Jan 24, 2023 11:48 AM
As Sharel Cassity worked through compositions for her 2020 release, Fearless, one thought plagued her: “If I don’t get help, this will be my last album.”
In summer 2019, after a series of false negatives and inaccurate analyses, the Chicago-based saxophonist and composer was diagnosed with Lyme disease. Her prognosis was chilling. Loved ones feared she’d slip into paralysis and lose her livelihood. But each morning, after throwing her legs out of bed, struggling to find her balance, Cassity repeated the same mantra: “There’s no proof there’s no cure.”
For months, Cassity endured severe neurological symptoms. Her body weakened. Her mind fogged and sputtered. But her spirit remained buoyant. “I was so determined to not let it affect my life,” she said. Andy’s Jazz Club, the Chicago venue where she played a weekly session, had a stool set on the bandstand for her. She chose a softer reed for teaching and performances. When she flew across the world—from New York to Istanbul—IV ports clung to her arms.
“It was scary up until about January when the IVs came out,” said Cassity, recalling the sobering thought of an illness-induced career change. “For the first time in my life, I had to think, ‘OK, what else can I do?’” But amid despair and uncertainty, she meditated on recovery and worked on Fearless, a title she’d chosen long before she became ill.
Fearlessness and grit have sustained a distinctive career for the saxophonist that includes collaborations with Nicholas Payton, Cyrus Chestnut and singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant. In 2015, Cassity made the decision to leave New York after 16 years and pursue a life in the Middle East. “I needed a change,” she said. At the time, fellow artists told Cassity she was ruining her life: “They’d say, ‘People wish they had what you have here, and you’re leaving.’”
The change proved revitalizing. She and her husband, pianist-composer Richard Johnson, landed gigs at Qatar Music Academy and Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha, respectively. They welcomed the birth of their son before relocating to Chicago, where Cassity fell hard for the scene.
“Musicians are steeped in history,” she said, discussing the Midwest city. “They know how to play blues. They’re not so heady that they forget about the crowd. But what I love most is the older musicians mentoring the young musicians.”
As soon as she started playing weekly sessions at Andy’s, young artists began approaching Cassity after the hit. “They ask, ‘What do you hear? What did you think?’ You see them grow. It’s this positive environment that I’m not seeing in other places,” she said.
Relationships with young performers nurture the energetic consciousness of her music. After composing the majority of Fearless, in addition to Johnson, Cassity heard two distinct voices in her mind that were needed on the project: bassist Alexander Claffy and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr.—both strong pulse-setters and active conversationalists.
“We didn’t need a [studio] strategy, because we come from the same philosophy: When it’s time to play, you go all in,” said Cassity. “You don’t have to remind a marathon runner to run their best race. That’s what they’re born to do.”
Back in January, she brought the band together for a weekend at Smalls in New York to run through the new charts: “From the downbeat, from the git—that’s really country [laughs], I’m from Oklahoma. From the start, they were on it. That’s why I hired them.”
Less literal but an equally intrinsic presence on Fearless—Cassity’s second release on her label Relsha Music—is the late Roy Hargrove. The day of his passing in 2018, she pulled out her horn. A latent melody became her “Ballad For Roy,” a tune on the new disc imbued with the lushness of the trumpeter’s work and an unremitting sense of humor.
Most viscerally on Cassity’s playing, Hargrove imprinted his sense of time. “It’s a heartbeat you can play with or reflect against,” she said. “Roy’s time was impeccable. He was my example. The time is always running through me as I’m playing. The most important elements in jazz are groove and the blues—the blues being the spiritual aspect of the music.”
Spirituality and support from loved ones helped Cassity overcome the debilitating symptoms of Lyme. And as she moved toward complete recovery from one of the most frightening challenges in her life, she reflected on the nuance of fearlessness: “‘Fearless’ doesn’t mean not having fear. You’re gonna feel fear, but you’re gonna do something in spite of the fear. I hope this record encourages people to be positive and fight the good fight for humanity, to keep the music alive. The people who are the creators—who are full of love—need to keep fighting. They need to be fearless.” DB
Jan 24, 2023 11:48 AM
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