to say,"Hey, check me out!" As if there was no musical agenda? I think some people are so aggressive in this way that it's a turn off. It works for some...
AN: But it can also backfire. So it's a fine line.....In the end it's just people. You meet different people and they resonate with you and you get along....I mean, I'm not promoting cliques at all, you know what I mean.
GC: Do you have a lot of sessions here?
AN: I have a lot of sessions here. Let's just talk about the environment for sessions: You need to have a comfortable place where you can let the dynamics go where they may. In interesting when you have folks come over, you start to really see what's going in the scene. For example, somebody might bring a tune in that's slightly in progress, and then they might bring it back two weeks later  and they've revised it. It's like "being in the workshop." Maybe I just did a non-sequiter?
GC:The point is that the sessions should be about music first. Now, I'm not going to suggest that one would come to New York and absolutely refuse to network, People have to know about you. But it's really all about HOW you network.
You can't have too much pressure.

AN: It's a fine line. Some people are able to network well and not come off as too pushy. Christian McBride and John Patitucci  told me that one good thing to do is to make lists of people you would like to work with. Have different groups: maybe the young players, the older cats, etc.....THEN go see ten of their gigs, get a feel for the band. Then, start learning the music , either off of recordings, or get the music from somebody in the band. And then when you feel ready,approach the bandleader and say " I really respect your music and I learned your book, if you ever need a sub please call me."
CH: This is actually a really great idea!
GC: Have you ever done something like that?
CH: No! (laughs)And I study with Patitucci. But I would consider doing that.
AN: But a good way to get a gig with someone is to learn their music. Because what you would want to avoid is where you hound someone to hire you, and then when it comes time for the gig, you don't know the music and you fall on your ass and embarrass yourself. That does more to hurt your reputation in so many ways.
GC: I remember a situation where a younger musician was begging me to recommend him for one of the bands I played in. I told this young musician that the music in this band was extraordinarily difficult. This musician insisted he would learn the music, although I think he really just wanted to go on the tour to Japan that was in the works. Anyway, his tryout gig was going to be at a local NYC venue, but the day before, he met the bandleader for a rehearsal. Well, let's just say he didn't learn any of the music, was fired on the spot, and his name was mud with the bandleader, not to mention the fact that he made me look bad for recommending him for the gig.
On the flip side of this, Chris, don't you think that bass players just get called.....
CH: .......Anyway, we tend to get called for more gigs anyway. I tend to get called for standards gigs, cause I learned a lot of standards, and maybe some of the younger guys don't know that many standard tunes. But if it's original music, you have to really know it. And that's a great way to keep the gig.
GC: Chris, you lived in Barcelona for a few years, and then you came back to NYC. How are things different there?
CH: The music is not as challenging as New York. It's changed. There were some great players there when I first arrived in Barcelona. Now there are a lot more young players and many of them are good. But the attitude over there is very loose. It's sort of....less of everything, less expectation of perfection, or expectation of great playing. There's not very much pressure at all. The only time I ever felt any pressure was playing with Perico Sambeat( one of the great alto/soprano players in Spain, if not the best.). The lifestyle in Spain dictates that everyone gets along, and there's not that hierarchy that you have here. If you can play at all, you'll have gigs.
GC: So you were working all the time in Spain?
CH: Oh yeah, all the time, I never worried about getting work, I was touring Spain all the time, and I always had money......I ate out in restaurants all the time, never worried at all....
AN: (Comically)So why did you come back to New York?
CH: Well, yeah, because I wasn't being challenged musically at all. You're always going to be challenged in New York.


  1. From your experience, if we do this every week (realistically speaking) will we in time be able to compose faster and faster and eventually in real time at tempo? Is that the skill we will develop into? I re-read your post again many times and maybe i'll find the answer.
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