Mara Rosenbloom is an exciting, young pianist who has emerged on the New York scene since 2008. Mainly known for the quartet she leads in her own name with Darius Jones (alto saxophone), Sean Conly (bass), and Tomas Fujiwara (drums), her music defies definition in that it is neither resolutely experimental, nor is it “in.” With impressive subtlety, each of her records and live performances leads listeners on a journey through her evermore expansive musical universe.
Rosenbloom will be featuring her music at the Composers Now Festival at I-Beam at the end of the month. In addition to unveiling new music for her quartet, the residency also features the pianist’s first solo concert in New York and new music she has written for two different trio projects.
I-Beam Residency Schedule
- February 27
8:30 PM: Mara Rosenbloom Solo
10 PM: Mara Rosenbloom Quartet
- February 28
8:30 PM: Mara Rosenbloom Solo
10 PM: Mara Rosenbloom Trio with Sean Conly (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums)
- March 1
8:30 PM & 10 PM: Mara Rosenbloom Trio with Adam Lane (bass) and Jeff Davis (drums)
I had the opportunity to sit down with Mara Rosenbloom on February 11, 2014, to talk with her about her music and the upcoming residency.
Cisco Bradley: When did you first get involved with the music scene in New York?
Mara Rosenbloom: I moved here in 2005, but I was in school. I was warming up to being here. I was going out to listen to a lot of music while I was in school and in that way I was beginning to be part of New York.
CB: What are your origins as a musician?
MR: I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. There were some great players in Madison, people who I was impressed by as a fifteen-year-old…but it was and still is a small community. I had a sense that there was more and I was just drawn to New York. I knew that there was jazz here and that was kind of it. I didn’t really know a lot, so it was sort of a whim. I decided to apply to school here and move out here.
CB: Where did you attend?
MR: NYU. I actually started in the classical composition program. At the time, I had started writing music and I did jazz band in high school, but I was such a beginner. Looking back, I really had no idea about this kind of music and everything I was doing was very intuitive, just figuring out chords as I went and figuring out improvisation as I went. I just threw myself into it and was doing it by ear. So, the idea of auditioning for a jazz program was daunting to me. “I’m not going to make it!” was what I was thinking. But I’ve been coming up with my own music for a very long time. I had a teacher in high school who encouraged me to start writing it down. I didn’t get into composition until my senior year in high school when I had an open study hour when I was just in the band room working on my own music when no one else was around.
CB: What high school did you go to?
MR: West High School. They have a good music program. So in that year, I began amassing a few works with the goal of applying to schools. So that’s what I did. I came here for classical composition and all the while I had a long history of playing classical music. I began playing piano when I was five years old and by highschool I was doing concerto competitions and that kind of stuff. But I was losing steam on going the classical music route, but still very much into piano and that was the context I had for piano. So I applied to the classical comp program, got in here, and started doing that. Pretty much as soon as I got here, I tried out for jazz ensembles. Luckily NYU has a program where you don’t have to be a jazz major to be in jazz ensembles which was something that attracted me to going there in the first place. So from the beginning, I was doing the jazz thing when I got here and that was the thing that started to take root. I was taking private composition lessons when I was in school and for me it was deadending. Really I was writing tunes, tunes for the jazz ensemble that I was playing in and I was bringing them to my classical teachers and they were like, “what else have you got?” Not really taking it seriously. For improvisation sections, they were asking, “well, what is going to go there? You can’t just leave that open.” So after a while, I switched my major to jazz composition.
CB: Why did you come to New York in particular? Is it a no-brainer? Why not Chicago, for instance?
MR: Why not Chicago? That’s a good question. I didn’t know anything. [laughs] Somehow I knew that there was jazz here. Chicago was bizarrely not on my radar even though it was much closer. My father is a big jazz fan. He had been to New York many times and had brought back records by musicians that were here, so I had some sense of it. When I moved here ten years ago, the piano player Jason Linder had a weekly gigat the Fat Cat. At that time, Small’s was temporarily closed and all of their stuff was happening at the Fat Cat. At that time, the Fat Cat still had separate rooms. They’ve taken the wall down and I actually haven’t been there since. Anyway, they used to have a separate room for music. Jason Linder was there leading a big band every week and it was big band music unlike any I had ever heard. My dad came back with this one record, Premonition, and I was super into it.
CB: What about it did you like?
MR: I think … the grooves for one. The feel intrigued me – and by ‘feel’ I mean both something in the time, a kind of forward motion, and also an emotional quality, a distinct need to get something out. It managed to have a complexity but also a soulful kind of thing at the same time. And I think you can hear New York in it. I think in retrospect, that is what I was hearing. There is an urgency to the music in the rhythms, in the melodies, and in the way he layers all of the music. Maybe I was hearing the sounds of the city.
CB: So, that was one reason to come here.
MR: Yeah, I had been here for a family reunion when I was a little kid. I have family far out in Long Island on my father’s side. I was eight at that time. We came out here, stayed in a hotel. I remember looking down at the street, there was so much activity. My parents asked me, “what do you want to do?” and I just said, “I want to go down there!” [laughs] “I just want to be in that!” So … that always stayed with me. I just had an attraction to cities and an attraction to diversity, to be in a place that is a mixing pot.
CB: After having come here, how did you integrate yourself into the community of musicians?
MR: Ultimately by the end of my four years at NYU, I had met the people I had started my band with and I was writing music there. In my time there, I wrote my whole first record’s worth of music.
CB: Your quartet?
MR: Yeah, my quartet.
CB: When did you finish school?
MR: 2008. I met everybody separately over the last two years or year and a half there. At that time, it was Isaac Jaffe on bass. He’s on the first record. He was one of the first musicians I became friends with and we played together a whole bunch. I was into his sense of counterpoint. He’s a composer also. And then Nick Anderson eventually started playing drums with us. With Nick, he was just the guy, the good drummer in the program. Once we started playing with him it was just a natural fit. And then with Darius, Darius was in the Master’s program at the time, so I didn’t really see him the building at all, but I saw him playing on campus and at the time I had been listening to a lot of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Rahsaan had, still has, a sound that not many saxophone players have. Then I was out hearing David Binney in the city. Joshua Redman was somebody high school friends had turned me onto before I came here. Saxophone players with very soft, smooth saxophone sounds. I mean, not smooth jazz smooth, but not the edgier sound of saxophone, I guess. But I was really into Rahsaan Roland Kirk which is on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of the kind of timbre that a saxophone can have. And that first time that I saw Darius play, it was that timbre that caught my attention and right after he finished, I asked him if he would like to get together and play music. From the first rehearsal, he brought so much presence to the music by which I mean he was never phoning it in, he never treated it like a rehearsal, or just reading, he had a focus that was really encouraging and has continued to be. So, things came together during my last year in school we began playing some gigs.
CB: Around 2007 or 2008?
MR: Yeah, I guess so.
CB: So, you put your band together, finished your first album in 2009, and then you went on tour?
MR: The first album came out in 2009. It came out pretty close to when we recorded it. I don’t think a full year went by even. It was a pretty quick process. At the time, I didn’t know how to line up press or how to publicize it at all, I just wanted to make the thing. We had been playing together for about a year. I still like to think of a record as a record of time spent, a record of the music that we made. I felt that by that time, we had a music worth making a record of. It being my first thing, I just wanted to get it out.
CB: So then you went on your in 2010 and 2011, right?
MR: Yes … yes.
CB: What compelled you to do a U.S. tour?
MR: I’m committed to that. I still feel committed to that. The reason we didn’t do one in 2012 or 2013 is that I’m navigating the financial realities of all of us getting to be older, working musicians and what the financial infrastructure for an emerging jazz band in the U.S. is, but we can come back to that. Doing the first tour, I just wanted to do it. I just wanted to play music, I wanted to immerse myself in that—we’re playing a gig tonight, a gig tomorrow night, … the next night, so that was part of that. And what I said about being committed to touring in the U.S. I just want to connect with different kinds of people. I think to really grow, that’s what you have to do – you have to meet people who are different than you, and you have to share…It’s wonderful to be able to play for my friends, and other musicians, and folks who know the group here in New York, but taking the music into unfamiliar terrain…that’s vulnerable. And in that vulnerability, there’s a kind of opportunity.
CB: How did audiences respond differently outside of the city?
MR: In New York, people come to hear all kinds of music just ready to listen, even aggressively or judgmentally, or not. Sometimes people here are very open-minded because there is definitely an audience of people here that really have a grand sense of context. Traveling to other spots, we played in places where they were clearly used to having jazz as background, even in jazz clubs with a stage, that is how the music is being presented. People were there talking, having drinks with their friends. Then we would show up at places and right before we went on, someone would ask us, “Can you play ‘Satin Doll’ in a set?” So, coming with original music and coming with music that requires audience participation rather than just being ambiance, it’s a challenge. There’s a tough side to it and then there’s also a good side to it. As a musician, you ask yourself, “How do I let these people in?” This is music for listening and we are going to put our heart and soul into it. This is about making a bigger human connection and you can be involved in it. It does take some effort sometimes. That’s the tense side of it, I guess. But the positive side is that when you do reach out to people, at least in my experience with this band, the results have been really positive. People have responded to the music great. I feel like everywhere we have been we have gotten a really positive response from the audience. People bought records. People came up to me at the end of shows and said, “I didn’t know that music like this existed,” which is crazy! In the context of New York, my music is not that weird or crazy!
CB: On your second tour, did you visit some of the same places?
MR: Some. We went back to Grand Rapids—Mexicains sans Frontieres—run by Hugo Claudin, who is an amazing presenter there. He’s been presenting music, specifically avant garde music in Grand Rapids for many, many years and is full of stories. He has a wacky performance/living space where he makes art and lives and presents other people’s art and music. There is a very beautiful community there, which is one of the reasons we chose to return and we definitely made some good connections there. People who took us in and made us home cooked food. A small group of people, but those who are there are passionate and dedicated. I think that is something that we also saw all over the country. I also wanted to go to the south. I hadn’t really ever been there and when I started making phone calls, people got really excited. Not a lot of jazz musicians tour through the south, especially to smaller cities. We went to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and we went to Columbus, Georgia. When I called people, they said, “Really? How did you hear about us?” And then they were psyched and people really pulled together. In Chattanooga we experienced really great hospitality and a family took us in, we had several home-cooked meals and we ended up staying there an extra night just because they were so friendly and wonderful. Also, great audiences down there. We had a full house. They were just kicking off jazz at their theater. The presenter there said he had always wanted to present jazz, and so we were one of the first groups he presented there. Shortly thereafter, Matthew Shipp was there for a solo concert and I think things are still going.
CB: In the jazz spectrum of sub-genres, is there a place where you would situate yourself? Do you move around?
MR: Well…I don’t know… labels…When folks who aren’t musicians or don’t listen to a lot of jazz ask me, I say, “well, it’s not straight ahead swing, but it’s not totally out there either. We play melodies and grooves…often times, it gets pretty.”
MR: Yeah, so, something like that. I find that the community that I gravitate towards in New York is a more avant garde group of musicians, but I wouldn’t say that my own music comes out sounding like that. I go and see Tom Rainey and Ingrid Laubrock play any chance I get, I’ve been going to see Angelica Sanchez for a while, she’s been a bit of a mentor to me, at times, Cooper-Moore has been a huge mentor to me over the past couple of years, and sort of introduced me to a community of people. And now I am studying with Connie Crothers and there’s a whole bunch of people surrounding her. A lot of people who do free improvisation, creating music that comes from that place. So, I’m not sure exactly where my music fits on that spectrum. In avant garde communities, I’ve found people who are putting a lot of feeling into the music, especially hanging out with Cooper-Moore and Connie, a group of people who are putting their complete selves into it, who are very spiritual, which comes from a history of the music. So that’s the connection between what I’m trying to do in my music and what I’m hearing there, in particular, more than other scenes.
CB: Do you have any stories about being on the road, anything that would be interesting that you would like on the record?
MR: Each tour was very different. The first tour was my first try, so I played it safe. We stopped in five cities, all cities where I knew people we could stay with. So, I knew we had comfortable places to sleep, people were putting us up which helped with the financial reality of the tour, we stayed with relatives who made us food. That tour went very well. It was an encouraging first run. We definitely had pretty small audiences, so it was my goal on the next tour to expand that, reach more people, and hopefully the venues would help with that. Thinking about how I am going to publicize a show in say, Columbus, Ohio, when I don’t live there … I don’t know that you can! Hopefully there’s a network of people to connect to there who do know how to do that. On the second tour, we did two weeks with a show every night. I would say that I bit off a little more than I could chew in terms of logistics and being able to handle them on the road while also playing good music.
CB: What has touring done for the band?
MR: You might say that we played every night and that made us very tight. Kind of! When you are on the road, you’re playing every night with audiences that don’t know what to expect and you don’t know what to expect. Like someone says that they can put you up for the night, then you walk into their house and you don’t know what it’s going to be like. Are you going to be able to stay there or not? We walked into some places where…like in Chattanooga we stayed in peoples’ beautiful home and they made us amazing food. Then we stayed in another place on that tour where the guy said he could put us up and we walked into his place and it was disgustingly messy and it smelled like a weed den. We had to turn around and walk out, get a hotel. Each town has a thing like that. It’s a little stress. [laughs] Hopefully you are in a place that once you get to the music, you can let the rest go. New York is like an incubator, my mentors are here, the community of musicians who play my music and appreciate my music are here. The quartet is a working band, we play every month, and this is a place where I can grow. Certainly there is pressure all the time in New York to move forward, but there’s also a network of support that helps you along. So when you take the music out of New York you have to ask, what is this really about? Why am I doing this? Why bother taking it out? What’s the hopeful end result going to all of these little spots? So, I would say for me more than anything, the tour helped me get my priorities in order. I really want the music to connect with people, and in order to do that, I need to make sure it’s connecting with me. From now on, I know I need to be in a place where being prepared to be fully present in the music has to be my top priority. It’s like, if you book 14 shows, and you pack every gig full of people but you get to the gig & have nothing left to give, what then?
CB: You’ve mentioned several times the financial realities of being on the road. Could you tell me more?
MR: There isn’t any infrastructure for emerging jazz artists to tour in the states. Like I said, we called a lot of places that were really surprised that people from New York were even considering coming their direction. Their resources are often fairly limited. People still have the idea of musicians getting on the road, piling into a van and roughing it, sleeping on floors, eating bad. Or even just going from venue to venue and playing for the door. At this point, I’m almost 30 and all of the guys in the band are a little bit older than that. People are starting to get married or are already married. It costs money to be on the road, the traveling expenses, even just the gas. At this point, nobody wants to just roll out their sleeping bags and sleep on the same floor together. I feel really passionate about bringing the music, but I also feel strongly about supporting the musicians that play my music and I don’t want to ask them to come on the road for no money and I can’t afford to support it myself out of my own pocket. So, then it means we have to see what we can do with these smaller presenters who are experimenting with presenting jazz for the first time or who have been presenting jazz from their town on a small scale, like Tuesday jam sessions where local musicians come and play all night for a tip jar. They want touring bands to come, and I’ve found that there’s a great interest all over the country to have you come. The presenters who are doing this come from a very DIY place, getting a start. So, for the last tour, we made it work. We did a Kickstarter to make it work, though at the end of the day, it basically covered our gas money. And we did work with some presenters who really did pool together as much as they could and there were families who supported us in various towns. Still, financially it was still really hanging on by a thread and when things went wrong, like when we had to unexpectedly stay in a hotel, then even that thread … it added to everyone’s stress level. The more of that you can clear away the more you can concentrate on the music.
CB: You just had your second record come out in 2013. What’s next for the quartet? Do you have plans for a subsequent record?
MR: Yes, I do. It’s in process, in my mind, it’s happening, though it will probably be a trio record.
CB: This band minus one? Or a different band entirely?
MR: Undecided. I’ve been playing with different groups of people in a trio. I am simultaneously in love with different scenarios. Some days I think I will release two records of the exact same music with different people. Or sometimes, I think they will be separate with two different books of music. I would like to think there will be a 2014 record. It will happen and it will probably be a trio. I feel like that is the next step for me in my own growth. Playing in a trio is something I’ve been intentionally exploring over the past year to push myself to be a stronger leader and just a stronger player. It puts me in a place where I have to take more responsibility just logistically in terms of carrying more aspects of the music, playing the melodies and filling out more space. It’s been fruitful. I have grown a lot from doing it. Going back to a record being a record of time spent, now I have spent a year playing music in trio format, so there should be a record of that. That said, I’m really having a blast playing with the quartet right now and I would love to do another record with the quartet so that will undoubtedly happen at some point. Maybe it will happen in proximity to when the trio record comes out in 2014 or the year after that. There is new music right now, I’m about half way to a record of new music in terms of composing over the past couple of months. I’ve been playing it both with the trio and quartet and I like how it is coming out differently in both scenarios. Should I do it with both bands or should I write different music for each band, I don’t know. It’s safe to say, I’m moving forward and I will put out a record eventually.
CB: Do you have any upcoming performances you would like to highlight?
MR: The next thing is the residency [at I-Beam]. It’s my goal this year to play more in a general way. I’ve felt constant pressure to present something on a high level and sometimes that messes with you and sets you back, in a way, where you think I have to put everything into this one show. I’m going to book this one show this month and put all of my eggs in that one basket, make it as awesome as possible and tell all these people to come to it. So, you do it, maybe the gig goes amazing, or maybe it doesn’t go as well as you would have liked, maybe 30 people come to it or maybe just five people come to it. And then what? I think for a lot of people playing this music right now that’s the run down. As a bandleader, you book one show for your group every month, and for some people, much less…Recently, I was reading Nina Simone’s autobiography and she mentioned that her first gig was playing seven nights a week, seven hour sets, 40 minutes on, 20 minutes off, playing all night. I was talking to Connie (Crothers) about this and she said yeah, that’s how it used to be. You could go see Art Tatum for $2.50. He was there for seven hours, 40 minutes on, 20 minutes off. So I wonder, how am I going to get there, at that level, if I’m only playing once a month or twice a month? I mean, I do a handful of things outside of my own band, but it still doesn’t amount to anything remotely like seven days a week, seven hours a night. So, setting up this residency, that’s the first thing, we are going to play three nights in a row. That’s a little closer.
CB: It seems like a trend. The Stone, SEEDS did that, now Brian Drye is doing it at I-Beam.
MR: Yeah, I think musicians are calling for it. All of the places you mentioned are musician-run. I’ve had a lot of conversations with other musicians about getting multi-night things going.
CB: How has the new personnel in your quartet changed the character of the music?
MR: Well, I choose folks with strong personalities for the group on purpose. I want the music to be alive, and open enough to allow different voices to come forward at different times. The Quartet has been a relatively stable group for the past several years – with Darius on sax, Sean Conly on bass, and myself on piano. Sean has been in the group the past 3 years & brings a wealth of experience to the group that I really value – so much creativity. The drums have changed up a bit more – with Nick Anderson, Chad Taylor, and Tomas Fujiwara alternately. With Darius, Sean, and Nick & I – we’ve played together so long, there’s a kind of depth in terms of our understanding of the material that allows for a certain amount of elasticity but also stability. When someone new comes in, that stability gets shaken up a bit, but also, possibilities open up because there is a new perspective. Chad brings a lot of creativity to the music, and a kind of openness that always creates surprises in the music. With Tomas, who’s played the last few gigs with us since August, there is a kind a of steadiness that allows the music to crescendo in a different way.