Jazz cellist Tomeka Reid to make debut as Mills professor with virtual show: Video, Photos

- in NEWS, VIDEOS, Woman in Jazz & Blues

Tomeka Reid intended to introduce herself to the Bay Area.

The most acclaimed jazz cellist of her generation, Reid joined Mills College’s faculty last fall, the latest illustrious musician to hold the Darius Milhaud Chair in Music Composition. Now, instead of playing at the school’s Littlefield Concert Hall as originally planned, she opens Mills’ Music Now monthly series, socially distanced encounter with video artist Selina Trepp and percussionist Adam Vida.

“My foray into academia has been strange,” said Reid, who had planned to spend significant time on the Oakland campus this year before the COVID-19 outbreak made it risky to travel across the country.

“My intention was to be out there in March for a whole month, and I thought I’d be doing this concert with my string trio Hear in Now. This is such a different way of making music, and there are some really valuable things to learn from it.”

She has collaborated with Trepp and Vida several times in Chicago, including an improvised set at Northwestern University as part of the Block Museum of Art’s exhibition on another envelope-pushing cellist, “A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s-1980s.”

Trepp is known for her strikingly beautiful, rhythmically inspired stop-animation pieces, “but when she improvises with musicians, she does more digital things,” Reid said. “She really likes to think of herself as an instrumentalist. You’re doing your own thing while watching what she does on the screen, and you want to respond to it, but not a direct response to the imagery. It’s a challenge for all of us.”

Tomeka Reid is the youngest artist ever appointed to the Darius Milhaud Chair in Music Composition at Mills College.Photo: Courtesy Tomeka Reid

While Reid now divides her time between New York City and Chicago, the Washington, D.C., native is  indelibly linked to the Windy City’s fertile jazz scene through her work with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, performing and recording with AACM-associated heavyweights such as Nicole Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and that collective’s co-founder Roscoe Mitchell. She also works closely with contemporaries such as drummer Mike Reed, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and drummer Makaya McCraven, carving out a vital role for herself as a champion of creative string players with the founding and running of the Chicago Jazz String Summit.

What’s particularly impressive is that while Reid has released only two albums featuring her own band, she has become a major force, voted violinist/violist/cellist of the year for the third consecutive time in 2020 by the Jazz Journalists Association.

Her position at Mills is named after the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud, who found refuge teaching at the college after fleeing the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. With past appointees such as Braxton, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, it has long served as a direct conduit between AACM innovators and the Bay Area’s improvised music scene.

“I’m glad I’m part of that legacy of AACM musicians,” she said. “I do wish I could actually spend time at Mills.”

Mills Music Now will also feature free online performances by San Francisco vocalist, composer and electronics explorer Pamela Z on Oct. 24 and percussionist-composer Tyshawn Sorey on Nov. 14. The series closes on Nov. 21 with a concert by San Francisco sound artist Brenda Hutchinson, the David Tudor Composer-in-Residence.

In many ways the series, which was booked before the pandemic, marks a new chapter for Mills College, which is tentatively stepping into the world of streaming concerts.

“It’s all new for us, and we’ll see how it goes,” said Steed Cowart, who teaches composition at Mills and programs the concerts. “We need to get good at it. I suggest that even when the pandemic is over and we can do concerts again, the online thing will not go away. It’s another thing we can do.”

Reid is an ideal artist to work with students adjusting to the new reality, and not only because she’s the youngest artist ever appointed to the Milhaud chair at 43 years old. Embracing the AACM’s scrappy DIY ethos, she wants students to think about not only “the applied side — ‘how are we composing?’ — but also the practical side, ‘how are you going to do this out in the world?’ ” she said.

“What does it mean to be doing these online performances? We have people who are essential, health care workers and people who pick up trash. Artists are also essential workers who deal with healing from the fallout of what’s happening.”

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