Unlike other 22-year-olds fresh out of college and wondering what to do next, María Grand has a full schedule and a full mind of ideas. The tenor-sax player has an impressive breadth of experience having played alongside Steve Coleman, Roman Filiu, Doug Hammond and more.
María has performed at The Jazz Gallery before but next Thursday, October 29th, will mark the first time she brings her María Grand Quartet to our stage along with David Bryant on piano, Pablo Menares on bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums. In addition to jazz, María feeds her artistic appetite through painting and writing poetry which can be found on her website. Jazz Speaks sat down with her recently in a downtown Brooklyn cafe, where María sipped an herbal tea, having confessed to have recently given up coffee.
The Jazz Gallery: So you have your first lead show at The Jazz Gallery next week. How does it feel and is this your first time leading a quartet?
María Grand: It’s good, yeah. I’ve lead a quartet before but this is the first time in a while. I would say in the last year I’ve been mostly concentrating on being a sideman. I’ve played with a trio before because I didn’t really want to have a harmonic instrument, you know, a piano, because a lot of times with a piano you can feel boxed in. But the thing about David [Bryant] is it’s the complete opposite. He’s very tasteful and has such a great ear that I never feel boxed in. He really knows how to comp.
TJG: That’s great. Can you tell us anything about the set list you’re preparing for the show?
MG: There’s no set list. I never do a set list unless I had to for certain reasons. I like to have the freedom to be able to pick a song in the moment and not predetermine what song I’m gonna play. I like to mix and match songs, to start one song then mix in another, that way they can morph and transform into each other—a lot of people do that, but it’s hard with a set list. I actually might play the same song twice so the first time is just going to be a piece of it, the second time will be the whole thing.
TJG: In an interview you gave to TJG earlier this year, you compared your music to, “a window into our internal weather.” What’s your internal weather been feeling like in preparing and composing for your quartet?
MG: Well I’m really excited about this show because I’m free to choose the direction I want to go in. Even though it’s a great honor to play with the people I have gotten to play with, I’m excited about be able to follow my own ideas and just go wherever I want to go this time. We might do a standard or two but not in the traditional way—but I’ve been composing for this using orchestration and thinking actually about how to use different colors. I think of different instruments as having different colors, you know, and there’s really infinite ways to use the instruments and combine them. Maybe the upper register of the piano might go well with the lower register of the tenor saxophone. So I’ve been thinking about these things in terms of the orchestration.
TJG: You’ve had some great mentors since moving to New York – Steve Coleman, Roman Filiu, Doug Hammond. Have you received any similar or overlapping advice from all these guys?
MG: Well, Doug really stresses melody and the ear. I would say I’ve heard the same thing in a similar way coming from Steve. A lot of people don’t talk about melody because we don’t really have the words to describe it. We lack the nomenclature, so you have to just feel it. Different people have different approaches to studying it. Doug’s advice was to use melodies and told me to actually learn one song each day. We were recently talking about it and he said you don’t have to learn the song to memorize it but you have to understand its melody. So when you create a melody you don’t want to be stumbling. You want to be able to have a clear idea in your head and to say that idea right away. Steve told me a similar thing, he said to learn melodies from all over the world and see how they are constructed.
TJG: That’s great advice. Speaking of traveling the world, are there any defining characteristics about New York that have influenced you?
MG: New York is great because of the incredibly high technical level of everybody. Most people can fly around their horns, you know, even at jam sessions. But it’s the combination of players that are both such highly technical players and also extremely creative, trying to do something new, that’s extremely rare to have in the same place. You mentioned Roman Filiu before and he’s an example of being very accomplished technically but also being really creative and always striving to do new things. The stimulation of being around all these players influences me all the time.
TJG: While you’re improvising, do you feel like you’re leading, reacting, or having more of a dynamic back-and-forth conversation?
MG: I think it’s a dynamic conversation but there’s definitely a leading aspect to it. Basically if you want to take the music somewhere you should act on it. But every time you play it’s different. It might be one time where you play and it’s a very dynamic conversation between two players, or another time one person is clearly leading. It’s always a conversation unless you’re playing alone. Even then, a lot of great players have a conversation with themselves, a kind of an internal dialogue, within their own improvisations. I think it’s many different layers—everybody is interacting with everybody at the same time. I think I read a Coltrane interview where he said he taught his cousin to listen to specific things in songs, first the bass, then the drums, then the saxophone, so it’s really a conversation between each instruments regardless of who’s “leading” the conversation. It’s a matter of common understanding and common vocabulary. You have to understand the other players and they have to understand you.
TJG: For your personal process and progression as a composer, do you think of new pieces as building on top of all your past music or do you treat them as if you were sitting down to a blank slate, starting from scratch?
MG: Learning from Steve, he would always stress you have to understand the underlying function of a musical device so that you can change that function, so that you’re not stuck with the one thing. If you understand this then you can change how that thing works. There’s a lot of different ways that I compose but I really try to leave out as many habits as I can. For example, I do this thing where I like to compose by singing. This way it leaves out the instrument, the mechanical part of it. So I can think about the emotion or what I want to express, you know? And I might sound like a crazy person, but I get it out, tape it, and then write it down. Then that becomes a melody. This way it feels more organic and it’s easier for me to get closer to myself if I don’t have any instrument when I compose. I learned that from Steve too, by the way, and also from Antoine Roney. Like you said, I’m trying to be as close as possible to a blank state and not emulating anything. Of course you always emulate to some extent but you try to do your own thing.
TJG: Singing sounds like a great technique. And you grew up in Switzerland?
MG: Yeah I grew up in a great neighborhood in Geneva. It was a really nice because there were so many great musicians who were working and living in that area. There was this big block with a courtyard in it, and there’d be musicians in the courtyard all the time, it was like a hippie neighborhood. There were musicians from Africa, from South America and all over the place and it was great to be around that. I was a street musician. I played in the streets with my father, he plays saxophone too. And then I came to the U.S. for the first time when I was 17 and that’s when I met all my mentors and started studying this music.
TJG: So was it a case of being in the right places at the right times to meet these guys or was it more your personality that helped you get these mentorships?
MG: My personality, definitely. I was really aggressive with these guys. They didn’t know me and I was pretty much a beginner so I had to fight to get lessons. But I was very determined to be here.
TJG: So what do you have planned after this?
MG: I have these two gigs coming up next month with Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse, the music is really interesting. After that I also have a concert that I’m really excited about with Rajna Swaminathan. She’s a great percussionist, she plays Carnatic music.
The María Grand Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, October 29th, 2015. The group features Ms. Grand on tenor saxophone, David Bryant on piano, Pablo Menares on bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission ($8 for members) for the second. Purchase tickets here.