Whether what Sarah Elizabeth Charles does is strictly jazz is up for debate, but hey, if jazz is about elements of structural depth and surprise, jazz is as good a name as any for her work. Her experience as an educator with Rise2shine, an early childhood education nonprofit in Haiti, and with Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, spills over in abundance to the stage, where she and her longtime band SCOPE thrive. In performance, SCOPE functions less like Sarah Elizabeth Charles’ backing band and more like coequal collaborators in an experiment, leaving the listener to guess where they’ll roam both chordally and emotionally; her voice acts as texture within the ensemble, and often sounds more like an instrument than like a voice at all. Charles has performed at the The White House, Blue Note, Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center and at myriad jazz festivals around the world, and this Thursday, Jan. 31, she performs at South on Main as part of the Oxford American’s 2018-19 Jazz Series. We caught up with her ahead of that show.
You teach through a program called Rise2Shine in Haiti and through a couple of Carnegie Hall programs. When I watch you perform, it seems to me that your teacher’s perspective comes alive on stage, almost like your compositions have a workshop/experimental quality to them, like they could pivot at any moment. Are your works with SCOPE improvisatory, or is the composition set before you begin the song?
As a jazz-trained musician, improvisation is a huge part of my performance. The songs that I write for my band, SCOPE, therefore leave a lot of space for both improvisation and instantaneous interpretation (even by those of us who have played the music together a significant number of times). One of my favorite things about jazz music is that often times, there is a clear form, melody, structure and message, but also room for artists to communicate through the music whatever they may want or need to at any given moment. This is something I appreciate a lot and stress through my work as a teaching artist as well. I encourage my students to write music that leaves space for the inevitable human experience that is ever-changing. To me, it’s not only about jazz music. There is great music of different styles that can leave this type of space and exist as something timeless because of the space left for people to interpret. I think that’s what I’m doing each time I play each of my songs.
One thing I particularly love about your voice is that it has so many volumes and colors. A listener might not anticipate, for example, at the beginning of “March to Revolution,” in which you start very small, that your voice is about to blossom into this soaring, skybound thing. Have their been advisors or other forces — marketing or what have you — that have tried to steer you toward having more of a unified, recognizable sound? And if so, how have you resisted that in favor of this many-colored sound?
I love this question because it gives me a chance to talk about my teachers. I’ve been fortunate to have had many amazing teachers in my corner who have pushed/encouraged me to develop my voice and my technique so that I can communicate in a way that feels true to me. As I continue to learn and grow as an artist, this voice seems to become even more deeply rooted in a sense of self that feels explorative and free. I appreciate your saying that my voice has many volumes and colors. I don’t necessarily think of it like this. I feel that everything coming out of my instrument is true to me and my experience. The sounds feel genuine and honest and that’s the instinct I was taught to follow if I ever planned to grow as a creative human. I’m so grateful for those teachers who taught me that.
I’d like to ask about the lyrics to that same song: “March to Revolution,” which starts out with this incantation: “The time to be passive … ” What issues are of utmost importance to you, in terms of activism and revolution? What are the things that make you feel most powerfully that, as the song intimates, the time to be passive is done?
I appreciate this question as well. Our newest record, “Free of Form” exists as a representation of me looking outside of myself. The work that I’ve been fortunate to do as a teaching artist with Carnegie Hall, Rise2Shine and The New School has helped to foster the lens through which I do this looking out. “March To Revolution” was specifically written at a time in our country, prior to the 2016 election, when I saw that people in this country were hurting each other in a way that felt as if we weren’t recognizing one another’s humanity. This line “the time to be passive is done” speaks to my own experience. I realized that with this record and with my experiences as an artist off the stage, out of studio and in educational settings, I had the opportunity to say something that some people would actually listen to. And so my way out of being passive was to write a record that spoke to my own experience in our world today. I wanted to write a record that felt true to my fears and hopes and that also shed light on hateful/ignorant rhetoric that only further divides us as human beings. Some of the issues my lyrical content touches on throughout this record are mass incarceration, poverty, racism, sexism, violence and addiction. The chorus of this particular track states “revolution of the real thoughts, revolution of the real minds, revolution of the real hearts, revolution of the real kind…” It’s a sort of call to arms to use our tools of instinct, intellect and empathy to try and treat each other better/see each other in a more open way. Rather than standing by, it’s a call for myself to try and be better in these ways.
On your latest record, there among these wildly original compositions, is a take on The Cranberries’ 1993 hit, “Zombie.” What about this particular song spoke to you?
You know, the songwriter of “Zombie,” Dolores Mary O’Riordan, who left this planet much too soon in 2018, was an activist. Some say that this song helped to end conflict in Northern Ireland and England in the mid-1990s. To me, the idea that art can contribute to helping people see the world differently is true. O’Riordan chose to use her platform to speak to a particular issue and to comment on the idea that violent action that has taken place for decades has to be examined as opposed to mindlessly continued. My cover of this song was specifically meant to touch upon this same idea in relation to gun violence in this country. The lyric, “Another head hangs lowly, child is slowly taken. When the violence causes silence, we must be mistaken” says it all to me. We, often times, follow like zombies when something doesn’t directly impact us. I know I can absolutely do that. This song reminds me of that in such a melodically and harmonically simple way. The lyric is direct and impactful and I felt lucky that O’Riordan and her team not only let us cover the song, but also allowed us to release a music video that translated my interpretation of it.