As a saxophonist and composer, Tivon Pennicott has one foot on the dance floor and the other stepping into the beyond. Across his two albums Lover of Nature and Spirit Garden, Pennicott has drawn from his Jamaican heritage, Pentecostal upbringing, and love of film music. Pennicott furthers his expansive musical vision in From Roots to Branches, his new Jazz Gallery Residency Commission. Joined by bassist Louis Cato and drummer Joe Saylor, Pennicott will premiere the work at the Gallery this Friday and Saturday, July 23 and 24. We caught up with Pennicott to talk about the sources of his musical searching, and the commission’s new experiments.
The Jazz Gallery: Out of curiosity, what were you just doing in France?
Tivon Pennicott: That was just a gig with Gregory Porter. It was our first time back at a festival. It was just a three-day trip and now I’m back in New York.
TJG: What was that like returning to Europe after the pandemic and all that time?
TP: It was surreal.The band has been together so much for the past four or five years. We had to just abruptly take a break and now, a year and a half later, we met up again. It felt like we picked up where we left off, just as far as the camaraderie, the music, the jokes, and the fellowship goes. The big difference of course is that everyone’s wearing masks inside and the audience cannot enter after the show. I’m so used to greeting fans and just talking to them and getting to know them a little bit, so that kind of sucked.
TJG: Both of your albums, Lover of Nature and Spirit Garden are clearly focused on these broad themes of nature. Could you talk more about your connection to nature and the thematic inspirations for those two albums?
TP: My name, Tivon, is actually a Hebrew name that means “lover of nature. “ I felt like my parents did a pretty good job naming me because I was always outside. I was always in the moment as a child. I was always following my nature and the nature of who I am. I am blessed to have parents who put up with me and let me be free, as a child. So, I think my name suits me and that carries over to my creativity and my music. I especially felt that the first album, Lover of Nature, was a good opportunity to showcase some of the moments in my life that I wanted to amplify.
Naturally, the second album digs a little deeper into what “Lover of Nature” means and is more specific on how I live my life, as far as wellness is concerned, and how taking care of your physical body relates to you know your friends and family. It is all one, as far as nature is concerned.
TJG: You’ve said elsewhere that your first album was inspired by the time you had spent in New York. How do you feel your art has been inspired by earlier phases of your life, such as your time growing up in your hometown of Marietta, Georgia?
TP: I am very inspired by my Jamaican heritage. I grew up in Georgia, but my household was very Jamaican. On top of that, my parents are strong Christians. My parents related to the hymns at church, that is what drew them there. I’m Black, but no Black churches were really singing those hymns that they heard in Jamaica, so they were drawn towards a white southern Pentecostal church. So I have this interesting mixture of Jamaican heritage, with southern white gospel in my head and in my ears. I think that was a big influence on how I move musically and creatively. Of course, I was also in Atlanta Georgia, so I got the American Black culture as well.
TJG: Your work, especially Sprit Garden, has a lot of religious influences and references, namely in the track titles. The album was even recorded in what once was a church. You’ve spoken a little about your background and growing up in the church, how do you feel like spirituality, more broadly, influences how you play and compose music?
TP: It’s an ongoing exploration. I’m currently applying for a grant to write a symphony. An aspect of that grant is that I want to work with board-certified music therapists. They are interesting to me because they deal with healing through music. They also focus on the quality of chords and harmony and melodic progressions and how that affects a human in general and specifically. I think the scientific approach of how that works is all tied to the spiritual side.
My spiritual upbringing also allows me to be free and be led by the spirit, and that nature side of me allows me to live in the moment and let whatever comes come. I think that all has to do with the atmosphere of being in church, where the leaders follow the spirit. There may be no plan, but God has a plan, and the church ends up being very structured when it wasn’t any plan at all.
TJG: I was really struck by how ethereal and otherworldly much of Spirit Garden sounds. Could you talk about what the musical influences were for that album?
TP: The majority of it is me, but of course my foundation is in jazz. I listen a lot to the old Nat King Cole records with all his beautiful string arrangements and Nelson Riddle who arranged a lot of things for Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. Nelson Riddle would knock out these arrangements real quick. They had so much depth to them and I heard those early on in my musical growth and those always stuck with me in my subconscious. When I was writing I realized I was actually shooting for that Nelson Riddle sound and thought I definitely should acknowledge him as a huge influence.
I’m also influenced by film scoring, being a movie lover. I also love harmony and texture and going with what I feel in the moment, which means not knowing exactly where everything is coming from.
TJG: You’ve collaborated with so many talented Jazz artists, like Gregory Porter and Esperanza Spalding. Is there anyone who you haven’t gotten the chance to work with that you would want to collaborate with in the future?
TP: I would love to spend some meaningful time with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, the descendants of Miles. I’ve never met any of those guys.
I don’t necessarily have to do a collaboration, though I am willing to write for anybody anytime, especially those associated with Miles.
When I was just in France, Kenny Garrett was performing and I was amazed by his longevity and stamina. He just turned 60 after a year and a half of a pandemic that took everything away from all artists and he’s just playing so much saxophone with so much soul. I want to be like that when I grow up.
TJG: You’ve also worked with Jon Batiste and played for his band Stay Human on Late Night with Stephen Colbert. what was that experience like for you?
TP: It’s different. You have to learn to bottle your creativity up and wait for their moment, like “Tell me when to be creative,” and then they just throw it at you. We are just on-call with our creativity. Jon is one of the masters of that. He can just get up and make something out of nothing. It’s been nice to experience that and to meet some people who are not just musicians, but also actors and actresses. It’s been nice to have that exposure to them and how they’re thinking of things. I hope to do more. Jon’s a special cat.
TJG: Finally, what can we expect from your performance at the Jazz Gallery?
TP: I have spent a long time on it. I’m kind of worried because I worked so hard on this commission. It’s been overdue because of Covid. I’ve been dealing with electronics and audio effects and trying to fuse that within my own creativity. It is basically like putting together a large ensemble symphony, but then condensing it into a little box. So, I’m basically trying to create palettes and arrange and compose through this idiom, while doing it with two other people. It’s a trio, but it has the essence of a symphonic.
What I’m worried about is that I don’t know that many people can really understand it. But I worked so hard on it, and what I hope happens is that I get to transport people into different colors of atmospheres that you normally wouldn’t have acoustically.
It’s called From Roots to Branches. It comes partially from my Jamaican heritage and dancing in the house and just being free with the groove that my mom has. So I’m moving from that and then acknowledging all the other grooves in the world that I have come across and have come to love. I incorporate that into the most outlandish, complicated, but danceable African rhythms that make your soul dance. Even if you are just sitting there relaxing, I hope your soul dances.
The Jazz Gallery Residency Commission Series presents Tivon Pennicott’s From Roots to Branches on Friday, July 23, and Saturday, July 24, 2021. The group features Mr. Pennicott on saxophone, Louis Cato on bass, and Joe Saylor on drums. Sets are at 7:30 P.M. and 9:30 P.M. EST both nights. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.