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Erica Mather

The release party for the Erica Mather Trio’s new CD, The Millennium Song Cycle, did not come off exactly as planned, but good music, especially good jazz, seldom does. It was scheduled to begin at 9:00. I arrived five minutes early only to find the Corral Room, a deep but narrow softly lit space in the basement under the Tornado Room on S. Hamilton, nearly empty. Already there were two doormen and a bored but finely dressed bartender. I walked in and sat at a table along one wall, opposite a booth at which two older gentlemen sat. In front, to the right of the staircase, Erica Mather, Todd Hill and Michael Brenneis were busy setting up and exchanged small talk. If they felt any bitterness at being neglected by Madison on what was supposed to be a big night, they kept it off their faces.

By 9:30, however, only a few more people had shown up. Five or six couples had walked sheepishly back up the stairs after learning of the $5 cover. Finally the Trio decided they had waited long enough. It was time to go on, audience or no audience.

They came out a little tight, especially Mather, like a cold car engine in the dead of winter, and whipped through two quick opening numbers without so much as a word to the crowd. At the table behind me, two couples gabbed back and forth, oblivious to the fact that at least a few of us had come to see music.

After that, something wonderful and simple happened. The evening turned. I’m not sure how or why it happened. Perhaps they needed those first two songs to loosen up and get their timing down. Perhaps one of them improvised something beautiful that nobody in the audience noticed but that inspired the other two musicians. Perhaps the Trio plays better when they have something to be angry about. Whatever the case, when they dove into that third song, "Them Changes," the candles flickered, the people at the table behind us quit their chatter, and the evening turned the corner.

For the rest of that first set, they did their thing and well. Then people began to trickle down in ones and twos until by the start of the second set, there were no vacant seats and all of us, no, most of us, because there’s always some asshole that will not try to get it, were into the music. This is how it looks in my head: Brenneis, all business and steady at the drums, polished, in no hurry to give it all away, but if I close my eyes, I can hear him better now, in his head maybe he’s in the middle of a deep equatorial night, dancing expertly with the shadow of a graceful, dark-skinned goddess of the earth Hill, slightly aloof, bobbing and flailing the strings of his stand-up, busy all the time, and the only thing that stays perfectly still is that great big bass which appears so much larger than he, and that’s part of why it’s so amazing to see him tame that thing and Mather’s long fingers delicately trace the melody in grand sweeping arcs, like calligraphy on the electric piano, then her fingers begin to annunciate clearer, you feel a little sorry for the keys ‘cause now she’s pounding them, the black and white keys, building a mountain one chord at a time

May 14

a few weeks earlier I met Erica Mather for lunch one day just before May dripped unnoticed into June. All morning I had been keyed up at the thought of sitting down at a table with this great young jazz musician. The Arabic restaurant, her choice, added to my edgyness. The place was half-busy with business types but somber and ornate, like post-ecumenical service coffee and donuts amidst the devout and pious. I felt a little strange turning on my tape recorder as I racked my brain for the six or seven crucial questions I thought I had spent the morning memorizing.

Mather was just glad to see the tape recorder. Several years ago she was interviewed for Downbeat by a man without credentials who took no notes and had no tape recorder, a man she later found out was a felon posing as a journalist. A short silence followed this story while she wondered about me. I reassembled my posture and screwed my face into my version of an honest, if slightly wet-behind-the-ears professional.

Mather, on the other hand, never has to worry about faking it. She is a Madison born-and-bred professional jazz pianist, and she has the credentials to prove it. As a 26 year-old bandleader in an industry dominated by men, she has already released two full-length jazz albums full of inventive, original material.

I decided to get all my gushing out of the way as we waited for our drinks, hers a water and mine a soda. I began to recount the first time I had seen the Trio play live, their final show at the Grand Lobby of the Orpheum Theatre.

"Oh, right," she broke in, "I remember you. You came up after the show and said something What was it? You had never heard people do that live."

A drip becomes a trickle becomes a stream becomes a gushing torrent becomes a motherloving waterfall, but in my defense, I had really not seen anything like that done before. Luckily, the waitress came over at that moment. Mather ordered a salad. Not a regular one, though, a mean salad, with lots of hunks and strips in it.

We talked as we waited for our food. Mather comes off as well-spoken and extremely intelligent on a wide range of subjects, but she describes her manner of speech like this: "I’m not really trippy, I’m not, but I talk like it sometimes."

A Common Sense: What’s the view like from behind the piano, when you’ve really got an audience that’s locked in?

Erica Mather: It’s beautiful. It makes me happy to make other people happy, through my music. Or to make people feel something different or more present in the world. I was just talking with a friend of mine about this, about how different people find different things to do that make them feel alive. You can exist in a kind of ho-hum "I’m here," and then there are things you do that make you feel alive. If my music helps people feel alive, that’s good.

KURT SPIELMANN: The Millennium Song Cycle, your new album, comes out in a month. Tell me about it.

ERICA MATHER: It’s been in the process for a long time. I started writing the material that’s on it in the year 2000. We recorded last summer. And there’s one piece for each month of the year, and I don’t know, I think, um, I think writing is a process, and overall I’m pleased with the effect. Like I think compositionally, the thing is sound. It hangs together, with some good flow and some good variety. Mostly, the CD is done, and I don’t have to pay for it anymore.

KURT SPIELMANN: When you guys played the songs from the album at the Monona Terrace, you said a few words about some of the songs. Do you mind repeating yourself?

ERICA MATHER: Sure. To preface it all, one of the challenges to writing is to find some sort of structure to it, and I’m struggling with that right now, because I have a hard time writing on command. So this was my trick to myself, to write a tune each month. It provided a topic for thinking about generating material, because I feel each time of the year in a different way. I think each season has a feeling that’s attached with it, and even the months and particular days and so on, so I tried sometimes to focus on that, the time of year. And other times I had ample autobiographical material to work with. So most of them I wrote in the month that they are called, but two of them I really struggled with and they really trailed off.

KURT SPIELMANN: So "January," then.

ERICA MATHER: "January" I wrote early in January. You know that space in the world that happens after Christmas, and after New Year’s, everything’s quiet? I remember a night like that where it was just quiet, the whole world was quiet. The whole world was quiet, and we had the most amazing icicles coming off the eaves of the house, and they were curled around the eaves like fingers, so they looked like claws but they were very beautiful. The subtitle is just ice.

KURT SPIELMANN: And "February"?

In February I traveled to Cuba. This was my first time traveling out of the country. It was a pretty profound experience, in terms of experiencing a different part of the world.

KURT SPIELMANN: Don’t they throw you in jail for patronizing Cuba?

ERICA MATHER: I went to Cuba with the Madison-Camaguey Sister City Association and they got permits. If you travel with a humanitarian delegation, you get a permit through the Cuban embassy in DC. There aren’t any flights directly there, so we went up to Canada and then flew to Cuba. We were in Havana for five days. And while I was there, I studied with a piano player by the name of Gonzalo Rubalcalba and we just did some Latin stuff, talked about the link between Latin music and jazz. And he taught me this tune. It was funny because I already knew it, but I wasn’t aware at the time that I knew it. I just knew, he played it and I perked up, and I was like, "I like that." And later I realized how and why I knew it. Anyway, it was a danzon and so sometimes what I do in order to try and process things that I’m learning about is to write, so I wrote a danzon.

KURT SPIELMANN: What exactly is a danzon?

ERICA MATHER: It’s the traditional national dance of Cuba. It’s partner dancing, like most Cuban dances, and very sexy.


ERICA MATHER: At the time I was studying a lot of Chopin, so in some way "March" is linked to Chopin. March is always a really hard time of the year for me, I’m not really fond of spring. A little moody, but the melody sort of came from Chopin, and then I wrote a separate set of improvisatory changes for that.

KURT SPIELMANN: You don’t like spring?

ERICA MATHER: I don’t like spring. Which I know is kind of odd. It’s not that I don’t like the fact that winter won’t go away and it might be summer. Something strange happens in the energy of the world. I don’t know. I might just have Seasonal Affective Disorder. And that doesn’t make sense. You’d think fall would be the problem.

KURT SPIELMANN: Which seasons do you like?

ERICA MATHER: I like the other 3 seasons each for different things. I love the way fall smells. I love that sort of unpredictableness of the weather. Fall in many ways is a lot more friendly than spring is. Maybe it’s the colors, the colors are so warm. I like winter, I like how insulated everything is. And who can argue about summer in Madison. I’m not certain that summer anywhere else is probably the same.

KURT SPIELMANN: What about "May"?

ERICA MATHER: "May" I wrote for a close friend of mine whose birthday is in May. So that one’s just for John.

KURT SPIELMANN: What was his reaction?

ERICA MATHER: He talked to me about it recently, and he was like, "I don’t get it. I’m glad, but I don’t get it." And I was like, "There’s really not that much to get, you know, it’s just for you, that’s all." He wanted it to have some meaning, beyond just: I wrote it for you, it’s your birthday in May, I wrote it for you. I think he wanted something a bit more loaded in it, but there’s not really.


ERICA MATHER: I thought it needed to be a vocal tune, and I wanted a vocal tune to be in there. I prefer kind of funky vocals over like, jazzy vocals. So, I had some poetry I had been working on for a while, and I pulled the pieces together, and sort of had a place musically that I wanted it to come from. I worked really hard to get them to go together. That’s not easy, to take music and words and get them to sync up. And I ran into some snafus. But also, June is another not so good time of the year for me, so it kind of reflects that as well.


ERICA MATHER: I grew up sailing on the lakes here. And August is always the hottest and most windless time of year. So I was thinking about that as I wrote it. Sailors are eternally hopeful. They will shove away from the dock, and their sails will be hanging limp. There’s not a breath of air in sight, and they’ll paddle out to the middle of the lake and wait around for the wind to come out. And bob and get sunburned and get hot, so "August" is about that.


ERICA MATHER: "October" is a ballad. I had a really bad October 2000. Just a lot of different issues colliding. So it’s just a ballad for people that are gone, things that are gone, things, like, things that you have with other people, meaning like emotional things.


ERICA MATHER: "November" is about the election. I really struggled with November. I had in mind at first something that I wanted it to be, and I sat down and I started to write it and I thought it was good. And I got up and I walked away and I came back five minutes later and I was like, this is crap. Start all over. I think really what shaped that, was musically it ended up being more folk oriented. Mainly I was thinking about that damn election, and all the crap that happened, and I was thinking about what our forefathers would have thought.

So "November" is folk-oriented, but it also does some things that are kind of unexpected, and I kind of worked those in, because I thought, a lot of unexpected things happened in that election.


ERICA MATHER: It’s one more tune that actually I wrote about 5 years ago, and I use it as a bookend, so at the beginning of the song cycle I do an abbreviated version of it, and then we do the whole thing as a reprise at the end. I compiled the lyrics, which were things that I wrote on New Year’s Eves, and then at times when we, people, humans are in a point of transition. There’s something funny about that. Being there, but knowing that you’ll be gone soon. Not family, so much, it’s more like, cosmic.

KURT SPIELMANN: This whole concept thing with the album might grab people who aren’t normally in to jazz.

ERICA MATHER: That was kind of the idea, too, that wasn’t the idea when I started, but as I was working on it, I thought, you know, this is a good idea because it allows a point of entry into the music for everybody. Regardless of your knowledge about the music. Which I think sometimes poses a problem in a jazz world, because people are astute enough to know that jazz musicians are generally pretty knowledgeable. And it’s not like going to a rock-n-roll concert, where it’s all about the experience. There’s something they know there’s something more to jazz, and I think sometimes people feel intimidated by that. There’s a certain degree of studying which you feel obligated to do.

KURT SPIELMANN: What sort of things are you listening to these days?

ERICA MATHER: I go through phases, I would call them, where I’ll listen to one thing, nonstop, for like months and months and months. I haven’t had a real good listening phase for a while. What I’ve been listening to since I moved is a Latino artist named Ruben Blades. He’s a salsero, and a very famous singer. Very political. I think a lot of Latino musicians these days are more political than are American musicians. Because the state of their country is generally pretty bad. Whereas we can be happily complacent, and go and bomb people from 30,000 ft. whenever the hell we want.

Political boundaries are pretty liquid these days. One of the reasons I really enjoy Latino artists, and also black artists in our own society, at least their angle is political. I think that music is a huge political vehicle which in a large part has gone completely the wrong way these days, into you know, Nsync-hood and insipid stuff. That’s just something that we’ve lost. I do believe truly in the power of music to do great good and to affect people’s lives well, either through listening to it or making it. What this has to do with politics, is that music is political. It needs to be political. I’m not exactly sure how my music is political at this moment, if anything it’s autobiographical and spiritual maybe.

So anyway, Ruben Blades his album is really beautiful, really gorgeous production and the songs are all very interesting. It’s all in Spanish. It’s called Tiempos, meaning ‘time.’ I seem to have this hang-up with time and cycles.

KURT SPIELMANN: Yeah, well, those seem to be the only things we have no control over.

ERICA MATHER: Well, I think there are a few different states to be in. You can be in a state of non-observation through ignorance, then you can be in a state of concerned about it and aware, and then you can be in an unconcerned aware state: "I know what’s up, I know there’s nothing I can do about it, and so I’ll just be."

I’ve charted a path of sort of spiritual and personal growth which those would be the 3 phases that I would sort of describe, of coming to grips with maybe it’s coming to grips with life and death in many ways.

People who ponder heavily, "Is there a God?" are aware and concerned. And people who get to the point where it doesn’t really matter whether there’s a god or not are aware and unconcerned. Or wait, cycles. We’re talking about cycles.



KURT SPIELMANN: Um, tell me about your bandmates (bassist Todd Hill and drummer Michael Brenneis).

ERICA MATHER: What do you want to know about Todd? Todd is very adventurous. Todd is always pushing the envelope, which is nice. Todd’s mischievous, as is Michael. They both are. They’re generally always fun to play with. Sometimes we get bored. But generally we get bored at a background gig, when we’re playing standards. But I think when we’re playing my material; we’re always on, in some way or another, you know, trying to make it good, new, interesting. All of those things.

Todd and I met through my friend Les, who’s a professor at the UW, and Les always keeps his ear to the ground and lets me know about new people who come to town. And when Todd showed up to go to school, Les said, "Hey, you should give this kid a call." He’s a good bass player, he’s fun." I kid Todd, you know, because he’s cute, he’s all bright and shiny like a penny, you know? So I called Todd and we played, and I hired him and Michael for a trio gig at the Magnus that went really well. And we just felt good together, I thought we felt good together, at any rate. Like our time was locking up and so that was nice. And Michael I found in a similar way, he used to be a student here. He went away and returned, and Les told me. He’s like, "A real good new drummer just got back to town so you should give him a call." So it was pretty much through Les.

KURT SPIELMANN: Les (Thimmig) has made appearances on the saxophone on both of your albums.


KURT SPIELMANN: And didn’t you used to play sax?

ERICA MATHER: I do now, because I have to have studied it for 2 years to get my teaching certificate. I used to play sax in a band called Cognitive Dissonance. Cog Dis. It was during my undergraduate time, like my last year, and I kept playing with them for a year after I graduated, and then I quit that band.

But Les and I have been friends for a long time. I met him when I was in high school ‘cause I needed a saxophone teacher. He was my sax teacher, and then when I went to college we reconnected, and he’s been basically my primary mentor and great friend. Frankly, if it weren’t for him, I would not be playing. That’s how heavy it is.

KURT SPIELMANN: How do you feel about the Madison jazz scene?

ERICA MATHER: In what way? It’s pretty small.

KURT SPIELMANN: You ever think about going elsewhere?

ERICA MATHER: I think Chicago, in due time. I’m going to try and get the Trio booked into Chicago in some good places. I think this album will assist in that, ‘cause it looks good and it sounds good. Look, the Madison jazz scene is very small, and recently the venues have not been really we don’t have any good venues really to play in. We’re having a cd release party at the Corral Room, which could potentially be a really good room to play. If they opened it up and did some big promotion, that would be a really good place to play.

Madison it’s just small, everybody knows one another, which is a good thing and a not so good thing. It’s pretty compartmentalized, in a lot of ways, in terms of who plays with whom.

And people don’t like to go out. The college crowd goes out. A very select group of people who are engaged in the entertainment industry or the service industry go out. But the heady people don’t go out. That isn’t a real match. They are more interested in staying home and mixing their own drink and hanging out with their wife or child or whatever. It’s not a real match, in that way. But a lot of twenty-some, early thirties people are always looking for a nice cool bar to go to. I think a place like the Corral Room could work. There’s this venue in Milwaukee called the Jazz Estate. There are always people there. It’s cozy and it’s good music and the bartenders are always friendly. I love it there. I think if there were a cool little place in Madison, people would make it a part of their regular rotation.

KURT SPIELMANN: Lunch is on me.

ERICA MATHER: I’m not going to argue with a guy who wants to buy me lunch. That’s my new policy. Since I’m out on the street, you wanna buy me lunch, all right.

KURT SPIELMANN: Out on the street, huh?

ERICA MATHER: Kicked out of the house. Don’t put that in there.

This interview was provided courtesy of

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Erica Mather Trio
  • Interview Date: 6/1/2002
  • Subtitle: The Millennium Song Cycle
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