Meilana Gillard interview

First published in July 2013 just ahead of the release of the DanaMeilana 6's debut album JazzNBelfast tenor saxophonist Meilana Gillard talked to marlbank about her early days in the States, her debut Day One released on Greg Osby’s label Inner …

Published: 27 Jan 2020. Updated: 2 years.

First published in July 2013 just ahead of the release of the DanaMeilana 6's debut album JazzNBelfast tenor saxophonist Meilana Gillard talked to marlbank about her early days in the States, her debut Day One released on Greg Osby’s label Inner Circle, her new band Kaleidoscope, and what really inspires her as a player.

When did you first come to Northern Ireland in the first place and why? I decided to move to Northern Ireland initially after missing my family terribly. We’re really close! My mom is from here and I grew up in Ohio in the States after moving there when I was about five. When dad retired, mom decided she wanted to move back and be closer to her family. After a few years the distance really started to weigh on me. Also, the prospect of starting to play jazz in a new place after being somewhat inactive for a couple of years seemed appealing to me.

How did you first get into jazz, growing up in the States? I got into jazz gradually. My grandfather was really into the big band sound. He often played recordings of Woody Herman, Duke Ellington and Basie. I remember liking that sound but it wasn’t until I got into my junior high school years that I started to play jazz myself. I initially studied classical piano from the age of seven and quit when I was almost 11 to start on saxophone. I was always mesmerised by the tenor’s beautiful tone, and loved how it closely resembled the human voice. My particular high school was located in a rural area of Ohio called Ridgeway. It’s a very small place. There weren’t enough kids to fill an orchestra or wind symphony, only 23 or so kids. A brilliant man named Jim Hill was the band director there and he was an alto saxophonist who loved big band as well as bebop. He put together quite a good jazz band there out of these small town kids. He was so hip! We had about 400 numbers in our dance book! I was quite scared at first, but I loved playing the music and I loved swing. Above all else, everyone seemed to be having a great time.

Mr Hill introduced me to a recording of Stan Getz playing ‘Body and Soul’ when I was 13 years old and I knew in that moment that jazz is what I wanted to do with myself. I learned his solo and went to school the next day and played it for Mr Hill. He was really surprised that I could play it and he then had an arrangement written so I could play it with the band. I practised so much then, it was addictive! You didn’t see me that much without my tenor on me. I started collecting CDs like mad! That year I won a few soloist awards at competitions, and began taking lessons with college professors; I was feeling really inspired! A few years later I was playing in an all-star high school jazz group and started to play a few gigs when I was 16. I studied with Beatles saxophonist and tenor titan Mr Gene Walker who was a huge influence on me! I owe a ton to him! Here is a link to a YouTube video of me playing that Stan Getz solo when I was 13.

Did you know much about the jazz scene here before arriving? I knew absolutely nothing about the jazz scene here!

How hard was it to get going, and who did you first start to gig with? I did what any modern woman would do, and used Google. I was lucky enough to get in contact with the great pianist Scott Flanigan, and from there trumpeter Linley Hamilton and I started working two weeks after I arrived. It was definitely a huge stroke of luck. I didn’t expect to work my way into things for a few months.

Tell me about the jazz scene in New York when you lived there. Was there a scene at a specific place that you most liked being part of; or where there several places? For my first two years in New York, I attended the New School so I was pretty busy just making it to classes and completing coursework, but I did get to take in a lot of great shows. It wasn’t until I graduated in 2005 that I really started to explore the scene there. It was almost over-stimulating, not that I’m complaining. There was something amazing to check out every night of the week and sessions to go to. I liked all of it, honestly. I know that most people latch on to a clique or a sound, but I honestly tried to take in as much as possible and see everyone/everything! I loved going to Smalls and Fat Cat, uptown to Smoke and Cleo’s; I loved the 55 Bar, Barbes, Knitting Factory, Dizzy’s club, Minton’s Playhouse, Jazzmobile, the Jazz Standard. There’s really just so much. I was fortunate to play at many of these places with lots of different people.

How did you hook up with Greg Osby in the first place to record for his label Inner Circle Music? And when you recorded ''Day One'' five years ago, what did you wish to achieve with your band and your tunes? One of my best friends is the killer baritone saxophonist in the Mingus Big Band, Miss Lauren Sevian (also on Inner Circle). One night we were hanging out playing at the Vandoren Reeds "Vandojam" session in midtown, and Greg Osby was there as a special guest. He took an interest in the both of us he said because we stood out as individuals amongst a ton of players that night. We all stayed in touch and became friends and when Greg wanted to start his label Inner Circle Music in 2007 we were asked to be a part of it. It was definitely an honour to be in such good company, and to be chosen as one of the five original artists.

With my debut Day One I had hoped to document where I was in that moment as a player and composer and to showcase my voice as both. I was definitely as honest as I could be in those moments. Being a child of the 80s I’m influenced by many styles of music, and I think that comes through without overpowering my love of traditional jazz. The guys on the record with me are some of the most individual young voices of jazz I can think of today. They really helped make my vision a reality in a more vivid way that I could have even hoped for. It was a blast and now that I’m not a scared 26-year-old I hope to do something more grown up! It’s definitely a gamble recording your own music in these tough industry times, but it’s definitely more of a fit for me than something that is created with the soul purpose of being commercial or retail-friendly.

We’re hearing a lot here about the New School and its go-ahead approach to the teaching of jazz and improvisation. What do you think was the most challenging part about studying there? I think a challenge is to remain true to yourself through the growing pains. You’re getting a ton of information thrown your way and also you’re in a school with tons of great players. It can be competitive just to get into the ensemble you want. Being individual and competitive are two separate things and sometimes they collide and make things blurry. Learn as much as you can without losing the sound in your head and don’t be afraid of that sound expanding in great detail. Find ways to stay relaxed and inspired. This is also true of just living in New York. I definitely went through a major period of decompression when I finished there. It was for the better.

You performed with your new band Kaleidoscope at the first Jazz Day earlier this month in Belfast. Tell me about the music you’ve written that the band is playing, and a little about each of the players and how you write for them.

The sets on Jazz Day were rather short to accommodate many artists performing, so I just played a few album tunes and adapted a trio tune from earlier this year to fit an organ quartet. I’m writing new music for Kaleidoscope now (trumpet/tenor/organ/drums). With any band I put together I compose with those players in mind, or if the tune already exists I rearrange it to showcase their strengths. The two things I try to accomplish when writing for others is to highlight their best while also pushing them into something unfamiliar because I enjoy the beauty of hearing someone outside their comfort zone. It’s still fresh and exciting. Michael Barkley (trumpet) has a natural ear for exploration and he always approaches improvisation without being held in by boundaries. Scott Flanigan (on organ) has a huge harmonic palette at his disposal. He can create so much texture with harmony and dynamics as well as with rhythmically dense experiments. Stephen Davis (on drums) has such a firm handle on groove that he can be so fun and playful in a huge dynamic range and also is very melodic in his approach to soloing and comping. We’re a new ensemble but have a lot we’d like to accomplish together in the near future.

You’ve been gigging around the Belfast scene for a while now. Can you pinpoint the best spots for fans to go and check out the music? Are Belfast and audiences here different to your experiences in the States? The MAC and Moving on Music are putting on some of the best events here in terms of festivals. The Brilliant Corners Festival back in March was really awesome even with the bad weather! Day-to-day, McHughs, Berts, and the Europa are some of the best places to hear live jazz. McHughs on a Saturday is the only place you’ll hear hard bop in town so far on a regular basis. Berts offers a cabaret dinner-time, background music atmosphere, always with a vocalist. The Europa offers some of Belfast’s most respected Dixieland players. The main differences I find here to the States is that here if you say ‘jazz’ people expect there to be a singer. In the States, instrumental jazz (Dixie, big band, bebop, hard bop, free jazz, fusion, contemporary, beyond etc) is celebrated just as much as the singers. People go to hear the ensemble play and the soloists and when there is a singer, they’re often like a horn player themselves improvising spontaneously over changes. In the time I’ve been here, the instrumental side has started to grow here in Belfast and the audiences are very hip; the numbers are getting bigger all the time. I’m hopeful that things will continue to grow here and all types of jazz will be cherished by the community. I also hope quiet policies will be adopted out of respect for the audiences who go to hear the music and for the musicians working hard on stage to bring a unique experience.

Who are your biggest influences in terms of the saxophone, and why? Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Lester Young and Wayne Shorter. Of course there are many more, but that would take another few pages. These are the most-influential to me. Each of the players I mentioned has such an emotional connection with their instrument, and this radiates through their sound which then propels their incredible honest ideas. That kind of playing is what makes me love jazz so much. Each of these guys has a tone that is unmistakable! They all move around in the language of jazz and the tradition of the music is heard but their truth comes through. They remove all pretence, filter, and just play what’s inside with no limits; a complete freedom in the way they choose. It’s completely transparent.

I believe you have recently been in the studio for a new project. Can you tell me about that? I’m a part of a sextet assembled by great Northern Ireland trumpeter and jazz radio personality Linley Hamilton. This group was created to highlight some of the area’s best players, and it features vocalist Dana Masters from South Carolina (it’s not a US takeover, I promise!). Dana has a classic soul voice and great pitch so she can really sing any type of song. We mostly feature her on this album singing songbook classics with a twist as well as doing a few instrumental jazz tunes, a couple of which are original. I’m just a sideman but generously my name is part of the album title: DanaMeilana.

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Sam Comerford interviewed

First published in 2018. Adding a twist of free improvisation to rumbling grooves, a style that has propelled Thunderblender into the spotlight enough to scoop up in rapid succession a brace of awards including the prestigious Toots Thielemans, …

Published: 27 Jan 2020. Updated: 2 years.

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First published in 2018. Adding a twist of free improvisation to rumbling grooves, a style that has propelled Thunderblender into the spotlight enough to scoop up in rapid succession a brace of awards including the prestigious Toots Thielemans, their Irish leader Sam Comerford talks to marlbank about his band's feeling and passion

“When I was studying in Brussels with John Ruocco in 2014, I had been thinking about starting my own group for some time. Compositionally, I was quite inspired by Tim Berne’s approach to integrating writing and improvisation, and so it seemed natural to write for a bassless trio. I met Hendrik [Lasure, the Thunderblender pianist] at the conservatory, and it seemed like a great fit immediately. He was able to take my compositions, which can be dense and ugly at times, and make them into something personal and beautiful. Jens [Bouttery who is on drums and bass synth] I had never played with before the band. I saw him play a few times and loved what he was doing. They’re both great composers, very sensitive people, and I think that’s very important when you write in such an open way.

“The first time I played these compositions was in the Flemish Conservatory, in a quartet with Hendrik, for which I won the Toots Thielemans Award in 2015. A year later we played the first gig as Thunderblender in the Bravo, a great Brussels club which has since closed. Over the last two years we’ve played around Belgium, the Netherlands and France, and won a prize in the Tremplin d’Avignon competition in the summer. Since the first gig, the music has become more free and more tight at the same time. We can [take] more risks and play with the material more, as we’ve gotten to know how the compositions work. I’ve also been writing some new music which we hope to record by the end of this year.

Last Minute Panic [their first EP released in the autumn] is a recording of our first live performance! As the music is quite improvised, I wanted to record it live in front of an audience. It was important to capture the feeling of risk and excitement. Manolo Cabras, a great double bassist based in Brussels, had been documenting what was happening in the city with live recording sessions at Bravo. Before the gig I wasn’t expecting to release it but I was very happy with the recordings, and Marco Giongrandi of Honolulu Records insisted on putting it out on their label. While the music sounds different every time, I’m still very happy with this record. By virtue of the members of the band, it’s a very joyous group to play in! We’re already played a lot in Belgium, so it will be a real pleasure to bring Jens and Hendrik to my country.

“Growing up, Charles Mingus was my introduction to jazz. The feeling in his music really moved me. When I started playing saxophone, I was really excited by Held on the Tips of Fingers, the Polar Bear record. I love the compositions of Tim Berne, he never takes the obvious route. I discovered Henry Threadgill relatively recently, his music is incredible. As a saxophone player, I’ll never get tired of the lyricism of Lester Young. Eric Dolphy, Lee Konitz and Chris Speed [who] were also big influences. Óskar Guðjónsson has the most beautiful sound I’ve heard live, I’m quite inspired by his approach.''

photo of Sam Comerford: Joris Lasure