RighteousGIRLS is the New York-based duo of flutist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi. Their debut album, gathering blue (New Focus Recordings), was released today and features compositions by various contemporary/classical and jazz artists including Andy Akiho, Ambrose Akinmusire, Pascal Le Boeuf, Christian Carey, Vijay Iyer, Dave Molk, Mike Perdue, Jonathan Ragonese, and Randy Woolf. The project was funded in part by New Music USA.
Emily Bookwalter: This album seems like a huge undertaking; there is such a wide variety of artists represented, each with their own unique aesthetic and musicality that you’ve managed to capture so convincingly. To what extent did these artistic differences affect your creative process in putting this all together? For example: Was there a lot of improvisation in some of the works that required working more directly with those composers over extensive periods of time? Or with the walls between genres disappearing more and more, did you find that all the works, for example, had elements of improvisation?
Gina Izzo: When Erika Dohi and I first talked about recording an album together back in 2013, we had already been performing as a duo for about three years and wanted to document that—but were in a sort of musical transition. At the time, we had been thinking a lot about the downtown music community in New York City and were actively going to concerts and listening to a lot of different styles. Through this experience, we have developed a unified language as a duo—one that emerged from our curiosity with sound, improvisation, and live/recorded music. The artists we discovered during this time are those we approached for gathering blue.
Although the artists featured on this project come from different backgrounds, we chose to collaborate because we share similar musical values. It was a privilege to work closely with these composers/peformers, and it allowed us to shape each work and to better understand each piece. There is a common thread, a feeling, that links the music allowing a piece like Ambrose Akinmusire’s Anzu, Christian Carey’s For Milton, and Vijay Iyer’s Accumulated Gestures to work in context with each other.
gathering blue has thirteen tracks (a mix of notated and improvised music) and three guest artists—Andy Akiho, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Justin Brown—who play with us in improvised trio settings. Through a series of postproduction interludes linking disparate pieces, the complete album has a continuous flow. Each interlude developed by composer/producer Pascal Le Boeuf, is derived from material pulled from throughout the album (compositions, improvisation, outtakes). You’ll hear parts of Justin Brown’s improv from Iyer’s Accumulated Gestures in the intro to our opening track GIRLS, and parts of the improvised steel-pan on Akiho’s KARakurENAI used in the interlude Robe Threader, while …Out of the Blue, which closes the album, is actually Robe Threader with the audio reversed. These interludes allowed us to reconstruct, improvise, and pull from our experience on each piece, threading together the individual voices.
Emily Bookwalter: gathering blue is your debut album and includes nine (!) commissioned works. Did you feel that this was a huge risk—to not only commission but then to permanently document an entire album of unknown music? Or did this bold first statement seem like a natural course for RighteousGIRLS?
Gina Izzo: For me, the album was more a sweep of personal discovery than a risk—a metaphor about our gathering of colors and weaving them together to represent a collage of our musical values.
The album is titled after the Lois Lowry novel, gathering blue. I read this novel at a young age and came back to it later in life with a different perspective of what it might mean to “gather blue.” I don’t feel that either of us set out to do anything “bold” on this album—we don’t really approach music in that way—but rather, to reflect our development and identity as an ensemble. Over the five years Erika and I have been performing together, this seemed to be a rather natural course for our first album—and although the nature of the project is risky, the quality of the artists and their contributions was always a solid conviction.
Emily Bookwalter: RighteousGIRLS is a fantastic example of the genrelessness we’re beginning to experience within new music. You’re hardcore improvisers with classical training, and you regularly call on the traditions of jazz, classical, world music, and beyond. But how do you define yourselves as musicians? How did you choose this path?
Erika Dohi: Living in New York City for the last ten years has exposed us to various genres of music. We both go to tons of shows, some featuring new musicians we’ve heard about, and others where our friends are involved.
Music scenes can change quickly, and we like to be there to notice what’s changing, how, and why. That can affect our own musical direction. We feel extremely lucky to be in the middle of a rapidly transforming artistic environment where audiences are constantly being challenged.
Speaking of my own experience, I found a kind of genrelessness at The Stone, one of my favorite venues. A personal change for me was hearing [Vijay Iyer’s] Fieldwork for the first time there. I had never heard anything like it. Something about the unusual texture, rhythmic complexity, and incredible subtlety of their collaboration inspired me greatly. It didn’t seem to fall into any particular category of music that I had heard before. Hearing Jason Moran and Tyshawn Sorey play free improv at The Stone was also a turning point for me. I think that was the first time I experienced “free improv.” I heard these shows when I was just a freshman at the Manhattan School of Music. They changed my life. It was fascinating for me to discover a sound that could not be labeled.
It’s also important for us to know what’s “hot.” Even if our music doesn’t follow what’s trending, we like to be aware.
Our music has changed a lot since we formed the duo back in 2010. It continues to evolve, and we’re evolving in our own ways as individual musicians, too. I can’t think of a way to label our music, although of course there are elements of jazz, classical, more free improvisation, etc. We try to never limit ourselves. We want to keep growing.
Emily Bookwalter: You’ve performed and will no doubt continue to perform in a variety of styles and venues around the country. What have some of the biggest rewards and challenges been thus far in your music-making? How do you feel your unique voice has been received?
Erika Dohi: We’re challenged constantly. I’ve had some opportunities to play in more specifically “jazz” settings through saxophonist Brad Linde and the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra in Washington D.C. At these gigs I would read off chord charts, which I wasn’t really comfortable doing. I just hadn’t had that training. Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes actually scared me. There’s a style and feel, and it takes time to own that. They’d call out rhythm changes on every gig and I’d improvise over them, too.
It really is the scariest thing, when you’re put on the spot, on stage, to play in a way you’re not used to, or play in a style you’ve never tried. But it pushes me to confront and get rid of that discomfort, and to see through a different musical lens. That kind of experience is so important for growth.
We ask a similar kind of bravery from our audiences, who can face the discomfort of hearing sounds they might not be accustomed to. For Gina and I, programming is extremely important. Our shows tend to have a variety of types of music. We like to program more tonal, accessible music that can be more easily understood, alongside more complex, dissonant works that might disturb or challenge the listener. We’ve gotten very positive results. I love when we get to introduce new music to completely unfamiliar audiences who end up really enjoying the more challenging stuff. We hope to always play for open-minded audiences who are ready for anything. gathering blue is a good example of how we program.