Perhaps more than any other force, curiosity fuels Tomeka Reid’s prolific artistry. The New York-based cellist-composer left Maryland-D.C. area for Chicago when she was a young student with the intention of disrupting her familiar comfort zones and collaborating with people she’d never met.
She’s released more than a dozen records as a leader and co-leader, performed with masters and emerging legends from Anthony Braxton to flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell, and recently recorded as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago for the aggregation’s 2019 release We Are on the Edge (Pi Recordings).
Her performance at The Jazz Gallery this week celebrates Reid’s forthcoming collaborative release with drummer and producer Filippo Monico, The Mouser (Relative Pitch, 2019), with sets featuring her quartet and a duo with drummer Tomas Fujiwara.
The Jazz Gallery: There’s a distinct, intimate voice-like quality to your playing. Is that quality something you’ve developed over time, or has that always been a natural part of your expression?
Tomeka Reid: I do think about that. Even the pieces that I write, the compositions, come as a result of me singing the melodies. So I guess it does lend itself to [the voice], and I’m flattered that you’d actually say that. As a string player, you’re trying to get the jazz language into your playing, and it’s like you’re trying to replicate horns, but you’re just not a horn player. There are certain things that are easier on those instruments and certain things that cellos can do, like double stops—those types of things are to play on string instruments. So I try to definitely incorporate all of my training—along with musicians that I’m influenced by—into my playing.
TJG: You’ve lived in three powerhouse hubs for musical development; you were born in D.C. and raised close by in Maryland, then later you moved to Chicago as a student and now you’re here in New York. Have you noticed each of these very vibrant, very different musical environments having a distinct influence on your sound?
TR: I would say Chicago probably had the biggest one. When I was in Maryland-D.C. area, I wasn’t really improvising a whole bunch; I was just kind of dabbling in it. And I didn’t leave campus much, so I wasn’t participating in whatever was happening in D.C. at the time. I feel like most of my influence definitely comes from my musical life in Chicago. Coming out here, I had a band that already lived out here so I connected with them. Through various projects, I’ve connected with more New York-based musicians. But I’ve only been here about three years, so I think I’m still very much bringing my Chicago sound or voice here.
TJG: I read that you were a bit of a timid improviser when you began playing out in Chicago, getting involved in those sessions. Has becoming comfortable as an improviser informed your composing tendencies?
TR: I would say it has. I think playing in a wide variety of ensembles has. I was shy about certain things, so I would write forms that I didn’t feel comfortable [playing] over, so I could write a melody over that and learn how to feel comfortable in that form. So yeah, [becoming comfortable improvising] has impacted my compositions. I use GarageBand to compose all the time. I would often record myself and play that back and write down little snippets of ideas that I liked from what I was playing.
TJG: Do you feel as though you have more freedom in the way that you compose now?
TR: I do. Again, I think part of the timidity was probably because I was a shy person, but also because everyone around me seemed like they had such a clear idea of what they were doing—or they were just more familiar with the aesthetic or with the genre. The jazz that I heard prior to coming to Chicago was more straight ahead. You know, everyone knows Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder and all this hard bop or bebop type of stuff. And in Chicago, I mean they were using everything, but there was more of an emphasis on creating your own voice and composing and playing more free. And so that part was like, “Whoa. What do I—how do I do that?” because I just wasn’t exposed to it. And now I’ve had numerous opportunities to play in those contexts, so I feel more comfortable in them. I still find it challenging, and that’s probably why I keep doing it because you’re always trying to make a musical happening. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You’re always learning something from the form, and I really appreciate that.
TJG: You mentioned that quoting in a Chicago club is like—the kiss of death. And you can’t go into a New York club without hearing 50 million people quoting a Monk tune or something. Not every club—you’re not going to hear people at the Gallery quoting Jerome Kern, but downtown, you hear it all night long. So that seems like a striking difference between the two cities.
TR: Oh yeah. For me, it didn’t matter so much because I play the cello, not saxophone—meaning no one was exactly expecting me to quote too many things. But if you heard it, some people would then intentionally crash the song. I’d be thinking like, “Damn. Okay.” So that didn’t help my shyness, of course. I was like, “Okay, I don’t wanna do that,” (laughs).
TJG: I read in a past interview that your first instrument as a composer was a small Casio that only played one note at a time.
TR: Yeah. Yeah.
TJG: Do you think adapting to this linear concept of composition had any lasting impression on your sound as a composer today?
TR: Wow. I never thought about it [laughs]. Maybe. Maybe that’s why I have to sing out every line on GarageBand and then harmonize them later and come up with other parts. Yeah, I remember being so sad because—I didn’t even understand that those were the digits of the scale, 1-2-3-4-5, the scale tones. So I would write, “1 – – 2.” I remember a story with my eighth-grade band teacher. He said he composed and I was like, “I compose, too!” And I showed him these pieces and he was like, “What is this?” And that actually stopped me from composing because I thought I was being so immature. I just didn’t do it “right.” I didn’t think about putting things on a staff or anything like that. I sometimes get bummed because I wish I could hear what those little melodies were, but now I don’t remember what all those spaces and those lines mean.
TJG: Because you’ve been involved with so many projects and different, forgive me, styles of music and playing, you’ve taken on a multitude of roles. What would you say is the secret to adapting to new musical and expressive situations?
TR: My first group experience was with Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble. She would write out a cello part, but it was always a guide. She never told me really what to play, or she’d give me a rhythm, but I would be free to embellish upon it. I was in a lot of groups that wanted the cello sound, but really left it up to me to adapt [the instrument] to the particular composition. I feel like I really learned how to be in these different roles as a result of that.
Another example would be when a bass player couldn’t make it, Nicole would say, “Hey Tomeka, can you play bass tonight on the cello?” So that’s how I further developed my walking ability so that I could be like a bass player for that part of the music. And then if the bass player was there, I was comping, so I was doing more of the harmonic stuff. And then sometimes, like for example in Loose Assembly, Mike Reed’s band, sometimes I would play melody with the horn player, or countermelody—or I might have the melody, so then I was playing the melodic role. I think the different bands that I’ve been in have taught me, or I’ve learned how to adapt my instrument to whatever the composition or context called for, or what the bandleader needed for that gig.
TJG: You actually recorded music for The Mouser several years ago. Can you talk a little bit about the recording?
TR: I was not familiar with Filippo before that recording. It turned out that I was crashing at his [place]. I had a few extra days in Milano, and my friend Silvia [Bolognesi] who I play with a bunch in a band called Hear in Now, she was like, “Oh you can stay at my friend Filippo’s house.” And He was like, “If you stay here, we have to record.” And I was, “Uh…okay!”
The studio is in the basement of where he’s staying. I like improvising with people, and this was an opportunity to record and improvise with someone I’d never improvised with before. So we did it. And I didn’t really remember my feelings about the performance, but I guess it was last year when I saw him again and he was like, “Oh, here’s the thumb drive for that recording.” And I got busy touring and being on the road that it took a while to listen to the recording. And when I put that in and listened to it, I was like, “Wait a minute—I really like this.”
I think I listened to it three times in a row, and then I sent it to Kevin Reilly who ended up putting it out. I just wanted him to listen to it because I trusted his ear, but he was like, “Man, this is great. You wanna put this out?” So I said to Filippo, “How do you feel about putting this out?” And we just went from there. I’m not able to fly him out for the release, so that’s why Tomas is going to play in his stead.
TJG: Is there anything you’d like to add?
TR: Thanks to The Jazz Gallery for having us. I’ve never played there as a leader, so I’m looking forward to that. I’ve really enjoyed all the shows I’ve seen there, so I think it’ll be a fun, fun evening.
The Tomeka Reid Quartet and Reid/Fujiwara Duo play The Jazz Gallery on Friday, April 26, 2019. The group features Ms. Reid on cello, Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Jason Roebke on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.