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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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Photo by Amy Mills

As an avid student and experienced educator, Maria Grand is no stranger to the mentorship process. Upon arriving in New York six years ago, she became the protégée of legendary musicians Billy Harper, Antoine Roney, and Von Freeman, and quickly found work with Steve Coleman in his various small groups. Additionally, Grand is at home on the stage at The Jazz Gallery, having appeared multiple times as a bandleader and award recipient. She is one of three most recent Jazz Gallery Commissionees, and this summer staged an extended version of her work “TetraWind” as Embracements, expanding the sound and the concept of the project. 

In the latest installment of the Gallery’s mentorship series, Grand will be working with saxophonist Steve Lehman and his band. The quartet will present three shows across the city, at The Jazz Gallery, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and SEEDS in Brooklyn. For all three shows, Grand and Lehman will be joined by Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums. We spoke about her album TetraWind, her hopes and expectations for the concerts, and her thoughts on the mentorship process.

TJG: I’ve plenty of questions about your concerts with Steve Lehman, but first I have a few questions about your last album, TetraWind. Could you talk about the spoken section midway through “South (Quantum)”?

MG: Sure. Originally, there were lyrics to everything. I wrote all the songs on TetraWind thinking about words in some way. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about words while writing melodies, but there was an overall meaning to each song. For “South,” we did that interlude section, and I really wanted to have a poem over it. It felt like the best spot on the album for it. I wrote all the music while in Colombia when a huge amount of police brutality was happening. Somebody over there told me this surreal story where someone put laxatives in old meat and left it out for the birds to eat, so for a week after that, everybody got sh*t on [laughs]. It’s surreal to become aware that one reality is so different than another. It was, for me, a connection with what was happening back in the states. The whole thing seemed surreal. Police brutality has been many people’s reality for a long time, but if you step back for a moment, and think about a policeman killing someone who’s twelve because they have a toy gun, it seems impossibly surreal. That’s how the poem came about. I wanted to make that statement, but at the same time, I wanted the statement to be available to someone who listens to the whole thing and experiences it through the end. It leaves you thinking, ends on a dark note.

TJG: Do you do a lot of writing?

MG: That’s something I want to expand on. I use a lot of different things to write. Some things are more a part of art and not really a part of music. Sometimes I need movement. I write words, even when they don’t make it to the final product. They’re on my mind when I’m writing the music. I sing a lot too, which is something I got from Steve Coleman. I sing all the things I want to play, then transcribe it. That’s how a lot of the music came about.

TJG: Another question about TetraWind: Of the seventy or so interviews I’ve done for The Jazz Gallery, only a couple of people have had projects which included electric bass. Rashaan Carter sounds amazing on electric bass on the record. What was your thinking behind the choice?

MG: I asked him to play electric from the start. I love the electric bass. I think it’s from playing with Steve Coleman and Anthony Tidd a lot. I like the bass to be loud. When Rashaan plays, there’s a weight to his notes. That’s what I wanted in the music, you know? Electric has such presence. And he never wants to walk, he’ll say “If I’m playing electric, I want to try some different stuff.” It works out for me [laughs].

TJG: So to jump ahead a bit, how did the conversations start about pairing you with Steve in the mentorship series?

MG: I was actually at Steve’s house one day, looking at some of his music and playing through different arrangements. He was really gracious to share his time with me. As I was leaving, he said “You know, I have this Jazz Gallery mentorship coming up, and I’m not sure who I should mentor.” I said, “You should mentor me!” “Nah,” he said, “you don’t really need mentorship.” I was like “No, I do!” And a few months later, he reached out to me, asking if I wanted to do the mentorship with him. Of course I said yes.

TJG: Do you remember what was on your mind when you asked him to mentor you? Something about his playing, his music?

TJG: I’ve loved his music for a while. He has such an original voice, he’s a strong saxophone player, very technical, virtuosic. All this stuff about playing overtones, playing in different tunings, I wanted to learn more. I’ve been checking out his music for a while. Before the mentorship began, he was hesitant, saying “You’re already a professional musician, you’re already playing with people.” But to me, a lot of times, mentorship is what happens in professional situations. Mentorship is not that different from a gig. You want to do well, you want to share knowledge, to be challenged.

TJG: So what sort of preparation or discussion have you done together so far?

MG: He sent me a bunch of music and some practice tapes. I know he won’t be nice to me on the bandstand, and that’s what I’m here for. I’m ready for it. I’m not gonna be nice either [laughs].

TJG: I was just gonna say; in a mentorship, it’s a two-way street of sharing. What, from your own experience, would you hope to share with Steve?

MG: I’m trying to take a different approach from a lot of saxophone players who want to play with him. I don’t want to play, necessarily, in the same style all the time. I want to play a few less notes; I’m not as technical as these other guys. When I played with Steve Coleman, I wanted to have an approach geared more toward the song, as opposed to geared towards the solo, so I want to try to use some of that approach with Lehman. There’s only so much you can do if you take a solo after someone who burns everything. I want to be a foil to that. But, I’m here to learn.

TJG: There’s a lot to learn, and also a lot to teach as well. Your upcoming shows, at National Jazz Museum in Harlem, SEEDS, and The Jazz Gallery, all very different venues: Do you anticipate musical changes and adaptations between the shows?

MG: It’s gonna be really different from night to night. They’ve all played together a lot. I’ve played with Damian, and probably with Matt the most. I’ve never played a show with Steve. So I’m expecting every night will be really different. The first show will be the first time I’m playing with these guys. There’s gonna be more unknowns.

TJG: You’ve talked a lot about Steve as a technical player, a lot of the theoretical and physical things you’ll be able to learn from him. But we were also just taking about the very spiritual, social underpinnings of your last project. I wonder if you’re ever in that kind of mindset when you’re thinking about what you can gain from this mentorship with Steve.

MG: Well, I have a rule for people that I work with: I need to be able to learn from them on a human level, as well as on a musical level. For one to get the kind of the ability that Steve has, you need a lot of dedication, and that dedication comes with sacrifice. It’s a kind of spiritual act. That’s how I see it from the outside, in terms of what he’s doing. It feels like that for me too, a lot of the time. There are many nights when I’d like to go out and see a movie, but I don’t, because I’m feeling that hunger where I want to express something, so I have to learn how to do it on the saxophone. I’ve known Steve for a while, and I’ve learned a lot from watching him. He’s a humble person and he’s really focused on stage. I’ve watched him perform a lot. He has that cutting focus that says “This is what I’m here for.” He’s a nice guy, a family man, and I admire that overall lifestyle, of someone being a good person and being really focused. There’s a lot I want to learn about that life. He has kids. How to travel, all that stuff. So it’s not just going to be learning on the bandstand. I have so much I want to learn about that lifestyle, everything it entails.

TJG: There’s a lot of mystery in that lifestyle, and you’re in a great position to take a peek. I know you’ve taught a lot, across the US, Europe, and South America. Have you found the space to be mentor and teacher to others in a more direct, non-institutional long-term way?

MG: Definitely. If I can’t share what I’ve learned, there’s no point having it. When you meet someone who wants to learn, and see they have potential, you resonate with them. You say, “I see what’s happening for you now, because that was me once, I’ve been exactly there.” It’s such a gift, because you learn as much as they learn by showing them something. I often see it happening with young women. I look and I say, “I know you, I know where you are right now, and I want to transmit everything I have.” I’ve had to pay a lot of dues along the way, things were not that easy. Now, I want to give my information to people who can use it. It’s really important to me. There’s a girl in Cuba that I’ve known for a while, Mónica Viera. She’s really talented. She actually inspired a lot of the things I wrote for my commission at The Gallery. That’s the thing. When you’re mentoring somebody, they teach you a lot as well. She might say, “Hey, let’s try this a different way,” and I’ll say “Yeah, wait, hold on, that’s a really good idea.” Whenever I mentor or teach someone, I learn as much as they do. Maybe more.

The Jazz Gallery Mentorship Series, vol. 4, ed. 1, begins with saxophonists Steve Lehman and Maria Grand this Tuesday, September 26th, 2017 with a performance at The Nation Jazz Museum in Harlem. The group features Mr. Lehman on alto saxophone, Ms. Grand on tenor saxophone, Matt Brewer on bass, and Damion Reid on drums. One set at 7 P.M. $15 general admission. Purchase tickets here.