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Lisa Marie Simmons: New NoteSpeak in Ya Ear


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This is unprecedented and the ripples spread far and wide, touching on every aspect of our societies and every nuance of our cultures, power systems and governments.
—Lisa Marie Simmons
From their homebase in Lombardia, on the coast of Lake Garda in Italy, Lisa Marie Simmons and Marco Cremaschini share complementary creative skills as the lyrical and musical souls behind NoteSpeak: Poet, singer and songwriter Simmons crafts and delivers the lyrics while Cremaschini directs the sounds swirling around her as co-composer, pianist, and musical director.

Their full-length debut NoteSpeak: Amori e Tragedie in Music (2020, Ropeadope) lands in your ear with a unique sound. NoteSpeak plays funk and hip-hop but live and often improvised, so it frequently sounds and feels like jazz. Grounding the sound with two bassists—electric (Marco Cocconi) and acoustic upright (Joy Grifoni)—keeps NoteSpeak grooving thick and deep. But then NoteSpeak cuts up and patches these grooves into different sonic layers, cross-rhythmic beats and pastiches, which brings them right back around to hip-hop.

If you could take a musical ruler and start from a jazz poet like Ishmael Reed and then draw a straight line through Queen Latifah, you'd find NoteSpeak somewhere on the other end.

"I love the exploration of the spoken, sung and played mingled," says Simmons. An expatriate originally from Boulder, Colorado, she prowls the surface and plumbs the depths of NoteSpeak's sound with lyrics that are self-aware and somehow both savvy and unaffected. "I find in writing songs that I'm often walking that thin line—I'm trying to make a personal, individual experience universal," she muses.

Why does Simmons sing, and does she sing for the same reasons that she writes?

"Some say there are two kinds of musicians: those who love the stage and those who love recording. I definitely fall into the first category," she explains. "I met a guy once who I told a bit of my story to and he said, 'Wow. Born in Colorado, you've lived in New York City, France, Holland, South America, the Caribbean and now Italy—where do you call home?' I'll admit to being a bit flummoxed for a moment. Later that evening he saw me perform and then told me, 'Next time someone asks, just tell them the stage is your home.'

"I'm a storyteller. I'm in love with words and communication. I love to perform. I love to commune with an audience. I love the feeling of creating a beautiful moment outside of time and place, outside of all of our daily worries and struggles. A place where we can meld. I write for those reasons as well, but writing carries even more weight and heft. Where once there was nothing, now there's this song or poem or story. And there are so many stories to tell and so much to share. I try to surrender myself in both writing and performing."

NoteSpeak: Amori e Tragedie in Music opens with a call to "Chillax." Cremaschini's piano twinkles like brilliant stars in music that seems to peacefully float yet bounce on drummer Valerio Abeni's big-as-a-house beat. Simmons' vocal rhythms—for example the line, "This is exactly where you belong"—flow within the music so naturally that it seems impossible they'd fit better anywhere else. "This track's modal harmony inspired a meditation in me, encouraging my effort to let go, not hold on quite so hard to everything," Simmons says. "We chose it as the first track as an invitation to listeners to do the same."

Maurizio Giannone (percussion), Marco Mondini (cajón) and Valeria Bonazzoli (udu) help consolidate the NoteSpeak sound with vibrant textures and colors. That sounds grows thick and heavy on "Decapitation Blues." "Marco Cremaschini came up for the idea of this classic jazz ballad. Since humans have been around, this barbaric meting out of justice has existed," Simmons explains. Guido Bombardieri's saxophone moans and prowls after the ghosts of Sonny Rollins and Stanley Turrentine, fluttering on wings shaped by the rhythm team and composer's glistening piano.

"Musically, 'A Fazioli' is completely improvised," Simmons continues. "Pianist Marco Cremaschini composes downstairs in our home studio and I'm in my garret on the top floor. As I write his notes drift up and entwine with my thoughts. I wrote the poem 'A Fazioli' while listening to him play." Cremaschini's solo piano meditation matches the simple wonder in Simmons' lyrics as they meander and linger in thoughts of, "Jam sessions long gone/ When folks like Monk and Billie, Miles and Horace reigned supreme..."

NoteSpeak: Amori e Tragedie in Music also demonstrates NoteSpeak's hip-hop dexterity for mix-mastering classic soul, jazz, pop, and R&B sounds, especially from the 1970s. Fuzz-toned clavinet funk opens "Cozmic Confusion" with the sound of Stevie Wonder jamming in outer space while Bombardieri's bass clarinet groans, lurches and burns toward communion with the blues spirits of reedman Eric Dolphy and bassist Charles Mingus. "'Cozmic Confusion' is a hip-hop style song based on a keyboard riff with a sweeping bass clarinet solo," says (electric) bassist Cocconi. "The second part of the piece is more rarefied, with the groove slowly dissolving to emphasize the words."

"As Charles Mingus was one of the most noteworthy, innovative jazz musicians to date, we cannot help but be influenced by him. In particular, by the capacity he had to develop traditional African-American music (like Blues and Spirituals) and then bring them into a new dimension, a much more modern direction—drawing near to free jazz," Simmons allows. "Some of the songs reflect this tendency, including 'Virtuoso,' which begins with an ostinato bass line that then leads us into new horizons. In fact, Guido Bombardieri holds Eric Dolphy in great esteem."

"From a musical standpoint, 'Virtuoso' is based on an ostinato bass line and several melodies superimposed. It can be considered a composition with a chromatic harmony," Cocconi continues. "Beyond the written melody there are improvised solos. Adding tension to the centre of the song is an electronic sequence which introduces a series of rhythmic displacements and creates a very atmospheric sound."

"Returning from Pluto" also sounds like Sun Ra zooming in and out of 1970s space and time astride riding a bank of vintage electronic keyboards and a bass drum pulsing like a human heartbeat. "The first version of this track Marco dubbed 'Pluto' before he handed it over to me and its atmospheric space afro-funk sound brought to my mind the book The Overview Effect," explains Simmons. "The perspective we find when we pull back and look at the bigger picture and realize how tiny each of us is and yet how each of us combine to make a magnificent whole." After floating like a breeze, "Pluto" downshifts and descends into a jazz-disco fusion glide, with Fulvio Sigurta leading the music home with soulful trumpet, soft and sweet.

While Ropeadope prepared NoteSpeak: Amori e Tragedie in Music for its March 2020 release, Simmons and Cremaschini prepared for the accompanying NoteSpeak press and publicity tour. In February, Italy's COVID-19 pandemic turned the home that the two share on the coast of Lake Garda into a fortress.

"We are lucky enough to have two resident gigs, one weekly and one monthly, and I live on gorgeous Lake Garda in the north of Italy which enjoys a large tourist trade during the summer months so we don't have to go too far afield to pay our bills with music. However, when we have a new project, we hit the road more often to spread the word," Simmons explains. "In support of the new album, we toured through Italy, Austria and the Czech Republic in November and performed in India in January with a preview of NoteSpeak, happily gaining momentum as we rolled, only to hit a wall the week of the release. We were at our resident weekly gig, outside of the province where we live when we got the announcement that Lombardia was going to be on lockdown as of midnight.

"The bartender came up between songs and wide-eyed showed me his phone. We had to decide if it was better to head out immediately or wait for morning. We focused on the show and then anxiously watched news reports after our last set. We found out that people who live in the area could still enter so we slept and got an early start the next morning. As a precaution, Marco and I shopped for a week's supply before entering Lombardia. There was no checkpoint as we crossed over and we thought, "It hasn't gotten too bad just yet.'

"I still held out hope for a week or so that I wouldn't have to cancel my promotional tour to Philadelphia where I was to meet with Ropeadope CEO Louis Marks for the first time. I ended up canceling two days before the 14-day quarantine was imposed on entry to the States as I reasoned I might be a healthy carrier and didn't want to put anyone at risk. Then, shortly after, all of Italy was suddenly locked down.

"We've settled into it now, and fear seems to be receding despite the horrific number of contagions and deaths as well as the toll it's taken on Italy's stellar health system. It looks as though we may have already reached the peak, or will this week. The worst may be behind us now."

It's a standard song title but also seems to be a fair question: In such circumstances, how does Lisa Marie Simmons keep her music playing?

"This is unprecedented and the ripples spread far and wide, touching on every aspect of our societies and every nuance of our cultures, power systems and governments. This is the time to write. This is the time to prick up our ears, keep our eyes open, be vigilant and empathetic and do what we do best. Make music," Simmons begins. "It is even more essential now to remember, as cliche as it sounds, that we are all connected in this human family. We truly are one. Music is extraordinary in its ability to aid in catharsis, in distracting ourselves from our thinking brains and allowing us to turn our heads towards that light.

"So since I've chosen this path (or it has chosen me), I must be scrupulous in being present for it, down for it, come what may. It is my job to unify and empathize to entertain and sooth, so I must. Every musician I know has stories about the things they have pushed through to be on stage, as small as a fever, as big as a death in the family, surgery. I've sung through all of those, too. That old adage the show must go on is about that, about being there for whoever shows up, being there for those people who don't need to know what's happening with you but who need instead to be transported even if for a moment."

Can I answer this with a poem?

I'm Not Bored

25 people have asked if I'm bored.
I'm amazed—
My life's not so different right now.
I'm not organising the house, though maybe I should.
Just clean kitty's litter box and I'm good.

'Cause I got words on the brain
cause I got shit to say.

An it's urgent to write.
I got words on my tongue.
There is work to be done.

Naw I'm not bored

I awake with desire,
with fire and vigour.
I write and I drink
an I sit and I think.
I dig my fingers into earth,
plant blooms to mourn
the dead and the dying.
Will not let leave of hope.

Naw I'm not bored

Cut ginger and lemon for my tea.
Then go write some melodies,
and newsletters and blogs.
I research, I question, I search.
Answer questions for interviews, edit videos.
Write deep into the night,
cause I got shit to say.
Take a break for a film then do it all again.
Sing, play the piano all day...

Naw I ain't bored.

—Lisa Marie Simmons, 2020

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