Free jazz has wound its way through many permutations since arriving in the early '60s. An important custodian of its new directions is vocalist and composer Lola Danza, of Brooklyn.
Danza is a graduate of Berklee College of Music, Boston, and stayed in Boston for a few years after graduating, developing her approach to music before becoming completely "free" over the last three years.
Her latest album, Live Free (Evolver, 2009), is a live recording from a gig at Boston's Ryles Jazz club in 2008.
The instrumentation for the recording is voice (Danza, of course), tenor sax, bass and drums. The effect is inspiring, and the journey the listener is taken on in each of the three tracks is a true adventure.
Danza's voice has a range of four octaves, which she fully uses in each performance. Notes turn into low moans or emotional cries. On the album's first track, the music builds to Danza providing urgent high notes, followed by similarly frantic-sounding drums from drummer Bob Moses. The effect can appear ceremonial, or exploring.
"RaKaLam Bob Moses, he's legendary," notes Danza. "I'm very fortunate that we've played together so much."
The second track sees Danza "playing" (she sees the voice as an instrument, whether soloing or accompanying) a striking, climbing chromatic passage, followed by Moses playing an almost rock-like backbeat pattern.
Dynamic shifts are a strong feature of the music over the entire album, periods of quiet succeeding dramatic action. The saxophonist, Matt Langley, is brilliant on the record, at times recalling the sound of great swing and bebop sax players and at other times evoking modern free players like Ornette Coleman. Every note feels authentic. Langley's interplay with Danza is exciting to listen to. For example, in the third piece where the sax inverts the usual position of a voice (above the horn) by playing a very high note against Danza's low note. Near the end of the piece, their positions are reversed, with Danza high above Langley in a dramatic dissonance; shades of the ending of Charles Ives' second symphony.
The bassist is Wes Brown, and he too has interesting moments of interplay with Langley.
And it is all improvised, free, from start to finish. There is at times a journey-like drama: the mid-point of track three, for example, sees the musicians falling quiet briefly, before the adventure continues. Yet the structure was unplanned.
"That was totally improvised," she says. "There was no structural idea whatsoever. I don't really think in terms of preplanning a composition or form because I think that it can inhibit the player, so for me, I want to allow the players to be completely free to be themselves.
"So the important formula for what I do is choosing the right player. Choosing the players is essential. So I go around, I listen to players, I hear what they're doing and if I like what a player is doing and I feel he would work well with meusually it's an intuitive thing. I look at them, I hear them and I say, 'That's the guy. I have to play with that particular player.' ... and [then] I put these guys together. I start hearing different guys and I say, 'You know what? This guy is going to work great with that guy, and with me.' I can hear what they're doing, and usually these players have really, really, really strong personalities. They really know who they are musically."
How did Danza find the musicians for the recording? The process, as she describes it, shows that the effective composition of the music begins before the actual gig. It begins with the choice of musicians who will be playing with her.
"This is going to really sound funny, but this particular recording, I played with these guys for the very first time. In fact, we had never played with each other except for Bob Moses and me. That night, originally I was supposed to have my bassist that I've worked with the most, John Lockwood, who is the bassist of The Fringe (Lockwood with George Garzone and Bob Gullotti). John played with Freddie Hubbard in his band and with Joe Henderson as well. I've had the pleasure of working with John for six years now.
"So that night was very interesting because John Lockwood couldn't make the gig and I had Moses on the gig, and I was supposed to have Jeff Galindo, this really great trombone player up in Boston that I've played with for the past four years. But he couldn't make the gig, so Jeff recommended Matt ... The other guy (on the gig) was Wes Brown, on bass. And Wes was recommended to me by RaKaLam Bob Moses. Wes played in Leo Smith's band, so it was really a treat to play with him. Such fabulous guys. I left Matt a message and I told him 'Hey, don't be afraid to blow. 'Cause the last thing I want is for a saxophonist or a horn player to be afraid to come in while I'm playing because I'm a singer, because I'm doing something and they don't want to step on my toes.
"So I told him, 'Don't be afraid to blow.' And then I left him this message saying 'You don't need to call me back. We don't need to discuss it. We don't need to talk about it. But know that my voice could be coming at you from underneath, above, sideways, inside of what you're playing. Just play.' So I left that message for him and I talked about the same sort of thing with Wes. ... He has this really awesome Bose equipment, a PA system, and he brought the Bose to the gig for me and I got to sing through that.
"I don't think in terms of 'Well this might sound good here. Let me try this there,'" says Danza about her music. "I don't think in those terms. Basically, I think what's happened is over the years of really practicing, ... my main thing, what I like to do at home is I practice a lot. You know, I've studied with so many people over the years, especially instrumentalists, which have been so important, as well as some really great vocal teachers. And through that process, that journey of really practicing and learning music, learning how to play the piano and really digging it, these things just sort of by osmosis, just sort of automatically come out in the music. Because you are practicing so many other things.
"And from practicing all those things, when you get musicians that are at this caliber, at such a high caliber, like RaKaLam and Matt Langley and Wes Brown, it's so easy. They put something out there and you respond off of what they're doing ... For me, when I'm listening to these players and being inside of the music, there are four individual and equal voices and I'm just speaking to these other players and they're speaking to me and we're responding and not responding off of each other."
She says she doesn't think in terms of changing keys.
"This music, it transcends paper. It's not about that. I just like the different transitions. We're creating together. We're composing together in the moment. No one is thinking about what key to play in. It's another type of playing. It's another type of hearing."
And she doesn't give signals to her band mates.
"The signals that I give are with my voice, because they know how to hear ... There is a very important element of hearing in this type of music. Because I don't deal with pre-planned forms or compositions, it's all about hearing, so it's about hearing and accepting the player as they are. With these guys, I am not trying to tell them, 'Hey, play this for me so that I can hear this and do that.' I don't do that and I don't like that. They come in, they know that I'm hearing. I'm accepting their playing as it is. I'm not trying to hear something or make it into something else. I just allow those guys to play what they love to play and I'm hearing ... I choose these players because they're brilliant and sensitive and they understand music.
"It's about another way of hearing music. It's a different way of listening, so when I'm hearing this music, I just hear the notes, the sounds, and I accept the sounds as they are. Then when you can do that, then you start to hear in a whole different way and it opens up your hearing and you hear behind the note. Because there is a whole concept. Just like when you're speaking to someone, the way you speak to a person, you can hear. You don't even have to know the words they're saying. You can hear from the nuances within their voice. The sudden changes in pitch when they speak. You can hear certain sounds that go beyond verbalization. So you don't have to actually say it. It just comes out. So that's the same thing with this type of playing."
"It's intention or spirit. It's almost like a Zen Buddhism, a Taoist thing," she adds.
- The Voice as an Instrument
- The Road to Avant-Garde