our friend saxophonist, composer, and vocalist, María Grand, just released her debut EP TetraWind. we are mesmerized by the sonic experience she has created! we are big fans of her music, and are delighted that we got the chance to ask her some questions about this project. not only is María an amazing musician she is also a brilliant thinker! please enjoy the interview below and cop her new project here!
can you tell us about the journey of this project? where + how were some of these songs born?
Yes! In 2015, I did a few long tours, mostly with Steve Coleman’s band. There were a couple residencies in the United States and a European tour, and after that tour I actually got stuck in Europe because my visa took an extra 30 days to be renewed. So by the end of the year I was pretty exhausted, and I felt a need to get out of New York for a while. I wanted to go somewhere warm to sort of retreat, regroup, reconnect with nature and myself, so I got a ticket for Cartagena, Colombia, and stayed there for a month. During that month I ate a lot of delicious fruit, read, did a lot of research, and composed the music for the EP. It was a way for me to retake control over my life, to pause, after a few years spent in New York completely focused on surviving and the industry’s rat race.
All the music was composed there in Colombia, except for the vocals on North, which I added later - the melody and the lyrics just appeared in my head at some point after we had already finished the session, so I had to overdub vocals on top of the horns.
I decided to compose with the idea of the four paths because I wanted these four directions to reflect an all-around process of healing in my life, after going through a difficult period marked by a lot of emotional abuse. This EP symbolized a liberation and a growing up, and my retaking control over my everyday life.
we love that each song is named after the 4 directions. it is such a powerful stance, and we can feel your connection to the divine mother and your call back to the natural rhythms of life. can you tell us how you came to the name TetraWind? and the significance of this?
I was looking for a title for a long time, because at the time of composing I wasn’t sure if this project was going to be released by itself or combined with another series of compositions. I liked the idea of the "compass rose", but I didn’t want to use the word “rose” in the title, because I’m stubborn and I didn't want to perpetuate any of the typical feminine stereotypes. So finally I decided to just make up a word that contained the idea of the four paths.
The four cardinal points also was related to looking into different meanings of the north and south nodes in astrology. At the same time I was reading about Ancient Egypt and how they associated the West with Death, because that’s where the asters disappear when they rise below the horizon, and the East is (to my knowledge) universally considered a direction of rebirth and newness, which inspired music that would talk about the cycle of life/death/rebirth. In my compositional process, I used different ideas for each of the songs. For East, I improvised the melody on the horn and then created a form from that melody. I composed West in the middle of the night; my mom was sleeping in the same room (she came to visit Colombia) and she was very upset that I started singing and clapping at 2am. North came from a study of triads I was doing, and a desire to mix tonalities in a sort of clash or polytonal feeling. I wrote the ending melody directly on paper, without using a piano; I was trying to get to a more spacious sound. South was just kind of a simple bass line that I built on; the ending was actually composed on the beach. I was with a friend who is very spiritual and very connected to the Earth, and she was doing a ritual for Yemaya a few feet away. I started hearing these progressions in my head, so I grabbed my iPhone and started recording a voice memo. It was really her feeling and the atmosphere on the beach that day that inspired me; the beach was kind of dirty but still beautiful and melancholic, and there was a really special energy to that moment, a kind of nostalgia and dark beauty.
your sonic language through saxophone is very powerful. you are able to be fresh + emotive+ masterful without being alienating and communicating very clearly. what has been your journey to reach this place of sonic communication?
Well first let me say I really appreciate you saying that. To me, it’s just the beginning, there’s so many things I want to work on and improve. I think the main path to learning how to play was through mentors. I studied with some great musicians, either formally or informally; they would show me phrases, give me some ideas, let me know when I was doing something that didn’t sound good, and little by little things kept adding up. It takes a long time to become familiar with a tradition, especially if it’s from a different culture. I don’t come from the United States and I’m not African-American, so it took a lot of learning and a lot of observing to see some of the codes that inform how this music works. I think it’s really important, I mention it all the time, that we keep reiterating that this music is essentially African-American, and to pay tribute and credit to the people who made it and are making it now. This is the community that should be uplifted by this music, both resource-wise and in terms of recognition.
I was lucky because people were willing to teach me and take me through it and also give me a chance to try and fail. So basically, I’m still doing that, trial and error. The main thing in music is ear, whether it’s rhythmic ear, melodic ear. You have to be able to hear things and know where things would fit, how things would sound, before you play them. That’s a life-long work, the ear can always get better. Of course technique and the instrument are important, but knowing musical language and function and being able to hear things are the main ways to express oneself through music. There’s always ways to get better at that, to get to a finer expression, so that the music can come through us in a form that is constantly getting more precise and detailed. All this ties in with clarity of intention and being clear on what the music is aimed towards. The spirit is so important.
who are some of your inspirations?
One of my main inspirations is John Coltrane. I admire his studiousness and his perseverance immensely. He really made a huge contribution, and he changed so many people’s lives, and still does! If you’re having a bad day, you can listen to Crescent or Naima or something else he played and have your whole energy transmuted. I admire that on so many levels, both the spirit that you can hear in his sound, and the technique and knowledge with which he executes things.
Someone else I admire a lot is Henry Threadgill. He’s always working on music, in such a passionate way. One time my friend Román Filiú took me over to Threadgill’s house, and I hadn’t had breakfast. We got there and Henry showed us stuff and he was so passionate, and I was so fascinated, and I stayed there for about three or four hours with the worst hunger I’ve ever felt. He is such a positive character. I admire his music so much, as well as his life, and his personality.
There’s a lot of other people I admire. Sylvie Courvoisier, for example. She’s a master musician, a wonderful composer, and she’s from the town next to mine in Switzerland. I really, really look up to her. Recently I got to go to her house and play a session with her, and I was very intimidated and happy to play with her, because she’s done a lot of the things I want to accomplish in my life. She’s definitely a role model.
I admire people who are positive and who accomplish beautiful things in their lives. It doesn’t have to be music. Anything that helps the world and is done with love.
Of course the main inspiration is Nature. Our Mother, the divine consciousness that formed Earth and the Universe; the Creator of All.
what has been your experience as an avant garde/free jazz woman saxophone player?
Well, as a woman I always feel like I stick out. In certain ways it’s helped me; people usually notice me and they tend to remember me (“oh yea, you’re the girl who played last night”). In a lot of other ways it hinders me, because I’m usually not considered one of the guys. There’s been many situations where this was a problem. This is an industry that isn’t nice to women, and the world isn’t nice to women. A lot of women buy into this and they become patriarchal, too. It’s sad. Thankfully there are also a lot of people who don’t really care if you identify as a woman or a man. They look at people as human beings and not just objects. So I usually try to mostly deal with these people, and when I encounter someone who seeks to diminish me because I’m a woman, I try to be compassionate and remember that if they were satisfied with their lives they wouldn’t feel the need to belittle others. I can also put on my guy cape and become a guy when I have to. It’s kind of fun. But at the end of the day, I have a horn, I have a roof over my head, and I’m healthy. Sexism is not going to deter me, and I have a lot to be grateful for.
we love that you are also singing and reciting poetry on this project, it has created a very fresh and innovative atmosphere. how is your sax playing and lyricism connected and how do they differ?
Well, originally I didn’t think I was going to sing on this recording, but after the session I was missing a human voice. It was easier to sing and say the poetry myself than to hire someone else, because I already knew what I wanted. I always think of the voice as everyone’s first instrument. We’re like martial artists: if you can’t fight with your empty hands, you won’t be able to do much with a sword. So I practice a lot of improvisation on the voice, away from my saxophone. I try to sing what I would play. I learned that from Steve Coleman and Billy Harper, they’re both great at doing that. So I was already familiar with my voice, and I like to write poetry. I wanted to supplement the musical meaning with actual words, to allow the listener to hear another angle as well. Some of it is more abstract, and the last track is more political. I think music can’t be divorced from the times and from whatever is happening socioeconomically at any given moment. It’s really important that conditions change and improve for everyone right now, we need to treat our Earth and each other a lot better. There’s a lot of greed going on, and a few people are holding on to most of the wealth; I’m not sure exactly why we’re letting this happen, but things have to change. Racism is a plague, sexism is a plague. I don’t want my music to be silent on those issues.
foto by Anjna Swaminathan
interview by Tamara Renée Davidson.