Last year, for his 2014 Jazz Gallery commission project, saxophonist Godwin Louis composed a set of music inspired by the music of Haiti and its links to the origins of jazz. Since then, Louis’s musical pursuits have taken him even further afield to Europe and West Africa. A keen musical observer and inveterate composer, Louis has continued to grow as a musician, incorporating these new influences into his personal style.
This Saturday, Godwin Louis returns to The Jazz Gallery for the first time since his commission performance, presenting new compositions alongside some old favorites. We caught up with Louis last week to talk about his travels, his new band, and the preparations for his debut album.
The Jazz Gallery I’d like to start with a pretty general question—what have you been up to musically lately? Have you been working on a new album?
Godwin Louis: I’ve been continuing the writing process. I enjoy writing a lot, so I’m always trying to keep up. I was fortunate enough that when I lived in New Orleans during my days in the Thelonious Monk Institute, I got to study with the great Roger Dickerson. He taught Terrence Blanchard, several of the men in the Marsalis clan, and so on. We spent two years studying counterpoint, and I remember he would always tell me, “Write! Write! Write every day, write drafts, put them away, bring them back later and finish it.” So I’ve been writing a lot.
Actually since my commission to premiere some work last year by The Jazz Gallery, I’ve spent a little bit of time in West Africa. I went to Benin, Senegal, and Ghana, and then spent a lot of time in Haiti trying to understand that connection between the two regions. I’m also trying to understand who I am, because as someone who is American-born of Haitian descent, I found that a lot of Haitians, slaves came from West Africa, so I wanted to see for myself.
In terms of performing, I’ve been touring a bit. I was fortunate to go to Europe with the great drummer Al Foster, so that was a wonderful lesson for me. We did a tribute to Art Blakey that was with Doug Weiss on bass, and Dave Bryant on piano. It was a little weird for me at times, as I’m a very rhythmic player, and I worked hard trying to understand his rhythmic falls. It was a great learning experience.
Also, I’ve been working on an album—my debut album actually. The work is based on the compositions that I wrote for my residency at the Gallery last year, plus some other works, I should be out soon—I’m just looking at whether a label will pick it up and things like that. I just have to mix and master it. I was gonna try to release it in July, but once again I have to figure some stuff out so hopefully it will be out in the fall.
TJG: Do you have a name for the record yet?
GL: Yeah, it’s gonna be called Global, because of my global perspective on the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel and see a lot, and I think that the album features influences from where I’ve been. For example, I wrote this prayer that’s in different languages. I have my great friends Ilan Bar-Lavi and Shelly Tzarafi doing a Hebrew version of a prayer, then there’s a Korean verse. I have songs in Spanish, some stuff that include some Haitian influence, some African influence, some “ding ding-a-ling” straight ahead… That’s why I feel like it’s definitely a global album. It stems from all my influences, all my favorite composers—like Hermeto Pascoal, Haitian composers Ludovic Lamothe and Occide Jeanty, Angelique Kidjo who’s this African singer, and this great English composer Django Bates.
TJG: How specifically have these travels impacted your writing?
GL: It definitely has—not so much from the Benin side, in terms of authenticity—but I think it definitely has influence on the way I compose. I’ve noticed that there is a lot of similarity in terms of rhythm to Haiti, a lot of the 6/8 forms, but the difference is in Haiti and the Afro-Caribbean world, you still have a lot of duple-meter. I feel like over there at least from my experience was a lot of triple meter, 6/8, 3/4. But in Haiti and Cuba, the Afro-Caribbean world, I feel like you find a lot of mixing between the duple meter and the 6/8. I love that concept, and I’ve been trying to add odd meter to that. I feel like as an American from the American continent, we are mixed some way. I feel like I am a mix of all these different cultures, so I try to present that—with the jazz harmony, the Caribbean rhythm.
Of course the rhythmic components of jazz come from the Caribbean, and we don’t hear that stressed enough in jazz history or in school, but it’s absolutely taken from the Caribbean. The rhythmic component of jazz was conceived in New Orleans, but through the influences of Haiti and the Caribbean. So I’m trying to bring all those components together.
And whenever I travel to Benin or wherever I’m going, I try to make a conscious effort to digest what I’m hearing, and if it inspires a composition, sure, but if not, I don’t want it to be forced. Again, I always think of Roger Dickerson—write a draft, put it away, come back to it, well ok I hear this now, ok, and if I happen to hear influence from a place that I visited, sure, but I believe in the natural process.
TJG: The group that you’re bringing to the Gallery this weekend has a different lineup from groups you’ve presented before. Do you want to talk a little bit about how this band came together, and how you decided on having a vocalist, and no real chordal instrument?
GL: Actually, I just added chords! I didn’t want chords, but then I thought of my great friend Sam Dickey, who I met at Berklee. We always talked about travelling to Africa together. I think he spent a lot of time in Mali and Burkina Faso. But I know that we have a pending trip to Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and I think one more place. He’s a graduate of Wesleyan University and he spent some time studying some of the rhythms of those places, and he has his own group. Be’s actually currently living in New Orleans right now. We text each other occasionally, and last night he said “I’m in New York, can we meet tomorrow?” and I said, “Man, any chance you’ll be in New York the weekend of the 11th?” He said he was, so it will be interesting to bring him in. His role will not necessarily be a chordal role, because I’m looking at it as voices, like four voices – trumpet, voice, alto, and guitar, I’m treating it more like four voices because I’m a big fan of counterpoint so I’m sort of using it in that sort of way. So it should be interesting.
TJG: So are the compositions more through-composed, or have more open forms?
GL: It’ll be a freer style, open, I’m very interested to see how things work out. I also added a great percussionist, Markus Schwartz, from Denmark. He spent the past 20 years studying Haitian Vodou drums under legendary Haitian percussionist Jean Raymond Giglio also know as Samba Kebyesou, so he and Obed Calvaire should be great together.
Jason Palmer and I have spent a lot of years playing together—actually Jason has been a major influence on me. In Boston, there’s a legendary jazz club called Wally’s and I would go over there and play with him, and for me, playing with him every week my last year at Berklee was a major lesson for me—dealing with modern chord progressions, dealing with odd meter, and then just dealing with relationships within a band. I am actually on his latest record, called Wondaland, which features the music of Janelle Monáe, (he’s been doing tributes to people), and I’m featured on that. We’ve been doing a lot of playing lately, and I wanted to see how that will work.
He’s a big role model to a lot of people, but the great thing is, he’s such a young guy. He’s only a couple years older than me, but he plays the trumpet with such authority, so I think it will be great. I wanted to hear the way he interprets that music. Of course, Obed Calvaire is a great, great drummer, and he’s of Haitian descent too and I’ve always wanted to see his interpretation of my interpretation of Haitian music because I feel like I’m not trying to write authentic Caribbean music. I’m just trying to write my conception of jazz, rhythm and a conscious effort of who I am, instead of it just being a conscious effort to write the authentic rhythms that I’ve studied.
Lately I’ve been conscious of all the social movements that have been going on here in my home country of America, and how all of the musicians who are first generation, second, third generation Americans try to seek information from our parents and from our grandparents. I’ve been thinking about how can I explore more about my native home. And then I realized, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing, because that’s really what America is, or what it’s designed to be—sort of a global concept of different cultures, and different backgrounds, different mental states coming together to explore together. If you take New York for example, New York is a representation of the world, but it’s America.
TJG: So are we going to be hearing some of these new compositions you’ve been working on on Saturday, as well as the music on the album?
GL: It’s gonna be a mix of what’s on the album, what I was commissioned to do at the Jazz Gallery last year, and then a lot of it will include…
So my father is a pastor. I grew up in a church hearing a lot of hymns, I know a lot of hymns of course being a pastor’s kid, so a lot of the hymns that I know are like little peasant mountain Christian songs from the mountains of Haiti. Like there are a lot of poor villages, so I’ve been messing around with it. So I’ve kind of taken some of that and mixed it with some of the Haitian traditional rhythms, and a lot of those rhythms are traditionally associated with Vodou, so that can be perceived a certain way, but that’s the history of the country. And then certain Christian sects in Haiti will kind of use those rhythms in the church. So I’ve been trying to arrange some of that, and seeing how someone like Jason Palmer or Sam Dickey will go in and interpret that music.
I’ve also been playing around, messing around with some of the words, especially within the creole language. So I’ll give you an example, there is a little song, “Lè-map-pa-le’ak-pa-pa’m-pa-pa’m-re-le’m-pa’m,” which basically translates to, “when I’m speaking to the father, the father is within me,” or something like that, but when you spell it out, there are eleven syllables, so look at that! And this is just like a little song that you’d hear in the mountains of Haiti, and you will also hear it in a specific Haitian tradition called Rara, which is like Haiti’s version of a second line, so it is kind of fun to learn about and use this stuff.
I also just want to say thank you to The Jazz Gallery, and to all the staff. The Jazz Gallery has really helped me figure out who I am as an artist, and I have them to thank for me and my current career. Giving me the opportunity to compose my commissioned work last year really helped open up who I am.
Godwin Louis plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, July 11th, 2015. The group features Mr. Louis on alto saxophone, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Pauline Jean on voice, Sam Dickey on guitar, Jonathan Michel on bass, Obed Calvaire on drums, and Markus Schwartz on percussion. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $22 general admission ($12 for members), and free for summer pass holders. Purchase tickets here.