When Hailey Niswanger hits the Paradiso stage on Friday, April 5, the saxophonist will be making what promises to be some ferocious jazz with a brand new band. In such situations, she and the other musicians love the anticipation of unique chemistry with one another, and opportunities to improvise. “Not really knowing how it will come out until the moment makes it that more exciting,” she said in a late March interview.
For this date, Niswanger plays soprano, alto, and tenor saxes with pianist Jim Ahrend, bassist Colin Deuble, and drummer John Trentacosta. “We will have one rehearsal the day of, and I’ll send them some [song] charts beforehand. Being a composer is a big part of being a musician, so I will have original compositions that we will play but we’ll also have some other things that we’ll open up, and them being seasoned pros, I’m sure that there will be songs in the lineup that they already know. That’s one of my favorite things about jazz in particular: You can just get together with anybody and it works.”
Niswanger, now based in Los Angeles, grew up near Portland, Oregon. She said her central musical influences were saxophonists John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Joe Henderson, Sonny Stitt, and Eddie Harris. In 2008, the same year she graduated from high school, Niswanger won the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival competition. In 2009, she released Confeddie, the first of her three albums as leader. That year, she was chosen as the alto saxophonist in the 10-piece jazz band Either/Orchestra.
In 2010, during work for her bachelor’s in jazz performance at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, she was one of 14 students selected for the inaugural class of the activism-focused Global Jazz Institute, which was directed by pianist Danilo Pérez. “I was in the first class, the guinea-pig class that got exposed to Danilo’s new direction of teaching there. He was amazing.” She performed with the Global Jazz Institute at the Blue Note jazz club in New York as well as at the renowned annual Newport, Monterey, and Panama jazz festivals.
Niswanger played flute on Terri Lyne Carrington’s Grammy Award-winning album, The Mosaic Project (2011) — and performed with the Carrington outfit in Santa Fe as part of the 2014 New Mexico Jazz Festival. She toured internationally with Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society. Her bold, clear soprano sax is a strong presence on 2017’s Vol. 1: Inter-be, the first record by MAE.SUN, a Niswanger group that spreads itself beyond contemporary jazz into the realms of world music, funk, and soul.
Her playing on saxophones and flute is often thrilling, but don’t expect to hear her on the clarinet. The popularity of the instrument has lapsed on the jazz scene in general, although in the days of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, it was a big deal. The clarinet was the first reed instrument on which she gained some proficiency, but she said it just doesn’t yield the “really big sound” she wants.
“For a while in high school, I split my time between clarinet and saxophone,” she said. “I kind of went the more classical realm with the clarinet and more jazz with saxophone, but it would sometimes cross over when we played Ellington, and I loved it. But when I went to Berklee, I don’t know, it just took the back burner unintentionally.”
She mentioned the motivation to “elevate your playing” in the high-pressure environment at the music school. “There are so many good people around you and you have to really put in the time and the work to stand out, so I think I really just took saxophone that much more seriously because I knew that was my first-choice instrument and what I wanted to be more successful in. When I started writing music, I wasn’t hearing the voice of the clarinet; it was saxophone.”
The flute is holding her interest more and more, and she plays that and tenor saxophone on the new MAE.SUN album, to be released later in 2019. Her primary instrument on Vol. 1: Inter-be is the soprano, although sometimes it sounds like synthesized sax. “There are effects pedals,” she said. “I have gone into the more electronic realm, but I don’t think I’ll bring that with me to Santa Fe. I think we’ll stay on the straight-ahead jazz side of things. But it’s been a really fun venture, and when I start to bring out the electric heat, I like to have electric bass and keyboard, too.”
The desire to electrify her music is interesting in light of Niswanger’s move to the more casual West Coast from Brooklyn last November. “It’s better with my lifestyle. Getting outside is important to me,” she said. The song titles on Inter-be reference perception, breathing, love and peace, awareness, and universal harmony. Is there a theme? “Yes,” she responded. “A few years ago, when I started writing this music for MAE.SUN, I was really influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist. It really woke me up, in a way. So a lot of those song titles were inspired by his writings and teachings. That’s kind of the core background of what MAE.SUN is to me, in terms of being ever connected to everything and just feeling the eternal presence in life.”
The music itself is a far-out mix of complexity and catchy hooks, the moods ranging from peaceful to feral. “In MAE.SUN, there aren’t as many chord changes as you might hear in more straight-ahead jazz tunes. It’s much more mantric, more repetitive, but in a way like a platform from which to build upon,” Niswanger said, adding that her aim is “a sound that people could just meditate on and meditate with in an improvised melody rolling over through it and get away from thinking more about theory and making the changes and playing faster. You know, the typical mindset people might have when thinking about jazz. I really wanted it to get into a freer place.”
For this intimate concert at Paradiso, which is presented by the Santa Fe Music Collective, Niswanger plays soprano, alto, and tenor saxes. The playlist includes tunes from Inter-be. “And also from the new MAE.SUN album that isn’t out yet, which is also all my compositions,” she said. “It’ll be cool to do the music in a more acoustic setting, but I also hope to be back to your area soon with my MAE.SUN project.” ◀
▼ Hailey Niswanger Quartet
▼ 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 5
▼ Paradiso, 903 Early St.
▼ $25, 505-946-7934, paradisosantafe.com