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Becca Stevens on Popping Jazz Boundaries

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Becca Stevens, a perfect exemplar musician of boundary-less "jazz" in 2016, makes the case for the power and difficulty of art-pop in our age.

Songwriter and artist Becca Stevens is one of three exquisite singers who make up the cooperative trio Tillery. Along with Gretchen Parlato and Rebecca Martin, Stevens has crafted a debut recording that slips gleefully and artfully through the gaps between folk, pop, jazz, and probably other genres. Released only digitally (and available here), it's a record that will make less of a stir than Stevens’ own Becca Stevens Band records, of which there are now three, and certainly less excitement than Snarky Puppy’s recent Family Dinner, Volume 2, on which Stevens stole the show with a stunning lead-off track she wrote, “I Asked”.

Becca Stevens' music breathes the way a Mingus bass line breathes. It's pliant like Ella Fitzgerald without having any of the trappings of jazz from 50 years ago.
Tillery, however, is beautiful and subtle, a slippery blend of three distinctive voices and three different songwriting sensibilities. Parlato loves texture and rhythm, and her songs tend to layer handclaps, vocal pops and crooning “oohs” that float into undulating melodies. Stevens writes tunes with a plainspoken clarity and melodic power. Stevens’ tunes may be the most distinctive and hooky: filled with snaking licks, poetic lyrics, and stuttering rhythms that seem to build upon your own heartbeat.

Tilley opens their debut, however, with a cover of “Take Me With U”, from Prince’s Purple Rain, showing a cool facility with rethinking a song that’s already a classic. They also cover a Jacksons song and one by Father John Misty. The accompaniment is spare: guitars and ukulele from Stevens and Martin, body percussion, and a dash of bass and drums (almost unnoticeable) on a tune or two.

How did the trio assemble? Each is based (loosely) in the New York area, and each has a pedigree as a jazz singer, though Tillery is a far cry from a straight “jazz” record. Still, Martin has sung with no less a jazz master than Paul Motian, Parlato won the 2004 Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocal competition and regularly covers songs by the likes of Herbie Hancock. Stevens, like Parlato, has a background in jazz education and has recorded with Brad Mehldau, Esperanza Spalding, Snarky Puppy, and Ambrose Akinmusire. Their common background in jazz -- and their common breaking of boundaries away from jazz in any pure sense -- drew them to each other’s gigs and homes. The band, and the debut record, reflect the women’s friendship as much as anything. It sounds like it was recorded in a living room or on a porch. It’s intimate.

To learn more about Tillery, PopMatters spoke with Stevens, who's arguably the most interesting singer who might be loosely associated with jazz in 2016. Stevens has a regular band that records her always arresting story-songs. The band’s most recent album, Perfect Animal, contains two songs also on Tillery, set in a folk / rock / jazz context that allows them to mingle with a cover of “Higher Love” as well as a Frank Ocean tune and Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna”.

Stevens is seemingly everywhere at the same time. She’s on two tracks of Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner Volume Two (and the best ones, both also on Perfect Animal), she stole the show on Akinmusire’s second Blue Note album with “Our Basement (Ed)”, a haunting tone poem, and guests with many other genuine artists who are looking for a vocal presence that simultaneously suggests adventure and emotional focus. In each of her incarnations, Stevens embodies what might be the very best elements of jazz today. Her music uses rhythmic complexity and harmonic complexity, but every song is strong as a melodic and lyric form.

Her voice, like that of her Tillery bandmates and heroes of her such as Bjork and Joni, is impossible to miss once you’ve heard it. Though she has obviously been influenced by Appalachian folk, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder as much as any pure “jazz” musician, she thrives in musical settings where there's a conversation going on in the moment. Her music breathes the way a Mingus bass line breathes. It's pliant like Ella Fitzgerald without having any of the trappings of jazz from 50 years ago.

In our hour-plus long conversation, we tried to pin down this elusive way in which her music and Tillery’s music is infused with “jazz” without really embodying that genre. Stevens is honest, humble, and charming, and almost painfully articulate about the struggle of being dedicated to making art music in 2016 in the face of an industry that can’t do much to support talented people with their own vision. Not that she wouldn’t like to “make it” but, as she eloquently put it, “in the end, if the choice is between great music and money, you could ask me a million times a day and the answer would always be the same. Music. That’s where the heart is, where the joy is."

Here is our conversation.

Let’s start with the classic unanswerable question. It used to be, what does it mean to be a “jazz” singer? Now, maybe, it's: What does it mean that you, Gretchen, and Rebecca are all singers who were trained, formally and informally, as “jazz” singers but are now making music that is beyond category? Tillery isn’t jazz. But it’s not pop or rock or whatever, either. It is, however, some kind of art music, and American art music, well, that brings us back to jazz ... or something.

It’s a tricky question. It’s feels like trying to describe something that's not terribly definable. The way I’ve thought of that is: studying jazz gave me the most freedom within the art form of music. Studying in a jazz capacity felt really liberating. The boundaries of jazz are cloudier than any other genre. From there you can go into any different genre without people blinking an eye.

That all three of us came from that world is partly how we came together. The fact that Rebecca and Gretchen and I all came from that world was actually part of what brought us together. We all separately have influences beyond the world of jazz -- the music that we grew up on, the music that inspires us now, it doesn’t matter the genre. When we got together, we were coming from that limitless grab bag that is jazz that gives you expansive harmonic and rhythmic knowledge.

Jazz was always a hybrid form, scooping in influence from Afro-Cuban music, from Brazilian music, from rock.

If you think about the Great American Songbook, one of the common threads is that the songs are strong melodies, strong songs. It’s popular music, but it’s using all those things you just mentioned. That heritage comes with it -- those beautiful, leaping melodies, the complex harmonies, the beautiful rhythms. It’s like classical music in a way, but they are songs.

We all had that knowledge already built into our stories as human beings, and it make our coming together that much more effortless and cohesive. When we took a song that we all liked, whether it was a song by Prince or the Jacksons or one of own, we were coming from this really open-minded perspective. Those jazz practices were a big part of what was on our collective tool belt.

I’m not talking about Tillery now, but I want to ask you about “Our Basement”, your song from Ambrose Akinmusere’s 2014 recording and another piece of art music. Maybe it’s just because of the primacy of the trumpet solo there, but this does seem like jazz. Maybe the reason is not so much the trumpet improvising, per se, but the fact that we hear very keenly on this recording an interaction between two voices that are listening to each other.

Ooooh, I like that theory. I also think people are going to consider music to be in the genre that they associate the performers with. No matter how “rocky” an album I make, I’m going to wind up in jazz magazines just because of the people I have collaborated with. I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily, but it’s something to be aware of. Ambrose is mainly known as a jazz trumpeter and is recording on Blue Note, he's going to have trouble avoiding the word “jazz” no matter what he’s playing. And also ... where else are you going to put that music?

But there's something about that song beyond it not being “pop music” that makes it like jazz. There are moments when you and Ambrose are interacting in real time, listening to each other. There's something about the vocabulary of that music, of “jazz”, that coded into your vocabulary, whatever we choose to call it.

You’ve hit on something very important there. At times in my life, I have taken that for granted. Even if I’m not playing straight-ahead jazz, I find that I collaborate with jazz musicians, whether it’s Taylor Eigsti or Brad Mehldau who may be doing other things but are coming from that upbringing. Then I’ll have an alternate experience with people who are in the pop realm or the classical realm and it becomes obvious to me that there’s a comfort with uncertainty in jazz, this embracing or acceptance of the unknown. I don’t know if it’s a personality type and that’s why you’re drawn to “jazz” or if it’s from being placed in those settings over and over again and so it’s easy for you to let go. But that is something I’ve noticed in the moment before.

You don’t have to brand things so much for it to be a bit of jazz -- here’s the solo section with one person improvising. But maybe you don’t have to plan an ending and you can leave room in the song for things to percolate and be what they are going to be in that moment.

I love the moment in “Our Basement” toward the end where you and Ambrose are playing a note in unison and then one of your rises slightly as the other sings or plays sliding down just a bit. The song is about two people who know or care for each other but are missing each other, coming apart, and that moment is metaphorically perfect for the lyric.

When Ambrose asked me to write that song, his only suggestion was that it come from the point of view of a homeless person. So, my wheels starting turning and I came up with this story of a homeless man who used to have a comfortable life and a wife. In the beginning of the song he’s on the street. He’s lost his job and his wife, but he’s still in love with her. I always imagined that maybe he lost everything because of a drug or alcohol problem. I allude to that in the lyric, “and now I’m higher than the streetlights fading on beneath the night’s sky” or “no drug can escape this relentless heat”.

So then he sees or imagines seeing her walk past. His days are spent seeing if they will cross paths. It's a song about paths diverging, and it's supposed to song like someone overtaken by a drug-induced fog. There's something dissonant and creepy about it that makes you feel that you’re walking through a bad dream. And, yes, it was on the fly -- it wasn’t planned at all.

Maybe we hear that on the Tillery recording, too. I’m thinking of that start to “I Asked” on the new record -- with the ukulele, the finger snaps, the incredibly pliant sense of rhythm there. And I’m weirdly not sure about this, but we hear the first line sung by Gretchen, then second by Rebecca, and only then you, is that right? Talk about that example as having an approach to music making that we wouldn’t hear from pop singers in 2016 -- voices pliantly interacting.

I could hear that as a kind of folk thing, too. You hear folks like Emmylou Harris and Graham Nash, people sharing the melody in country music, taking turns on different parts of the melody. But I can see what you’re saying. It could be applied to world music, too. No matter how you slice it, music is all connected. If somebody is existing completely within any one genre, I tip my hat to them, but when you think about it, it’s not really possible. Each genre is coming from another genre and leading to another. You exist somewhere in that continuum with your music.

I think there’s an argument that, within your generation, it's harder than ever to wall yourself off in one genre. The access to recordings from all over the world and from every genre is unparalleled.

You can find similarities between good music -- between jazz and hip-hop, hip-hop and country. I recently did a project with a friend that found connections between ancient traditional Japanese music and Irish folk music. Even a thousand years ago, there were scales that existed in Japan that also existed continents away. Maybe this stuff, this great music, is coming from God or from people selling silk to each other, but it’s all connected and it always has been.

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