Noted for her polyrhythmic capacity in the vein of M-Base Collective and dense harmonies reminiscent of McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, The New York Times has referred to Michele Rosewoman‘s work as “cultural multiplicity in sound taken to a reasonable extreme, where a song can still be allowed to sound logical and beautiful.” Based in New York, the American jazz pianist has spearheaded a dynamic career for more than 40 years, working to explore both tradition and evolution with respect to two genres: modern jazz and Afro-Cuban folkloric music. While the pianist is noted for her work as a sidewoman alongside household names like Greg Osby, Billy Bang, and Ralph Peterson, she is best known for her work as a leader across two original ensembles: Quintessence and New Yor-Uba. From 1987 to 2006, Quintessence released five highly acclaimed albums and moved audiences along the way. Founded in 1983, New Yor-Uba is an Afro-Cuban jazz big band that featured Orlando “Puntilla” Rios until his death in 2008. In 2013, celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the ensemble, Rosewoman released the group’s first album: Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba: 30 Years! A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America. Warmly received, the album was voted #1 in Latin Jazz and #25 overall in The 2013 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.
A protégé of Oakland-based pianist Ed Kelly, Rosewoman moved to New York in 1978 from California and established herself playing with jazz artists like Oliver Lake, Freddie Waits, and Billy Hart, as well as Latin musicians like Celia Cruz and Paquito D’Rivera, among many others. Education is also a passion of Rosewoman’s: she has frequently conducted educational workshops at colleges and universities, teaches privately, and has served on faculty at NYU, The New School, Jazz House Kids in Montclair, NJ, and Berkeley Jazz School.
This Friday, Rosewoman brings a more recent configuration to The Jazz Gallery: the “Time In Textures Trio” featuring Rosewoman on piano, Liberty Ellman on guitar, and Gregg August on bass. We sat down with Rosewoman this month in Greenwich Village over coffee and got granular insight into her past, present, and future. Check it out here:
The Jazz Gallery: 2013 was a big year for you with the release of the 30th year anniversary record for New Yor-Uba, which won a laundry list of awards. How was that experience and what will you take away from it moving forward?
Michele Rosewoman: It was a great year, for sure! It was very fulfilling to put that much time, love, and energy into a project that I felt so close to. To have the album well received was also very gratifying. It marked the completion of an era for me, as I had all of this music from over time that needed to be recorded. It was a learning experience on many levels, of course: not only was it large scale, but it was my second self-produced project. I used Kickstarter for funding and social media for creative and promotional purposes—all new ventures for me. There was a lot of work that went into scheduling rehearsals, recording dates, and performances related to the album release. Musically, I definitely landed where I wanted. I was really pleased to have Oliver Lake on the recording because he presents a sound and a voice that I had to have. With respect to the horn section, I tried to find a balance across tradition and innovation. I was also happy to include folkloric masters Roman Díaz and Pedrito Martinez who were equally vital to the sound.
TJG: You just got back from a trip to Cuba as part of your continued immersion in and study of Cuban folkloric music. Can you tell us a bit about that?
MR: Yes, the trip was part of my continued study of Cuban folklore and also a networking journey. I met some of Cuba’s greatest poets and singers and spent time with Conjunto Folklorico director Dr. Rojelio Martinez Furé. This was my second trip to Cuba, my first being in 1996. On this trip I studied with Lázaro Pedroso, an 80-year-old master folklorist and vital keeper of the tradition—a tradition that is dying with those that pass on. He’s on a mission to carefully preserve it. I saw him most days I was there. While I study the tradition at home in the United States as well, this trip afforded me some free time away from my other interests to really hone my focus.
I began playing congas in 1971, with a focus on the percussive and vocal elements of the tradition. I’ve been working with Cubans in this tradition since the Marielitos movement in 1980. Of those that came over here at that time, Orlando “Puntilla” Rios became our resident master and led the proliferation of the tradition in this country. I’m grateful to have been able to study with him on my own soil. I played keyboards with a great songo band called Los Kimy—the first recording I ever did, as a matter of fact—and worked with Charanga and son groups as well. This was all parallel to what I was doing in the jazz world with people like Oliver Lake, Freddie Waits, Billy Hart, and Billy Bang.
TJG: Can you walk us through the history of the “Time In Textures Trio?” Is there a concept behind it and do you have any specific goals for this configuration?
MR: I think it’s a unique project, both for me and the musicians in it. When it began about six years ago, I was looking to make new music in a new context. Typically, the group features myself on piano, Tyshawn Sorey on drums, and Liberty on guitar, playing each of our own originals. We first played at the old Roulette and have since gone on to play at spots like Firehouse 12 and 92Y Tribeca Mainstage. The instrumentation is unique in that there is no bass player. Between our rhythmic concepts and the low-end that we could access on guitar and piano, nothing felt missing to us. We made it a point to play compositions from each member of the group. I really value what other people bring to my work: their artistry, focus, and musicality. To me, that’s a gift. Although I lead this group, the cooperative element has granted me the chance to dig into Tyshawn and Liberty’s music, two of the most interesting young composers out there.
Tyshawn wasn’t available to play on June 13th, so I called Gregg August. Gregg has been playing with New Yor-Uba and also a smaller hornless iteration of that ensemble that featured a prominent rhythm section and a lot of stretched-out playing. I’ve seen what Gregg can do across the board and felt that he was the right fit. With the drums gone, this trio features piano, guitar, and bass. We had the first rehearsal the other day: it was great and really interesting. The three of us are all rhythmically astute in our own ways. Conceptually, “Time In Textures” represents the unique textures of our choice in instrumentation; this still holds true in the context of using a bass without drums. I think guitar and piano offer really beautiful textural possibilities, and, of course, with respect to Tyshawn…well, he’s completely texturized! [laughs] The word “time” simply refers to each individual’s sense of time in the context of these textures. Those were the thoughts behind the concept.
Aside from a few previously recorded pieces that we play, much of the material is new music specifically written for this trio. I hope to eventually record together, but at present the goal is just to develop our concept and provide an experimental outlet for myself amongst all of the other work I’m involved in. This kind of work keeps me growing and keeps me excited.
TJG: While you play acoustic piano, you’ve also worked in electric contexts over the years with respect to the keys, making use of things like Fender Rhodes, synths, and MIDI. Can you expound on your relationship to electronic instrumentation?
MR: Actually, I plan to bring my electric keyboard for the performance because there are some sounds on there that I really like. I always like to have an electronic component in what I do. Its probably related to the context of the music I grew up with. The first synthesizer sounds I heard were on records by The Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder; I really came up with that R&B sound. I’ve always liked the warm tone of electronics as opposed to the computational aspects of the technology. On my last Quintessence album, The In Side Out, we did an arrangement of Marvin Gaye‘s “Life is for Learning.” I really like the electronic production elements of that track. Mark Shim did the production on that. I’m really open-minded in this regard. I love synthesizers; they make me play, write, and think different. When I play electric keyboard as opposed to acoustic, it’s a different flow—it’s another side of me.
TJG: What sorts of new music technology are you leveraging?
MR: I work with Pro Tools. I edited my last two recordings just about completely myself. I taught myself with some help from friends along the way. Particularly on the last New Yor-Uba record, it was a challenging experience with such a big band: I was working with percussion, vocal, rhythm, and horn sections. But with new technology, I learn it on a need-to-know basis. There’s not enough time do everything I want to do! [laughs] I spend a lot of time studying. Not everyone writes, leads bands, and studies. Some artists spend their whole life as a sideperson and they never get to do their own thing because they’re working all the time; everybody’s situation is a little different.
I would love to be more technologically savvy. What I know, I know well. I’ve been working with Final Cut and Photoshop as well. I’m about to go into a writing phase. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll use Pro Tools with MIDI or Logic. I’ve also become accustomed to using Finale in my writing because it helps to expedite the process. I used to handwrite a lot, which was much more arduous. I still start at the piano and handwrite to a certain extent. I always will.
TJG: What is this new “writing phase” you’re about to embark on?
MR: I’ve been invited to write a piece for Arturo O’Farrill‘s orchestra and, as of now, it looks like I’ll go to Cuba with him at the end of the year and record it with Cuban and American musicians. Also, now that I’ve completed a cycle with New Yor-Uba, its time for a new one—it’s time for new music. Quintessence hasn’t been a focus for a while. It’s interesting how things naturally assume priority. With Quintessence, I reached a point where I knew it was time for a new contingent of musicians in the band but I had no idea who they might be. I put the project to the side because I knew that I would eventually meet new people when the time was right. Meanwhile, New Yor-Uba came to the forefront through a sequence of events and it took over my last two years. Now that New Yor-Uba has made an album, that group has reached a landing point.
I remember when I went into a really heavy writing cycle before I recorded the last Quintessence album, The In Side Out. At that time, people close to me were like, “Dang! That is some different stuff!” It was an outpouring of new music in a new moment. I feel like I’m on the verge of that again. Of course, if I get really busy working and performing, that takes time away from the writing. I have some great things next year lined up for New Yor-Uba: Dizzy’s in March and The Kennedy Center in May. It’s funny how things skip around. I thought that completing the album last year would give way to a busy schedule for New Yor-Uba this year, but events actually showed me that it was time for something different. My trip to Cuba fit in nicely because I had an unexpected break. So that’s kind of how I work: I try to explore the opportunities that life lays out for me. Things are taking shape. There is certainly more on the horizon for Quintessence and New Yor-Uba.
TJG: Tell us a bit about your educational efforts: how has it played a role in your life?
MR: I love teaching; it’s one of the most fulfilling parts of my life. I have private students studying both piano and composition. I like meeting new musicians, which I’m often afforded between my work at The New School and Jazz House Kids. The students from this summer program go on to schools like Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, and, of course, The New School. They’re really top tier musicians.
That’s actually how I met Tyshawn. He was in the Jazz House Kids program, which existed for 15 years previously under the auspices of “Jazz Connections.” I met him when he was 15 and he studied ensemble and composition with me through that program. A couple of years ago I brought him back in to perform with me so that the younger musicians could see and hear someone so successful that came up through the same ranks, which is so inspiring for them.
I like to set up workshops and clinics wherever I go—that’s actually one activity that I did in Cuba recently. I was brought into a class to share knowledge and experience at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory. It was a beautiful experience because they were all jazz fanatics. Just as people learning Cuban traditions need to get to the nuance, folks in Cuba learning jazz need to get to the nuance as well. I was able to impart some things that really hit home for them. I also really learn from students a lot. I love the exchange. The level of musicianship now is impressive.
TJG: How has the scene in New York changed over the years specifically with respect to jazz or Afro-Cuban genres? How have you had to adapt?
MR: [laughs] I grew up musically amongst a diverse crowd of timeless musicians, both versed in tradition and in innovation. When I was attending Laney College in Oakland, CA, my mentor, the great Ed Kelly, was a superb traditionalist who very much had a voice of his own—played avant-garde as well. He taught me that music is sound. With that basic premise, my head was split wide open. I thought I was just learning bebop at the time, but those around me knew I was headed in a different direction. In 1975, I became next-door neighbors with Baikida Carroll, one of the founding members of the Black Artist Group. I met everyone tied to that group through Baikida as well as AACM people like Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Abdul Wadud, and Lester Bowie, My first gig in New York was with Oliver Lake.
At the same time, I was performing with more traditional players like Billy Hart, Freddie Waits, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield, Julian Priester, and Jimmy Heath. For one of my upcoming events on June 28th, 2014, Jazz Forum @35 will pay homage to a great venue from that time period: The Jazz Forum. That loft space presented amazing duo piano concerts with people like Albert Dailey and John Hicks, Kenny Barron and Tommy Flanagan. My first real hangout was The Tin Palace. If you were there after hours, Art Blakey was bound to buy you a drink. That venue was incredible in terms of the energy, creativity, and social atmosphere that it offered all of us. Paul Pines, who owned and operated it, runs the Lake George Jazz Fest. As last year marked the 30th anniversary of both that festival and my New Yor-Uba ensemble, I rightly celebrated my CD release there in joint celebration. I would also hang out at places like Bradley’s. I remember one night being there with Cecil Taylor, Joe Sample, George Cables, and Betty Carter.
Many of those that I mentioned are now gone. I treasured that scene because it was so vital. We had places to meet and places to end up. There are new places like that now for younger musicians; they’re creating their own environments and getting that same feeling. When Orlando “Puntilla” Rios passed, with respect to the Cuban folkloric scene things dispersed, and they’ll never be the same. A lot of us are missing him because of his vitality, what he created, and what always happened around him because it was him. But the same would be true for eras of music I missed: I wasn’t here when Monk, Trane, and Bird were around. Life goes through cycles. For me, the music revives itself over and over. New energy comes in all the time.
There are aspects of the newer generation that I both love and am conflicted with. There is so much emphasis today on technique: being technically proficient doesn’t just make you a great musician. It’s really apparent in classes I teach. You might check out the right hand on a piano player and say, “Dang! Look at that! He’s bad!” However, let him start to comp or apply the left hand—things start to get dicey! On the other hand, I think that the present system of education is creating a new generation of super knowledgeable musicians that are not only versed in history and repertoire, but have analyzed it in great depth. Musicians are so well rounded now. When I first started my ensembles I chose players meticulously for their unique voices: each one had something in particular that colored my concept. If a person wasn’t available for the gig, I really didn’t know what to do. Sometimes I would just get nervous when called for work. It’s not like that today. I have lists and anytime I need someone to replace an empty spot, I’ve got 20 more highly dynamic names I can call on.
TJG: What music have you been listening to lately?
Michele Rosewoman’s Time In Textures Trio will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Friday, June 13th, 2014. This performance features Michele Rosewoman on piano and keyboards, Liberty Ellman on guitar, and Gregg August on bass. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $22 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here.