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María Grand Moves Her Music Closer to Nature

Spurred on by both her recent pregnancy and the coronavirus pandemic, the tenor saxophonist is tying her practice regimen to the cycles of the natural world

María Grand
María Grand (photo: Carolina Mama)

There are four of us on the Zoom call. Sometimes five, depending on whether Ayní, María Grand’s 10-month-old son, has crawled onto her lap. Grand explains the exercise, a “breath of reciprocity” that she says she learned from a Lenape grandmother. “Look at the moon, inhale the moon,” she says, willing some creative thinking as it’s about 11 a.m. in the small town in Sonora, Mexico, where Grand, her partner—a sound healer and artist named Pedro De Las Rosas—and Ayní have spent the winter. “When you breathe out, the moon is inhaling you,” she continues.

The relaxation practice, a way of feeling more grounded and connected to the earth, is part of Grand’s Patreon programming. The 29-year-old saxophonist and composer has spent the past few years developing a creative system that couldn’t be more different from the competitive, achievement-oriented methodology favored by music schools like the one she left after three semesters, City College. During the pandemic Grand decided to start sharing some of that practice, which she calls the SoliLunar Method, with students online; the lowest subscription tier is five dollars per month.

That gets you access to, among other things, these Zoom calls, in which Grand spends about an hour explaining her creative philosophy: how she’s worked to build a practice connected to the movements and rhythms of things outside herself like the sun and moon, as well as traditions that rely on them like astrology. “They have reliable cycles that show up even when we don’t,” she explains. Even those who might think inhaling the moon is a hair (or a mile) too crunchy for their tastes have to see the logic in looking to the natural world as inspiration for a way of working that is even, slow, and steady in a time when attention and focus are nearly impossible to come by.

Another natural process helped inspire Grand’s latest album, Reciprocity, released in May on Biophilia Records. She was five-and-a-half months pregnant with her son—her first child—when she recorded the album in New York with Kanoa Mendenhall and Savannah Harris; Grand talks about how she felt him “dancing” in her womb while they played together, and the feeling that in those moments, they would become a quartet. That feeling of uncontrollable growth and genesis became the inspiration for the album, which similarly started with nothing and ended with something completely original.

Reciprocity reaches listeners three years after Grand’s critically acclaimed 2018 debut Magdelena. She spent those years accruing the kinds of co-signs (Nicole Mitchell, Vijay Iyer, Mary Halvorson) and accolades (she’s had residencies at Roulette, the Stone, and the Jazz Gallery) that would seem like a fast track to the top for any young New York jazz musician. Rather than stepping on the elevator, though, Grand has very intentionally and thoughtfully elected to slow down. Having a baby in the middle of the global pandemic just forced the issue a little.

María Grand (photo: Pedro De Las Rosas)
María Grand practicing while pregnant with her son Ayní. (photo: Pedro De Las Rosas)

Grand asks us at one point if we can hear Ayní crying over the Zoom call. We can, a little, but while we’re doing our breaths of reciprocity, he calms down. “When he was tinier, it was so much easier,” she says. “I was so cocky, like, ‘I can have a baby and make all this music.’”

And yet the Swiss artist’s own path to music was forged in large part by her parents insisting on the same thing. Grand started playing saxophone when she was 10, and had already been immersed in classic jazz from hearing it around the house. Her mother, Colette Grand, is a singer, and her father, Argentinian saxophonist Eduardo Kohan, busked with her on the streets of what she’s characterized as their “hippie” neighborhood in Geneva. Her interest in jazz, though, made her an outsider in school, where Western classical music was all that was taught.

So Grand did what most young jazzheads do—albeit at a slightly younger age— departing for her first extended stay in New York at just 17. She stayed with saxophonist Ohad Talmor, who also grew up in Geneva, during that initial three-month sojourn and threw herself into the local improvised music scene, meeting artists like Miles Okazaki and Dan Weiss. As she finally got to feel the pulse of one of the world’s most vibrant musical communities, no meeting would prove as impactful as one that came during a master class at the Jazz Gallery, where Grand first met the class’ teacher, Steve Coleman.

Their ensuing relationship isn’t easy to distill into a few sentences or even many paragraphs; both Grand and Coleman have since spilled hundreds of words on the topic. What we knew then, when Grand burst onto the New York scene soon after returning to live stateside fulltime in 2011, was that Coleman was her most important mentor. “I spent three months not understanding anything about his musical thoughts,” she told French publication Le Temps in 2018 of his master classes. “But something fascinated me about them, so I kept going back.”

Eschewing conservatory training, she immersed herself instead in playing alongside Coleman and other veterans like Talmor, Roman Filiú, Doug Hammond, and Antoine Roney. Her first widely available recording was as a sidewoman on Coleman’s 2015 album Synovial Joints, a critics’ favorite of that year, which had been released shortly after he was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. Grand finally got a show leading her own band—which included two fellow Coleman band alums, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Sean Rickman—at the Jazz Gallery that same year.

What we know now is that Grand and Coleman’s relationship was at a minimum unhealthy and, according to a letter she wrote in 2017, abusive. A six-year sexual relationship began in parallel with their creative collaborations, when Grand was 18 and Coleman was 52. She alleged that he used his position as an older, established artist to manipulate her into a non-platonic relationship, and that eventually he would threaten to withhold performance opportunities and yell at her when she declined to be intimate with him; according to Grand’s letter, “He would call me in the middle of the night and never take no for an answer.”

The relationship became public in court, about a year after it ended. Grand’s letter had been sent to around 40 people and didn’t explicitly name Coleman, because she feared retribution. Its recipients included members of the We Have Voice collective, which came together in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and of which Grand is a co-founder. The collective’s mission is to advocate for safe and equal workplaces for women musicians. “I do want to shed light on the strange process that happens when you enter this type of abusive dynamic, and how this dynamic is embedded in the sexism that goes through our society,” Grand wrote in her original letter, explaining that she was sharing her experience because she was concerned about the way mentor relationships could be exploited.

Coleman replied with a more widely distributed and considerably more explicit letter of his own, which included a slew of personal text exchanges intended to prove that it had been a consensual relationship—although Grand had never claimed otherwise. Ultimately he sued for defamation, alleging that her letter had cost him materially and tarnished his reputation. Grand countersued, but the case—which garnered headlines in plenty of publications that don’t usually cover jazz—ended earlier this year in a stalemate, with the court finding that the facts substantiated neither Coleman’s libel claim nor Grand’s countersuit for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Even before the situation wound up in court, though, Grand was intent on presenting the situation in as nuanced a way as possible. “The narrative around women as victims, it became really exhausting for me,” she said in 2018. “Yeah, we’ve been victims. But can’t we do something about it artistically, where it’s going to be cathartic for us and the audience?”

Today, she’s just happy to be past it—especially because of the precedent that it set for those in the future who might be in a similar situation. New York, where the suits were decided, recently passed a stronger anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) law that essentially gives libel defendants the possibility of earlier motions to dismiss, which might help avoid the invasive discovery process.

“There’s kind of a radical concept that women are human beings. But also, right now, it’s so hard to see anyone as a human being.”

The saga with Coleman, and its relevance to the persistent imbalances of power many women—especially women in jazz—face in their work, might seem neatly connected to Grand’s overall creative project, which often highlights historically and naturally grounded facets of female experience. Her 2018 debut Magdalena, for example, was inspired by mythical women including the titular Mary Magdalene. Its sparse, urgent improvisations and vocal contributions from both Grand and guests including Jasmine Wilson and Amani Fela were organized, in her words, by a “feminine non-hierarchical power structure.”

Reciprocity, with birth and life-giving as its central theme, also taps into an experience often thought of as uniquely feminine. The album features an all-woman trio, a fact Grand insists she regularly forgets about. “You wouldn’t think about an all-male jazz band,” she reasons. “We’re playing music together, and sure, there’s a really cool part of the shared experience of being women. Being all women is part of it, but it’s definitely not all of it.”

The saxophonist is understandably resistant to the kind of superficial interpretation that might pigeonhole her work. She demands the same kind of nuance that her male peers receive, instead of being resigned to the kind of “jazz, but with WOMEN” designation that so many of her female ones have unfairly had to battle. “It’s just because those are things I was going through at the time,” she says of the inspirations for her work. “There’s kind of a radical concept that women are human beings. But also, right now, it’s so hard to see anyone as a human being.”

“Building a new person is a process you have zero control over. It felt so much bigger than anything humans can build with our will.”

Reciprocity demands that respect and attention to detail, with its blend of warm, winding instrumental grooves and slow, sung compositions that have an almost meditative, hymn-like quality. Much of the record has a live, inviting sound, with Grand’s lyric tone expanding to fill all the open space left by Mendenhall and Harris’ minimalist, intentional accompaniment. The overall effect is one of ease and spontaneity—a kind of relaxation and acceptance that Grand says pregnancy helped her learn, since it was a process she couldn’t do much to help or hinder.

“It was like, ‘I can’t do anything about it, I’m just witnessing it,’” Grand says. “I’ve been really interested in giving a lot more freedom in terms of what we’re playing. Even these songs—in the beginning, a few of them start exactly the same. Just sort of like a cell that can become a lot of things.

“I saw it as more than just, ‘Oh, I’m having a baby,’” she adds. “Building a new person is a process you have zero control over. It felt so much bigger than anything humans can build with our will.”

That kind of meta-tier thinking is where Grand is most comfortable, considering her art from a bird’s-eye view—or in the nitty-gritty of her day-to-day. Right now, she’s balancing her practice routine with caring for Ayní, a process that has also shifted her perception of her music. She remembers playing a show with Mary Halvorson before the pandemic started; she was still pregnant then, the show was loud, and she felt that the baby was scared.

“I felt we really had a connection where I said, ‘This is what I do, you’ll be okay, just enjoy the sounds,’ and I felt a lot more relaxed after that,” she says. “All of this is in the total realm of intuition, but I like being there.”

She’s learned from how intuitive Ayní’s vocalizing has been. “Because they’re using the correct parts of their vocal cords, they project so much,” she says seriously, then laughs. “My eardrum has been, like, going through it,” she adds. “So much with such a little body! I can’t believe it.”

María Grand (photo: Carolina Mama)
María Grand (photo: Carolina Mama)

The pandemic has also offered some unlikely lessons. “I don’t really have a tour to look forward to for months, so I’ve really been feeling like I have to have a practice that fulfills me today,” Grand explains. That’s the impetus behind the SoliLunar method, a slower, more evenly paced approach to practicing the slews of scales and harmonies jazz musicians must master that centers on the moon—an entity that moves in the same cycle every month.

“You can’t look at the sun, but you can look at the moon,” she says. “It’s really nice to observe it, and contemplate it. It just came from this really simple idea of using the moon to work on modes and using the sun cycle to work on keys.” So depending on the moon’s phase, Grand will practice the Phrygian or Lydian or some other mode, with the key determined by the current zodiac sign (12 keys, 12 signs in the zodiac—a parallel that Mary Lou Williams and Cannonball Adderley, among others, have memorably used as inspiration). The pace at which she practices is determined by how long the days are throughout the year.

It’s a rebuttal to the kind of intense, grueling practice that Grand herself—along with most aspiring jazz musicians—will admit to revering when she was first learning the music. “When I was in my teen years, I did a lot of things that were not necessarily beneficial. I spent hours and hours and hours practicing, and while it was good for some things, it wasn’t very productive,” Grand says. “I think it served a purpose, but I really wish I had been more gentle through it. If you’re a young person and you devote all that energy to practicing, and you do it in a way where you’re cognizant of your body and respectful of yourself, the sky is the limit. Can we make it so people at that stage of their lives are still in a healthy environment?

“I’m trying to design a system that’s going to be less capitalistic, not designed around the idea that, ‘I have to get this right now, and if I don’t get it before I’m 18, my life is ruined,’” she concludes.

In spite of ostensibly aiming to move at a slower pace, Grand already has another album in the can that she recorded with Harris, Rashaan Carter, and Anais Maviel in Mexico, and she’s trying to boost the educational side of her career with the Patreon program. It’s all of a piece with the challenge she’s posing to the jazz establishment, which is far bigger than either her gender or her questioning of some of the genre’s persistent hierarchies. The organic, rhythmic, even modes of creation that she’s now working toward consciously reject the inhumane pace of technology and, accordingly, contemporary society. They might be superficially tied to certain aspects of womanhood like pregnancy and the menstrual cycle, but in the end they’re about building a stronger, more generative relationship with forces that exist and move irrespective of our actions.

“It’s a way for me to try to focus myself in a more long-term and gentler way, which hopefully will have better results,” Grand concludes. “Not in terms of like, ‘Next year I’m going to have a symphony written,’ but in the result right now: How does my practice feel today?”

Learn more about Reciprocity on Amazon!

Natalie Weiner

Natalie Weiner writes about music for a variety of publications including JazzTimes, Billboard, The New York Times, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. She is also a staff writer at SB Nation where she covers women’s sports and the NFL. Previously, she was a staff writer at Bleacher Report, and an associate editor at Billboard magazine.