Charlotte Greve is taking a different approach to living in New York City as a professional jazz musician. You might expect to find a saxophonist in a standards-based quartet or two, a larger ensemble, perhaps a big band, and the occasional project as a bandleader. Greve’s ensembles, however, look a bit different. There’s Asterids, an all-alto saxophone quartet. There’s Wood River, where Greve sings and plays synthesizer. There are duos with electric bassists or drummers, and commissions for large choirs. Every group utilizes a different aspect of her vast musicality, and her new trio, The Choir Invisible, is no exception.
Greve, a German saxophonist and composer, lived and studied in Berlin before moving to New York to study with the likes of John Hollenbeck, Mark Turner, and Kurt Rosenwinkel. She’s released five albums with her band Lisbeth Quartett, including their most recent album There Is Only Make on Traumton Records. A New Yorker for five years now, Greve has started many projects and supported many more. The Choir Invisible includes Chris Tordini on bass and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums. We spoke with Greve about her compositions, the unique feel of the trio, and her thoughts on developing a musical identity New York City.
The Jazz Gallery: Judging by the photo on your contact page, it looks like you live in Crown Heights. So many musicians live there; do you like the area?
Charlotte Greve: Yeah, I think it’s great. I moved here five years ago, and I’m still in the same room. That’s very unusual for New York. We have this brownstone with like eight people that we’ve been sharing, it’s been kind of a musician place. I live in the old room of Tommy Crane, he lived here ten years ago or something. Chris Tordini lived here, Matt Brewer lived here, Kyle Wilson lives here now. Tons of people have passed through this house at some point.
TJG: The Choir Invisible, your trio, has a fantastic name. Does it come from the poem by George Eliot with the same name?
CG: It’s a song that Vinnie wrote, I think inspired by a song from a film, where a character kind of recites this poem. Vin took the words and wrote a melody to it. It’s been the theme song of the trio, so to speak. It represents the vibe of the trio well.
TJG: I just interviewed Vinnie Sperrazza for the blog, and evidently he’s a real literary buff. Are you a big reader too?
CG: I don’t read as much as Vinnie [laughs]. But I do read! I just started this Werner Herzog interview book, A Guide for the Perplexed. I can’t say much about it yet, but it seems really interesting. Before that, I read “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” two or three times, Patti Smith’s “M Train,” which I really liked, and some poems by Patti Smith as well.
TJG: Your last performance as a trio in September at Korzo, right? Tell me a little about the group. Who writes the music, what’s your sound?
CG: We started jamming a year and a half ago, I think, something like that. Before that, I was playing with Vin in a trio with Masa Kamaguchi, who would come in every once in a while from Barcelona. Vin and I eventually established something we liked together, and asked Chris Tordini to join. We were jamming on a regular basis, then started working on music by all three of us. Nobody leads the group, it’s a total collective. We haven’t had many shows yet, but we rehearse all the time [laughs]. Workshopping music with these two guys is a beautiful thing. And we have a lot of material. Since we have two sets at The Gallery, we can stretch and play most of our stuff.
TJG: What does the music you bring to the trio feel like?
CG: It’s actually one of the most challenging bands I’m in. Every voice is so exposed. It’s a beautiful challenge to take on. Over the past months, we’ve all found a language where we can make a lot of improvised music happen with very little information on the page. It’s very open, and it’s nice that it just works with these guys. Anything can happen. With a lot of bands, it can sometimes feel like, “Okay, there’s this thing, and then it goes to this thing, and then we all go together toward this epic climax. We have to make something happen.” With this group, it feels different. Everything can happen, or nothing has to happen. Things can stay where they are, or completely explode, but nothing has to happen. It’s been a learning curve for me, seeing that we can just hang with the moment, and it can feel right.
TJG: So what songs of yours have you brought to the group?
CG: We recently played a piece that I wrote maybe seven years ago. It was an exercise to write rhythms, with very few pitches. So, it’s four pages of rhythms, with only three pitches. It’s called “The Rhythm Piece.” The rhythms become more unstable as the piece goes on, and in the middle, we improvise with that idea. When it becomes more open, we try to still embrace the same compositional ideas. When we started playing it as a trio, it always felt more like an exercise. But in the last rehearsal, we found a way to actually bring it to life, which had never happened with anyone before. We were falling into the material, and it took off from there. It felt easy for the first time.
TJG: Tell me about another piece you’ve specifically written for the trio.
CG: That would be a piece called “Low.” It’s also based on one melody in the bass that’s slow-moving and repetitive, heavy-feeling. It’s one of the few “tuney” tunes I’ve written. It’s a song with simplicity, a kind of bareness that can be very beautiful. It tests our ability for patience, to play something that can just statically be there. At another gig at The Owl, I found myself super nervous, because there was nothing to hide. Everyone was up front with their sound. It was scary for me, but I learned to really enjoy it. On the bandstand, I was like, “Wow, this is different. This is fresh. This is beautiful.” This trio is probably the most jazz-related project I’m in, in that they’re songs with improvisations that I participate in. I’m learning a lot, and within the trio, we’ve played a lot together, and it feels more and more like a net you can fall back onto. “Okay,” I say, “this can work.”
TJG: Chris Tordini is so diverse, playing with musicians from Ari Hoenig to Becca Stevens to Tigran Hamasyan, electric and double bass. What’s the vibe with him in the trio?
CG: It seems like there’s space for a lot of his strengths. Sometimes we’re playing rhythmically challenging material, and Chris makes it super clear, because it’s spot-on all the time [laughs]. Openly improvising with him brings out a side where he plays all these beautiful melodies, and takes me with him. It’s super inspiring to play with him in that way, and easy too. It’s very alive.
TJG: Between writing for Wood River, Lisbeth Quartet, 60-voice choir, different duo settings, you write music in a lot of different styles, to be performed on different instruments. Tell me a little about your composition process.
CG: It’s different from band to band, I would say. My first band was my quartet in Berlin, and that band has been around for eight years now. That was my only project for a while. When I moved to New York, I was still writing for the quartet, because that was the band I still had, and I realized that what I was writing didn’t sound good in a jazz quartet scenario. The band was like, “How are we going to play this, you need a guitar and synthesizer to get this vibe.” It was another part of me coming out, but there was no outlet for it. So I was like, “Oh, yeah! Let me make another band!” I have different outlets to productively channel my energy into new music. That’s when I formed Wood River, which over time has become what it is now, where I also play synth and I sing.
For my quartet, my composition process is often to come up with rules that I want to follow, and then write a piece with those limitations, little concepts that I follow for a while, then break them, to make the music more alive.
TJG: What kinds of concepts?
CG: For instance, a while ago I wrote a piece where the melody only consisted of certain intervals. Using those pitches and intervals in different rhythms. It sounded very static, which I wanted. I wrote lines upon lines of that material, layers and layers, different time signatures, with arrivals that sounded very straight-forward, like a sewing machine. When I felt I’d had enough, I wrote a hymn-like melody over this static stuff, which then broke the rules of only using certain intervals. Recently, in the pieces I’ve been writing, for both Wood River and the quartet, I wrote by singing and playing piano and just transcribing it. That’s been the source of inspiration more recently. I write down the melodies that I improvise, then that’s the piece.
TJG: A lot of musicians, especially jazz musicians in New York, are in so many groups, and you’re no exception. Usually, people are in a few trios or quartets, and a big band or two. But it seems like you’re having a lot of fun with it, from singing and playing synth with Wood River, to your alto quartet Asterids, your duos with Simon Jermyn and Justin Peake. Are you having so much fun with your music?
CG: Right now, yes! [laughs]. But I have to say, many of these projects have all happened within the last year and a half, which marks a time for me where I felt like I have arrived here in New York, fully. It took some time, it always takes time when you come from a different place. For the first time, I’ve had the courage to ask these people to play with me. Other people have been asking me to do things too. It’s still new to me, but I’m enjoying it a lot, because it reflects everything I’m interested in musically right now. All the projects feel right.
TJG: What did your first year in New York look like?
CG: I came here to do a masters at NYU, so I was in school, trying to figure everything out. I tried to play with a bunch of people, but not exactly being so sure of my strengths. I think that’s fine, but I was still feeling like, “Okay, what do I want to do? I want to play standards, and do this thing, and this other thing,” but I wasn’t very relaxed about any of it. I was trying to do everything, but not holding on to the things that actually reflected my strengths. It was a different time, a different lifestyle.
TJG: Now, are you really coming into your strengths?
CG: Yes. I feel, for the first time, that this is what I want to do, and that it’s working.
The Choir Invisible plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, December 13th, 2017. The group features Charlotte Greve on alto saxophone, Chris Tordini on bass, and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.