YolanDa Brown: “This is a good time to be a woman in jazz”

Whenever I think of YolanDa Brown, her music, her sound and her saxophone, the first thing that comes to mind is a big, radiant, generous, larger-than-life, capital-letter S M I L E.

“Aw, thank you,” she says, kindly, but it’s obvious that my observation comes as no surprise. “I’m a very positive person and I like to have a positive outlook on life,” she says and this really explains everything about her and more importantly, how she came up with this signature sound of hers – that joyful blend of jazz, funk, soul and reggae. That last element, in fact, a rarity in jazz, is really what has made her stand out, as she’s making the best use of Jamaica’s native genre in jazz since Monty Alexander and Ernest Ranglin.

“I’m an energetic performer; I love to move on stage and I love it when I get the audience moving,” she explains the appeal of the reggae groove. “I also love the freedom of improvising and the freedom of jazz and the heart of soul music; so yes, that mix of reggae, jazz and soul is my natural rhythm.”

It’s also a rhythm associated with two seemingly opposing states of mind: laid-back hedonism and fight for social change. “This is the amazing thing about reggae music and that’s something that inspired me doing the album,” she says, referring to her latest output, aplty titled ‘Love-Politics-War’. “When you think of Bob Marley or Peter Tosh and their music, it’s a snapshot of what the political landscape is, they’re saying: this is the world we live today; wouldn’t it be better if it was a better place? I think that’s the question that I want to raise in my music,” she adds, admitting that keeping her upbeat attitude hasn’t been that easy. “When we were writing the album, the presidential elections were going on, we had the Brexit vote in the UK, we had terrorist attacks in London, it was very hard to sustain positivity,” she says. “But that’s why we have music and we can put these emotions into our creations. That’s the message, that through life there’s always going to be love, there’s always going to be politics, in all aspects of life, and sadly, there’s always going to be some sort of conflict or battles going on.”

Speaking of battles, it’s not a coincidence that ‘Love-Politics-War’, or in fact YolanDa Brown’s overall steadfast ascension in the world of jazz came at the time of the #metoo movement and the emergence of a new style of feminism. “It’s a good time to be a woman in jazz,” she agrees, stressing that when people think of the saxophone they still associate it with a masculine image. “There are so many amazing female musicians out there and it’s really time, now that we have this movement of strong, independent women, to make a statement and the saxophone is a wonderful instrument to do that with.”Why?“I’m going to be biased here, because its my favourite instrument,” she laughs. “It’s a very powerful one because it’s almost like a voice. I’ve had people in my shows coming and saying that they’d never been to an instrumental concert before and they didn’t miss the singing. I think that it’s because the saxophone is really that emotive and there’s something in the tone of the instrument that just speaks to the listener.”

It certainly did have a lot to say to her. “To me, its very therapeutic,” she says. “I play by ear, Im self-taught at the saxophone, and when I was younger it has always been the instrument I turned to and played when I wanted to just get my emotions out. When there were no words to sum up how I feel, the saxophone would allow me to vocalise it, if that makes sense.”

It does. It is what makes her an artist. “There’s always pressure to conform or make music that people heard before, but the truth is that being an artist means to express yourself and that only comes from being confident and happy with who you are,” she says, matter-of-factly, like it’s the easiest thing in the world. “I was always brought up to be proud and confident in myself, she says. I was not brought up to doubt myself because I’m a woman, or because I’m black. I was always taught to be YolanDa Brown, that’s who I am.”

YolanDa Brown is currently on tour around Australia: