Q&A with Roxy Coss: Seeking a Unique Voice

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Roxy Coss’ new album, The Future Is Female, was inspired by the 2016 presidential elections.

(Photo: Desmond White)

Musician, composer, bandleader and educator Roxy Coss has been playing saxophone since she discovered the instrument in elementary school. When she discovered jazz in middle school, her course was set.

“Jazz gave me a deeper connection to the sax and made me conscious of the desire to find my own voice,” Coss said. “A big part of playing jazz is getting your own sound on your instrument.”

After graduating from New Jersey’s William Paterson University, the Seattle-bred artist moved to New York and became part of the city’s vibrant jazz scene. She produced her first album, 2010’s Roxy Coss (Self Release), to document the compositions she’d been playing with her band during a residency at 181 Cabrini. She then added a guitarist to the band for 2016’s Restless Idealism (Origin).

“At that point, my sound and approach had evolved,” the bandleader said. “I was starting to think about concept more and changed instrumentation. The guitar could be used as a chordal instrument, melodic instrument or to add texture.”

Coss signed with Posi-Tone for 2017’s Chasing The Unicorn. It was her first album that included cover tunes.

“My producer, Marc Free, thought it would be good to have something that listeners might have some reference to. That made me think about my musical roots and helped me translate my unique influences by writing arrangements to reframe familiar tunes,” she said.

Coss continues her journey on the recently released Posi-Tone recording The Future Is Female, a 10-track collection of original material inspired by the 2016 election.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

The Future Is Female is overtly political. What moved you in that direction?
The title Chasing The Unicorn was not overtly political, but a lot of the themes on that album were related to the content on The Future is Female. My compositions are based on themes from my real life. This album is a natural next step, considering what’s going on societally and personally.

I carried a sign to the Women’s March [in January 2017] that said, “The Future Is Female.” Hilary [Clinton] had said it in a speech, and it was a powerful idea for me. We’ve always been ruled by the patriarchy and we seem to be hitting a wall with that, in terms of progress and community. It’s true in the jazz world as well.

I was not that surprised when [Donald Trump] got elected. I had this fear from the beginning of the primaries that if Hillary was the nominee, we’d have a scary outcome. Based on my everyday experiences in the world, and especially in the jazz world, I don’t think Americans are ready to have a female president.

How long did it take to compose the music on The Future Is Female?
I started preparing for this album after Unicorn was released. It took me several months to get the music ready to record. Some of the tunes I had written versions of in years past, but even if I started them before, I finished or updated them for the context of this album. I wanted to make sure the music was current.

“She Needed A Hero” was started a couple years ago during a residency at Smoke Jazz Club, but it never took full form. I came back to it and reworked some of the harmonies and textures to make it work in this setting. “Feminist AF” I had written a long time ago and was the theme song for my band for a few years. Half of the compositions are brand new. I worked on each tune to make sure all of the individual material written at different times worked into a larger conceptual body of work.

How does this album differ from Unicorn—musically and emotionally?
Every project, I hope, gets me closer to the sound that I hear in my head and helps me express it externally. For me, that’s what jazz is all about: having a unique voice. Unicorn represented me at a time when I was searching and finding a deeper aspect of my true self. Future is more self-assured and able to tap into a wider emotional range. It’s expressive of my anger and frustration, but even more so of feelings of stability, power, reassurance and positivity. Those are the feelings we have to tap into to move forward and break through.

What did Marc Free bring to the recording process?
Since I’d already done one album with Marc as a producer, there was a stronger foundation for trust. I felt more freedom to explore, and I didn’t feel a need for everything to be perfect, which frees you up to go a little bit deeper.

He’s a great foil, in terms of looking at how it’s all going to fit together. He’ll mention textural ideas we can add to take it from a live composition and develop it most successfully to a record. On “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” we tried adding a percussion overdub at his suggestion.

How do you find the balance between the compositions and the improvisations?
When I compose, sometimes I will hear a specific instrument for a certain part, or sometimes I will want one of the member’s specific personalities for a part. But I always want to make sure each member is contributing to the group sound. I want to make room for everybody to be part of the dialogue and the conversation, for each voice to be expressed.

Do you have a favorite tune on the album?
Every tune for me is like a different friend. They all give me a different way to express myself. It’s always a great surprise to hear them come together in the finished product.

Where do you find inspiration?
Listening to music and from everyday life encounters; noticing something frustrating or seeing someone do something inspirational.

I’ll find a theme evolving when there’s something I’m focusing on in my life—relationships, setting boundaries, or women not getting paid as much as men. I think people can relate to these stories, expressed through the music, when they hear you perform. I like to give the audience an introduction with some background and context when I play a tune. A lot of people aren’t familiar with jazz, especially instrumental jazz, so I think it can help them to understand the emotional content of the music, if they know where I’m coming from as a composer.

What has been your biggest challenge as an artist and composer?
That’s a big question. The biggest challenge is to get out of my own way. Any limits are internal; you can do as much as you can imagine doing and as much as you allow yourself to do. DB




On Sale Now
November 2018
Stefon Harris
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