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Hermon Mehari: American Jazz, Eritrean Echoes

Hermon Mehari: American Jazz, Eritrean Echoes

Courtesy Maria Jarzyna

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Award-winning trumpeter, composer and educator Hermon Mehari is a modern day Renaissance Master. Born in the United States of Eritrean parents who were refugees, Mehari has brilliantly crafted a musical presence and branding that melds American jazz and its deep traditions with Eritrean overtones. A true visionary, Mehari has recorded a handful of highly-acclaimed albums, including Asmara (Komos Records, 2022) hosts a live radio show, teaches and tours worldwide as both leader and sideman. He currently resides in Paris, France.

All About Jazz: Hermon, good morning. It's a pleasure to see you again.

Hermon Mehari:: Likewise, likewise.

AAJ: Okay. I know you are of Eritrean heritage, correct?

HM: Yes.

AAJ: Okay. So, tell me a little bit about your background, please.

HM: Sure. I was born in Dallas to Eritrean parents. My mom and dad were refugees from Eritrea. At the time there was a war with Ethiopia and Eritrea was fighting for its independence. My parents had met at a refugee camp in Italy and then made it to the States and I was born in the States. And after about five years, we moved to Missouri. I grew up close to Kansas City—Jefferson City. And, yeah, essentially just like a broad general statement, I grew up most of my life in Missouri and ended up going to school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Conservatory of Music there, studying trumpet.

AAJ: How old were you when you started trumpet?

HM: I started in middle school, like at seventh grade. So whatever age that is, like 13 or 12 years old.

AAJ: And when did you decide that music was going to be your professional life?

HM: It's funny. So, I started playing trumpet and then one year after I took a jazz improvisation course at my school, like a summer thing, and I decided, "Okay. I'm going to listen to... " if I'm going to do improvisation or try this, I should listen to some jazz. And I went to the record store and I went to the jazz section and I said, "Okay, I know Miles Davis. That's a name I know. So, I'll pick one of these albums." At the time you know that CD selections were pretty ample. So, and Miles having huge discography, there were about 20 CDs I could choose from. I chose one called Kind of Blue. I took it home, listened to it, and loved it and kept listening, kept listening. Then just started buying books on improvisation and started going on my CD collection. Loving it, and then a couple of years later, my best friend's family had a family band. I was playing with them on the weekend. So, every weekend in high school, I was playing gigs around Missouri—just a little casual gigs. By the time I was in high school, I was performing a lot and pretty dedicated to the instrument. And I would say by then I ... It wasn't really a question of deciding, I was like, "This is what I'm doing."

AAJ: Sure. I know you compose and perform. Do you bring Eritrean music and instruments into your performances?

HM: So, it's funny that, the thing about Eritrean music is I grew up listening to it with my parents and going to Eritrean community parties and family events. I didn't listen on my own time. I was listening to other music. I mean, I was into mostly mainstream music at one point, and then when I got into jazz, I only listened to jazz. Pretty much like I shut everything out through college, until the end of college. And then I kind of started going back to the other music that I neglected and didn't listen to for a while. And in terms of Eritrean music, I only recently,—actually, it was during the pandemic in 2020, during my second album as a leader, where I had introduced this Eritrean music into my music with one song in particular called "Eritrea." And I had decided in this moment of reflection time, I was in the middle of the countryside in France for about three months. And so it was really a reflective time, and I was thinking about my past, my parents, my heritage, all this stuff. And I found it funny as I had never ever incorporated this music as part of my history, part of my childhood, as well. And so I went deep into it as I never even studied this music, as a learned musician who knows theory and all this stuff. So I went deep and I studied the history of it, I transcribed a bunch of music and better understood the roles of all the instruments. And then I composed and incorporated it. Then my latest album is Asmara, which is completely dedicated to this music—mixing it with jazz, that is.

AAJ: What are some of the characteristics of Eritrean music?

HM: I can loosely say that for instance, harmonically, it's very simple. It tends to be major usually and use mostly pentatonics. Rhythmically, it's interesting, it's got this almost triplety thing that is trance like. And it's mostly danceable tempos, 'cause it's mostly meant to be danced to. Form-wise, it can be all over the place. And often, for instance, it's very... Often, it's not instrumental, it's usually vocal. And there are horns that are used in the music, generally, and they act usually as responses to the vocal parts. And then one of the big things that you'll always almost hear is an instrument called the krar, which is a four-string instrument.

AAJ: I know you do a fair amount of touring outside of the United States. How did that come about? Is that intentional or do you find that there's just more work outside of the US, France, and other places, China, where you perform?

HM: Well, I've been touring Europe since 2010. I should say, actually, I've been playing in Europe since 2010. I've been, I guess you don't know, I live in Paris. So I'm based in Paris as of the end of 2016. And, yeah, I had started having opportunities in Europe and I decided, well, this is where all, at least most of the American musicians who are making a living performing are doing it in Europe, whether they live in Europe or not. So I said, I might as well go and do it from here and open more doors. There are a lot of opportunities to perform all over Europe. And I do of course, as mentioned, go to Asia sometimes. And more recently I've been able to go to Africa, which is cool. But I go back and play the states all the time.

AAJ: What is the instrumentation of your group and do you use the same musicians as you tour?

HM: It depends. So as a leader, 'cause I play as both as a leader and a sideman. And I'm called all the time as a sideman. So it's mostly me making time to set up my tours and, as a leader. And it depends on which project I'm touring. So if I'm touring, my most recent project, it's usually a quartet and it's going to be... I tour very often with Peter Schlamb, who's from Kansas City, and he plays both vibraphone and piano. So depending on the project, he's either on piano or vibraphone or both. And then I'll tour with drums and bass as well. And then I do some tours as a duo, which is just trumpet and piano, usually. And I've got a couple projects like that. Those are my leader situations.

AAJ: As an improviser, you have one of the most fascinating, intriguing, and involving improvisational styles that I've ever encountered.

HM: Thank you.

AAJ: I remember the first time I heard you play, I almost keeled over, and heads were turning. What drives that style that you have? It is so unique. It's almost indescribable. It has certain jazz vocabulary yes, but everything is surprising. there's always something around the corner. Tell me a little bit about how you approach that.

HM: Yeah. Thank you. I think it's very important to be, what's the word? Grounded in the tradition. And for me, all the greatest innovators that I look up to, have looked up to, were all steeped in the tradition. And so... And one of my favorite saxophonists said it the best; he says the tradition was, is to innovate as well. So if you think about people like John Coltrane or Miles Davis, or Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Woody Shaw, whatever, they innovative, but they came from a tradition. And so, first of all, my concept is definitely based in coming from the tradition and understanding what came before me. And then the thing about it, about being very, very personal is, I think is being very specific about what parts of the tradition really, really resonate. So that's part of it, having gone through everyone, all the trumpet players, all the saxophonists, I'm really big into saxophone even though I'm a trumpet player. And I think that's helped me forge my own sound as well. But then going to all of them and really seeing what resonates with all of these, and all of their concepts. But on the other side is, I think, it's me and my personality. My goal every time when I play, is to try to play in an interesting way; try to play something different and try to be very open when I play and take risks, take chances. And, yeah, I guess that's where that comes in, maybe in terms of, like you said, surprises, not knowing what to expect.

AAJ: What equipment do you use?

HM: So I'm playing on a Bach Strad. But it's from the late '70s. And then I'm playing on an AR Resonance mouthpiece.

AAJ: That's great.

HM: I'm loving it.

AAJ: How many albums have you done as a leader?

HM: As a leader, I've done three as a leader and then four as a co-leader. And then I don't know how many, I have no idea how many as a sideman.

AAJ: I know you are personally invested in education and continuing to spread the word. I know you're really busy with the touring, but how do you do the education thing into your busy, busy schedule?

HM: I essentially do it in two major ways, I would say. One is that, with touring, I try to set up master classes that are possible, because then I'm at a new place and I can kind of reach people there and that way. I even did a few master classes the last two days in the south Paris. One on trumpet, one on jazz in general, improvisation rather. And I also have in the past done some online. Some, I've set up master classes online, people can kind of tune into. I haven't done it in a while. I would like to do it again, but I always like to do it very structured. I usually really think it out and have really clear ideas I want to express, really thought-out plan on how I express it as well. And then I do give lessons, but not, the students I have, because my schedule is crazy, are either once a month or twice a month basis as needed. My ultimate goal when teaching students is mostly, on the individual level, is mostly teaching them to teach themselves, making them independent.

AAJ: Do you still have the radio show?

HM: Yeah, I have a radio show on, KCUR 89.3. It's the NPR affiliate in Kansas City. And the show is called "The Session."

AAJ: And that's available over the internet worldwide, I would assume?

HM: Yeah, but only as a radio show, meaning that only when it's live. And that's Saturdays at 7:00 Central Time. So it's super late in Paris. And Europe.

AAJ: I know that you're going to be in China this coming year in a few months. Have you performed in China before?

HM: I've never performed in China. I've performed in Japan a few times, but never in China. This is my first time in China.

AAJ: Excellent. What kind of projects do you have coming down the pipe or that you envision?

HM: Well, right now I'm currently working on the music for two different albums of my own. One, which I can't say specifically anything about right now at this point. One, which I'd like to release at the first half of 2024, and one I'd like to release at some point, 2025, 2026. Then there's another band I have as a co-leader called NO(w) Beauty, it's based in France. And we released an album last year to a lot of success. And we're having a lot of success in France. We're winning awards and then we're getting lots of things written up about us. And so we are working on new music for another album already. So I've got a few albums that I'm working on musically.

AAJ: Wynton Marsalis has done a number of grand projects, almost operatic kind of projects. Others, I think Terence Blanchard did something similar and Wayne Shorter, too. You ever think about doing an extended project like that?

HM: I have on several occasions. It's funny you ask that. There was a time about six, seven years ago, I started writing an opera, I kind of put it aside. And then there's a musician I collaborate with here who wanted to write an opera as well, recently. And so we've kind of been trying to put together the steps to do that. But I still, in my head, want to do that opera that I started a while ago. It's because I actually love opera, just like pure opera. I love the classics, especially like Verdi and Puccini. I like contemporary opera as well, but I really love the Italian classical operas.

AAJ: The reason I ask that, is that I can tell that that kind of project is in you. I know... There are folks that I can tell. I could never do something like that, but you could easily. You've got the chops to do it. Well, Hermon, this has been really, really awesome. Thank you so much!

HM: With pleasure.

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