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.
TJG: Beyond Monk, who were the players that you were drawn to most when starting out?
MR: Horace Silver. Even though he’s a very different piano player from Monk, I think there were similar things that drew me to him, like potent, succinct melodies. And there was a certain spareness too that I think was a good entry point. I remember trying to transcribe really fast Bud Powell solos and being like, “I’m never going to do this.” And then I would transcribe some Horace Silver stuff and be like, “Okay. I’m starting to figure this out.” And then I’m a Rashaan Roland Kirk fan from the very beginning. That is still some of my favorite music. My dad actually got me into that. He was a big jazz fan and had some records. When I was younger, he played stuff while I was around the house, but I wasn’t really aware of it. I kind of had to find it on my own later. I eventually got to explore all of that on my own.
I feel like I’m a slow mover through music. There are some people like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman that I’ve only spent a lot of time with more recently. If I love something, I will hang out with it for a while. I’ll listen to half of a record for over a year. It’s sometimes overwhelming to contend with the fact that I think a lot of musicians of all kinds are voracious listeners. I’ll hear, “Have you checked out this record? Have you checked out this record?” It used to be kind of a stressful thing, but now I’ve started to come to an understanding that this is how I take in music and that’s ok.
TJG: Let’s talk about your current working groups. The trio that you’re bringing to the Gallery is a more recent project, yes?
MR: The trio’s been around for about a year and a half, two years. We’ve been working on this set of music for about a year now. I was leading a quartet more frequently before that, also with Sean Conly on bass.
TJG: What made you want to start this trio project after working with a quartet?
MR: I felt it was the next step in my own growth. I felt like it was something I needed to do to explore leadership and what it means to carry certain responsibilities from the piano. As soon as I started doing it, I discovered how much it was challenging me and pushing me, and then several months into it, I felt that it had become a really flexible unit. That really kept me interested.
TJG: What about bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor make this group so flexible?
MR: Sean and Chad truly surprise and inspire me every time we play. The music demands that we all be present and all be bringing our voices equally into the music. Both Sean and Chad definitely do that. A big part of what I’ve been trying to explore with Prairie Burn, the set of music from the album, is what does it mean to be a leader while also encouraging your band members to be themselves all the way. We say that in the jazz-improvised music world all the time, but when you’re a composer and you’re writing music, what does that really mean? This music has been about opening up every area to improvisation. Even though I’ve written out a melody and written out a form, I’m keeping those areas open. We’ll go off the page if someone is feeling something different. There’s a whole other level of trust that’s going on.
TJG: How do you balance this flexibility with your desire to make music that sounds a certain way, that reflects your own voice?
MR: I’ve been composing from the beginning of my musical life. I know that’s who I am. There’s music that I want to hear and music that I want to write. I almost feel that it’s a responsibility for the band—I’m bringing this in for you guys, we can start from somewhere. I don’t anticipate that they have to create everything. I’m trying to provide something to go off of.
TJG: Your previous record, Songs from the Ground (Fresh Sound) drew a lot of inspiration from your personal experiences growing up. Does Prairie Burn come from a similarly personal place?
MR: There are definitely a lot of layers to Prairie Burn. Prairie burns are part of prairie restoration where you set fire to a whole area and burn the whole thing down. The deep roots of the native plants hold and the weeds and clutter burn away, so the prairie can grow back renewed. I’m taking this idea as a metaphor for the group, letting everything burn down in the hope that the vital stuff will hold. That’s why I’m taking these tunes that I wrote, these precious things that I care about and have tried to perfect, and then letting them go. My hope is that the spirit of the pieces, the final intent, the emotional quality is still going to be there, is still going to connect us.
The thing that’s so satisfying to me is that I think it works and that it’s real. I feel that the record we made is that thing where the clutter has burned away and every moment of the music is potent. It’s also been a process of me confronting the improvised moment. Even as an improvising musician, I feel that there’s always so much pressure to perform. It’s easy to be afraid of that moment. It’s easy to not completely let go and make these parameters that I’m going to rehearse, so I have control of certain elements in performance. This was about relinquishing this kind of control, which I felt was the next necessary step in my growth.
Most of the material was written new for the group, but the last part is the tune “Songs from the Ground” from my last record, which I guess was intentional in terms of bringing old roots into this new thing. It is a totally different playing of that tune. I then ended the record with two solo piano tracks that feel kind of like the new shoots growing back, the things that I know are going to be there in the future. So the blues had to be there—one piece is a blues for John Lee Hooker. I’ve been listening a lot to his solo stuff with just voice and guitar. I’ve been doing a deep study of that for about a year now. I play along with those records, along with the singing, and I have to say is some of the hardest music that I’ve ever tried to play inside of. The quality of it is so personal that getting inside of it is just another level. And it’s also about getting into this very deep emotional space. This study was really fueled by making making this trio record. After living with this music with the group, I somehow knew that I needed to go deep into the blues to connect the whole thing.
TJG: Since this group is really based on around interaction and agency, did you feel the group was able to get a sense of “liveness” when you were recording in the studio?
MR: Yeah. We started the album with a five-minute freely-improvised piece, which we had never done before. And then we recorded the set of tunes all the way through without stopping. We did two takes like this and kept one of them, but that one take was unedited. Because playing without stops is such a part of the music when we do it live, I felt that was what we had to do in the studio.
TJG: Speaking of this progression and growth, and how you ended the album with some solo pieces, is a solo album the next step for you after the quartet and trio records?
MR: I was just saying to somebody yesterday that I have an ambition to do a solo piano tour, so I haven’t necessarily thought of a solo piano album. In the past I’ve looked at it like, “I’ve always played solo piano. I do it every day.” So I haven’t felt like that is a thing that I need to pursue to continue growing. I feel that the group interaction is something that continues to push me.
Pianist Mara Rosenbloom celebrates the release of Prairie Burn (Fresh Sound) at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, October 13th, 2016. Ms. Rosenbloom will be joined by Sean Conly on bass and Chad Taylor on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members). Purchase tickets here.