This Saturday, August 17, trombonist Kalia Vandever returns to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of her debut album, In Bloom. Upon the record’s release in May, Vandever and her bandmates received positive notice from WBGO’s Nate Chinen: “This is a cohort that has obviously metabolized many different approaches,” Chinen writes, “and chosen its own path.” You can check out the record yourself, below.
Before her show at the Gallery, Vandever sat down with us at Jazz Speaks to talk about developing a band sound, her observations on the current New York jazz community, and her recent forays into solo performance (which she’ll continue to explore at the Gallery on Saturday).
The Jazz Gallery: Your trombone playing captures the instrument’s capacity for being a vastly dynamic and emotionally resonant melodic voice. What initially drew you to the trombone and has your relationship with the instrument changed over time?
Kalia Vandever: I first heard the instrument on this record my dad used to play around the house. I told him that I wanted to play the trombone without realizing what it looked like. It’s funny because when I received my first horn, I couldn’t reach 7th position and I felt so limited on the instrument, but really loved the challenge. I honestly feel similar about the instrument today. There are certainly days that the instrument and its limitations really frustrate me, but the feeling motivates me to lean into the really beautiful qualities of the trombone.
TJG: You’ve said that the people in your band include some of your closest friends in New York City, both personally and professionally. How have these friendships influenced the way that these compositions have developed since their conception?
KV: I’m always pretty confident that a piece I bring into rehearsal will sound way better once I hear what they have to add to it. I try to leave room for the guys to take liberties with the music, so if they’re hearing something that I didn’t write, I trust that it’s going to be thoughtful and musical. The way we sound as a band is constantly evolving because we’re all changing as musicians and improvisers.
TJG: Perhaps it’s because of the pedal that runs throughout, but the track “Renee” invokes a rising sensation of ascension or elevation, almost as if something is being searched for while it floats higher and higher. What is the story behind this composition and what is the feeling of playing it with the group?
KV: Renee is my sister’s middle name and this piece was inspired by her perseverance and strength during a difficult period of her life. I’d say the forward moving element in the melody reflects her resilience. The piece sort of devolves and can often get a little chaotic in the middle, which I really love. It’s something I really try to employ in my writing and performances; striking a balance between beauty and chaos. It’s become one of my favorite songs to play.
TJG: How do you envision the kind of space that gets created between you, your bandmates and the audience when this music is performed? Is there a certain invisible narrative you want to bring forward through the music, like the experiences at the Whitney Plantation that inspired “Lost in The Oaks,” or is it more about creating a mood or valence shared between everyone?
KV: Not all of my compositions have a clear narrative and even if they were inspired by a specific experience, I generally err on the side of letting the audience experience the music in the way they want to experience it. There’s certainly a mood that we create on stage, but it might be different for those listening in the audience, so I try not to influence the way they hear things.
TJG: In what ways does this differ from the way you approach solo composing and performing?
KV: I’ve only performed solo twice and it was pretty terrifying. I remember feeling so comfortable working on my solo show at home and writing out an outline of the set, then I got to my first show and ended up completely abandoning the plan halfway through the set. I hadn’t felt that vulnerable in a performance setting in a really long time, but the audience was really attentive and supportive.
TJG: Guitarist Lee Meadvin, who is featured on two of the tracks, also mixed and mastered the record. What was the process of working on post-production like?
KV: It was really easy, mostly because Lee is one of my best friends and he knows my sound really well. Post-production consisted of me going over to his apartment a few times to listen to the mixes, making a few notes, and then me being really happy with the revised mixes. I really trust Lee and his judgement, so I didn’t feel the need to be super hands-on.
TJG: How would you describe your approach as an educator, and what are the sorts of things that you stress to your students? What are the things that you communicate to your students that you wish someone had told you earlier on in your own development?
KV: I definitely try to be as supportive as possible, especially when they are having a hard time getting something together. I constantly remind my students that it takes time to learn something and it’s okay if your pace of learning is different from others. I was so hard on myself, especially in high school and while that motivated me to improve, I wish I had been more patient with myself.
TJG: Did the nature of your interactions in the jazz field change after the publishing of your article “Token Girl,” which addresses predatory and misogynistic behavior you experienced from male faculty in your time at Juilliard? How has the culture of these musical spaces changed in light of the experiences of women being brought to the forefront, or is this a conversation still in its infancy?
KV: I wouldn’t say that my interactions in the jazz field have changed significantly, but I actively distance myself from the communities within the jazz scene that haven’t supported me and other women and as a result, have had a better experience playing the music I want to play. It will unfortunately be a conversation that we’ll be having for a while because there are still people who are ignoring the issue or unaware of their own contribution to the issue.
TJG: You have a super busy schedule, between your time as a composer, solo performer, the various groups you play in (some of which go on the road), and the outreach and education work that you do. How do you strike a balance between moving forward in all of these things and maintaining space for yourself?
KV: There are definitely periods when it’s really difficult to focus on my own projects, whether I’m really busy or not feeling inspired, so I try to take that time away from writing as a way to focus on other things that are important to me. I’m a homebody, so if I have a day off, I’ll most likely be at home, eating ramen or something. I really take advantage of my time away from work.
TJG: What has been changing, musically and otherwise, as you move further and further away from your time in school? Where are you leaning these days and what is your curiosity pointed at?
KV: I feel more empowered musically and personally than a few years ago when I finished school. I’m happier and more confident in the music I’m making. I’m also really excited about the music my friends are making right now. I’m currently learning the guitar and using that as a compositional tool. I’m also trying to write songs with words, which is really difficult, but something I’ve always been interested in.
TJG: What’s on the horizon for you?
KV: I have some shows I’m really looking forward to this fall. I’m also working on my solo project and writing new music for my quartet and more!
Kalia Vandever celebrates the release of In Bloom at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, August 17, 2019. Ms. Vandever, on trombone, will be joined by Theo Walentiny on piano, Lee Meadvin on guitar, Nick Dunston on bass, and Connor Parks on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.