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ne of jazz’s most romanticized scenes is that of the solitary saxophonist blowing his battered horn on a NewYork bridge in the early hours. Based on real events, it comes from the fabled period when the great Sonny Rollins, not wanting to disturb a pregnant neighbor in his Brooklyn tenement, would practice on the Williamsburg Bridge. And now perhaps now it’s time to add another iconic image to jazz lore: That of the lone drummer beating her traps along the West Side Highway. “I lived in the West Village then, so it was close by,” recalls Susie Ibarra about her early days as a musician in New York. “I actually was fortunate enough to be able to practice in my apartment, but it was so beautiful by the Hudson River and it was nice to be able to play outside. So I’d take my drums over there and set up. If the weather was bad, I had a compact kit that I’d bring to the subway and play down there. Sometimes I was playing four or five shows a week on top of that, so I was really playing a lot.” Playing a lot is exactly what Ibarra, an adventurous contemporary composer and one of today’s leading free jazz drummers, has seemingly been doing nonstop since she appeared on the NewYork scene at the dawn of the 1990s.With her storming style, she first seized the attention of many avant-garde aficionados as a member of the pivotal David S. Ware Quartet and Matthew Shipp Trio and has performed with John Zorn, Pauline Oliveros, Marc Ribot, Dave Douglas, Derek Bailey, Thurston Moore, Arto Lindsay, Yo La Tengo, and others in addition to leading her own bands. Named “Best Percussionist” in numerous Downbeat critics’ and readers’ polls and regularly featured on the covers of drum magazines, Ibarra, the recipient of a 2010 TED fellowship, continues to receive key commissions and has performed her works at Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian Institution, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, and other internationally prestigious venues and events. “I was lucky to grow up in an environment where I got to experience a lot of music and didn’t have to move around a lot,” she says. “Music is definitely a gift.” The gift arrived at a very young age. Born in California to a pair of music-loving Filipino-American physicians, Ibarra, 47, started piano lessons when she was four, the same year her family moved to Houston, Texas. “My older siblings had records, so a lot of the first music I heard was through them,” she recalls. “I remember being really drawn to Michael Jackson’s [1979 album] Off the Wall when I was little, because of the rhythms.” Although she played organ in the family church and sang in the choir there and in school, the regional styles grabbed her hard as well. “I heard a lot of blues music in Houston, which was really interesting, filtered through experiences of the Filipino-American community there,” Ibarra says. “Then, around the time I was in my early teens, I saw a zydeco band at an outdoor concert and I was really focused on the drummer. I said, ‘I wanna do that.’ It was innate.” She got her first set of drums in high school and began playing in a punk band with classmates. “I had drums and I could keep a beat, so they asked me to be in the band,” she says, adding, “I wasn’t allowed to play shows on school nights, though.” The big bomb, however, was her discovery of a local jazz radio station, where she fell in love with the classics. “I remember hearing [Thelonious Monk’s] ‘Monk’s Dream’ and just being, ‘Wow, what is this?’” Ibarra recounts. “They played a lot of big band music, too, like Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. That’s also where I first heard Sun Ra—his version of ‘Pink Elephants on Parade,’ from the Walt Disney Dumbo cartoon, which was a piece I really loved.” And it would be seeing Sun Ra live at New York club Sweet Basil in 1989, while she was studying language and visual art at Sarah Lawrence College, that would most inspire Ibarra to become a jazz musician herself. Amid switching to the New School’s Mannes College of Music and then to Goddard College, from where she received her B.A. in music, Ibarra studied with Sun Ra saxophonist Earl “Buster” Smith and the influential drummers Milford Graves, Vernel Fournier, and Dennis Charles, eventually performing a weekly residency and recording an album with the latter. By the mid-’90s she was regularly making her way Downtown to startle the scene from behind the kit in bassist William Parker’s Little Huey Creative Orchestra at venues like CBGB’s Gallery. In 1996, when Whit Dickey vacated the drum stool of saxophonist David S. Ware’s quartet, with whom Parker also performed, Ibarra’s highly physical style made her the perfect percussive match for the leader’s fiery attack. “David had a big sound,” recalls Ibarra about the horn man, who died in 2012 and with whom she recorded three incredible studio albums. “Playing with him was an amazing experience. Even then I was writing my own music, but the nature of the drums means that you’ll often find yourself in situations where you’re playing other people’s music.” Among those other people was another Ware sideman, pianist Matthew Shipp, who briefly featured her in his trio; saxophonist John Zorn, with whom she recorded a live duo set; guitar giant Derek Bailey; saxophonist Assif Tshar; and bandleader and cornetist Butch Morris. By the end of the decade, Ibarra was ready to step out as a leader. She formed her own trio, which has at times included pianists Cooper-Moore and Craig Taborn and violinists Charles Burnham and Jennifer Choi, and started a label, Hopscotch, which

released her first album as a leader, Radiance, in 1999; the acclaimed Flower After Flower, which features an eight-piece ensemble, followed on Zorn’s Tzadik imprint that year. While continuing to compose and record her own music and work with dozens of other artists in the early 2000s, Ibarra also reconnected with her ethnic heritage via a newfound fascination with the kulintang gong-chime music of the Philippines. “I’d heard Filipino choral music when I was growing up in the Filipino community in Houston, and sometimes my family would host gatherings where people sang,” she explains. “But I didn’t really get to hear real kulintang music until later.” Related to the gamelan and pi phat traditions of, respectively, Indonesia and Thailand, kulintang originates from the Southern Philippines and is commonly played and composed on the row of tuned kettle gongs for which the music is named. Ibarra and Cuban-born percussionist Roberto Juan Rodriguez began filming and making field recordings of tribal kulintang musicians in the Philippines in 2004, the same year she released Folklorico, a cycle of 11 kulintang-based pieces inspired by the daily life of a Filipino laborer. (A film of her travels with Rodriguez, The Cotabato Sessions, premiered in 2017.) She and Rodriguez also cofounded the organization Song of the Bird King, which focuses on the preservation of indigenous music and ecology, and Mundo Niños, a group that performs and teaches music to underserved children; additionally, they’ve collaborated on the revealingly named musical project Electric Kulintang. “I definitely see myself as a contemporary artist,” she says. “But I also love a lot of older indigenous music and I’m very influenced by it. I feel like it brings me closer to the actual environments it comes from.” Two environments Ibarra has been getting to know intimately in recent years are Ulster County, where she has lived since 2008, and the area around Bennington College in Vermont, where she has been a faculty member since 2012 and teaches percussion and performance at the college’s Center for Advancement in Public Action, a program focused on human rights advocacy for women and girls and rebuilding cities with the arts. One of her star students from her days of giving private lessons in NewYork—and her recent substitute at Bennington while she worked on a commission—is Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase. “I first heard Susie play in 1996 or ’97,” says Chase. “As a young, impressionable drummer I was looking for influence, and she had a particular melodic sense to her drumming, which isn’t a quality typically associated with drums. She made playing the drums look so effortless and fluid while at the same time exhibiting a virtuosic command of the instrument. Since then, I’ve regarded her as my drum mentor.” It would take far more space than this mere page to track Ibarra’s monolithic CV and unrelenting stream of musical activities. Her latest releases are 2017’s Perception, by her Dream Time Ensemble, and Flower of Sulphur, a collaboration with multiinstrumentalist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Boredoms drummer YoshimiO, which came out last month. Other recent projects include the multimedia work “Fragility— An Exploration of Polyrhythms” and commissions for the PRISM Saxophone Quartet (it premieres in New York and Philadelphia this June) and the Kronos Quartet (a piece for the revered group’s ongoing Fifty for the Future series, which this year also includes contributions from Terry Riley, Henry Threadgill, and the National’s Bryce Dessner and will debut as part of the 120th anniversary of Carnegie Hall). Now a New Paltz resident, Ibarra is SUNY New Paltz’s Kenneth Davenport Composer in Residence for spring 2018 and looks forward to world premiere of her newest work, “Talking Gong,” on March 10 at Studley Theater. Written to be a collaborative performance with pianist and SUNY Department of Music assistant professor Alex Peh and flutist Claire Chase (no relation to Brian), a 2012 MacArthur “Genius” award recipient and 2017 Avery Fisher Career Prize winner, the piece references “the rhythms and language of the Philippine Maguindanaon talking gongs, the gandingan, which were originally used not only to play music but also to speak language.” “It’s the first time I’m performing locally, so of course I’m very excited about that,” she says. “Alex and I have been talking with the SUNY music department about ways to build the contemporary music scene here and make it more inclusive. Maybe we’ll find a space in the area to hold similar events on a regular basis. I’m hoping the concert helps lead to something along those lines.” Ibarra also hopes, despite her unyielding routine, that the intermediate interludes of music and life don’t get lost in the creative frenzy, for her or her audience. “I’m always wanting to learn, to hear something new, and I see music as a way for people to connect and learn,” she says. “When I play and compose I’m inviting people to stop and just listen. Sometimes the things that are the most powerful happen when other things are in transition—those in-between moments.” Susie Ibarra will perform “Talking Gong” and other works with Alex Peh and Claire Chase at the Julien J. Studley Theater at SUNY New Paltz on March 10 at 8pm. The Cotabato Sessions will screen at the college’s Max and Nadia Shepard Recital Hall on March 8 at 12:30pm and 2pm.; 3/18 CHRONOGRAM MUSIC 55

Profile for Chronogram

Chronogram March 2018  

Chronogram March 2018