By Filipe Freitas
Name: Jamie Baum
Style: contemporary jazz
Album Highlights: Solace (Sunnyside, 2008), InThis Life (Sunnyside, 2013), Bridges (Sunnyside, 2018)
Where does your music fall genre-wise? There is something in your music that completely falls out of the mainstream, but the tradition is still there.
It doesn’t fall in categories. I’ve frequently found that the ‘free’ musicians tend to think my music is straight-ahead because I favor melody and harmony, and the ‘straight-ahead’ people think my music is out because I have a lot of different influences in it. I think my music falls in between, which makes it challenging. It seems that before we had the scenes, I mean, there was the up-town straight-ahead scene and then there was the downtown scene. Thankfully, in the last ten years or so we have places like The Jazz Gallery and Cornelia Street Cafe that sort of bridge the gap between the two. I actually have done things in both scenes though. I’ve played in projects of Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, and Graham Haynes, but then I’ve done stuff with the Jaki Byard project, and other more straight-ahead groups. You know, I studied with Jaki Byard for two years while I was at the New England Conservatory, and for someone like him, those boundaries didn’t exist!
How do you manage your time in terms of composing and playing?
I got my masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music in jazz composition, so I've always seen myself doing both and one feeds the other. Because I make my living mostly playing, though would love to have more opportunities with commissions and people hiring me to write, most of the writing I’ve done has been for my band. And so, I really have made my living more from playing rather than people hiring me to write. Also, the flute is much more similar to trumpet than saxophone in the sense that I need to practice a lot every day just to keep my chops together. It’s very demanding. If I’m touring or if I have a lot of work for other people’s gigs or if I’m organizing tours for my band, I don’t often have as much time as I want and my first priority is always practicing. For example, in the last few months, I didn’t have much time to write since I’ve been trying to organize tours to promote the Bridges CD, but I did a lot of writing before that during the past three or four years. After I got the Guggenheim Award in 2014, because it was a nice chunk of money (laughs), it really gave me freedom time-wise, so I didn’t have to worry much about money. Also, since I got the award I thought… gosh, now you really have to get writing! Which is something I, of course, wanted to do anyway.
Another thing I learned while working towards my master’s degree in composition was how to just write every day. I’d have to just sit down and come up with something. I think most people have this misconception about composing that you need to be inspired all the time. People talk about the writer’s block and I don’t really believe in that. I think the writer’s block comes more from having too high expectations of yourself when you think you have to write something amazing and unique, and that’s just too much pressure.
Can you tell me about your compositional process?
Most of the time I sit down at the piano, I noodle around and come up with an idea. Then, I put that idea in a sequencing program called Digital Performer, which really changed my life so I can hear my ideas in 'realtime'. Maybe I come up with four or eight bars first, which is the inspiration, and the rest is hard work. I try to be very organic about it when developing the ideas.
I know you wrote “Joyful Lament” with Brad Shepik’s guitar in mind. Do you always take the musicians’ sound into consideration when you write a tune?
Well, I have had this instrumentation since 1999 except adding guitar. And of course, having Amir [ElSaffar] singing is kind of new, just like some of the percussion. Usually, I have this instrumentation and A concept in mind. When I was doing “Joyful Lament” I didn’t necessarily know, right away, it was for Brad. It was more like I heard this melody I really love and thought I could really do something with it. Developing it made clear to me what kind of piece it was going to be. For some other pieces, I really wanted to create a connection to the written material and also to create different sections in a piece that would use different parts of the composition for improvisation - so, maybe one solo might use the bass line, another solo might use a motif, a different solo section might use some of the harmonies. It’s like if you checked out a piece by Mozart or another classical composer, you hear the presentation of the idea and then the development, there’s the connection of using that material. Also, it maintains the interest both of the musicians and the listener if the solos are changing and the colors are changing. I had been wanting to write something to feature the French horn, and when I wrote the last movement of The Shiva Suite, Contemplation, I thought about Chris Komer's beautiful sound. Something about that French horn sound is very yearning and wistful, so I really thought it would enhance what I was trying to say with the piece.
What do you have to say about sexism in jazz? Did you find any difficulties in your path to become a renowned bandleader?
I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t experienced it. It’s just a matter if they want to talk about it or not. When I went to New England conservatory many years ago I was probably one of three or four female instrumentalists in the jazz program during the whole time I was there. But things have changed quite a bit. I’ve talked to some of my friends who, as myself, have been around for a long time, and we appreciate that younger women are noticing it and talking about it. Back then, we realized that if we wanted to do what we do, we would have to work really hard and be twice as good. We didn’t feel we had this option to talk about it in the same way this climate now fosters, so we chose to focus on the music and try not to think about it. If you ask other women who have been around for many years like Claire Daly, Roberta Piket, Jane Ira Bloom, or Jane Bunnett, I think they will probably say the same thing.
Which are your main influences?
I really go through phases. When I started playing music I was very influenced by classical music - Stravinsky, Bach, Ives, Mozart, Bartok. I played a lot of classical music on flute. I also listened to jazz, rock, and blues. In terms of jazz Though, the biggest influences were probably Miles and Coltrane. In terms of flute, very early on, was Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk, and Hubert Laws, with whom I studied for a little bit. Regarding world music: on my latest album, I added a disclaimer paragraph because I wanted to be clear that I’m not trying to write in that style. I’ve played with many people, toured to Nepal and India and learned about that music, but didn’t really study it in depth. For example, Amir actually went to Iraq and he did very specific studying. So, for me, it’s more that I just love that music and have listened to it a lot. Also, I did grow up in the Jewish religious tradition. I went to Hebrew school and studied Jewish music and prayer when I was very young for several years, so I do have that in my ear, which is very similar to Maqam as is some of the approach of the scales and embellishment of the notes in Indian music, like that of the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
What have you been listening to lately?
These days, I listen to a lot of what my peers are doing. There are so many musicians doing great things, you know? A couple nights ago I went to 55 Bar to see David Binney, with whom I recorded in the 90s on his CD Free to Dream. I have been into his music since. I love what Kneebody does; they are always interesting. Also Kendrick Lamar, whose music had some influence on the first track on Bridges, “From the Well”. It’s just dizzying how much great music with so many different meters and influences is coming out these days.
How do you see the jazz scene nowadays?
It’s always very strange to me when people say that jazz is dead. I’m certainly all for people keeping the jazz tradition alive, if that’s something people are passionate about. It’s like keeping Mozart, Bach or Stravinsky alive. It’s amazing music and important to do that. But if you look throughout the history of jazz, or classical music even, the composers were moving the music forward. You look at Dizzy Gillespie and Latin music, Stan Getz and Bossa Nova, Charlie Parker with strings, Coltrane with Indian music influence or Miles with rock. It’s all about bringing your influences into the music and growing.
What were the first jazz records you fell in love with?
When I was growing up, my parents were into Frank Sinatra. And they had Frank Sinatra with Count Basie, who made some amazingly swinging albums. And my older brother had the Miles Davis Quintet’s albums - Cookin’, Steamin', Workin’, and Relaxin’. Also, the Coltrane/ Ellington and Far Cry by Eric Dolphy recordings.
Can you name 2 persons whom you’ve never collaborated with but you would like to?
There’s this amazing French flute player called Magic Malik. The first time I heard him was on a recording of Steve Coleman, maybe around 2003 or 2004. He just totally blew my mind.
Ambrose Akinmusire is another one. He has this phenomenal recording The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint and I really admire him so much. A "pipe dream” would be to play with Herbie Hancock.
What would you have been if not a musician?
I would love to travel the world like chef Anthony Bourdain did and go to all these different countries to try the best traditional restaurants that no one would know about, except the locals. More importantly, what he did was really connect with the people there and try to understand their culture and point of view. To me, he always had the best job. One of the things I love about being a musician is being able to travel and cross cultures. Maybe that’s why I bring so many influences into my music.
You said you are preparing a new tour for the Septet+. Where are you guys heading to?
In September we’re playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival and Redwood Jazz Alliance in Arcata, Northern California. We’re going to be at Roulette in Brooklyn too. Then, at the beginning of November, we play in Europe at Tampere Jazz Happening in Finland and in Bimhuis, Amsterdam, and then Germany and Madrid also. After that, we will be at the London Jazz Festival and Jazztopad in Poland.