A native of Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, vibraphonist Nikara Warren grew up surrounded by many universes of music. Jazz was imparted to her by her grandfather, pianist Kenny Barron. Music of the West Indies, like Trinidadian soca, shown to her by her father. Hip hop, dancehall, and trap all resounded in the streets of the neighborhood. Warren’s music fluidly navigates these many cultures and sound worlds now present in Black American music.
Sharp, funny, urgent and engaged with the past and present of American cultural politics, Nikara Warren comes to The Jazz Gallery for her first bandleader residency here, spanning April 4th, May 10th and June 25th. The program includes two nights paying homage to politically outspoken musical greats and one night of her flagship band, Black Wall Street. We caught up with Warren to talk about putting her spin on iconic music, as well as blending both new and old musical sensibilities.
The Jazz Gallery: This residency at the Jazz Gallery is entitled the Political Gangster Trilogy. The first night, you spotlight Curtis Mayfield, Charles Mingus, and Marvin Gaye. The last evening focuses on Nina Simone and Meshell Ndegeocello. On the second night, it’s the Black Wall Street project. Is it a collection of music or a collection of musicians?
Nikara Warren: You know, It started as a collection of music, that’s how it started, that’s what the folder of music was called, but it became a band name. [laughs] Which was not really the intention. I originally would say, Nikara Presents Black Wall Street but everyone kept calling the band Black Wall Street, and then, well, you can’t really help when that happens.
TJG: I couldn’t help but notice that have a very joyful manner of singing to yourself when you are soloing. What is your compositional process? Do you sing a lot to yourself and vamp and develop it in your head, or do you sit down at the piano with a piece of paper?
NW: I think there are a few ways. I am no stranger to the voice memo. I looked through a bunch of them last night, there are lots of 4 A.M.: me being, like, yo, this melody is dope, and afterwards I can work something out with it. A lot of times, I think I probably hear melodically first. Basslines too. I work a lot in Logic, so I’ll just throw something down. It doesn’t always come out when you want it to, though, which is difficult thing about writing on deadlines, which I’m doing right now.
TJG: Deadlines for yourself?
NW: No, this is deadlines for the show. This is all new music—all of the arrangements for the Trilogy we have not yet played at all. They actually haven’t even seen the music at all [laughs] so I’ll finish that off, and then we’re gonna rehearse. It’s going to be a brand new thing! But you know when you have that feeling, that you got this show and you gotta get it down. It can be difficult to write, because you don’t have that free ability but then there’s the beauty of it, which is that I work well under pressure. And I always am able to get more done when I have to do it for something important.
TJG: How faithful to the originals are these arrangements?
NW: I try to stay fairly faithful. It’s like, everything’s got my twang on it. More and more, I’m starting to hear my own sound, I guess—which is only starting to happen now [laughs] with my going back to older things and comparing them to a lot of the Black Wall Street stuff. There is a sort of similarity, I can now tell. I think if you know the tune, you’ll be able to tell which pieces I kept in there. I didn’t want to stray too far.
A big part of what I wanted to do, because most of this stuff—the June show will definitely have vocals. I’m still not sure if the April one will or not. It’s crazy to do all this music that focuses a lot on singers, and then to have no singers in the band. If I’m gonna have no singer, I have to stay sorta true to certain melodies for people to be able to identify what I’m going for. But also, I think I’m curious to see how these songs will worked framed just by their melodies. A lot of the time, it’s the words and the melody that really connect and I wondered that, if we removed that lyrical aspect, if the song still had the same feel and effect. How could I continue to get that across without needing words? I find that a pretty cool challenge.
TJG: Your style strikes me as being very physical and bodily, if that makes sense, and in your bio you allude to making “rump-shaking music.” How important is it for you that music is something you can dance to?
NW: I think it’s extremely important, or at least I think what I’m going for is movement—being moved in some sort of way. So, like, if that’s a physical thing, that’s a good thing. I feel a lot of that on stage all the time. But if it’s an emotional thing, that’s also really good. Because the whole premise of the music is this—the reason I made Black Wall Street the name was because I wanted to highlight the fact that before there was all this turmoil, in this particular instance, but also, you can consider slavery or a lot of situations in the Black Experience—is that before, there was this beauty. There was this affluence that, for some reason, people didn’t feel good about—people that look like me being affluent or expressing beauty in whatever way, or doing well, or looking like they’re doing well. The fact that it is there and that it can be there.
TJG: What struck me is that the band name invokes a traumatic and important incident of racial violence in this country [the destruction of the Greenwood neighborhood during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre] and holds and preserves the history, but the music itself feels like a space for healing and a place to be free and present in listening.
NW: That was definitely a part of the goal. But I didn’t want to focus on the negative, especially with Black Wall Street name—I actually had a pretty famous trumpet player say to me, [laughs] “Why you highlightin’ that? That’s a Klan job.” And I decided to explain to him, “nah, I’m not highlighting what happened—I’m highlighting what was, what was before.” And hopefully bringing some historical knowledge to people that are like, oh, what’s Black Wall Street? Why’d she call it that? And trying to keep my eye on the excellence portion of this, and that’s why I grabbed from all these amazing parts of Black American music. And I shouldn’t really even say Black American music—I should just say Black music. There’s a lot of African influence in there too, and Latin America.
TJG: I know you also rap and produce under the name Nikki T. Do you keep that and Nikara separate, or do they cross-pollinate? I know you have David Frazier playing [Roland SPD sampling percussion] pads when you play live—do you imagine the music with electronic drums?
NW: I think a big part—speaking of the pads, particularly—a big part of Black music right now is trap and electronic music. And as much I’ve been sort of a musician at heart, I guess, there is also this electronic part of me. Because I grew up with a lot of house music with my mom, though I also had jazz in the family, and that became big for me as well.
You know, I’m an educator too and I’m big on being able to connect with young people, and a big part of this is hoping that young people come away with this understanding that regardless of the way the music is portrayed, and the people who are making it are portrayed, there is even excellence in that. And there are going to be people that don’t want you to see that. So I try to connect all of i—the trap with the jazz chords, and do the Charles Mingus thing, and bring it back to the R&B, bring it back to the trap music—all these generational aspects of the music.
So, to back to your question, when I figured out that David [Frazier] was playing, and I know the dude plays for SZA, and a lot of people—
A lot of the music, and particularly the song Run Ricky, which every time we do gets a little better—it’s still not exactly where I hear it but it’s ever-evolving—it’s my song that focuses on gun violence. That tune, when I wrote it, I heard, oh, I need these gunshots sounds, I need these deeper sounds, I had a skeleton for him about what needed to happen where. But he’s the type of cat—which is funny cause he’s so cool, and you never think the dude that’s extra cool in the corner is gonna wanna work mad hard for what you’re doing, but he’s that kinda cat —he’ll show up and have all these other sounds loaded up and at the ready, and in rehearsal he’ll just start dropping ‘em. He’s musical so he knows what to do and you don’t have to tell him. So the end product is a mixture.
TJG: I had wanted to ask about that—how much are you trying to pull on playback and sampling to create the sound world of Black Wall Street?
NW: Yeah, well, that song is a big one. But without the electronic element, I don’t think I’d be 100% true to where I’m going with this music, at least. Cause this music is supposed to be my version of an umbrella of all the Black music that has affected me. So it needs to have… I listen to so much rap, so I needed to have that aspect. But also, it’s like, the albums we listen to today and everything… you know, I love the jazz thing, I love doing the all-instrumental thing, but I like the fact that I don’t have to be confined to feeling like I can’t add layers. And I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really that musician that I think people are going to want to turn on, and even that I’ll want to listen to in that way—to turn on and listen to 10 minutes of me taking a solo over some spang-a-lang spang-a-lang. I have a lot of respect for lots of wonderful players, but I needed to write something that was going to capture my attention and to get the message across to people and capture the attention of others. So there’s the soloing and everything, but I needed a little more of the modern twist, a little wake-up. [laughs]
TJG: Word. Are you looking forward to the Gallery shows? Is there a particular vibe you’re looking to bring to the evening?
NW: Y’know, the Black Wall Street shows tend to turn up a lot. Meaning, like, they can get kinda loud and it’s like a party, and we usually get a bunch of rappers. This is actually the first time in a long time that I’ve done some chill music, but I think even in the other sets we’ll hear a bit of Black Wall Street, maybe one or two tunes, cause I gotta sneak it in there somehow.
But I think it might be, in some ways, more harmonically musical, this. I think with Black Wall Street, I focus a lot on these grooves and these basslines that make you feel good—the music is supposed to have this feel good, even through the thinking tunes. That may just be a part of my style, but I think you’ll see more of a straight ahead, uh, jazz—if you want to call it that—a not-jazz element.
TJG: I just try not to use that word at all in these interviews.
NW: Yeah. [laughs] You know how it is.
TJG: What is on the horizon? Can we expect a record?
NW: Oh yeah, yeah. In the fall. We’re releasing in the fall. I’m looking forward to it—I’m hoping for November. You know, I actually gave myself ample time, even though at first I was thinking, in the spring, in the spring. But I do so many things—I run a jazz camp, I’m all over the place [laughs] so it was kind of tough to get it out. But fall! Hard deadline.
Nikara Warren’s Political Gangster Triology plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 2, 2019. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.