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Audrey Ochoa: “I Just Like to Write Songs!”

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Audrey Ochoa
Trombonist, composer, arranger Audrey Ochoa

Audrey Ochoa has designs on her career. “Deep down,” she says, “I just want to be a pop star!” She’s much more than half way there already as she looks every bit the part and is mostly up for playing it too. But don’t be fooled by her flippancy. Deep down she’s a deadly serious musician who sees herself – and is indeed – not only part of a long line of musicians and despite a very busy, ever-burgeoning schedule she never fails to do the right things right.

Whether she’s writing music, or playing it in scores of settings on stage or in the studio, she never stops crafting everything she does; the long, inventions of a phrase that she sculpts seemingly out of the air with her trombone, or seductively bends notes and melts a couple into a breathtaking glissando she has discovered on the spot… No matter what she is doing on any given time of the day, Miss Ochoa is chipping away at the façade that is standing between her and where she wants to be.

…today I’m dangerously close to identifying as “an artist”

So if you felt that Miss Ochoa sets about creating feelings you’ll find a large measure of truth in that. All the ingredients are in her playing: tempo, dynamics and emotion, activated by the vibrations as her lips engage the air from her lungs singing, and her fingers extend the gliding tubing. This is the means by which Ochoa creates fine texture and timbre; her sense of spatial scale creates equal parts grace, rhythmic energy, and pure emotion in a kinetic response to combative, hair-trigger dynamic musical contrasts.

For proof of all of the above, look no further than the present recording, Afterthought, a mesmeric album full of swagger, swing and beckoning genius. Audrey Ochoa’s inventions are redolent of light-handed glissandos and mercurial arpeggios played with quintessential charm and wit. The disc consists of eight works of unsurpassed beauty. Each song is alive with personal magic and happily shared imaginative possibility. Ochoa’s compositions are graceful, fluent and affectionate. Of course there is a lot that goes into everything that Miss Ochoa does. She recently revealed much of it in this freewheeling interview with the Toronto Music Report (currently That Canadian Magazine).

Trombonist, composer, arranger Audrey Ochoa
Trombonist, composer, arranger Audrey Ochoa

That Canadian Mag: You know that you’re part of a very small tribe – Melba Liston and the women trombone players. How does it feel to have cut two albums as leader?

Audrey Ochoa: There are a few female trombone leaders out there writing their own music. Melissa Gardiner and Karin Hammar, to name a couple off the top of my head. I don’t know any in Canada but admittedly I haven’t looked as hard as I could have. We’ll talk Melba Liston in a bit but to answer the second part of your question: The first album felt like a declaration of my existence to the world, the second album felt like I was asking people to get to know me.

TCM: What’s the response been to Afterthought?

AO: The response has been overwhelmingly positive and the spin off has been unbelievable. I was able to get some play on US college radio and through that distribution (via Chronograph records) in the US too. I was also booked for a few gig offers in Dallas, Greensboro and Wilmington and elsewhere.

TCM: What was it like making the album? Did your experience making the first album help when going into the studio the second time around?

AO: Making Afterthought was relaxed. It had no deadlines, no producer, so there were no expectations. The first album was the result of a successful grant application and we didn’t (dare) veer from my written proposal. I had a producer, the great Tommy Banks, who called most of the shots and I like to describe my experience on that as being a spectator for much of it. And rightfully so, I had never done that before and had quite a bit to learn. Tommy was so decisive and experienced.

The second time around on Afterthought, I self-produced and financed it myself and had more of an interest in the production, the mix, and felt entitled to take a few more risks. For example, when I recorded “Afterthought” (track 6) it was originally just a trombone chorale, and my logic was, “Who cares if this is a bad idea… it’s my money I can do what I want.” Instead of a clear and decisive approach, we experimented and took turns.

Audrey Ochoa Trio: Afterthought
Audrey Ochoa Trio: Afterthought

TCM: Did you have to produce as well? What was that like?

AO: I still don’t totally understand what a producers’ role is on a jazz album- I feel like it’s just a sober third opinion that can say, “I like the second take the best” without any skin in the game. So to that end I liked being producer. But seriously, all three of us had a say in the final product. And that collaborative approach, where I could ask Sandro for something and Mike could change my written bass lines, and we could discuss changing the form to better suit a drum solo or whatever… All of that was great.

I’m not a rhythm section player so there are a lot of things I don’t consider. It was great to have a dialogue about what worked best. But having the final say about how my tunes were going to sound was an amazing feeling. I had to learn to trust my ears… and there was no one who could assure me I was making the right choices. No producer, no co-leader. I wasn’t concerned with pleasing a producer or a granting body or anyone but myself, which was nice.

TCM: As a trombonist and composer/arranger yourself, is Melba Liston a role model for you?

AO: I’d never heard Melba Liston’s name until I was 21 and doing a Banff Residency. I can’t say she was a role model, because my teachers never spoke of her, or recommended her, and I didn’t listen to her album growing up. When I did check her out and I found she didn’t out-shred the (men) I’d been told to study. I was sort of letdown. I look back and realise how my own internalised misogyny kept me from really getting into her as a player- the whole “she’s ok for a girl” attitude. I’ll give you an example: I transcribed a lot of Vic Dickenson when I was in Junior-High (I found his album in the public library) and he’s by no means a technical monster, or a language developer… but when I listened to it… I just I liked it. so I learned it. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t shred. I just liked his lines.

I’m inspired by people who can tell a story

By the time I discovered Melba Liston I wasn’t able to listen to her playing without being disappointed that she wasn’t technically superior to the men I’d been studying. I wanted her to be a heroine; a super musician that would prove once and for all that women couldn’t just keep up, but that we could dominate as well. It’s unfortunate because I didn’t even allow myself to hear what she was actually playing. I didn’t care about musicality, phrases. Nothing. At least now I can appreciate her and her struggle without the need for her to be a hero figure for women musicians. And I have the children’s book Little Melba and her Big Horn on my coffee table.

TCM: Do you follow – and feel inspired by – anyone else from yesteryears or today? (Hint: Al Grey, Dickie Wells… or someone more modern and experimental like Albert Mangelsdorf or Roswell Rudd… or folks like Wycliffe Gordon…)

AO: I love Roswell Rudd. I have an album that’s him and Enrico Rava- I bought it on a high school trip to Italy. I’d never heard what I call “trombone-centric” improvising before I heard that album. He embraces the things that make trombone unique and I love him for that. I also loved that album (the Enrico Rava Quartet, Roswell Rudd, J.F. Jenny Clark and Aldo Romano) because there were no chordal instrument just these two brass-masters playing with reckless abandon. And no one was trying to sound “like a saxophone”. Just great. I also love Ray Anderson for the same reason. It’s not perfect playing, but no matter what they’re doing they’re telling a story. I’m inspired by people who can tell a story. Wycliffe is amazing, as is Marshall Gilkes… just dazzling technique.

I also love vocalists, and am constantly trying to emulate vocalists. I’m an enormous Beyonce and Rihanna fan. And I would love to sound like Kurt Elling or Caetano Veloso with a trombone if I could.

Audrey Ochoa Quartet: Trombone & Other Delights
Audrey Ochoa Quartet: Trombone & Other Delights

TCM: Where do you see yourself in the (music) continuum currently? Where do you think you’re going?

AO: 5 years ago I would have said, “I’m a jobber…” today I’m dangerously close to identifying as “an artist”. I’m going to keep writing music and releasing new things. I have a third album that’s going to be released in March (2020). I’m working with bigger ensembles as well. I’m writing for strings (that was bound to happen eventually). And I created a ska-orchestra in Edmonton and we did a show of ska-arrangements of original music…

All I want is to write and play music with people, for an audience that enjoys it. I’ll go wherever I can get that experience.

TCM: Do you have a game plan to get you there?

AO: All the best things started happening when I stopped planning and just started saying yes to different people and different projects. So my plan is to say yes to as much as I can without burning out.

TCM: Do you write music? Enjoy it?

AO: I love writing music. I think it’s a part of the tradition of jazz.

TCM: Writing… on the piano or another instrument?

AO: I write with voice, piano, guitar and lastly trombone. A lot of what I’ve written has lyrics as deep down I just want to be a pop star!

TCM: Where do you think your music comes from?

AO: I think it’s an aggregate of my musical diet from the last 34 years. It’s also something that is in my family history; professional musicians, that is. I feel like I’m carrying the torch for them too. My father was a trumpet player with the Edmonton Symphony and then before that in the Manila symphony, his uncle was principal trumpet, his other uncle was principal trombone. He used to tell me that, “Where I come from, the name ‘Ochoa’ is known as ‘musician’”. So it’s important to me.

TCM: Is there ever a spiritual moment?

AO: Yes. Every once in a while you’ll have a moment when playing where everything lines up; the musicians, the music, the audience. It’s rare. So I chase after those moments. No one person can take credit for those moments.

Trombonist, composer, arranger Audrey Ochoa
Trombonist, composer, arranger Audrey Ochoa

TCM: Where do you stand on: Composition or improvisation? Structured or Free Improv?

AO: Improvisation is just spontaneous composition. I think they’re the same thing really. Good improv, even free improv, has structure. There are rules that are agreed upon- and some music forms have fewer rules, but there’s still an agreement. And I love free improv but just like any conversation, if you’re stuck talking to someone who doesn’t listen and doesn’t care what you have to say, “What’s the point?”; that’s what bad free improv is to me.

TCM: Are you relatively busy these days?

AO: I’m very busy; but busy doing different things. Casinos, musicals, recording whatever. Brass quartets, singer songwriter stuff, arranging. Whatever. I say yes to as much as I can. I get regular sideman work. Fun fact: I was the trombonist in the Edmonton production of “Hadestown” which just won best musical at the Tony’s. I got a ton of press and feedback from that gig. it’s just one example of the places I find myself working. Engagements as leader are less frequent.

TCM: What’s a regular day like for you?

AO: I teach. I work a fulltime job teaching music in a school and I love it. and it’s how I financed the album, and the third album as well.

TCM: Do you do any teaching?

AO: Yes (with a big smile), but not privately. In fact I discovered that I don’t like private teaching or teaching others “how to improvise” especially at the post-secondary level… it feels like I’m imposing my voice onto someone who’s just trying to find theirs.

TCM: Is music all you do? Does it pay the bills?

AO: I tried to make a living just as a musician in my 20s and was somewhat successful I guess and then in 2014 I thought I might just quit music all together and teach full time… I was quite sick of being broke. I always thought teaching full time would mean no time for music… and that I’d be some kind of sell-out. Instead I just ended up with two full time jobs, it works for me.

Trombonist, composer, arranger Audrey Ochoa

TCM: I know we love our artists and treat them better than the US but what’s the Canadian scene like for you as especially as someone who is based in the mid-west?

AO: The Edmonton Arts Council and Alberta Foundation for the arts are very active. They might not be any more with our change in government… (fingers-crossed). They support a lot of different projects, and I have nothing but excellent things to say for the local support and provincial support of the arts. The number of festivals and arts initiatives is great and we, despite being a northern prairie city, get a lot of exposure to national and international performers especially with our club, The Yard bird Suite (our jazz club since 1957) which hosts national and international acts 10 months out of the year. Canada Council is supporting this upcoming tour so I have nothing but glowing things to say about Canada Council too.

the first album felt like a declaration of my existence to the world, the second album felt like I was asking people to get to know me

TCM: Do you get around? Vancouver… Montreal… Toronto…?

AO: I get around to British Columbia, I played the Montreal Jazz Fest in 2012. I play Toronto with singer-songwriters and (most recently) played there with a blues band. I also played there with a Francophone artist from here in Edmonton (Cristian de la Luna). I’ve toured Mexico with a Francophone group. I mentioned before, Dallas, North Carolina and Memphis.

TCM: Do you have an agent and do you get PR help?

AO: All my PR help is coordinated through my label, Chronograph, and its president, Stephanie Hutchinson, who is at least 90% responsible for the success of my album.

TCM: I know the Hutchinsons’ do a fabulous job where you are, especially as Kodi is a musician too and Stephanie is a new mummy so life must be rushed and schedules rather tight… Tell me what it was like to work with them?

AO: I rarely deal with Kodi outside of seeing him on gigs or festivals. Stephanie is unbelievable; she is thorough, she is prompt, and stays connected. You’d think that having a child would have slowed her (and Kodi) down but they’re always available. And Stephanie’s so gracious when dealing with my hiccups and mistakes. Your earlier question about “where I see my career going” should be answered by Stephanie; she has the vision. I just like to write songs.

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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