A recent graduate of the Juilliard School, trombonist Kalia Vandever is a true musical omnivore. In her young career, she has played with everyone from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, to pianist Fabian Almazan, to drummer Tyshawn Sorey, to pop and hip-hop groups. She has recently completed her first tour as a bandleader, and will bring her working band to The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 9th, for two sets. We recently caught up with Vandever to talk about her post-graduation experiences and how they have impacted her composing for the group.
The Jazz Gallery: This is your first time playing at the jazz gallery as a leader with your own band. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are bringing, and the music that we will be hearing?
Kalia Vandever: I am bringing my quintet, which consists of Immanuel Wilkins on alto, Connor Parks on drums, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass and Theo Walentiny on piano, and myself on trombone, and we will be playing mostly my compositions, as well as some of the compositions of people in the band as well. These are newer compositions of mine that I’ve composed in the last year, and some of them are really recent pieces of mine.
TJG: Are the compositions all encompassing one general time frame or body of work?
KV: Yeah definitely, I feel like the compositions have been inspired by a couple things, one being the beginning of my life out of school, also, a lot of my music is inspired by my family, specific family members of mine, a couple pieces that I’ve written have been dedicated to my sister, or my grandmother, and their experiences but also my relationship with them. And other pieces are inspired by nature, I have a lot of pieces that have just naturally been inspired by my surroundings on trips, or surroundings in New York City.
TJG: You said some of the pieces are inspired by what your life has been like since you’ve been out of school. Do you think being out of school has changed how you’re approaching music, what has been one of the biggest changes for you since you’ve been out of a structured jazz program?
KV: I’ve just felt really freed by the space that I’m in now, which is not confined to any specific method of composing, or not feeling confined by specific music I’m listening to. I found when I was in school I was listening to a lot of music that was guided by those who were teaching me at the time but now I’m in this space where everything I’m inspired by is what’s around me.
TJG: Are there any specific musicians or composers in particular who have had influence on you since you’ve been out of school?
KV: I had the opportunity to play with the pianist and composer Fabian Almazan recently, and we played a specific piece of his called Rhizome, and I was really inspired by the space, or rather pauses in his piece, and so I tried to take that concept and write something with spaces, and moments of silence. One particular piece I wrote a couple months ago when I was visiting New Orleans, I visited a plantation called the Whitney Plantation, and there was this little courtyard that had these really old oak trees, and it was kind of eerie being there and knowing that these oak trees were probably present or growing when all of this was taking place. So I wrote this ballad called “Lost in the Oaks” that was both inspired by that but also by the silence that I was experiencing there, and I incorporated that into my piece. So that’s one big inspiration that I’ve drawn from. But also I’m inspired by the composers Vijay Iyer and Walter Smith III.
TJG: Does your composition process change from piece to piece?
KV: Generally the melody comes to me first. So I’ll have a melody in my head, and then I will sit down at the piano and actualize that melody, and then from there I’ll hear moving parts as well as the instruments and what their role is within the piece, so I have a very strong relationship with the bass, the sound and the motion of the bass within my pieces. So often times I will start with the melody and bass motion, or a bass melody that I’m hearing underneath the melody. And then I will build upon that harmonically.
TJG: Speaking of bass motion in your compositions, what’s your relationship like with Kanoa Mendenhall?
KV: Kanoa and I have never performed together, but I met her at Julliard a couple years ago, and I really love her approach to the instrument and the music as well. And I’m also trying to include more women in my band, as I go forward.
TJG: Do you feel like you’ve been a part of musical spaces recently where people are making more of an effort to include more women? Or do you feel still isolation, like you may be the only woman in a musical space. Has that been changing, you think?
KV: It has been changing recently, I think also by the people I surround myself with, and my close friends within the industry who tend to think about this particular issue, and want to include more women in their ensembles. So I feel thankful that I’ve been in situations recently where I’ve felt included and felt like I haven’t been one of the only women in the group. I also have opportunity coming up to play with the Diva Jazz Orchestra, and it’s a group both run by and composed of all women, so I’m excited for that as well.
TJG: You’ve also been doing work in some other genres besides just strictly jazz. Can you talk about that as well?
KV: Yeah, I play many different genres. I am in a band with this rapper named JP Reynolds and we’ve been playing some shows recently which is all hip hop based, and so I’m in the horn section of all women which is also really nice. And I play in pop groups as well, and within jazz I play contemporary but also straight ahead jazz as well.
TJG: And do you feel like playing in these other genres informs your playing when you come back to a jazz setting?
KV: I definitely feel that way—in the melodies that I have to play in other genres and coming up with horn lines also influence my playing and influence the melodies that I improvise. Because all of it kind of ends up being spontaneous composition. I feel like my education in jazz certainly influences my work in other genres, but also the experiences in other genres help me when I come back to playing jazz music.
TJG: You recently went on your first tour with your band. What came out of that experience for you?
KV: That was one of the first tours I planned all on my own in another state and city, and I have been to New Orleans for years, but had never planned shows of my own there, so that was a great experience to go through. There was an immense amount of support in New Orleans, and it was so nice to be somewhere other than New York with my band, so I felt like my support group outside of New York grew after that tour. After playing and performing my compositions, we recorded them—they’re not released yet but I’m planning on releasing them next year. Some of the compositions that we played there were some of the most important compositions that I’ve written in the past year for me.
The band that I’m going to be performing with at the Gallery include some of my closest friends in New York City. These musicians I’ve played with for a couple years now since moving to the city, and they’ve not only been really supportive musically, but also personally, so I feel very comfortable presenting new music with them and bringing anything to the table because I know that they’ll always be there for me musically, and personally as well. Some of these musicians I met in school, but most of them I actually met outside of school, which is nice.
The Kalia Vandever Quintet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 9th, 2017. The group features Ms. Vandever on trombone, Immanuel Wilkins on alto sax, Theo Walentiny on piano, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass, and Connor Parks on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.