Michelle Marie: Two Countries, One Language

Fernando Rodriguez By

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Michelle Marie is one of the young female guitarists with which to be reckoned with on the jazz scene today. Her original compositions and arrangements create an incredible, impressionistic atmosphere, and when she adds her voice to the mix, they simply add to the ambiance. Combined with her presence and artistic desire, Michelle Marie definitely commands attention.

Marie is a simple girl from New York; her father is American and her mother from the Dominican Republic. She grew up in the Bronx, was tomboyish, loved to ride bikes, play ball and surf; and she specially loved her years growing up as music always playing in the streets, which to her "created a vibe that I'll never forget."

All About Jazz: Who in your own words is Michelle Marie?

Michelle Marie: I am a simple girl from New York. I grew up in The Bronx, and I loved every single moment. I spent a lot time cruising the streets with my bike, sometimes pressing my parents buttons by going too far. I loved the fact that I could play ball every day. I went into a severe shock mode when we moved to Queens because it did not have the vibe that The Bronx had. I have a sincere love and respect for my parents, but I can honestly say a huge part of who I am is really all about my guitar and creating a vibe in music.

I said "simple," because it's always the little things that make me happy. Being close to the ocean is very important to me, it gives me a sense of peace and where I can think without being distracted. I love to surf. Last summer, I took several coaching lessons with a champion big wave surfer from Skudin Surf on Long Beach; I loved it. I am now even more dedicated to understanding the waves better so that I can add maneuvers to get to the next level. I love sports in general, I always have. I exercise six days a week, play racquetball, but that's nothing new; I have been always dedicated to sports. Sometimes on rides back from the beach I still stop at the batting cage and just hit a few balls. I guess it's fair to say I am a person that, once I really love something, it stays forever. I love driving my jeep off road. I have a Long Island beach permit so that I can actually drive on the beach, which is perfect in the summer.

I am a very sensitive person, those close to me know this and how at times it can get in the way of my focused energies, but I am learning to deal with that part of me and learning to be stronger and smarter on what to sweat and what to let go.

It's very important for me to have a good reputation in this business and I take my music very seriously. I only play music I feel and want to play. I can say, 'til this day, that all the projects I have been involved with have been because I wanted to, not because of something I had to do for financial reasons; I just don't have the patience to sit through music that I don't like.

There is a side of me that still acts like a kid, and at times I can be really silly. When all gets too heav,y I can easily switch gears and try to laugh, be silly, and live my life to its fullest.

AAJ: How do you feel about your Dominican heritage?

MM: I am proud of it. I want the best for my mother's country and want to see the island prosper more. It is an island with so much culture, history and products. I wish, in time, to spend more time there. It is very important for me to be connected to my heritage and keep a positive image. I have a weekly jazz brunch at The Hudson River Cafe, a venue in New York City owned by Dominicans, and I love playing there. I have always felt such a welcoming vibe there from day one.

I would love to have a guitar workshop in the Dominican Republic; hopefully soon that can be made a reality. I have attempted to try to learn to play basic bachata on guitar, let´s see if that will make it out of the house, although I can already play the tambora.

Michelle Marie—Michelle MarieAAJ: You are self-taught, how did you start?

MM: Yes, I am self-taught, but not by choice. It was always hard for me to take lessons or it be accepted from teachers that I really wanted to play guitar. The notion that girls can't play guitar was an issue I had to deal with. I really did not understand, the good thing was I just did not care and just kept pushing forward, just 'cause I knew deep inside I wanted to play guitar. The idea of singing was always brought up which basically annoyed me. I already knew I could sing, but I just never focused my attention on it. I asked my dad if he could buy me some books on guitar, and with no questions asked he took me to Sam Ash. I bought them without really knowing what to buy—just what I thought I needed.

I have a crazy story from High School. There was a music showcase, and we were allowed to have bands and audition. So I joined, and had to meet with other the other students. One band needed another guitarist so I came in the room where they practiced. It was all boys, and they threw me out. I must have blocked out a portion of what happened after that, 'cause I just don't remember what I did, but I must have been sitting somewhere in my school and what I remember clearly was the music teacher, Mrs. Clark, approaching me and asking me what happened. She asked me to play the chords to the song "Come Together" and I did right away. I remember her being the funny, strict and crazy music teacher, but she took my hand, and opened the door to where these guys were rehearsing and pushed me in saying, "She can play, if you have anything to say, say it to me ," and shut the door. I remember their faces; I ignored them and just played what I was suppose to play. It wasn't fun at all, but I knew I had to just deal with it or it would have meant I had caved in. Moments like that still happen, believe it or not, and when they occur, the moment I had in High School comes back all so quickly, so it is a very sensitive subject for me still.

I continued to play by ear and played along to recordings, and mimicked what I was listening to. I have to say I spent a lot of time on my own practicing. It was a part of my day and still is to this day. I started writing my own music, and sometimes with lyrics. The only trouble I had was that I could not write the music down, so I had to keep it all in my head. 'Til this day I depend on that part of my brain when I am inspired and hear the music in my head it just stays. Lately my music has been a little more complicated, so it´s a little harder, but I remember most of it, thankfully.

When I traveled with my mom´s band right out of High School was really where I got my real training. I think going to College for music has its good points, but learning on-the-spot in real world situations is truly where you learn faster. I met amazing musicians and is how I really learned. I always had so many questions, like "How do you do that?" I could only imagine how annoying I must have been. I still kind of do that still, when I hear something I like, I totally act on it and ask, "What [is it] and how do you do that"

I really wanted to go to the Berklee College of Music. I just never applied, though I bought a lot of their workbooks to train my ears and is how I learned to sight-sing. I owe a lot of my musical understanding to a musician from Japan, Shimpei Shiratori, and a talented saxophonist from Switzerland, George Robert. They both went to Berklee and taught me so much. It was through them that I learned to read music, dictate and, most of all, what I needed was to be able to write down my songs. What was surprising was I had a lot of odd-meter songs, and I would be asked "Ok Michelle did you know that this song is in seven and then you change meter to five?" I remember those days so clearly, my answer back was, "What does seven meter time mean?" I felt so stupid, 'cause I did not know what he meant and he was confused at how this happenned, but the good thing is that now I can understand it all better. It's not my forté, but I can at least write out a template for a chart.

AAJ: What genres do you prefer to perform?

MM: I love playing jazz, and classical guitar. Lately I have been listening to what I grew up on—R&B and rock. There is something about what your roots are and what first connected you to music. In my house, growing up, there was a lot of music except jazz. I found jazz on my own; I think when I did my parents were happy cause I would blast crazy rock stuff that the house would make the house shake.

AAJ: Who were your influences? What do you like to play?

MM: My first influence was and still is Eddie Van Halen. I still freeze when I hear him play. I found Pat Metheny by chance on a bike ride in the park and that's how jazz was brought into my life. I respect players such as Paul Gilbert, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, George Benson, Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett.

I love Wayne Shorter's compositions and have added my own arrangement to some of them. I love R&B artists songs as well, for example Jill Scott, and Erika Badu are [artists whose] songs I love to play on guitar. I like to add compositions from other artists 'cause I simply love what they are doing, and I want to feel their music through my own hands in my own way.

AAJ: Latin influences in jazz today: your thoughts?

MM: Latin jazz remains very strong, and the element of adding Latin/African rhythms is a strong tool to use in jazz. I feel that at this moment jazz is in a state of change. I am not sure what is going to happen, but artists like [pianist] Danilo Pérez are important speakers about using the influences of Latin American culture and connecting it with jazz. The great thing in jazz is that it is left up to the most important element, which is improvisation. It is left up to the composer to express something meaningful with the music, and that is what attracted me to jazz. The openness and wide array of options you can use over a progression is endless; making it sound melodic is my route and goal.
About Michelle Marie
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