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Overdue Ovation: Jamie Baum

Amid divergent influences, a guiding inner voice

Jamie Baum

Thirteen years ago Jamie Baum’s schedule was in full swing, with plans lined up like dominoes. Forty-eight hours before a daytrip to Washington, where she was slated to play the Kennedy Center, debrief at the State Department, then embark on her second international Jazz Ambassadors’ tour, the flutist was gigging in Bermuda. Baum’s first Ambassadors’ tour had dispatched her to Latin America two years prior; she’d requested India, but in 1999 the State Department was wary of neighboring Pakistan, where a little-known group called the Taliban was on the rise and a billionaire bomber on the run. By 2001, things had cooled. The State Department rubber-stamped another jazz junket, this time through the Middle East-first stop: Palestine. Baum played the Bermuda Jazz Festival on Sept. 10. The next morning, the airport on the island’s north side shut down. With bags packed she watched the news and, finally, Jamie Baum was still.

“It was horrible,” says Baum. “My husband was in New York. We couldn’t reach each other. All I could do was sit inside and watch TV like the rest of the world.”

Thirteen years later, in a coffee shop in Midtown Manhattan, the flutist, now in her early 50s, still shakes her head at the irony: After the attacks on the World Trade Center-where she used to play the 107th-floor barroom-Baum was rerouted to India. In hindsight, the detour seems like destiny. “The people I met, the friends I made, the music I heard and the musicians I played with all offered lessons in how to live,” she writes in the liner notes to her most recent record, In This Life (Sunnyside).

Featuring her outsized “Septet+,” the record pays homage to the Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose songs and gale-force improvisations Baum transcribed and meticulously rearranged for drums, percussion, bass, guitar, piano, sax, trumpet, French horn, bass clarinet and flute. Having won a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship-she was one of three jazz composers selected from nearly 3,000 applicants-Baum plans to extend her study of qawwali, exploring its ancient intersection with Jewish devotional music. For now, all roads lead her back to Khan. “There’s just something about Nusrat’s voice, something unearthly,” says Baum. “It reminds me of Coltrane or Pavarotti.”

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Originally Published