Carmen Staaf enlists a star-studded ensemble to interpret her extraordinary arrangements of jazz classics and originals. Featuring vocals, horns, bass, drums, kora and percussion, this diverse group explores familiar songs with creativity, grace and innovation.
Nicole Zuraitis - voice
Dave Ballou - trumpet/flugelhorn
Kris Allen - alto saxophone
Carmen Staaf - piano/arrangements/composition
Jonathan Michel - bass
George Schuller - drums
Foday Musa Suso - kora (track 2)
Rogerio Boccato - pandeiro, shaker, triangle, bucket percussion (track 4)
Engineered and mixed by Michael Perez-Cisneros
Recorded at Peter Karl Studio in Brooklyn on January 2, 2015
Mixed at Big Orange Sheep in Brooklyn
Out now on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, Google Play, and more!
Pianist/composer Carmen Staaf releases Day Dream, a “homecoming” to jazz standards informed by her study of world music traditions
Brooklyn, NY - March 4, 2018
On Day Dream (Tone Rogue Records) pianist and Thelonious Monk Institute alumna Carmen Staaf presents an album rooted in traditions—in her words, “where some of it swings, but which also incorporates a lot of other music from around the globe in which I have been immersed.” The band features Nicole Zuraitis (voice), Dave Ballou (trumpet/flugelhorn), Kris Allen (alto sax), George Schuller (drums), and Jonathan Michel (bass) with guests Foday Musa Suso (kora) and Rogerio Boccato (percussion)
Her fluency in a multiplicity of musical languages shines as she seamlessly integrates guests into the ensemble, including Gambian kora master Foday Musa Suso (heard on Herbie Hancock’s Village Life) on “Love For Sale,” and Brazilian percussionist Rogerio Boccato on her original composition “New April.” Most of the tracks on this album are standards, arranged to give listeners the experience of encountering the well worn and well loved on unfamiliar ground.
This project grew out of the storied Litchfield Jazz Festival, commissioned as a full concert by its director Vita West Muir after she heard Staaf play her arrangement of Strayhorn’s “Day Dream” with vocalist Nicole Zuraitis. The rapport between Zuraitis and Staaf belies their shared musical histories. Both collaborated regularly with Thana Alexa and Antonio Sanchez, and connected after teaching different years at the same music school in India. “Part of the fun of Day Dream was the added constraint of writing for the particular vocalist interpreting the songs. Though they are my arrangements, Nicole is an essential ingredient in actually delivering the songs.”
Developing Day Dream for Litchfield provided Staaf with an opportunity to work through the music closely, spending weeks in sessions with a band made up of veteran camp instructors. Dave Ballou and Kris Allen—building on experience with the fluid iconoclasm of ensembles led by the likes of Maria Schneider, Andrew Hill, Illinois Jacquet, and Mario Pavone—marshal their two-man horn section with the weight of a full orchestra. Staaf cites the accompaniment that the Basie Band brought to Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra as inspiration for the way in which the band layers around Zuraitis, as well as the weaving of counterpoint throughout informed by the small big band arrangements of Charles Mingus. Rounding out the rhythm section is George Schuller on drums and Jonathan Michel on bass, both composers in their own right who are steeped in multiple genres and thus able to keep conceptual music grounded and grooving.
“There is a reason I was drawn to each song on Day Dream:” explains Staaf, “the way the words and the melody work together to create an emotional feeling in the music. The fact that I have a relationship with each song, that it resonates with me, I feel gives me the license to interpret it in my own way.” She studied with master piano teacher Sophia Rosoff, who espoused that “emotional rhythm” lies at the core of all creative expression, from architecture to the music of her disciples Brad Mehldau and Fred Hersch. For example, on “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” begun as a vamp exploring bitonality as she had encountered it within Indian classical music, Staaf was excited to delve into the ambiguity of feeling a song as major and minor at the same time. After grasping the intuitive heart of her interpretation for each piece, Staaf shifted into a more analytical mode, selecting from the wealth of compositional techniques available to her from studying across traditions and at the New England Conservatory of Music. She built on her hearing of “What The World Needs Now” in a delicately mysterious and almost classical style by inserting passages composed using 12-tone theory. Her compositional process culminated with a return to the intuitive and seriously playful when the pieces were introduced to the band, whose individual styles amplified the music’s emotional content. In the case of the Bacharach, the intimate minor-key prayer for healing of the opening moves through the complexity of 12-tone passages, ultimately evolving into an exuberant gospel feel by the end, its exultant major-key setting driven home by the joyful scream of Allen’s alto saxophone.
Listen to “Love For Sale” - which begins on kora with a 12/8 West African feel and transitions at the bridge to straight ahead swing - and one can hear a nod to the evolution of music of the African diaspora. Staaf notes that this is a natural connection: “the history is embedded in the music itself and is owned by collective cultural traditions that are not mystical, but human. As jazz musicians we tend to take too much individual credit, but the one thing I can take credit for is my own personal path that I’ve been through.” In college she played on the bandstand with a kora master from Mali, after having studied in Cuba for 6 months, absorbing son, rumba, and other styles by studying and playing with local musicians. The initial impetus for invoking an African 12/8 feel on the piece grew from arranging the song for an ensemble in India with two guitars, inspiring her to pay homage to the arrangement style of Zimbabwean great, Thomas Mapfumo.
“I was born out of vocal music as a jazz musician,” remembers Staaf, “and the first jazz solo I ever learned was Ella Fitzgerald with the Duke Ellington Band on “Take the A Train. I sang along with it and that was how I really learned jazz - by scatting along.” She toured for years with Grammy award winning Oaxacan singer-songwriter Lila Downs and, after connecting during the Thelonious Monk Institute, she now serves as musical director for the inimitable legend, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. Day Dream captures Staaf in what she now can look back on as a critical moment of transition as an artist. After years of exploring other musical traditions, playing accordion with Downs as well as klezmer musicians, studying Indian and Cuban music, she made a conscious decision to stop working on the accordion. “I had to say, I love all these forms of music, but at heart I am truly a pianist and jazz is central to where I am coming from. There was a homecoming for me and I decided I was going to re-devote myself to the jazz tradition (including its standard repertoire) and to the piano, and it doesn’t mean that I have to lose all of these experiences that I have had. I can actually bring them into what I’m doing and unify my musical personality.” As jazz camp has become one of the last remaining spaces devoted to maintaining and passing along the standards for generations of aspiring jazz musicians, with elders in the role of educators, Litchfield itself marked a fitting place for her return.