The Women in the Band: Contemporary Improvisation Spring Concert

This concert was inspired in part by the 2011 documentary The Girls in the Band, celebrating stories of women jazz and big band instrumentalists from the 1930s through the present day. As I watched the film I found myself thinking about all of the incredible women instrumentalists in my life, throughout history, in course syllabi, etc. And I realized that even in concert programs and courses focused specifically on women, the artists we celebrate tend to be singers, first and foremost. There are many incredible vocalists out there, of course, and they certainly deserve recognition, but what about the horn and string players, the drummers, the improvisers, composers, and arrangers, the artists who persevere in studying instrumental music in spite of challenges they may face due to cultural restrictions or expectations surrounding gender?

Tonight you will hear works celebrating women instrumentalists, composers, and improvisers across a myriad of genres and traditions, featuring projects led by CI students Isabel Crespo Pardo, Kelly Bray, Henry Wilson, Lyra Montoya, Cate Byrne and Lucy Little, Afarin Nazarijou, Joseph Van Leeuwen, Emily Mitchell, Jazz major Eleanor Pruneau, and the CI Chamber Music Ensemble. You can find more projects celebrating women in music at NEC’s Illumination Space. Thank you for listening!

– Eden MacAdam-Somer, Co-Chair, Dept. Contemporary Improvisation



  1. Satoko Fujii | South Wind

    South Wind is a composition by Satoko Fujii, written for a traditional jazz big band.  She herself is an NEC alumna, having studied with George Russell, Cecil McBee, and Paul Bley in the 80s. Since then, a large amount of her work has involved group improvisation settings with large ensembles, oftentimes using a traditional big band instrumentation.  Her works and performances reflect yet another distinct approach to jazz and improvisation that emerged from Japanese musicians, creating a synthesis between American Jazz and various Japanese musical approaches.
            I am particularly fond of this work because of the familiarity it has for me with the use of repetition and centering of an Okinawan tonality in the melodies. The piece is based on a pentatonic scale that appears frequently in Okinawan folk songs, and features two primary themes that are built around this pentatonic scale. Instead of centering on harmonic or even melodic development as is common in jazz orchestral writing, each theme is repeated again and again, with denser instrumentation in each repetition. The themes are separated by sections of improvisation, and the piece follows a very simple form with the initial statement of the first theme, the presentation of the second theme, and the restatement of the first theme.

            I would like to thank all of my colleagues for making themselves available for rehearsal and making this performance happen despite all of the additional difficulties Covid added to scheduling, as well as the faculty who coached and helped shape the performance, and to Satoko Fujii for sharing her own score and recordings and performance approach.   

    —Lyra Montoya

    • Lyra Montoya, flute, tenor saxophone
    • Kelly Bray, trumpet
    • Nicholas Bagiani, baritone saxophone
    • Marie Carroll, koto
    • Catherine Byrne and Lucy Little, violin
    • Rihards Kolmanis, electric guitar
    • Miguel Landestoy, piano
    • Caleb Duval, electric bass
    • Joseph van Leeuwen, drums
  2. Afarin Nazarijou | Improvisation in Chahārgāh

    I wrote this to demonstrate that there are many great women composers and instrumentalists that have written valuable music throughout history. Due to gender discrimination their names have not been remembered as much as men.
    Afarin Nazarijou

    • Afarin Nazarijou, qanun
  3. Ruth Crawford Seeger | from Music for Small Orchestra

    I. Slow, pensive

    Ruth Crawford Seeger should be revered as one of America’s most talented, creative, and forward-thinking artists. She is often lauded as being at the forefront of the American 20th century music scene, and her extraordinary works are usually included in those few pieces by women composers analyzed in conservatory music theory courses. She is even more widely recognized for her contributions to the preservation of American folk music, as she painstakingly transcribed hundreds of field recordings made by the Lomaxes for the Archive of American Folksong in the 1930s. She struggled to balance her career as a composer with her role as a wife and mother of four - both she and her husband, Charles Seeger, felt that the two were incompatible. With the birth of her son, Mike, in 1933, she turned her attention away from contemporary composition and devoted herself wholeheartedly to work surrounding American folk music and childhood education. Several of her children, including stepson Pete, along with Mike and Peggy, became well-known performers of traditional American music. In fact, so immersed was their household in folk tradition that her children were not aware of her cutting edge work in contemporary composition until the 1940s, when she began writing again.
            Crawford was the first woman ever to be awarded a Guggenheim in composition.  She was not only at the forefront of the contemporary music scene in the US, she was a driving force in that community, inspiring new approaches to the exploration of counterpoint, harmony, and structure. She began writing again in the 1940s.

    - Eden MacAdam-Somer

    • Lyra Montoya, flute
    • Catherine Byrne and Lucy Little, violin
    • Eden MacAdam-Somer, viola and coach
    • Robert Bui, cello
    • Henry Wilson, marimba
    • Joseph van Leeuwen, piano
  4. Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda | Turiya and Ramakrishna

    Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda is a person whose story is far too deep for such a short introduction. She exuded excellence in every aspect of her life as a musician, spiritual leader, author and mother. She defied expectations of women musicians, with a style that was aggressive, bluesy, dissonant, yet also intensely devotional and ecstatic. Her achievements in life are often viewed through the lens of her relationship to her late husband John, but they deserve deep exploration and celebration in their own right. In this performance, we explored the style of a unique composition in her catalog as well as her study of Vedanta and the 19th century Bengali mystic Ramakrishna Paramhansa. Like her inspiration, she sought to transcend issues of gender, race, class, and religion to achieve a higher level of divine consciousness and unity.

    - Joseph van Leeuwen

    • Isabel Crespo Pardo and Delfina Cheb Terrab, voice
    • Jonathan Paik, piano
    • Caleb Duval, electric bass
    • Joseph van Leeuwen, drums and lyrics
  5. Vivien Garry | A Woman's Place Is In the Groove

    Originally recorded in 1946, this is a blues that featured violinist Emma (Ginger) Smock, along with bassist Vivien Garry, trumpetist Edna Williams, pianist Winnie Beatty, and drummer Dody Jeshke. Ginger Smock was a wonderful jazz violinist who never gained the renown awarded to her male counterparts, such as Stuff Smith. This duo violin arrangement aims to capture the energy of the original all-female band while paying particular tribute to Ginger, a one-of-a-kind female jazz violinist. 

    – Cate Byrne

    • Catherine Byrne and Lucy Little, violin
  6. Isabel Crespo Pardo | Improvisation

    My intention in bringing this quintet together was to work on free improvisation by asking many musical and extra-musical questions: How does trust inform the way we play? How do we measure success in an improvisation? What are our ideas about occupying space? I'm interested in how social dynamics affect improvisational tendencies. Similarly, I am curious about how intersections of identity affect musical experience. We met weekly to discuss essays, articles, and interviews, listen to music, try out different improvisational exercises, play text pieces, and improvise together. We surrounded ourselves with conceptual and musical mentors such as Audre Lorde, Jöelle Léandre, bell hooks, and Pauline Oliveros, who became witness to our process. Huge thanks to Talia, Afarin, Anna, and Zoh for committing and contributing to this process. The improvisation you will hear is a direct product of a month of intentional group work.   
    — Isabel Crespo Pardo

    • Isabel Crespo Pardo, voice
    • Zoh Amba, flute and saxophone
    • Afarin Nazarijou, qanun
    • Talia Rubenstein, electric guitar
    • Anna Abondolo, electric bass
  7. Traditional (from the playing of Etta Baker) | Near the Cross I Watch and Pray

    Etta Baker was a masterful Piedmont-style blues guitarist. I will be performing a version of Near The Cross I Watch And Pray from her 1991 album, One Dime Blues. Over the original melody, I sing sections of hymns: “Near The Cross” (Fanny Crosby) and “Christian, Seek Not Yet Repose” (Charlotte Elliot).  
            Etta is known to have played hymns with her daughter Dorothy. She had a lifelong love of the guitar and also enjoyed gardening. I hope to honor these wonderful aspects of her life in my performance! 

    – Emily Mitchell

    • Emily Mitchell, guitar, voice
  8. Kelly Bray | Ending Abruptly in the Pacific Northwest

    I wrote this piece as an opportunity to celebrate two women trumpet players who had very different styles and approaches to trumpet techniques, yet, despite their clear differences, had many parallels in their career. Lesli Dalaba and Barbara Donald both played with notable musicians in their respective musical communities, but were not necessarily well known themselves. Both did not receive a level of prominence, influence, and recognition for their level of skill and innovation. They both ended up in the Pacific Northwest, no longer actively performing as they once did (Lesli Dalaba due to a career change and Barbara Donald due to a series of strokes forcing her into assisted living). 
            This composition also gives me an opportunity to explore my relationship with trumpet technique through their different approaches. Being male dominated, trumpet technique is inherently gendered, and I found it fascinating to hear what I perceived as Dalaba's and Donald's response to the hyper-masculinity of trumpet playing. The first section of the piece, Lesli, reflects Lesli Dalaba's use of extended and non-traditional techniques, as well as ensemble interaction through non-interaction, a style of improvisation that was prominent in the free improvisation community in the late 1970s. I perceive Dalaba to be challenging the hyper-masculinity of trumpet techniques by re-defining what trumpet technique even is. The second section of the piece, Barbara, reflects Barbara Donald's intrepid use of fast runs and high range, paired with traditional free jazz ensemble playing. Donald's approach to technique is far more traditional than Dalaba's, but I believe that she is challenging our perception of trumpet technique as being hyper-masculine by performing with better technique than many of her male contemporaries. 
            Leslie Dalaba and Barbara Donald had fascinating careers, and I am excited to share the impact that they have had on my trumpet playing, improvisation, and composition.       
    – Kelly Bray

    • Kelly Bray, trumpet
    • Lyra Montoya, saxophone
    • Lucy Little, violin
    • Miguel Landestoy, piano
    • Caleb Duval, electric bass
    • Joseph van Leeuwen, drums
  9. Mary Lou Williams | Pisces from The Zodiac Suite

    To honor Mary Lou Williams’ quite often unspoken-of legacy, I have performed a work from her Zodiac Suite, “Pisces,” the last in a twelve movement composition based not only on the astrological signs and the personality traits associated with them, but also on specific artists and people she knew in real life who embodied the signs they were born under.

    From the liner notes of the 1975 Folkways release of the Zodiac Suite, Mary Lou Williams says this about “Pisces:”

    "There is a theme but no set pattern written for this composition because I think of Pisces people as freedom-loving and imaginative. Of course, those influenced by this sign are thought to be arrogant and “high minded” too - and as the music unfolds I have injected those notes which I thought best captured the spirit of these people.”

    In my performance, I aim to capture the feel of Williams’ original solo piano recording while maintaining my own artistic voice; I elaborate on what she has written, and attempt to embody the essence of her Pisces description.    

    – Ellie Pruneau

    • Eleanor Pruneau, piano
  10. Pauline Oliveros | The Single Stroke Roll Meditation

    Single Stroke Roll Meditation is a piece composed by Pauline Oliveros for The Noble Snare Drum, a snare drum solo book containing compositions by a wide range of composers. Rather than providing a written or graphic notation, Oliveros provides musicians with instructions on how to perform a meditation centered around a single stroke roll. This piece relies on Oliveros’ concepts of ‘deep listening’ and ‘sonic awareness,’ listening practices that require using not just one’s ears but the entire body as a tool to observe the nature of sound. Our ensemble realized the piece as a group meditation and explored different drum and percussive voices in addition to the snare drum. Throughout her life Pauline often enjoyed working with not only trained musicians, but also non-musicians on her listening practices. As the focus with her pieces like Single Stroke Roll Meditation is not on the musicianship, per se, but rather on discovering new ways of listening and reacting to sounds, we were able to form an ensemble composed of many different types of musicians, not just percussionists as the title of the piece may imply. This meditation in particular allows musicians to explore the wide range of timbres present in percussion instruments as well as the sonic natures of changes in tempo and dynamics.  Throughout her life Pauline often enjoyed leading meditations in very reverberant spaces such as old water towers and light houses. The spaces would allow listeners to be really enveloped by the sounds occurring around them. The beautifully reverberant Jordan Hall proved to be an excellent venue to explore these ideas at NEC.  
    – Henry Wilson

    • Henry Wilson, tam tam
    • Lucy Little, snare drum
    • Marie Carroll, timpani, cymbal, and crotales
    • Eden MacAdam-Somer, tom-tom