Roxy Coss Communes with Her Ensemble on ‘Quintet’


Released in conjunction with a companion video series, Roxy Coss’ Quintet draws from her entire catalog and ranks as the the follow-up to The Future Is Female, the bandleader’s provocative response to the 2016 elections.

(Photo: Desmond White)

Though she’s only 33, saxophonist Roxy Coss already has made her mark as a bandleader, while becoming a torchbearer for female empowerment as the founder of the Women in Jazz Organization.

Originally from Seattle, Coss first developed an ear for jazz after being introduced by her piano teacher to Oscar Peterson’s work; her father also was a fan of Trane and Miles. But when Coss picked up the saxophone in sixth grade, “jazz interested me in a new way,” she recalled. “Not like ‘dad music.’ Once I started to play it, it was really fun to play.”

After honing her chops at William Paterson University in New Jersey, Coss played her first professional gig with trumpeter Clark Terry, her mentor at Paterson. Since then, she’s formed her own quintet, evolved her signature sound and headlined festivals around the world.

Her aptly-titled fifth album, Quintet, celebrates Coss’ communion with her stellar ensemble—pianist Miki Yamanaka, guitarist Alex Wintz, bassist Ricky Rosato and drummer Jimmy Macbride—which recently received the Local 802 Musicians Union emerging artist grant. Released in conjunction with a companion video series, Quintet’s live studio recordings draw from the bandleader’s entire catalog, and are the follow-up to The Future Is Female, Coss’ provocative response to the 2016 elections.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Quintet is almost a career retrospective. Why’d you decide to revisit your older material?

The last couple years, we’ve really been working on our group sound. So, I thought it would be cool to have live versions of what we’ve been doing.

I actually started by wanting to make a video project. I didn’t even think about making an album. I realized the band didn’t have a very strong video presence online, and I wanted more people who don’t live in New York to see what we’re doing. Then it was like, OK, what do we want to put out there? What are our favorite tunes to play out of all of our records? Because when we perform live, we do focus on the latest release, but we also incorporate other songs.

Was it hard winnowing them down?

A little bit, because there were more favorites than we had time for. We recorded it in half a day. We didn’t rehearse, we played them the way that we perform them, and recorded the audio like we normally do in the studio. It’s almost like an intimate performance in your living room.

“Don’t Cross The Coss” has become your signature song. Are you a harsh taskmaster?

With the band, I guess it’s more like “boss lady,” do it the way she wants [laughs]. I wrote that when I was touring with Jeremy Pelt. And at all these different venues around the world, the person introducing me would always say “Roxy Cross.” So, Jeremy said, you have to write a tune called “Don’t Cross the Coss” [laughs].

Whyd you choose “All Or Nothing At All” as the one cover tune on the album?

That song has a lot of space for ideas and interpretation, and we have played it quite a bit live. We actually recorded it for The Future Is Female, but it didn’t work with the rest of that set of music, so I didn’t release that track. We decided to rerecord it for this release, as it represents the covers that we often incorporate into our live performance sets.

Some of the strongest tracks are from The Future Is Female: “Mr. President” starts out like a funeral dirge and then gets really busy with conflicting voices.

I was definitely thinking dirge. I was also thinking Darth Vader and that traditional snare death march. And the chaos speeds up gradually, so by the time it gets to the solo section, it feels almost out of control, like how can we possibly keep up with this?

Have you gotten any pushback?

Not so much about Trump. But I did receive some pushback about The Future Is Female. Mostly from fans, but a few industry types sent me messages saying, ‘You should feel lucky that the label put something like this out.’ That it was so pro-female put some people off.

Which female jazz composers and bandleaders have influenced and inspired you?

Carla Bley and Liberation Music Orchestra, in particular. Mary Lou Williams, absolutely. Maria Schneider and Ingrid Jensen. Ingrid was in Maria’s band; she’s now a bandleader and currently in Artemis, an all-female band led by Renee Rosnes.

Do you think it’s tougher for women in jazz than in rock and pop?

I absolutely think it’s tougher in jazz. That’s why I founded the Women in Jazz Organization.

Pop music is a generally youth-based entertainment industry. Jazz culture is an art form that celebrates our legends and continues to hold them up. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it carries with it an attachment to the cultural stereotypes of the past. Jazz musicians still wear clothing popular in the 1950s—suits and gowns. Whereas if you see Beyonce, she’s wearing a unitard with glitter [laughs].

Also, with pop, if you have a star, they sing. Jazz is mostly an instrumental art form. Even though we have a lot of female singers, there are still stereotypes in jazz culture about instruments being gendered. And in terms of what’s expected, they’re all sort of male stereotypical traits. DB

Release shows for Quintet are set for Friday and Saturday at Smalls in New York.

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