Spacious Intensity: Susana Santos Silva & Kaja Draksler

by Martin Longley –

Trumpeter Susana Santos Silva and pianist Kaja Draksler made one of last year’s best albums. Released on the Clean Feed label, This Love features a potent combination of composition and improvisation, playing with intimate space, and probing towards extended stretches of deep expression. The Portuguese Silva and Slovenian Draksler move between sensitive stippling and fuller outbreaks of rolling intensity. Silva employs a mute, or switches to flugelhorn, whilst Draksler might investigate the innards of her piano, sometimes even joined by her partner in a sequence of delicate percussion atmospherics.

In 2007, the pair first met whilst playing in the European Movement Jazz Orchestra, which only existed for a short while, uniting players from Germany, Slovenia and Portugal. Once the official funded project culminated, it was too complicated to maintain togetherness as a big band, but Silva and Draksler resolved to continue performing, at first in a quintet setting, and eventually as a duo.

“From then on, we’ve been in touch,” says Silva. “We kept being friends and playing in different constellations, and the duo persisted, it was the only thing that really stood. We never worked a lot for it, but sometimes the opportunity came. We kept on playing and meeting, but not so regularly.”

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Susana Santos Silva (Photo: Christer Männikus)

They performed mostly in Portugal, in several small clusters of gigs. “There was a sympathy for each other from the beginning,” says Draksler. “We still wanted to continue, then Pedro suggested that we record it for him.” She’s referring to Pedro Costa of Clean Feed in Lisbon, one of the most consistently adventurous labels around the globe, committed to experimentation, unpredictability and sonic diversity.

“We decided last year that we would record,” Silva continues. “It was a big step. It happened naturally. That doesn’t happen so often, I think, even in my experience with different bands. This is different from the rest. I really like it, somehow.” Another record company suggested that Silva make a duo album, with a pianist, so choosing Draksler was an instantaneous move. Unfortunately, this concept was dropped, so Costa stepped in and mooted the idea for Clean Feed. On This Love, Silva and Draksler both contribute the tunes, but their process also includes an increasing amount of improvisation. “Some were simple motifs or melodies that we worked out, and then improvised around, going out of, and into these,” Silva explains.

“At the beginning, we were more focused on the written material,” says Draksler. “Most of the time we bring compositions that are not necessarily finished, more like ideas. Then we add, or change, or loosen up. We bring things that have space to be changed. We both like to work in a way that is not obvious. This was something that we didn’t even talk about. It just happened organically.”

Most of Draksler’s education was in jazz, with a brief side-step into classical studies. “I have some encoded ideas that things should be this way or that way,” she says of her jazz schooling, which she tries to subvert, sometimes. Now living in Amsterdam, Draksler has a premiere of her new octet, shortly following the Moers Festival, at the Bimhuis, with a band that collects together a bunch of diverse characters, including Dutch reedsman Ab Baars.

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Kaja Draksler (Photo: Sara Anke)

When they’re performing, improvisation might precede a prepared theme, or alternatively, it might emerge out of these as an elaboration. “When we started to play more, we also started to improvise songs totally, in-between the compositions,” says Silva. “We know where we like to go now, or sometimes we try to go somewhere else completely different. We’ve got freer from the written music, and try to experiment a bit more, although I like the idea that we still play songs.”

I ask Silva about her stylistic journey, from an early classical training towards the world of improvisation. “It was a long one,” she laughs. “When I was studying classical, I always felt that I couldn’t really manage the perfection, as it’s written, forever. I would have to play those exact notes, and that was not enough for me. I felt like I needed something else.”

With Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos, the repertoire Silva played was wide, traversing decades and styles, with invited soloists that included Lee Konitz, Carla Bley, Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck. Silva learned a lot during that time, and will be playing with them again at New York’s Blue Note club following her Moers Festival appearance, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel being the guest this time around.

“But I also didn’t feel at home with that kind of music either,” Silva recalls. “I tried for a long time to fit into that world. I was searching for a long, long time. I felt that I wanted to go to other places.” So, Silva moved to Rotterdam, to complete her jazz masters degree: “That’s when everything started to open up for me. I started discovering other kinds of music.” She was hearing sounds that made her realise where she wanted to head in the future. It was in Rotterdam that Silva joined LAMA, the trio she recorded with for her debut on Clean Feed. “This was really the start of everything for me. I was completely outside of that world.”

After sending Clean Feed some tunes, LAMA didn’t hear anything for a year, and then Costa came to Porto for a gig by cellist Daniel Levin, meeting up with Silva, and telling her how much he liked the recording. He resolved on the spot that the time was now right to release it, marking the beginning of a regular run of albums featuring Silva, often as a bandleader. Her new quintet album, Life And Other Transient Storms, is lined up for release in July.

(Featured Image: Susana Santos Silva & Kaja Draksler, Photo: Petra Cvelbar)

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