Artist Feature: Anna Webber

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Anna Webber has emerged as a major force since arriving in New York in 2008. She has released a series of innovative records including her trio, Simple (2014) and Binary (2016), both on Skirl Records, and most recently, her septet, Clockwise, just released in February. Her performances and recordings bristle with compositional ideas and sophisticated improvisations. She plays next with Matteo Liberatore and Lesley Mok at Spectrum on May 20; and with fellow-Canadian saxophonist Angela Morris, they summon their big band to the Queens Museum on June 9. I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Webber about her work.

Cisco Bradley:      How did you get on the path that you’re on now as a musician?

Anna Webber:  When I was in high school I was very involved in the music program at my school, and had a few friends who were obsessed with jazz. These friends and I started a jazz combo when I was in 10th grade, and we’d get together on weekends and after school to rehearse. It became a thing I was passionate about – I probably wouldn’t have become so passionate if not for those friends. Almost all of us went on to study music and are still musicians professionally. I was one year older than everybody else so I went to school for a year in Washington State, and then when all my high school friends went to McGill I transferred there.

Cisco Bradley:      You’re originally from British Columbia? Was there any kind of this kind of music scene happening there?

Anna Webber:    God no, not in my hometown. Vancouver’s a different thing, but I’m from a town in the interior called Kelowna. Maybe there was an underground punk scene – I would go to shows sometimes. But most of my early musical awareness came not from a local scene, but from listening to albums and hanging out with friends at school – not from going to see live music so much.

Cisco Bradley:      Did you grow up around other kinds of music or did music really start for you in school?

Anna Webber:    We went to church when I was a kid and my mom played piano in church, so that was pretty formative. I started playing guitar in church bands when I was in high school, but before that, I had been taking music lessons since a young age – I started taking classical piano lessons when I was about five. I also played cello and then when band started in 7th grade, I started playing flute too. I was always very into music.

Cisco Bradley:     And then you went to McGill University to study music?

Anna Webber:    Yeah, I was a jazz flute major. It wasn’t my first instrument but it was the first one that I really felt at home with and learned to improvise on. I played saxophone at the time too, but I wasn’t as confident on it – I had started playing alto saxophone in 11th grade, just taking some private lessons. In 12th grade we didn’t have any tenor saxophone players in the big band, so I decided to learn tenor. So it was pretty new to me when I was applying to college.

I almost quit saxophone when I was in college. I was right at the threshold of becoming comfortable on it but I was just so frustrated all the time, as I had to relearn everything that I’d already learned on flute. A friend advised me to hold on for another few months, and his advice turned out to be good. Shortly after that conversation I started feeling at home on the instrument. But it wasn’t really until I moved to New York that I started to introduce myself to people as a saxophone player.

Cisco Bradley:      What was the impetus for you moving to New York?

Anna Webber:    I graduated from McGill then spent a couple of years freelancing in Montreal and in that period thought, “What do I do next? I don’t know. Maybe I should get a master’s degree.” So I applied to CalArts and Manhattan School for my masters, but then when the acceptance letters came I knew I just wanted to move to New York. I’d always wanted to move to New York, that was always a dream of mine. So, I officially moved for school, but I also came because I wanted to be here.

Cisco Bradley:      Did you find a new community of musicians, new teachers? How did that change you?

Anna Webber: I had friends from Montreal who moved to New York before, who were living in Brooklyn and more involved in the creative music scene here. But for myself, I was living uptown and going to Manhattan School, which was a very straight-ahead program. I found myself being drawn down a path that was different from the more experimental one I’d been forging for myself in Montreal, definitely a much more traditional straight-ahead thing – which, for the record, I was also into. I was happy playing that kind of music.  I enjoyed learning to feel confident playing standards and to feel strong playing time and changes. I mean I had studied those things in my undergrad, but I felt like I was taking my craft to a new level.

And then I graduated from Manhattan School, was living with some friends and was struggling to find work, and definitely not playing much. I was trying to find students by posting ads on Craigslist, but I wasn’t super successful. I got a study grant from the Quebec government to take some lessons, and I was able to live off of that for a couple months. But I ultimately ended up taking a full time job doing telesales for a music conference, as with my visa any employment had to be music related.

I was miserable. Why am I living in New York if this what my life is like? This doesn’t make any sense. My two best friends at the time were both German, and one of them was moving back to Berlin. I had visited Berlin and loved the city, and getting out of New York seemed like a good idea. I thought about how to get a visa to live in Germany, and school seemed like a good way: there was a one-year master’s program at the Jazz Institute Berlin that I was interested in.

Cisco Bradley:      So back up for a second. When did you come to New York? 2008? And then you finished your program in 2010?

Anna Webber:    Yup. And in 2011 I ended up applying to the school in Berlin, auditioned, and got in. The tuition was 270 Euros a semester, which included an unlimited rail pass for the city, so financially things were pretty easy. And that year in Berlin was pivotal for me.

John Hollenbeck, Greg Cohen, and Kurt Rosenwinkel were teaching at the Jazz Institute Berlin. I was working with John and Greg, and basically just focused on composition. I was also surrounded by the Berlin music scene, which was much more open in terms of free improvisation than the little micro-community I’d been involved in around Manhattan School. That environment pushed me to get my extended techniques together as an improviser.

And the end of the year, I ended up applying for an artists’ visa, or O-1, to come back to the US. I moved to Brooklyn in 2012, and got involved with completely different circle of people.

Cisco Bradley:      So in coming to Brooklyn in 2012, how did you situate yourself?

Anna Webber:    Going to shows, meeting people, and doing sessions. I fell in with a pretty great crew of musicians who had all somewhat recently moved to Brooklyn and were making really interesting music and doing cool things, like Adam Hopkins, Nathaniel Morgan, Dustin Carlson, Kate Gentile, Devin Gray, and many others. I also reconnected with some of my friends from McGill who’d been living in Brooklyn for years, such as Owen Stewart-Robertson, Nico Dann, and Jake Henry. So it was a really nice community of people. We were all about the same age and it seemed like everybody was running a series and going out to tons of shows, and we were all playing together all the time.

I got a job at a coffee shop where I would do the opening shifts, so I’d work from 6 AM until 1pm, and that gave me a lot of flexibility to do sessions and go to shows. I subsequently got jobs for a bunch of my friends at that coffee shop. So there was a nice musician hang at that place.

Cisco Bradley:      What materialized for you first? Recording bands?

Anna Webber:    Well, Nathaniel Morgan is a good friend and alto saxophonist, and also a recording engineer. He’d record at his apartment in Sunset Park. So any band that I had, we’d usually play a little and then say, “We should make a record. Let’s get Nathaniel to record us.” and then he’d record it. Some of it is released, a lot of it not. There was a good spirit of, “Cool, we did three shows and that was fun. Why don’t we make a record too?”

Cisco Bradley:      I suppose really the goal isn’t always to record to release? Is it also to document where you are at a given time?

Anna Webber:    I definitely think documentation for the sake of documentation is a good idea, whether something gets put out into the world or not. But in that circle of friends there was also Prom Night Records, which was a platform that was easy to release stuff on. Nathaniel Morgan, Brad Henkel, and Owen Stewart-Robertson started that label. I released one thing on Prom Night, the Hero of Warchester, with Nathaniel Morgan and Liz Kosack.

My first album with what became the Simple Trio was the result of me receiving a couple composition grants. I’d wanted to form a band with John Hollenbeck – I knew him from my time in Berlin and I’d written some trio music for him and a bassist while I was there. Then when I moved back to New York I met Matt Mitchell, and I thought I could see a piano, drums, and saxophone trio working. So I used the composition grants to make a record with John and Matt. We recorded in 2013, which was a year and a half after I moved back from Berlin.

Cisco Bradley:      What was your vision for that band? Has it evolved?

Anna Webber:    Well we’re still together! I definitely couldn’t have foreseen this sort of longevity when I started the band. I just wanted to make an album with a couple of my favorite musicians and I didn’t have much of a plan past that – but the group has become my main working band. I think they like playing my music. It seems positive. We’re doing a tour next week.

Cisco Bradley:      This is five years?

Anna Webber: Yeah, it’s now just over five years that the band has been together, and absolutely it has evolved. Anytime you play that much with a group of people, the band dynamic deepens. We’ve done a fair amount of touring, probably more than I’ve done any other band that I’ve been involved with. We can kind of just get together without a rehearsal and it feels good immediately. And my compositions – both my compositions generally, and also what I’m writing specifically for John and Matt – have certainly evolved. I feel much more settled in my voice as a composer than I did when I started the group.

Cisco Bradley:      Maybe you can walk me through your creative process as much as you feel comfortable. Do you come to the music as a composer?

Anna Webber:    I approach it as a composer, totally. I also am very much interested in improvising with those guys, but I kind of have to remind myself of that when I’m writing. I try to give fewer limitations on improvisation, and have more completely free sections than I might naturally be inclined to include – I want to showcase people’s improvisational language. But I do end up writing a lot of notes on the page, because that is what tends to come out when I compose. So balancing my need to write and control with my need to improvise is always a challenge for me.

Cisco Bradley:      Can you describe the music that you’ve created together in that band?

Anna Webber:    My go-to description is that the music I write lies somewhere in between the avant-garde jazz world and new classical music. I don’t consider myself to be a new music musician, but that description, I think, allows one to imagine approximately what the music I write sounds like. Essentially, that there’s a lot of complex notation that includes notated extended techniques, coupled with a lot of improvisation, often in a free-ish context.

Despite the complexity though, I try to make everything sound natural and smooth, and to de-emphasize the difficulty. I’m not a fan of fetishizing “hard music”, like music that lauds itself as hard. I enjoy the challenge of playing playing hard music, but I don’t like playing it if it’s just hard for the sake of being hard, and not because the difficulty is musically necessary.

I also hate the trope that you have cerebral music, and emotional music, and those are two different things. Those can totally be the same thing, it really just depends on what you like listening to! I’m trying to write music in which the cerebral and emotional are equally present.

Cisco Bradley:      That’s brilliant because I feel there’s been like a long standing view of free jazz being emotional music, which it is, though the underlying thing is that the creators of free jazz were black and sort of become this thing that categorized them as somewhat lesser than cerebral composers, you know?

Anna Webber:    Yeah I mean that’s an essentially racist way of looking at it too, which is pretty horrible.

But actually with a lot of jazz writing I think “cerebral” or “intellectual” are synonymous with “I don’t get it and I don’t like it”. It’s hardly a compliment. But it’s just different for different people. Someone could listen to a concert and have an incredible emotional reaction, and someone else could listen to the same thing and find it difficult to digest, or “cerebral” as it were.

Cisco Bradley:      … or overwhelming. You know, like some of the highest energy free jazz, I think some people just can’t really process somehow. I’m curious to talk about some of your other projects too. Let’s talk about the septet.

Anna Webber:    Yeah, the album just came out. It’s called Clockwise, and was released on Pi Records in February. It’s myself on tenor sax, alto flute, and bass flute. Then Jeremy Viner on tenor sax and clarinet, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Chris Hoffman on cello, Chris Tordini on bass, Matt Mitchell on piano, and Ches Smith on drums and vibraphone. And that is all music that I wrote after a couple of years spent analyzing 20th century classical percussion music.

Cisco Bradley:      What do you mean by 20th century percussion music?

Anna Webber:    No one in the European classical tradition was writing solo pieces for percussion in the 1700s, at least not that I’m aware of – it started in the 20th century. And by percussion music, I mean pieces for percussion soloists or a percussion ensemble, music that is only written for percussion doesn’t have other instruments in it.

I studied music by Stockhausen, Xenakis, Cage, Feldman, Varèse, and several others. I use the term “study” lightly – I wasn’t doing it in a particularly rigorous way. It was slow and casual and over a long period of time. I listened to various recordings of the pieces I was checking out, took notes, read the scores, read program notes or academic papers written about the pieces… Part of my note-taking involved finding things in those pieces that I might want to use or explore on my own. I was interested in finding formal concepts or orchestrational ideas, or even things that were more abstract and less musical, that I could see working in a different setting. I’m really excited about it, and I think it’s the strongest record I’ve made yet.

Cisco Bradley:      I‘m intrigued by your scholarly approach to composition. Were you interested in these composers first, or were you specifically thinking percussion music?

Anna Webber:    Well, the idea for this collection of music came from another septet that I had when I was living in Germany, called Percussive Mechanics. I’d done two records with them for this German label, Pirouet Records. That band had two drummers in it, which I found really challenging to write for. We had a third record date booked, and for that, I had the idea of checking out a bunch of percussion music so that I’d be better able to write for two drummers. The original idea wasn’t just to study 20th century classical works, but also to check out rudiment books, jazz drum solos, and different percussion traditions like Haitian drumming and gamelan. Unfortunately, the label went bankrupt a few months before the recording, so that fell through. Because of that, and also because it was making less and less sense for me to keep flying back to Berlin to play with this group, I regretfully ended up breaking up the band.

But I took that as an opportunity to start working on music for this new septet. I purposely decided to do a different instrumentation than I’d had with Percussive Mechanics – cello, trombone, and two tenors as a frontline to have a really low end-heavy sound, and just one drummer. I decided to continue with my original idea of researching percussion music as the basis for this new collection of pieces, but I narrowed the focus to 20th century classical compositions.

Cisco Bradley:      I know you also co-conduct/co-direct a big band with Angela Morris. You have played a few times, right? Did you record or are you going to record?

Anna Webber: We’re planning on recording. The details are somewhat up in the air, but it’ll be for Greenleaf Music, Dave Douglas’s label. It’s very expensive to run a big band even with two people leading slash bankrolling it. Obviously not everybody in the band is down to do a recording session for a hundred bucks, nor should they be – it’s not really cool. But with eighteen mouths to feed, paying well adds up pretty quickly. So we’re still working out the logistics for recording – applying for grants and whatnot.

We’ve been leading this band since 2015 and we’ve done a bunch of shows and are planning a bunch more. We played at Roulette last November and the Jazz Gallery in March, and everything’s been a blast. It’s really a fun group of people. We play music by both Angela and myself – we don’t compose together. We take turns conducting and playing tenor, which works out well. I conduct my music, and Angela conducts hers.

Cisco Bradley:      So I wanted to switch gears a bit. It’s 2019 and the #MeToo Movement has been developing over the past year and a half. I’ve had conversations with the musicians over the past year about this. Where is the scene at in terms of being inclusive being a creative space for women that are doing all these things? Everyone I talked to just talked about various layers of sexism they have to deal with.

Anna Webber:    Right now? I think the jazz world is miles behind every other art scene when it comes to gender parity. In the new music world for example, it is an embarrassment for somebody to put on a concert where there’s not a single piece by a female composer, for example. And the number of female performers in that scene is basically 50-50 at this point, at least from what I’ve seen.

In jazz obviously it’s a different thing because you’re not programming pieces by different people.  It’s usually just one person, the bandleader. But the number of times where I’ve been not the only woman in a band, especially a band that’s on tour, is like… I can think of maybe one time when I was on tour with another woman. Why is it like that?

I just did some workshops when I was on the road at two schools in the Midwest. At one school we worked with their big bands – the second big band and the first big band. The second big band was about fifty percent women. In the first big band, there was one woman. At the other school, we played for a group of maybe thirty students, and there were two women in the room. Also, about two years ago I played at Oberlin College and there were maybe six women in the jazz program. They all came up to me after the show, where I was a sideperson in somebody else’s band. They told me that they were super grateful that I was there, because they’d basically never had bands coming through their school that had any women in them at all. Add to the equation that very very few jazz programs in the country have female faculty who are not vocalists, and you see that there’s a real institutional imbalance.

It’s a new thing for me to feel a little bit outraged by it, because I was always kind of down to be the only woman in groups. It just seemed like the normal thing, it was kind of cool. It was like yeah, I can hang with the boys.

But if gender parity is not happening on an institutional level, then it’s not going to happen on the scene naturally. I think schools actually need to force things to be equal even if it means accepting new students who might not be on the same level at the beginning of their degree program.

That being being said, I’m fully guilty. In my septet I’m the only woman. So I’m certainly not without blame. But I’m dealing with a scene of professional musicians in which women are a tiny minority. There are many incredible female musicians out there right now, but still, to have gender parity in a group, one has to really make it a priority.

On another note, I taught in public schools for a while. I was teaching group instrumental classes through the Brooklyn Conservatory. I had saxophone classes and clarinet classes and flute classes at different schools over a period of four or five years. Invariably, the flute class was all girls, the clarinet class was half and half, and saxophone class was all boys. It’s crazy how gender plays into it at that age – these are 10 year olds making these decisions on which instrument to play, or are their parents pushing them in these directions?

Cisco Bradley:    That’s interesting. I have to say in my junior high school bands and even in college when I played there I don’t think I ever met a male flute player, and almost no male clarinet players. I mean there were female trombone players. Saxophone was actually somewhat split. Percussion was all guys.

Anna Webber:    Whatever happens in the elementary school continues through high school and then into when people start to play jazz. But that’s also slightly more complex, who’s drawn to jazz, because – well, this is actually a theory that I heard Ingrid Jensen say years ago. I think it actually has some truth to it whether or not it’s 100% true across the board. When most people start to improvise they’re right at that age where girls are ultra sensitive to everything in the social realm, and boys are more able to brush things off. Again, obviously these gender stereotypes are not true for every teenager, but certainly my experience of being fourteen was pretty tied into social drama. So if you’re supposed to improvise in front of your whole band class and you’re a 14-year old girl who is extremely insecure and needs external validation, you either play well and get it, or you’re super worried your friends might be mean to you if you do a weird solo – and if you have a bad experience with improvisation it’s very unlikely you’ll jump on the chance to do it again. It’s also hard to say how much it’s a band teacher encouraging boys more, or encouraging girls less.

Cisco Bradley:      Most teachers seem to be male. I never had a music teacher that wasn’t a guy.

Anna Webber:    I had one band teacher that wasn’t a guy, in seventh grade. But, yeah, it’s definitely also male-dominated.

Cisco Bradley:     Thank you for your sharing your perspective.

Anna Webber:    Totally, thanks for taking the time to talk!

Cisco BradleyArtist Feature: Anna Webber