With RICK HOLLAND, JazzRadio247.com, September Issue, 2006
Rick Holland: Thank-you Ramona for taking some time with us and our listeners at JR47. I just wanted to tell you, I’ve been enjoying your new disc, A New Leaf. I think what really captured my attention was the influence of World rhythms that involves your music. Can you share with us how you feel Jazz has cross pollinated into world music?
Ramona Borthwick: That is an interesting question, since this is relatively a more common phenomenon the other way around – world music cross pollinating jazz. Jazz itself might be considered world music in a sense, since its origins can be traced to the synthesis of Afro-European influences. Although my early music education was in western classical music, I grew up in India, a country where traditional and folk music is pretty much part of everyday life. With its regional diversity and profusion of religions, there are festivals occurring monthly if not more often, with music being an integral part of celebration and worship. In such an environment it’s hard not to have cultural influences leak into one’s expression of music, and often it is an unconscious process. So although I didn’t actively study or play traditional Indian music, I was exposed to a fair amount of Indian folk and classical music. And then there were Brazilian and other South American influences that came from listening to music from other parts of the globe. Ultimately, I believe that the best music comes from letting yourself play what needs to be played from inside you, without forcing it, or it can end up sounding contrived especially if you add stylistic elements for the sake of exotic value. The beautiful thing about jazz is how the form accommodates other stylistic elements while still retaining its core style. We are seeing more and more international jazz artists from Europe and other continents, combining native influences into their music in an organic manner.
RH: I read you received your education in Bombay, what or who was it there that inspired you to investigate jazz music?
RB: In my late teens, while studying for a degree in piano performance, I was involved in a few music festivals while in university, and met a couple of event organizers who encouraged me to attend a jazz workshop that was being held in the city. My contribution to it at the time was as a vocalist, not a pianist however. This is also where I met my husband, Noel, a guitarist who was involved with the jazz scene there. He was one of the major motivators for me to take up jazz. There were no music schools in India to study jazz, so it was left up to you to teach yourself, which one did by listening to recordings, transcribing, and studying jazz textbooks if you were lucky enough to get them, considering the currency exchange rate and difficult import procedures. In a way you had to be really committed (or crazy) to pursue jazz in this environment – but the inspiration was great enough, and listening to and analyzing recordings of great players and exponents in the field was probably the best jazz education that I received.
RH: Your father was a professional musician in Bombay, what kind of music was he involved in? How was he influential on you and your music?
RB: I was fortunate in the sense that I grew up in a family where music as a profession was considered a norm; a bit of a rarity particularly in India, where academics overrides pretty much all other fields like sports and creative arts. My father gained reputation in India as an accordionist, but he also played keyboards, and enjoyed a long career as a regular sessions player and composer/arranger in Bollywood. He was keen to give me a structured musical education which he did not entirely receive as a child, so private lessons and subsequent daily practice became part of my everyday life. It’s a good thing I enjoyed practicing and had a family to support my musical aspirations, although they did shut the door to my room when I practiced some high decibel Bartok in odd meters in my later years!
RH: I want to get back to rhythm, your music captivates me by your use of rhythm in your compositions and improvisations. How do you feel one matures rhythmically? In order, that their comfortable playing music that is so rhythmically involved?
RB: Wow – it’s kind of you to say that, particularly since rhythm has been one of my focal priorities during practice. Coming from a classical background, there can be a disposition towards melodic and harmonic development over rhythm. I think the most important first step is to be aware of how rhythm can influence and shape the improvisation one is about to create. It took me a while to acknowledge the importance of this – I felt the need for my own growth as a musician to strip things down to sound and silence – essentially the two components of rhythm. I recall having a great lesson with pianist Kenny Werner, where the focus was to juxtapose a short phrase at different points over a cycle of bars, until playing it from the weirdest point in time felt totally natural. It’s exciting when an improvisation, can be fired up based on rhythmic devices alone – Herbie Hancock, for example, is a master at this. I like to look at rhythm as punctuation and phrasing during a conversation – one is more inclined to listen, react and perhaps even enjoy a speaker who employs this over another who speaks in monotone. Indian music is very active in this regard, and there is an amazing wealth of rhythmic techniques and dynamics that a soloist employs.
RH: Noel is also very involved with metric phrasing, has he had influence on you and your music?
RB: As a youngster Noel had some exposure to playing with Indian classical musicians. Although his interest in harmony and jazz pulled him away from that discipline, one of the positive benefits this experience left him with was a strong interest in rhythmic and syncopation techniques, commonly found in Indian music. Although some modern jazz can be very syncopated, typical metric phrasing employed in the jazz idiom, tends to be focus on the classic strong and weak beats within the measure, and constructed using subdivisions of a quarter note (eights, sixteenths, etc) or triplets. However, there are other interesting poly-metric and superimposition techniques that can lead to interesting rhythmic variations. For example, you might play phrases constructed using somewhat contrasting metric groupings, such as groupings of 3,5,6 or 7 notes against standard 4/4 time, or use phrases from a different meter superimposed against another. You can end up with some interesting phrasing variations and displaced accents using this. As Noel would say, there is life beyond swing eighth’s 🙂
I try and use some of these elements compositionally as well. There are some examples of rhythmic transitions in my tune “Baarah Sur”.
RH: Do you have a process of composing? Your compositions have a variety of influence, how do you go about composing? Do you incorporate this process with improvisation? Or is it a separate process for you?
RB: I can write something of substance only when I feel inspired – I wish it would happen more often! It’s a funny feeling that I’ve come to recognize over the years – it’s almost physical – a restless feeling in the pit of my stomach, with my perception of everyday sounds getting faint, while the music gets louder in my head. There is a sense of urgency about it and the feeling is quite beautiful. My compositions are usually written within a short span of time – like an afternoon, with some editing done with a fresh eye (and ear) the next day. It’s akin to my experience with painting – my choice of medium being watercolors – where a composition needs to be completed in a relatively short time frame, since the paper dries up in little or no time. All said and done, I think the hardest part for me is coming up with a title for the tune 🙂
Improvisation on the other hand, is a real-time process – without the possibility of editing, which is possible while composing. I do however try to incorporate, what I like to refer to as ‘narrating a story’ in both composing and improvising. For example, I think a solo can bear repeated listening if it tells a tale or gets a message across – it is something that I continue to practice in order to be consistent during this process of capturing musical thoughts and placing them creatively within a beginning and main body, before signing off.
RH: How did you choose Boston as a place of operation for you? Is it an enriching environment that enhances your creativity?
RB: I would never have imagined 15 years ago, while in India, that I would be in Boston, playing jazz! It’s been a long journey of sorts, and it is truly a blessing that things worked out this way for me. The opportunity to move to Boston was primarily related to Noel accepting a job writing music software for a company here (he’s also a software engineer). We also decided to move here considering Boston’s reputation for its many universities, music schools and great musicians, with activity in other creative fields too.
RH: I’m also a fan of Brazilian jazz. Have you ever spent time there? Or, who in that idiom have you listened to that has made the music intriguing to you?
RB: Unfortunately I haven’t visited Brazil, but I know I will someday. I love the way the music has embraced jazz. It brings to it a sunlit quality while being soulful, two elements that I am drawn to immediately! The great Antonio Carlos Jobim and contemporary composers such as Guinga and Ivan Lins are some whose lyricism and harmonic writing I admire.
RH: Can you explain the process of Baarah Sur, it’s twelve tone, and complicated rhythmically. Phil tears it up by the way, and you and Noel sound very comfortable on this as well, despite the obvious difficulty. How did you conceive this?
RB: At the time I wrote this tune, I was reading more in depth about Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositional methods. Although I had studied music history and composition, I had never really practically applied twelve tone methods to my compositions. It was while experimenting with various tone-rows that I wrote “Baarah Sur” (it literally means ‘Twelve Tones’ in Hindi), not just to write a twelve tone composition, but to challenge myself to come up with something that would sound unlike a twelve tone composition i.e. something lyrical, perhaps even singable. Typically compositions utilizing this method tend to sound jagged or mathematical, which is fine too, but I wanted to get away from that. The phrasing is a bit unorthodox, although when I wrote it, it felt spontaneous at the time. Yes, the form can be a challenge to improvise on (that’s usually a complaint from my band members on some of my other tunes as well!), but I think this is what also contributes to the edgy, forward motion of the tune.
RH: I noticed your poetry inside your disc, written by you. How much does prose and written word affect the imagery of your music?
RB: Actually not much – I wrote the poem after the CD was recorded. I was laboring over the liner notes for this CD, and found it was far easier for me to convey what was really in my heart through a poem. I felt I needed to compress my reasons for doing this album, and to share a bit of my past with listeners so they understood where I was coming from musically. I hope this helps them get closer to the music.
RH: Where has your group been playing? What are some goals you have with this band?
RB: I’ve been playing in the Boston area as and when opportunities have arisen, and look forward to continue doing so. It’s hard to keep the same band going for practical reasons – most musicians I’ve met have been on the move, so while it is fulfilling to have a band of musicians that you can vibe and make music with, it is not always a permanent state.
RH: You and Noel seem to be very close, I believe I read your playing with his group as well. Are there some goals you two may have musically together?
RB: Music has offered us much in our lives and staying true to our artistic and creative sensibilities is a mutual desire. While we continue to write new music, and explore our own abilities, there are a couple of projects that hope to undertake probably in the course of the next year, one being a follow up to my current CD, while the other will be a project by Noel.
RH: Ramona, thanks for spending some time with us at JR247. We wish you many happy travels in your creative journeys.
RB: Thank you Richard, and I wish JazzRadio247 the very best in years to come!