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Mara Rosenbloom, Darius Jones, Brian Drye: Brooklyn Artist Snapshot

Seton Hawkins By

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To even the casual observer, Brooklyn has incubated an extraordinary new generation of talented jazz artists. While the Borough is certainly renowned for a vibrant jazz community, and indeed has been since the mid-twentieth century, this latest cohort of artists is nevertheless worthy of a particular spotlight, not only for being a gathering of tremendous performers and composers, but also in many cases for emerging as entrepreneurs who have successfully challenged the difficult economics of jazz with creative solutions.

To help shed some light on Brooklyn's creative community, three exceptional Brooklyn- based artists—pianist Mara Rosenbloom, saxophonist Darius Jones, and trombonist Brian Drye—sat down to chat about their individual projects, their mentors and collaborators, and their deeply felt Borough pride.

All About jazz: Can you talk about your musical upbringing, and your respective decisions to relocate to Brooklyn?

Brian Drye: I moved to New York 15 years ago, and right away was constantly going to Brooklyn to play music, so it really was a no-brainer to move there. There were so many musicians here that I wanted to play with, so it just made sense to be in Brooklyn, rather than Manhattan.

Originally, I'm from Rhode Island, and my dad's a jazz saxophonist who taught at the Berklee College of Music. I had a lot of jazz in my upbringing and I went to the University of Miami to follow that passion, which in turn led me pretty much directly to New York. I realized that the music I wanted to play was in New York and I just fell in love with the city and knew I needed to stay here. I then slowly immigrated to Brooklyn, which led to all the other work I do here, like IBeam [a multi-arts performance, rehearsal, and education space in Brooklyn founded by Drye in 2008] and my teaching work.

Darius Jones: I grew up in Virginia, and went to college in Richmond. A lot of my friends moved to New York—not necessarily to Brooklyn—and I was listening to the music that was coming out of the city. What happened to me was that I began to take a few lessons from guys who lived in Brooklyn, like Andrew D'Angelo and Bill McHenry, and I remember the first time I took a lesson with Bill. It was the first time I took the subway to Brooklyn and when I got off the subway I was like "Oh, I can do this! I can live here." And again, a lot of the people I really liked—Steve Coleman, Jim Black, Chris Speed—all lived in Brooklyn. There are a bunch of cats here, even Branford Marsalis lived here for a while, so for me it was totally musical and it was affordable, as least when I first moved here!

Mara Rosenbloom: I'm originally from Madison, Wisconsin, and I came to NYU for college. That was a semi-spontaneous decision: I didn't know too much about New York at the time, though I had heard some of the new music coming out of the city. My dad was a big jazz fan and brought back some of the music he heard when he'd visit here.

So I knew the music was here, and when I arrived and started seeing bands, I thought, "Oh wow, this is it!" I started hearing things that I had never experienced in music before. Initially, I was in Manhattan for two years, and was unsure if it was the place for me, given the cost and the stressful, fast-paced feeling. So I moved to Brooklyn, first and foremost, because it was more affordable. In fact, I had a similar experience to Darius, as when I got off the train I realized that this was a place I could stay in for a while.

To me, Brooklyn feels almost like an in-between place of Manhattan and where I grew up. It's a little quieter, a little more livable.

AAJ: Can you talk about some of your mentors in music as you were developing your styles?

DJ: It's hard in this music for these mentorships to not occur, given the nature of this music and how it was passed down from musician to musician. For me, my purpose in moving to New York and ultimately Brooklyn was really about getting better and becoming a better artist. I don't even look at it as "career"; it's more of a lifestyle for me. I think when I was making the decision to come to New York, it was solely to have the experiences of sitting right in front of artists like David S. Ware and being able to speak with him and learn from him. Same thing with Oliver Lake, those opportunities to chat with these artists were what I came to New York to get. Whether they were brief or lengthy, it didn't matter, and I feel very fortunate to have met and even played with these artists that I admire so much.

The same is true with Bill and Andrew. Andrew even brought me to New York to perform, twice! One time was this duo I had with Marty McCavitt to play for a party Andrew was putting on, and another time Andrew had Marty and me play with him and Jim Black. And this was before I even moved to New York, so Andrew was so instrumental in my being able to come to New York. He himself came down to Richmond, one time with Tyft and another time solo.

I think that's one of the beautiful things about being here and being a part of this community of musicians. We have some sort of strange understanding that we're all in this to figure things out, and whatever you can show me, I'll be grateful for it.

MR: Something that I've come to realize for myself, particularly in the past two years, is how important the community is. That's something that I've really begun to feel strongly in Brooklyn. I've been making an effort to reach out to both young musicians and to elders and mentors, and to connect what I do to the history of the music and its lineage.

Connie Crothers and Cooper-Moore are both musicians I would have never met if I wasn't here, and they've been hugely important to me. Angelica Sanchez and Gil Goldstein—who I studied with in school and now lives just a couple blocks from me—were also mentors. They were so willing to share what they had figured out and they helped me to see that we're all a part of this, trying to grow and build.

BD: I didn't necessarily come here to study with anybody specifically, and I didn't have people here that I was moving to play with. Honestly, I didn't have a concept of that, and now I wish I did, after hearing people speak about their heroes! I did do it by accident though, because just like Darius said, I was committed to getting better, and this is the place where you can do that. You either get better, or you won't go forward. Here, it helps because you're constantly around other artists who want to get better too, and for me, it was mostly about playing with these artists and learning from one another. I learned so much in sessions with people, just playing all the time, often not even at the gigs. In fact, I was here in New York for five years before I even had a serious gig here!

Needless to say, it was a slow process: I was 22 when I moved here, and it was a while before I was able to get a gig playing creative music, which is what I'm drawn to. It's the music I love, but if I didn't have the community of musicians with me who love and perform it too, I'd struggle to do it and I wouldn't have been able to take it as far as I have now. And that's the inspiring thing about Brooklyn: just walking down the street I can run into so many great artists and just grab a coffee with them and learn what they're up to.

MR: I completely agree about the idea of being around these artists to get better. But also I think there's a further element, an almost spiritual piece. It really feels like we're on a path through this music that goes beyond simply sounding good. There's an intangible feeling that I began to notice when I heard live music here, and I've continued to feel that.

AAJ: All of you have referenced this sense of community and collaboration within the creative community here. Would you consider there to be a self-identified "Brooklyn Scene" or school of thought? If so, is there more than one? If not, is this more of an informal situation defined by the proximity?

BD: I don't subscribe to the idea that there is one scene; rather, I think there are millions of scenes. There's a creative energy to the music, for sure, but I think the word "scene" gets tossed around in a strange way. For instance, Darius and I, we don't play too much together, right?

DJ: No, no.

BD: But at the same time, we kind of have, too, right?

DJ: [Laughs] Yeah!

BD: We talk about music all the time, talk about what we're up to, and we run into each other all the time. We play with a lot of the same people, so even if we haven't played as much together, we're still part of the same community through these connections. That certainly influences the music, but what's being done is too broad to really pigeonhole. We have admiration for people who are doing interesting work, and there's a mutual respect here that might be confused with a "scene."

When I moved here, there was the "Knitting Factory Scene," and I guess that was sort of accurate, except even there the music was so broad. A scene to me feels like one specific type of art, and to me what's happening today is too creative for that. Thinking about Darius' music, I'd say he's tapping into multiple "scenes" in his music.

DJ: Yeah, the idea of scene is passé. First of all, there are so many musicians in New York, and a lot of times when these questions are asked, I think it suggests that people don't have the perspective to realize how large the music landscape is. There are still many people I'd love to play with and who'd like to play with me, and we haven't done so yet simply because one can't do everything. That's just how large it is.

So I don't think about it as a scene. When I was first figuring out what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to be a so-called Downtown Musician, though that doesn't really exist anymore. And the reason I wanted to be that was because I wanted to play good music, something creative and collaborative. That intrigued me and that was an attractive possibility.

Moving here, it was very open. You can pick something up, try it for a while, put it back down, then walk over here and try a bit of this, and so on. You do it because you're just trying to get better and ultimately figure out what it is that you're trying to do inside your head. What happens sometimes is that a lot of the musicians, due to proximity, end up hanging out together. IBeam is a good example: there's one space, and so we all come in and hear one another's stuff and learn. And I think that's awesome, and very indicative of how New York is. I remember when I did a show with Andrew D'Angelo, we spent the night at his place then came back to the space so he could open it up for Steve Coleman to rehearse. I just stayed there and listened to Steve rehearse. That's music to me; that's how I look to being a musician and being about the music.

MR: I agree with Brian and Darius. I think it's informal, and based on proximity and mutual respect. There's just so much happening and while so many groups of people know each other and play together, the artists will also try new approaches and music. You continue to figure your own work out even as you get inspired by what's happening around you.

Something I love about here is how many different things happen at any given time. If I go left down my street, I'll hear one type of music; if I go right it'll be something completely different. At this point, I'm in a ten or fifteen-block radius of more venues than I can even count. So yes, there's something about "scene" that implies a singular style, which isn't accurate.

AAJ: Given the diversity of style in the creative music scene, do you consider your work to be jazz? Are you thinking along those lines in terms of stylistic considerations?

BD: I would say it's definitely jazz, most of what I do. It's still applicable, even though the term might get flack. I've come back to the realization that we're still improvising, we're still searching, and we're still reaching for something new, and that's what jazz has always done. The music might also fall into other categories at points—there are certainly those elements of say classical music or world music—but I think jazz contains those elements too, even from the beginning. Right from Scott Joplin, there's classical influence and there's jazz influence. So for my purposes, I call what I do jazz, even if it doesn't fall cleanly into what most people might call jazz.

MR: I'd call my music jazz, too, and I have a belief in where that's coming from and a connection to it. It's certainly hard to use that word, because what jazz is presently is something so vast. In the same way, what some might be tempted to call The Brooklyn jazz scene is hardly one scene at all. There are so many styles and influences, and just like Brian said, jazz has always had many influences feeding into it. But my music is often improvised, it's searching, and it's honest.

DJ: jazz...I think I do play jazz, though I really think I just play Good Music, and sometimes it's called jazz. I feel that because it has elements of improvisation; however, I've also played other styles that have that, too, things like gospel music and R&B. For me, I just try not to play bad music.

MR: I'd add that it's not something I expressly think about when I write music. When I'm writing or playing, I'm not thinking directly about style, and it's not something that dictates what I do. The music I make is simply the music that I hear and create. In my opinion, it happens fit under the large umbrella of jazz, but I generally am not thinking in those terms.

BD: You know, it's actually something I think about a lot. I really love jazz, in the context of what we'd call straight-headmaster jazz. I really love it. I felt this backlash against jazz or against calling it jazz, and I realized as I got older that I really loved the music and felt ok to say it. Because of that, I felt free to write music, expressly say "this piece is jazz," and be ok with it without worrying about whether the music I made before was jazz.

I do believe that there's a concept of what jazz sounds like that is accepted around the world. And I think it's ok to be sensitive and understanding towards that—I'm much more comfortable these days writing music that falls into that category. Darius mentioned many artists that were also my heroes—guys like Tim Berne and Chris Speed—and I found out that they really love jazz too! I thought, "Oh wow, they listen to Charlie Parker, too? So do I!" So I embraced it and felt ok saying that certain tunes I wrote fell into a "jazz style," and others fell into something else. But I think all of it still fits into some sense of jazz: it still has improvisation and is coming from the spirit of jazz. These labels are there, and for me it's been helpful to accept them to a degree, as long as what I'm creating is still good music. If we want to call it jazz, and it helps us understand what we're doing, great.



AAJ: All of you touched on community, collaboration, and respective orbits of collaboration. Some of them include Mara and Darius' work together on Mara's album, Brian and Kirk Knuffke's collaboration, and Darius' duo work with Matthew Shipp. Can you talk about some of these projects?

MR: The quartet I lead, which features Darius, Sean Conly, and Nick Anderson, is one I've had for quite a few years. Our most recent record, Songs from the Ground (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2013), came out this past April. It's all my original compositions, and each is really an attempt to connect to my roots—to really explore personally and in sound the most vital parts of myself. It's about reaching inside myself for something so strong, as an improviser, I won't be afraid to let go of everything else. For me, on the record, I hear those connections taking root; in the group's recent live performances, I feel more of the letting go. At this point the group has had a few years to stretch through these tunes, so I think we've all developed a kind of intimacy with the music that allows each of us to be ourselves inside of it (which is always what I hope for). Given that, the tunes become something we break open and recreate together each time we play. Everyone in the group really brings something personal.

I've also been exploring the tunes, along with some new ones in a piano trio context with Sean Conly and, most recently, Chad Taylor on drums. They are both really amazing improvisers, and play so well together in general. What they add to the music is so unique and personal; at the same time, they both allow the music to be open in a way that I'm really learning from. These shows have really held a sense of discovery for me each time.

DJ: The collaboration with Matt Shipp was was one of those dream moments. We've done more gigs since our first record, Cosmic Lieder (AUM Fidelity, 2011), and we're going to release some live stuff. I feel so connected to the language we're bringing forth in that duo. It's so beautiful, and while it's improvised, it sounds compositional. In some ways, playing with Matt has made me realize how the improviser is the greatest composer. It's all so connected, and doing that project with Matt has made me go deeper and made me want to become more of an improviser who can literally compose and weave these themes into music spontaneously. I really love that feeling.

Currently, what I've been working on is a complete compositional work, and I've been working with four vocalists—Sarah Dyson, Amirtha Kidambi, Jean Carla Rodea, and Kristin Slipp—in a group called E/C-Unit. I'm composing the music and I've been getting so much out of the experience. We've been rehearsing at IBeam, so I don't know if Brian's heard any tidbits out of it...

BD: I have!

DJ: This project will definitely be my next album, and it's something I really want people to check out. I'm learning a lot from this. My foundation is from the voice having grown up in the church, and that really influenced my approach to vocal manipulation and generating sounds. So working with these vocalists from many musical traditions is helping me get even closer and closer to what it is I'm hearing inside my head. It's also helped my relationship with the horn, in finding a balance between voice and instrument. So that's really been my focus lately, working very directly with the voice.

BD: My duo with Kirk grew out of my playing in his quartet, and he also plays in my group, Bizingas. We're actually about to make a new record for Bizingas, of a lot of older, song-oriented pieces that go beyond the standard head-solo-head format. I'm trying to push myself to go further into arrangements instead of only opening up a tune for blowing. We're going to put a few more restrictions on ourselves to make it more of a production. With Kirk, we have a great connection musically and complement each other well, and we enjoy playing together. Additionally, given the nature of my being a trombone player, I play a lot of other types of music: world music, Brazilian music, and lately I've gotten into gospel trombone music. Darius brings up a good point with his vocal project, and that's a great example of the types of things that my friends and colleagues are doing, that are pushing out and trying new things. My friend Jacob Garchik is working in gospel trombone music and he put a group together to perform that music. That's been fascinating for me, and I'm letting that come into the music I'm writing myself. I'm also in a chamber music group called the The Four Bags, and we're currently working on a project of all waltzes, which I'm excited about.

I feel like I'm going in the direction of more compositional music, and I'm thinking about the entertainment value of the music, for both the audience and for myself. I'm working hard to create music I'd like to hear again.


Selected Discography

Mara Rosenbloom Quartet, Songs from the Ground (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2013)
Darius Jones & Matthew Shipp, Cosmic Lieder (AUM Fidelity, 2011)
Bizingas, Bizingas (NCM EAST, 2010)

Photo Credits

Page 1 (Darius Jones): Peter Gannushkin

Page 2 (Mara Rosenbloom): Marc Weisman

Page 4 (Brian Dye): Peter Gannushkin
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