Starting with a state department tour in 2002, flautist and composer Jamie Baum has had a long engagement with the musics of South Asia. In 2013, she released a record with her Septet+ called In This Life (Sunnyside) featuring music inspired by the Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.This past year, Baum released Bridges (Sunnyside), probing the deep connections between South Asian, Arabic, and Jewish musics.
This Friday, October 19, Baum and Septet+ return to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of Bridges. We caught up with her by phone to talk about her ensemble’s evolution, her travels & research, and her constant pursuit of good polyphony.
The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of your septet over the years?
Jamie Baum: Early in my career, I played a lot of chamber music gigs—flute, violin, and cello; flute, harp, and cello; flute and piano. I’d play Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart. Having moved to NYC In the ‘90s, while getting myself established, I did a lot of weddings and corporate gigs. I didn’t mind it, because I was playing with great classical players, and we were playing great music. I really learned a lot by playing all of that contrapuntal Baroque music. That thinking carried over into the making of the septet because at that time, I felt in a jazz setting the flute would always be on top playing the melody. When I’d do small group jazz gigs, it often seemed to me that the rhythm section was having more fun than I was; interacting and getting into some interesting rhythmic things. After playing all of that classical chamber music, I would go to jazz gigs thinking, “I would love to be an inner line and find a way to interact more” and became interested in seeing what would happen if I took a more polyphonic approach with my jazz composing. Of course, I wasn’t the only one thinking like that, but that was my own experience. I would say that now, about half the time in my Septet+ I’m playing alto flute and am often not the one on top playing the melody.
I started the septet in 1999 and had a different lineup then— for several years Ralph Alessi,George Colligan, Johannes Weidemuller, Doug Yatesall played in the band… The septet has always been a muse for me in terms of exploring different ideas about compositional development and formats for improvisation. At first, I was focused on taking the music of 20thcentury classical composers and seeing what I could do with those influences. Our first recording—Moving Forward, Standing Still—had some Stravinsky and Bartok, and then in 2003 I got a Chamber Music America grant to compose music based on Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony and The Unanswered Question. That led to the second septet CD, Solace.
At that time, I was doing quite a bit of touring. In 2002, I did a state department tour for six weeks, three of which were in India and then toBangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka. For the tour, they set up collaborative concerts with some top musicians, like the tabla player Sandeep Das, who played in the Silk Road Ensemble; Vishwa Mohan, who’s developed a particular kind of guitar playing; Karaikudi Mani, who is a mridangam master, guru and was the teacher of Jamey Haddad. With Karaikudi, we spent a whole day in a hotel conference room where he taught us his pieces, and then spent three days rehearsing. But that was just a small taste. Of course, in that tradition, when a musician is four or five, they often go live with a guru and study, and sometimes won’t really perform publicly until they’re in theirtwenties.
After that first tour, I was invited back to India, and then Nepal twice. During my tours, I was introduced to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and really got into him. Around 2010, some of the guys in my Septet were either moving out of NYC or getting very busy with other touring projects so it seemed like a really good time to make a change and follow a new direction. I wanted to explore and see what I could do with these influences from South Asian music. I had met Amir El-Saffar a couple of years before that at a Chamber Music America event and we talked about wanting to play. He seemed like a perfect fit. And then adding guitarist Brad Shepik made the group the Septet+. He’s done a lot of work with Eastern European and South Asian music, so that was a really good fit too. So the group morphed into something different.
TJG: You released In This Life to much acclaim in 2013. How did you get from the music on In This Life to Bridges?
JB: Right when In This Life came out, I had some people asking me, tongue-in-cheek, “What’s a nice Jewish girl like you being obsessed with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan?” It did make me think and so I was trying to better understand what it was that was really attracting me to this music. When I listened to his recordings, I felt he moved me like Miles or Coltrane or Pavarotti did. There was a very deep, spiritual thing happening. For several years when I was a kid, I went to Hebrew school three times a week and on Saturdays to services at our synagogue. This was before they tried to update and reform the music with a more Americanized style. I really grew up with those ancient melodies and sounds. When I listened to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the way he embellishes melodies and the scales he uses felt familiar to me on a certain level, as does maqam and middle easternmusic.
Around the time that I was thinking about this, I had a very good friend whom I had first met in India. She was from the US, but had moved to India to study mridangam and married there. It is interesting because her father was a rabbi and I think her mother was one of the first female cantors in the United States. We started talking about how there were all of these connections between South Asian and Jewish musical traditions. There were actually Sufi rabbis living in the 10th through 13th centuries. At this same time, Amir and I talked about the connections between Jewish music and Maqam and how Jewish-Arabic relations had been much better in other eras.
In 2013, I applied for a Guggenheim grant for a project that was originally about researching these connections between South Asian and Jewish music, like these Sufi rabbis… and perhaps the music that they were sharing. At the beginning of the research process, I talked to several rabbis who gave me people to contact all over the place to try to get what I was looking for. I even contacted the Library of Congress in Jerusalem. Then in 2014, the Septet+ was performing at Scullers in Cambridge, MA, and Hankus Netzky came out to see us (I went to NEC and my first year I was a Third Stream major, so had studied with Ran Blake and Hankus). After the show, we were talking and it hit me that I probably should have talked to him about my research in the initial phase—being that he is so knowledgeable about all of that! The moment I told him about my research, he started laughing, and said, “You’re not going to find any information about that! None of that music was written down back then, so forget it!”