Freyja Garbett: ‘Maya is about reconciling my interest in jazz with my love of pop records’

I did not know what to expect when I first put Freyja Garbett’s album, Maya, for a spin, but I certainly didn’t expect to be blown away by a gust of jazz-rock-afrobeat-electronica-drum’n’bass sonic wave flying towards me at 100km/hour. Maya has been playing on heavy rotation in the Australian Jazz HQ (and my head) for the past couple of months and getting to interview the pianist, composer and bandleader has been one of my top priorities. Here she is, guiding us through her rare gem of an album.

Who – or what – is Maya?

In Hinduism and Buddhism, ‘Maya’ is the illusion or appearance of the phenomenal world and also the power by which the universe becomes manifest. In January 2017, I moved back home after a five year stint in Boston. I was spending a lot of time meditating, manifesting and trying to centre myself, as it was proving tough to be back in Australia after years of establishing myself in another country. I really wasn’t sure at this point if I wanted to continue pursuing music professionally, and it took about 18 months after I got home to begin feeling more ease whilst playing and composing. I wrote ‘Maya’ as I explored this new balance, and the piece developed into a sonically rich and technically challenging composition that I didn’t know I was capable of. I suddenly realised that no matter what, my approach as a composer is something no one can take away from me. This awareness offered me peace and the endurance to continue exploring.

What was the first tune you wrote for this album?

Two of the tunes from the album, ‘Quiet Perceiver’ and ‘Edu-k-shun’, were written during my compositional studies at Berklee. After returning home to Australia at the beginning of 2017, I gained commissions by SIMA and APRA AMCOS to compose an extended work for a ten-piece jazz ensemble. ‘Bulga’ is a multi-movement suite which heavily utilizes synthesisers, FX and a range of studio techniques to manipulate the band’s recorded improvisations. From this commission emerged my regularly gigging Septet, who I have been playing with for two years now. What I gained from that commision really allowed me to re-explore and re-imagine old compositions. The strong interplay and union between the members of the band is what helped morph and solidify the genre-blending aesthetic of these compositions.

How does Maya reflect your approach to music-making?

The pieces from Maya are an exploration of an electro-acoustic approach to jazz composition and improvisation.

Jazz compositions function as springboards to stimulate and direct the improvisation of the band members towards a given mood or theme, and traditionally this is achieved rhythmically, harmonically and melodically.

An added element to my approach is accounting for my band’s capability of manipulating their instrument’s sound drastically through FX rigs – everyone has a pedalboard, even the horn players. This gives us lots of sonic dexterity when we play live, and when combined with the other traditional elements of jazz composition – both the arranged and improvised sections of my pieces have taken on completely new identities night to night. It’s also about reconciling my interest in jazz with my love of pop records, and writing pieces that force my musicians to combine the two headspaces of these genres.

The music is influenced two-fold. Growing up, I was captured by the sound of hip-hop, indie rock, and the sound of synthesizers. Reggae and roots music was a huge influence on me, possibly because of my older brother Nick’s bands, The Strides, and The Vampires. In my compositions, I think this has distilled in my music-making as I tend to keep my music based in heavy groove and singable melodies. As I came into my 20s, and undertook my Jazz Composition degree at Berklee, MA, bebop and traditional/ modern jazz/ fusion and the wonderfully colourful and complex world of jazz has appeared as a layer on top of my music.

As a result, I think my music is on the whole quite accessible to people who aren’t avid jazz fans, yet also has many elements of that flying, dodging and dextrous complexity that jazz aficionados and myself have come to love.

Some of the artists I binged listened to before, during, and after the making of this album are: Gerald Clayton, Maria Schneider, Aaron Goldberg, Sam Harris – the pianist, not the philosopher -, Wayne Shorter, Flying Lotus, Erykah Badu and J Dilla, etc.

Who are your heroes?

My heroes are everyday people who strive for a better world and who live life with pure intentions for others and for themselves. I’ve never believed in the hierarchy of the music industry. I have seen some of the most incredible and creative music being played by musicians who don’t have the resources to even record their music properly, or pay a publisher to do the dirty work for them. They have to work a day job to support themselves and their family. These are people who have a real perspective on life, and you can hear it in their music. They have a broad perspective, because they haven’t spent all of their time just learning their instrument. Musicians who do this probably don’t have to work to support themselves. They don’t have to worry about anyone other than themselves, and to my ears it sounds like too many notes played too fast and without any element of truth or beauty. Anyone can do that if they are given the means.

It takes real courage to face the realities of life and grow as an individual. The music grows with you.

I have watched it over and over again; the industry latches on to a very narrow group which they will support until their dying days. Therefore the expansion of the music isn’t possible, and the general public aren’t shown what’s truly out there.

How did you form your septet?

After I moved back I found it so refreshing to be a part of a playing scene where I had zero awareness of any bias/ stigma (which often develops in muso circles). I was blown away by the home grown talent, as I’d thought I’d heard the best of the best in the intense musical jungle of the US of A. So I spent my first year back playing music with people I met over the internet, or who had been introduced to me by friends from Wollongong. Nish Manjunath was looking for a keys player to go on tour with his reggae band Black Bird Hum. We had a few mutual friends but I didn’t know any of the other members of the band. Alex Inman asked me to do some gigs with his trio and I met Max Alduca through the Wollongong hook up. I formed a quartet with this core group and as my music developed it evolved into the seven piece unit you hear on the album; Felix Lalanne (guitar), Simon Ferenci (trumpet), Nish Manjunath and Michael Avgenicos (tenor sax), Jaques Emery and Max Alduca (basses) and Alex Inman-Islop (drums). I also asked Jess Ciampa to come along and overdub percussion. He did a beautiful job!

The Freyja Garbett Septet

How would you describe your music to someone not familiar with it?

It’s intended to be a “cinematic” audio experience. It’s something you can sit down and listen to, and hopefully engage with like you would a movie. You can get to know the melodies as characters, the chords as a colour palette and the grooves as rich landscapes. I haven’t tried to be overly clever, or go out of my way to disguise melodies or chords with difficult intellectual stuff. But I have tried to surprise you with where you might expect the tunes to go. It’s hopefully going to take you on a journey, but hopefully will make you feel good while it happens.

You blend various elements, from afro beat to drum ‘n’ bass to hip hop and so on. How would you put this artistic statement into words?

I’ve always adored Afrobeat and hip hop music and these genres are already influenced by jazz, so it feels very natural for me to create a soup with all these different elements. I compose all of my music using my go-to Digital Audio Workstation, Ableton. This allows me to initially not be contained by the manuscript, and it’s much easier for me to compose this way. After I finish the tune, I then transcribe it using notation software.

Afrobeat and Hip-hop are two genres in particular which are written from a very visceral, and sonic perspective, as opposed to jazz which is often written in a theoretical and technical perspective. So I want to compose jazz like J Dilla composed his beats – if I don’t even know the chords that I’ve written then that’s often a good sign! It frees me up to stretch for new ideas and sounds.

The other major advantage is to be able to provide my band with solid demos which directly inform them of the sonic palette and rhythmic approach I’m going for. For example my tune ‘Afrobeast’ was written during my stay in NYC in March 2019. Due to jet lag I would wake up at four or five each morning. I would pour a huge mug of drip coffee and plug in my midi keyboard. Initially I dragged a Tony Allen sample into Ableton and used that as the basis for the groove. Alex Inman (our drummer) created his own unique take on this, which I love. The horn melody is quite modal and centers around a combination of generic intervals in the key of B minor. I would then invert, reverse and syncopate these simple modal constructs. This eventually made for a really hip melody that I was super proud of. I would do this every morning for as long as the coffee high allowed. Then go back to bed.

Being a woman in jazz, have you faced any gender-specific challenges?

I find that I get a lot of opportunities by being a female in the jazz scene. I’ve been grateful for this, and I think without these boosts I wouldn’t have made it to where I am. I also think that it’s great for breaking the cycle of male dominated role-models in the elite jazz world – slowly but surely, more and more women will rise to the upper echelon of artistry and this will only be made possible by directly supporting the career of female artists, such as how it’s been provided to me so far! I do however find that the social interactions with male musicians can be challenging for me. Musicians are by nature sensitive creatures, and passionate people, and it’s this very asset to their art-making that can create odd barriers to a free-flowing dynamic while hanging out. I read an article recently written by a transgender woman on her experience after the first day of completed gender transition surgery, and her main remark was, “I never realised how often that men interrupt women in conversation!” This has stuck with me as the best description as to what I feel hanging out in some musician circles. Women probably feel it in all facets of waking life, and I’m sure it’s just as annoying to everyone else as it is to me – haha!