Post-CTIJF 2017 Notes from the Underground #1
They grew up in the same city of Los Angeles. They both studied ethnomusicology at the University of Los Angeles. Both come from musical and artistic families who supported their artistic growth. The common thread of rhythm, sensitivity, and intelligence punctuates their exceptionally unique sounds. Yet, their styles of improvisation are as different as their own ethnic backgrounds and communities.
Gretchen Parlato at CTIJF 2017
Songbird Gretchen Parlato’s quiet, whimsical and careful emoting style vs saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s protesting, raw but enlightening sonic outbursts in his choral, orchestral, and improvised music on the large Kippie’s stage of the Festival, she on the listening stage of Rosies.
Parlato hisses, clicks, and hushes into her microphone while clapping gentle beats with her hands, supported by husband, Mark Guiliana’s off-beat clickety clacks on basic drums. Born into a richly musical family in Los Angeles, CA, Parlato has cultivated musical dimensions from multiple sources who have lavished praise on her, like American jazz musician of note, Wayne Shorter: “There’s simply no one out there like Gretchen Parlato.”
Her performance on the Rosies Stage at the Capetown International Jazz Festival 2017 brought sighs and awe to a highly charged crowd which gave her a standing ovation after her riveting and rhythmically enduring concert. We floated home after her last ballad, a catchy ditty that rang in the head for days.
In her Masterclass, offered a day before her performance, Parlato stressed the three levels of analysis she uses to characterise and deliver a song: On a more basic level is the emotional, with the tools to feel and indulge the impulses, messages, and tones of a song. “Examine what the lyricist or song writer is trying to convey in the music and what emotions affect the listener or deliverer of the song.” At the middle level is the technical, how a song is constructed, what techniques are used to deliver the song. “Ask yourself: what process did the writer go through to write the song.” At a higher level is the spiritual, how the song connects with others, and what higher thoughts or consciousness are realised because of the song’s delivery and message. She had started her Masterclass with a 10-minute unspoken meditation to introduce the audience to her process of creating. That mellowed all.
In chatting with Parlato, she explains her stylistic technique with humble recommendations:
I asked: what did she want to convey in her songs, whether written by her or by others? “Every song I perform is an extension of my personal connection. There should always be some work with a song about ‘the story’, but also a personal injection, about what is genuine and honest for me.”
She has sung on some 70 albums and produced four of her own. And what is genuine and right for her now? “Every album is a portrait of what’s happening in my life. The last album “live in NYC” contains love songs that question our life, the meaning of life, our existence, why we’re here. I wrote these songs with what was for me a twist of irony and sarcasm, but someone else might interpret them differently. I think that’s good – to allow the listener to have their own interpretation. A song I sang five years ago, if sung now, would come from a different place in my life experience, and be expressed that way.”
I found Parlato exudes a strong confidence with herself. “It comes from being honest and true to myself.” We discussed what suggestions she could give to those female singers coming from marginalized backgrounds, for instance the Black South Africans musicians, in how to project themselves with honesty and confidence?
“Everyone has pain and pleasure in their life, at different degrees and intensities. One should do soul-searching to find out who they are, their background and history, and find out what their talents or gifts are. Find out what their learned behaviour is, does it come from their parents, or from some event that happened that caused a change? Then try to write about it, in poetry or words. I recommend journaling. I journal so that I can record that stream of consciousness that flows…….It just might turn into a song, or just bring out some truthful thinking about oneself. This is about getting comfortable with yourself, and your agency. Everyone has something to share, whether it is sorrow, or tragedy, or something uplifting. This is when confidence comes, when you see that truth, and you’re willing to share it. Then your song becomes helpful and therapeutic to others who hear it.”
Parlato’s music is very polyrhythmic, so she explained where that comes from. “Yes, my high school, Los Angeles School for the Arts, exposed me to the different arts, with a West African drum teacher, teachers from the UCLA Ethnomusicology Department where I studied later, with Javanese ensembles, and many other groups. Then, at UCLA, I pursued the cultures and rhythms through music and dance.”
On the other large Kippies Stage, saxophonist Kamasi Washington exploded with his 10-piece band, including his own brother, Rickey, on a delightful flute.
Kamasi Washington at CTIJF 2017
Washington’s three-album The Epic (Brainfeeder label) stirred up critics’ charts and listeners in 2015, and contains his own compositions in collaboration with a variety of artists ranging from choral to hip hop to orchestral to electronic grooves. Indeed, an epic fusion.
As we chatted, he explained his epic three-disc album : “ I wanted the album to speak my own mind for a change. I had always been playing other people’s music. I wanted something that was completely me, to put it all out there at once. There were some consultations about the songs with masterful musicians, but because the musicians were close friends, I could run with it freely.” Thundercat, the electric bassist, is one of Washington’s top five musicians he applauds, as he led his Masterclass listeners to understand what influenced him to ‘break away’ from other mainstream jazz and make his own fusions with a variety of hip hop, R&B, and choral genres.
Washington humbly presented his wish to know South African musicians better, citing Hugh Masekela as a big influence on his early musical years. “My father used to play Hugh’s records over and over, and I grew to really dig him. This opened my ears also to other Africans, like Fela.”
As an African-American, Washington confirmed a desire to spend more time with Africans (aka indigenous or ‘black’) on this continent because he felt a connection. “I listened to the kids outside this hotel playing drums and dancing. My African-American culture comes from here – it is African culture. I feel a connection. My dual connection is to Africa and to my own community – I think about troubles here in Africa as being similar to ours at home.” He says he learned a lot from the Academy of Music of Alexander High School in Beverlywood, Los Angeles, “but it’s in my home area of Watts (which experienced serious riots during the 1960s civil rights marches) where I hear the rhythms, language, tones, and emotions from my people, and where I feel free to express myself”.
What messages, i.e. political, is he trying to convey, if any, in his music? “I guess music and politics are intertwined. I don’t force the music either way, just infuse it with my views on society. I don’t see myself as a politician, but I have strong views on how the state of things should be or currently is. I don’t present anything directly political, but try to infuse my thoughts and sensitivities into a song.”
And how does he see jazz education in American black communities, mentioning how ‘decolonizing’ of curriculum is now an important issue in South African arts, in the curriculum, and in learning processes? “We call it ‘institutionalizing’ which has caused lots of problems with the arts, with equality issues. Schools in urban African-American communities don’t have music programs at all. And where music is taught in the other schools, African-American music isn’t necessarily taught. That’s why I’ve stayed close to my cultural community of Watts. Our other issue in schools is to obtain instruments, just to be able to have classes. African-Americans grow up with music in churches where there’s some instruments, but our schools don’t have the instruments for teaching and learning.”
The CTIJF 2017 event was all the richer because of these two incredibly innovative artists and their bands.