The title of trombonist/composer Kalia Vandever’s second release, Regrowth (New Amsterdam), follows logically from the botanical metaphor of her 2019 debut, In Bloom. The new album certainly lives up to that promise of a further blossoming. However, the meaning of “regrowth” isn’t so simple; it implies a period of trimming back before growth can begin again. Vandever recognizes that the process of evolution is inevitably obstructed by setbacks and detours.
“In Bloom marked a very specific point in my life,” Vandever said over the phone from her home in Brooklyn. “Regrowth feels like another step in my journey as a musician and person. I wanted to acknowledge all the work I’ve done to reach this point, while knowing that the dreams I have now could change significantly, even tomorrow.”
Challenge, in its most positive form, has been central to Vandever’s relationship to music. The trombone first caught her ear at eight years old, when she heard Delfeayo Marsalis on a Marsalis Family album and asked her jazz-fan father what was making that sound. She insisted on learning the instrument, though it proved even more difficult than expected given her age.
“Once I received the trombone in the mail, I was too small to reach the last position,” she recalled. “So it’s something that I grew into, which I think is really sweet. But I’m drawn to challenges, so that was part of the impetus to commit myself to it. This was the instrument I wanted to play, and even though I couldn’t access the full range of the instrument yet, I intended to do it and do it well.”
“[The trombone] is something that I grew into, which I think is really sweet.”
Other obstacles have been far less welcome. Although she found an inspiring high-school mentor in saxophonist Walter Smith III, her experience at Juilliard was painful, as she recounted later in her essay “Token Girl.” While the school used her as a literal poster child for diversity, she found herself confronted by racism, misogyny, and sexual harassment from both faculty and peers with little support from the institution.
The experience, she said, “informed how I wish to exist in the jazz world and the music world at large. I’m thankful that all of the people that I work with today are supportive of me. Speaking out and having conversations with other folks who’ve been through similar harassment or worse has pushed me to surround myself with folks who respect and love me for who I am.”
Those include the members of her regular band: Bassist Nick Dunston, drummer Connor Parks, and guitarist Lee Meadvin return from In Bloom, while Paul Cornish takes over on piano and saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, whom Vandever first encountered at Juilliard, guests. She and Wilkins make for an inspired, closely attuned frontline, as they pass the theme of “Soft” back and forth or twine around each other’s wandering lines on the loose, Ornette-inspired “An Unwelcome Visit.”
Regrowth’s pieces tend to be recursive and insistent, worrying over small cycles of material in ways that suggest equally the minimalism of Steve Reich and the transcendent meditations of Pharoah Sanders. Vandever often draws the seeds of compositions from revisiting her improvisations, whether in practice or performance: “I listen back and choose motifs that I could hear my ear going back to, and then try to build a composition around that.”
Vandever plans to release a solo album featuring processed trombone sometime in 2023, in addition to her continuing explorations with her band. All of which promises even more growth, whatever directions it may veer into.