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Linda Presgrave - Building on Inspiration

New York-based, St. Louis-bred pianist and composer has epiphany. That’s the short version of this story. Maybe it wasn’t truly an "aha" moment, but Linda Presgrave certainly woke up to her calling after a trip to Italy in 2003. She’d been steadily progressing as a pianist, gigging in St. Louis on piano and French horn, and then moving to NYC and focusing exclusively on piano. She spent some time studying with Joanne Brackeen, who pushed her to compose more, and then got the call to participate in the ControCanto: Donne In Jazz festival, which focuses on women composers and players.

This led Presgrave to record two albums that balance her own tunes with that of other women composers, including Alice Coltrane, Melba Liston, Bertha Hope, Brackeen, Shirley Scott, Billie Holiday and others. As a pianist, Presgrave has a supple touch, and a sophisticated harmonic concept that belies the accessibility of her music. Her latest disc, Inspiration, points to the growth that she’s had as a result of her Italian trips (she’s been back several times), and the thought process and direction that they provoked. Her tunes are swinging and modern, melodically haunting and at times laced with humor (one of them is called "Cheap Cheese." Isn’t this supposed to be serious business, Linda?).

The band on the disc consists of Pregrave’s husband and collaborator Stan Chovnick on soprano sax (the thought of which scared me, but I have to hand it to Stan, he plays his butt off, and has a very nice, introspective tone), Harvie S. on bass, Allison Miller on drums and tenor player Todd Herbert on two cuts. Some of the highlights for me are Presgrave’s dense chords under Chovnick’s solo on Melba Liston’s "Insomnia", Miller’s slyly adventurous playing on Presgrave’s "Bird of Cerét," Herbert’s post-Coltrane-isms on "Holmes for Holmes" and "Rome." Together this band grooves hard, listen hard and play memorable, forward thinking modern jazz.

Jazzreview: When I think of New York, I have more of an association with John Zorn and the crazy music scene. Does playing jazz that’s more in the pocket have different opportunities from playing avant-garde?

Linda Presgrave: The one thing I’ve learned about New York is that it’s very important for you to figure out a niche for yourself. In New York, if you do something and you do it well, you’ll find a place for it to happen. New York is very open that way. The interesting thing is that I find less and less of those venues for avant-garde players, which is a shame. The music that I perform and compose is a lot more lyrical and straight ahead, it’s still original music, or its music that a lot of people don’t play. Although I love the standards, it’s not what I gravitate towards.

Actually I was in college with John Zorn. It was a school that had originally been a private catholic women’s college. It had changed to this very liberal, eclectic group of people. So he sort of fit right in. He had some people in the department that believed in him and let him do whatever he wanted to do.

Jazzreview: I’ve noticed in your song titles that there seems to be a lot of reference to the blues, as well as blues tunes that you’ve chosen to interpret, but then when you listen to it, it doesn’t sound all that bluesy. Do you really have a passion for the blues, or is it coincidental?

Linda Presgrave: I think it’s a couple of things. I spent most of my life in St. Louis, and there are a lot of blues influences there. My piano teacher there always said that jazz needs to have some element of the blues as well as some element of swing, and that’s how I feel too. I don’t think of myself as a blues player, but I think of various aspects of blues that need to be in the playing, for me.

Jazzreview: How do you feel that St. Louis influenced you, musically speaking, vs. your experience in New York?

Linda Presgrave: Well, I think that for a long time, St. Louis was a very conservative place. Although I always gravitated toward the less conservative areas of St. Louis, which are kind of hard to find, (laughs) there’s a lot of great players, great jazz musicians in St. Louis! As well as a lot of great jazz musicians that are from St. Louis that went to New York. I think a lot of people that left there, left that conservative attitude.

Jazzreview: Is that why you left?

Linda Presgrave: No, I left because I met my husband. Then I moved to New York and we got married several years later. I was a professional French horn player as well, and when I got here I played both instruments. I found myself going so many different ways, with Broadway and classical on the horn, as well as jazz piano, which is my passion. I quickly found out that the horn was not an area I wanted to pursue for very long. You’re in New York, you can do whatever you want to do, so follow whatever that is.

As far as St Louis goes, what’s reflected in the music is more who I studied with. Having come to jazz a little later than most people, I do have a more conservative approach to form.

Jazzreview: And New York?

Linda Presgrave: Oh, wow! I think every musician should come to New York for a period of time. There’s an element of survival here, that’s important to learn who you are. To me, it’s like the center of the universe. Everything’s here, and you find out that you’re a piece of the universe. How you fit in to everything. It’s been an amazing experience, the amount of art and theater and music. Everything you could possibly be exposed to. You’re faced with the universe every minute of every day.

Jazzreview: Your time studying with Joanne Brackeen was in New York?

Linda Presgrave: That was shortly after I came here. I have always admired her playing. She’s an incredible pianist, impeccable as well as creative and adventurous. I was interested to get with her and find out what she was about. She helped me to move on in a lot of ways. She really pushed composition. She would say, "Come back next week and have started a tune." I would say, "What?" It helped me realize that I wanted to take all I had learned and put it into my playing and then throw it all out. When I came here, people would say that you have to learn all the changes that New York players play on standards. I was like, "why?!" I think it helped me figure out a lot of things I didn’t want to do or didn’t want to be. I think Joanne helped me let go of a lot of things. I find her very inspirational.

Jazzreview: Do you teach now?

Linda Presgrave: I don’t, I taught for many, many years. I had my own studio, and I had started a jazz summer camp for kids, I did all that. When I moved to New York, I said, I’ve done this all my life. The hours you need to teach are the same hours you need to play. I still enjoy working with young people if clinics come up.

Jazzreview: You still play in big bands?

Linda Presgrave: I do. I play every week. There’s a lot of reading bands, people that get together every week and play. I play in one called Blue Nitrous, which meets every week. That group actually performs at the musicians union, so people are always walking in and out. They always come up. Booking a sixteen piece group is not the easiest thing! I also play with the Astoria Big Band, and that one only rehearses when there are gigs. I enjoy big band on a limited basis, it’s not as free, but it’s fun.

Jazzreview: What about writing for a big band? Does that interest you at all?

Linda Presgrave: It does, and in fact the leaders of both groups have been trying to get me to do some things. I’m trying to figure out why I haven’t done it yet (laughs) I think that I like the freedom of a combo. It’s one of those things that someday when I get time, I’m gonna do it.

Jazzreview: You seem to have an affinity for the music of Melba Liston? Big band was one of her fortés

Linda Presgrave: I do! But she was also a very fine trombonist. When she was composing and arranging for all of those big bands, they were really performing and touring, and it was a bit of a different time than now.

Jazzreview: Did you ever meet her?

Linda Presgrave: I actually did. I met her at the very first conference of the International Women’s Brass Organization, which started in St. Louis. The founder was Susan Slaughter, who was the principal trumpet player in the St. Louis Symphony. She invited Melba to the first conference that was held. Melba at the time was in a wheel chair, not doing very well. I think it was not too long before she passed away. I was so excited to get to meet her! I had read so much about her, and done a little bit of my own personal research on her. To find a woman in jazz who everybody had so much respect for, they would speak about her as if she was a jazz musician who happened to be a woman instead of a woman jazz musician. There’s a big difference! I just happened to find some tunes of hers that I’ve arranged. I have no idea how she would have done them, because as far as I know, the ones I’ve done haven’t been recorded. Or at least I haven’t been able to find them.

Jazzreview: So when you got into your project of recording the music of women jazz composers, how did you go about finding tunes?

Linda Presgrave: I had an opportunity to go to this conference, and the requirement was that you perform music by women. Everybody that I played with in the group was a woman, and we all did our own compositions, so that was easy. But the next time, I have a huge collection of old fake books, and I just started to go through them, just to see what was there that was written by women. I happened to find a few that I really liked. I understand that at Rutgers, they have quite a library, and I haven’t been over there. But I still have quite a few things that I’d like to perform at some point. It’s just a matter of looking through things, looking on the internet. I’ve looked mostly at women instrumentalists. It was a requirement for this last festival to do a piece by Billie Holiday, so I included that on the CD. But there’s a lot of great music by all jazz musicians that people don’t tend to play again. The standards, people play. Whatever. But there are a lot of people who’ve written great music! Alison Miller, who’s the drummer on the recording, she’s written some great music.

Jazzreview: I was really intrigued to see a Bertha Hope tune on there. She seems so undersung to me.

Linda Presgrave: Oh, she is! The first time I encountered her, I was at a concert in St Louis and Frank Morgan had just gotten out of jail and did a performance there. He literally was out for only a couple of days! The band came out, and there was a woman playing piano, and it was Bertha Hope. My friend said, "That’s Elmo Hope’s wife." OK, I didn’t really know anything about Bertha at the time. It was funny, though, because Frank Morgan came out and he just started playing. He didn’t tell the band what he was gonna play, after a while the drummer would come in, then the bass player would catch on. Bertha was as calm as anything! Eventually she would come in, and she had this grace about her. She’s a brave woman!

When I came to New York, I joined an organization called the International Women in Jazz, and I started to encounter Bertha. I actually interviewed her and wrote up an article on her for their publication. I got to know her, and her music, and she has really been on this mission to keep Elmo’s music going. I give her a lot of credit. On the other hand, it’s not so easy to get her own name out there, unless she mentions Elmo Hope.

Jazzreview: With the cover of your new album, you’ve got New York in there, St. Louis and the Roman Coliseum. Is that some kind of statement?

Linda Presgrave: (laughs) The reason I put those things there, the name of the CD is InspirationInspiration can come from a lot of different places, a lot of different people, a lot of different things. Those three cities have really been an inspiration in my life. Rome I really feel like going to this festival in Italy helped me find an interest, a niche, a focus. It helped me personally and professionally in presenting things.

Jazzreview: It’s commonly assumed that you shouldn’t play music with your spouse or significant other. I’m curious about your experience of that?

Linda Presgrave: (laughs) No, we actually work really well together. One thing that I realized, one of the things I love about music is playing with people that I really like, not just people whose playing I like. When you’re an artist, it’s your life, so I have to really enjoy being around whoever I’m playing with. When I go do a job, and my husband is there, it’s nice. And we can travel together, it just works. You don’t have to worry about people saying, why did you hire that person?

Jazzreview: Does he get his feelings hurt because he’s not on the whole album?

Linda Presgrave: No, nah. (laughs) He’s a big fan of Todd’s. We work very well together. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Linda Presgrave
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