So it was no surprise when I started reading wonderful things about her 2012 CD, Fortune Songs (with her band Towering Poppies) a couple of years later. In his plauditory review, jazz writer Dan McClenaghan (All About Jazz) wrote, “It is a superb debut by an artist and a band that does much more than run with the pack.”
So, Jasmine, of all of the saxophones, why did you choose the soprano? Were there some players who inspired you—locally and/or on recordings?
It took me quite a while to choose the soprano. I started out on tenor sax at age 14, since that was the sax that my high school had available for me to hire. That was fine with me because one of my first favorite saxophone players was Stan Getz. A few years later when I had started university. I had an opportunity to buy a second-hand soprano from one of my teachers. By that time I was starting to really love the music of Wayne Shorter, so I think that was part of the reason I was drawn to soprano. Locally, two people that come to mind who I saw playing soprano were another teacher of mine, Colin Hemmingsen, and Lucien Johnson.
I'm speaking now about Wellington, New Zealand, where I went to University. It is the capital city and, though not the largest city in the country, is known for having a great music scene. Yes, as far as I know Colin and Lucien are both active there, although in different ways. Lucien is also a composer and bandleader and plays a lot of tenor as well. Colin is more active within the educational scene, I believe he was in fact the person who actually founded the first ever jazz university program in New Zealand. He's also a great bassoon player and last time I heard him play (several years ago - I haven't spent much time in New Zealand in several years) the concert was focused on jazz bassoon.
At that time the tenor was still my main horn, and with the soprano it was usually one step forward and two steps back. I would play it for a while, then put it down for several months, then pick it up again and find it terribly hard. I found this so discouraging that I mostly left the soprano in the case for the next 8 or 9 years.
When I did pick it up again, it was at the end of a period where I had given up playing saxophone almost completely for an entire year. I was picking it up with a sense of curiosity rather than ambition, and a willingness to sound as bad as I needed to sound in order to finally figure out to play the instrument. Playing the soprano turned out to be part of my path to rededicating myself to a career in music. Somehow I feel much more free on the instrument. I think this has a lot to to with the soprano's less standard usage in jazz. It feels comparatively unexplored.
Why did you stop playing for a year? And also, how old were you at the time?
The New Zealand jazz scene is small but pretty active, especially considering the size of the population (which is tiny, about 4.5 million people). There are four different undergrad jazz programs in the country pumping out new grads every year, plus a coterie of more established players and teachers, many who have spent time working and playing in Australia, the UK or the USA and brought that knowledge back home. One downside to the scene is, due to New Zealand's fairly isolated position in the world, the scene can get a bit stagnant, with comparatively few new musicians coming and going as they would in larger cities in America or Europe.
You don't meet many kiwi jazz musicians in North America - it's more common for kiwi's to move to Australia or the UK as its much easier immigration-wise. Personally, I have an American mother, so that obstacle wasn't an issue for me. Some of the more well known jazz exports from NZ include bassist Matt Penman, sax player Hayden Chisholm, and pianists Mike Nock and Jonathan Crayford. Some of the other kiwi sax players that are amongst my favorites (all who currently live in NZ) include Reuben Derrick, Lucien Johnson, Blair Latham, and (of course) Jeff Henderson, who has been a huge figure in nurturing the avant garde free improv scene there.
I decided to move to NYC fairly impulsively, after I had spent several months traveling around the United States. This was in a very transitional period in my life, when I was uncertain what I wanted to do with myself or where I wanted to live, shortly after I started seriously working on the soprano sax and rediscovered my love for music. The initial reason for my trip to NY was to take part in the school for improvisational music summer intensive, and before I arrived I decided that while I was there I might as well try out living in New York for awhile. I ended up staying for 2 years. The things that really made me want to live in New York were the opportunities to hear live music, and the amazing musicians I was meeting and playing with. It was a struggle as well, working day jobs and trying to find time for my music, and I ended up deciding to do my masters degree in composition at Wesleyan in Connecticut so I could focus more on music. It was also close enough to maintain some degree of connection to the NY scene. While at Wesleyan, I fell in love with one of my fellow composers in the MA program, who is from Mexico, and I moved here to be with him once we finished our studies in mid 2014.
Thank you! It seems like a good assessment to me. I think that perhaps one thing that's different about jazz in New Zealand is that there's less of a traditionalist emphasis in jazz education. At least for me, I learned to improvise first by using my ears, and from the beginning I was encouraged to approach improvisation with what I would call a compositional approach, rather than to be a perfect stylist, or to exactly replicate the sound of players that I admired. I haven't listened to a huge amount of early jazz and didn't really check out Sidney Bechet until after my soprano sound was more developed, so he wasn't a big influence (though one thing I love about earlier jazz is the strong melodic focus, and I do think that's something that's present in my work). My soprano influences are mostly Wayne Shorter and Steve Lacy, both of whom I relate to a lot because they are also composers and their improvisation and composition are so connected. But I've also been very influenced by singers, especially Joni Mitchell. Speaking of the avant garde, I'm drawn a lot more to consonance than most people in the so called 'avant garde' - but I do feel like I have many common interests with people who are part of that community. Basically, I don't think about my music in terms of genre, and whenever I'm called to it's a bit confusing. I guess I would call it contemporary chamber jazz with a strong melodic emphasis.
I’ve found that many players that have come out of the Wesleyan University scene, tend to be very much influenced by the experimental aesthetics of Anthony Braxton. But you have something very unique. It sounds modern, fresh, and with a strong sense of melody and groove. Again, let me know if I’m off base.
Well, the Wesleyan composition scene definitely has a long history of experimentalism, including a lot of computer music and post Cage experimental music as well as Braxton's musical world. I arrived there interested in learning about those things but without knowing too much about any of them. I think people have an idea of what the Wesleyan sound or aesthetic is, but as my advisor Paula Matthusen said to me, "the point is that there is no style." I wanted to work with Braxton, and was lucky enough to be his teaching assistant for a semester and to have him as one of my thesis advisors. Probably a lot of the Wesleyan composers who worked with Braxton went there having already been writing in a musical world that was more similar to his than mine was, but the fact that my music was much more 'straight ahead' didn't seem to be a problem for our working relationship. One great thing about Braxton is that he can discuss anyone's music, but he'll do it through a very unique lens and with his own terminology. I learned a lot from our conversations, from his lectures, and especially from playing his music in his Wesleyan ensemble class. I really admire the breadth of his conceptual thinking - he's so creative in his approaches to structuring music.
Anyway, to elaborate on the lack of an overtly 'experimental' aesthetic in my music, something that I sometimes find difficult about experimental or avant garde music (particularly free improvisation) is that it's often very dense, and I am really drawn to clarity and space. While I like to use free elements in my music, I'm most interested in free time as juxtaposed against metric time, or in some kind of combination of the two. I'm interested in dissonance as contrasted with consonance - an hour of dissonant music is not usually going to be my favorite thing. All this being said, I recorded 'Fortune Songs' before arriving at Wesleyan, so I expect it will be the next album I record that demonstrates how I have reconciled (or not reconciled) what I learned at Wesleyan with my existing style.
Let’s talk about your project Towering Poppies. How did this project come about? Did you take your working band into the studio or did you record it and then developed the music afterwards?—which is sometimes the case.
Towering Poppies was a band that I started more or less by accident. I called a session with some friends, including two musicians I met in 2008 at the Banff International workshop in Jazz and creative music, and then nobody brought anything to play except me, so we just played a few of my compositions. Then I found a gig for us, and then another, and it grew from there. We had been playing together for perhaps 5 months or so before we went into the studio to record. So a number of those pieces had been in our live repertoire for a little while, though a couple were written fairly quickly before the recording session. We've continued to work on and develop the same repertoire, and new repertoire, since then. We haven't played in quite a while as I now live in Mexico, but I'm planning to be back in NY for a visit later in 2015 so I hope to pick up where we left off then.
What challenges did you find as a soprano player trying to break onto the New York jazz scene? We all know it’s already difficult playing the alto and tenor saxes, but I imagine just playing the soprano, it becomes double the challenge.
Well, for me I would say that it wasn't my goal in the first place to 'break onto the New York Scene' - that sounds terrifying! When I arrived in New York I was in a very adventurous point in my life, and I really just wanted to have the experience of living there for a while. Whilst there I reconnected with various people that I had met at Banff, and those people would become my friends and collaborators from that point on. It was the people I was playing with, and all of the energy and great music I heard while living in the city, that combined to give me the inspiration to start performing my music. Playing only soprano doesn't seem to me like an obvious choice if you want to do a lot of work as a sideman, but that wasn't what I was looking to do. I identify as a composer as much or more so than as a saxophone player, and I was pretty clear by that point that what interested me about music was playing original music, so that was the only thing I focused on in NY.
Do people think that it’s strange that you’re a soprano specialist? Or maybe they’re more used to it since I switched to soprano 20 years ago.
I definitely think people are more used to it since you switched, and of course because of Steve Lacy. I remember meeting one person in New Zealand who only played soprano back when I was in university and at the time I thought that was an odd choice. But by the time I made that decision, it seemed like people in New York accepted it and dug it. They didn't necessarily hire me for gigs, but that was ok because I didn't expect them to. I was just focusing on what interested me, and trying to do something that felt genuine and honest. I think one of the reasons the soprano is a good fit for me is that I sang a lot before I played saxophone, and when I sing I'm a soprano. So the transition from my singing voice to my playing voice is more seamless this way. And generally, the music I compose seems to fit well within the soprano range.
I've noticed that many saxophonists who have chosen to make the soprano their main instrument are people who think outside the box, or at least try to create their own box. What's your take on it?
As you may or may nor know, playing solo has become a very concentrated area of focus for me over the past eight years or so. Do you have any plans to record or perform in solo pieces? As a soprano player, it seems almost i-n-e-v-i-t-a-b-l-e.
Fair enough. And let me ask you this: What major thing would like to accomplish in the next five years?
Lastly, I’m going to list some soprano players, that you may or may not know, and I want you to tell me the first word that pops into your mind.
Steve Lacy - space
Evan Parker - squawk
Branford Marsalis - power
Dave Liebman - evolution
Lol Coxhill - (no answer)
Michel Doneda - (no answer)
Lucky Thompson - (no answer)
Sidney Bechet - joy
And please check out a track from Jasmine's CD, Fortunes.