Interview: ONE OF US | Ramona Borthwick

Interviewed by Dr. Rick Holland | Aug 16, 2011

Dr. Rick – Ramona, please give us some of your background. Tell us where you studied music, maybe some of your biggest influences as a student of music.

Ramona – I grew up in Bombay, India where I had most of my formal musical training. Born into a musician’s family I was fortunate to have had private piano lessons in classical music twice a week starting at the age of six. In addition to practicing the instrument, assignments in music theory and history were aplenty. In junior high I got good enough to sub at school for the music teacher when she called in sick 🙂 This was my first solo gig playing experience, it was stress-free and a lot of fun. My listening and playing revolved around classical music during these years; in particular I enjoyed practicing Bach, Debussy and Bartok. Aside from some Brubeck and Jobim albums that were part of my Dad’s collection, I wasn’t really exposed to much jazz then. I also grew up listening to church music – Anglican hymns, psalms and choral works, and at sixteen was pumping the pedals of the old reed organ at church during choir practices and services. Hearing such rich harmonies and elegant vocal parts may have been instrumental in steering me toward the multi-layered, polyphonic style of writing I do today. Lastly there was an ubiquitous presence of film music in the background, which my father, a studio musician and arranger wrote – a blend of traditional and folk music tailored for Bollywood films. So while I didn’t actively study or play it, I was exposed to a fair amount of Indian folk and classical music. Later as a teenager, I heard Corea’s ‘Light As A Feather’ which may have been instrumental in changing my focus from classical music to the unknown and infinitely more challenging world of jazz and improvisation. I’d say my best teachers were all the jazz players whose music I transcribed, analyzed and tried to imitate.

Dr. Rick – Who are some of the pianists and composers that inspire you in today’s musical world? Why? Can you give us specifics, especially, on what may fascinate your love for a certain musician or musical genre?

Ramona – There are several pianists I admire, so it is tough to pick just a few – but some whom I owe a great deal to and have been major influences are John Taylor, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Michel Petrucciani and Kenny Werner. John Taylor to me is this complete pianist – his touch is exquisite and command of the instrument towering. He is a rare bird in the sense that his playing is very uplifting and healing – I call him the medicine man on the piano. Kenny Werner is one of the finest pianists around – I love the way he blends musical discipline and freedom in his playing. I am glad he is finally getting critical attention from high circles that he truly deserves. Good music is above technical wizardry and flash, but the great thing about these musicians is that they can do all this but their music comes from a deeper place – it just so happens that they have the propensity to execute the ideas and feelings that come from that place.

Dr. Rick- I truly appreciate the interaction you and Noel have on ‘One of Us’. Everything from your musical language to your sense of groove. Could you share some of your musical journey together? Some things you do together? Maybe separate?

Ramona – Thanks Rick. Indeed, my strongest musical partnership has been with Noel. We’ve shared many musical situations, some intensely rewarding and some not so, which is fine because that contributes to the richness of the journey. We’ve known each other for close to three decades so we know each other’s quirks and leanings, although we still surprise each other sometime :-). Although we listen to a lot of the same kind of music and share common aesthetics, our writing and playing styles tend to be very different, which I think works positively for us. It’s great to have music as our common love and priority, but I believe that sharing core human values and attitudes is likely the more plausible reason we continue to do music in relative harmony! I think had we more hours in the day we might pursue separate interests (of which I have plenty), but between my teaching and writing, and Noel’s alternate persona as CTO at Cakewalk writing music software, music is pretty much our main activity. He also produced and mixed the album and his contribution on this project was invaluable, both technically and musically. In case your readers are interested, there is a log documenting the process of producing this album from conception through release which Noel wrote – http://www.noelborthwick.com/minidump/2009/11/one-of-us-conception/. I think we would like to do a duo album sometime in the future. I know that for this instrumental combination to work well it will definitely be a more challenging project to write for.

Dr. Rick – Talk to us now about ‘One of Us’. How did this recording come together? Tell us why you chose the personnel whom performed? What are some unique things you enjoyed about there playing that made your music unique? Have there been some ‘live’ performances of ‘One Of Us’?

Ramona – A couple of years after releasing ‘A New Leaf’ I started reviewing some of the music I was writing. The desire to commence on a fresh project was just stirring and I started thinking of musicians I would like to see involved. My music depends on powerful solo voices, and I knew I was writing (once again) with trumpet and guitar in mind. We had heard Ingrid several years ago in Canada, her sound was tremendous, some Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard in there, but most of all I loved her ability to soar above the written music, her melodicism and the chances she embraced in her playing – she seemed the perfect choice for my music. Johannes Weidenmueller was known to me earlier. He’s a phenomenal bassist and through his association with Kenny Werner’s trio, and knowing his background in classical music and exposure to the ECM style, I knew he would be great for playing my extended heads, twisted chord changes and scattered counterpoint lines for bass. Noel had heard Adam on a few recordings, he’d worked with Johannes before and since he was also based in New York, which is where we planned to record and where the rest of the band lived, it seemed to all fit together. Although written for quintet, the songs demanded more than the number of instruments present to play it, hence the use of voice, and overlaying of multi-parts by horn & guitar which sometimes makes the quintet sound like a ‘little big band’ so to speak. If you choose the right performers for your music, you don’t need to give them directions, except perhaps explain the meaning of some obscure title or the setting for a song. It was amazing to see how quickly these guys absorbed this music. We literally had about eight hours of rehearsal over two days before the recording, and we were apprehensive about getting this sounding right in such a short time, but it all came together beautifully. Ingrid’s dynamics and sense of melody really brought some of the arrangements to life and Johannes and Adam were a rock solid rhythm section.

We’ve performed tunes from ‘One Of Us’ in Boston with different players, and it’s been wonderful playing this music live— some of the tunes are tricky and it’s kind of demanding for me doing these extended pieces, making announcements, memorizing parts of tunes and singing parts, but I think I’m in the best place and I love listening to all the solos as well.

Dr. Rick – Can you give us some insight on how go about conceiving your compositions? They all seem to have more classical influence when it comes to form? Your harmonic suggestions, modern modal harmony…

Ramona – I’d say almost all my composing is done at the piano. A lot of my music can be described as ‘program music’ with most of the inspiration coming from trying to capture or reference forces bigger than myself – such as nature. It also happens to be a hallmark feature of one my strongest influences –ECM music. Usually there is a sense of urgency about translating the ideas to paper, and the feeling is quite beautiful. I write my compositions often over a short span of time – like an afternoon, with some editing done over the next few days. It’s akin to my experience with painting with watercolors – where a composition needs to be completed in a relatively short time frame, since the paint and paper dry up in little or no time. I believe a good composition is like a narrative with a good story line – a well written foreword, a substantial plot that is cleverly staged and revealed in timely fashion, with a complementary finale to wrap things up.

It has been gratifying to have my compositions acknowledged positively – I do have a good understanding of classical harmony, but I don’t really think of what the ‘right’ thing to do compositionally in a jazz context might be. There are chord progressions I use that are non-standard, and voicings that sometimes can’t be represented by regular symbols, so I just write them in to the best of my ability. I use time-signature and tempo changes in pieces, because sometimes a phrase demands a certain amount of breathing room and elasticity to make its mark. The idea of motivic development is very important to me, so regular forms like AB or ABA can be very constrictive. My melodies are usually simple and very singable, but I like the challenge of developing or morphing them into something entirely different sounding by using canonic and contrapuntal treatment. Harmonic progressions are key to allowing soloist a stimulating environment within which to create, so that is something I like to spend a little more time on. Rhythm is the glue that holds it all together and I’m increasingly appreciative of how powerful a tool this can be. An aesthetic balance between filling out the sound and eliminating unnecessary noise is a constant process during the editing process. This is of particular relevance if the tune were to be recorded since it should bear repeated listening. There should be some gravity in the writing that rewards the listener with something new on every listen.

There’s definitely a spiritual quest somewhere in the writing, the urge to do good or create some sort of healing in the music. On ‘One of Us’ the theme reflected in the music and CD art celebrates Earth and appreciates the interdependence of species on our planet. And I do like to have fun, so if I’m writing and something happens that’s interesting or humorous, that makes me laugh and feel good, whether it is pastiche or a bit of wicked comedy, I think I’ll write that in and maybe it will make other people smile. Eventually, I believe jazz is not inherently an intellectual process – I mean you do use intellect if you want to analyze the content, take it apart, understand it and develop the facility to execute it, but the real thing happens when you can forget all of it, and allow your instincts to lead you to the new work that is waiting to happen.

[Rick Holland is a musician, educator, author and critic. Visit him at www.rickholland.net]

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