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Photo by Amy Mills

For the occasion of her 2017 Residency Commission, the saxophonist, vocalist, and composer María Grand has expanded the quintet featured on her EP TetraWind, released earlier this year, and brought both dance and rap into the fold for Embracements. We caught up with her by phone to discuss the upcoming premiere and the creative inspirations in this latest work:

The Jazz Gallery: When The Jazz Gallery reached out to you about writing a commission, where did you start with the process?

María Grand: I actually had the idea of doing a project with a rapper before I heard about the Gallery commission. When Rio [Sakairi] told me I had the commission, it seemed like I could finally get a larger ensemble together, budget-wise, and I was interested in creating some kind of chamber work that also was working with a rapper.

That was my beginning idea, but I also had this idea about learning about what the feminine side of God means for different cultures and using that to create music, and also using that to create lyrics, which was all connected to the rapper. So I kind of had the whole project in my mind, and I was waiting for somebody to give the money for me to do it, so it all came at the right time.

TJG: Had you worked with the rapper Amani Fela previously?

MG: I met him at the Marc Cary Harlem session, and I had never worked with a rapper. What I liked about him was that he was interested in music as a whole: I remember showing him a drumbeat that was maybe in 5 or something, and he said, “Oh, cool—I know what this is.” It wasn’t like musical information was going to be an issue for him; it wasn’t like he was going to be intimidated by any kind of musical information I wrote for him, because he plays drums, too, and he plays some piano, so I felt that he would be flexible.

I should tell you the whole story of how I wrote the music: I went to Cuba and did a three-week sabbatical there, and I took five books with me that were all about different goddesses: Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, by Merlin Stone; The Goddesses’ Mirror, by David R. Kinsley; Images of Women in Antiquity, by Averil Cameron and Amélie Kuhrt; Women’s Roles in Ancient Civilization, by Bella Vivante; and Promiscuities, by Naomi Wolf.

I was trying to find parallels between goddesses and also the stories and the legends, and my experience or in general the female experience in this culture that I’m living in. So this is what I thought of when I was writing the music, and each song is  dedicated to a certain goddess or dedicated to characters that represented something similar in my mind. They may not be from the same culture, but they represent a certain aspect of life that was similar.

So I read all these books and then I wrote the music, and then when it came time to write for Imani, I had already written the music. What I did was, I learned the music that I had written by heart and then wrote these poems that were related to whatever symbolical or allegorical energy I was working with when I wrote the music. I used that to create a poem, and then I rapped the text over the music, but made it fit in specific ways. It was super specific, and once I was happy with that, I recorded it and I sent that to Imani. So it was basically like I was sending him a chart.

TJG: How much of the rapped material would you say is fixed?

MG: It was really up to him, how much room was up for improvisation. He wanted to have mostly written material, but there’s still going to be room for him to improvise if he wants to.

TJG: You released TetraWind earlier this year, which featured a number of the same musicians as Embracements. How did your approach for writing for the smaller quintet on TetraWind compare to the approach for this commissioned work?

MG: It was nice knowing who I was writing for, which makes a huge difference. To me, it’s really important to build a relationship with people and to know where they’re coming from musically and for them to know where I’m coming from. I wanted to work with the same people I’ve been working for for a while because I feel that we’ve been building something together.

Since there’s already a core of people I know already, it doesn’t feel like working with a whole group of new people where we have to find completely new bounds. I’ve basically worked with everybody in the ensemble except for Amani and Lucia Rodriguez, the dancer. I haven’t played any gigs with Amani, but I’ve played music with him, and the dancer, Lucia, was recommended by Davalois Fearon and part of her dance company.

TJG: Could you speak a bit about how you went about organizing the music materials in Embracements with dance and rap in mind?

MG: For me, the narrative idea is really important, especially for this piece. I also wanted to give a woman a predominant role in this ensemble. You know, because it’s the way things work there aren’t that many women who play this music—and when they play it and they’re great, they’re super busy—so it wasn’t that easy to find a woman to work with as an instrumentalist. Then, I thought, well, dance is a profession where a lot of women work, so I have a much better chance.

One thing that’s important to me is to see art as not just something that’s stuck with music. I want to deal with lyrics, I want to deal with voice, I want to deal with narrative, I want to deal with dance—because I don’t see a reason just to limit myself to an instrument and a certain type of music. I figured it was a really good opportunity to do that because every song is about a goddess and you have a female dancer, you know, kind of embody that character. I felt like it would be a great way to express this in a different way, because it’s going to be expressed sonically and with lyrics, but I’m really excited about having it expressed with movement.

TJG: How did you approach the choreography?

MG: I kind of considered her more freely than Amani as an improviser because that’s one of her fortes. I wanted to kind of have her take solos and be considered as an instrumentalist in this setting. I give her a lot of movements where, for example, I want her to kind of play the melody with her body and finish when we’re all finishing this song, but also I’m really interested in exploring some transitions between songs with her. That’s one of the things I really want to feature her on, is a group improvisation that she’s going to carry in between the songs, where she can use her body to create a musical mood because we’re going to be following her. She already knows what the songs are about, so she can set the mood for the next song with her movements.

But I didn’t choreograph; I didn’t give her exact movements because she’s going to be dancing by herself, so she doesn’t have to coordinate her movements with someone else. I wanted to give her the freedom of telling her what I was thinking in my head with the song and what it meant, and having her choreograph her own part.

TJG: For this project as on TetraWind, you also feature yourself as a vocalist. When did you start incorporating vocal music into your performances?

MG: When I recorded TetraWind, I wanted to have a voice on it, but I ran out of money, so I was like, “Alright, well, I’m going to have to sing this.” It was simple because I already knew what I wanted, so I didn’t have to explain it to anyone else.

I want to use lyrics to express certain concrete things that I might not be able to express just with instrumental music. I kind of like to have both: to be able to express something and stretch with an instrument, and to be able to say a very specific word with lyrics. There’s just something that feels really natural with singing, because when you play an instrument, it’s kind of like a prolongation of your voice—especially the saxophone. You blow in it and you feel like if you had a whole lot of vocal technique.

When I first started learning how to play and studied with Steve Coleman, he said you have to bridge the gap between your ears and the buttons on the horn, and that’ll be like singing. So it’s always been a part of my life ever since I started studying this music. 

TJG: Rajna Swaminathan will be appearing as a special guest on the second night. How will her addition to the group change the dynamic?

MG: I didn’t plan on doing that, but she called me since it’d been a long time since we played a session. She came to my house, and even though we’ve played so many gigs together, in the last few years we haven’t really sat down and worked on music together. I was like, “Well, let’s try one of the songs I wrote for this commission,” and it has this complicated clave pattern: There are two claves at the same time and they’re the same length, but the way the way they work is like a long polyrhythm. I showed it to her and she started playing one clave on one side and one on the other, and I was like, “Wow, this feels so great. It feels so amazing.” She just took the music in really easily, you know?

We played through another song, one that was inspired by a bird that was always singing the same little melody, but singing it in different rhythms. It’s in 5 and 4 at the same time, and she said, “If it’s in 5 and 4, I can play a longer 5 and it’ll be like playing a 10, and that’s going to sound different than the other drummers.” She immediately took the music in a creative direction and started making something else and something her’s out of it. I had asked her to play on both nights, but she was only free the 17th. We’ve been playing together for so long and it makes so much sense. It’s going to be a crazy drum fest with three drummers. Rajna is an incredible woman instrumentalist and I’m really happy to have her.

TJG: We’re really looking forward to this premiere. Is there anything else you’d like to mention about Embracements?

MG: One of the things that I’m really excited about is to work with two drummers, because I’m working on things that have two tempos at the same time and that kind of lock into a groove, but a really weird groove. I felt that the best way to express this was to have two drummers not playing the same drum instrument. Jeremy’s playing drum kit and Mauricio’s playing congas, so it’s going to be a different sonic space that they occupy, but they’re still drums.

I found this kind of by chance: I was working on metric modulations, going from one thing to another, and I was practicing it with my friend Monica in Cuba and we ended up playing both at the same time and it kind of locked. I realized that maybe we can make it lock and sort of be in this uncomfortably comfortable space. There’s two things going on at the same time, and you can’t really. At some point, one becomes more prominent and at another point another one becomes more prominent; it’s kind of fluid.

I only did this for two songs because I didn’t want the whole set to be the same thing, but one is for this Celtic goddess who can change her shape. She can be a young woman, then all of a sudden become an ancient old woman, then become a cat and a bat. When the two rhythms happen at the same time, she’s kind of in that space where she can become many things, kind of like a stem cell thing.

There’s another song where there’s two tempos at the same time, but not the same tempos as the other song. I wanted to have the older energy of a grandmother and the younger energy of a maiden fitting in the same place, because one of the things I realized from all that research is that, a lot of times, these goddesses have many different aspects inside of them at the same time. A bunch of goddesses I found were a warrior and they were also a mother; they were a maiden, but when they got older they did something different. I wanted to have a song that talked about that—having two or more things or emotions or life stages at the same time—because when you get older, you’re also still younger. You don’t stop being a kid, you don’t stop being a teenager just because you get older. You have that part of you that’s still alive, and that’s what I was trying to work with.

The 2017 Jazz Gallery Residency Commissions Series concludes with María Grand’s Embracements on Friday, June 16 and Saturday, June 17, 2017. The group features Ms. Grand on tenor saxophone and vocals, Román Filiú on alto saxophone, David Bryant on piano, Rashaan Carter on acoustic bass,  Mauricio Herrera on percussion, Jeremy Dutton on drums, and special guest Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam (Saturday night only), as well as the dancer Lucia Rodriguez and the rapper Amani Fela. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.