Perhaps more than any other force, curiosity fuels Tomeka Reid’s prolific artistry. The New York-based cellist-composer left Maryland-D.C. area for Chicago when she was a young student with the intention of disrupting her familiar comfort zones and collaborating with people she’d never met.
She’s released more than a dozen records as a leader and co-leader, performed with masters and emerging legends from Anthony Braxton to flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell, and recently recorded as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago for the aggregation’s 2019 release We Are on the Edge (Pi Recordings).
Her performance at The Jazz Gallery this week celebrates Reid’s forthcoming collaborative release with drummer and producer Filippo Monico, The Mouser (Relative Pitch, 2019), with sets featuring her quartet and a duo with drummer Tomas Fujiwara.
The Jazz Gallery: There’s a distinct, intimate voice-like quality to your playing. Is that quality something you’ve developed over time, or has that always been a natural part of your expression?
Tomeka Reid: I do think about that. Even the pieces that I write, the compositions, come as a result of me singing the melodies. So I guess it does lend itself to [the voice], and I’m flattered that you’d actually say that. As a string player, you’re trying to get the jazz language into your playing, and it’s like you’re trying to replicate horns, but you’re just not a horn player. There are certain things that are easier on those instruments and certain things that cellos can do, like double stops—those types of things are to play on string instruments. So I try to definitely incorporate all of my training—along with musicians that I’m influenced by—into my playing.
TJG: You’ve lived in three powerhouse hubs for musical development; you were born in D.C. and raised close by in Maryland, then later you moved to Chicago as a student and now you’re here in New York. Have you noticed each of these very vibrant, very different musical environments having a distinct influence on your sound?
TR: I would say Chicago probably had the biggest one. When I was in Maryland-D.C. area, I wasn’t really improvising a whole bunch; I was just kind of dabbling in it. And I didn’t leave campus much, so I wasn’t participating in whatever was happening in D.C. at the time. I feel like most of my influence definitely comes from my musical life in Chicago. Coming out here, I had a band that already lived out here so I connected with them. Through various projects, I’ve connected with more New York-based musicians. But I’ve only been here about three years, so I think I’m still very much bringing my Chicago sound or voice here.
TJG: I read that you were a bit of a timid improviser when you began playing out in Chicago, getting involved in those sessions. Has becoming comfortable as an improviser informed your composing tendencies?
TR: I would say it has. I think playing in a wide variety of ensembles has. I was shy about certain things, so I would write forms that I didn’t feel comfortable [playing] over, so I could write a melody over that and learn how to feel comfortable in that form. So yeah, [becoming comfortable improvising] has impacted my compositions. I use GarageBand to compose all the time. I would often record myself and play that back and write down little snippets of ideas that I liked from what I was playing.
TJG: Do you feel as though you have more freedom in the way that you compose now?
TR: I do. Again, I think part of the timidity was probably because I was a shy person, but also because everyone around me seemed like they had such a clear idea of what they were doing—or they were just more familiar with the aesthetic or with the genre. The jazz that I heard prior to coming to Chicago was more straight ahead. You know, everyone knows Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder and all this hard bop or bebop type of stuff. And in Chicago, I mean they were using everything, but there was more of an emphasis on creating your own voice and composing and playing more free. And so that part was like, “Whoa. What do I—how do I do that?” because I just wasn’t exposed to it. And now I’ve had numerous opportunities to play in those contexts, so I feel more comfortable in them. I still find it challenging, and that’s probably why I keep doing it because you’re always trying to make a musical happening. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You’re always learning something from the form, and I really appreciate that.
TJG: You mentioned that quoting in a Chicago club is like—the kiss of death. And you can’t go into a New York club without hearing 50 million people quoting a Monk tune or something. Not every club—you’re not going to hear people at the Gallery quoting Jerome Kern, but downtown, you hear it all night long. So that seems like a striking difference between the two cities.
TR: Oh yeah. For me, it didn’t matter so much because I play the cello, not saxophone—meaning no one was exactly expecting me to quote too many things. But if you heard it, some people would then intentionally crash the song. I’d be thinking like, “Damn. Okay.” So that didn’t help my shyness, of course. I was like, “Okay, I don’t wanna do that,” (laughs).