CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Hailey Niswanger: The Healing Has Begun

The saxophonist and composer is looking to make cosmic connections with her group MAE.SUN

Hailey Niswanger
Hailey Niswanger with MAE.SUN at Winter Jazzfest in New York, January 2020 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Sometime last year—just a week after completing Vol. 2: Into the Flow, her second album as the leader of the New York-based sextet MAE.SUN—alto and soprano saxophonist, flutist, composer, and (just added to her résumé) vocalist Hailey Niswanger packed up her life and headed west, not stopping until she reached southern California. The change of home base didn’t merely satisfy her desire for new scenery—although the mountain views and nearby Angeles National Forest certainly provide that—but complemented a new outlook on her music.

Whereas the sextet’s first release, Volume 1: Inter-Be, “was a little more dedicated to an overall awareness of our connectedness and our eternal nature of being,” Niswanger says, “volume two dives into a more personal approach of healing for myself. I definitely went to a different level for that, and felt that I was able to talk about things that I needed to in order to move through some things that were hard for me in my life. Obviously, there’s some reference to personal healing and letting go of things that weren’t serving me anymore.”

MAE.SUN—the first half of the band’s moniker comes from Niswanger’s own middle name, the second from the “heart that connects all life”—was formed in 2016 and features Niswanger (exclusively playing soprano on this release), vibraphonist Nikara Warren, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, keyboardist Axel Laugart, bassist Aaron Liao, and drummer David Frazier Jr., with Jake Sherman on additional synths. By the time the band formed, the Portland, Oregon-born Niswanger had already studied at Berklee College of Music; won the Mary Lou Williams saxophone competition; received (at age 19) plaudits in this magazine from esteemed writer Nat Hentoff; performed at the Blue Note, Smalls, and other jazz hot spots; collaborated with Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, and others; and released three albums under own name: Confeddie (2009), The Keeper (2012), and PDX Soul (2015).

But Niswanger knew the music she was making wasn’t truly reflective of her state of being. Hence MAE.SUN. “My past albums were a lot more in the traditional jazz vein, where you’re working with a lot of changes, a lot of postbop and bebop lines,” she says. “I was ready to focus on feelings and sounds when I play, and to think less theoretically, and to be able to convey my story that way. I needed to slow it down and sit meditatively with my music, to not overthink things, to simplify things, but to create a platform where I could launch off of and create an endless abundance of energy on top of that.”

Niswanger is loath to describe the music on Into the Flow, but she takes as a compliment a suggestion that it’s comparable to the “spiritual jazz” recordings made by the likes of Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and Albert Ayler in the ’60s and ’70s. She counts those artists among her influences, but also draws from forces outside of jazz, and outside of music—she’s particularly fond, for example, of the writings of the nonagenarian Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

“Writing this music,” Niswanger says of Into the Flow, “I felt more like a vessel than I ever had, like it was coming through me in some other spiritual form. That’s getting very hippy-dippy with it, but I really felt like that. How creativity works is that it’s coming at you across the field and flowing to you and you have to catch it, or it’s gonna go right past you to the next creative. I was right there, ready to receive.”

Niswanger realizes that relocating physically; shifting the focus of her music; and, she says, “redefining my image and coming out as a queer woman” will all contribute to the direction she follows in the immediate future. But she’s only just turned 30, and she’s ready to, well, go with the flow.

“I will continue on the path of playing with people that align with me in terms of their vision and what they want to do in this lifetime for this world,” she says, “and continue writing authentic music and learning—I want to keep learning and growing. There are just so many things that I’m interested in that I want to get better at. I want to travel more and be influenced by different cultures and their music and learn instruments I’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce the names of. I want to be able to dive deep.

“You have to think about what really matters,” Niswanger adds, “and what matters is being true to myself, putting out music that aligns with my heart, music that, when I play it, I completely transcend and don’t know where I go. I want it to be like some intergalactic stellar, cosmic dimension that I’m entering.”

Jeff Tamarkin

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Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.