Rising Stars Find Inspiration in the Collective
Editor’s Note: This article was written to commemorate some of the Rising Star winners in DownBeat’s 69th Annual Critics Poll. Results were published in the August 2021 issue.
On a May afternoon, Angel Bat Dawid’s course on Great Black Composers bled into her next engagement. She hardly noticed. Offering musical accounts from generations past, the clarinetist, singer and composer entranced her students via Zoom. “They had a lot of questions about the past,” she said, pausing in thought. “If there’s not an educational element to my career, what am I doing?”
This semester marks Dawid’s third time teaching young men incarcerated at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Cook County, Illinois. The Critics Poll Rising Star in the Clarinet category hails from Chicago and has crafted a curriculum that meets her students where they are. “These young men are in a very adult situation,” she said, “[but] they’re not adults.”
Typically, Dawid brings along her clarinet to the first session, asking students where they’ve seen the instrument before. “Of course they say, ‘SpongeBob!’” she said through an audible grin. “And that’s appropriate because they’re in that age group. They’re still boys. And I want to give them the gift of the things I’ve learned.”
Dawid engages community. Her approach is collective and collaborative. She strengthens her individualism through a musical and intellectual exchange with others, be they students, mentors or musical peers. Today, with support from her creative cohorts, Dawid’s music embraces surges of emotion and persistent authenticity as part of a contract she signed with her musical self: “I made a pact with myself that whatever I’m feeling in [my musical] space, that is the appropriate space to deal with [it]. If it documents joy, that’s the place for it. If I’m very angry — pissed off — the best place for me to deal with that emotion is that creative space. Period.”
The range of Dawid’s sound, present on her 2020 release LIVE and 2019 studio recording The Oracle, reflects how her emotional depth and musicality are inextricably linked. Her horn playing — florid and lyrical, microtonal and lamenting — evokes as much complexity of the human voice as her actual singing, a trait she shares with fellow Rising Star honoree for Alto Saxophone, Immanuel Wilkins. The New York artist from Philadelphia suggests the human voice-like quality of his sound has evolved over time. When composing, he uses both hands to play bass and chords, leaving the melody line to his voice.
“My saxophone playing is an emulation of my voice,” said Wilkins, who draws inspiration from past “vocal players,” citing Ornette Coleman, Johnny Hodges and Albert Ayler. “I’m trying to bend my sound like the voice does,” he says. “Growl like the voice does or plead or exclaim.” When he began studying at Juilliard, Wilkins remembers a compelling appeal from Wynton Marsalis: “You gotta find the cry in your sound. Everybody has to have that cry.”
Accessing that cry often means confronting pain. In their respective catalogs, he and Dawid deal with, even embrace personal anguish and generational trauma. On Omega (Blue Note, 2021), Wilkins explores fresh, shooting pains and persistent aches, as well as collective resistance and celebration. He includes dual compositions honoring Ferguson and Mary Turner, respectively, the latter whose story he hadn’t known before he began personal research for the project. “For my generation, [Ferguson] was the first real uprising we’d seen around cops killing unarmed Black people. And I felt on my back much more than Michael Brown. It felt like I was carrying generations of trauma. When we see a Mike Brown get killed, we’re also carrying on our backs all these names that we may not know of, yet we’re feeling that trauma perpetually in our DNA.”
When Dawid feels overcome by sadness and anger or joy and gratitude, she turns to her fellow artists. Featured prominently on LIVE, members of Tha Brothahood include Viktor Le Givens, Xristian Espinoza, Isaiah Collier and Asher Simiso Gamedze, among other longtime collaborators. Dawid leans on their intuitive acknowledgment of her emotions in live performance, private sessions and other spontaneous, heartfelt spaces.
“Everybody [in The Brothahood] is like my real brothers,” Dawid said. “Sometimes I wake up and cry just thinking about them.” Her concept for the collective began as a musical outlet in service of forward-moving collaboration. “We were so inspired by the AACM and those collectives like the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. We’re drawing on the tradition of something old. We thought, ‘We really don’t wanna be a band. We wanna be like Art Ensemble of Chicago — like a force, a thing that’s not just entertainment.’”
Nubya Garcia, this year’s Rising Star Tenor Saxophone honoree, feels similar gratitude toward her artistic collaborators. The London-based artist issued her debut album SOURCE (Concord, 2020) following the success of her 2018 EP When We Are. “[Collaboration] is a big part of what I do,” Garcia said. “I’m part of a number of collectives, and I run my own band. That energy surrounds me, so it was kind of a given that I would include that way of working in this album.” When We Are spotlights Garcia’s relationship with longtime associates Femi Koleoso, Joe Armon-Jones and Daniel Casimir, but she sought to invite a number of guest artists to appear on SOURCE.
“My other two EPs, there was no collaboration in the sense of guest features on tracks,” she said. “I thought, ‘Let’s challenge how you write with other people, whether you write first and they add lyrics later or whether you’re all in the room.”
The latter circumstance prompted the emergence of the original song “La cumbia me está llamando,” which features the Colombian trio La Perla.
“I really enjoyed being part of that process and being part of something bigger than the music,” Garcia said. “The music comes out of how you’re collaborating in the room but, spiritually, that collaboration lasts much [longer]. It continues.” The very act of working closely with other artists enhances individualism, according to Garcia. “I enjoy the growth in perspective when I collaborate with other people.”
For pianist-composer Gerald Clayton, one of the most important virtues of a cooperative approach is trust — with new bandmates and longtime collaborators.
“It’s kind of like a long-term commitment versus going on a lot of first dates,” said the Rising Star honoree for Artist of the Year and Group (for the Gerald Clayton Trio). “One of the challenges of that first-date mode is the vulnerability of not quite knowing how your expression will fit in the social interaction. So you have to keep your ears open with a sense of discovery in maybe a different way.”
The L.A.-based artist has found time away from fellow musicians painful but reflective. Amid releasing his milestone recording Happening: Live At The Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 2020) he’s found time to refine his teaching methods, work with young artists of Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra and enter a new compositional chamber: film scoring for the acclaimed feature documentary, MLK/FBI, from acclaimed director Sam Pollard.
“All the feelings that come with a maiden voyage were there for me,” Clayton said, referencing afternoons spent at the piano alongside moving images. “It was an honor to be part of a project whose focus is heavy and important. It’s a narrative that has been held back in our history, like so many accounts of the African American experience.”
For a habitual collaborator inspired by freshness and discomfort, Clayton harbors tremendous respect and affection for the artists who have built a familial trust with him over the years, from his first trio mates Joe Sanders and Justin Brown to his extended musical family whose presence affects the tone, quality and spirit of Happening. “There are magical things that happen on the bandstand every night,” Clayton said. “Actual events in the music, the other musicians channeling something with a little more passion than they did the night before, and you sort of raise your eyebrows and feel that rush to go somewhere you didn’t expect you’d be going. That sense of discovery with other people, night after night, is something that now I’ve grown to expect.”
For Wilkins, the spirit of collaboration is at the core of his music and, indeed, his entire artistic philosophy. He feels a palpable renewed energy around collective artistry, but those values, he affirms, are ages old. “I think of my relationships with Joel Ross or Micah Thomas or Kweku Sumbry — they come out of traditions where improvisation is collective,” he said. “And collaboration within that is one of collectivity.” Rather than a solo, Wilkins views the moment as a “solar flare” — something emerging from the collective energy of the ensemble.
For these 2021 Rising Stars, the energy vibrating around collective music making is at once focused and frenetic, and intrinsic to their varied expressions. The creative people who inspire their output and their individualism are as vital as the music itself.
“Returning to the community is it for me,” Clayton said. “Sweaty dance floors, the masses, that energy we’ve been denied. There’s something about making music in a room with other musicians for a group of people. It’s magical.” DB