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Artemis: A Band For the Times

Photo credit: Keith Major

R.J. DeLuke By

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The chemistry was so palpable. It just kept deepening… Were all dedicated to continuing the project. —Allison Miller
A jazz band was formed a few years ago, comprised completely of women. That was by design for a moment in time at a jazz festival. But the convergence of these great musicians—dubbed collectively as Artemis—is growing to be something more. The members coalesced in a special way.

Its importance remains to be seen. But the members feel a special bond and recognize they have a contribution to make. The hope is to maintain a presence, and grow, when the global COVID pandemic can be contained.

The all-female jazz band that is anything but a novelty. The name comes from Greek mythology—Artemis was a goddess of the hunt, an explorer and protector of young children. The band is comprised of accomplished artists who have already made their mark as bandleaders. Those individuals have bright, curious minds that are essential to great artistry. Had Artemis not been formed, each would still be striving to learn and grow.

The group is comprised of pianist and musical director Renee Rosnes, clarinetist Anat Cohen, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Noriko Ueda, drummer Allison Miller and vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant. Each is a leader in their own right and their respective resumes speak for themselves. They're from different age groups. They hail from Canada, Chile, Japan, France, Israel and the U.S. The diversity stands out. That they are strong women during a movement when women are standing up (again) for themselves, should not go unnoticed.

More subtle, perhaps, is the way they communicate on the bandstand. Cohesive, despite differences. Accepting, no exalting in, the varying influences and sensibilities that each member brings to the music captured on the band's eponymous debut recording. A joyous tapestry. And that is significant in these times of social upheaval and, in the U.S., separation and divide becoming the order of the day, rather than humanity and togetherness. In that regard, Artemis is an example and inspiration. A hope.

The seed was planted in 2017, when Rosnes put together an all-female band to celebrate International Women's Day at a concert in Paris. It unexpectedly took root. There were some performances prior to the shutdown of nightclubs and concert halls, before the world was gripped by COVID. The band not only made an impression on music lovers, but also the musicians themselves. So there is a future.

And within the music community, Artemis has already had an kind of impact, based on the reaction to its COVID-interrupted existence.

The debut album has nine cuts, with each member contributing material. There are also reimaginings of the Beatles' "Fool on the Hill," arranged by Jensen, and the two vocal numbers, "Cry, Buttercup, Cry," and Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic." Those were arranged by Rosnes. The music is crisp and creative, the solos superb. The rhythm section solid and engaging. Miller says the synergy between herself, Rosnes and Ueda was almost instant. Miller's "Goddess Of The Hunt" starts the album, something she calls "a sonic exploration of the powerful traits that define women." Aldana's "Frida" pays tribute to Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Cohen's "Nocturno" was inspired by Chopin. Diverse influences and interests are a strong suit of the band.

"On a sunny August afternoon in 2018, I was among the thousands of fans attending the Newport Jazz Festival who had their minds blown by Artemis," says Blue Note president Don Was. "Although each individual member of this super group is a bona fide jazz titan, these incredible musicians dwell in the rarefied air of bands whose whole is greater than the sum of its already sublime parts."

Rosnes and Miller spoke about the band recently with All About Jazz. The artists were interviewed separately, from their homes, due to COVID. Answers to questions were edited and combined for cohesiveness and clarity.

All About Jazz: It's a cookin' album.

Renee Rosnes: We're really happy about the reception it's gotten so far. We're very happy to be on Blue Note. Happy the album is getting a lot of airplay and good reviews. We're very proud of it.

AAJ: How did the band start?

RR: The genesis of what was to become Artemis was when a French promoter invited me to put together a band of women to celebrate International Women's Day in Paris. There were two concerts. One in Paris and one in Luxembourg. We did both concerts and they were very successful. There was talk about trying to do a tour in 2017. We were not Artemis yet.

Then in 2017 Allison Miller and Noriko Ueda couldn't do it, so it was Terri Lyne Carrington and Linda May Han Oh. They were busy the following summer, and I invited Allison and Noriko to join. Once we started touring we could see how much fun we were having. The band had a very nice flow and chemistry together. It was very organic and natural. We realized we had something quite special. The audiences recognized it too. Basically at the end of that tour, we decided to make the band official and brand it with the name, with the idea that we could continue to play together. That's how Artemis was born.

AAJ: The name came from Ingrid Jensen.

RR: That's correct.

AAJ: It's an all-female group, but also has diverse nationalities. Do you feel good about that representation, standing out as an example or inspiration to others?

RR: Yes. That came about very naturally. It just so happened that the musicians I was interested in having were all from different places in the world. With the exception of Ingrid and I being from Canada, everyone was from around the world. It just kind of worked out, but it wasn't intentional. But I think it is nice, in hindsight, that we are an international band and we bring our personalities and our cultures together when we make gigs together.

Allison Miller: It's definitely important. I think it's a representation of how this great wonderful Black American music has reached around the world. I'm proud to be a member of a band that represents so many different countries and has musicians who are playing on such a high level who are from around the world. It's definitely an important aspect of the project.

AAJ: Does it serve as an example to young women or even all young musicians. An inspiration?

AM: I think it definitely is. I know, because we've had people reach out to us. Many different young musicians come up to us to say what an inspiration we have been. Not just women. All genders. We've gotten words of support. Not even praise. More, 'Wow, you really inspire me.'

One thing that happened is after we played the Carnegie Hall show, there were a lot of young musicians that stayed after the show. You could really feel that energy and excitement for what's to come. The energy felt new and fiery, which definitely lends itself to the inspiration that was going around. The way that we present ourselves too, on stage. We're not out there trying to prove anything. Unfortunately, many times in the past when you have these collective supergroups, put-together bands, it can feel like they're up there competing with each other or trying to make a point. We're really not. We're up there making high-level music with each other and having a good time doing it. There's a real egalitarian feeling coming off the stage. I think that's an inspiration as well.

After the Carnegie Hall show, I got a text from my good friend, Jessica Lurie, who's a great alto saxophonist. She said, 'I'm on the A-train going home. It's so amazing. I have tears in my eyes because there are all these young women on the train. They were at the show and all had the Playbill, looking through it and talking. They're so excited and so inspired by your music and what you all represent.' I was really touched by that text because it's immediate proof that we are making a difference for young musicians.

RR: I know that in the short time we've been together, when we've performed at universities, there were young players in the jazz programs, both female and male players, are very interested and enthusiasm about the band. We had a lot of questions when we were conducting master classes. There's a lot of interested from both young male and female players.

AAJ: The camaraderie is one of the things that helps the band, in terms of performance and growing.

AM: Definitely ... After we did this longer tour in the summer of 2017, we collectively decided we had to continue and we had to keep making music together. The chemistry was so palpable. It just kept deepening. Also, we just love hanging out together. Were all dedicated to continuing the project.

RR: Yeah. We all enjoy each other's company. So when you're together 24 hours a day and traveling and performing it's important that everyone gets along. Thankfully, we do that. More than that, we have a lot of fun together. It's a really nice experience both on and off the bandstand.

AAJ: How long did it take for the band to gel?

AM: Honestly, I felt like it gelled with the downbeat of the first concert. I'm going off of my experience. I came in in the second round of touring. The first two concerts in 2016 was Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, one of my big inspirations. The following summer Renee asked if I could do the tour. I couldn't do the whole tour because my son had just been born. I have two kids. I couldn't leave my family for a five-week tour. I asked Renee if it was OK to come in for just three weeks of it. She was OK with that.

I came in 10 days into the tour. My first show was the North Sea Jazz Festival. No rehearsal. Not even a soundcheck. Renee sent me a Dropbox link with some charts she wanted to do. I just got on stage and we started playing. It felt incredible. It was shocking to all of us, I think. I hadn't even played that much with Renee or Noriko. In the past 10 to 15 years, I have really veered away from the scene that Renee and Noriko were in. I wasn't playing a lot of straight ahead jazz all the time. I wasn't sure what the rhythm section chemistry would feel like. But it felt incredible right away.

It was a super fun concert. I'll never forget. Chick Corea was side stage listening. I just kept thinking, 'Wow. Chick Corea is listening and I've never played with this band.' But we had a great time and it's felt that way ever since.

I would say now that we've recorded this album and we've all had the opportunity to compose for the band, we are really invested. We're playing our own music. The music represents our sound. The chemistry and the band had a sound. But then once you write for that sound, there's more of a sound. It's really fulfilling.

AAJ: Everybody writes. When you write for that band, do you have the individuals in mind?

RR: Yes. I do. I think about everybody in terms of the arrangement and how I approach the composition. Everyone was thinking about the band, which is why it's great to write for a band and not just composing. There's different ways of composing. But these days I'm not writing unless I'm writing for something specific. It was great fun.

AM: I was writing for the members. I love composing and arranging. It's become probably my biggest passion in life. But I'm not trained. I'm a self-taught composer. So I have to put 100 percent of my heart and soul into each thing I do. Part of that concept involves and requires me really hooking into the way each band member plays. It doesn't matter if it's Artemis or Boom Tic Boom, my other band. I go deep thinking about the relationship I have with that person and the way they play and the relationship they have with other members of the band. That helps my process.

I probably wrote five different versions of that song. It started with a bass line. I wanted it to have a certain feeling. Then it kind of grew from there. I really labored over that tune. I wanted it to represent me, but also the band. I was pretty hard on myself while I was writing it. Coming up with one melody that wasn't quite right. Tweaking the melody. Coming back to it a week later. Scratching it and starting over. Really pushing myself.

I don't get a chance often to write for musicians who are so good. In my band Boom Tic Boom, everyone is a world class musician, but there's a certain funkiness, a rawness, to the way everybody plays in my band that I really love. It really works.

I never got a chance to write for a front line of Melissa Aldana, Ingrid Jensen and Anat Cohen. They are top of their game. They are so attuned to details on the horn line. For instance, we would do a take in the studio and afterward I could hear them talking. 'Someone was a little sharp there. Maybe we should cut the note a little sooner.' They're so tuned in to these fine details that I would never hear. In my band, Boom Tic Boom, someone might be a little out of tune, but I like that. It works for me.

It's so much fun to be able to write for a group where no matter what I wrote, they would just nail it. Wow, I could write anything and these three musicians would make it sound incredible.

AAJ: Was it your intent to form a group identity, so people know Artemis when they hear them?

RR: Sure. I think that is something that comes about very naturally. Our music speaks for itself. Since we're all bandleaders, jazz fans know who we are individually. Our hope is that the fans of everyone will take note of the band to check it out. I think there's a group sound... It's very evident that it was natural. That's because we all have different musical personalities, but when we play together we play with kind of a... We're a team. We're a unit and we think conceptually how best we can support each other, which I think makes for the best music. We're looking to play cohesively together. I think any great band does. We all bring strong personal visions, but I believe we're creating a collective, unified conception.

AM:: Because we're sympathetic players. We're deep listeners when we're playing and we have deep respect for one another. We honor each other's compositions and the styles in the process of making the record, which is not always the case when you put a bunch of strong-willed bandleaders together. There's a special combination of our talents, but also our personalities.

I think Renee took really great care in the track order of the record. If you had mixed up the order in a different way, it might not have flowed. My song, ("Goddess of the Hunt), which is very different from Noriko's ("Step Forward"), might not have worked on a record together if we had them right next to each other. But the way that Renee and crew intently set on the track order, you can feel that. It really works.

AAJ: You could have had a band without a singer, but having Cecile fits in so well.

RR: She does. She always does. She's a great, great talent and we're fortunate to have had her on the album. She adds another dimension to the band.

AM: Cecile was part of the original concert in 2016. She did the entire 2017 tour. She is marvelous. She's genius. She's a virtuoso. Everything about her. Her artwork, everything. She's such a good hang. Such a down to earth humble person. She's all about the band and the music and the community of this business. She's dedicated to making it happen. She's a very important part of that band.

AAJ: You've developed a repertoire, but is that on hold now due to COIVD? Are you still writing and looking ahead?

RR: During this time it's difficult, obviously, because we can't perform and we can't support the album in a live setting. We'll be very happy when this is over and we can bring our music to the people. I know for myself that I'm always writing. It's a daily part of my routine. I'm also writing new music for an album I'll be doing in January of my own. So I'm busy with that. But I'm working on various ideas for the band and I imagine the others are too.

AAJ: Bands can change and sometimes go on hiatus even in the best of times. But is the plan to get back at it when things clear up? Another album?

RR:: We certainly hope so. We hope that will happen. Right now we're concerned with being able to resume our lives as jazz musicians, perform for people and connect with audiences, have the intimacies of clubs and get back into what we've known for most of our lives. It is a hard time for everybody.

Like everyone, we lost a lot of work. We had various performances through the States planned. SFJAZZ and Symphony Hall. So many places. We had a European tour planned and would have been there now, actually. There were a lot of great performances in store for us. The Monterey Jazz Festival as well.

AM: We're all frustrated, right? Everyone has their own story during this pandemic. Everybody has a silver lining. Mine is I'm home. Musicians are home more than they've ever been. I've never been in one place for so long. I'm deepening my relationship with my kids. That's vital and important. I feel like I'm always going to be dedicated to crafting my career moving forward. It works a little better with my family life. I know it's not easy, but I feel more connected now.

AAJ: It's depressing sometimes with COVID, but you have to be hopeful.

RR: Yeah. That's right. Speaking for myself, I'm trying to make as good a use of time as I can. Trying to stay creative. When you're super busy, it's 'I don't have time to do this' and 'I don't have time to do that.' Now, you do. (chuckles) You have to take advantage of this time because it's here.

We wanna get out there and play. I do believe we will get through (the pandemic) and hopefully sooner than later.

AM: A silver lining for me is learning technology and how I can record from home so I can connect with other musicians in the community. It's heartbreaking not to be on tour, especially with this record out. But I know we'll get back to it. I know this is just the beginning of Artemis. I feel like the band will be around for a long time. There's time.

This has caused a lot of people to slow down a bit and count their blessings and get closer to the ones they love. All that being said, I'm dying to make music with another person (chuckles). I'm on Zoom sometimes seven hours a day doing guest speaker appearances for school programs. The amount of Zoom teaching I'm doing is completely overwhelming. But we're making it happen.

AAJ:: Boom Tic Boom will get out there when this passes?

AM: Totally. Right before the pandemic hit I had a very busy, successful January, February and early March, which has made me feel I'm in a little better spot. One of those things I had was the premier of a 75-minute suite that I wrote. A compositional commission I won through the Mid-Atlantic Art Foundation. That premiered the last week of January with an eight-show performing art centers tours. It was for my band, Boom Tic Boom, and tap dance and video design. A mixed-media piece. I'm really proud of it and really proud of the musical side of it. I think the band was really proud of it too. We've been together for 12 years now. We're really a band.

The piece is called "River in Our Veins," about biodiversity and diversity in general throughout America. We need to keep an eye out and preserve our waterways to ensure a healthy culture. That music is ready to be recorded and the pandemic hit right after. I'm waiting until I can get my band together and record that music. That will be my next release.

It's not that I haven't done records. It's the one thing in New York, performance-wise, that's opening up. People are doing records. I've done four records since the beginning of September, but none have been my projects. I'm hired to play drums. It's harder for Boom Tic Boom because some people live in California. If we all lived in New York it would be easy.

RR: I'll be doing a live stream at the Vanguard in November, 13-14, with my quartet, which includes Chris Potter, Peter Washington and Bill Stewart. In a couple of days, I'll be doing a live stream with Ron Carter from Birdland. I think that's going to be airing next month (November) sometime.

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