Micah Graves | photo by Matt Connelly | courtesy of the artist
Micah Graves and his ensemble discuss their thrilling new album Med Nama
Micah Graves may have become one of Philadelphia’s most prolific new voices in 2020. The composer and keyboardist already shared a pair of ambitious, piercing singles in June and October — one calling out systemic racism and widespread violence, and another tenderly remembering a lost neighbor. Then in December, he released Med Nama, a kaleidoscopic set of unruly new compositions filled with blazing fusion grooves, jazz tradition, R&B poise and unclouded pop lyricism. Med Nama, Graves says, is just one part of a three-album arc entitled Not for the Ordinary, which he and his ensemble are still completing.
The group featured on Med Nama first came together this summer with just a few gigs planned, but they quickly realized that collaborating on this challenging new music was exactly what they needed to revitalize themselves after months of disconnection. Last month, I spoke with Graves and five other musicians from the record about their thrilling sessions at Rittenhouse Soundworks — vocalists Shafiq Hicks and Danielle Dougherty, bassist Rani Barlas, guitarist Zach Fischer and drummer Julian Miltenberger. All are between 20 and 24, and they shared some common experiences coming up in jazz programs at Philadelphia’s Clef Club, Settlement Music School, and the Kimmel Center, but they say their recent time together has allowed them all to move beyond the methods they’ve learned from teachers and to build something more personally rewarding.
In our long and inspiring conversation, we talked about escaping the masculine pressures of college jazz programs, telling stories through chaos, and staying open to change.
The Key: I’d like to hear about the process of composing for your new album Med Nama. Last time we talked, Micah, you said you were totally focused on building compositions in support of lyrics and stories – would you say the same is true for this new music?
Micah Graves: Yeah, I think specifically for this A-side I wanted to follow that kind of writing style, and for this group, because when you have singers like Shafiq and Dani, their voice in itself can really tell stories, in just how they sing phrases. So I think with this music, they can really take it to another level just with how they sing it and how they interpret it. It makes it super easy writing for them because I don’t have to do too much.
TK: Would you describe these new recordings as “songs”, “compositions”, “charts”, “pieces”? Or something else?
MG: Aahhh, that’s a good question – I don’t know – sometimes when we think of “tunes”, we think of “standards” like “Autumn Leaves”, where you just kind of play it and you don’t look back. But I think these are a little more personal because I wrote them for specific people and the music follows a storyline, so I see them more as compositions and stories as opposed to songs to play for fun.
TK: Can you describe the experiences that inspired your lyrics on these new songs? And what is the significance of the title, Med Nama?
MG: I wrote most of this music in Amsterdam when I went abroad there for six months, and at that time I didn’t really write lyrical, I was just very into instrumental music. And I took composition classes where we only had to write words and challenge ourselves to do that, so I started writing lyrics and trying to make that work with how I wrote on my piano. So that’s where I wrote all of this music.
“Med Nama” in Slovenian means “between us”, which means just between two people. I wanted that title because a lot of this music originally in my head was just for specific people. And that’s the people I wrote it with, and that’s when we played it so that was really just between us, and that time in Amsterdam, and that music was just for there. So I was a little nervous sharing this music with other people because it was really personal, and it was just between us, but when I started to share it with other people it became bigger. So that concept grew into everybody, and now it’s going to be out soon.
TK: How much composing did you do alone, and how much did you do with the rest of the band? And how did you all feel about collaborating during quarantine?
MG: For the most part I did the writing myself, but when I bring the music to these players they take it to a whole new level where I can’t take it. They definitely add their own sense of individualism and personality to the music, so it feels like a collaboration ‘cause there’s no strict rules.
Shafiq Hicks: I was on tour with Rent until March of this year, until COVID shut everything down, so I was at a loss – I was like, What am I gonna do? How am I gonna perform? Am I gonna go back to school? So everything was really up in the air for me until I got to work on this album, and it kind of just awakened my creative soul again because I was really in a dark place, honestly. So just being able to collaborate and watch the innovativeness of artists and musicians during this time, especially in this atmosphere with so many amazing, talented musicians. So it was really a dope experience to be able to get out of ‘pandemic mode’ and back into performing, and doing what I was born and made to do.
Zach Fischer: Yeah, I’d like to echo what Shafiq said. Before the pandemic, I was gigging a lot in Montreal, so when the pandemic hit, at first I saw it as a chance to really look inward and try to find my own sound and discover that about myself. But then by the summer I started to hit a wall, my mental health became more in flux, and by the time that Micah called me for this I was struggling musically. Him giving me this music to work on, it really put some more fuel in my tank.
John [Moran], one of the bassists on this record, was saying that the way Micah is teaching us this music is kind of like how they did it back in the beginnings of Black American Music, where you would really work with a band for a long time and really get inside of these songs, and try to learn them more meaningfully than you would if you were just reading them on the gig. I’m so thankful that we had enough time to really get around these tunes, and make them come to life – as cheesy as that sounds. I really think that it’s music that I believe in; it was one of the highlights of my year, to work on this album and to learn Micah’s music.
Rani Barlas: I want to give Micah credit for even having [sheet music]. It made me realize that even if you have just an outline, even though his charts usually don’t have that much rhythm, it helps you memorize it easily. It’s not so detailed that you need the chart once you know the song, which I love about is stuff, that it’s sticky.
Julian Miltenberger: My experience was great. With these outlines and sketches and lyrics that he had written out, we then tried to interpret a lot of these songs, we gave different things shape. Even though the initial composition process was entirely from Micah, I think the arranging of the energy and the arc of these pieces is something that came together when we were playing them. Especially “Med Nama” – it’s a really long song, we had to give it its proper attention before it could grow into the song that we ended up recording.
Danielle Dougherty: I also have so much to say about this – it has been so crazy. Micah’s melodies are insane. As a singer, I have never felt so challenged. These crazy, crazy melodies, and Zach would sit down with me and teach me things by ear, or it was me and Micah sitting at a piano. And that learning process together definitely brought us so much closer as friends and musicians.
What I really like about working with Micah and all of these guys is that there’s so much room for collaboration, like if you hear something, say something! And usually we’ll end up working it in somehow. That’s how that one really weird part of “Med Nama” happened, when I just said, What if it goes like this here? Because it’s so collaborative, a lot of it just feels like just musical chaos, but at the same time everything makes sense and every instrument is serving a different purpose. It’s almost like a soundscape of craziness coming at you – because you’ll have Julian doing one thing with different time signatures, and Micah’s playing insane voicings, and Zach’s doing something crazy rhythmic – and every single thing just comes together so well as a group. And like Julian said, literally from the first gig at Sprinkles Ice Cream, I thought, This is like … probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done. And it was just for some random one-off gig, and it came at such a time when all of our musical souls were deteriorating, and it really pulled me out my shell, personally. So, I’m really thankful for this and for all of you guys.
TK: All of you have a lot of rigorous training in both reading charts and learning music by ear, and you all have been in different college programs for jazz performance. Is your approach to these compositions grounded in the common approaches you have learned in school? Or are you trying to break out of that and do something different?
DD: Micah and I are in the same program, so we’ve been through the same curriculum. I love Temple and I have good things to say about Temple, but as a vocalist here I have not had good opportunities. I’m in [Terrell Stafford’s] big band, which is cool, and it feels awesome to play with the best musicians at this school, but at the same time it’s not all that challenging. So it’s really cool to have this, because this genuinely gave me so much confidence in myself as a musician, because Micah had confidence in me. This brought me out of my shell so much, and singing in the studio with Shafiq next to me – life-changing. And I cannot wait to do it again.
School is definitely helpful in terms of music and theory, but I’ve learned that if you’re just trying to play out and trying to prove how theoretically knowledgeable you are, and you’re not playing sh*t from [the heart], it doesn’t matter. And I feel like everything that we play together, all of us are putting our heart and soul into.
MG: Yeah, with what Dani said about playing out of love – this’s more tea – I think a lot of jazz school, and just music school in general, is built off this theme of toxic masculinity and patriarchy, and this extreme hierarchy. It’s very competitive, and it’s not a lot of stuff out of love. Dani’s in big band, and I was in big band my sophomore year, and I just remember hating every second of it because I felt like I had to battle the piano player, and I was playing straight out of aggression and not out of love. And that’s one reason why I wanted to go away, because I was just in a really dark place where I didn’t know if I liked the music or where it was coming from.
I love Temple ‘cause it taught me some theoretical stuff that I use with my music, but I think I learned more in six months in Europe than I did in three years at Temple. There were more people from a diverse ethnic background, there wasn’t just a bunch of white people telling me what jazz is. There was less patriarchy, a lot of women musicians, love, and it was less toxic. And there, they really advocate for writing, so I felt like I could write and not feel so nervous about it, or about someone vibing me if it’s got pop stuff in it. That, and then coming with these people. The first time we played together, it was so nice because the energy with this group was not toxic at all; we all accepted each other and each other’s backgrounds. I think that in itself really contributed to how this session went.
TK: A lot of these songs are powered by vocal duets. Do you have any favorite duet singers who really inspired you while you were writing these songs, and while you were recording them?
SH: I definitely love the OGs. OG R&B like Tammy Terrell and Marvin Gaye, Rick James and Tina Marie – which is perfect for us – Luther Vandross and Cheryl Lynn. Whenever I do studio work, it’s always either full ensemble or just Shafiq, so having to go off of all the duets I heard in my childhood, and all of those wonderful stars that I would listen to definitely informed how I went about this album – with the LEGENDARY … Danielle Dougherty.
DD: When Micah was teaching us these songs, I don’t think he even intended most of them to be duets, he just wrote melodies. That’s also the collaborative aspect, it’s like, Here’s what I have, these are my lyrics, and I want both of you guys on this. And so me and Shafiq just worked it out in a way that would be like two people having a conversation, because we would distribute the verses and the choruses, where we should sing harmony or unison. And I have never blended so well with anybody in my entire life. Shafiq’s ability to listen and tune in – it’s ridiculous. He is such an amazing person to sing with, and I will never stop hyping him up.
RB: I thought it was interesting how the vocals were tracked in the studio, together in one vocal booth. And it’s also the environment; I think it’s really cool that everything is so live, there’s not really any editing, it’s like what you hear is exactly what happened. You can hear the interaction between them, and I think that’s something that’s really special about them singing live together on the record.
TK: You’ve now recorded a lot of music at Rittenhouse Soundworks in Germantown. What can you tell us about the environment and the people you’ve been working with there, and how did you get connected with them?
JM: Me and Micah actually played at Rittenhouse as part of a musicians’ gathering concert series when we were in high school, when we were doing the Settlement Music School program. For me, that was the first time that I ever went to Rittenhouse. Yeah, it’s a beautiful space, it’s really, really big, it’s wide open. And that helped because we were able to fit the whole band into the space, so it just made it really comfortable for everyone
DD: Yeah, that place is awesome. This was my first time ever being in a professional studio. Even though we’d be there for eight hours a day, four days in a row, I was never not excited to go in. Mike [Richelle] and Jim [Hamilton] are the sweetest dudes. They were just so sweet and supportive of our music, what we were doing, and it was a really awesome experience there.
ZF: Already, my experience rehearsing with Micah was just so stress-free – everything just seemed homey and sort of familial, and we were able to do that in the recording studio as well. We were able to socially distance as well, and everything just seemed to run really perfectly. The only thing was that I couldn’t get a good tone out of the amp I was using the first day, but then we actually recorded the amp in the stairwell, which was really interesting. It was an incredible experience, and the studio itself is just so inspiring. The room feels really alive, and there’s a vibe to it. I’m fortunate that we were able to record with incredible engineers; like Dani was saying, Jim and Mike were accommodating and encouraging, and just gems to be around. That definitely made the recording session way better and way more meaningful.
DD: The setup of the studio was so amazing, to be able to have a direct view of Micah. Especially for tunes like “Spirit”, it was so cool to be in the booth and to hype the sh*t out of Julian when he would be going off on the drums. Me and Shafiq would be full-on dancing, and we would work up a sweat and then we’d be like, Okaywegottasingnow! But we’d be having so muchfun.
TK: At the time of this interview, you’ve already got plans to record two whole new albums. Can you describe your plans for those records? And how have you become so prolific in 2020?
MG: After we recorded this first album, we had 17 very different songs. I wrote out so many notes in my phone of track listings and how things could make sense, from the story aspect and the musical aspect, and I couldn’t make it make sense in my head. So I wrote some new music this semester, and I said, lemmejust switch it up into three sides, where the first two sides will be more lyrically-focused, more pocket. A-side six, B-side eight songs, and then the C-side, which is Crooked Tongues, that’s gonna really feature the instrumental players – still has some vocals, but it’s gonna be more of a jazz album where the jazz school comes out a little bit more. I wanted to switch it up so the story makes sense and the themes make sense, so it’s not just one giant mess. I wrote 8 new songs this semester, to format everything together and try to make it connect.
TK: For all the musicians in the group, do you have any other projects that you’ve been working on recently, or that you’ll be working on soon? How has creativity been working in quarantine for you and the other musicians you are close with?
SH: Besides the rest of this project, I’m working on my own EP – I’ve never put out music ever before, so this is a really exciting thing to sink my teeth into. I’m also about to open a vocal studio and give classes to people of all ages, and the purpose of the studio is to find your own individual voice.
ZF: I’ve been working on film scoring lately, improvising along to films. I’ve also been doing a lot of work with the solo guitar format; I’ve been doing livestreams every week and donating whatever funds I get to different charities – this week I’m donating to The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. And like Shafiq, I’ve been having a studio of private students from all over the world.
RB: I’m working on a solo EP where I produce everything, I’m singing everything and I’m writing everything – and I’m producing four other people’s projects. My main focus is producing and writing, because there’s no women that produce in the industry. I love jazz, but I’m trying to push new sounds and new boundaries, but make it as accessible as possible. And there are so many up-and-coming artists in LA, so it’s just really amazing to be surrounded by that constantly, and to be innovating and creating in my own form. Also, a single that I produced just came out this morning!
DD: I don’t really have a lot of other things going on besides – I wanna get done school, get this damn degree and get out, and then start doing my own things. Recently I’ve been gigging more at Chris’s and stuff around Philly that you’re allowed to be doing right now, but yeah I’m so excited for everything that you guys have coming out, I can’t wait to boost the sh*t out of it.
JM: I wanna shout out my good friend Mervin Toussaint, who just dropped his EP, and I had the pleasure of playing on two tracks – it’s called Another Name for Everything – really, really great project. And then the other tracks, it’s Kyon Williams on drums.
RB: Two of my FAVORITE DRUMMERS!!
MG: That sh*t is heavy. I’ll be transcribing, man, I gotchu.
ZF: Real talk – I think once our album with “Inner Beast” gets released, everydrummer in the world should transcribe Julian’s solo on “Inner Beast” – you f*cking snapped on that.
RB: When has Julian not snapped?? Never.
JM: [Laughs] In terms of the music I’m working on, it’s a lot of continued projects with friends, like working with these amazing musicians. This semester was great because I was focusing on school full time, so I got to write a little bit more of my own music, and hopefully in the somewhat-near future y’all will see some of that.
TK: I always see you guys support each other and hype each other up in a way that I don’t normally see in a jazz group – where do you think that comes from?
RB: F*ck ‘jazz groups’ because we’re not exclusively jazz musicians! [Laughs] That’s what I have to say – people that just play jazz are f*cking assh*les.
ZF: ^ That part. This is social music, and I feel like if you’re not uplifting everyone in the band, and you’re not collaborating, and you’re not paying attention to what everybody is doing, it loses its meaning, you know? Getting to know one another through this music has been a great way to build our friendships outside of the music as well.
MG: I know before this album, I was very, very skeptical of myself bringing this music to the open or sharing with people, ‘cause I was not sure if people were gonna like this, or if it’s too crazy, or if this doesn’t make sense. But I can say being around these people and playing this music has opened me up in a lot of ways I didn’t think I could open up. It’s made me rid of toxic masculinity, and terrible heteronormative structures, and this capitalism system – it’s just been great playing with these guys, it’s humbled me in so many ways.
DD: There is always this anxiety, at least for me when I have to play with a new band of musicians, because I feel like as a woman in the jazz scene and as a vocalist you are always judged just a little bit more harshly than everybody else. So I was scared to meet these new musicians, but they were just absolute angels – everyone has just always made me feel so good. This has been such a good, happy and euphoric experience, honestly, because every single person does hype each other up.
SH: As opposed to other jazz musicians I’ve met in the past, everyone has been really just accommodating and loving, and open to collabing and learning with each other, and I think that informed definitely the energy of this entire project, and the energy of this group in general.
ZF: Being an honest and open musician, and vulnerable too, I think that’s a thing that most jazz students don’t learn in school. You gotta be vulnerable, you gotta drop the big ego. You have to just be open, open to change, open to anything that happens.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Micah Graves’ album Med Nama came out December 31st, and it also features saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali, bassist John Moran, violinist Zoe Lynch, and vocalists Jenna Camacho, Jay Wade and Greg Davis. Its companion albums In My Fairytale and Crooked Tongues will arrive later in 2021.