GETTING TO KNOW: GAI BRYANT

Gai Bryant is a saxophonist/composer currently living in Sydney, Australia. She has worked with Korean taegum maestro Won Hyang-Juan, Jim McNeely, Carl Orr, Mark Simmonds, Paul McNamara, Sandy Evans, Jackie Orzaczky, Jann Rutherford, Lloyd Swanton, Janet Seidel, Don Burrows, Roger Frampton and others. She has studied with soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom and composers Mike Gibbs and Jim McNeely. Gai has toured with her own groups within Australia performing at major jazz venues and jazz festivals. Internationally she has toured to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Sweden and Finland performing with her own groups and as a guest instrumentalist.

Photo Credit: Arwyn Bryant

The Street talked to Gai before her Canberra performance with Caribé Havana Return Por Favor.

WHAT ARE THE POSSIBILITIES OF SAXOPHONE AS AN INSTRUMENT?

Saxophone is such an expressive instrument with great tonal flexibility and range of timbres. You can move from a soft buzz to a loud bark in an instant. You can bend the pitch, use a variety of techniques including multiphonics and altissimo register. These characteristics give the saxophone an ability to mimic the human voice allowing it to be really effective when playing traditional music where chanting is prominent.

The above qualities make the saxophone incredibly versatile too. I love the fact that it can blend with a wide range of music styles. As a composer the same qualities give it the ability to mix well with high and low brass which is great for writing large ensemble pieces.

The most attractive element of saxophone playing for me is that everyone has their own sound. Exploring folkloric Cuban, Peruvian and Korean music styles alongside jazz traditions has allowed me to keep developing my own sound as a player and a composer. 

YOUR NAME HAS BEEN SYNONYMOUS WITH AFRO-CUBAN AND LATIN JAZZ. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A CHAMPION OF THE GENRE. WHY CUBA?

The answer to these questions is my brother Arwyn. His joy in learning about Cuban music and dance was infectious. He filled my house with music, dance and photos after spending an extended time in Cuba. Not long afterward I undertook a doctorate at the University of Sydney on adapting traditional Cuban music styles for big band in 2011. During the next couple of years Arwyn helped and assisted me in research and planning visits to Cuba. Sadly for my family and myself, Arwyn passed away in 2014 as a result of long-term Lyme Disease.

I felt the best way to honour him and his open-hearted spirit is to continue to explore, promote and perform Cuban music styles merged with a jazz aesthetic. I’ve chosen to do this by creating my own interpretations of Cuban styles.

My own trips to Cuba have been fascinating and inspiring. It’s a joy to work with and talk to Cuban artists because they have so much passion for art of all genres. Cubans are incredibly resourceful. Through having to adapt and improvise they are fearless in finding ways to express themselves. Adrian Medina recently reminded me that Cubans have over one thousand years of experience in transforming their own music styles and shaping them into new forms. For instance, refashioning Cuban mozambique into songo and timba.

CARIBÉ IS DESCRIBED AS A MELDING OF MUSICIANS AND DANCERS FROM AUSTRALIA’S CUBAN, JAZZ AND LATIN COMMUNITIES. TELL US MORE ABOUT THE IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE YOU AND ANDRE MEDINA HAVE DEVELOPED.

Caribé is the ultimate multicultural mix sourced from small arts communities within Sydney’s population. Most of the horn players are from Sydney’s jazz community, the percussion are from Sydney’s Latino community, the rest of the rhythm section are from both and we have Adrian from Sydney’s Cuban community. Linking them all is a love of Cuban music and an interest in Cuban culture.

The Latino community is extremely small but manages to punch well above its weight in terms of their contribution to Sydney’s music and dance scenes. Because the number of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants is tiny most musicians within this community are called upon to play a variety of music from a lot of different countries and traditions. Some specialise in Cuban music. Caribé is fortunate to have two of them as percussionists. We are also extremely lucky to have Adrian Medina with us. He has been able to provide depth to our understanding of many of the music styles by teaching us how the dance figures work with the music.

In Havana Return we’re exploring folkloric styles that incorporate chanting and are identified with particular orishas. This is combined with vintage footage of Cuban musicians and images to give the music and the stories context. Lee McIver and I put everything past Adrian to ensure that the footage and images are appropriate with the music. Through Adrian sharing his personal experiences with us, we’re better equipped to communicate the mood and intention of these pieces effectively and respectfully. Our approach uses a combination of asking lots of questions and making time for consultation.

WHAT IS THE CREATIVE PROCESS BEHIND THE CREATION OF THIS CABARET STYLE AND THE INTERACTION BETWEEN MUSICIANS AND DANCERS?

The creative process begins with the music. The style of music determines the dance, the intention, the visual context. We want to show Cuban culture outside the usual stereotypes. As a composer I’m creating music influenced by folkloric and classic Cuban music styles and I want to explore them without replicating other peoples’ work. All the music in the show is my interpretation of Cuban styles and they are also informed by my experience as a jazz player and composer.

I enjoy discussing my work with Adrian and other Cuban artists living here-they always have different approaches. When I visited Cuba I remember laughing at the number of different theories musicians had about the history of many music styles. For instance, I asked about the origins of rumba Columbia. Some said it was created in a railroad town called Columbia in Matanzas province, others stated it evolved from rhythm and chants used in Abakuá traditions and so on. Huge debates would ensue with every person standing by their theory. As you can gather there’s a lot of variance about the origins and ways of playing this music which has led to openness in approach that keeps the music alive because it fosters reinvention. I’m trying to keep that kind of openness in my own playing and writing process.

WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO COLLABORATION WITH OTHER ARTISTS?

Collaborating is blending the experiences of all the artists involved in a project. With Caribé, Adrian, Lee and I discuss everything. Get togethers begin as soon as a running order is established. We talk about the flow from one piece to the next, the level of interaction needed, the images used, sometimes the colour of clothing and so forth.

I collaborated in a similar way with Korean Taegum player Hyang-Juan Won in 2000. If you have respect for each other’s input, share information, understand each other’s role in a project and have time this consultative model can work well.

HOW HAVE YOU APPROACHED COMPOSING MUSIC AND LEADING MUSICIANS IN BANDS/ENSEMBLES TO REFLECT THEIR MUSICAL HERITAGE?

I love working with people from other cultures. I’m fascinated by their experiences, the strong sense of identity art gives them in all its forms-music, dance, film, novels, murals, painting, poetry and more. My initial involvement in this project and a new Afro-Peruvian jazz group ALLY stems from curiosity. I want to find out how things work. Do certain styles have a form, are there specific rhythms used, what are they, is the instrumentation important, why, what harmony is underpinning things, is there a reason for that?

I’ve found most people I work with are just as curious as I am and just as respectful toward a different cultures. It’s inspiring working with all the musicians in Caribé and ALLY. By embracing the range of talents and skills we each bring to the group both ensembles manage to navigate through jazz and Latin traditions and create something special. An example of this is Toño Marquez. He’s a brilliant percussionist who enthusiastically brings his knowledge of Cuban music to the group while driving the tempo AND keeping the horn players in line!

PLEASE SHARE YOUR PERSPECTIVES ON THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC/JAZZ SCENE AND THE MUSICIANS COMING OUT OF ANU SCHOOL OF MUSIC MAKING THEIR MARK NATIONALLY AND INTERNATIONALLY.

My connections to Canberra come through musicians and ceramic artists. Canberra has such fine players: Brendan Clarke, Hugh Barrett, Miroslav Bukovsky, Eric Ajaye, and John Mackey to name a few. I had the pleasure of working with Brendan for some time and I think he’s a brilliant musician! Cannot say enough good things about Brendan. Furthering my Canberra connections are band members, Giorgio Rojas and Jonathan Cohen, who I work with in a new Afro-Peruvian jazz group called ALLY. They are both originally from Canberra.

I recently heard a little music from a young bass player from ANU named Brendan Keller-Tuberg. He’s setting an impressive pace as a player and composer. I’m looking forward to hearing what he does in the future. There is something so right going on in Canberra when so many fantastic players live there or are coming from there.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

There are so many Latin Jazz groups and musicians emerging that are playing great music it’s easy to be inspired. To list a few: Cuban drummer/composer Dafnis Prieto, Dominican pianist/composer Josean Jacobo, Venezuelan percussionist/composer Fran Vielma.

 WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?

I’m reading The Erratics by Vicki Laveau Harvie. It’s a dark, funny memoir about a dysfunctional family. Maybe not for the faint-hearted.

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