In an interview with the AmNews about her newest work, “Walking With ‘Trane,” set to open at BAM as part of the Next Wave Festival (Dec. 9 to 12), Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder and artistic director of Urban Bush Women, began by saying, “I need to do my work.”
Since founding the company in 1984, Zollar has made upwards of 20 works until the company went on “hiatus.” For Zollar though, a “hiatus” meant making work: There was “Visible” and “dark swan” with past company member Nora Chipaumirie; “Blood Muscle Bone: the anatomy of wealth and poverty” with Liz Lerman, founder and artistic director of Dance Exchange; and recently “Hep Hep Sweet Sweet,” an enlivening ode to her mother.
Sometime during the “hiatus,” Zollar also read Ashley Kahn’s “A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album,” which she picked up at 9 p.m. one night and didn’t put down until 3 a.m. the next morning. “John Coltrane and Black America’s Question for Freedom,” edited by Leonard Brown, was also on her reading list. As a matter of fact, music by Coltrane and his contemporaries was “what [she] listened to in college … I listened to it all,” said Zollar. “Everything in my life became Coltrane.”
The company and Zollar are fully back by way of “Walking With ’Trane,” an evening-length work conceived as a concept album (complete with a Side A and Side B) and inspired by the life and work of the legendary jazz saxophonist. The Coltrane-inspired music for “Walking With ’Trane” is composed by Philip White (Side A) and live on piano by George O. Caldwell (Side B).
Admittedly deep into Coltrane, Zollar often paused in the interview to reflect on myriad and powerful discourse by Coltrane and his wife, Alice, on the making of “A Love Supreme.” Zollar recounted what Alice Coltrane’s response to finally seeing her husband after the completion of the album was, that is: “It was like Moses coming down the mountain, it was so beautiful.”
To which John Coltrane responded, “This is the first time that I have received all of the music for what I want to record, in a suite. This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.”
For Zollar, process and time were important tenets in the making of “Walking With ’Trane.” It takes around “three to 10 years” to make a work, and for “Walking With ’Trane,” which took two and a half, the company had done “embodied research” on the movement and also worked on “the inflection of, and [ways of] adapting the phrasing of the music,” noted Zollar.
Coltrane’s quest for community, a stance all too familiar to Zollar and Urban Bush Women, played an equally important part, so she gathered a close-knit collaborative team. Dramaturg Talvin Wilks, who worked with her on “Hep Hep,” was present at rehearsals, and he would “give her back her thinking” on whatever task she gave the company. Early on, she invited company member Samantha “Sam” Spies to Florida State University, where Zollar is on faculty, to “work on a sketch … and Sam showed the physical technique.”
“Both of us were learning,” said Zollar.
After that, there was no question that Sam would be credited as part of the collaborative team as co-choreographer. The company, Du’Bois A’Keen, Amanda Castro, Courtney J. Cook, Chanon Judson, Tendayi Kuumba, Stephanie Mas, Love Muwwakkil (understudy) and Spies, went through rigorous and sometimes frustrating creative rehearsals where they tested the music and the movement pairing.
“We couldn’t do what we already know,” Zollar said. “We had to be pushed, and we had to have dancers who wanted to be pushed.” Equally billed as collaborators, they all embraced the challenge. “It was really a collaboration.”
Altogether, the team has come up with a work that is “informed by the unpredictability of the bandstand [and] the risky place that can take musicians into a transcendent state … [which] fuses Urban Bush Women’s inventive movement with Coltrane’s evolutionary post-bop spirit,” notes the release.”
Lighting design is by Russell Sandifer and projection design is by Wendall K. Harrington. For more information, visit www.bam.org.