Brittany Anjou: Visionary Soul

Paul Rauch By

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It’s all exploration. I’m just trying to find the strongest part of my happiness, soul and heart, through each project. —Brittany Anjou
I began a series of interviews with Seattle-based musicians in the summer of 2016, with half being dedicated to female instrumentalists. After my last interview with bassist Chuck Deardorf, I was given a new piano trio release on the Seattle based Origin Records label by New York based, Seattle born and bred musician Brittany Anjou. Named Enamigo Reciprokataj, meaning reciprocal love in the international language Esperanto, the album is her unique take on the traditional jazz piano trio. While she was back in Seattle this summer, I had the opportunity to hear the music from this well received recording live at Egan's in the Ballard neighborhood. A few days later, we ventured into the iconic Seattle jazz club, Tula's, for an interview before the club opened its doors for the evening. As a young student in Seattle, Anjou had been inspired by performances in that very room. What I found to share with my readers was not only a great musician and composer, but an interesting and brave woman with a strong and adventurous spirit.

All About Jazz: You are currently in residence in Kuwait for a portion of the year. Talk about your work there, and how it came to be.

Brittany Anjou: I am in residence teaching on faculty at the Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmed Cultural Center opera house in Kuwait, which they just built in 2016 as a gift for the people from the Emir of Kuwait. JACC for short. They started the JAAC music school. It's a youth music program with the goal of the opera is to build a youth chamber orchestra, and ensembles, fostering local Kuwaiti kids' talent. I'm helping them build the music education program and teaching kids piano, jazz, improv and pop music. Last semester I had 15 students—all girls. I've written a number of curriculums for piano and group instruction. For jazz class curriculum writing, I attended the Jazz Power Initiative teachers certification class this summer, and consulted with Eli Yamin who wrote the JALC Middle School Jazz Academy curriculum with Wynton Marsalis and a number of amazing people, to plan for my classes at JACC. I am the only jazz educator on faculty. I love it so much because I'm getting to arrange music for our faculty, which are mostly Arabic and classical musicians. I'm getting to work with and arrange for oudists, Arabic singers-we have a singer from Jordan who is just wonderful. She is Dr. Rula Jaradat, who leads a ten piece all woman Arabic ensemble from Jordan called Naya. She is just wonderful to work with, and she also plays qanun. So oud, qanun, and Arabic singing, as well as percussion. The opera house also has its own adult professional orchestra, so I will be seeing them around a lot and we get to rehearse with those peers. I get to arrange for faculty ensembles to put on concerts. Our goal this fall is to do one every month-one for the students every month and one for the faculty.

AAJ: When you say performing classical music, are you referring to European classical music?

BA: Yes. We have European classical musicians from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. We also have great Arabic classical musicians on oud, Arabic singing and qanun who are from Jordan, France, Egypt, Belgium, and Iraq. I'm the teacher who is the delinquent contemporary improvising musician—and boy, do I bombard everyone with avant-garde jazz, and of course, The Shaggs

AAJ: Does the Arabic classical music utilize improvisation?

BA: Yes, it's totally interesting. All three traditions have improvisation in their own ways. They call it taqsim, improvising in the maqam— which is the Arabic scaler system. It is the most ancient scaler system predating Indian scales. The way I think about it, coming from a jazz tradition, is through tetrachords that revolve around an oudist's hand position (four finger positions—four notes). I took oud lessons from April Centrone a few years ago when she hosted oud classes at my place in Brooklyn. The scales change from one to another depending on the performer's mastery and understanding of harmony. It's an oral tradition, and you can hear it being sung at mosques during the call to prayer five times a day in Kuwait. The whole country bursts into thousands of melodies five times a day simultaneously, and involving quarter tones, and of course, some cannot really sing, so it is a microtonal explosion I love. Especially after working with the Shaggs music. It is a very different way of orienting yourself around a scale, life and improvising mentally. I really love it. On the first day in Kuwait when I heard it I flipped out. I'm a total nerd.

AAJ: How did you end up with the gig?

BA: What took me out to the middle east in the first place was a very funny story involving my neighbor in Brooklyn. We'd been living in the same building for years. One day, he sat on a park bench in Washington Square Park and was smoking, and this theatre director who was looking for a music composer at the time, sat down next to him and asked him for a light. They struck up a conversation and the theatre director told him he needed a composer for his next play, He said he was doing it at NYU, and did he know anybody? He was a visiting artist from Kuwait via London. My neighbor said he actually did. That's how I was connected with this. So I did a play for that director at NYU in 2015. The next year he asked me to write music for another play which was premiering in Kuwait. I flew out to Kuwait, we workshopped on Failakka, a deserted island that was left untouched after Iraq attacked Kuwait in 1990. That play was called In the Eruptive Mode: Hijacked Voices of the Arab Spring, by Sulayman Al Bassam. It was an all woman cast. I was the lone solo musician. I had lines in it as well, but it was six monologues in Arabic and English, I scored music for the entire play. It was political. It was a gift, a real gift and honor to have that experience.

AAJ: Do you speak Arabic at all?

BA: I love Arabic! I'm nowhere near conversational, but I think I have about a 200 word vocabulary. It's so beautiful, and I'm always astounded by translations. Instead of, 'How are you, I'm fine,' people respond just with, 'Thanks to God-hamdillah.' The word "I" isn't even there. Talk about removing ego in language. 'Ya teclafiah' means, 'God thanks you for your work,' and people say it every day all the time. For instance when you drive past a toll, you say it to the toll booth operator. I get high from these things. It changes how you see the world for the better. I try to speak as much as possible, but I have no formal study other than friends, the play, and some books. I wound up learning a lot of Arabic for the first time doing that play, because I had to memorize the monologues for the cues. In Brooklyn I practice speaking with cab drivers and Yemenis at my neighborhood deli. When I teach and audition kids I use Arabic, even though they know English. It helps get certain things across better than English anyway.

AAJ: You studied vibraphone with Stefon Harris. Were vibraphone and piano equal partners with you for a time?

BA: First of all, I can't believe I'm in Seattle and at Tula's! Totally. I grew up here in Seattle and went to Roosevelt HS. When I was twelve I saw the Roosevelt jazz band , and I knew that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to play piano in the band. When I auditioned my freshman year, I was up against two insanely great pianists my age vying for the piano spot in the big band-Aaron Parks (laughter)! And a dear friend of mine, Brian Kinsella, who was a pretty ridiculous talent. I remember when I got out of that audition, I pressed my ear against the door and listened to them play and thought, 'I'm never going to get in the jazz band.' That's when I took up the vibraphone, to try to find a way to get into the band!

AAJ: Did you study vibes in high school with anyone?

BA: Yes, I took lessons with Susan Pascal for years, and that experience led to me at sixteen seeing Stefon Harris at Jazz Alley with Jacky Terrasson on piano, and that just blew me away. Terreon Gully on drums. My first jazz piano teacher was Christina Shinkle, and Dan Greenblatt in middle school was my first jazz educator. He taught me about blues and bebop scales. In college I studied mallets with Sherrie Maricle at NYU my first semester while taking piano lessons with the late great Don Friedman, and when Stefon joined the faculty in second semester I took lessons with him until I went to Ghana to study gyil (Ghanaian xylophone) with Bernard Woma.

AAJ: What is the commonality in the music that led to your interest in Ghanaian xylophone, or gyil?

BA: I was playing and competing in high school on jazz vibraphone, and I wound up at NYU the year that Stefon Harris joined the faculty, which was such a gift. I studied with him for three really intense years. He's the best jazz educator I have ever had, and Victor Lin on piano. He was at Columbia at the time, and I would go up to him to take lessons. I was studying marimba and xylophone then too. In my junior year in school, my friend Seth Paris had been in Ghana studying music, and met Bernard Woma, the Ghanaian master xylophonist, who passed away in 2017. Seth brought him to do a masterclass at NYU in 2005, where I met him, and was just blow away by the music, his personality, his vivaciousness, and watching him perform. That night, he convinced me and my program director to arrange my classes and graduation so I could study gyil and go to Ghana, and the rest was history. He was one of the biggest ambassadors of Ghanaian traditional music, and his loss was felt by the gyil community around the world.

AAJ: Was he teaching in New York?

BA: He was between Ghana and Fredonia, teaching at SUNY Fredonia in upstate New York. He has been a global international educator , and representative of sharing traditional Ghanaian xylophone music to the world. So I met Bernard Woma and found out it was possible to go to Ghana and study that music, just for a while, six months.

AAJ: Your work over the past few years has been framed by a full spectrum of expressionism. You play jazz trio, front a punk band Bi Tyrant as well as the LARCENY Chamber Orchestra, and a series of ensembles incorporating Ghanaian xylophone. Your work is as well influenced by modern composers like Bartok and Stravinsky. What is the same between these variant forms, and what is different for you as an artist?

BA: I think I'm starting to realize I'm a curious person. Full of curiosity. About anything and everything. I forget it a lot. I think just always trying to explore, find the vein, trying to stab the needle in! I don't know (laughter). It's all exploration. I'm just trying to find the strongest part of my happiness, soul and heart, through each project. There's a gift to pursuing all these things close to your heart. It keeps you running on a treadmill, in terms of the scheduling and organization of it. But that is a gift, and I have to remind myself of that when I'm buried in emails, and trying to organize a bunch of stuff.




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