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Doing Her Own Thing – Audrey Ochoa on Jazz, Musicianship, and Her Upcoming ‘Selfish’ Second Album (Part 1/2)

by Monika Viktorova

The following is Part 1 of the interview.

Audrey Ochoa wears many hats: classically trained trombonist, jazz musician, music teacher at a Catholic elementary school. A lifelong musician and a ‘professional’ jazz musician for 13 years, Ochoa has toured, played in her own band as well as other ensembles, reached critical acclaim and has one album already under her belt. She’s also incredibly funny, making astute but humorous observations on the nature of jazz, ‘kids today’, Ryan Gosling and anything in between. I sat down with her over deliciously murky glasses of ‘permaculture’ wine at Three Boars. Snug in a corner of the rustic bistro, we listened to our waiter describe the origins of our ‘natural, unfiltered wine’ as an idyllic ‘self-sustaining’ vineyard where goats roam between the grapevines. Letting the ‘unfiltered’ wine set a candid tone, Ochoa and I discussed jazz culture, being a woman in the music scene and ‘doing her own thing’ on her latest album due out next month.

[Edited for length and clarity]

M: [You’ve said before] that when you were composing your last album you were pulling different elements of different sounds that you like. Was your composition process for this album similar or different?

A: This will sound silly and candid but it’s very true- this [album] was the product of a break up and I had a friend who is also a songwriter tell me “This sucks but you’re going to get some great songs out of it” and she was right! The songs were really easy to write. It just flowed. Every song was written in the course of a couple of hours. I thought “Let’s just try a bunch of new things and set a deadline and see what happens’ so in terms of collaboration with Mike [Lent] and Sandro [Dominelli], the bassist and drummer, they were really cool about it. I don’t know if they looked at the tracks before we recorded them. But that was the fun part too – it’s two guys that I respect and trust and they asked ‘What do you want me to do here?’ and I said ‘I don’t know, whatever you think sounds good.’ It really highlighted to me that jazz isn’t so much as the parts you write for them but it’s about their personalities and what they do with the basic outline that you give them. That’s the exciting part of this music.

M: So you’re creating the trombone scaffolding and your drummer and bassist are filling in the music with their own personality.

A: Yeah. I didn’t give them a ton of direction. I wrote out the music and they’d say ‘Do you want me to play this line you wrote?’ and I’d say ‘Sure if you want, if you can think of something better do that.’ Harmony was left kind of open because there was no chordal instrument – no piano or guitar. Which is a little more rare to have a chordless trio. It’s a different sound because I decided not to care about the end product. There was no risk. It’s not like I had to fill out an Alberta Foundation for the Arts report at the end of it. This was all self-funded. If I’m burning money, whatever- it’s my money. If this is a total dead end, who cares? It was a risk I could take because it was my risk.

I’ve already planned what I’m going to say at the CD release, which is that this is a breakup album. And I’m going to call it a breakup album instead of a ‘divorce’ album because breakup albums are like “Taylor Swift! You go girl!” and divorce albums are like (pained) “Ooooh”.

M: It’s interesting that there’s still stigma around the word ‘divorce’.

A: Henry VIII just ruined it for everybody.

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M: I listened to your old album and liked it! The way your old album was described was as having a Latin feel. I thought that was [an] interesting descriptor. So I wanted to ask about where the inspiration came from for the new album – is it geographic?

A: This one is more pop-based. Some of them are actual songs that – I’m going to paint you a sad picture- Guitar in my apartment lamenting divorce and writing lyrics and crying. Like that – sad pop songs that I’d never release as a pop songs, I should just play them on the trombone. So they’re songs that came out of simple writing. I wasn’t trying to impress anybody of borrow from genres. They are compositionally more simple.

M: So their influence is more an emotional state.

A: I was actively trying to not listen to jazz. It was all about comfort music. It was simple three-chord songs. ‘Popular’ music. I wasn’t going for that but it’s what I ended up with. And with jazz- people try to write to impress their teachers by how much they understand. Or check this out- I can play this fast. And on my head. And underwater. Like check this out, that guy can shred so hard! A man’s approach to jazz- faster stronger harder louder. Check it out, I’m a giant computer.

M: The privileging of technical skill

A: As if that means anything. So this is just a selfish album.

M: So you’re a trombone player, but I’ve read that you also play the piano.

A: I play the best “church lady piano” ever – because I have to play these Christian Rock songs with my students. But I’d never perform on piano – there are wonderful pianists in his town.

M: Do you experiment on any other instruments?

A: I also teach “church lady guitar”. I’ve started getting into singing. And this is actually a funny one- way back on my first record show I was excited for it and I went to this guy and was like “Oh my god, what do I put in my set list?” Because I was 19 – “What am I going to do? I think I’m going to sing!” Because I used to, in jazz choirs. And he said “Don’t do that because they’ll just write you off as a singer. They won’t even care that you play trombone.” And then I never [sang] again until I started playing in a ska band. … It was the first guy who ever hired me for a concert at the Yardbird Suite – so obviously I owe him everything. His name is Dan Sh__. He’s a saxophone player- he doesn’t live here anymore. The stupid thing is -he’s right. That would’ve happened.

M: Are you singing on the new album?

A: No. But most of [the songs] have lyrics – like I told you I sad-wrote them with lyrics so most of them do, but it’s all on trombone.

M: Are you thinking that you might ever [add them in]?

A: No, that’s my living room secret!

M: Have you ever felt pressured to look a certain way in order to fit what consumers would want?

A: On my first album I ripped off the cover of – . I got more comments on the cover than on the contents of the album – at a ratio of 80/20. Everybody just wanted to talk about the cover. But I knew that – I knew that coming in I wanted to make a point. This second one, I wanted to make it simpler – but how do you top that? The second cover is ripping off Audrey Hepburn at Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But instead of a cigarette I’m holding a trombone. Back when CD’s were around you’d buy them based on the cover. So I understand that you want it to look a certain way. And I’ve been around audiences where I know that matters to them. I have heard women mocked based on their appearance in the scene. And I probably  I should put my foot down – I don’t want to be discredited for [my looks] or for singing. There are so many things you have to look out for [before] eventually luring [the audience] into your actual playing.

M: So women are getting edged out partially on maternity, partially on being pigeon-holed as singers and partially on bringing elements of jazz to projects and being either mislabeled or denied the label of jazz.

A: I think denied the label of jazz is pretty accurate. There’s this documentary that came out not too long ago called “The Girls in the Band” and it was a history of women in jazz from its inception till now and I went to go see it with my boyfriend. And he said “That’s good, hey? Isn’t it inspiring?” because [the documentary] kind of ended on a positive note and I said “No, it’s not remotely inspiring because we’ve all been deluding ourselves for a hundred years that it’s getting better and if we just work hard enough – and maybe we’re not being edged out, maybe there are a ton of women in jazz. Just no one is talking about them.

M: But that is a form of erasing women’s contributions. It’s endemic to academia, to music, to everything.

A: It’s very true of jazz music. If you read a jazz history text book you’ll probably come across two women- maybe three. You’ll probably come along Mary Lou Williams [a jazz pianist, composer and vocalist, 1910-81] and Ella Fitzgerald. There was no male counterpart for Ella- she was unmatched.

M: And Billie Holiday?

A: It’s a matter of taste at that point. But that’s the separating factor- chick singers don’t have to improvise, they just have to sing the song. But Ella could improvise, she could shred, she could play the endgame better than anyone. And that’s what happens to female players- unless you can shred and be aggressive the way guys are in jazz – can you play faster, can you play higher- it’s all about acrobatics at a certain point. If you can contend with that, then you can stay [as a woman]. But if you just want to play lyrically like Chet Baker- Chet Baker was allowed to play lyrically. But if a girl does that [she’s labeled] a ‘chick player’. I have sat at the jams and female players and had the guys around me say “She plays like a girl” and then immediately she’s gone. She’s not getting called for gigs, you’re just going to assume she can’t play. So a lot of my playing, especially the encouragement I got when I was younger, was “You play like a guy”. Which just means “You play loud, you play aggressively.” And that was on purpose. And I feel that on this album, I do play lyrically- I do play soft. But what legitimized me for a lot of people was [playing] aggressively. Like “Please ignore that I have a vagina for five seconds so I can prove that I can play super loud and be angry. And also make a bunch of misogynistic jokes so I can prove that I can hang with you. It’s a horrible environment actually.

M: I’ve been there. A lot of us come up with that – being asked to contribute to your own oppression in order to be allowed to stay in a space by putting other women down. I refuse to do it and I’ve refused to do it for many years now but when I was younger it was really difficult. It’s really difficult as a young woman, as a teenager, to say no to something like that. Because we’re social creatures when it comes down to it. And I think a lot of people are like “Why do you care what people think?” Everyone cares what people think.

A: All my mentors were men. All the people holding keys to gates- to venues, to being in different bands, all of those keyholders were men. You had to kiss the ring. You’re dealing with a freelance world, which adds [precarity].

M: What is the most memorable show you’ve played?

A: I’d like to say that it was the Montreal Jazz Fest in 2011 but it wasn’t. That’s hard to answer because there have been so many. This is a funny one and I can’t believe this one comes to mind. I played with Ben Sures, who’s a local singer/songwriter. There was one gig we did last summer that consisted of three sets, an hour long, on a Monday or Tuesday. It’s hard on your face to play that long because it’s a four-piece; it’s me, bass, guitar and drums. And he asked me to take a solo on this blues tune. And there were four people there that night, no one in the audience. And I played this solo and I kept going and when I finished the people there were really excited and I just realized ‘That was the best thing I’ve played in 10 years.’ And it was a mixture of sadness and happiness because I thought “That felt really good but no one was here to see it. I wonder how long it’s going to be before I feel that good again. “

M: Does jazz require a level of connecting to an audience?

A: I don’t think it was that- I’ve never felt that much fluidity. It was just one of those perfect situations. It was perfect for me. I haven’t felt that way in a long time. Those moments- and every musician will talk about this- you’re chasing those moments for the rest of your life. You realize that it might be sold out but it won’t be the greatest thing you’ve ever played or it might be one person [in the crowd] but it’ll be musically the best thing you’ve ever done. The unpredictability of that – those moments are unpredictably rare. We’re all chasing the dragon, all of us.

You can see Audrey Ochoa chase the musician’s high at the following upcoming shows, all listed on her website:

Audrey Ochoa Quartet House Concert

Calgary May 5th, 2017 8:00 pm

Maracujah

The Needle Vinyl Tavern, Edmonton May 6th, 2017 8:00 pm

Audrey Ochoa Trio CD Release Party

The Yardbird Suite Edmonton, May 20th, 2017 7:30 pm

Photography courtesy of Wanderer Visual Editor, Yuetong Li. 

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