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Interview with Cynth from the High Risk group

The High Risk group was an early all female quartet who started playing together in the early seventies, the lineup was Virginia Rubino on keys and vocals, Cyndy “Cynth” Mason on flute and sax, Bobi Jackson on bass and vocals and Sandi Ajida on percussion. Bobi and Sandi have moved on but Cynth and Virginia are still very much musically active playing today. Check out Cynth’s own musical pages on flutmedicine.com and Virigina’s virginiarubino.com. Following the release of the group’s Sisters love EP we had a brief chat with Cyndy Mason about the group, the music and the tymes.

Tell me a bit about the band, HIGH RISK, how did the group come about?
In the early 70’s there were many creative women expressing themselves in all the arts.  In Venice Beach, California there was a special concentration of musicians and artists and there were many women’s bands (Lizzy Tisch, Bertha, Red Zinger, Teda and Dog Squeeze, La Silvia, to name a few.) There was constant jamming at each other’s houses and every week-end the Very Very Venice Festival showcased various configurations of groups and musicians at the Pavilion on the beach.  The members of High Risk played with these various configurations of musicians, men and women.  We got to know each other musically and recognized our particular expertise. Sandi Ajida had started her career with Olatunji and played on his first album Drums of Passion, she toured with the Ohio Players just before she came to Venice. Cynth had been under contract with Warner Bros. and had made an album with Paul Williams entitled “The Holy Mackerel”, Virginia, the youngest of the group, was a classically trained pianist and all agreed had one of the greatest voices we had ever heard.  Bobi began her career in the Haight Ashbury and played with every name band that came out of that part of the world. Bobi, who was the brains and business mind of the band, approached Virginia and suggested the four of us start playing together.  Cynth was working on a film with Donna Deitch and brought High Risk in to do the sound track. Judy Grahn’s poems “The Common Women” had recently been published and Cynth suggested to put the poems to music as they reflected the themes in the film “Woman to Woman”. Virginia wrote a concerto to the themes of the poems and Bobi wrote “Degradation” which also reflected  themes in the film.

What feels so special about listening to the High Risk single is that is has kind of two unique sides to it, there is the jazzy Common Woman and the more soulful funky Degradation. Was this the profile of band playing both R&B and Jazz or was this coincidental with the assembly of musicians in the group?
As musicians we were all classically trained and then found our influences that made us unique.  Ajida studied with the Royal Court Drummer from Ghana who was attending Temple University in Philadelphia as was Sandi. She graduated with a music degree.  Bobi was born and raised in New York City and was influenced and played with many of the greats from that part of the world and brought the R & B feel to the band. Virginia began her studies at a young age in the classics and was gifted with an exceptional voice. Cynth, daughter of a jazz drummer and classically trained, studied with the first chair flute of the LA Philharmonic, but when she heard Alice Coltrane she stopped reading music and learned to play from the heart.  I cannot stress enough the influence of living in Venice had. There were so many influences and we were constantly learning from everyone.  But it was our recognition of our level of musicianship and a knowing that we could do something new in the blossoming world of “women’s music” that was the glue that kept us together. One day we figured that between us we had almost 70 years of playing experience.

It also states on the back sleeve it’s the soundtrack to a movie called ‘Woman to Woman’ by Donna Deitch. We must admit we can’t find any info on this film online, did it ever happen?
The documentary “Woman to Woman” was a student Masters thesis by Donna Deitch attending the University of California Los Angeles.  The film was finished and premiered In Berkeley. It may have had a limited commercial release.

How was the single received at the time and how was it distributed?
The single was well received so much so that Olivia Records, the first woman’s record label in the US. released it as their first record.

Tell us a little about the music vibe in LA back in seventies. And how is it now, compared to back then.
In the seventies the music was organic, reflective of the times, women were waking up to their potential, the Vietnam war was raging, the Black and Brown communities were fighting the oppression they had endured for so long and were waking up to their potential and all of this was coming out in the music.  Someone once said to me recently the difference between now and then is that we had theme songs.  There was an urgency, we didn’t have cell phones or answering machines or social media.  We had each other and we had the knowing that we had to change the world and were willing to put our lives on the line for it.  We were passionate, committed and also dedicated to having fun.  Dancing was important, lyrics were important and the revolution was just around the corner.

In many respects Hip Hop carries on this zeitgeist and of course now we are a global community and the internet has made it possible for more diversity and voices to be heard.

We are also thrilled to hear that you played with Somayah (featured on the Brotherman single) she seemed like a special individual on many levels. How was it working with her and in what band was this?
I knew Somayah as Peaches and we met when I worked on a film about the breakfast program the Black Panthers ran in Los Angeles. After she left the Panthers, Peaches started writing songs about her experience and vision.  She asked me to come and open with her at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, a well-known nite club where Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt got their start. The Ash Grove mainly featured the greatest blues players of our time, Leadbelly, B.B. King, John Mayall, Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton and Esther Phillips etc. The band consisted of Peaches, myself on Sax and Flute, a conga player and a pianist. We opened for Albert King and the first thing Peaches would say to that blues audience was…”I’m here to stamp out the blues.”  Peaches had a strength and a sweetness to her songs, not to mention she played the autoharp which was an instrument “of the people”.  Everyone in public school in California had to learn how to play it. Peaches would end her show with the song “Four Women” written by Nina Simone, who was also a great influence on us all.  The song ends with the words “My name is Peaches” and Peaches would slide across the stage on her knees, autoharp in hand and stop just before the footlights. Unforgettable. It was an honor to play with her and if you know her story, she is one of the bravest women I have ever known.

What other jazz artists are your most favourite, in any genre.
My father’s heroes were Miles Davis and John Coltrane, I was raised listening to them, then Stevie Wonder came along and I stopped being a jazz snob. Miles called Jazz social music and really that is what music is to me.  From the human heart and social. Alice Coltrane was the greatest influence, from her early days to her introducing world music.  Playing together on stage she would have the New England Conservatory of Strings, Charlie Hayden on bass, Rashid Ali on drums, an east Indian sitar and tabla, a multitude of African instrumentalists and an African church choir singing Indian bajans. She was the first.  I was fortunate to spend time with her and learn about music and life.ja02front

We know that Bobi Jackson has passed, is this band still in touch with each other.
Regrettably Sandi Ajida also passed in 1992.  I have stayed in touch with Judy Grahn and Max Dashu and due to your re-release of the High Risk disc I have reconnected with Virginia.  We are all happy that this work is being recognized again and I’m sure Sandi and Bobi would feel the gratitude we do.

The High Risk limited single is now now out on Jazzaggression Records. Get it here!

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Paul Mägi Big Band

Estonian Radio, part of Estonian public broadcasting had it’s own Variety Orchestra (Eesti Raadio Estraadiorkester), which featured many professional musicians, including best local jazz instrumentalists. The more pure jazz formations was the Big Band led by Paul Mägi. The Band performed live once or twice a year. Usually at the annual New Year’s Day concert taking place at Estonian Radio studio, it was broadcasted live on radio as long as it was active until 1984.

These two recordings are taken from radio program recorded on 20th December 1984, quite likely their last performance. Soloists included Tiit Paulus, Lembit Saarsalu, Tõnu Naissoo, all the best names around. On A-side we find Tõnu Naissoo with his first composition for big band, simply called “Esimene” (‘First’), cool uptempo orchestra funk with solo played by Lembit Saarsalu. On B-side we are surprised by track called “Tuulte tants”, gracefully arranged by Tiit Paulus, especially unexpected is bonkers Micromoog solo by Tõnu Naissoo, who around the time started bringing synthesizers to his jazz performances, but there isn’t many recordings left. Tõnu apologizes that he couldn’t perform his solo in full effect as he wasn’t able to use delay or echo pedals because of crappy soviet amplifiers.

It’s the first released document of Paul Mägi Big Band that active in the beginning of 80s, all musicians remember it as good time.. There aren’t any vintage Estonian big band funk records around, so Jazzaggression has rewritten the history with releasing first time those two tracks on 7″ single. Available now!

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Interview with Chicago vibraphonist Paris Smith

To celebrate the release of the Quartets album and the full re-release of the Paris Smith triology on Jazzaggression records we sat down with Paris Smith in Chicago and talked about the past and future…

First of all I must say it’s been an interesting and rewarding experience getting your three latest albums out on the street again, sales have been brisk and people have been positive, how do you feel yourself about the renewed interest in your previous recorded music.
I feel grateful that music listeners have shown enthusiasm for my past albums. No doubt, some of these folks weren’t even born when the records first came out. Myself and the other personnel involved on the albums worked hard to make the musical statements listenable and be about something.

Over three decades you released three albums, Quartets in the seventies, Thought Seeds in the 80s and ghost in the 90s. All three albums have your unique individual style but in a way they are all very different. The first one being the bebop album, the second one has a modal, less chord changes approach and finally the Ghost with it’s rhythm and blues touch. Tell us a little how this came to be, was it popular in Chicago of what went down or was this your personal plan from the beginning that you wanted to vary each three releases?
Each album came out sounding the way it did because of the instrumentation I was working with at the time. I didn’t necessarily have making records in mind. Hard to say what was popular in Chicago during the periods when I was recording. Jazz was being played in several different styles. Bop, big band swing, third stream, fusion, funk, easy listening, free music, and probably some more. I didn’t consciously try to settle into any of these categories. I was just playing the vibes and writing tunes. Personally, I like all kinds of music, but I might not play in all those styles. And the other players on the records made a difference, too. The R&B touch on the Ghost album is due to the bass player’s input, and the pianist added some of that flavor, too. Bringing in the vocalist really took things into another dimension.

One thing is that you have worked with a lot of different musicians and line-ups during your career, you first started with reeds but changed to vibes, tell us a little bit about how that came to be.
Playing the vibes came about on the spur of the moment back in the 70s when I was fooling around with the reeds. Alto sax was my instrument. But I wasn’t really feeling it. One night I was hanging out with a buddy and we stopped in a little southside club called the Living Room. A combo was playing and a vibes player was featured. I’d been hearing vibes all the time, of course, but for some reason something clicked that night for me and I decided that was the instrument for me. Sold my horns, bought myself a set of vibes from a guy named Moody at a music shop on East 79th St., and made the transition to happiness. I have melody, harmony and percussion all in that instrument.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Chicago jazz underground scene back in the seventies, as I understand there was no shortage of gigs. Several other Chicago underground jazz artists, have renewed fame the last 10 years, namely Philip Cohran, The Musra Brothers. Also more famous The Pharaohs, Art ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra. Was the scene joint in a way did you have cross paths with any of these constellations?
You can be sure there was really a jazz scene going on back in 70s. “Underground” is a good term to use, but that underground sure was popping. The bands had followings and there were places to play; not just in taverns, but in artists’ lofts and galleries and house parties. To mention something in particular, a girl named Max Fran always kept some kind of loft where she did her art, and we played some good sets at her place. We even got hired to play for corporate events. Sure, I remember the players you mention, and of course there are some not mentioned. To say each band had its own “clique” might be a questionable statement, but that’s how it seemed to me. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Music got played and things got done.

How is the music scene today compared to back then, you have switched to keyboards instead of vibes, what are the pros and cons of using a much lighter instrument.
The music scene in Chicago today is hard to see and hear. I have no idea what people, in general, are listening to. They wear earphones and don’t talk, except on their cell phones. I seldom hear music out in the air anymore. The only time I might hear music in the general commerce world is when I go to this resale store on the west side. They jam their box in there. Other than that, I usually just hear the background industrial hum of the city. I very seldom see flyers advertising little gigs like we used to put up in the old days. They have big outdoor fests in the summer now, like Lollapalooza but our style of music doesn’t fly on those scenes. Jazz Fest Chicago, put on by city government, still happens in September. And there are some neighbourhood fests here and there. I’ve been told by younger people that all the action is contained inside the Internet now. I started playing the electronic piano just to have something new to do. Got a bunch of new tunes and the reception has been good for the little trio we got going. The vibes always present a challenge when it comes to amplification. In the studio you got all the right microphones and stuff, but out on the scene that’s seldom readily available. And, too, I can pick up and carry my piano keyboard with one hand, and be set up and ready to play in five minutes.

On a sad note, the everyday violence and gun situation in Chicago seem to plummet and has put restrains on mobility in your southern area. How has it come to this and how does this affect your everyday life.
I don’t know what to say about the madness and gunplay that’s going on in this city now. The sociologists and the police come up with their ideas on how to deal with the situation, but the blasting continues. Had a stray bullet come through my window during Christmas week. All this shooting has definitely put a damper on things. And it’s gone citywide now. The fact that I don’t hear music in the air anymore might have something to do with it, and some of what I do hear from time to time sounds like background tracks for a violent movie.

Tell us a little about your special musical relationship with Kenneth Hill.
Ken and I worked well together. We met at a vibes player named Cooper’s house where we rehearsed all the time. That would’ve been in the early 1970s. Other players would come through and we’d all have a good time. Then Ken and I branched off and started doing our own thing. We lived within walking distance of each other. We compared notes on music method books, analysed tunes, and started building a repertoire. Ken was a no-nonsense kind of guy who liked to tackle tough material. We’d work out for hours on those finger-breaking Bird and Bebop tunes. Then we met Donnell Lambert, the bassist, a really advanced player, and we started rehearsing in his basement. We then brought in drummers, like Ben Montgomery, Usama and Richard Terrell.

What’s the story behind the ‘Lilith came’ track.
“Lilith Came” got written on commission at the request of playwright, saxophonist, Larry Dunn. He wanted a new song about a scandalous woman for one of his plays. I was the musical director and Carol was a featured vocalist. The play was a real other worldly kind of thing with spirits and spiritedly dancers. Carol came up with the melody and lyrics and I put in the rest.

What other jazz artists are your most favourite, in any genre.
I listen to and like lots of jazz artists. I guess my favourites would probably be Charles Mingus, Captain Beefheart and John Lewis.

We found the old Downbeat magazine review of your debut album, it was a bit negative but still in a positive manner saying it sounds unique. How did you feel yourself at the time?
Felt down in spirit when I first read the review, but then I felt good about it. I was surprised, really, that Downbeat, the premier jazz magazine in the world at the time, even paid us any attention, since they probably received tons of material from all over the planet for review. Ken was really shocked to see it. But we both felt encouraged by what the reviewer said, ultimately.

You said you prefer live recordings contrary to studio recording. As the vibe is much more alive and sound more like when you play it yourself?
Well, it’s not such a cut and dried situation. The vibes is a difficult instrument to mike up, especially on live sets. In the studio you can get a good sound. Mikes on top and sometimes underneath. On live sets, all that equipment might not be available, and often times you’re competing with instruments which have volume controls on them. Ampli-pickups can give you some added volume, but they might distort the sounds, especially if you turn the volume up high. So, I do prefer live recordings, but they aren’t always the best. In the studio you have more time and equipment available to make the vibes sound as realistic as possible.

Did you come from a musical background, did you have any family members that where musicians?
I had an uncle who was a pianist, and he led a combo that played in the south. I started out playing piano and reading music when I was around nine or ten years old, but I didn’t really care much about music then. I liked baseball and other sports type things. My interest in music really clicked when I was early high school age. Played in the band and started paying attention to the sounds. Wanted to be an alto sax player, but decided early on that horns weren’t my thing.

What truly is great about your creative output is the collaborations with your better half Carol Sawall. The vocals are very unique and the visual illustration that accompanies the three albums are next level! She is from Detroit right? How did you two first meet and did you start working together early?
Yes. Carol is from Detroit. She’s very much into drawing and painting. She would sing at jam sessions and knock em out with tunes like Joy Spring and Lullabye of Birdland. She’s really a bebop singer. Knows all those old standards. She didn’t start singing with the band Ken and I put together until later, like in the late 70s. She would design our advertising and flyers. Then when the records got made, it was only natural that she did the artwork.

We thank Paris Smith for the time, forthcoming from Jazzaggression and Oracle Records 2016/17 is the Thought Seeds EP and hopefully some unreleased works.