Even after spending over a decade in New York, pianist and composer Mara Rosenbloom still holds fast to her Midwestern roots. Her 2013 record, Songs From The Ground (Fresh Sound) drew from her experiences growing up in Madison, Wisconsin. This Friday, October 14th, Rosenbloom will release a followup on Fresh Sound with more music evocative of the midwest, Prairie Burn. Featuring bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor, Prairie Burn features a continuous set of original compositions that blur the line between composition and free improvisation. This Thursday, Rosenbloom and her trio will convene at The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of this album with two sets of music. We caught up with Rosenbloom by phone last week to hear about the music on the record is a vehicle for her own personal growth.
TJG: I find that your playing has a particular kind of dexterity that reflects some kind of classical training. What’s your background as a pianist?
MR: I started taking piano lessons when I was five—your standard lesson books. I don’t consider that classical music, rather than middle-C, square one stuff. Eventually I did take a more classical route, because that was the only route that I knew of, and where my teachers led me.
TJG: You’re from Madison, Wisconsin, so was there not much of a jazz scene there?
MR: Well there’s a decent jazz scene. I’d say compared to other cities of its size, it’s not bad. It’s small, but there are some good players there, and some have been in New York for a time. Some stay, and some return, wiser. Johannes Wallmann is now the director of Jazz Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison and I originally met him in New York when he was teaching at NYU.
So I studied classical music up through high school to the point of doing local concerto competitions. I guess I was decent to a certain extent, I was memorizing long pieces. But I knew that I didn’t really fit there while I was playing it, and it caused a lot of anxiety for me, especially when delving into these long Beethoven pieces. I felt like that this was not me.
I would actually say that a lot of the technical dexterity that you’re hearing has a lot more to do with jazz technique than anything I learned from classical music. The big takeaway that I assume I got from classical music is that I internalized a lot of melody and a lot of forms and harmonies and structures just through the playing of that music. I know that has laid a foundation for my sense of how music fits together.
TJG: What caused you to make the jump into playing jazz and improvised music during high school?
MR: The more I learned about jazz, the more I was drawn to it. It became about finding people that knew about it, finding people who were willing to teach me, finding records. My first real turning point memory about this was in eighth grade, hearing Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.” I had an eighth grade teacher who was a huge jazz fan. He would do “This Day in History” at the beginning of class and when it was a jazz musician’s birthday, he would play a record and talk about it a little bit. That record was really a turning point for me, partially because it was piano, and it called out to me—that was the stuff I wanted to be doing. It was an immediate response. There were a lot of things about it. The simplicity—which I don’t mean easy or trivial—but the relationship between its simplicity and its complexity. There’s so much personality, that really struck me. The humor.
When I heard that track, I went up to my teacher and was like, “I want to learn this,” and thought that I would just get the sheet music. I didn’t even know that it was improvised music. At the time, my teacher was like, “I can’t teach you that, you need to find someone else.” So eventually I found a local teacher who showed me some basic stuff, like gave me a lead sheet and wrote out some chord voicings. Just a couple of bits. But I was able to get into my high school’s jazz band and it was a good learning experience, having to count off a tune and try to play from chord symbols, which I had never done before. I was lucky to meet other musicians in high school who knew way more than I did and were down to play. We took some little gigs around town. One friend who played guitar was always checking out new records and passing them on.
TJG: All of your records really showcase your compositional voice. When did you begin to explore that side of your musicianship?
MR: I always improvised, as far back as I remember. I didn’t think about it much at the time—I felt I was just playing around—but in a way, I was beginning to build my own language. It definitely wasn’t in the context of a jazz language, which I didn’t know anything about.
It was later in high school, when my music teacher Steve Morgan really started to get on me about starting to write some stuff down. My senior year, I had a free study period where I basically had the music room to myself and so I would meet with him. It also came from college auditions. I auditioned as a composer major, so I had to submit written work. My first three pieces were basically written for my application.