Jazz musician – a San Francisco voice: Interview with Michelle Pollace

Whether performing her own compositions or her arrangements of standards, Bay Area native Michelle Pollace [poh-LAH-chi] honors the roots of jazz, Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban music while adding a new voice. Her latest CD, New Beginning, has garnered favorable press as well as airplay on around 200 satellite, public, and college radio stations, plus made the “most added releases” list in JazzWeek. New Beginning features an all-star lineup—producer Rebeca Mauleon, a recognized Latin-music expert and renown pianist and educator; David Belove on bass; Phil Hawkins on drums; Carlos Caro on Cuban percussion; Michaelle Goerlitz on Brazilian percussion; and saxophonist Kristen Strom as guest soloist. Michelle’s love of melody and affinity for well-structured compositions creates a classic sound, of which critic Mark Tucker of Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange writes, “I’m highly reminded of Ahmad Jamal’s … and others’ old canons of work.” This melodic sensibility makes her music accessible to a wide audience.

Prior to launching her solo endeavor, Michelle co-led Zarate Pollace Project with guitarist Abel Zarate (hit songwriter for Malo and Willie Bobo).  ZPP enlisted the musical contributions of many Bay Area luminaries, including John Santos, Paul Van Wageningen, Michael Spiro, and others to realize its musical blend of jazz, fusion, Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban styles both live and on the CD Soul Redemption. Michelle’s diverse performance and recording credits also include orchestra member in Lou Harrison’s internationally renowned Gamelan Si Betty, keyboardist for Chepito Areas (Santana’s original percussionist and arranger), chorus member in a Gilbert & Sullivan theater company, bassist for a grunge band, and more.

NP: When did your interest in jazz begin? What artists influenced you?

Pollace: I became interested in jazz when I started playing piano formally. We didn’t have a piano until I was 14, but I had wanted to play since I first touched a piano at a family friend’s house when I was 4 years old! Since we didn’t have a piano for quite some time later, I quenched my thirst for musical knowledge in other ways … recorder in 5th grade led to flute for a brief time, and I picked out piano parts on a handed-down Estey organ I got when I was 9 or so (remember those? With the push-button chords in the left hand?) I taught myself chord qualities and how to read music on that thing. I picked up a cheap electric bass and was gifted a cheap acoustic guitar, so I taught myself how to play them …

We finally could afford a piano when I was 14. I started my formal training with taking piano lessons down the street at the local music store, but working out of those beginner books wasn’t interesting or challenging for me, especially since I had been playing by ear anything I set my mind to learning — mostly rock songs. When my dad found a jazz piano teacher, Martan Mann, we both went down to the Garden City, a club where Martan played. I got to meet him on his break and he talked about his approach to teaching. The idea of improvising appealed to me! But I wasn’t hip to much jazz then. I started listening to artists he recommended – I remember McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Monty Alexander, Joe Zawinul being among them. The two first jazz albums I ever bought with my own money were “Dimensions” by McCoy Tyner and “Voyage” by Chick Corea and Steve Kujala. Still have my wax of those! My Dad’s copies of Ahmad Jamal’s “Live at the Pershing” and Erroll Garner’s “Carmel by the Sea” were also impressionable. I managed to add my dad’s vinyls of those titles to my collection, too. Dad, if you’re reading this and wondering where they went, I have them, LOL.

My big influences now … McCoy Tyner, first and foremost – I just did a concert featuring the Latin Side of McCoy Tyner, where I led a trio through some of his works that touch on Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms. By extension, I love, love, LOVE the small-combo work he did with John Coltrane in the early/mid 60s. Another longstanding influence is Chick Corea – Return to Forever and his Elektric Band in particular. I don’t think Chick’s influence is as apparent in my playing as Tyner’s is; however, I admire how his ensembles improvise — they manage to go far out and then come back down to earth, and never ditch the listener. I also love Chucho Valdes, Michel Camilo, Hilton Ruiz… great Latin jazz pianists who’ve done small-combo work I can really sink my teeth into. I’m sorry if I have left any influences out; I’m sure I have! This doesn’t count musicians that I enjoy listening … I think everything I listen to influences me in some way.

NP: How do you approach your music? How would you describe your jazz? Your creative process?

Pollace: That is an interesting set of questions! How I approach my music is guided by my aesthetic, what I want to put out in the world. I think of releasing creative works as an exploration of where an artist is at a given point in time; I don’t feel compelled to adhere to what was important to me, say, 5 years ago. But, some things have remained fairly consistent. For example, valuing these qualities in compositions: a strong melody, a defined structure, and a combination of what is accessible/familiar with something new. I’d like to think that I could describe my jazz as having these qualities. I could also describe my jazz further by genre; the description “piano-centric, small combo Latin Jazz” feels right.

As for my creative process, I get ideas from all kinds of places. I might be working on music and make a mistake, and like the way that mistake sounds … so I use it, either a chord progression, or a riff. Sometimes a melodic or harmonic idea will come to me and I will do a scratch recording of it, then base a composition off of it. Sometimes I am inspired by an existing composition – “Forro” was like that. I was inspired by Egberto Gismonti’s “Loro” and wanted to write something that had the similar harmonic movement and similar melodic elements. I am always learning, and writing what I incorporate in my studies. Reminds me of that Sergei Rachmaninoff quote, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.” I feel that in my creative endeavors I will never do more than just barely scratch the surface of what is possible to absorb and make my own.

When it comes to choosing a song to arrange and record, it’s really about taking a song that moves me and defining the concept for arranging it. With “La Comparsa,” I wanted to take a well-known Cuban piano piece and play it with my band. It has been done before, but my arrangement is my own. With “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I wanted to nod to the past in a different way … my grandfather, a professional jazz pianist, once accompanied Judy Garland when she strolled into the Chicago hotel where he played; this was one of the songs they performed. I never got to hear my grandfather play, but he remains an inspiration to me. So I dedicate my arrangement, which puts the song into the Latin Jazz vein, to my father—whose love of jazz led me embracing the music as well—and to the memory of my grandfather. In both cases, and anytime I decide to record another well-known song, I strive to add something new to it. Otherwise, why bother recording another version?

And sometimes, it’s just an image, or a feeling, that comes over me and I want to capture that with music. I have collaborated with other musicians before (in my band Zarate Pollace Project with guitarist Abel Zarate, for example), but for the last several years I have preferred to compose alone. I think it’s also just easier … I’m juggling duties and mom, wife, bandleader, composer, and more. I have to fit in my creative process whenever I can and it’s easier to do that solo.

NP: There are so many different forms of jazz today. What is your philosophy of jazz and of life?

Pollace: There are many different forms. Whenever I hear someone say “I don’t care for jazz,” to me that is like saying, “I don’t care for rock.” Really? In all that vast library of sounds, you can’t find anything you like? I find that not to be true … if someone cares enough about music to have an opinion of what they don’t like, they are discerning enough to find sounds they do like, and there is probably something there in the jazz umbrella they would dig, lol. Those two genres in particular have a variety that is quite staggering.

My philosophy of jazz … as far as what constitutes jazz? I admit I sometimes hear something and go, “That ain’t jazz.” But I keep it to myself, lol. I know what I like and don’t like, I think that’s what it comes down to. Some people are purists … I am not. But I do have boundaries as to what aesthetically satisfies me, but I don’t outright dismiss any given subgenre.

My philosophy of life … well, that’s a living document, always changing, because I am always learning and growing, not just musically, but in other aspects of life. I believe in lifelong learning; right now I and the rest of my family are taking tae kwon do. That’s been exciting! To occasionally have something in your life that you approach from a novice perspective, I think it keeps you young. It keeps a sense of wonder.

I also admire integrity and a sense of self that allows diverse creative expression while still maintaining one’s identity. Musically, I always admired David Bowie, for example. His integrity and sense of self tied it all together, the glam, the blue-eyed soul, the Tin Machine days, all of it. Prince had that depth too. Some artists try new things and have that stamp that is distinctly them no matter what they do. Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, also … I strive to have that creative freedom and artistic integrity.

Other than that, I try to remain in a state of gratitude. Also, the golden rule applies, “do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” That’s really learned empathy, isn’t it? I just think the world is a better place when we operate from gratitude and empathy, compassion and generosity of spirit. It’s something to strive for. And so is having fun and a sense of humor. On that note, I’m going to leave you with a quote from Frank Sinatra, one I think we can all take to heart as we navigate life: “You gotta love livin’ baby, ‘cause dyin’ is a pain in the ass.”

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts!