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Roxy Coss: Standing Out

Paul Rauch By

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AAJ: You are a composer and improviser. What to you is the value artistically of the two, and how they intertwine conceptually for you when you write?

RC: When I write, I usually sit at the piano, and start with a small seed of an idea. It might actually be something I'm hearing, or I might have a conception I'm trying to get out. I might be thinking that I want to write something where I'm playing a melody with the bass, I might be thinking about a certain time signature or tonality. It sort of writes itself. I try to get out of my own way and let it come out. It's like a puzzle or a story. Once I play the first idea, I think of what has to come next, and I wait for that. Once that starts to take shape in a real song, the form dictates what you're saying. Some things, I'll write the chords, and then it needs a melody. Some things I'll write thinking it's just a blowing section. Certain things demand compositional structure. Sometimes I'll write something thinking it's the tune, and it ends up being the introduction. Sometimes I'll even get rid of the introduction, but it led me to the tune.

AAJ: Your work is very original, yet rooted deeply in the masters that have preceded you. What has the path entailed to find your original voice, after years of learning from, and emulating your mentors?

RC: On the one hand, I think that you are, no matter how hard you try, going to sound like yourself. The deeper you go, the more you sound like yourself. I've had a very strong idea of what I want to sound like, ever since I picked up the horn. It's just been a matter of making it happen. I know that sounds weird. I almost feel like everyone else is finally hearing what I've been hearing the whole time. When I was twelve, I heard myself as I sound now. To try to translate that to other people has been a life journey that I've been working on, that I'm sure will continue until I die.

I tell my students that the more you transcribe and listen to other people, you can actually begin to pick out the individual factors, the tone, the articulation, the style, the time feel, the equipment, or whatever. Even the compositional sounds that you're using. So the more you practice, the more you study and listen, the easier it will be to get to your sound. You have tools to choose from. If I transcribed and learned how to sound like Rich Perry, and I hear that sound in the middle of a song, I can access that tool and speak it. It's like vocabulary words. the more vocabulary you have, the more clearly you express yourself.

AAJ: Live performance is an interaction between performer and listener, listening being an active, rather than passive act. How do you see the relationship between the musician and listener on a given evening, and how might it impact your performance?

RC: I think that one goal and challenge for me as a performer is to actually have it influence me less. When I was twelve, I played in front of thousands of people at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. When you have that as a starting point, and you end up in a club in Manhattan with three people in the audience, I might think, 'What have I done?' You have to not let it get to you because if you did, I think you would quit. It's a constant challenge to not care what people think. I might have a performance and think the audience was not into my music, and have people come up to me and tell me it was incredible. Touring has taught me there are different cultures. You might play somewhere where people are cheering loudly, where somewhere else they may be silent. They just don't know jazz culture. You just have to put out that you don't care what anybody thinks, that you're the best. This was a big theme for me with Restless Idealism, going between the ego of being your best so you can get to your concept and get it out, versus thinking you suck and have to go back and work on things. That being said, you can't help feeling more energy when there is an audience that you feel is right with you.

For me the best example of my everyday life is Small's. The Small's audience is very ahead. It's always packed, they're interested, that's why they're there. They have a certain understanding of jazz. They have focus. Jazz is a music you have to be actively listening to, when you have an audience that is actively listening, it gives you more adrenaline, and more willingness to take risks. This can lead to better performances.

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