Many NewYork jazz goers may not have heard of soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine, being that she resides in Montreal,Quebec, not to mention she's currently pursuing her degree in jazz studies at Concordia University. She does, however, from time to time manage to make it to NewYork for an occasional improvised music soiree at avant garde musical hubs such as ABC Rio C.O.M.A., in the East Village or the Dissident Arts Festival in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where she'll be playing on August 17th with her group FASTER.
Kayla's musical journey with the soprano saxophone is a familiar one amongst fellow straight-hornists: Having started out on the clarinet then the tenor saxophone, soon finding herself falling in love with the new and under-explored sonic possibilities that only the soprano saxophone can offer. Since beginning her soprano centric journey less than a decade ago, she has developed a unique approach to the instrument that at times has the edginess and brashness of Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, yet the warmth and thoughtfulness that's reminiscent of Steve Lacy.
And unlike her aforementioned predecessors, she also doubles as a punk rock singer. She can regularly be heard exercising her punk rock singing chops when performing with FASTER, a duo that she co-leads with New Jersey-based guitarist Brian Abbott. The two of them have concocted a unique brand of punk/jazz, that she appropriatly calls "junk."
So Kayla, when did you first start playing music?
I began playing music as a child, I think I was around 7 years old when I began piano lessons. I took piano for about 4 or 5 years. After that, I played some clarinet in high school for about 2 years. Then after years of no playing, I started saxophone when I was 20 years old. I am currently 28 years old.
What drew you to the soprano saxophone?
I was offered a spot in the concert band at my college, and they wanted me to read clarinet parts on soprano sax. So the first soprano sax I tried out was at school. I hadn’t given much thought to soprano sax before that, actually, but was very happy to be playing on a different horn, as my tenor sax at the time was a student model and starting to cause me problems. I loved playing the soprano from the first note I breathed into it…it was so different and so easily excited, and unpredictable. I liked the range of it, and it’s ability to be loved by some, and hated by just as many. I found it easier to make strange sounds on too.
When you first began playing the soprano, where there any hurdles you had overcome?
Well, like all sopranoists, the tuning issue…but I have grown to like it. I like working on it. I find the high register very difficult too, the palm keys; controlling that part of the horn is a struggle for me, maybe I prefer the low register a little more, but am still constantly trying to improve my high notes. Also, because I want to play ONLY soprano sax, people often remind me that I am totally un-hirable. Haha. As if all the “gigs” would appear if I played the tenor or alto?
What are some of the things that you practice that have been effective in helping you address the “tuning issue?”
I find that long tones with a chromatic tuner works. I try to practice them using different techniques. I’ll do them all as quietly as I can, or as loud, or I’ll crescendo/decrescendo, and now, because of the lesson I had with you, I’ve been doing a lot of note bending in and out of pitch, trying to match several pitches with just one fingering. Also, just playing melodies while looking at the tuner to see where and when I’m in or out so that I can work on it in context.
I have a couple of sax geek questions. What kind of set up do you play on? Did it take you awhile to settle on what you have, or did you know right away?
My horn is a Selmer Super Action 80 Series II. When I was looking to purchase a soprano, every one of these models sounded good to me, and I preferred the tone of it and it just sounds and feels more fluid. It felt pretty obvious to me right away that it was the model that I wanted to have. My mouthpiece is a Bari mouthpiece, and my reeds are Rico Jazz Select 2 medium. They are nice and soft. I used to have a different mouthpiece, I think it was some kind of a Selmer one, I can’t really remember, but it wasn’t that good. And my reed choice has changed a few times. I used to play on harder ones, but decided a couple years ago to go softer again. I think it simplifies things like multiphonics, and other contemporary techniques. I’m not completely attached to my set up, I can see myself changing reed and mouthpiece sometime in the next few years, but I hope my horn lasts a lot longer!
Most saxophonists who play the soprano exclusively cite Steve Lacy as a major influence. What are some things you learned from studying his music?
Yes! The music of Steve Lacy is what convinced me to stick to the soprano sax. I remember clearly hearing him for the first time. I was a little confused, but couldn’t take my ears off of it! I was listening to one of his solo sax albums, and I had never heard any other saxophonist do a solo album before. He made me realize the potential of the saxophone. His raw, yet precise and angular playing made me think of music differently than I had before. His free playing is also completely unique, along with his compositions, I’m still trying to grasp everything he has done with music. There is so much to learn from this man.
I’m also curious what you learned from Roscoe Mitchell?
I was recently reading the book Forces in Motion by Graham Lock, which is about the life and ideas of Anthony Braxton, and it introduced some musicians to me that I hadn’t really known of. I knew nothing of the AACM, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Roscoe Mitchell being one of the major musicians in that scene. I recently got into his music, and find musicians like him, or Braxton, who are multi-instrumentalists kind of fascinating, even though I may take the opposite approach and only play one horn, I can appreciate the versatility of these guys. There is just something about Roscoe Mitchell’s sound and playing that I find interesting. He is still new to me, but of what I have heard, his group improvisations, along with his solo improvisations have the ability to change feels so quickly and unexpectedly, but at the same time with such grace. Similar to Anthony Braxton, but still quite different. Also, he plays with toys during improvising too, which is great.
Is there much of an outlet for improvised music in Montreal?
There is a small scene here in Montreal. There are scenes for most types of music, but all pretty small, Montreal isn’t that big, especially in comparison to most major U.S. cities. There are only a couple of venues that I can think of that are exclusively for improvised music. But there are several venues that are open to any kind of music. There is a monthly jam session at one venue that is devoted to playing free, which is quite nice.
Having started out traveling down a pretty traditional path--playing the tenor saxophone and being influenced by players like Dexter Gordon and Lester Young-- how was it making the transition to players associated more with free and avant garde music?
Well, I began playing saxophone because of my love of music, and in particular jazz at that time. I think of the transition from tenor to soprano, and from traditional through to avant garde music as part of my musical growth. I like listening to all sorts of music, and it just naturally happened. I wanted my own playing style to be experimental and being the rebel that I am, I felt a strong pull towards the avant-garde. I still listen to Lester Young and Dexter Gordon, and a lot of traditional jazz, but now I listen to the history; everything from New Orleans jazz to modern free improvised music. I kind of like the contrast. One day I will be listening to really free improvised music, like this band from NY ‘Mostly Other People do the Killing’ who are a great free jazz quartet, and be totally into it, but then the next day I’ll just want to hear some old punk albums from the 90’s, and then the next week I will listen to nothing but Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. I am still influenced by Lester Young and those older jazz guys, but now I just have a wider range of people I draw from. I’d like to mix Steve Lacy, Lester Young, Anthony Braxton, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman all into one bowl and see what kind of concoction that would make.
How did FASTER, the duo you co-lead with guitarist Brian Abbott start?
Brian Abbott & Kayla Milmine
FASTER started almost 2 years ago now. Brian was on tour with a punk band/dance troupe touring Canada with the Fringe Festival. I was working with a dancer, (Allison Burns) at the time. We had a soprano sax / dance duo for a good 2 or 3 years prior to that. Brian wanted to sit in on one of our rehearsals. We clicked musically, very nicely. After that, we played a few shows with Allison, and called ourselves ‘Music Box Trio’. I visited Brian in NJ a few months afterwards, and we formed FASTER. We just came up with musical ideas together, and separately and just had a great time playing together. We both grew up listening to some punk, and we’re both very interested in avant garde music. Brian more so on the contemporary composition side, and myself more on the free jazz side. The mixture of the two is great.
Is there name for the kind of music you create? I find it very original.
I call it punk/jazz, or ‘junk’. Usually when we try to explain our music to people we say something like, ‘jazz/punk/free improvisation/performance art/parody’ music.
Being that the music of FASTER has such a strong theatrical component to it, have you and Brian thought about making a video.
We have thought about it actually! We’ve been trying to figure out when to do it. It is sometimes hard to organize everything we want to do together, because we live in different countries! We have this song that Brian wrote on the album we recorded last year “These cats are burnin’!” The song is called “Anxiety at the Circus”, it sounds like a crazy circus gone wrong. The sax is supposed to represent an elephant, and the guitar is the killer clown who wants to kill this elephant that is driving him crazy with his crazy multi-phonics and high squeaks. So the music video would be a visual representation of this scene. Without the use of real animals, of course!
You might very well be the first punk-singing-soprano saxophonist. Did you ever sing in a punk band before FASTER?
Haha! No, I never sang in a punk band, but it was always a dream of mine! I listened to and went to hundreds of punk shows growing up. Ever since I began saxophone I had been thinking of ways to integrate punk and jazz together. I guess with the formation of FASTER, I was finally able to conceive of this idea. I remember years ago I used to talk about mixing jazz and punk together, and it was frustrating because I couldn’t figure out how, haha. It was almost like an epiphany when Brian and I began playing and all these new sounds were coming out. It felt like all that thinking and meditating on the idea of punk/jazz just allowed it to eventually appear at the right moment.
So what’s next on the agenda for FASTER?
Well, we just recorded our 2nd album, “Die FASTER”, and will be mixing it in a couple of weeks! We are also playing the Dissident Arts Festival in Williamsburg on August 17th.
I find it interesting that even though you already have a clear musical vision about the kind of music you want to play, that you’re actually in college in the jazz studies program. Why is it that you feel compelled to study jazz in a conventional academic setting at Concordia University?
I guess you could say it might be for the simple superficial reason of having a University degree. Although, I think it is important for anyone to have a variety of teachers and people around them in order to stimulate different parts of your musicality. I’ve had some great teachers, and I have learnt a lot about music since being in the jazz program. Also, I love jazz. Being a jazz student has made me frustrated with how professors sometimes teach jazz…I’m still a little unsure as to whether or not jazz is really “teachable”, in the sense that it should be based on self expression, and isn’t solely based on chord progressions. You can’t really teach people to have soul. I guess between having respect for the academic world and wanting a University degree, I opted to stay in school. I still feel there is so much to learn and will hopefully always feel that way! So I want to collect as much knowledge as I can.
Do you feel that having studied philosophy in what I assume was a former life, has shaped you musical philosophy as well?
Most definitely. Studying philosophy forces you to think for yourself. I realized during that time that one could read every philosopher who ever lived, and draw from as many sources as one pleases, but at the end of the day, everything is still just a giant question. I went into philosophy wanting answers, but soon realized that no one has the answer, you need to choose your own answer. Therefore, playing music becomes easier once you figure that out, I suppose. I became less concerned with what other people were doing with music, and tried to play music based on my own intuition; using raw emotion over technique, playing with people who made me feel good, listening to people who inspire me, etc. That’s not to say I don’t work on technique or don’t want to get better at my instrument, I just think there are so many ways to express yourself musically, and artfully without trying to ‘up’ anybody. Once you realize that no one will ever sound like you, or you like anybody else, I think music becomes less of a competition and more of a personal growth. I think it is through that growth that life and the constant universal questions of life become less of a burden, and more of an adventure. And now instead of pondering the questions, and the confusions of life, I express them through playing music. I guess that is what I took away from philosophy. Starting my instrument later in life used to be a burden to me too, but I think because I had more life experience before I began, I was able to have a clear vision of my music fairly soon, which made things easier for me in the end.
What are some things you hope to accomplish on the soprano saxophone in the next 10 years?
I feel it’s hard for me to imagine what will happen, or where I’ll be in 10 years. I’d like to think I could come up with some way of integrating solo saxophone playing into what I already do. It is something that I’d like to explore more of when I’m done with school. I’d like to keep getting stronger on the horn and in music in general. I don’t think I’ll run out of things I want to learn, as there is so much to tackle with music, and even on soprano sax alone.
Check out Kayla's wild rendition of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo."
And to hear more of FASTER from the their CD, These Cats are Burning, visit HERE