07.21.2011

An Interview with Laura Dreyer

Laura Dreyer

Like most jazz fans, I love Brazilian music. Why the marriage between jazz and Brasilian music works so well is hard to put into words. Perhaps it is the deeply moving sense of melody, or the adventurous sense of harmony, or the driving rhythmic core, or perhaps it is just the profound joy that both musics bring to this world. Regardless, in my personal collection of recordings and in my trips out to see live music, I have often sought out artists who have deep interests in jazz and Brazilian music. One such artist is Laura Dreyer.

I have had her album “Mysterious Encounter” on constant rotation in my stereo over the past few years. The album is a wonderful example of the grace of Brazilian jazz. Having played a few cuts from the album on the radio show in the past, I was very excited and hopeful to convince Laura to do an interview with me. Luckily, she agreed to do so. I am very pleased to share this wonderful and insightful interview with you here.

Aidan Plank: Is there anything you would like the WOBC audience to know about your music?

Laura Dreyer: Although I am a saxophonist, I think of myself as a composer first. I have always tried to write compositions that are melodically and rhythmically strong, with improvisation sections that are interesting and make sense harmonically. I think that is why I am attracted to Brazilian music. I have spent many years researching Brazilian musical styles and try to be as true to those styles as possible (When composing in the Brazilian jazz idiom, of course), but I also like to apply those principles to other styles of music.

AP: How would you describe your own music?

LD: Well currently, Brazilian jazz as well as jazz fusion. Again, I like strong melodies, interesting harmony, and rhythmic syncopation. Some of my music is more funky, some more traditional. I also like to interact with the band when I improvise. I think interaction is THE most important element in “Jazz.” I have deep roots in be-bop!

AP: Who influenced you as you were learning this music?

LD: As a writer, I started out being very influenced by musicians such as Bobby Hutcherson, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Tom Harrell, Lyle Mays, Pat Metheny, and then later became so immersed in Brazilian composers like Egberto Gismonti, Dori Caymmi, Jobim, João Bosco, Gilberto Gil (The list goes on and on…).

I have also had some great saxophone teachers who influenced me a lot. I studied with Joe Henderson for a year before I moved to New York. He was a profound influence. I also studied with Joe Lovano briefly and he helped me with phrasing and rhythm. I had 2 great composition teachers, Jim McNeely, and Lyle Mays. I studied with Lyle for 5 years. He really transformed me as a composer. When I was learning jazz, I went to every jam session that would let me in the door. I went out to hear jazz almost every night of the week when I first moved to New York, and when I was in San Francisco. I think I absorbed a lot by osmosis!

AP: I am a huge fan of both Joe Henderson and Lyle Mays, what was it like to study with them and how did that come about for you?

LD: OK, well this might sound a little “woo woo”, but anyways, Joe Henderson was my favorite tenor player, especially when I was attending Berklee. I listened to him and transcribed his solos all the time. When I left Berklee, I returned to San Francisco for a year, and I knew that Joe lived there too. I was really unhappy with my playing at the time and had just done a recording session. I heard myself on tape and felt incredibly depressed. That night I had a dream that Joe H. was telling me: Everything is going to be OK. The next day I called him and asked him if I could study with him. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

He was quite a character, but his teaching style was very different. He would play an improvised solo on the piano (on the changes of a jazz tune) and make me memorize the solo. Every week he would add on 1 or 2 choruses for me to memorize until eventually I had, say 10 choruses memorized on “Stella by Starlight,” or whatever. He never explained what he was doing in the solos harmonically, in fact he spoke very little. He always knew if I got a note wrong from one of the previous weeks. Oh, and this would take all afternoon on into the evening – hours. In between little bits of solo dictation, he would go upstairs and talk on the phone for an hour or so. I could hear him through the walls! I was just told to practice the solo. It was good for me because my experience at Berklee had caused me to become hyper-aware of theory so I had been playing from an intellectual place, not a musical one. Joe’s teaching took me back to the music, plus it was great ear-training!

At the time I decided to study with Lyle, he was living in Boston so it was relatively easy to drive up there from New York. Again, I was at a cross-roads musically, and not happy with my writing. I didn’t want to write straight-ahead jazz, but the fusion music that was out there at the time seemed really cheesy. When I heard Lyle’s first solo recording, I was blown away because it was so MUSICAL, well composed, interesting, creative, and emotional at the same time. I was able to find his phone number (Don’t ask me how!), and I called him and left a message inquiring about lessons. He called me back and asked me to send him an audition tape. The day he called and told me that he had heard my tape and accepted me as a student, I hung up the phone and screamed (with joy!).

I took a lesson with him probably once every 2 or 3 months for 5 years. Basically I would bring him the compositions I had been working on, and he would go through them and analyze them, and the up shot would mostly be about why something I had written wasn’t going to work! This wasn’t always easy to hear, although he did preface everything he said with: This is my subjective opinion. But through the process of doing this, he explained the principles of composition, often relating it to architecture, and showed me how to build solid musical structures. He recommended that I read “Emotion and Meaning in Music,” we analyzed “Uber melodies,” and he suggested that I listen to lots of classical composers. The compositions that I wrote during that time period began to improve a lot, and I also ended up trashing a lot of my less spectacular tunes. He had these little processes that he told me to do for melodic development that took weeks. I really learned to have a lot of patience with composing, and learned not to commit to anything before exploring all of the various options. I used to leave those lessons feeling SO inspired!! I owe a lot to him!

AP: Who inspires you currently, musically or otherwise?

LD: I seem to get into these niche things that I become obsessed with. Currently I have been obsessed with learning how to arrange for strings. I used a string quartet on 3 songs that are on my upcoming CD, and I see that I have a lot to learn. I love the way Dori Caymmi writes for strings. I can listen for hours while going through my itunes library and listen to only certain sections of his string writing. That blows me away! I am also interested in orchestration and will listen to lots of music and pay attention to only that element.

AP: I really enjoy your connection with Brazilian music. How did you get interested in it?

LD: I was exposed to lots of bossa novas as a child. I always felt a certain affinity for the bossa nova. Even when I was a beginning player, my best early compositions were bossas. I listened to a lot of Flora and Airto while in high school. I played in a band in San Francisco when I was around 20 that played Latin and Brazilian jazz, and when I moved to New York, I played in another Brazilian influenced band called “Janela.” In my late 20′s I was interested in jazz fusion, and had a fusion band. Through my quest to discover really interesting music, I noticed a crossover with Brazilian jazz and American jazz fusion. I am the kind of person that is driven by passion, and I became so passionate about Brazilian music that I decided to study it very deeply, which is one of the reasons that I formed the band that is on my first CD. And I am still learning more! Of course I had a lot of like minded musicians and friends, both Brazilian and non-Brazilian here in New York. And luckily there were a lot of fun places to go and hear great Brazilian music in New York City.

AP: Is there a better rhythm section than Kip Reed and Vanderlei Pereira?

LD: Ha ha! Kip and Vanderlei are a great combination. That’s why I chose to form a band with them, as well as with pianist Dario Eskenazi. We played together for many years. They are all very sophisticated, sensitive musicians that play with a lot of feeling and great groove. I am lucky because in New York there are many great players.

AP: What are you currently working on?

LD: For the past several years I have been experimenting and playing with a lot of different rhythm section combinations, writing new music (Brazilian and non-Brazilian), and reviving some of my older fusion tunes. I began recording my newest CD last Summer when my friends and fellow musicians George Colligan and Kerry Politzer spurred me into doing so. Kerry is a great pianist and is very versatile. She also loves Brazilian music and has studied it a lot. Her husband George is a jazz pianist that also plays drums. He is the drummer on the CD. What I like about him as a drummer is his ability to really interact with the soloist. Itaiguara is on bass (He is from Brazil and is one of my favorite bassists), and he also overdubbed some guitar on a few tracks. We recorded the basic tracks last Summer and have just finished all of the overdubs as of last week. Several of the songs are Brazilian Jazz, some are in the jazz fusion idiom, and I recorded one composition by Egberto Gismonti. Jane Getter also plays guitar on a few tracks, Carlos Darci plays percussion, and my string quartet consisted of Zoran Jakovcic on violins and viola, and Brian Snow on cello. I am playing alto and soprano saxophones, flute and alto flute. The album is called “Mind Movies” and will be released on Piloo Records this Fall.

AP: What advice do you have for young musicians?

LD: Hmmmm… well, keep a very open mind and explore many different types of music. If you find one thing that really turns you on, really delve into it and learn as much as you can. The music business is really challenging, so if you have to do other jobs or professions for money, don’t let that make you bitter. I think that there can be a marriage between passion and practicality. Also, go and hear as much live music as possible, travel to other countries, use everything for your inspiration, and think outside the box.

AP: When are you coming to Oberlin to play for us?

LD: I would love to come to Oberlin and play. Just tell me who to call to set it up!

AP: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

LD: I would like to thank you, Aidan Plank, for giving me the opportunity to tell a little bit of my story here, and for being a proponent of jazz in the media. We really need that now in this country and in this culture. When I was growing up, I heard jazz on the radio every day, and thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread (Now I slice my own bread! Ha!). Today this music is difficult to find outside of satellite radio and the internet. But, great art is great art, in spite of corporate America!

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