Jessica Ackerley is a leading guitarist in her generation of improvisers and experimentalists in Brooklyn today. Originally from Alberta, and having trained at Grant MacEwan and Rutgers, she has played with many contemporary figures since arriving in New York City in 2013. Her debut record as a leader, Coalesce, was one of the underground surprises of 2017.
Ackerley has a number of exciting performances coming up in September and early October that feature some of the groups she is now leading or a part of:
- Ganglion: Jessica Ackerley (guitar), Nick Dunston (bass), Stephen Boegehold (drums/compositions) at the Bar Next Door, Tuesday Sep 11, 6:30 pm
- Ganglion: Michael Attias (saxophone), Jessica Ackerley (guitar), Florian Herzog (bass), Stephen Boegehold (drums/compositions) at Spectrum, Monday Sep 17, 7 pm
- Jessica Ackerley Solo at Main Drag Music, Sep 20, 8 pm
- Jessica Ackerley Quartet featuring Sarah Manning (saxophone), Jessica Ackerley – guitar/compositions, Mat Muntz (bass), Stephen Boegehold (drums) at Wonders of Nature, Thursday, Oct 4, 8 pm
Cisco Bradley: What kind of early, formative musical experiences got you on the path that you’re on now?
Jessica Ackerley: Well, I grew up in a really small town in Alberta, about 12,000 people, so there wasn’t any music scene or any live music there. Well, I didn’t really start playing music until I was a teenager.
I live across the street from this drummer/guitar player who had this Emo/ Thrash Metal band so we would hear him rehearsing a lot. I remember one summer they had their garage open and they were playing. All the kids in the neighborhood were watching and I felt really enthralled by just witnessing actual musicians playing music live. I’d never experienced that.
My Dad listened to a lot of music. He grew up in the ’70s so I was exposed to a lot of that stuff. Then I started really getting obsessed with radio. At that time I didn’t have the Internet either so I couldn’t find music outside of the realm of radio.
Eventually streaming happened online by the time I was a pre teen. I started getting into Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and reading guitar magazines. I was finding out about guitar players like Les Paul and Wes Montgomery. For Christmas one year, I got this little pocket radio that I would listen to at night. I started listening to CBC Radio 2 and around 10 o’clock to midnight that’s where they started getting into really interesting stuff.
CB: What do you mean by interesting?
JA: They would have a jazz show where they would play more straight ahead stuff. And that’s when I started hearing drums differently. I probably, at that time, thought it was swing, but I wasn’t sure. This was blurs of energy to me at that point, probably because I couldn’t understand what was going on and the language of it, but I remember being drawn to it. Also there was the college radio station where they had all their rock bands and indie stuff that I would listen to as well.
CB: What was the attraction “interesting” stuff?
JA: Well, I was interested in the fact that this new material didn’t have any straight beat or pulse similar to what I was hearing on mainstream radio. Growing up in Alberta I was inundated with a lot of this manufactured music in the mainstream and then felt drawn to something outside of that and listening to that on the less mainstream radio shows and late night shows.
CB: How old were you when you began playing?
JA: I didn’t really start playing guitar until I was about 15 or 16. But I did play flute in high school band so that’s kind of where I learned how to read music.
CB: Why not stick with flute? There was no electric appeal to it?
JA: I felt the teenage angst and boredom of growing up in a small town and needed an outlet of this raw expression that I couldn’t get with playing in high school band. And it’s funny because for a moment I actually took a piano lesson with a jazz pianist when I was 13. So I had a few lessons with her and then she was gone. I’ve thought about that moment, I could’ve pursued jazz piano if I continued studying with her.
I was really obsessed with Hendrix by the time I was 15. The way he articulates improvisation with composition. I love being able to improvise, stretch, and reach out there but I always come back to a home base that is easy for an audience to be receptive to.
CB: What about his way of working improvisation through composed material?
JA: Well, for Christmas my Dad bought me DVDs of him playing some live concerts so I would watch videos of him playing songs like Machine Gun.
But what’s more interesting about his guitar playing is there’s so much depth and dimension. Not just in the notes that he plays but the nuances or the feedback that he’s getting. I don’t think of him as just a rock musician, he created some whole other dimension sonically on his instrument.
CB: Moving from there forward, I mean, did you then go on to study guitar?
JA: I didn’t have an actual guitar teacher in high school. I learned how to play guitar through magazines and the Internet. And then by the time I was 18 my parents said, “you have to get a college degree, there’s no choice”. So it was one of those situations where I’m, “okay, well, If I’m going to college I’m going for music.”
And there’s a really great community college in Edmonton, about three hours from where I grew up. Usually 100 guitar players audition and then from there they choose 10 of them to go into that first year. It was only a two-year program.
I was lucky enough to get into that program because a lot of guitar players that get into that program usually have at least three or four years of experience studying with a teacher. I kind of figured out chords and theory related stuff on my own.
CB: What was the name of the school?
JA: Grant MacEwan College, which is now a University. I studied with Bobby Cairns, Jamie Philp and Jim Head, and that’s kind of what started me getting into straight ahead jazz.
That first year I got Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at The Half Note. I obsessively listened to the album every day for about two years. It was the jumping point for me to get into true improvisation and stuff.
By the end of my fourth year I felt so saturated and also disenchanted with all the socialized facets of it all. Also just being a young woman student in the jazz program as a guitar player I had really rough go with some of the men and boys in the program, both students and faculty.
CB: May I ask more about that?
JA: It was super alienating at times. I dealt with a lot of sexual harassment. I dealt with a lot of condescending things.
I was lucky enough that I had a few select friends (that I still play music with to this day) that had my back. But every day you’re going into this kind of battlefield of, “how am I going to get through this and come out the other end of it”?
I still have anxiety from it. It put a lot of performance pressure on me, which I still deal with to this day. At times I find it difficult to play just because of my experiences performing in jazz school amongst a bunch of male peers and the feeling of playing anything less than the best would made me less accepted as a guitarist.
It also really made me more driven to pursue it and made me believe in this even more. This is what I wanted to do and even what I need to do.
CB: You said by the end of the year you were disenchanted with sort of the straight ahead jazz scene? Is that stuff somehow less of a problem in the experimental scene?
JA: Yes, it’s getting better. There’s still things going on but it’s better than that straight ahead jazz scene.
CB: So what things are still going on? Have you talked to other female guitar players?
JA: There is the subtleties in social interaction. Example: My male peers, they like to stick together and it’s this not only musical bond because they’re more comfortable with each other. They’ve even came up with a word for it, “the hang.” Their kinship is really close and then because of that I feel like an outsider because any close connection in a platonic way could risk being misconstrued and a possible ostracization from the group if feelings are hurt. At the same time, I have this sisterhood with my other women peers that I work with. I feel sometimes if a man came into this fold, they would feel the same way. It can be tricky building platonic and professional relationships, or even follow sexual desires or feelings towards someone when your art and career as well as your personal relationships are involved. This is the tricky part of navigation with what I feel when I’m with a group of male peers. They have this really strong bond that I have to tip toe around.
Having said that, there are more pockets of those male groups than there are pockets of myself so even though I feel like an outsider, there’s the one thread that kind of ties us, and that’s music, so I always try to put that as a first point of connecting with people, regardless of gender.
CB: So when you were finishing up school, feeling disenchanted, how did you move forward into the next thing in terms of music?
JA: I was lucky that I had Andrew MacKelvie, a classmate and an altoist from Antigonish, Nova Scotia (at St. Francis Xavier University). When I was in my third year he did a creative music workshop with Jerry Granelli. He was the drummer that played on the Charlie Brown Christmas Soundtrack but he also does experimental music. He runs this really amazing workshop out of Halifax, The Creative Music Workshop, focusing on free improvisation and compositions. So my friend Andrew MacKelvie did it.
Outside of school, Andrew and I had this art gallery gig once a month where we play free jazz. And then by the time I got out of school that was one thing that I latched onto, one of my few partnerships and relationships from school that I still maintain to this day. So working with Andrew and starting to stand out was really creatively fulfilling for me.
When I moved to Toronto that year that changed a lot of things as well. I started meeting more musicians that were into free improvisation and experimental music. I didn’t really have pocket because the first 22 years of my life were in small towns in Canada.
CB: So as you’re finishing up there what did you see as your next step?
JA: Toronto was a big game changer for me because I started hanging out with a lot of musicians that attended UofT and Humber. They’d just finished their music degrees like me and we just started playing a lot of sessions and tip jar gigs. I found it interesting that the musicians in Toronto wrote their own material and put their bands together because my peers weren’t really doing that in Edmonton or Nova Scotia when I was there. That sort of planted the seeds for me, getting away from playing standards and still doing free improvisation but also getting into composition.
CB: Can you talk about your early compositions?
JA: They were rough. It was another creative outlet that I hadn’t experienced before and it felt like it was my own. I could improvise with Andrew or I could play a set of standards but it was the first time where I felt a personal connection to what I was creating.
At the time I knew it wasn’t the greatest music, I felt proud that I could actually put something together, showcase it, and play it for my peers.
CB: So then after your experience there then you came to New York?
JA: I moved in New Jersey. Baby steps.
When I was in my final year in my undergrad I met Vic Juris. He came up to teach a workshop and then I got a lesson with him and then he invited me to come audition at Rutgers.
Looking back, I wish I did some more research about what grad school I wanted to go to because Rutgers was a really straight ahead jazz school, so I was going back into that scene of playing straight ahead jazz even though musically I was starting to become more aware of fringe sounds that I was drawn to.
Even though I was really disenchanted with it in my undergrad I knew that I wanted to study with Vic and I knew it would be a good experience because he really encouraged me with my guitar playing.
And I also met a drummer named Victor Lewis there. He was the drum professor there. He played with Jaco (Pastorious) and a bunch of other jazz icons. He was interesting because even though he was a straight-ahead player he always encouraged me to write my own music and didn’t force me to write in the specific styles the other professors were grading students on. He was the professor in the program saying, “You got to keep on writing these tunes. You got to keep on developing this.” Keep on bringing original material each rehearsal. He was also the person who convinced me to make a final decision to New York through a conversation we had on NJ Transit one day when I was heading into the city.
My time spent at Rutgers was what planted the seeds for my first album. A lot of this music that I wrote for my trio album started developing during those two years at Rutgers.
I also met pianist Alex Perry. One of the biggest things that Alex did for me was hipping me to Mary Halvorson’s Dragon Head album. That changed a lot of stuff for me because I’d never heard guitar played like that before.
CB: Can you talk about that record?
JA: Oh, I love it. I love it so much that I can’t listen to Mary anymore because I absorb so much of her style and playing.
It was a really pivotal point for me ’cause I’d never met another woman who played guitar before so that had a strong effect on me. It made me realize I could actually do this. I could move to New York and I can play music that’s out there and have a different guitar sound than a lot of my male peers that I was surrounded by. She was just completely different.
Once I started getting into her then I started getting to know Nels Cline and Marc Ribot. It made me realize that once I move to New York that was kind of more the vein that I’d always been kind of searching for.
CB: I think all the other people that you mentioned have been male mentors. Is there anything else you can say about how’s it different having a female mentor/ role model?
JA: I read a really great article on Joni Mitchell. I feel a close connection to her because, like me, she grew up in a Canadian small town. She was also criticized a lot for not being a “true feminist” because a lot of her role models were male and she always idolized males. Most of my mentors have been men but I found inspiration and role models in other discipline such as writers like Margaret Atwood, painters like Emily Carr, as well as my Mom and Grandmother.
I had the chance to interview Mary and I did a whole thesis paper based on female jazz guitar players. Linking up with her and spending time with her and talking to her right away, I felt this huge sigh of relief, because she understood what I’ve been through.
I took some lessons with her as well. It wasn’t so much about the material she taught, but more so this unspoken understanding that there are things that you have to deal with that your male peers don’t have to deal with. Just being in the same room with her and having that unspoken understanding was pretty tremendous for me.
With Mary I find she’s just a really genuine person. Every time I see her at a show she’s always giving me a hug and always asking me how I’m doing. I can also say the same about Susan Alcorn who I’ve met and talked to a couple times. I feel this sense of warmth. Not like a motherly nature but this nurturing nature interacting with Mary where she is a trail blazer but wants to make sure the pathway is walkable for the women coming after her.
CB: So Coalesce, your first record as a leader came out last February. Could you talk about the making of that record?
JA: The seeds were conceived when I was at Rutgers then I moved to New York in 2013. That’s where I really started writing out the compositions for the record.
I feel it’s a dark record since I’d just moved to NY, and like other people’s experiences when they first move to New York, it takes a moment to adjust your ego and deal with a lot of self-doubt. When I first moved to NY I had six roommates. My room was literally a closet with a mattress on the floor. I had no air-conditioning and it was July (probably 110 degrees in my room). My window didn’t open. There were baby mice in the ceiling started chewing through the board and falling on to my bed. I couldn’t get any relief in my physical space both at home and around the city. If felt suffocating. I was miserable and unemployed, so I just had this time to write this music. I was literally writing a song a day because that was the only space I felt I could move freely in and gain confidence in my art.
Then I started playing out with this material and booking my own shows; playing with it in a trio setting, or a quartet setting. I was playing at Freddy’s Backroom Bar and booking bills. I like playing there. It was trial and error and developing it at that point.
CB: How did your band come together? Who did you work with?
JA: Mat was the bass player in my album and was on a gig with me. I was playing with Alex Perry in his quintet and Andrew D’Angelo put on a show at Douglass Street. Mat was playing bass in that band. It was the first time we ever played together and we’ve been playing for almost seven years now.
Then I linked up with Nick Fraser through my friend, Angela Morris. She hired me to play at the Tranzac in Toronto when I was back visiting for the summer. Nick was in the band with Karen Ng and Allison Au, both really great altoists. Nick is very active in jazz scene and is playing with Tony Malaby and Kris Davis and one of my favorite musicians. He is probably one of the most musical improvisers I know and I’m lucky when I catch flashes of his wit because it goes by so fast, most of the time over my head.
CB: Were you happy with the reception for that record?
JA: I wasn’t expecting anything when I put it out. Just knowing people were listening to it was a pleasant surprise.
I’m not really active on the jazz scene so I was surprised people searched it up themselves. It was nice to see that people genuinely enjoyed it.
CB: What are your next plans for that band? What’s your next project?
JA: I don’t know if I’m going to do another trio record. There are two things that I’m working on right now.
I mean, I do a lot of stuff outside of jazz and improvisation. I’m really into noise and experimental rock.
CB: I’d love to hear more about that.
JA: I’m working on doing a solo guitar split tape release right now with Kate Mohanty doing solo alto sax stuff on the other side. It will be released on a tape label called Solid Melts in the Fall. My noise rock duo, ESSi, is going into the studio this summer to record a full length album. I am singing and playing guitar in this band so the human voice and telling stories through music is a whole new avenue that I’ve been exploring.
CB: You mentioned noise. Can you talk about how you connected with that scene?
JA: It’s interesting, because w hen I play jazz and improvisation music, I feel like I want to get louder. I listened to a lot of punk rock in high school and I always have this dream of going into a punk direction with my jazz stuff. So I felt like the culmination of being loud with experimental music and my childhood dream of being a punk was something that I wanted to pursue.
I started getting into that scene and I met the drummer Rick Daniel who played in this drums/ guitar duo called Yvette. But he started ESSi. All our songs are based on improvised structure so we basically sit down and improvise for an hour or two then go back and sift through to find what we like and thread it together.
What’s really important for us is having a song structure that is attainable and accessible to our listeners so there’s a sense of melody… a sense of a hook or something that the listener can latch onto. So going out there, to the weirder aspects and sounds, and at times maybe it sounds like it’s improvised, but it’s actually threaded together through some sort of structure.
CB: And you also play in rock bands?
JA: Yeah. I’m kind of stepping in here and there for shows with this band called the Irrevery. It’s kind of country/ punk music, which is super fun but I can still do my loud guitar stuff in it. Then I also played in this really great band called Gold Dime with Andrya Ambro for a year. She used to be in this band called Talk Normal, which was kind of big in the early 2000s on the scene here. Her band was interesting because it was all alternate guitar tunings, so every song I had to tune to a different tuning and then from there it was hard because what I knew as where my notes laid on my fret board I couldn’t find anywhere because everything was de-tuned.
So I’ve had a lot of fun stepping out into that scene and working with these musicians. I don’t feel as stressed out since it’s not as intellectually based and I can focus more on my stage presence; moving around and being more physical on my instrument without worrying, you know?
CB: Yeah, I totally get it. Are there any other projects that I’m not aware of that we haven’t talked about or is that most of the– cover most of what you’re doing at the moment?
JA: So there’s Jazz Bras. It’s me on guitar, Laura Swankey (Toronto), she’s the vocalist, and Elisa Thorn (Vancouver), and she’s a harpist. We don’t play that often. Every once in a while we try either to play in Toronto or in New York. They actually played my album release show with me back in February.
We met at Banff and were getting fed up with dealing with some of the men in the program and some of the sexist things they would say. So we got together to play a free improvised session that night. We were just basically venting about how we were annoyed with certain interactions with men in the program and decided to put a set together. One of the songs is called “So, you’re a singer?” Then there is “What Are You Compensating For?” Laura came up this song called “Elbow Tit” based on her experience of a male bandmate not being mindful of his space and elbowing her in the tit. Our first album was a live recording at the Banff Creative Workshop. We went on tour a couple of times and then we released our second album Witch Tapes this past February on HAVN Records (Hamilton, Ontario).
CB: So you’ve been vocal about the sexism in the scene and all that stuff that’s happening right now. What’s the situation right now and what needs to change?
JA: I feel like it’s arrived at a pivotal point. If we don’t jump on the opportunity right now then it could be a lost. People are finally starting to wake up. I follow a lot of this stuff in comment sections of articles around social media and it seems that the first moment happened was with Ethan Iverson and Robert Glasper.
I think that if we’re not strategic, the pendulum can swing the other way, or if we’re too aggressive it’s going to come back to us and actually undo all the work that we’ve made the past couple months.
CB: What do you mean?
JA: I feel with the #MeToo Movement and calling out many men in an informal setting, like actually naming people that raped you on Facebook, I think could be a dangerous thing because it can be used as fuel to fire back. But also at the same time, the system and process crimes like sexual assault is too easy for perpetrators to slip through without being held accountable.
We have to be organized about how we weed out these predators. Not just in the musical community, but across the board. It will take time for things like sexism to go away but I am hoping that we can identify and remove predators sooner than later before they do more harm. I feel like a lot of the jazz education institutes are just shuffling these guilty men around from university to university like Catholic priests.
We also have to be really proactive about education and mentorship and what we portray to children because they’re the ones that are going to be the generation of whatever seeds we plant right now. They’re going to be the ones that are going to feel what is normalized. It’s not so much about the battle of the sexes and more so the normalization and acceptance of new rules that have replace normalized behavior towards women.
I feel like these men should be punished, but there’s also a need for rehabilitation and that’s lacking right now. It’s going to be unproductive if we don’t rehabilitate/ make them understand what they’re doing is wrong.
As much as women are asking for empathy amongst men, women should also address their own empathy towards men. A lot of the reasons why men act this way are because of the social conditions that they grew up with.
A lot of my friends are men that I adore. At times I see the pressures that society puts on them to make them act out the way they do.
A lot of men die from heart attacks and live shorter lives because of the fact that everything’s so bottled up and there’s immense amount of pressure that they can’t express emotions. Expression of emotions is considered girly or feminine and that’s not the right way to make a man feel. A man should have the equal chance to be able to express their emotions and not feel shunned or lesser of a man because they express themselves.
So I think that there has to be that sort of dialogue going on as well with men showing empathy towards us and women understanding that this is the situation where some men are struggling due to the social climate themselves.
CB: Did you detect any racial divides in the #MeToo movement? In the music scene?
JA: Yes. I, as a white woman, have to deal with this but it’s so much worse for women of color and what they have to deal with. The long history of feminism has not been the most positive and uplifting movement for women of color. The white women feminist actively rejected and ostracized women of color out of their movement in the being, and still do in a few ways today. It was considered a white women’s movement in the beginning because we took up too much space in the conversation and didn’t full or fair credit to women of color and their contributions, even taking credit for them ourselves.
I struggle with being blinded by my own white biased lens. Being a white woman feminist, I understand the history of how we haven’t been very inclusive and we’re hypocrites ourselves for not including women of other races in the discussion, and also acknowledging and listening to the fact that their experiences have been and still are a lot worse. I can talk about all the crappy things that I’ve been through with jazz school and what I had to deal with regarding men, but at the end of the day there are women going through far worse situations because they’re women and because they’re women of color. I will never understand that experience but I can educate and grow to empathize with it. I have to acknowledge myself and check myself in that respect.
- Interviewer: Cisco Bradley
- Editor: Gabriel Vanlandingham-Dunn
- Transcriber: Linamea Taran
- Cover photo: Mike Borchardt