Flautist Jamie Baum has traveled through countries and eras for inspiration for her compositions. “She’s into tone color and timbre and the blending of languages, jazz, and 20th-century classical and Afro-Latin music,” Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times in 2013. Her gig at The Jazz Gallery this Saturday has a simple framework—writing streamlined melodies for her top-notch band to improvise over—but there’s no doubt she’ll draw from her many sources to create something unique. We spoke with her this week; here are excerpts from that conversation.
TJG: How did this project, “Short Stories,” come about?
JB: I’ve been focused on this large group [the Jamie Baum Septet and Septet Plus], writing longer extended forms. As I wrote longer and longer over 15 years, I would start really hearing who would play on what: really thinking of a recording, or compositionally. It became more removed from the typical blowing thing, and I was soloing less and less. I wanted to complement that with something that was completely different. I’d been really thinking that I wanted to get back to, or at least have, another outlet focusing more on playing.
TJG: What was the inspiration for these pieces you’ve been writing?
JB: I came up, as most jazz musicians do, working on standards: Porter, Gershwin; studying the tunes of Thelonious Monk. And really being enamored by short pieces of Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis: “Nefertiti,” or “Frelon Brun,” or “Filles de Kilimanjaro.” They’re really short, but create a vibe immediately. And certainly with Monk, he has short melodies, but they’re so strong that they gave you so much material to solo on. So after writing longer and longer things, I wanted see if I could take what I learned from that, and write short pieces with those concepts with Miles or Wayne in mind.
TJG: So are you essentially writing new standards?
JB: That’s a very lofty idea. [Laughs] If they become that, wouldn’t that be cool? But I got my masters in composition. If there’s anything I learned from all the time I spent there, it’s better not to put that kind of pressure on myself when I write. That’s the kiss of death right away.
TJG: What’s your process to writing these songs?
JB: Sort of the concept is to sit down and try to write at least the bulk of it in one sitting. Of course I rewrite and fix. Sometimes when you sit down and stick with a concept in that moment and let it be what it is, it has a much more organic feel to it. You’re not trying to make it something it isn’t.
TJG: How many songs do you have now?
JB: I’m up to 10 or 11 songs. They’re really short: 12, 16 bars. I have 3 other tunes [for this gig] that I have kind of arranged: I’ve totally deconstructed Monk’s “Rhythm a Ning,” and I’m doing Coltrane’s “Satellite.” I’m doing a Carla Bley tune in honor of her 80th birthday, “Lawns.” She’s definitely one of the composers that have influenced me in a certain way. Her melodies are always so strong, her forms lend themselves to developing improvisations.
TJG: It seems like there’s a trend in jazz toward bigger, grandiose compositions. Is it dangerous to the genre to get away from the standard form?
JB: I don’t see it as one or the other. In the mid-90s, I would go out and hear people play. They would play a 16 bar tune, then they would take 30 choruses. Sometimes you wouldn’t even hear any of the material from the melody. If there’s a really amazing player, you love to hear that—but I wanted to see if I could write other kinds of formats for improvisation.
At that time too, there were so many influences people were trying to draw from, including a lot of global influences. The idea was seeing if you could write where each solo was formatted to utilize a different part of the composition. And maybe that would inspire or push the instrumentalists to play differently or have to use some of that material from the composition in their soloing. That’s what I was really interested in. My most recent CDs, with the Septet, were using influences in South Asia, different types of Indian and Asian influences. Before I did that, I was really interested in using influences in classical music.
I don’t look at it as a danger. I think it expands the palette, one enhances the other. The things you use to develop a good composition are the same things you want when you develop a good improvisation.
TJG: As you mentioned, you’ve been drawing from other cultures extensively in your music. How do you know when you feel musically ready to incorporate the music of other cultures beyond a sort of superficial appropriation?
JB: To be honest, in my last CD, where I actually have pieces I rearranged of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, I really make a big disclaimer on the CD. I went to India and Nepal several times and played with musicians there and collaborated. But as opposed to someone like Amir El Saffar, Vijay Iyer, or Dan Weiss, who really spent several years immersed and studying that music, I did not study in the depth that they did. I really use it in my own way, in a jazz format. I’m not trying to play in a certain style. I think that’s an important distinction.
Jamie Baum & Short Stories performs at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, June 4th, 2016. The group features Ms. Baum on flutes & compositions, Gregoire Maret on harmonica, Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Andy Milne on piano, Joe Martin on bass, and Jeff Hirshfield on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.