OJS editor Alayne McGregor interviewed NYC jazz flute player and composer Jamie Baum about her concert Thursday at Café Paradiso.

Jamie Baum - Photo © Enid Farber 2005
Jamie Baum - Photo © Enid Farber 2005
Jamie Baum's chosen instrument is the flute. Just the flute – well, both the regular C flute and the alto flute – but nothing else professionally. Unlike many jazz musicians, she doesn't double on the sax or the piano, or as a vocalist.  

She composes and she plays the flute.

And that has given the New York City-based musician the time and concentration to become a jazz leader and educator. Baum's last two CDs, Solace (2008) and Moving Forward, Standing Still (2004), were included in "best of the year" lists in Downbeat, All About Jazz, Jazz Times, and Jazziz. She has won awards and grants for composing, and has toured all over the world.

Baum has played Ottawa only once before, in November 2008 at the Avant-Garde Bar. This Thursday, she's at Cafe Paradiso with a quintet: NYC trumpeter Dave Smith, Toronto pianist David Braid, and two local favourites: bassist John Geggie and drummer Nick Fraser. She had previously played with Braid (who was recommended by Smith) in 2008, but this will be her first time playing with Geggie and Fraser. The group (minus Geggie) will also be playing at the Rex in Toronto on Wednesday.

At Paradiso, the quintet will be playing Baum's and Smith's originals and her interpretations of standards. She said the audience should expect modern jazz: primarily compositional but balanced with improvisation.

You can hear the enthusiasm in Baum's voice for what can be done with her instrument, its colours and dynamics and registers. "From early on I really wanted to find a way to have the flute be more accepted or appreciated as a main instrument in the jazz lineup."

"Not the really strong legacy"
Because there are not as many jazz musicians playing the flute (both an advantage and a disadvantage), she says, "there isn't the really strong legacy to the degree that there is for saxophone or trumpet." Of course you do compare yourself to the masters, she said, "no matter what instrument they play", and try to aspire to follow them. But you're less likely to sound exactly like Charlie Parker or Joe Lovano or Michael Brecker or John Coltrane.

"I'm not saying it's easy, but if you take Coltrane and put it on the flute, it's still not going to sound as much like Coltrane. There's a little bit more of an open field for developing your own sound and your own style on the flute because there isn't that intense legacy."

For example, when she compares current jazz flute players like Jane Bunnett or Bill McBirnie or Holly Hofmann or Ali Ryerson, "everybody really sounds very different from each other."

Although Baum started taking jazz piano lessons at age 11 or 12, she didn't get really into the flute until after high school. "It definitely wasn't instant. Even as a kid, although I loved it, I never thought I was going to be a jazz musician."

Baum said she did try the sax for a couple brief periods, but "I wanted to split my time between playing flute and writing." Given that she had started playing flute so late compared to other serious players who had started much younger, "I just felt like there wasn't enough time in the day to be able to achieve what I wanted to achieve just on the flute and in composing."

Although she has written for other groups, including string quartets, Baum primarily composes for her own groups: the quartets Timepiece and Great Circle, and especially her Septet (which includes George Colligan on piano). In the last few years, her pieces have been predominately for the Septet, "so I have in mind the instrumentation I'll be using and the capabilities of the musicians." With the "amazing" musicians she works with, Baum feels free to write pieces that might challenge her or the band: with a different meters, or going in a different direction than what she'd done before.

When she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, "there was always a really big emphasis on original music and creating your own voice and developing your own style. When you did a CD, when you were going to put something out there, it was important to make a statement. So, even though a lot of people keep telling me I should do a standards record because I do a lot of those kind of gigs and some people seem to feel I play that kind of music well, and I probably will, I've always had this thing where the older cats were so great at that that if I were to put something out there, I should put something out that's my own."

"Wheeler of Fortune"
Baum said she was influenced by the jazz flute masters, including Hubert Laws, Jeremy Steig, James Moody, and Eric Dolphy. But she also was inspired by different instrumentalists. For example, one of the cuts on her album Solace is called "Wheeler of Fortune" – a tribute to saxophonist Kenny Wheeler.

While she had always loved Wheeler's music and had listened to his albums (such as Gnu High) long ago, this particular inspiration came after she was invited to the Fairbanks (Alaska) Jazz Festival five years ago. There she directed a local big band, working with Wheeler's actual big band charts and scores for Music for Large and Small Ensembles. "It was exciting to go back; I'd always loved that album and to see his actual arrangements and chord changes... So I really delved into it and got really inspired and after I came back from that I wrote the piece."

"I've always just really loved his playing and his writing. His writing is so lyrical and yet the harmonies are so interesting and so deceptively challenging."

Baum will be including an arrangement of one of Wheeler's tunes in her Paradiso line-up.

No saxes, no trombones, lots of French horns and clarinets
In her records, Baum often uses less-common jazz instruments, like the bass clarinet and French horn. "When I was starting out, flute was mostly used as a double or thought of as working well in a bossa nova or maybe a ballad or in Latin music. So I really wanted it to be considered more as a front instrument for an entire gig. I wanted to find a way to give the flute more weight and a little bit more balance. I felt the flute sounded smaller and flute-y when mixed with a front horn line like alto sax, tenor sax and bari, or alto and tenor and trombone. The combination of flute and trumpet and maybe alto or bass clarinet and French horn instead of trombone, seems to offer a better balance. And I like having the doubles of bass clarinet and alto flute: it gives me more colours to work with. Sometimes I can almost make it sound larger than just a septet by using the different colours and changing off between [them]."

She said she was also influenced to try new combinations and ways to write by studying Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, in which he combined flutes and alto flutes with clarinets and other horns. As well, her friendship with jazz French horn player Tom Varner inspired her to work with that instrument.

The alto flute: "more meat on it"
Baum said that more and more she's using the alto flute as her primary instrument, "because I like playing it. To me it's got a little bit more meat on it. Although it's a little more difficult to get it speak and to be able to play it at fast tempos, I just take up the challenge because I love the sound of it."

Baum said she'd love to play the bass flute, as well, but doesn't have one: "it's a difficult instrument to use quite frequently in a set. The bass flute really has to be highlighted more in certain types of things."

And major disincentive is recent travel restrictions. Already, she said, she has had problems bringing both flutes in her carry-on baggage on airplanes, and sometimes has been forced to put her alto flute in her suitcase. With these problems ("a very bad situation for musicians"), she couldn't see trying to carry a third instrument.

Baum teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and the New School in New York, and also gives workshops while she's on tour. In Ottawa, she will also be leading a workshop called A Fear-Free Approach to Improvisation for the Classically-Trained Flutist™, at Carleton University on Friday afternoon.