Gai Bryant: ‘It’s all about self expression’

I love talking to Gai Bryant. She has this soft, soothing voice and she speaks with the calmness of someone who’s faced her share of adversity in life and came out in oun; and every now and then, her speech is coloured by this bubbly bursts of laughter, sounding like a happy little girl.

This dichotomy pretty much transfers to her way of playing, although when she plays the sax, her voice is much stronger; her phrases are bold, no-nonsense statements, coming from an artist that demands – and earns – your attention; still remaining happy.

Gai Bryant has a few reasons to be happy. She just presented her latest project, Ally, an exploration of Afro-Peruvian music through a jazz prism that she has developed in collaboration with percussionist Giorgio Rojas, to the most demanding of crowds: the Peruvian community in Sydney.

“We did a little gig at the [Peruvian consulate] last night,” she says, sounding absolutely delighted. “It was great! It was a tribute to the great Peruvian singer, Chabuca Granda; we were the only ensemble among six groups that had only one Peruvian member, all the other ensembles were 100 per cent Peruvian Australians. After the gig, they came and surrounded us; they loved that it was so ‘different’, that we did jazz interpretations of their music.”

The main concept behind Ally lies in the instrumentation. “The band started as a sextet,” Gai says. “Giorgio and me had an idea that we wanted to do without a drumkit, but rely on two percussionists a double bass (Stamatis Valacos) and piano (Jonathan Cohen).”

“My vision has always been to not only do something that is about Peruvian culture but also for us to create a voice as an ensemble,” she says.

“We wanted to explore Afro-Peruvian rhythm bringing in our influences, the things that we all like; Colombian cumbia and Cuban descarga wouldn’t be out of place.”

The result is a blend of musical styles that are rhythmically very complex; some are “fiery and high-energy and loud and exciting”; others are “softer, intimate, quieter and a little bit more intricate.

How do all these these different elements fall into place in the music of Ally?

“When I started working this with Giorgio, I felt that this is great; I can start to expand on what I know.He started to give me some recordings of traditional music and I transcribed them to see if I can do some arrangements of my own, a panolivio of my own and be able to solo.That’s what I have done with Afro Cuban music.”

“There are similarities in a lot of afro-latin music styles, because you have this shared history of forced migration,” she explains.

“There was obviously some kind of mix between a lot of things in that area.I often notice it with percussionists, when we are playing this particular rhythm, they say that it’s so much like this other rhythm; we may play a panolivio and to another percussionist that seems sort of like a weird merengue.”We’ve been doing it for a while now and having a pretty good time.”

Another element that fell into place comes from Brazil. “We are joined by Brazilian – Australian poet and spoken word artist Dai Moret,” says the bandleader.

“I like working with her; she has contributed some fabulous ideas, the images are really beautiful andI love the fact that she is speaking in English portuguese and Spanish.

“From the moment I met her I wanted to work with her and Ally is the best ensemble for this, because it’ssmall and spacious – when you have two percussionist and no drummer the dynamic level is a little lower, so you get to enhance the expressiveness of the human voice.

“Hand percussion is subtle and evocative under her voice. We also get to interact with her, one instrument at a time.That’s going to change the direction the ensemble is going to go with.”

Add to that a Peruvian dancer, “for an extra slice of that culture” and you get the idea of what they are going to present at the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival.

“For me taking part in this now is more about wanting to be visible,” she explains. “It’s important that women players are visible, if you want to have more women staying in music.”

She didn’t always have these ideas.“I think that I have tried to ignore the gender question for many years. I believed that people shouldn’t have that construct at all in their mind.Asking those questions almost felt it was redundant surely we’ve gone past this, but then I realised that as a society we actually haven’t.

“As I get older and young women come to me for lessons and we discuss this, I realise that there are very few women in jazz and they need to be nurtured, they need to come and see women playing, there need to be role models.

“There are these extremely talented young women coming through in school and they never make it to the conservatorium, they decide to follow other career paths, it is very perplexing.

“Why are these extremely talented women notmotivated? Why do they not move further up from the audition stage? This is a question for all of us; what can we do to galvanise them?”

Does she have an answer?

One of the things is to continue performing and being visible,” she says.It’s so hard being visible.”

Gai Bryant

This is a strange statement coming from one of the most prominent latin jazz performers in Australia. Very few musicians in the country can claim to have such great insight in Latin Jazz like Gai Bryant has. Her definition on applying the ‘jazz esthetics’ on Afro – Latin rhythms means to create a platform using harmony and improvisation, so that“the ensemble can bounce off one another. Because sometimes withlatin music, they play particular patterns and lock things down to a point where interaction can be minimal,” she explains.

“Sometimes they lock it so much that it is difficult to solo, it’s hard to call it ‘jazz’ in that way.I like to minimize this, I like to have more space within the composition where interaction is key, so that you can tell a story.”

That is a great description of her solos, they really sound like stories.“I really like to play the tune,” she says. “There’s always a tune, a melody within the arrangement; I want to stay true to that and use that as improvisation material.I want to explore that and develop the melodies, that’s my approach.”

Here is a great example of this kind of storytelling. “There’s one composition I wrote, I called it ‘Rehearsal at Giorgio’s’ at first; it was about his two daughters who were always running around in their ballet clothes.I ended up calling it ‘The Unicorn Girls’, because they’d have unicorn on their backpacks and helmets and shoes and pencil cases,” she describes, laughing. As it is obvious from this description, the tunehad a very whimsical feel to it. “We were actually telling the story of a moment staying with them, so I wanted the solo to continue to tell that story, the movement of them running around the rooom, the silliness and joyfulness.That’s what music is about, it’s about self-expression.”

My mind goes back to the dichotomy that strikes me in Gai Bryant, the soft-spoken, almost shy interlocutor, and the assertive, outspoken soloist. Would she describe herself as an introvert or an extrovert?“I can be both,” she says. “I really love meeting people, talking with people, hearing their stories, finding out about their culture, their life, the food they eat, the books they read, the music they listen to.And then there are times, because of the hectic pace of our lives, that I want to go home and not talk to someone for a fortnight.” She laughs again.

At this point, the conversation becomes all about the nature of perormance as a way of reaching out to people.“That hasn’t always been a great fit for me,” she admits. “I remember when I started I’d be so stressed that I’d actually be shaking.I became comfortable with performing and being a band leader through having to do it and I stopped being fearful about it.So yes, I’m not a natural performer at all, it is something I had to persist with and get used to it.Does that make me an introvert?”

What is the most important thing that she learnt about herself in that process?

“You learn that you do have the skills and that it is important to put things out there,because you are doing it to communicate with other people and the stories that you want to get across, the feelings resonate with other people.”

So, apart from Ally, what is next?

My other big news is that next year, the great Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto is coming to play with my big band, Palacio de la Rumba,” she says.

But that is the subject for another telephone conversation.

Gai Bryant and ALLY are playing at Foundry 616 on Saturday 9 November, as part of the Sydney Women’s International Jazz Festival