Michele Rosewoman: Wearing Her Passion With The In Side Out

Tomas Pena By

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Michele RosewomanFrom Oakland CA, pianist/composer/educator Michele Rosewoman began playing piano at age six. Prior to moving to New York and while still in her late teens she began playing percussion and studied Cuban/Haitian folkloric idioms. In New York Rosewoman formed new ensembles, while nurturing associations with notable New York-based artists such as Julius Hemphill, Carlos Ward, Rufus Reid, Reggie Workman, Freddie Waits, James Spaulding and Billy Hart. In the Latin music genre, Rosewoman has performed with Cuban master drummer/vocalist Orlando "Puntilla" Rios, Celia Cruz, Paquito D' Rivera, Nicky Marrero, Daniel Ponce and "Chocolate" Armenteros among others.

In 1983 she received both a National Endowment for the Arts grant for the formation of the pioneering New Yor-Uba—a fourteen-piece ensemble integrating Cuban folkloric music with cutting-edge jazz—and the ASCAP/Meet the Composer Commission, resulting in a work performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra plus quintet of improvisers.

Formed in 1986, her Quintessence ensemble debuted at the Cooper Union Great Hall in New York, followed by tours in the US and abroad and four recordings on Enja Records. Rosewoman and Quintessence were the 2002-2003 recipients of the Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Jazz Ensemble Project Grant for the Creation and Presentation of New Works and 2005 recipients of the first Chamber Music America Encore Grant. In addition to five Quintessence recordings and a quartet release on Soul Note Records, Rosewoman has two trio recordings—Occasion To Rise (Evidence, 1993) was voted one of the year's best recordings by six critics' polls, and the critically acclaimed Spirit (Blue Note, 1996) was recorded live at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Rosewoman has presented her various ensembles at major jazz festivals, concert halls and clubs throughout the US, Canada and Europe. She has composed and arranged music for contexts ranging from trio to forty-piece orchestras. As educator, current and former positions include the New School University and New York University. She teaches privately and has conducted workshops and clinics in colleges and universities throughout the US.

AAJ: Congratulations on a fine recording. It's been six years since you released Guardians of the Light (Enja, 2000). What have you been doing since then? .

MR: Evolving! [laughter]. With Guardians of the Light, as much as I like the recording and love the live energy, I reached the point where I felt like I was playing my greatest hits. It was mostly live versions of previously recorded material, with a few new compositions, and I had fallen into a pattern of performing my "easier" music because it was easier to find musicians that could play it.

I was excited by what came out when I started writing again. The music was very challenging, among other things, I was further exploring of the mysteries of the "cracks" of time, the spaces between the spaces between the beats. I held some sessions to check out some new musicians, which led me to a new configuration. We did a European tour which helped the music to formulate and settle, and then we performed at various locations in New York City. Outside of my own ensembles, I did a series of duo concerts with [saxophonist] Greg Osby. and was working with [trombonist] Robin Eubanks and his electric trio EB3, playing both keyboard and keyboard bass; a challenging setting, and I like the challenge. By the way, most people are not aware of the fact that I enjoy being a side person[laughter]. I just learn the material, practice it and perform my best.

AAJ: Minus the headaches?

MR: Exactly. Also, I really do appreciate opportunities to bring my best to other people's music, as so many musicians have done for me.

My activities of the past few years have greatly contributed to my further development as a pianist and composer, and also as an educator. I stay busy in that capacity as well.

AAJ: There seems to be some confusion as to when The In Side Out (Advance Dance Disks, 2006) was recorded.

MR: That's due to an omission in the CD text. It was recorded in late 2004. Which brings me to more of what has been occupying my time over the last few years.

As you know, an independent [self-produced] recording is an expensive venture. My engineer suggested that I purchase the home version of ProTools and learn how to edit on my own recording sessions, which I did. So the year 2005 headed me into many aspects of self-production and 2006 has brought them to fruition. The knowledge and skills gained in this process will prove invaluable. Having always had a record company association in the past, this was not something I had intended to do, but the more we inform ourselves and the more skills we have, the better position we are in.

AAJ: Tell me about your creative process. Is there a modus operandi for composing a tune?

MR: They come to me in different ways. In the case of "With You in Mind" I felt like writing something that acknowledged Duke [Ellington]. I have always been touched and inspired by his music. So I made a conscious effort to keep the feeling of the chromatic, falling melody of Duke's "Prelude to a Kiss" in mind. The reference is extremely indirect, as intended. My choice of chords is in Duke-like tradition, with the raised fourths and flatted ninths—which could be like Monk, but in this case, is a ballad and more like Duke. In the process, I also fell onto a harmonic idea, a minor 2nd texture. Something that Duke might have done, and it led to the overall composition.

This element all by itself sounds very dissonant [demonstrates on the piano], but in this context [plays] it feels consonant. I like finding other ways to do things because sometimes it seems like everything has been done—but for sure, certain things have been done to death! [laughter].

But there are always new and interesting ways to do things, even from within the tradition. [Cuban percussionist] Pancho Quinto, God bless him, once told me that he had an idea to create a set of music using three okonkolos [the smallest of the bata drums]. He was as rooted in the tradition as anyone could be, but h was open and always jugando [playing around].

AAJ: I read something by scholar, Cornel West, where he said, "To be human at its highest level is to be at play.

MR: That's a beautiful saying. Special things come from this approach. My mentor, pianist/organist Ed Kelly musically expressed a lot of humor.

He loved Monk and Duke and Earl "Fatha" Hines. I think that's the nature of these heavy traditions. They are playful with the use of rhythmic syncopation and harmonic/melodic dissonance, but in a dead serious way. Someone unfamiliar with the approach might think that an element is "off," or arbitrary, but with mastery, where something "lays" is not accidental. It has a precise pocket, effect and a purpose.

AAJ: I was surprised to learn that Quintessence has been in existence for twenty years. What are your thoughts when you reflect on the group's longevity?

MR: Several things come to mind; the organic progression of the personnel and the great musicians who have played with the group throughout its history, the development of an ensemble sound through the use of unique forms and improvisational possibilities, and the development of a rhythm section concept, which is very important to me and has a lot to do with the sound that we have as an ensemble. I work on this as much or more than I work on other aspects of our sound. Quintessence has always been a great context for me to develop in every way.

AAJ: And obviously a showcase for your music.

MR: And a motivation for continuously finding appropriate players.

Today, there are more musicians that can play in the vernacular with the right balance of skills and a wide spectrum of abilities—you can find that in one player more easily now.

AAJ: Why is that?

MR: I don't know, maybe the global thing that has happened to the music. Or maybe it's the growth of the music. Young players today are taking in the tradition as well as other influences—Latin, odd meters, playing conceptually as well as traditionally.

AAJ: Tell me about the new Quintessence and what prompted you to choose these particular musicians to interpret your music.

MR: I have been heading towards using guitar and tenor for years, having liked the texture of the guitar with a tenor when I did it before. It's quite different from the texture of two saxophones, which was our sound all these years. Besides playing lines and parts with the tenor, the guitar can be used as a rhythm instrument to help set up grooves, as well as to add colors and effects. The presence of the guitar encouraged me to play more groove stuff and more electric keyboard. Adding a trombone motivated me to write new material for three voices. Having that third voice allows me to achieve more layers, rhythmically and harmonically.

A further evolution in our sound has to do with the musical structures that are behind what seems to be free and dissonant. It is actually our roots in traditions combined with these structures that are giving us that freedom. On my early recordings we'd just play heads and then go [improvise]. Now I often use an underlying structure beneath the solo sections that we can obscure because we are so comfortable with it. Put another way, we understand the nuances so well that we are able to obscure the structure.

The idea of adding mystery to the music through obscuring things has always appealed to me. It also seems fundamental to the very nature of jazz, as well as to the deep rhythmic traditions of Cuba. The idea is to know something so well that you don't have to state it.

AAJ: What does each musician bring to the table?

MR: Mark Shim has been my favorite tenor player for a long time. I admire his total lack of cliché, his sound and his collaborative nature. He knows my music better than anyone else in the ensemble and the new members get a lot from him in terms of understanding concepts. Mark is a real anchor.

[Saxophonist] Miguel [Zenón] has been playing off-and-on with the group. Conceptually, we are thinking about some of the same things. And he has a unique phrasing and energy. Miguel is also a wonderful person. Along the way, Mark encouraged me to consider musicians that I may not have thought of. He's worked with [David] Fuczyinski in the past. Fuze is an all-around guitarist. He is inside the instrument and very unique.

[Trombonist] Josh [Roseman] has a beautiful sound. I first worked with Josh with my New Yor-Uba ensemble and I liked the way he came in on the horn section [four horns] in terms of blend. I also liked the way he took written elements and used them as a platform for his ideas, without being confined by them. Even though I use a lot of written elements, I encourage players to take liberties with them. And it really works when they learn the material so well that the liberties they take are appropriate and rooted in the original intention. I have this in mind when I write.

Pedrito [Martinez] is a real musician, beyond being a great percussionist. He takes in the musical setting that he is a part of. He's also very personable and professional. There are only a few conga players that I have called for Quintessence. The music calls for a percussionist that knows the folklore but is not confined by it, one who will allow musical concepts and ideas to stimulate what they play. [Eddie Bobè and Eddie Rodriguez are two other percussionists] who have played with the group. I love Pedro's contribution to the two tracks.

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