Throughout the summer the our team met up with MJF 2019 artists at a few of our favorite neighborhood spots. This interview with Dana Reason took place at Montavilla Sewing Centers, located at 8326 SE Stark Street in Montavilla, on July 14, 2019. Montavilla Sewing Centers has supported Montavilla Jazz Festival as a Concert Level Sponsor since 2015…
Describe your connection to the Portland jazz scene and community.
I’ve come up to Portland several times working with Creative Music Guild’s Extradition Series and working with several of the different musicians that are involved with that organization, namely Michael Gamble, Matt Hannafin and Catherine Lee. Sometimes they get to come down to Corvallis and do gigs down there at Interzone Cafe, Site of Sound, OSU Noontime concerts, Bombs away, to name a few. It’s always been my hope that people coming in to our town can know that there’s another home base for them in Corvallis where they can play or crash at someone’s house. I always think of my involvement is larger than myself and my own work. We’re all working artists, we all wear many hats. So when there’s a possibility to share a gig or something like that or promote someone else’s work, I see it as my artistic responsibility to support my colleagues.
Before I moved to Oregon I was in San Diego and Los Angeles County area as well. I had an opportunity to come up to the Willamette Valley and I got the job teaching at Oregon State University in 2008.
Describe the project you’re bringing to Montavilla Jazz Festival 2019.
The title Torque Songs is sort of a play on “torch songs”. When we think about torch songs, we think about a kind of sentimentality around things, an emotional investment. I’m very interested in thinking about ways of representing female and female-identified voices in not only jazz music but in non-traditional experimental kinds of music. I see Torque Songs as an opportunity to give voice to the voiceless. Historically we’ve seen women in jazz music as piano players and singers, but maybe not as much as the lead improviser or the composer of a group. So I’m taking this opportunity to re-examine “torch” songs. Torque is a physical principle around centralization, and let’s say tension, but things move if we decentralize them, then the variability changes, the mechanism changes. I’m thinking about women’s work in particular, about torque––meaning there’s a bit of tension in torque––and what does that mean when women are no longer the muse, as they are in torch songs, where they are the subject written about as objects of feeling and sensing. We’re here at Montavilla Sewing Center today and it makes me think about threads. Female work or female-identified creativity is the backbone of many things that are not necessarily in your face, but quietly working. I think about the notion of changing things and there’s a lot of hope and optimism on that front as well.
Last summer I was commissioned to create An Apple for My Teacher with the Improvisers Summit of Portland (2018) and several of the performers [for Torque Songs: Holland Andrews, Alessa DeRubeis, John Savage, and artist Melody Owen] worked with me on that project. I like the idea of many voices on my projects. So I like to create templates for the musicians in my projects, but I also want to honor their practice in what I’m trying to do. So on stage we’ll have piano (myself), bass (Todd Sickafoose) and drums (James West), the nucleus is the piano trio, and then add to that a vocalist (Holland Andrews), guitar (Mike Nord) flute (John Savage) and also he’ll double on saxophone. We will play off those orchestral elements and have Alissa DeRubeis on her synthesizer with pre-made samples that I want her to have, and she will loop some things but then also modulate those with her synthesizer––she’s such a sensitive player. When we’ve worked together before I loved how she would understand when I wanted a space to grow and she was so tuned in to the organic way I work and write. It’s always a bit risky, you know, things are not completely teased out in my work because I like the idea of “the making of the now”. I really want to have those players be in that mindset. It’s not slick, I really like it a little bit gritty. I don’t have all the answers and I don’t think that the people playing with me have the answers. They have a lot of questions usually like, oh my gosh, is this really going to work out?
Visually I have two components. OSU art student, Paris Myers will have some premade animation material and she’s going to be using an iPad where she’s going to be drawing in real time over the animation. Artist Melody Owen, is also providing video art footage for visual remixing and I also have footage from a choreographer/dancer that I’ve worked with Paula Josa Jones and she will be lending her footage from some of the dance that she’s done called Fluid. We will be reimagining that as well. So cutting up some of that into the images and using those images in the animation. And again, we’re demonstrating women’s work, but we’re telling many stories. We’ll have quotes and stories that are processed through A.I. apps. We take text and reconfigure those texts (lyrics/text setting by Allison Layague) and we figure out what the lyrical mechanism is within the texts. One of the reasons I’m using that is because a lot of artists’ work is both carefully crafted and simultaneously open to serendipity. We don’t have a lot of control, we just know that we’re doing our work and hopefully the work can connect with people and kind of come full circle for me. Having a reception of the work creates that holistic sensibility for the artist. It gives the artist more courage to keep going. It’s like you throw a stone [into a body of water] and those ripples [resonate outward] and this is how I see the life of a working artist. So that’s why I like the idea of variables. So we think things are getting set in motion, but there’s always an opportunity for them to be shape-shifted. And again when Paris will be working live, she’ll also be digging in the sounds. So we’ll have opportunities to see the visuals as well and have moments in the work that we can respond accordingly. If someone is totally moved in that space, in that contingent moment, then they need to take that space and do a solo thing. So being sensitive to the temperature of the room all at all times. So different artists I’m culminating collaged text from include Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and the Bauhaus artist, Otti Berger, she used to touch fabrics because she had a sensitivity to the touching. We’re in the Sewing Center and thinking about the tactility of fabric and larger sensitivities in the moment.
Which artists are you excited to hear at MJF 2019?
I know Gordon Lee from playing piano because I actually went to him to do some private coaching with him. So I got some lessons from him on rethinking harmonizations. So that’s wonderful to see him there.
I heard Ezra’s music at Oregon State went Doug Detrick brought his project with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, Maxville to Vanport. I loved the harmonies that he writes and that’s a very beautiful band.
I know Wayne’s playing because he’s been down in Corvallis playing at Squirrels. It’s like a restaurant and club and a pretty funky space.
I just met George Colligan when I did a little workshop with ReSoundings Trio at Portland State University and I got to meet him and then of course right after, I went and watched a whole bunch of YouTubes of his playing because it’s always exciting to hear what people are doing.
And of course Mel Brown, I mean he’s a staple.
Talk about a little more about the connection of work to our sponsor here, Montavilla Sewing Center.
My mother’s mother came over from the Czech Republic and she used to actually make her own cloth out of flax, and literally loom the cloth and then do all the embroidery on the cloth. So I’ve got things from her like bed sheets with embroidered peacocks on them. I grew up around that knowing that her hands did a lot of things (family farming, building and sewing). For me, this is one way of demonstrating creativity. I was speaking with my mother and she said that my grandmother never used a pattern and basically sewed all her clothes. My mother didn’t know it know it was “high culture”, but my mother always had her own original clothing. It wasn’t seen like that, it was seen like making something from nothing right to survive as immigrants in Toronto, Canada. My mother herself sewed, she’d sew me all the Barbie clothes and I always had like little fancy fun things and she’d sew her own clothing as well. And then my husband’s family still has one of the oldest running bridal shops in downtown Toronto started in 1944 called Becker’s Bridal, and they have designed bridal gowns since the 1940s, family-run. So they have in their basement four-six sewing machines and their main floor is where you pick out the gowns. It’s the oldest running Bridal Shop in Canada still to this day.
Do you have any words of wisdom for young musicians that might be reading this?
Well, I can say that sometimes it’s just a single meeting with someone maybe even in passing that gives a young person the courage to decide to continue with music. It can make a difference to help someone decide if it’s worth the time to save some money and get a new instrument, or support oneself with lessons.
When I was in high school band (I played trombone) we had a substitute teacher come in one day and said, who’s the piano player in this room? And it was me, apparently, and he wanted me to play. The next thing you know, he made a phone call to Interlochen Arts Academy, and said to me, you need to go there, this is where you need to be. It was a one-day substitute teacher. He just finished at Juilliard and came in and that chance one time meeting changed the direction of my life. I went to Interlochen.
So sometimes just getting the courage to say hello as a young person is what it takes. Or even for us mentors, our part is noticing a child/teen and going up to them and just saying hey I heard you playing, what are you thinking of doing? Because we don’t know what they’re hearing (encouragement, wise). So I think it’s our duty to see that the children get whatever they’re going to need in that moment. Just try to be open and help them and, you know, maybe we can help them find that new door or opening for them.
What’s your take on the current state of the jazz and creative music scene in Portland?
Well, I see it as something that’s going forward. I feel like there’s kind of a collective group of individuals that are sharing leadership roles and helping the community, like the Creative Music Guild, programming musicians who are coming through town and connecting those people with local performers. So in that way they are helping our local artists as well as promoting touring artists. So I feel that that’s really exciting. I think that it takes a lot of educating to get people to recognize that we need to help each other when we’re presenting individualized new works. This is how we build a future for the art. It’s how we build on the cultural understanding of what it means to be an artist in 2019. We’re the experts on living through this time period. We are directing the way we’re going to put sounds together. It’s like an archival historic snapshot sonically.
Can you share any thoughts about Mel Brown and Gordon Lee and their contribution to Portland jazz during his career?
I think that celebrating artists like Mel and Gordon that have been at this practice for a long time is really important for everyone to see and bear witness to that. You know, I like to think that we all write one song. We write one song and we make iterations, and if you follow the earlier work of artists you see that there’s some DNA that kind of follows up the work. So I’m really excited that the festival is noticing that we can all be part of that for inspiration, to think about what to do going forward, how to keep being awake for everyone that were working with, our neighbors, our communities, and looking for opportunities for each of us to do this next piece and be present with it. I’m excited.
Photography by Kathryn Elsesser.