The Sheer Force Of Artemis

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The members of Artemis are drummer Allison Miller (left), pianist and musical director Renee Rosnes, bassist Noriko Ueda, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, clarinetist Anat Cohen and tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana.

(Photo: Keith Major)

Renee, you also wrote an eloquent septet arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic“ for Cécile to sing.

Rosnes: We first performed this tune at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2018, as a duet, just the two of us. Every time Cécile sings, I get goose bumps, but that particular afternoon it was so special—the energy on stage, the audience, the sailboats and the message of the song. It really affected me. When we came to talk about recording, this piece came up, and I thought that the whole band should play it. The recording was the first time that arrangement was played.

Cécile, along with the Stevie Wonder tune, you chose to perform a lesser-known Maxine Sullivan song. You can really hear the group’s formidable straightahead chops on “Cry, Buttercup, Cry.” Where did you get the idea for this one?

McLorin Salvant: The first band that I ever played in was called Kirby Memory, a tribute band to John Kirby’s music. He was an incredible arranger, bass player and bandleader, and Maxine Sullivan sang some beautiful songs with [his ensemble], including “Cry, Buttercup, Cry.” It’s funny, though, because both of my songs on this album deal with love, but they’re different from your typical torch songs. “If It’s Magic” deals with pervading love and aspiring to be extremely loving to all. And “Cry, Buttercup, Cry” is a song about hope after lost love. I think it’s important for women to perform these kinds of songs, with this kind of subject matter. They aren’t about romantic notions of love from a woman’s perspective: They’re broader and more complex than that.

In your other work, and especially in your original compositions, you often express the strong, self-determined point of view found in these two songs. What it’s like for you to sing them with an all-female group?

McLorin Salvant: This is the first and only time, I think, that I’ve ever performed with an all-female band. But I almost don’t want to answer that question. On the one hand, I don’t want to consider Artemis an all-female band, because that’s a little reductive. At the same time, it’s important that we acknowledge it, because it’s extremely rare. We’re still at a place, I think—and I might be wrong—where having an all-female band is a deliberate choice, with a deliberate message. I wish that it would just be an afterthought, you know, that we happen to be all women. Then I look at these incredible musicians and [remember] growing up, studying the piano and never really seeing any women play. Being able to see and hear women play on an extremely high level is really powerful. But in the moment, playing with them, it makes very little difference to me that they’re women.

To Cécile’s point, isn’t there value for young players to see groups of all-female musicians like Artemis?

Rosnes: When we play, it doesn’t need to be said that we’re an all-female group. And the day is coming when this won’t be any more remarkable than a band full of guys. It’s just a matter of time. Because music transcends gender. We need to let the music speak for itself. Today, women are players. They’re composers. They’re leaders. And we’re playing together because we dig the music we’re making.

Miller: To add to what Renee said, this band is a group of strong musicians having a musical conversation that’s deep, fulfilling and inspiring. If there’s anything about this band that’s unique, it’s how multigenerational and multicultural it is. Those are the two things that come to mind for me right away—how we bring a feeling of inclusivity to the stage.

The album contains several compositions that give a nod to artists from different cultures and from outside of jazz. Melissa, what led you to write “Frida”?

Aldana: A couple of years ago, I was commissioned by the Jazz Gallery [in New York City] to write a full piece of new music. I was inspired by [Mexican painter] Frida Kahlo, but it didn’t occur to me that she was a woman and Latin American. I’d been in love with her work since I was very young, and I used to do a lot of painting in oil. So, it was a natural thing to do something related with the visual arts and her story, and to connect that through the music. [The commission] became a six-piece movement that I recorded for my album Visions. And one of the tunes that I didn’t use for that album—“Frida”—seemed right for Artemis.

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