Anna Webber’s Border Crossings

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​Multi-instrumentalist Anna Webber blurs the lines between jazz and new music.

(Photo: Cisco Bradley)

Little epiphanies and discoveries can await the eager jazz festival-goer, even in the midst of a richly stocked festival program. So it went in August 2019, when I caught the Anna Webber Septet in action on a Sunday afternoon main stage set of Austria’s prized Jazzfestival Saalfelden’s 40th anniversary edition. Webber was then enjoying a major career and critical upswing for her album Clockwise (Pi Records). In Saalfelden, she led her compact but varied ensemble through elegant and sometimes raucous mazes of scores lined with improvisational free zones, touching on a highly personal and invigorating mixture of jazz, new music, free improv and uniquely Webber-istic notions of how to navigate between genres and sonic turfs.

Later in 2019, composer-saxophonist-flutist-bandleader Webber, armed with a Guggenheim Fellowship and other grants, recorded the dual-chambered two-disc album Idiom (recently released by Pi). One disc boasts her eight-year-old Simple Trio (with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck), and the other documents her 12-piece ensemble — a kind of avant little-big-band-meets-contemporary-chamber-ensemble entity.

What happened then, as of early March 2020, was the “Big Silence,” the COVID-19-enforced lockdown afflicting music worldwide. Looking back on her fertile period in 2019, Webber reflects that “really, everything pre-COVID seems especially artistically rich compared to what myself and most artists have been dealing with in the past 15 or so months. For me, the period directly pre-COVID felt more like a continuation of the hard work that I’d been putting in for years than an exceptionally fertile period, the difference being that I was maybe beginning to experience recognition on a bit of a broader scale, thanks in no small part to increased visibility due to being lucky enough to be on Pi.”

As for the loss of live music opportunities, she asserts that “there is nothing I miss more than being on the bandstand in front of a live audience. I also think a lot of more abstract music such as my own translates best in a live situation, when an audience can feel and hear the energy in the performance. I wrote the music on Idiom with the visceral experience of a live performance in mind, and it’s best experienced in the room with the band.”

For Webber, the operative term Idiom, a deceptively short, simple title (as was Clockworks), relates to multiple meanings and metaphors. “The word just felt perfect,” she explains, “referring to both the extended techniques that felt like a mother tongue to my instruments, and to my own improvisational language that I’ve worked so hard to develop. It also gave me a way forward for subsequent pieces in the series. Once I was able to clearly define the relationship between the compositions, I knew what sorts of ideas were available to me, and what sort of syntactical rules held them together.”

The British Columbia native now is rooted in Brooklyn, but made a critical stopover for studies in Berlin, and has since developed close ties with transatlantic musicians. One vital ally has been Hollenbeck, with whom Webber studied with at Jazz Institut Berlin. She says that “studying composition with John Hollenbeck, and subsequently working with him both in my bands and his bands, has been a very important mentor-like relationship for me. I’ve learned a lot from him over the years.”

Webber’s idiomatically cross-bred music entails detectable strands of muscular chamber jazz, sometimes redolent of Henry Threadgill, but also gruffer post-minimalist ideas and intricate rhythmic invention. She confirms that she has been “interested in odd-meters, mixed-meters, polyrhythms and the like for a very long time. I think rhythmic curiosity is a pretty central tenet for anyone who’s serious about playing jazz or music related to jazz. Something interesting to me over the past few years is the relationship between polyrhythm and interval.”

Clearly, Webber heeds more than one stylistic impulse, crossing borders between jazz, new music and the purely improvisatory realm of the free. Does that make her something of a maverick and/or outsider in music scenes with strict ideas about genre identification?

“I actually feel like we’re currently living in somewhat of a golden age for people who are moving across those boundaries,” she said. “I know tons of new music-trained musicians who are also incredible improvisors — several who are featured on the second disc of Idiom — and I also know many, many people in my corner of the jazz scene who are also interested in the sonic/notational worlds of new music.

“It’s a really exciting time for cross-scene collaboration in New York specifically. The territorial divisions still exist in terms of access to granting resources and the structures of power that are in place, but I think within the musician community they are becoming less important.”

Asked about lessons possibly learned under the COVID-19 clampdown, Webber reflects, “Once the existential dread of the early days of the pandemic had quieted down somewhat, I found it valuable to actually give each task — whether a composition, a private lesson or an article — the amount of time I felt I needed to do it well. I’ve also learned the importance of not taking any music-making situations with other people for granted. I’d like to take both of those lessons with me going forward.” DB



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On Sale Now
November 2021
Joey DeFrancesco
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