May 18, 2024

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Jessica Lurie: I love jazz is when it harkens back to the blues, that it has this element of folk music: Video

Jazz music, in all its forms, spread throughout world culture, is deeply embedded in the American experience. It is a culture based phenomena uniquely reflecting that experience in such a personal and expressive way as to embrace the myriad of crosscurrents that express new interpretations of the form.

It is deep as the physicality of its beings, from the heart that pumps life into its veins, to the soul and conscious understanding of the constant, forever assimilation of new streams of world civilization. We are born into familiar backgrounds rooted in the traditions of Africa, Europe, Asia, from social communal variances within our own massive continent. This primordial American concept continues to grow, to spread, to diversify in terms of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic context.

The music of Jessica Lurie therefore is not hanging on the periphery of what we call jazz music, as some may believe, or perceive. This art form is uniquely, forever expressing the spirit of humanity, in such a way as to constantly rewrite the cultural DNA of the American experience, and that of other peoples in sisterhood, and brotherhood throughout the world. In this sense, Lurie’s creative output, rooted in the eclectic jazz and improvised music community in Seattle, and propagated on the New York scene can be seen as a 21st century expression of her own familiar roots. Its inspiration is in a far reaching way, tied to the deep taproot that is the blues based music we have come to refer to as jazz.

Lurie grew up around the music of her parents, playing classical flute at an early age, and ultimately would become influenced musically by her father’s Jewish heritage, as well as other varying streams of influence present in the eclectic music scene in Seattle. Though Seattle is known commonly for rock, she would inevitably be drawn in by the jazz scene there that had been making its mark on this indigenous American art form from its beginnings.

“I’m relentlessly eclectic! I grew up playing classical music. I started getting into jazz in high school, but I was also playing baroque music. I think playing saxophone really opened up my ears to a lot more music, in terms of what I was pursuing. Then at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, I was in the ethnomusicology department, studying South Indian music with T Vishwanathan. I studied composition with Bill Barron, and with Hafez Modir for saxophone and theory. As an undergrad, you can sit in on all these graduate classes. I audited classes by Anthony Braxton though he wasn’t a direct mentor. I Also did a ton of West African stuff. I really got into Ornette Coleman, and saxophonists like Cannonball,” she recalls.

Saxophone was not her original instrument of choice, first excelling on the flute and accordion.” I started playing saxophone in college because it was louder. Arne Livingston from the Daylights, we went to high school together,” she says, alluding to her friend that she would eventually partner with in the power jazz/jam band trio, Living Daylights. While the alto became her instrument of choice as her career advanced forward, it certainly wasn’t just a foray into the sounds of Ornette Coleman, or for that matter, Cannonball Adderly. Inevitably she began to explore tenor players of note.

“I also transcribed Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. These were the days when we had cassettes, so you could adjust the speed, and I mistakenly learned the “Giant Steps” solo on alto, but a half step off! I listened to just about everyone, and the teachers that we had at Wesleyan were really great. It exposed me to a lot of different kinds of music. The music I write, and the music I love to listen to is folk music in some kind of way. What I love about jazz is when it harkens back to the blues, not that it’s all blues, but that it has this element of folk music. So stuff that I write I think it’s almost like fucked up folk tunes. I don’t know what to call it, they don’t have a record bin for it,” she says.

Her time in Seattle in the ’90s provided plenty of inspiration and diverse musical activity. Partnered with saxophonist Amy Denio, The Tiptons Saxophone Quartet took off into uncharted territory, inspired by the life and music of Billy Tipton. Tipton had spent his entire adult life living and performing as a male, but was assigned female at birth. The band’s reverence for Tipton’s work was a source of strength for an all female saxophone band, that even in the alleged progressive world of the 1990’s was a constant challenge due to gender bias. The overwhelming dominance of male instrumentalists in jazz remains a major hurdle for the music to overcome, to truly be the indigenous expressive art form it claims to be. “If you go to a festival and see 100 instrumentalists, 96 of them are men. And I live in New York, where there are so many bad ass female players,” she states emphatically.

Denio became a major influence on Lurie, in terms of exposing her to jazz music that was more out on the edge, and engaged in the avante-garde. At the same time, her time in Seattle reunited her with high school friend Arne Livingston, who had been studying in Boston.

“When I came back to Seattle, Arne moved back here, he had been in Boston doing freestyle, and Dale Fanning was here and this was ’95 or so-he had been doing so much Afro Cuban stuff. That played into weird, angular, funk groove stuff,” recalls Lurie.

“Playing with the Tiptons, Amy Denio really got me listening to a lot of outside music, avant-garde music,” says Lurie. This would lead to the formation of Living Daylights with Livingston and Fanning, a powerful trio consisting of electric bass, drums, and the now strong voice Lurie had developed on saxophone.

Lurie’s music undeniably takes on the many strong musical roots in her life, from her parents love of classical music and musicals, to the open minded jazz and improvisational music scene in Seattle. Though her early experiences in music were largely experienced on flute, her eyes were opened to the multiplicity of sounds she could express on the saxophone. She discovered the wide range of sounds, textures and colors available on the instrument, like so many in the jazz tradition had before her.

“I was listening to more and more jazz, early songs, early blues, and learning standards. My parents both loved musicals, Cole Porter, so my dad would play piano and we would sing these musical songs. They became part of the jazz canon. I was playing really well on flute, but really working hard on saxophone, and it being my main tool for learning that repertoire. I felt like it was a whole lot of things at once. Coming from classical, I knew I could learn the instrument, and I was feeling less inhibited to improvising on the saxophone. Even though I could improvise better on flute, I would find different sounds, and try to find extended sounds. I think I took a semi conventional approach, and then began to get into more experimental stuff. I really got into Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, I learned the language,” says Lurie, thinking back to her earliest experimentations with the saxophone, and with the standard jazz repertoire.

Lurie considers herself a bi-coastal musician, spending time both at her residence in Brooklyn, and at home in Seattle. As a native New Yorker, and now a forty year resident of the Seattle area, it is easy for me to see and hear the influences of these two very vibrant, but very different musical cities in her music. When in New York, one feels the history and tradition that the city embodies. Since the 1920’s, New York City has been the true cradle of jazz expressionism. Seattle, from its roots on Jackson St. during prohibition, to it’s vibrant and eclectic jazz and improvised music scene of today, has had a collective open mind to extended forms of jazz, and progressive social awareness.

“I’ve found in Seattle, more so than any other place, the ability to have spontaneous improvisation that can sound like a song, where people are improvising, but there’s a thought about an art, and a narrative within the music. So coming to New York playing free, we could put our egos somewhere else, and just listen, and have it take shape. There are so many amazing players there,” says Lurie about her bi-coastal tendencies. “I like groove music too, or when it can go in and out of groove. Totally free, and then go back into that pocket. I guess what I bring is my love for all these different kinds of music, and not being afraid to put them into my tunes. I’m not a pop musician, but I can play pop, I don’t have that standard bebop sound, but I love these elements.”

Lurie is currently riding the wave of her new release, Long Haul (Chant Records, 2017), a title expressing her collective career of 30 years that has moved forward fearlessly and creatively. In some ways it alludes in terms of texture and sonic resonance to her ensemble record, Shop of Wild Dreams (Zipa!Music, 2009), but there is notable forward progress in compositional form and diversity, and in her arrangements.

“What’s different on this record is I’m not singing. My last few records, I’ve been singing half the tunes. Four of the tunes were older works that hadn’t been recorded yet, that I reworked. I think it’s an evolution of my harmonic approach. The newer tunes were written in the last year, year and a half. I think I’m better at arranging, you’re always learning, every single time,” says Lurie with a refreshing sense of pride and humility.

There is a notable personnel change, being in the person of brilliant pianist Brian Marsella. There is a very open and cerebral connection between his playing and that of Lurie, through a myriad of rhythmic and stylistic changes throughout the recording.

“He’s amazing. He’s from New York, I play with him in Zion80, which is this African Jewish band where I play baritone. We play the music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He’s just a genius, he’s one of those classical virtuosos that had a major meltdown for real, and came back as a jazz virtuoso,” states Lurie about the mercurial pianist.

Lurie’s career as a strong woman instrumentalist over thirty years is also remarkable considering the gender inequity in the form among instrumentalists. A shockingly high percentage of women in jazz are vocalists, an outdated tradition that harkens back to societal norms during prohibition. It not only squelches the movement of social justice, but dispels a potential higher level of creativity. It ignores an audience in the wings awaiting the advent of social change in jazz. Social practices built on and perpetuated in injustice are inhibitors to any creative or for that matter, practical process. Considering the tide of social change we are experiencing in America per this issue, artists such as Lurie provide a can do voice, a gift in terms of directing the music to a stronger ethical place. She has faced the challenge in an exemplary and courageous manner, essentially shrugging off any impediment along the way, “I’ve chosen not to feel downtrodden by it, but I do get pissed off when I see 100 jazz musicians and 96 of them are men, especially instrumentalists. I went to this jam with Ivan Neville, this big, cluster jam thing. There were all these men posturing, and physically blocking us. I just don’t care enough about this to play this game. The heteronormative narrative is just so boring,” says Lurie. It is obvious her intrepid narrative will continue to provide some much needed light on this matter.

“I remember hearing this reporter at a Tiptons concert going around to the audience and saying, ‘If you close your eyes, would you know it was a woman band?’ What a dumb question. Music is music, that’s one of the obstacles, this idea that we’re lesser than, or different than men. The funny thing for me is not from fellow players, but from men in the audience when I play aggressive. With Living Daylights, where we play loud, I’ve been told that I play like a man. They mean it in a positive way, so they’re limited in their vocabulary. ‘You play like a man and look great up there,’ is something I’ve heard a lot. What’s going to make a difference is promoters and bandleaders together striving for that balance. Look for it,” she says.

Perhaps being just outside the mainstream of jazz, and thus its more traditional approach has enabled Lurie to play to an audience with less attachment to social improprieties in jazz. Sometimes a minor stylistic shift can tilt the balance to a more just position. “I’m not trying to be a bebop player, or to play in Broadway shows, I’ve always made my own weird eclectic music, so in the bands I’ve played in I’ve been very aware of being a woman, but I’m also kind of one of the guys, I’m just trying to play the best I can. You can definitely feel the old boys thing. I know that if somebody wants a super traditional horn player, they’re probably not going to hire me,” remarks Lurie.

As an educator, Lurie’s message is one of strength. Her thirty years in the trenches as a woman saxophonist provides a powerful position to mentor. Gender assignment of instruments through the years has categorized women to such an extent, that women horn players of her generation are not as common as would be ideal. Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen comes to mind as another strong woman horn player whose career has provided much needed inspiration for young women instrumentalists with such aspirations.

“I really didn’t have any women role models. I wrote this grant called ‘Play Like a Girl.’ When I have girl students, especially on saxophone, I tell them, ‘Get a big sound, no wimpy players. You can play really fast, but if it’s not a big sound, nobody can hear your ideas.’ It’s more like big than it is loud. Get a big sound, then you can control it. The term ‘play Like a girl,’ refers to things like ‘run like a girl.’ I was thinking it would be cool to do some kind of project where you have girls from elementary school to high school, and have them do some sort of elaborate writing. It could be like a generational women’s group that involves something about composition, and can bring in stories and a narrative. Songs are like a big umbrella, where there can be lyrics, there can be a narrative, there can be composition. Bring in players who can actually play their compositions, but somehow dispel this idea that women are wimpy players. That they can’t be dynamic. It doesn’t have to be an all women band,” says Lurie.

Technical facility is in service of one’s creative emotions when playing, the connection where practicing technique and facility can further enhance your ability to directly express emotion when improvising. Modern music continues to blur the lines of genre as traditionally interpreted. Lurie’s music has grown through the jazz tradition, and has evolved to a very free place that while unleashed from many harmonic ties, still has broad based compositional context streaming from her cultural roots, and classical training. Her unique approach to melodic improvisation on saxophone, flows through a free verse Whitman like narrative.

“I think if you hear something you can do it. You’re connected to your idea. You can get stuck in changes, you have to work on knowing them so you can get beyond them. I think technique helps a lot, it’s easier to connect to your music and to your instrument. It’s many things coming into play, I think that’s when you really feel that you have your ideas flow, you can actually play what your ideas are. I hear it when my fingers want to go in a certain pattern, I think of what I can do to break up that pattern. To approach it differently and not get stuck. One thing about classical players is you learn a technique where you slow it down, and play it really well slow, and then you can play it fast, or you can just make it sound beautiful. Put emotion into it, don’t let it be boring. For me, the more I practice things where I can slow things down and really try to work on facility and also being able to have a narrative, it enables me to be able to articulate that narrative. To be able to articulate things the way you want to,” explains Lurie, her ideas flowing much like her playing-with emotion, strength, and strong articulation.

The proliferation of jazz in the twenty first century offers its community more music, more musical access, and more talented instrumentalists than perhaps anytime in the past one hundred years. Why then, do so many modern compositions sound as if the notes are scattered on a tabletop like Scrabble tiles? While Lurie’s music is often referred to as being avant-garde, or “outside,” her compositions include a strong melodic sense, classical dynamics, and a harmonic structure that expresses the many moods of her musical personality. Her melodies, and her approach to composition are expressed through movement, through energy, and like her improvisational prowess, possess a strong sense of tension and release. Her methodology is unique and very much grounded in modern urban movement, inspired by ambient sounds.

“God bless the iphone for instantaneously recording ideas. Often when I’m moving, like if I’m on my bicycle, or I’m walking, or running, I’ll get melodic ideas and I’ll record them. I sing into my phone. Sometimes when I’m riding my bike I’ll have a recording device stuck in my bra strap! On my CD there’s this whole section before “Rare Flares,” where at Union Square there were like three things going on spontaneously and I recorded it, and sent it to Todd and we mixed it. You can hear my bicycle horn go off. I like found sounds, they inspire me, I have some incredible recordings of frogs from New Orleans where they are seriously going clave, it’s hard core clave, and I thought that I had to do something with that. I sort of let the tangents happen and acknowledge that there’s influences coming from different places. I asked Brian who plays on a lot of John Zorn projects, ‘Does this sound too much like John Zorn?’ I love John Zorn’s stuff. When you compose you don’t want to sound too much like someone else. Am I plagiarizing, or inspired and influenced by? I think in my composing process I ask myself if I’m quoting myself from my other songs, or did I quote someone else. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Cajun music, and I’m working on a song that sounds alot like a Cajun tune, and that’s OK. If it moves you in some way, if there’s a narrative, if there’s emotion that’s connected to it, it’s perfect,” expresses Lurie, connecting strongly her musical persona with her everyday discipline of artistic being.

We are living in a time when the principles of compassionate living are under constant attack by the power brokers seated in congress, the White House, and on Wall Street. Music has always played a major part in providing a narrative for social responsibility in times like these. Jazz artists have historically been a vibrant voice for social and creative justice, with today’s activists in the jazz community fully engaged.

“In New York a lot of musicians are hitting the streets and marching. I think as an artist it is very important to not be silent, it’s very important to be vocal. Some people will complain that they don’t want to hear about politics, that they just came for a concert, but it’s too late for that. It’s not to preach, I’m not here as an educator, but as a reminder of what you already knew, and what somebody is trying to make you forget. I believe in Laurie Anderson’s quote, ‘History is like an angel being driven backwards into the future.’ Music is galvanizing, it’s a catalyst,” remarks Lurie, citing a prominent sentiment in the international jazz community.

The music of Jessica Lurie is disciplined, yet carefree, intense, yet passionate and adventurous. Her musical voice is strong and determined. It is a direct connection to these same traits that possess Lurie’s humanity, her personage. Her personal “long haul” defies the passing of time. It expresses emotion that calls to attention what you are feeling in the now, and what is the truth of the moment.

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