Michelle Marie: Two Countries, One Language
Michelle Marie is one of the young female guitarists with which to be reckoned with on the jazz scene today. Her original compositions and arrangements create an incredible, impressionistic atmosphere, and when she adds her voice to the mix, they simply add to the ambiance. Combined with her presence and artistic desire, Michelle Marie definitely commands attention.
Marie is a simple girl from New York; her father is American and her mother from the Dominican Republic. She grew up in the Bronx, was tomboyish, loved to ride bikes, play ball and surf; and she specially loved her years growing up as music always playing in the streets, which to her "created a vibe that I'll never forget."
All About Jazz: Who in your own words is Michelle Marie?
Michelle Marie: I am a simple girl from New York. I grew up in The Bronx, and I loved every single moment. I spent a lot time cruising the streets with my bike, sometimes pressing my parents buttons by going too far. I loved the fact that I could play ball every day. I went into a severe shock mode when we moved to Queens because it did not have the vibe that The Bronx had. I have a sincere love and respect for my parents, but I can honestly say a huge part of who I am is really all about my guitar and creating a vibe in music.
I said "simple," because it's always the little things that make me happy. Being close to the ocean is very important to me, it gives me a sense of peace and where I can think without being distracted. I love to surf. Last summer, I took several coaching lessons with a champion big wave surfer from Skudin Surf on Long Beach; I loved it. I am now even more dedicated to understanding the waves better so that I can add maneuvers to get to the next level. I love sports in general, I always have. I exercise six days a week, play racquetball, but that's nothing new; I have been always dedicated to sports. Sometimes on rides back from the beach I still stop at the batting cage and just hit a few balls. I guess it's fair to say I am a person that, once I really love something, it stays forever. I love driving my jeep off road. I have a Long Island beach permit so that I can actually drive on the beach, which is perfect in the summer.
I am a very sensitive person, those close to me know this and how at times it can get in the way of my focused energies, but I am learning to deal with that part of me and learning to be stronger and smarter on what to sweat and what to let go.
It's very important for me to have a good reputation in this business and I take my music very seriously. I only play music I feel and want to play. I can say, 'til this day, that all the projects I have been involved with have been because I wanted to, not because of something I had to do for financial reasons; I just don't have the patience to sit through music that I don't like.
There is a side of me that still acts like a kid, and at times I can be really silly. When all gets too heav,y I can easily switch gears and try to laugh, be silly, and live my life to its fullest.
AAJ: How do you feel about your Dominican heritage?
MM: I am proud of it. I want the best for my mother's country and want to see the island prosper more. It is an island with so much culture, history and products. I wish, in time, to spend more time there. It is very important for me to be connected to my heritage and keep a positive image. I have a weekly jazz brunch at The Hudson River Cafe, a venue in New York City owned by Dominicans, and I love playing there. I have always felt such a welcoming vibe there from day one.
I would love to have a guitar workshop in the Dominican Republic; hopefully soon that can be made a reality. I have attempted to try to learn to play basic bachata on guitar, let´s see if that will make it out of the house, although I can already play the tambora.
AAJ: You are self-taught, how did you start?
MM: Yes, I am self-taught, but not by choice. It was always hard for me to take lessons or it be accepted from teachers that I really wanted to play guitar. The notion that girls can't play guitar was an issue I had to deal with. I really did not understand, the good thing was I just did not care and just kept pushing forward, just 'cause I knew deep inside I wanted to play guitar. The idea of singing was always brought up which basically annoyed me. I already knew I could sing, but I just never focused my attention on it. I asked my dad if he could buy me some books on guitar, and with no questions asked he took me to Sam Ash. I bought them without really knowing what to buyjust what I thought I needed.
I have a crazy story from High School. There was a music showcase, and we were allowed to have bands and audition. So I joined, and had to meet with other the other students. One band needed another guitarist so I came in the room where they practiced. It was all boys, and they threw me out. I must have blocked out a portion of what happened after that, 'cause I just don't remember what I did, but I must have been sitting somewhere in my school and what I remember clearly was the music teacher, Mrs. Clark, approaching me and asking me what happened. She asked me to play the chords to the song "Come Together" and I did right away. I remember her being the funny, strict and crazy music teacher, but she took my hand, and opened the door to where these guys were rehearsing and pushed me in saying, "She can play, if you have anything to say, say it to me ," and shut the door. I remember their faces; I ignored them and just played what I was suppose to play. It wasn't fun at all, but I knew I had to just deal with it or it would have meant I had caved in. Moments like that still happen, believe it or not, and when they occur, the moment I had in High School comes back all so quickly, so it is a very sensitive subject for me still.
I continued to play by ear and played along to recordings, and mimicked what I was listening to. I have to say I spent a lot of time on my own practicing. It was a part of my day and still is to this day. I started writing my own music, and sometimes with lyrics. The only trouble I had was that I could not write the music down, so I had to keep it all in my head. 'Til this day I depend on that part of my brain when I am inspired and hear the music in my head it just stays. Lately my music has been a little more complicated, so it´s a little harder, but I remember most of it, thankfully.
When I traveled with my mom´s band right out of High School was really where I got my real training. I think going to College for music has its good points, but learning on-the-spot in real world situations is truly where you learn faster. I met amazing musicians and is how I really learned. I always had so many questions, like "How do you do that?" I could only imagine how annoying I must have been. I still kind of do that still, when I hear something I like, I totally act on it and ask, "What [is it] and how do you do that"
I really wanted to go to the Berklee College of Music. I just never applied, though I bought a lot of their workbooks to train my ears and is how I learned to sight-sing. I owe a lot of my musical understanding to a musician from Japan, Shimpei Shiratori, and a talented saxophonist from Switzerland, George Robert. They both went to Berklee and taught me so much. It was through them that I learned to read music, dictate and, most of all, what I needed was to be able to write down my songs. What was surprising was I had a lot of odd-meter songs, and I would be asked "Ok Michelle did you know that this song is in seven and then you change meter to five?" I remember those days so clearly, my answer back was, "What does seven meter time mean?" I felt so stupid, 'cause I did not know what he meant and he was confused at how this happenned, but the good thing is that now I can understand it all better. It's not my forté, but I can at least write out a template for a chart.
AAJ: What genres do you prefer to perform?
MM: I love playing jazz, and classical guitar. Lately I have been listening to what I grew up onR&B and rock. There is something about what your roots are and what first connected you to music. In my house, growing up, there was a lot of music except jazz. I found jazz on my own; I think when I did my parents were happy cause I would blast crazy rock stuff that the house would make the house shake.
AAJ: Who were your influences? What do you like to play?
MM: My first influence was and still is Eddie Van Halen. I still freeze when I hear him play. I found Pat Metheny by chance on a bike ride in the park and that's how jazz was brought into my life. I respect players such as Paul Gilbert, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, George Benson, Jack DeJohnette and Keith Jarrett.
I love Wayne Shorter's compositions and have added my own arrangement to some of them. I love R&B artists songs as well, for example Jill Scott, and Erika Badu are [artists whose] songs I love to play on guitar. I like to add compositions from other artists 'cause I simply love what they are doing, and I want to feel their music through my own hands in my own way.
AAJ: Latin influences in jazz today: your thoughts?
MM: Latin jazz remains very strong, and the element of adding Latin/African rhythms is a strong tool to use in jazz. I feel that at this moment jazz is in a state of change. I am not sure what is going to happen, but artists like [pianist] Danilo Perez are important speakers about using the influences of Latin American culture and connecting it with jazz. The great thing in jazz is that it is left up to the most important element, which is improvisation. It is left up to the composer to express something meaningful with the music, and that is what attracted me to jazz. The openness and wide array of options you can use over a progression is endless; making it sound melodic is my route and goal.
AAJ: What is your trio up to today? Who plays with you?
MM: In July  I plan a video project with my trio, and plan to add piano on it. I am also planning a new recording due for release on my label MM Records Group in the fall. I use John Davis on drums; he has been with me since 2008. The first time we played, I felt a strong connection musically, especially with my music, like no other drummer. He senses the vibe I'm looking for. And I use Carlos Mena on bass. He is unique in style, and can play almost any genre, which is what I love 'cause my music can be classified as jazz, but it really is not; it's a collective of styles that I love, and he is the perfect balance needed between drums and guitar.
The new addition to my trio is pianist Rie Tsuji. I knew of her from Beyoncé's band, but I got to meet her during one of the rehearsals for Black Girls Rock. She stopped by to say hi to the band. We both live in the same borough in New York City, and we talked on the way home and I thoughtafter a project we did, a concert in Los Angeleshow awesome it would be to have her play with my trio. So July is when it will all happen, and I'm looking forward to hearing my songs with piano once again. I have been playing just with my trio for awhile now; change is always good.
AAJ: You have been busy with Black Girls Rock; what is this all about?
MM: I Love this project so much; I really feel honored to be involved with the project created by Beverly Bond. I have been the guitarist for the show since 2010, and I can't express how much I look forward to it. We practice hard for a week, and then perform a show that is filmed live. It is a true empowerment for youth. When you see these outstanding woman who simply rock, and you hear their stories, it takes your breath away. Each story is special. When you watch the program, apart from the music you really understand what it took for these women to achieve their goals. The program conveys to the audience that faith and believing in yourself can make your dreams come true. I truly support the Black Girls Rock Organization.
[Note: Black Girls Rock is a project created by Beverly Bond. Her goal is to empower young girls of color and give them better images than the often negative depictions seen in the media. Since 2006, Black Girls Rock has been dedicated to the development of young women and girls. It seeks to build the self-esteem and self-worth of young women of color by changing their outlook on life, and helping them to empower themselves.]
AAJ: What are your current projects?
MM: My main focus is to record new music with my band. I want to establish my record company more and make use of it. One of the main reasons I created it was to release my music whenever I wanted.
As for my festival, it´s going great, The third Michelle Marie Jazz Festival will be held at the end of this summer . I plan to continue producing jazz festivals in New York City Also, I have several artist videos to complete: one is a documentary for Gretsch Guitar. I have a Zoom artist video that I have already completed. It´s a great device that captures video and audio amazingly. I have also an artist video coming up for Mogami cables.
AAJ: Tell us about your current endorsements.
MM: D´Addariowonderful strings that I would never change. My range is pretty wide, from 12 gauge chromes to 9-1/2 gauge for rock and 10s or 11s for pop music. Gretsch Guitars has also been great to me; I love their guitars, and am lucky to be part of an outstanding team. The Zoom Q3HD [handheld high definitions audio/video recorder] is amazing to use; I use it all the time, and there is a new one coming out this summer. [Effects processor manufacturer] Eventide: I was honored to be a part of this little somewhat chilling movie of preppy girl at work that turns into a guitarist. It was fun to do, and Eventide rep Alan Chaput has been a great supporter, with all the pedals from Eventide. They really have great stuff.
I received the endorsement for Seymour Duncan just this year and I am so happy to be a part of their family; they are so supportive. The artist reps are easy to communicate with. I was lucky to be a part of their Girl Rock event at NAMM 2012, and that is how I ended up connected to them. I met Seymour Duncan, the man himself, and have a nice interview with him online.
AAJ: How was the Quebec City Jazz Festival last year and NAMM this year?
MM: Quebec is a lovely city, and I really love going there. I will be there again in October for the 2012 Jazz Festival, which is where I plan to debut my new music. NAMM 2012 kept me busy with booth performances, a special event for Girl Rock Nation with Seymour Duncan that was really great, 'cause I love their pickups so much. I also had concert with some of the members of the Beyoncé Band, in a project called Lipstick. NAMM is an awesome event that allows musicians to see what new gear is coming out. I love going every year, and every year its gets better. On my first visit to NAMM, I made my connection with Fender/Gretsch Guitars, and this year was Eventide and Seymour Duncan. It really is so much fun going there.
AAJ: Where are you playing these days?
MM: I was on tour right after the filming of Black Girls Rock! in October, 2011 for a R&B/gospel music project with [keyboardist] Brittani Washington. Right before Christmas, I filmed the video for Eventide, was on a short tour of the Midwest, and up to now have been working on recordings for other artists. I am finally finding myself with some time to regroup and work with my own music again.
AAJ: If you could choose, who would you like to play with and why?
MM: Jill Scott; she is amazing and has the best parts for guitar. She is one of my favorite singers and love her lyrics, as well as Erika Badushe has an amazing vibe, and writes such airy compositions. I've played guitar for both Jill and Erika through Black Girls Rock!, which was an awesome moment for me. Wayne Shorter would be my first thought. I love his music and approach. I play a lot of his tunes in my performances. I love Keith Jarrett, but that would be like if I was in heaven. He plays so beautiful all the time, I think I'll leave that one as a dream, and would rather keep it that way for some reason.
AAJ: Tell us the first thing that pops into your mind. Music?
MM: I love creating a vibe with music and I am dedicated to my guitar.
MM: The guitar is an extension of me.
AAJ: New York.
MM: A hectic city, with beautiful museums and places to see shows and music, although I spend most of my off time on Long Island, so I can be close to the ocean.
AAJ: The Dominican Republic.
MM: When I am there I feel a peace of mind that I don't feel here in New York. Everyone is happy, no matter what situation they are in, rich or poor. Life there is about being together, with food and music, which is nice.
AAJ: Favorite recording by other musician?
MM: [Pianist] Bill Evans, Sunday at the Village Vanguard (Riverside, 1961).
AAJ: One final message to share?
MM: I have learned more, this year, to stay true to who you are and be yourself; your value, at the end of the day, is when you can look at yourself in the mirror and know, in your heart, that you are staying true to yourselfand for no one else but yourself. Stay on your focused path of choice, block out the noise and negativity inside or around you, and always listen to that inner voice inside yourself. Always take the time to listen and you will find what you are looking for.>
Michelle Marie, Michelle Marie (MM Records Group, Inc., 2008)
All Photos: Courtesy of Jazz en Dominicana