May 22, 2024

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Interview with Sophia Smith: There are so many crossovers between genres: Video

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Sophia Smith. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Sophia Smith: – I grew up in St. Thomas, which is a rela8vely small city in southwestern Ontario (about 2 hours outside of Toronto). Like most people, I started playing music in school. I didn’t become very invested un8l later in high school when I started playing with a pop/folk band, and we ended up performing a lot around our area. I think my passion for performing and playing the saxophone was fuelled by that, and also by seeing so many saxophone players at Sunfest, the summer jazz festival in London, Ontario. This was one of the few places where I was exposed to jazz, and it helped me to realize that it was possible to play music as a career.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

SS: – My sound has gone through quite a bit of change in my short career – I actually first studied classical music at university where I played mostly 20th century solo saxophone repertoire, so my sound has evolved drastically since then. I do think the influence of playing in the pop/folk scene when I was young and studying classical music does come out in how I tend to play more lyrically and focus on clear melodies in my writing. I’ve put in a lot of work since then to immerse myself in the jazz world and find players that I want to emulate. I think listening is the biggest tool in developing a sound.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

SS: – The metronome is my best friend when it comes to woking on rhythm. Time-feel was one of my biggest hurdles when entering the jazz world. After years of classical school, I had the hardest time even tapping my foot on beats 2 and 4 when trying to play. Sight reading along to a metronome and playing lifts along to the metronome is a huge help for me. Along with that, is playing along to recordings of people whose rhythmic ideas and 8me feel I like. There really is so subs8tute for listening, liQing and immersing yourself in the music you want to play, especially in jazz which relies so heavily on rhythm and good 8me feel.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

SS: – Developing as an artist is tricky and it is easy to become too concerned with how others perceive your art. When I was working through what ar8s8c direc8on I wanted to pursue, I tried a few different paths, but they all seemed forced and inauthentic. I think your influences are going to shine through your art, whether you want them to or not. Writing or playing in the style of someone you want to sound like is an excellent exercise and a great learning tool, but for me the most important thing for developing my own path as an artist is to write what comes to me, and not try to get too caught up in trying to sound a certain way, or worrying about how it will be perceived.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

SS: – I don’t have a typical routine before performances, but I usually do some long tones to focus my sound and make sure both my instrument and I are warmed up. I also do some medita8ve breathing to ground and centre myself. I always look forward to hearing what my band has to offer, and to seeing how things change and grow in each performance. Focusing on the music, listening to the other players, and trying to create a conversion with them is something that so many musicians strive for, and focusing on that element takes me out of my own space and helps me to focus on something bigger.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album? 

SS: – The music and my writing has definitely evolved since we first started playing together. I started off by writing more straight-ahead jazz tunes, and then ended up trying out a more modern sound which felt more authen8c and relevant to me. The band and I met through music school where we played together in some ensembles and classes – I really love hearing what each of them has to bring to the table and I love their honesty and input when working together.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul? 

SS: – There is definitely a balance between the two, and for me both are important in being well rounded. Sometimes it is helpful to “feel” what is required, or to listen and play from the heart. However, I am a very analytical learner, so I love breaking down a concept mechanically. Once I have mechanically studied a concept and am able to incorporate it into my practice, then I have to ability to use it in a way that creates an emo8onal reaction.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want? 

SS: – The relationship between musician and audience is an interesting concept and one that, for me, can be conflicting. On one hand as an artist, I want to focus on the music and work on whatever I enjoy, but that isn’t necessarily going to appeal to an audience. One of the biggest rewards playing music is seeing how happy it makes people. I love seeing audiences dancing and singing along when playing popular music, but I also love having the creative freedom to explore other styles and create new music that may be equally as meaningful to listeners.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

SS: – In one of our recording sessions for this albums, we had a technical error happen half way through and we ended up having to cancel the rest of the session! That moment was definitely memorable since we had to go back into the studio later to finish the rest of the tunes. I also played a gig at a street fes8val with a big band where the house across the street from us caught on fire during a song. A gas tank ended up exploding on a balcony and the fire department had to come close off the area. Thankfully everyone was okay!

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

SS: – Good question! I think jazz can be an intimidating genre for many people to get into, partly because there is so much history and language in the music. Instrumental jazz can also be hard to understand for people who are used to lyric-based music. There seems to be so much crossover between genres these days, which I think is an amazing way to connect musicians and artists from different worlds and incorporate jazz and instruments like saxophone into more mainstream music.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

SS: – I am not a particularly spiritual person, but I do think that it is clear that music has an exceptional power. Art has always been an important part of human culture. It has been especially evident while going through the pandemic, how much we turn to the arts to feel connected and safe. For me, music brings a lot of meaning to my life – it is an outlet to grow and express myself, and I have connected with so many people because of it.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

SS: – Having people pay for music! There is so much instant access to music now, that it is rare for people to pay for music – especially music by a new artist that they are not as familiar with. With the changes in streaming platorms, it can be a frightening thought to think about what the musical word will look like in the future.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

SS: – I rotate between listening to some of my favourite great sax players like Art Pepper and Dexter Gordon, to current sax players like Tia Fuller, Chris Potter, Ben Wendel, Chad Lebowitz-Brown and Kenny Garret. I love listening to Christine Jensen and Pat Metheny for writing inspiration. I also like listening to more recent music from Jacob Collier, Chris8an Scott, Terri Lyne Carrington and Anomalie.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

SS: – I have always had a goal to make music that is authentic to me, but that is also accessible to other people. I love being able to combine traditional and historical elements of jazz, with more folk-like and easy-going melodies, in the hopes that the music can reach a wide audience.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go? 

SS: – So many places! The saxophone has such a relatively short history, so I would love to visit the jazz-age and see some of the world’s best players in their prime. However, I would also be fascinated to hear Baroque and Classical music in their time and played on tradi8onal instruments. I love playing flute and clarinet as well so it would be incredible to hear those instruments while they were being developed.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a ques@on from yourself…

SS: – What is it about jazz that got you interested in it? What aspects draw you to a new artist, and what keeps you listening to them?

JBN: – The improvisation music. When a young jazz musician keeps jazz crowns and works on it. Also, when they bring new melodies to jazz. And what makes me listen to them when the music is done intellectually …

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Sophia Smith

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