Violist and violinist Tanya Kalmanovitch is a rarity in the world of music, as she has the ability to combine the abilities to create sophisticated compositions with strong elements of classical music, with her fondness for improvisation that reflects her love of jazz music. Earlier the gifted composer/musician united with pianist/harmonium player Myra Meldford and released Heart Mountain, a CD that may best be described as chamber jazz. We spoke to Kalmanovitch earlier in the summer to gain a better understanding of the influences and experiences that have contributed to the converging of jazz and classical elements that result in her wondrous music.
Kalmanovitch could not have grown up in a more desolate environment for jazz music than Alberta-okay that is hyperbole, but certainly the isolated oil fields of Fort McMurray into which she was born, and Canada’s most northern major metropolis of Edmonton hardly qualify as hotbeds to inspire jazz music. Calgary, a city in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains where Kalmanovitch spent her teenage years was at that time preoccupied with country western music, and has over the past century been better known for its annual rodeo The Calgary Stampede. So then how did Kalmanovitch become a highly respected music educator, a world-class violinist and violist, and lives on the east coast of the United States? This is the story about a girl who had the will, determination and perseverance to pursue her dreams.
As a young child Kalmanovitch began taking music lessons, and in her early teens enrolled in the pre-college music program at Calgary’s Mount Royal College. Eventually as a fifteen year old she began attending classical workshops at the world-renowned Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta, Canada. Recalling her days at the Banff summer workshops Kalmanovitch says, "I remember being sixteen and sneaking out to Roy Hall after curfew. They turned the cafeteria into a jazz club that they called The Blue Room and hearing people like Dave Holland performing."
When she was fifteen, the magnificent woodwind player also attended a jazz workshop in upstate New York where she encountered other teens who had been attending conservatory programs at as she says, "big north-eastern schools. It scared the pants off of me, because I had never encountered that before. It was a whole new world to me."
The experience in upstate New York however only seemed to inspire Kalmanovitch more, "I got a scholarship to Juilliard, bought a one way ticket, when I was seventeen, and left (Calgary) a day after my final (high school) exam."
To say that Kalmanovitch’s scholastic achievements are impressive would be a gross understatement. In addition to her Bachelor of Music, Viola Performance from The Juilliard School, she holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology from the University of Calgary, a Masters In Science from the Univeristy of Calgary, and a PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University of Alberta. Given her impressive accomplishments both in education and as an accomplished musician and composer it is difficult to comprehend Kalmanovitch’s description of early years in New York City (1988-92), "I was a little shy and insecure. I felt that I had got to New York on my own steam and had to fight really hard to get there."
Still recalling the early part of her career in New York City, she says, "I played in a lot of really strange configurations. I toured quite a bit with a punk folk trio. (her voice picks up) It was a lot of fun. These types of situations became my learning environment. I also played a fair amount of contemporary music. Fifteen years later (since she graduated), there is an arena of rock, contemporary classical music, jazz and improvisation that are increasingly converging. You have a lot of classical composers who are really interested in (incorporating) rock and improvisation into their music. It was completely different back then. I just look back now at what I played and say, it was avant-garde."
After graduating from Juilliard she had what appeared to be a glorious opportunity with the Turtle Island String Quartet. "It was validation for me (concerning) the path that I had taken, and the interest that I had (jazz music). Unfortunately I didn’t get the job in the end. I ended up moving back to Calgary because I was devastated concerning the circumstances surrounding how I was dismissed from the group (Turtle Island Quartet)," she says. Kalmanovitch had been told that the remaining members of the quartet did not want to work with a woman. After struggling to get to Juilliard what had at first appeared to be the realization of a dream came crashing down. Her hiatus from the larger American market lasted eight years, as she returned to Calgary Canada, where she returned to university. It was at that time she seriously considered pursuing a career as a psychotherapist.
After she began to heal emotionally from the devastating Turtle Island String Quartet experience Kalmanovitch began to explore outlets for her music. Unfortunately the only that presented themselves were to play with country music bands and in Irish pub bands, hardly the environment she imagined for herself when she was studying at Juilliard.
"It wasn’t easy for me to find a place for myself (musically) so I figured that I needed to get out. I realized that I wanted to be (back) in New York, where I could be closer to more major cultural centers. Generally speaking, I couldn’t find the musicians that I wanted to work with, to realize the music that I wanted to make." she says.
Kalmanovitch wants to make sure that it is clearly understood, that she is not commenting negatively about Calgary, Alberta or Canada. She affirms what many Canadians in the arts have discovered over the years, and that is Canada’s sparse population of thirty-three million people and Alberta’s even more modest population (now about three million) do not contribute to a density of jazz venues, nor a pool of quality musicians to draw upon for inspiration and the exchange of ideas.
When Kalmanovitch left Calgary for the second time, instead of returning to New York she looked around for an environment that would allow her to conduct research for her dissertation but in a culture she had not yet experienced. "I was looking for a place that had a great tradition in violin playing. It came down to studying in Turkey, Egypt or India. I decided to study music in India mainly because I found such a long history with jazz, and I wanted to write my dissertation that dealt with jazz in some way. I ended up going to India for a year and doing my fieldwork on jazz musicians," says Kalmanovitch.
Kalmanovitch is also quick to point out that she is grateful to the funding opportunities that exist in Canada for artists because they have assisted in part with her education as well as projects.
The violinist realizes that the brazen approach she took as a teenager to head for the largest city in the United States, while still in her teens, or spending a year in another country studying music, is not an approach that others may feel comfortable with, or have the opportunity to pursue. "You may not have the will to leave or your life circumstances may not permit you to leave. If you have children you may not want to just pick up and move to New York City, when you are not sure how you are going to legally live and work," she says.
Kalmanovitch has three solo projects to her credit (as well as appearing on numerous other projects), has her own jazz quartet Hut Five, she is heralded as one of the world’s foremost music educators, teaching regularly at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, England, at the Koninklijk Conservatorium at Den Haag, Netherlands and is a member of the faculty of Creative Improvisation at Boston’s New England Conservatory. She is also in demand to teach workshops throughout several European countries and the United States.
Kalmanovitch is a founding member of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground, a collective of independent bandleaders. The group acts as a forum for musicians to share resources and to establish a knowledge pool. For instance, often times a musician may be planning a tour in various parts of North America or Europe, and not have enough bookings to fill out the tour. When that happens they can ask other members of the group for their assistance in establishing contacts who may be helpful. That is just one small example of the many benefits of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground.
Tanya Kalmanovitch is a leader as a teacher, bandleader, musician and composer. One gets the sense that jazz fans will soon embrace what her peers already recognize, that being she is one of today’s most prolific musicians and composers.