“I don't self-identify as a woman when I'm on stage. I'm me, I'm a dude.”

The Syrinx Effect, with Naomi Siegel (left) and Kate Olson (right).

The Syrinx Effect, with Naomi Siegel (left) and Kate Olson (right).

My celebration of JazzApril continues with another interview with a Seattle Women in Jazz Festival performer, this time soprano saxophonist Kate Olson.

She’s a relative newcomer to Seattle, arriving in 2010, but she has quickly made her mark on the jazz and improvised music scenes. In 2011 Kate appeared in the Earshot Jazz Festival and was nominated for an Earshot Golden Ear Award in the Northwest Emerging Artist category. In 2012 Kate was chosen to perform in Earshot’s Jazz: The Second Century series, which showcases the next generation of jazz musicians. And she can be regularly heard around town performing with her own projects including the Syrinx Effect and Sugarpants and as a collaborator with the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra, Ask the Ages, Daniel Barry’s 2 Hemispheres, and Wayne Horvitz’s Royal Room Collective Music Ensemble.

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For the fest, Kate will perform with the Syrinx Effect, alongside Naomi Siegel on trombone, at Egan’s on Friday, April 26 beginning at 9:30. To preview the duo’s thoughtful, often mesmerizing, and downright beautiful improvisations, go here. If you like what you hear and would like to support the Syrinx Effect’s first album (to be recorded later this month) download their tracks.

Now, on to the interview! Kate’s a straight talker, and I think you will enjoy what she has to say.

Tell me about your musical beginnings. When did you know that you wanted to pursue music professionally?

Well, I grew up in Wyoming, where there isn't a lot of competition musically, and there aren't a lot of career options for young musicians (let alone many female role models). My parents didn't want me to go into music, so I got an international studies degree. Fortunately, I had a very supportive saxophone instructor that saw a bit of the fire in me for playing music (jazz, especially), and he found the scholarship money for me to finish a music degree. That was in 2004. I wanted to pursue my music study more seriously (and at a larger, more competitive institution), so I applied and was accepted to the MM Improvisation degree program at the University of Michigan. There I was able to study free improvisation techniques, contemplative studies as they relate to art making, and get some experience playing in pit orchestras as student-led ensembles. That experience really opened up my world musically.

What are your musical influences?

I'm primarily a soprano saxophonist, so the folks that I listen to specifically for tone and sound conception are who you might expect: Steve Lacy, Jane Ira Bloom, Wayne Shorter, Evan Parker.... but my full musical conception comes from a more diverse background. I am absolutely in love with minimalism, so Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and modern ensembles like the Bang on a Can All-Stars come to mind. Deep listening techniques and exercises pioneered by Pauline Oliveros have played a huge part in my approach to improvisation. And pop music is a big influence too, as far as I classify it, anyway. Bjork, Brian Eno, singers like Billy Bragg and Gillian Welch, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson all influence how I think about sound and storytelling with respect to composing and improvising. I also really dig more "straight ahead" jazz. Miles Davis (early and late) is incredible, and I regularly listen to John Coltrane's Ballads album and A Love Supreme.

You have training in jazz and improvised music. Many people view these as one and the same. But the work you do with Syrinx Effect, for example, does not match most people’s expectations of bop-based jazz. Explain how jazz and improvised music are related to one another, their similarities and differences, and how this all plays out in your music.

Jazz is a language, the same way Chinese is a language. It's full of dialects, changes its lilt and rhythm from region to region, and requires dedicated study and practice to attain any modicum of fluency in hearing, reading, writing, and speaking it. My understanding is that people that speak Cantonese can't necessarily make themselves understood to people who speak Mandarin, and jazz functions in a similar way. Beboppers speak a very specific dialect. Folks that play modal jazz make use of a different vocabulary and syntax. Funk players create phrases differently than traditional jazz players. And the musicians calling tunes at a session in Atlanta aren't necessarily going to call the same standards as the musicians in Chicago.

While there is a huge amount of improvisation in jazz, there are still some pretty specific rules that you have to abide by to make yourself understood. In improvised music (which, for the record, is different from free jazz), the rules are a little more flexible. There's still a rubric and a lineage, but in truly free improvisation, the method of knowing what to say next is more like trying to complete an oil painting. It may be just as acceptable to scrap the whole picture and tear up the canvas as it is to bring one of Bob Ross's happy little trees to life. It's important to remember that nothing is completely off limits in free improvisation or the genre of "improvised music." Groove is awesome, major or minor tonality is totally cool. But then again, so is atonality, bitonality, and extended techniques that would challenge the most experienced listener to find a rhyme or reason to the progression and development of the piece. Form is great. No form is great. Like jazz, improvised music draws upon a musician's lifetime experience – the most educated musicians with the broadest tastes tend to be the most intelligent and innovative improvisers. You can hear elements of world music, African rhythmic diaspora, noise music, punk rock, baroque and classical themes....

Tell me about your creative process. In the absence of predetermined melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic structures, how do you get your ideas? How do you interact with your fellow musicians?

I approach improvised music from a primarily jazz/Western art music educational background, with a hefty helping of Americana and folk. That gives me access to a unique vocabulary that makes me sound the way I do (in the same way that growing up in Wyoming makes me occasionally say "y'all" or pronounce milk as "melk"). And the bottom line with all music is listening and getting out from under the ego.

Where do most of my ideas come from? My fellow musicians – whether I'm attempting a bebop solo over “Stella by Starlight” or improvising by clanging my car keys against the bell of my horn. Specifically in the improvised music realm, I'm always trying to ask myself a series of questions (although honestly, most of that is hopefully happening behind the scenes in my brain). What does the music need from me? Can I hear something that's missing? How can I respond to the ideas that are being played around me? Is it time for a new idea? There are some tenets for action in Tibetan Buddhism that are helpful here: I can add similar energy. I can subtract from the energy by playing something calming. I can choose no action (i.e. laying out). I can derail or sabotage what's going on, or I can play supportive background figures. I also think a lot in terms of larger structure, and usually for me that means thinking visually. Colors and shapes on graph paper, as if the trajectory of the piece I'm playing has more in common with the pie chart or line graph of a marketing proposal than the average piece of written music. Musical lines have a distinct shape for me. It's not synesthesia, where a particular pitch evokes a particular color or taste, but it's similar. Playing blue triangles is really different from playing an EKG, which is really different from playing an orange sphere....


What is it like being a “woman in jazz”? Do you think it’s harder being a woman rather than a man in the world of jazz? Have you felt pressure to be one of the guys?

I am one of the guys. I have always been one of the guys, and I will continue to be one of the guys. I play jazz and improvised music because it makes sense to me as a form of expression. In sociological-speak, I don't self-identify as a woman when I'm on stage. I'm me, I'm a dude. It's not about the fact that I happen to have a pussy or that I can wear eye shadow and high heels without getting disapproving sideways glances. It's about the fact that I'm good at playing saxophone, I'm intelligent and articulate, and I'm COMPETITIVE (as a qualifier, not a personality trait). There are things that I can do as a musician, that are totally in my wheelhouse, that few other folks in my milieu are capable of doing at the same level. I get hired to play in bands because bandleaders like how I play, not because they want a woman in their band. I am a role model because I work damn hard to hone my craft, and I am NEVER satisfied, not because I do those things and then go home and pee sitting down. The fact that I am as good at what I do as I am, and that I am as dedicated and serious as I am should make it clear to anyone and everyone that my gender is not an issue as far as playing music is concerned. My protection against sexism is a healthy dose of not giving a fuck and being as much of a badass as I can be.

Now, onto what we deal with on the daily as female musicians. I've been extremely lucky in my career thus far that I have not experienced much in the way of blatant sexism. I know almost no other women that can say the same thing. From being called "baby" on the bandstand to being cut from a band because you won't sleep with a bandleader. THESE THINGS HAPPEN.

What is even more disturbing to me is that we perpetuate it ourselves, and the most insidious and hurtful forms of sexism are often silent and self-enforced. Every time a woman says something self-deprecating on stage to her male counterparts, begging for attention... every time a woman passes up an audition because the band is historically all-male... every time a woman refuses to pursue her desires to be a professional musician because someone early on told her that "it's really hard to have a family AND be a musician"... and this one will sound really harsh, but every time a woman gets up on stage and expects to be treated differently because she's a woman, or allows herself to put on a mediocre performance but refuses to compete with her male colleagues in a way that might threaten their egos, we are a part of the problem.

I can't change hardened sexists, I especially can't change opinions when they're so far below the surface for most people that we don't realize what's actually going on, and what cultural "norms" we swallow without questioning them. What I can do is show up, keep showing up, keep getting better, keep being visible, and keep telling my students, male and female alike, that while we don't live in a world where gender equality actually exists in the wild, we make our world in the image of our deeds and what is inside our own minds.

Tell me about the set you will be performing with Syrinx Effect on April 26 at Egan’s.

The Syrinx Effect is a trombone/soprano sax duo with effects. Expect to hear looping, strange noises, found sounds (Naomi [Siegel] just got back from Senegal and has some amazing field recordings), groove-based improvisation, beautiful folk-like melodies, vocal percussion, and a whole lot of honesty. We will play some pre-composed pieces, and quite a bit of freely improvised pieces. We want our audiences to be transported, to forget about their cell phones and their day jobs, and go on a little journey with us. Hopefully that will happen. And hopefully it will all happen with open hearts and a good sense of humor.

Thank you, Kate, for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s been a pleasure. Next up: trumpeter and composer Samantha Boshnack.