Emma Smith – 'I love seeing who people really are when they're thinking on their feet and pushing themselves out of their comfort zone'
- Alex Johnston
- 8 June 2017
Producer of music showcase Bitches Brew talks about improvisation, unpredictability and bees
Improvisation has to be the oldest form of musical practice, but many musicians have another less descriptive but more humble word for it: playing. Emma Smith is a Scottish bass player and the producer of Bitches Brew, a showcase for women improvisers, and like all improvising musicians she appreciates its combination of unpredictable complexity and deep simplicity. 'Many people say they can't improvise,' she says, 'but every conversation is improvised, and every time you arrive somewhere new, you're improvising. I love seeing who people really are when they're thinking on their feet and pushing themselves out of their comfort zone.'
Bitches Brew, which cheekily takes its title from the 1970 jazz-rock masterpiece by the very un-feminist Miles Davis, has been running in various venues across Scotland since 2015, and the next one is at Glasgow's Glad Cafe on Sun 25 Jun, as part of the Glasgow International Jazz Festival. Smith started the showcase as a way of reminding bookers and agents that all-female bands are not novelty acts, and over the past two years it's featured gifted musicians such as Lauren Sarah Hayes, Fiona Rutherford, Una McGlone, Joanna Nicolson, Kate Young and Emma Lloyd, not to mention Smith's own ensemble Kikazaru. Smith herself grew up liking great R&B, art-pop and rock bass players such as Carol Kaye, James Jamerson, Tina Weymouth and Kim Deal, before studying classical bass at university and then being inspired to change direction by jazz players such as Chris (Medeski, Martin &) Wood, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Junius Paul.
Free improvisation, as distinct from jazz, became a recognisable genre in the headily experimental late 60s and early 70s. That first generation of dedicated free improvisers included important musicians like guitarist Derek Bailey, sax players Evan Parker and Steve Lacy and drummer John Stevens, but the great Maggie Nicols, who was as much a part of the scene as any of the foregoing, noted that Bailey's seminal book Improvisation: its Nature and Practice in Music largely failed to mention any women musicians. Nicols herself, with the late Lindsay Cooper, formed the gloriously irreverent Feminist Improvising Group; future filmmaker Sally Potter at one point played sax in the band.
Forty years on, Smith notes that every woman who's played at Bitches Brew has experienced some kind of sexism, but that among musicians themselves it's largely dying out: 'Usually once the music starts all of that evaporates, and when it doesn't the other men are often just as irritated by it as the women are, because aside from being incredibly dull it gets in the way of the music.' She doesn't have headline slots, programming each night on a musical basis, which she says makes male musicians more comfortable and therefore more creative.
How are listeners supposed to approach music which doesn't necessarily have the comforting frame of a tune or a ready-made structure? An open mind seems to be a common feature of Bitches Brew audiences: 'I've had hugely inspiring conversations at these events about anything from music, to architecture, to politics, to bee populations and migrating patterns of whales. These are my kind of people. I like to put some pretty eclectic programmes together so there's a chance you won't like all of it, and that's okay. If there are only two kinds of music you're only going to see the good kind.'
The Jazz Festival edition features Maud the Moth (Madrid singer-pianist Amaya López-C and her drummer partner Paul Gonzalez; London-based saxophonist, composer and bandleader Rachael Cohen; Collective X, the project of singer, composer and producer Alya Al-Sultani, and Kikazaru with Smith on bass, Lucy Forde (flute), River of Slime (sampler/loops/effects), Graeme Stephen (guitar/ loops/effects) and Davide L Rinaldi (drums).
So who are improvisers worth looking out for, apart from the aforementioned? 'Shiori Usui and Mairi Campbell, who both played in the Jazz Festival showcase last year, have gone on to do incredible things in the last twelve months. Signy Jakobsdottir, Sound Circus, Synaesthete, Drawn to Water, Karin Schistek, Jenn Butterworth, Patsy Reid and of course Sue McKenzie [Smith's regular musical partner in the duo Syntonic]… actually, I could book a whole festival without even having to think too hard. Hmmm, that's not a bad idea…'
Bitches Brew is at the Glad Cafe, Glasgow, on Sun 25 Jun as part of Glasgow International Jazz Festival