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Flute Witness

Jamie Baum Changes The Way Her Instrument Is Heard and Understood in Jazz

Fedner Lachapelle
Jamie Baum (center, far right) leads her septet toward a new-ish jazz sound.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/12/2008

It's not easy being a jazz flutist. The instrument's sound is so often associated with a fluttery, sugary fluidity that it's hard to get some jazz fans to accept anything else or to get other jazzers to take it seriously at all. But Jamie Baum, who plays two shows and leads two workshops in the Baltimore area this weekend, is determined to prove that the flute can be harsh as well as sweet, funky as well as fluid. Her music has many facets, but in one sense it's an argument about the instrument's possibilities.

"That's been my quest in a way," she confesses by phone from New York. "So many people associate the instrument with that light, romantic sound that you heard in pop jazz or smooth jazz or that breezy, skipping sound you heard in Latin and Brazilian music, but I wanted to play in the mainstream jazz tradition. Some of the challenge stems from the physics of the instrument. On saxophone, if you blow really hard it'll create one thing, but if you do that on the flute, you'll go out of tune or break the note. One reason the flute has come out more recently is because we have better amplification now. You can turn the amp up to 11; you can get in the game so to speak.

"I did want the instrument to come across in a different way, as a viable front instrument," she continues. "To do that, I did what other musicians do--I studied Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and Wynton Kelly, rather than just focusing on flutists. It's like learning French; you have to learn not only the vocabulary but also the pronunciation and grammar. Then you find a way to communicate that same vibe on your instrument."

You can hear the results of Baum's work on her new album, Solace (Sunnyside). On the opening title track, for example, Baum's flute and Ralph Alessi's trumpet play a brooding, impressionistic melody that twists in and out of the expected harmony as if they were both channeling Davis. Baum's solo dives into the lower realm of the flute's range and finds phrases that squirm uncomfortably. Though the tune is called "Solace," there's more than the feel-good romanticism you'd expect from the flute; Baum also evokes the weary angst that requires such comforting.

On "Far Side," Baum does seem to reach the opposite shore of the flute's possibilities, breaking up the instrument's usual sustained legato into Rollins-like punctuated phrases. Suddenly the flute is no longer taking small steps within an uninterrupted flow but rather large, surprising leaps across pauses. On "Pine's Creek" and "Dave's Idea," Baum demonstrates how the flute can contribute to a push-and-pull syncopation by adding pauses and making sudden U-turns in the melodic line. The result is a rugged tension not anticipated from a flute project.

"In arranging this album I wanted to highlight the flute in ways that it's not usually featured," Baum says. "When I put this band together, I wanted to give the flute a different context. To have the traditional four-man front line with a tenor and baritone sax would have generated a heavier sound and would have made the flute sound light by comparison. Instead, I surrounded the flute with the trumpet, clarinet, and French horn; that evened things out. I also wanted to use the flute in different registers, so it's not always the top instrument; I might give the melody to a different instrument and I'll be a middle voice on the alto flute. So you get the feeling the flute can play a role."

When the Jamie Baum Septet came to An Die Musik in March 2006, the highlight of the set was "Time Traveler," an extended jazz suite based on the classical composer Charles Ives' Fourth Symphony. George Colligan, the Maryland pianist now based in New York, began with a stately but broken line that was soon matched by the flute's fragmented phrases. Baum, a short, slender woman with dark hair, a purple jacket, and black bell-bottom slacks, articulated her music in succinct sentences, rather than the stream-of-consciousness that most flutists favor.

After a relaxed, swinging piano-trio section, a theme from the symphony was introduced by the closely bunched flute, trumpet, alto sax, and French horn. The tightly woven horns then unraveled into individual lines that, combined with the energetic push from the rhythm section, lent an Ellingtonian air to the proceedings. It all built to the climax of a give-and-take duet between Baum's flute and Shane Endsley's trumpet that demonstrated how Ives' material could thrive in a jazz arrangement.

The piece got its start when Baum proposed to Chamber Music America that she adapt Ives' Fourth Symphony and his program piece, "The Unanswered Question," for her jazz septet. She won the funding in 2003, introduced the results on her 2006 tour, and finally released the adaptations on CD with this year's Solace.

"I'd had a lot of fun adapting some Stravinsky stuff," Baum explains. "And I'd always loved Ives. Some of it was so cool, so far ahead of its time. But you have to be careful what you ask for, because Ives proved harder to adapt than even Stravinsky. All these crazy things are going on, because Ives likes to have a lot of stuff going on at the same time--different themes, different meters, different tonalities. It was a challenge to come up with something with a continuing pulse like jazz.

"But the reason jazz has grown and evolved into such an exciting music is because it has always looked to different kinds of music for inspiration. Even when it started it was a conglomeration of European music, Creole music, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, and blues. Then in the '40s and '50s they added Afro-Cuban music, then Brazilian music, then Miles with rock, Coltrane with Indian music, lots of people with world music. Many jazz artists have looked to classical music for harmonies, as far back as Ellington and Evans and more recently with Uri Caine, Don Byron, and Fred Hersch. It's just a way for the music to expand and evolve. The harmonies in classical music are so rich; they encourage contrapuntal writing."

Jazz also grows by allowing instruments to take on new personalities. After you hear Baum play Ives as if she were Miles Davis, you will never think of the flute in the same way again.

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