Virginia Mayhew is a master of her arts-as a jazz saxophonist and a black belt in karate. She says practicing karate and practicing jazz are more similar than not. "They're both so intense, and they require so much work on timing and also technique. Karate is a lot more physical, of course. But with playing saxophone or practicing martial arts, once you've got the technique down, all that hard work gives you the freedom to express and try new things."
Her fourth CD, Phantoms (Renma), with the group she's led for seven years-trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Harvie S, drummer Allison Miller-is a culmination of a year's worth of hard work. "I wanted to make a recording of the stuff we'd been playing live-that energy and all of the emotion I'd been dealing with after September 11th. And it's evolved since then, but I live in New York, and you can't escape the impact that it has on me and the music."
San Francisco native Mayhew credits her maternal grandparents with having the greatest overall influence on her music. "My grandfather was a classical pianist, and my grandmother was a classical singer. And my great-grandmother was a performer in a Gilbert and Sullivan show traveling through the Wild West. When I decided to play jazz and follow my heart, my grandparents supported the decision because it was something in the arts-although they didn't understand me choosing jazz."
Mayhew says she always knew she wanted to be a musician; she only needed to find the conviction to actually do it. "Ever since I started studying music in the fifth grade I loved it. It was a lack of self-confidence that slowed me. When I went to college I was a music major, but I went to a liberal arts college to hedge my bets. I wanted to be well-rounded."
That's a goal the 44-year-old reedist has attained with Phantoms. Mayhew admits the music sounds dark at some points, but it never loses its sense of melody and drive. In this pianoless quartet, every player naturally falls in and out of lead and support positions under Mayhew's direction. She says the title track's melody is her deepest expression about dealing with the desecrated New York City. Mayhew has often played "Phantoms" with sometime bandmate Kenny Barron, but for the album version Mayhew says she wanted a distinct sound from the one she was used to playing with the pianist. "Kenny did the song as a slow straight eight, but I decided to do it as a more intense concept. Barron does it spooky, but everybody here feels the anger and sees the beauty. I didn't even say anything about it to the band. They just knew what I meant."
Many of Mayhew's compositions on Phantoms are in odd time signatures, which contrast nicely with some of the heavier moods. The jumping but off-kilter "Monterey Blues" is one of Mayhew's favorites. "People really seem to like that one!" she laughs. "It's in 5/4 time and it's a bouncy, happy kind of blues. It's a fun tune to play."
Another tune that's just as fun to listen to is "Babble On." "That's a song that gives everyone a chance to open up and play," Mayhew says. "Ingrid is so great in playing those long intricate lines, and then Allison just takes it to the next level. She's so crisp and really just drives the tune behind what the rest of us are doing. Then Harvie S is right there on bass-he can do anything the tune needs. I didn't even have to say much because everybody just understood."
Contributing to the passionate chemistry of the band is the musical history Mayhew has with Jenson: the two played together in the big band Diva. Mayhew says that playing for nearly a decade with the rest of the band is an additional benefit to the music.
"Since we've been playing together for so long, I'm able to just compose and arrange for the individual band members. And then we all play to our strengths."
Considering that one of Mayhew's strengths is practicing karate, it makes sense that she is so comfortable challenging herself and the members of her band with a lot of musical tension and even some conflict. She says it's a lot like sparring. "When you're free-sparring, you do get hit and kicked and swept off your feet-but it's restricted. There are rules. You can't hit someone in the head or hit below the belt. It's controlled. Fighting is improv. You're on your toes, someone does something and you have to respond instantly. There are things you can practice and prepare, but you have to stay aware and trust your ability to react. It's just like a jazz solo."