Starting with a state department tour in 2002, flautist and composer Jamie Baum has had a long engagement with the musics of South Asia. In 2013, she released a record with her Septet+ called In This Life (Sunnyside) featuring music inspired by the Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.This past year, Baum released Bridges (Sunnyside), probing the deep connections between South Asian, Arabic, and Jewish musics.
This Friday, October 19, Baum and Septet+ return to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of Bridges. We caught up with her by phone to talk about her ensemble’s evolution, her travels & research, and her constant pursuit of good polyphony.
The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of your septet over the years?
Jamie Baum: Early in my career, I played a lot of chamber music gigs—flute, violin, and cello; flute, harp, and cello; flute and piano. I’d play Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart. Having moved to NYC In the ‘90s, while getting myself established, I did a lot of weddings and corporate gigs. I didn’t mind it, because I was playing with great classical players, and we were playing great music. I really learned a lot by playing all of that contrapuntal Baroque music. That thinking carried over into the making of the septet because at that time, I felt in a jazz setting the flute would always be on top playing the melody. When I’d do small group jazz gigs, it often seemed to me that the rhythm section was having more fun than I was; interacting and getting into some interesting rhythmic things. After playing all of that classical chamber music, I would go to jazz gigs thinking, “I would love to be an inner line and find a way to interact more” and became interested in seeing what would happen if I took a more polyphonic approach with my jazz composing. Of course, I wasn’t the only one thinking like that, but that was my own experience. I would say that now, about half the time in my Septet+ I’m playing alto flute and am often not the one on top playing the melody.
I started the septet in 1999 and had a different lineup then— for several years Ralph Alessi,George Colligan, Johannes Weidemuller, Doug Yatesall played in the band… The septet has always been a muse for me in terms of exploring different ideas about compositional development and formats for improvisation. At first, I was focused on taking the music of 20thcentury classical composers and seeing what I could do with those influences. Our first recording—Moving Forward, Standing Still—had some Stravinsky and Bartok, and then in 2003 I got a Chamber Music America grant to compose music based on Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony and The Unanswered Question. That led to the second septet CD, Solace.
At that time, I was doing quite a bit of touring. In 2002, I did a state department tour for six weeks, three of which were in India and then toBangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka. For the tour, they set up collaborative concerts with some top musicians, like the tabla player Sandeep Das, who played in the Silk Road Ensemble; Vishwa Mohan, who’s developed a particular kind of guitar playing; Karaikudi Mani, who is a mridangam master, guru and was the teacher of Jamey Haddad. With Karaikudi, we spent a whole day in a hotel conference room where he taught us his pieces, and then spent three days rehearsing. But that was just a small taste. Of course, in that tradition, when a musician is four or five, they often go live with a guru and study, and sometimes won’t really perform publicly until they’re in theirtwenties.
After that first tour, I was invited back to India, and then Nepal twice. During my tours, I was introduced to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and really got into him. Around 2010, some of the guys in my Septet were either moving out of NYC or getting very busy with other touring projects so it seemed like a really good time to make a change and follow a new direction. I wanted to explore and see what I could do with these influences from South Asian music. I had met Amir El-Saffar a couple of years before that at a Chamber Music America event and we talked about wanting to play. He seemed like a perfect fit. And then adding guitarist Brad Shepik made the group the Septet+. He’s done a lot of work with Eastern European and South Asian music, so that was a really good fit too. So the group morphed into something different.
TJG: You released In This Life to much acclaim in 2013. How did you get from the music on In This Life to Bridges?
JB: Right when In This Life came out, I had some people asking me, tongue-in-cheek, “What’s a nice Jewish girl like you being obsessed with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan?” It did make me think and so I was trying to better understand what it was that was really attracting me to this music. When I listened to his recordings, I felt he moved me like Miles or Coltrane or Pavarotti did. There was a very deep, spiritual thing happening. For several years when I was a kid, I went to Hebrew school three times a week and on Saturdays to services at our synagogue. This was before they tried to update and reform the music with a more Americanized style. I really grew up with those ancient melodies and sounds. When I listened to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the way he embellishes melodies and the scales he uses felt familiar to me on a certain level, as does maqam and middle easternmusic.
Around the time that I was thinking about this, I had a very good friend whom I had first met in India. She was from the US, but had moved to India to study mridangam and married there. It is interesting because her father was a rabbi and I think her mother was one of the first female cantors in the United States. We started talking about how there were all of these connections between South Asian and Jewish musical traditions. There were actually Sufi rabbis living in the 10th through 13th centuries. At this same time, Amir and I talked about the connections between Jewish music and Maqam and how Jewish-Arabic relations had been much better in other eras.
In 2013, I applied for a Guggenheim grant for a project that was originally about researching these connections between South Asian and Jewish music, like these Sufi rabbis… and perhaps the music that they were sharing. At the beginning of the research process, I talked to several rabbis who gave me people to contact all over the place to try to get what I was looking for. I even contacted the Library of Congress in Jerusalem. Then in 2014, the Septet+ was performing at Scullers in Cambridge, MA, and Hankus Netzky came out to see us (I went to NEC and my first year I was a Third Stream major, so had studied with Ran Blake and Hankus). After the show, we were talking and it hit me that I probably should have talked to him about my research in the initial phase—being that he is so knowledgeable about all of that! The moment I told him about my research, he started laughing, and said, “You’re not going to find any information about that! None of that music was written down back then, so forget it!”
At the point, instead of trying to find the ultimate source, I looked more at aspects of music that overlapped between Jewish and Middle Eastern and South Asian music, or the similar ways in which melodies are developed and embellished in performance. I talked some with Amir about different scales and how to work with them, which helped with the first tune on the recording,“From the Well.” In maqam, there are lots of scales, but it seems that one of the interesting things is that you can start one scale and then pivot to a different one. Growing up, when I learned Hebrew, preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, I had to learn all of the different symbols that communicated how to embellish the notes with your voice. All of these types of music traditions are so highly developed in terms of scales, melodic and rhythmic development. Like in South Asian music, you have an exposition, and then the development of each note of the scale. Certain scales represent certain moods or certain times of day, which is similar in Jewish music (as were in early western music).
TJG: How did these connections manifest themselves in your own compositions on Bridges?
JB: In terms of connecting these ideas to my own work, one example is “Song Without Words.” My father had passed away about six months before I wrote it, and I had to go out on tour right after that. I didn’t really have time to process it. After the tour, I went to MacDowell, the artist colony. There you have this cabin to yourself in the woods, and it’s really quiet, which is 100% opposite from where I live in Manhattan. I knew I wanted to write something for my father, and I started thinking of this piece, Kol Nidre, which is one of the most well-known pieces of Jewish music—it’s always played on Yom Kippur and it’s usually played on cello at the opening of the service. It’s all about contemplation. I decided to use that as my inspiration and wrote “Song Without Words”.
A few months later, I’d heard Amir’s large ensemble play at the Lincoln Center atrium. It was the first time I had heard him sing. It blew me away! He was singing maqam, but it really felt similar to what I would hear a rabbi sing, and I thought that it would sound great on “Song Without Words.” I really loved that juxtaposition, that the music highlighted these connections of the human spirit, rather than the differences. Looking back at how the project has evolved since applying for the grant in 2013, I certainly didn’t imagine that we would have Trump and the notion of a “wall,” so this idea of Bridges seems more timely now than I could have imagined, unfortunately.
TJG: The centerpiece of the record is the multi-movement “Honoring Nepal: The Shiva Suite.” What are the origins of the suite?
JB: Around the same time that I was starting my composing for the project, there was the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. I had become close friends with the guy who runs the Jazzmandu Festival there—he’s on also on my recording as a percussionist and vocalist. In NYC, I got together with some other musicians who had gone to the festival as well, like Matt Moran and Manu Koch, and we put on a big fundraiser at Le Poisson Rouge. After that, I was asked to perform with the Septet+ at the Rubin Museum. When they invite you to perform, they ask you to come and look at the exhibits and pick a piece of art or artifact and compose a piece about it. When I went to the museum, they had an exhibit called “Honoring Nepal” because of the earthquake. I was inspired to take the different ideas I was thinking about for this project and tie them in with what I was feeling after the earthquake. I saw a beautiful painting in the exhibit of Shiva, who is one of the main gods in Hindu religion. I had many conversations with my friend in Nepal about the meaning of Shiva. He’s the god of destruction and renewal and dance, and I wanted to frame the piece in that way. We talked about different scales that were associated with Shiva.
I ended up writing in a programmatic way. For the movement “The Earthquake,” I wanted to use the kinds of pentatonic scales common in Nepalese music. But also, I wanted to have this calm, open, “in-the-beginning” type of thing, like the beginning of Rite of Spring. To do that, I harmonized the pentatonic melodies with open fifths. I then assigned the earthquake sounds to Jeff on drums and Brad on guitar. As they got more intense, I kept the same top line—which was based on these three pentatonic scales—and continually changed the dynamic of the harmony underneath it, so each time we played it, it got more dissonant. The second movement, which focuses on renewal, uses a different pentatonic scale, and I harmonized that with fourths, but as we move toward the improvisation, I harmonized it with modern jazz harmonies.
TJG: How do you center your own western, jazz practice within or alongside the folkloric traditions you’ve studied and drawn from? In particular, how do you merge the western concept of harmonic development with the melodic and rhythmic development that you’ve spoken about?
JB: I have two answers. First, for as much musical studying as I’ve done, I’m a very intuitive writer. Any analysis I do tends to come after the fact, rather than at the beginning of a process. Sometimes it may happen in the middle of a piece if I’m trying to figure out how to develop it. I think that my study of western classical music helped have an approach with South Asian music. If you look at Bach, or some of the other composers I’ve looked to for my work with the septet, they utilized a great deal of polyphony. A lot of the harmonies in their works are derived from the melodic lines that are all going on at the same time in the different voices, with perhaps an adjustment based on harmonic direction, or sense of cadence. I like to start with writing lines and then go back and see what kind of harmonies these lines suggest together. One important thing for me also is figuring out how to encourage the improvisor to draw from the written material. I’m not necessarily a fan of writing something really interesting, and then just improvising on a somewhat watered down or unrelated form just to make it easier. But then it also has to be open enough so when the player is improvising, the music can go somewhere.
Also, I think that with western ears, when we hear a melody, we hear the harmony within it. Within western scales, there are notes that suggest different things. Like if you go do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti, ti wants to resolve, and do sounds like “home”. Because of all of the years we’ve listened to western music, we automatically hear the harmonic implications with each note within those scales. Checking out other music from other cultures can be liberating and inspiring.
Another answer to your question relating to using other influences in my music… In the liner notes to In This Life, I had written a disclaimer saying that, having spent time in India and Nepal and understanding a bit about the intricacies and depth of their music and the years of study it takes, I have a great deal of respect for these traditions and am not trying to write in those styles without the proper study of it. It’s more about drawing from the discussions I’ve had with these musicians and the experiences of playing with them and doing a lot of listening to see how these ideas can inform and expand my writing within a jazz palette. I’ve played in Latin bands and Brazilian bands and love the music but probably wouldn’t do a project involving those musics because I don’t have the same experience or the same personal connection to them in the way I’ve had with South Asian music.
The Jamie Baum Septet+ plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, October 19, 2018. The group features Ms. Baum on flutes, Kenny Warren on trumpet & vocals, Sam Sadigursky on alto sax & bass clarinet, Chris Komer on French horn, Brad Shepik on guitar, Luis Perdomo on piano, Zack Lober on bass, and Jeff Hirshfield on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.