2023 was an eventful year for acclaimed saxophonist, flutist and composer Anna Webber. She released her new album, Shimmer Wince, in October and was appointed New England Conservatory's New Jazz Studies co-chair. Now, coming off of those successes, she's gearing up to share her talents with audiences once again with two upcoming concerts in Boston this month.
On Feb. 8, Anna Webber performs her residency concert with her Simple Trio at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall alongside some of her students. And then, on Feb. 29, Webber is back at Jordan Hall with Angela Morris as the two conduct the conservatory’s Jazz Orchestra, who will perform a selection of Webber and Morris’ compositions.
Anna Webber spoke with GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath about her work and upcoming concerts. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: I love your music, and it's really exciting to be talking with you at this time, with all the stuff that you have going on. This first concert, the one that's happening tomorrow that you're performing in, that's going to be a culmination of your NEC residency. First off, let's talk about the music. The tune that we heard, "Forgotten Best." Tell us a bit about how you work that through in your trio.
Anna Webber: That piece is off of this record we did a couple of years ago called Idiom, and most of the music on that album was from this series of pieces — also called Idiom — which is pretty specific saxophone language stuff that I figured out how to translate to piano and drums.
But I felt like the album needed a bit of a rest from that, so I wrote this piece called "Forgotten Best." It stands out as a little bit of a different track from the rest of the album, but I felt like it was a needed place to to relax and feel a little bit more tonal.
Rath: How is it different from the other tracks?
Webber: The other tracks are much more centered around extended techniques on the saxophone and flute. So extended techniques is just like a catchall phrase for any way of playing your instrument in a way that's nontraditional. Some extended techniques can sound very normal to people's ears, but some of them are pretty weird. So you can make air sounds on the saxophone, or you can make screeching sounds on the saxophone. I tried to figure out things that were already in my improvisational language and wrote pieces around them.
Rath: It's awesome hearing them. Some of the things, you think you're hearing improvisations, but you're playing them in unison. This group is so tight.
Webber: Thank you. We've now been playing together for just over a decade. The band was formed in 2013, and our first record came out in 2014. Actually, to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of our first record, we actually just recorded a new one, which is going to come out this fall. That's the music that will be playing in the concert on Thursday.
So I didn't have any sneak previews to show on the radio quite yet, but, we will be playing all brand-new music, and that'll be coming to Intakt Records in the fall of this year.
Rath: Tell us about this album. How different is this from your past approaches with the group?
Webber: Well, I feel like it's it's not necessarily different. It feels like a culmination of a lot of years of experience of writing for both Matt Mitchell and John Hollenbeck, my two bandmates. At this point, I really feel like I know their playing very well and know how to write for that trio very well. So I just wanted to write some stuff that I thought would be really fun to play.
I was also exploring some rhythmic things. In particular, I was thinking about polyrhythms or cross-rhythms — when you have two rhythms going at the same time. So I was thinking about that as the underpinning of the music. But really, I just wanted to write a bunch of music that would feel really, really good. Hopefully, I accomplished that — I'll find out.
“You play with people for a long time and you do develop a bit of a psychic connection — or if not psychic, at least it's like when you have a really close friend and you can finish their sentences.”Anna Webber
Rath: Interesting hearing you talk about polyrhythms. I'm thinking of some of your earlier music, and obviously, I haven't heard this yet. But hearing, some of the playing reminds me a lot of of Indian musicians, like, in those tight improvisational groups. It's almost like you guys are have some kind of psychic connection where you're playing with each other. What's it actually like when you're doing it? What is that connection like?
Webber: Well, you play with people for a long time and you do develop a bit of a psychic connection — or if not psychic, at least it's like when you have a really close friend and you can finish their sentences a little bit. Maybe not quite the same, but, you know the other people's language, you know their proclivities. That really helps to be able to both write for them and also to improvise together. It just feels like there's a shared language that you've all developed over the time that you've had playing together.
So, yeah, I feel like I started off writing slightly easier music for the band and then kept pushing and kept pushing. And through that, I think we all just developed this band sound that, really, we have to rely on each other and really trust each other. I couldn't ask for two better people to be doing this kind of music with.
Rath: So let's pull back from this to your very different work, going from super intense, intimate chamber music to the jazz orchestra. And your compositions for jazz orchestra are just awesome. One of the things that's really cool about it is that, I'm assuming you probably studied European composition because it seems like there's a lot of stuff from avant-garde, modern classical styles that somehow make its way into your jazz orchestra in a way that sounds awesome.
“Jazz, for me, is about pushing forward. It’s about expansion.”Anna Webber
Webber: Thank you. Yeah, I definitely consider myself a jazz musician first and foremost, but I think part of being a jazz musician is always trying to look at everything and see what else is out there and just learn from all kinds of music.
Jazz, for me, is about pushing forward. It's about expansion. So I have definitely done a lot of score study and listening study of European classical music. And I feel like there's an interesting overlap. A lot of improvisers, especially more avant-garde improvisers, use a lot of the things I was talking about earlier, like extended techniques in their playing. But it's very rarely written down within the music. Whereas in new classical music or contemporary music, a lot of that stuff will be written down, but maybe people aren't improvising. So I feel like there's an interesting overlap in the language between those two things.
I studied a lot of contemporary scores just to see like, "Well, how are these things written down? This feels like my language, but it's not written down in my world. So how is it normally written down within the contemporary classical zone?" And I found that to be really freeing, it opened up a lot of space for me in my writing.
Rath: You talked about exploring some of the unexplored sonorities of the saxophone and different outside sounds. In the orchestra stuff, you're doing that with all the instruments. I remember hearing this for the first time and thinking, "How did you know the trumpet can make that sound?"
Webber: Yeah, I've spent a lot of time just studying the instruments, too. Any time I write for an instrument, I try to learn everything about the instrument. If you would come into my writing space, you just see instrument diagrams — for any instrument I'm writing for. Like, I'll have a diagram of the valves and the trumpet and the various notes that you would get from pressing each valve, or a diagram of the slide on a trombone and how that works. When I've written for strings, I've had a diagram of all the strings. Obviously I'm not a violinist, so I can't really tell what's possible, but I can sort of check it out a little bit and see if it it feels like it might work just by like imagining the strings.
But then I also just talk to people that I'm writing for. Especially with smaller group stuff — maybe a little bit less so for jazz orchestra music since there's a lot of people. But I've sat down with people that I'm writing for and just ask them like, "Show me some sounds that you can do." That's really helped me out a lot because it's given me a much deeper insight into what is possible in other instruments.
Rath: Brilliant. Anna, it's been great talking with you about your music again. Love it so much and I encourage everybody to see these these shows. Thank you.
Webber: Thanks so much.
Anna Webber performs with her Simple Trio Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m. and then conducts the New England Conservatory’s Jazz Orchestra on Feb. 29 at 7:30 p.m. Both concerts will be held at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.