Saxophonist Brahja Waldman talks about the Jazz, poetry, and the level of musicianship with soulfulness

"Blues lyrics are like poetry. And jazz leaves a lot of room for words. Rock music is also connected to poetry. Poetry and music. It was bound to happen."

Brahja Waldman: The legacy of great souls

Devin Brahja Waldman is a jazz-inspired saxophonist, drummer and composer who has played in various music projects in Montreal after having moved there from Cherry Valley, New York in 2003 to study jazz performance at McGill University. These projects include Brahja Waldman's Quartet, You Yourself & i, Xi-fu Sagas, Land of Kush, and Brahja Waldman & Friends of Freedom. Save the latter, each of these groups will release a new album in spring 2013.

These projects have also brought Waldman on tour around North America and to various festivals, including Montreal International Jazz Festival, Suoni Per il Popolo, and Montreal Off Jazz Festival. Waldman has also performed alongside a number of poets, including beat-generation poets Anne Waldman, Bob Holman and Charles Plymell.

Brahja talks about the Jazz, poetry, Anne Waldman, Wu-Tang Clan, Spike Lee, Miles Davis; and Blues lyrics. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from jazz music and poetry?

As someone who accompanies poets I’ve learned to listen and be supportive. I’ve also learned about the responsibility of improvising melodic and harmonic movement that propels the performance of a poem and helps keep it alive. As far as music goes, I’ve learned how to be disciplined and responsible in my practice. That I can have a positive impact on any music I play as long as I focus. I’ve also learned how to negotiate musical differences that arise between myself and collaborators. How to let go and see other points of view, or how to kindly insist on my own. I’ve learned about my own patterns of perception. When I’m likely to be positive or when I’m likely to be negative. And how to not put too much stock in any one perception; that if the tables were somehow turned I would almost certainly experience the moment in a totally different way. And yet how to have faith in my own subjectivity. To know when something is good. I’ve also learned to be enterprising in the way I present music. To go through the doors that seem open and to not stagnate. Oh, and of course, what my weaknesses are: musically, emotionally, mentally. How to work on them, or work in spite of them. I could go on and on! Music has taught me so much.

What does jazz mean to you?

Again I want to mention responsibility. Jazz to me is a legacy of great souls rising up and singing out. If I want to be a part of that wonderful legacy I have to make sure I’m well schooled. This means, for one thing, I have to musically meet a standard that has been set by others before me and that I set for myself. This also means I have to understand the history of struggle that this music comes out of. That it’s a blessing, an honor, and a privilege to have a chance to play this music in one’s lifetime. That many before me have played this music in spite of all odds against them. So I take this aspect of what I do rather seriously. And I balance it out with not taking other aspects of what I do more seriously than I have to! Finally, I think being well schooled also means to know what already has been done in jazz and try to find new things to do.

                                                                                 Photo by David Wilder 

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD MUSICIAN and JAZZMAN?

Well really all of my experiences – both the musical ones and all the nonmusical ones too - have shaped me in some way, helped me grow. They all end up in there as layers of labor and sound. What really has guided me through my practice has been my love for music itself. That and my high standards I suppose. When I listen back to myself and don’t like what I hear, I try to get better, try to make it sound just how I want music to sound.

How do you describe Brahja Waldman sound and progress?

Well I think I try to express a whole range of emotions in the music I play. There’s a lot of joy, for example. Like a celebration of being alive. There’s also quite a bit of sadness in there too. There’s always some kind of combination of light and dark in the music I love, I would say. I think you ought to have a balance between the two in order to adequately reflect the range of human experience - for your music to resonate as true. That might be a generalization, I don’t know, but it’s something that I aim for. There’s sadness in even the happiest music I know. Take the music from apartheid-era Soweto, for example. What sounds could be more happier, more uplifting? And yet what people have struggled more, have known more sadness? I really believe that a mark of great music is the authenticity of the emotions expressed - you know the degree to which the feelings are really felt by the artist.

What characterizes your music philosophy?

As far as a philosophy beyond that goes, I think listening is probably the most essential thing - listening to the other musicians you’re playing with as well as to what you yourself are playing. It’s a beautiful thing when musicians are really listening to each other, working together. Without that the whole point of it gets lost fast.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about jazz music and poetry?

Everyone! Everywhere you go! Secrets are always being unfolded. I teach them to myself by listening to what other people say and how they play.

Poetry and music can confront the “prison” of the spirit and mind? What is the relation between music and poetry?

Yes I think it’s true. Both music and poetry can change us as people. They can reconfigure the way we think and act. Music and poetry should enlighten us, breathe life into us; give us a sense of being connected to the sacred in life. In my experience music and poetry have both challenged me. They’ve held me accountable for my behavior and my thoughts as a human being. If I’m unsure about myself I can consult music and poetry. Let them guide me into a stronger and wiser person. Music continually humbles me. I was just listening to Miles’ album, Nefertiti, the other day. I felt so incredibly humbled listening to the way that band plays. They really set an example, you know.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues and jazz is always with us. Why do think that is?

There are some feelings or emotions which can only be expressed through jazz and the blues. I think they will always be with us as a result of this. But so will other musical forms. Somewhere someone will be renewing it all over again.

What first attracted you to music & how has poetry and jazz music changed your life?

I was attracted to music ever since I can remember. I don’t know how music has changed my life since I really can’t even picture my life without it. It has defined me more than anything. One thing I can say is that it gives my daily existence a sense of purpose and joy. Music has also brought me close to so many wonderful people. That may be the best part of it all.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

I guess my life is probably most interesting right now, in present day. I wouldn’t want to bore you with too many details though! I have more chances to perform and record than in the past. I also play better, which makes things a bit more interesting.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Oh, I don’t know. There have been many highs. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. And discouraging times as well, where I judged myself or was bored by the way I played.

But that little pendulum swing can prove beneficial. Teaches you how to keep getting back to the joy - or at least acceptance - and stay there for longer.

Anne Waldman with Brahja on Sax, QE2, Albany, NY 1996. Photo by Dan Wilcox

What is the best advice Charles Plymell, Anne Waldman, and Bob Holman ever gave you?

I actually don’t recall ever being given advice by any of them, though I’m sure at least Anne has at some point in my life. They’ve all had a big influence on me though. Each of them gave me the opportunity to perform alongside of them when I was still quite young – especially Anne, who first asked me to accompany her when I was only twelve. She has always been a big advocate for the arts in my life, being my aunt and all. To this day many of my connections to art and artists lead back to her in some way.

Do you know why the blues and jazz is connected to the poetry & what characterize the sound of poetry?

It’s a natural fit. Blues lyrics are like poetry. And jazz leaves a lot of room for words. Rock music is also connected to poetry. Poetry and music. It was bound to happen.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I try to approach every single performance with the same amount of gusto. It doesn’t always happen but I try. And I end up learning something from every performance. I also remember pretty much all of them.

How you would spend a day in “Birdland”? What would you say to Jack kerouac and Charlie Parker?

I don’t know if I would have that much to say at first, to be honest. I would try to hear as much music as possible, that’s for sure. And listen to what was happening around me. Then maybe I would start to talk. I’d try to tell everyone about Wu-Tang Clan and Lauryn Hill and Spike Lee movies. Or maybe I’d just keep it to myself!

What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from the “Beat Jazz era”?

I don’t miss anything from any other era. Maybe I would miss the 50’s and 60’s if I had lived in that time - I do in fact think that it was like the golden era for jazz - the level of musicianship and soulfulness being so outstanding at that time. And yet so much great music has come since then and will continue to come. I don’t see the point of being overly nostalgic about it. It’s natural that things should change. Nowadays as jazz musicians we have the benefit of listening to all the rock, funk, hip-hop and what-have-you that has come since the 60’s, not to mention everything that had come before as well. Some would say that to let these other genres influence jazz is to say goodbye to the artform. But how could we reasonably prevent that from happening and why would we try?

Brahja Waldman's Quartet - Official website

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