FIMAV: Zoh Amba, the signs of an avant-garde outbreak

Interview by Alain Brunet

Additional Information

On the American avant-garde music scene involving free improvisation, tenor saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Zoh Amba is clearly on her rise. She really is! After growing up in a Tennessee that could have  confined her to more conventional areas, the 23 year old sensation lived briefly in San Francisco and Boston before moving to New York where she was immediately adopted by the best musicians of the avant-garde scene, starting with John Zorn who produced her album O,Sun, with drummer Joey Baron and bassist Thomas Morgan, on Tzadik Records.
Needless to say, her career was launched!  Today, she’s expanding her sonic world until Victoriavile where she plays this Thursday  with Thomas Morgan, pianist Micah Thomas and drummer Miguel Marcel Russell. 


How can a musician of this age blossom so quickly? Neither PAN M 360 nor Zoh Amba can answer this question… The following conversation with her nevertheless provides us with some convincing clues.

PAN M 360 : Where are you based now ?

ZOH AMBA : In New York.

PAN M 360 : You’re from Tennessee, aren’t you? 

ZOH AMBA : Yes, from Kingsport.

PAN M 360 : So you must know Big Ears Festival.

ZOH AMBA :  Oh, yeah ! I played my first Big Ears concert this year. It’s beautiful. I mean, it was a dream as a kid to play there and experience it.

PAN M 360 : Also. So you’ve been trained in Tennessee as an early saxophone player?

ZOH AMBA : Yeah in a way, but I also trained myself.

PAN M 360 : So what did you study?

ZOH AMBA : My heart! (laughs). This kind of goes on. I played a lot. I still play a lot. I always play a lot. And I’m just  trying to find melodies out of what I feel inside my heart. But I was working on it and I didn’t know there was any other thing but that until I left Tennessee, really. But I didn’t know there was this thing. I couldn’t even read music when I entered school for the first time. So it’s been a long journey.

PAN M 360 :  So you did build all your language by yourself in a way.

ZOH AMBA : Yeah! In a way I feel like that. But I also believe that each one of us has a little sacred tender soul heart song going on. I think we all got it.  

PAN M 360 : You mean your own vocabulary ? Your way?

ZOH AMBA : Yeah, yeah. But in a more abstract sense. I think we all got that little thing inside of us. I did go to the conservatory but that’s not so important. 

PAN M 360 : There you learned some useful things, didn’t you ?

ZOH AMBA :  Yeah. I learned some things, but I was very stubborn and I dropped out twice. So I didn’t make it through. But I tried, I really tried (laughs)

PAN M 360 : Well, the clue is your own language, your own thing. But also you know, there are so many super virtuosos for any instrument.  And also there are creative people like you who build their own very personal language.

ZOH AMBA : Well, my goal is not to be a great saxophone player. I’m just trying to be a great person in my life. I’m trying to just be a vessel to something that you know, is greater than all of us and love that and nurture it and just try to get this tender song inside out all the time is my goal at the most honest place. And of course, I work on my horns as you got to facilitate that, you know, but I’m not trying to be this great saxophone player, just a great person in my own life. And live a beautiful, simple life of joy and try to stay in  the sun.  I would describe my music as devotional, trying to reach joy and sunshine. I don’t know how else to describe it.

PAN M 360 : Well do you mean that, for example, your live playing and your recording sessions are basically a reflection of a human being  rather than a music player ?

ZOH AMBA : Yeah, I’d say so. But I feel like other people who create that type of thing also feel like that also, you know?  I play that way, I feel like sunshine is in my body and I feel very happy. The happiest times in my life  are in those moments. Then I feel  I’m supposed to be where I’m supposed to be.

PAN M 360 : And do you play other instruments? Do you use other tools?

ZOH AMBA : Yeah,  I’ve been working on piano. I just played on another record that I finished recording a couple of weeks ago. I  also play guitar and I sing some songs.  I was playing guitar when I was a child and I had a notebook  of all these songs. I even thought I was going to move to Nashville, but the saxophone came into my life. Overall, it’s all the same song, you know.  

PAN M 360 :  So the bottom line is not necessarily playing saxophone, but making music.

ZOH AMBA : It’s  true. So yeah, saxophone, piano, guitar, voice. That’s, that’s the world of my expression.

PAN M 360 : But mainly tenor saxophone.

ZOH AMBA : Yeah. I have started on alto, but I didn’t pursue it. I know, before I touched the alto, I wanted to play tenor. So it took some months before I got the tenor.  Yeah, it resonates with me most, it feels beautiful. I don’t love everything about tenor, but it is still my favorite.

PAN M 360 : Of course, you are already a great improviser but how do you compose?

ZOH AMBA : Well. I sit, I play some things , some melodic patterns to the musicians. And then it becomes some of our repertoire. But I can also write some things down. I mean, I’m working on something, then I’m writing down some elements and I show them to  my bandmates. I can do some graphic scoring for them if I don’t know how to notate what I’m hearing. I draw these things, and I explain it after. And I have different cues for the ensemble, like meaning, how we end, how we begin, etc. But those cues can be broken at any time. I’m always trying to surprise myself and make my musicans feel surprised too. 

So yes it is mostly based on improv, but it’s not just that, and I feel like each one of us in the unit together, have been working on that our entire lives. So it’s much more than just getting together and playing. Also we love each other, we love the sun, and we’re just trying to go there together. Plunge deep baby, here we go. 

PAN M 360 : What are you going to play at FIMAV ? 

ZOH AMBA : We’re playing my compositions. And just playing our hearts out, plunging deep and pouring our souls together. Loving living together, loving the sun together, playing our hearts out. That’s what this band is.

PAN M 360 : About your colleagues about to come playing with you at FIMAV.

ZOH AMBA : Thomas Morgan means a world to me. I’m so grateful to play with him. Micah is my best friend, he is my brother, sacred and beautiful. Miguel I met him in New York recently, about a year ago. I’m so happy playing music with them. They’re just great. The best musicians !So the relationships have been growing. But you know, I’m a little young, you know, we have a whole life of getting to know each other, you know, so…

PAN M 360 : Yeah, everything’s quite recent. 

ZOH AMBA : Yeah. I’m 23 years old. Yeah, I’m grateful. I really understand that, you know, and, but at the end of the day, I’m just grateful to play music every night with people I love and to reach this goal together. You know,  I just wanted to play music all the time. And I’m grateful that this is fulfilling that dream of playing great music together all the time. I love touring. I love meeting people. And I’m happy that the music resonates with them deeply.  And I’ve just tried to be as open and vulnerable as I can.

ZOH AMA ENSEMBLE IS PLAYONG AT FIMAV ON THRSDAY, MIDINGHT, AT CARRÉ 150, VICTORIAVILLE. INFOS & TICKETS HERE

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