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)

And Anat, what impelled you to write “Nocturno,” arguably the most contemplative composition on the record?

Cohen: I was thinking about what to write for the band and decided to bring in a ballad. I didn’t imagine that anybody else was writing one for the album, and I was right. But composing doesn’t always come easy for me. So, I was trying to play Chopin—which, as a non-piano player, was quite a struggle. But I was so inspired by one of his nocturnes. I was by myself, trying to express [that] solitude, and imagining a melody that Melissa and Ingrid and I [would play] together in unison. I’m accustomed to imagining the horn player parts—I grew up with two [brothers who are] horn players. So, I created a sound with just this breathy melody together over an ongoing rhythm, while the rhythm section creates a vibe. Then I showed it to Renee and she helped me to touch up the arrangement.

Next on the album is the contrasting “Step Forward”—so hard-swinging and irrepressibly fun. The band improvised really well on this one. What was your inspiration, Noriko?

Ueda: I started writing it, I remember, really late at night with headphones on, and suddenly the introduction came to my head. It brought back to me a memory from my childhood, when I was practicing a [children’s] piano piece composed by Yoshinao Nakada, the Japanese composer. Usually, it takes me a long time to compose, but the night after that introduction came to me, the whole tune just came through. So, I wrote it very quickly, not because I was in a rush, but because I was thinking of everyone [in the group]: about what great players they are, and how it’s going to sound, and how they’re going to soar. I heard all of their instruments when I was composing, and that really helped me to write the chart.

What kind of influence do you think such a diverse and inclusive group like Artemis can have on the next generation of musicians?

Miller: I think it’s really important for young men and young women to see this group. I hope that when we get back to touring that we can perform and work with students in universities, high schools, middle schools—but also in underserved communities. Because, first of all, we’re playing music that’s rooted in history and systemic racism—this music is resistance music. I hope that as a band we can take that resistance and push forward even more for all kinds of justice. Not just gender justice, but all kinds of justice. I think that the youth really want that in the music today.

Jensen: Also, we’re supposed to be apolitical as artists, I believe, but I don’t think that’s possible anymore. The tune that I arranged for the album, [The Beatles’] “The Fool On The Hill”—it’s not a protest song, so I’m not going to say that it is. But it certainly is relevant to this time when we have this beyond-foolish situation, when so much good stuff is being kept down. Arranging that tune, for me, was about the beauty of the sound of the three horns. When the three of us first started playing together, we had such a magical blend and connection. The orchestration of our three voices was just stunning. So, [this band] is like a little orchestra, with the background lines, like the sound of a crowd, leading to a point of total screaming and chaotic insanity. Then it resolves with a fairly insistent vamp, with some punches [in the coda]. That’s us, insisting that something is going to move.

In the short term, how has the pandemic affected your gigs?

Rosnes: We had so much work on the books, but, of course, everything is on hold now. We’re hoping that a lot of, or all, of the [tour dates for 2020] will be rebooked. We had a lot of exciting things planned—a tour of Europe, the Hollywood Bowl, Chicago, Seattle, SFJAZZ.

How do you see yourselves as musicians moving through the post-pandemic world?

Rosnes: I think about the gravity of this moment in history all day long, and it definitely affects my music. During this time of isolation, I’ve had more opportunity to play than usual, and I find that when I sit down to play or compose, there’s so much emotion. I feel the need to match the moment, to express the feelings that are swirling around in the world. To try and make it a better world.

McLorin Salvant: I think that we’re all rethinking how we make music and what we make music for. Sometimes I feel that it is purposeless—who does this serve? But then, I was talking to an essential worker the other day, who was saying how important listening to music was to him. It drives him, and when he feels completely depleted it gives him energy. I hope that when this album comes out, it goes into the ears of some protesters, and that it gives them energy and hope and drive. All we can hope for right now is that our music gives people the lift that they desire so badly. DB

This story originally was published in the September 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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