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Roxy Coss: Standing Out

Paul Rauch By

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I think jazz is so important. The whole idea of it is the best of what our culture could represent. It’s the best of democracy, and America, and diversity, everybody having a voice. —Roxy Coss
All About Jazz: You have recently released a new CD, Chasing the Unicorn (Posi-Tone, 2017), just a year after the release of Restless Idealism (Origin, 2016). Albums are like a snapshot of a timeframe, how has that musical image changed in a year?

Roxy Coss: More back story is it was recorded more than a year apart, even though they were released a year apart, so there was actually more time between recordings, almost two years. When I worked with Jeremy Pelt, he taught me a lot about the industry. His release schedule is every year, and I saw that really work for him, so that's my goal right now, to continue now that I have the momentum going. From my experience, I've seen how important it is to keep getting contact out there, regardless of what it is. The more stuff you put out there, the more chances of someone hearing you.

What changed is I started a working band. Restless Idealism was more people I was playing with a lot at Smoke for years, that being Chris Pattishall and Alex Wintz. We didn't really have a consistent bassist and drummer for that band. I had been on the road with Jeremy, and with Willie Jones. Willie was like a hero for me when I moved to New York. Dezron Douglas was on that tour as well. I had played with Willie and Dezron together, so I wanted them on the record. That was that record, we never played anywhere together as a band, ever.

Once I recorded that, I realized I wanted more of a consistent band, to be able to work on stuff to get a sound. Every time I performed, I was rehearsing a new set of band members, so you can only get so deep with the music. As good as they are, if you want to try out different things compositionally, it's hard when you're teaching the music each time to new people.

I got a new residency in 2016 at Club Bonafide. For that, I tried to commit to a band lineup, trying out a bunch of different drummers and different bass players. This is the band I ended up with for Chasing the Unicorn. We played at Newport together, we recorded together, and did a bunch of gigs in the fall. So I felt like for the first time, I had a band. They were all younger musicians, maybe a little less known. For me, musically, it allowed me more freedom to try things out. I was trying things out in a different way.

AAJ: You mentioned having different drummers and bass players. When soloing, isn't the bass and percussion ultimately what you're listening to?

RC: Yes. It's also about reading. I like to do interesting things, so I need them to be able to read quickly and accurately what I'm writing. I write in a lot of different styles. I need the drummer, and the bassist as well to understand my influences pretty well, which are very diverse. Jimmy McBride on drums is the most fluent reader, and is very well versed.

AAJ: And very young as well.

RC: Yes. Also what is great with Jimmy, I feel like he's growing with me. Every time we play, he brings something new, more to it, more energy, he's growing into himself feeling more comfortable to really try things in the band, which is cool.

AAJ: Your quintet set up has guitar replacing trumpet on your past two records. What inspired this particular lineup?

RC: I had a quintet with trumpet for a couple years. On my first self released record Kate Miller was playing trumpet. When I was younger, we had a residency at a restaurant in my neighborhood, we would play every Monday. So I had that sound when I started writing. When I had the Smoke residency, I hadn't played my music in awhile, as I had been touring with Jeremy Pelt. At first, I was just doing quartet standards for a long time. Then I thought, 'Why don't I use this to try to come up with a concept.'

At the time, Kate had moved out of town, and there weren't any young trumpet players that I was playing with. So I thought to myself that if I'm not using trumpet, what do I want to do? I was really listening to a lot of Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Mark Turner stuff at that time, and I thought that could be cool. I was playing a lot of gigs with Alex Wintz, with a different band leader, so we were friends, and I really liked his playing. I thought. 'Why don't I just try this and see what happens?' I really liked the freedom it gave me to either double the melody, counter melodies, or textural, two chordal instruments playing at once. There's more flexibility there.

Another thing about the trumpet. When you have a trumpet-tenor front line, it really implies a certain thing. It has a nostalgia to it, which is great. But I think that the guitar created more freedom for me in terms of what people are going to attach and associate with the sound.

AAJ: So you're saying that with a trumpet-tenor front line, people are going to look at the trumpet player as the leader?

RC: That's another part of it. Just that sound is more of a classic, it's more sentimental for people. It's reminiscent of a time past, and I wanted to think of the future, what is the future sound, where the music is going. I'm so influenced by that sound, I didn't want it to box me in to stay there. I wanted to see where I can go. The personality thing too, most trumpet players are very dominant personalities. To find a trumpet player who isn't going to try to lead my band would be a challenge (laughter).

AAJ: Talk about your current projects you're working on, whether on stage, or in the studio.

RC: I just recorded my next album, another one with Posi-Tone with the same band, except the piano player is Miki Yamanaka. Mostly my originals, so that will come out in early 2018. That's the main thing.

I just played with Rufus Reid's Big Band last weekend, that's a new project for him. I met Rufus in 2011, at the Ravinia Program. He was my ensemble coach , so he mentored me there. Last year I ran into him again, I was doing a big band, The New York Jazzharmonic. They had commissioned him to write a piece for the big band, and so he heard me play that piece. He was putting this thing together for Dizzy's, so that was incredible.

AAJ: You come from a very creative family, including your mother, the prominent artist, Mary Coss. Talk about these roots, and how they impacted your path to jazz, and the saxophone.

RC: Both of my parents are actually artists, they both have masters in fine arts degrees, so they met through that world. The family culture on both sides of my family is very creative and arts based. My Dad's family is very musical, my Dad is one of six. My grandmother sang and played piano and organ in church, she always took credit for my musical career. She used to watch me when I was a baby, and got me doing pots and pans and all that stuff. When I was in kindergarten we had music class, I went to Graham Hill Elementary. Cherrie Adams was my music teacher, we had keyboards, and she could tune into each kid. She went to my parents and said 'Roxy is really playing some interesting stuff on piano, maybe you should consider getting her some private lessons.'

My parents signed me up with a piano teacher in town, Nan Beth Walton. She teaches the Pace Method, which is very cool. It's very theory based, and ear training based, composition based. We would do two lessons a week, one was a partner lesson, and one was a group lesson. We did all these games, learning key signatures, music theory, ear training exercises, transcribing. We had to enter composition contests, so we had to learn how to write down our compositions. She would help us use the music notation software.

Just to add about my family, I think the stars aligned in that I had a musical family background, an artistic background, amazing programs, and a feminist family. When I was fifteen I went to Essentially Ellington for the first time, went to New York, fell in love, and was the first time that I thought that I'm going to do this professionally. When I told my Dad, he told me that he had known for a long time. My parents would not limit me in something that I was clearly passionate about, and could be extremely successful at. So he saw it at a young age, and my parents gave me opportunities. They sent me to Centrum, to Stanford, to the UW workshop, got me private lessons
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