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Tomeka Reid Previews the Chicago Jazz String Summit

By Jeff Cebulski

Tomeka Reid

Another rendition of the Chicago Jazz String Summit opens Thursday night May 2nd, at the Arts Club Chicago, and continues at three other venues on Friday through Sunday, including a presentation by honored artist Akua Dixon and her string quartet at Constellation on Friday.

The Summit continues on Saturday night at Elastic Arts and Sunday night at the Hungry Brain.

Local string artist and Summit organizer, and winner of the Violinist-Violist-Cellist of the Year Award by the Jazz Journalist Association, Tomeka Reid, took a little time to answer questions about the Summit and her busy performing life.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was the genesis of the Chicago Jazz String Summit?

Tomeka Reid: This was my response to all of the various instrument summits that I saw happening around the city...the trumpet summit...the drum summit...the piano summit. And I thought, well what about something for us string players? This was back in 2010, and in 2013 I was able to make it happen while I was an artist-in-residence at the University of Chicago, and with some help from violinist James Sanders as well. I had to stop for two years but we've been going strong since 2016.

CJM: What would be some appeals to a more classically tuned listener to attend the summit?

Tomeka Reid: I have always enjoyed chamber music and I view playing in jazz ensembles as just that, chamber music. I think it is great to see these orchestral strings used outside of the traditional setting and it's not as if these string players have disposed of all their classical training. Akua Dixon will be performing her arrangements with a string quartet on May 3rd so I would hope that classical audiences would be open to experiencing these performances.

CJM: Do other cultural influences, in string music, show up in these performances?

Tomeka Reid: I am making efforts to include more improvising traditions from string players of the Disapora. This year we will feature an oud player [Gordon Grdina, playing Friday night at Constellation], and last year we featured a sitar player. It is my hope to feature a masinqo player on a future Summit. A masinqo is a one-stringed fiddle from Ethiopia.

CJM: Are you seeing growth, both in performer interest and in audience response, to the summits?

Tomeka Reid: Yes! Each year many more string players reach out about wanting to perform on the Summit. I have seen reoccurring faces to the Summit each year as well!

CJM: Some background for the readers: How did you become interested/involved with jazz expression via strings? Any early influencers?

Tomeka Reid: I've always loved playing cello but wasn't sure if only pursuing classical music was really my thing. I've always loved the sound of strings in other contexts such as Curtis Mayfield or James Brown. Upon moving to Chicago I became a member of Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble and began improvising more readily. I really enjoyed the collaborative nature of jazz and improvised music so I began doing it more and more! Early influencers were cellists Abdul Wadud and Diedre Murray and violinists Stuff Smith, Billy Bang and Leroy Jenkins.

CJM: My observation is that current jazz artists are broadening the scope of their compositions and arrangements to include more string players. Would you concur?

Tomeka Reid: Alas, that is my hope but I'm not sure if I've seen a recent trend of this.

CJM: You do seem to have a significant presence on the Art Ensemble’s new album [on Pi Recordings]. What was that experience like?

Tomeka Reid: Playing with the AEOC is pretty amazing. There's such a wealth of energy and ideas. Roscoe doesn't seem like he wants to slow down at all. It's like "full speed ahead,” which is really inspiring to witness.

CJM: Looking ahead, what does the rest of the year look like for you?

Tomeka Reid: There's a lot of touring and performing with the AEOC and my next quartet record will be coming out over the summer with a small CD release tour in the Fall. I'll also be gearing up to work on next year's CJSS 2020!

Get more information about the Chicago Jazz String Summit

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