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

This is a reprint of an article that appeared in the Narrative Paths Journal back in 2016. Upon rediscovering it, I thought it’d be cool to post here, as my thoughts voiced then ring true today. Larry J. Frank asked some great questions, so I’m reposting here (with his permission) to give his journalistic endeavors a well-deserved exposure to a new audience, in a new time. And I highly recommend you check out is online journal, full of thought-provoking, quality articles: https://www.narrativepathsjournal.com/ 

And, dear readers, I ask you: which part of this article did you relate to? Do you have any thoughts of your own? What is your philosophy about jazz and life? Let me know in the comments!

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  JazzWeekNew 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!


Summer Camps closed, possibly reduced schooling in fall: Now what?

Parents of school-age kids: I don’t know about your experience, but for us, summer camps have been cancelled, and there is talk of kids going back to public school next fall in some kind of hybrid at-home some days, on-campus on others.

Some parents I’ve chatted with are considering pulling their kids out to homschool all the way in the the fall, and are researching curriculum options. Others are just worried about learning loss, and keeping kids busy this summer.

I pulled my son out of traditional school in 2018 to homeschool. In researching the best curriculum for him, I have collected a TON of resources. Some of these resources are online and work very well for just enrichment in a non-homeschooled education. You do not need to be a homeschooler to use these:

* outschool.com — lots of teleclasses in various interests. Often scheduled and live with other kids

* superchargedschool.com — This site is run by the scientist/educator that we get our science curriculum from. Those are prerecorded videos, lots of hands-on. This make be links to outside sources, or lessons she does herself, I don’t know. But check it out if you’re inclined.

* Khan Academy (https://www.khanacademy.org) — A very content-rich site, on anything you can search up, and you know it will meet a certain caliber of quality. Is very traditional, lecture-style learning.

* YouTube. We have a TON of channels we like, depending on interests. What are your interests? We might be able to point you to stuff. Generally good: Crash Course History (goes a bit fast), Kurzgesagt, the Infographics Show, Mark Rober, OverSimplified, King of Random. More “out there”: Ants Canada (ants), Nile Red (don’t try this at home chemistry), Cody’s Lab (don’t try this at home chemistry) …

* Poetry: Ken Nesbitt’s site is fun, accessible, and proves that everyone’s a poet—even if they didn’t know it! www.poetry4kids.com

* Art: Free, fantastic art projects searchable by grade, subject, or media: https://www.deepspacesparkle.com/

* Science, marine biology: track ocean migrations in real-time! https://www.ocearch.org/tracker/?list

* Science, some lesson plans for various grades, with printouts: https://www.thetech.org/educators/labs

* National Geographic’s website for educators. Scroll down to the “learn at home” section for ideas of subjects, lessons, and activities by grade level: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/education/classroom-resources/

* visit museums all over the world, virtually: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/feature/on-coronavirus-lockdown-the-top-online-museum-and-art-tours (if this link tries to make you download an app just search for “art newspaper” online and click link, select “go to website” if you don’t want to download app)

* one of my favorite museum webcams, for mesmerizing and relaxing eye candy that still qualifies as educational–Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Jelly Cam! Check out their cams in other habitats too: https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animals/live-cams/jelly-cam

Several California PBS stations will begin broadcasting California state standards-aligned educational television programming, created by PBS SoCal/KCET and the Los Angeles Unified School District. This TV schedule was developed to help schools and districts bridge the digital divide and provide equitable access to learning for all students at home, regardless of access to internet or computers.
Educational programming aligned with state standards runs each weekday. Check your local listing for details. You can also check out https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/ for lesson plans and resources.

Why Do I Do This?

When I’m playing music, the frame of mind and awareness that it puts me in, “the zone,” is the closest I come to living in the Now.

“When I’m playing music, the frame of mind and awareness that it puts me in, ‘the zone,’ is the closest I come to living in the Now.”

I don’t know about you, but as summer winds down and the kids start back to school, I get introspective. While pulling charts together for an upcoming gig and tending to a few file-maintenance tasks, my half-present state of mind turned philosophical: “Why do I do this?” That is, why have a chosen to not just play music, but pursue it in the midst of all the accompanying tasks and challenges, big and small? The answer ended up addressing my thoughts on music’s relationship to humanity at large. I shared the resulting writing with a fellow musician who is struggling to find purpose in the midst of her challenges, and she found great value in it … so I thought I’d share it here in hopes you might find it worth a read as well.

First, a personal perspective. For me, creating music has always been an activity that centers me, calms the restlessness and nagging existential questions: “What is the meaning of life?” “Why am I here?” When I’m playing music, the frame of mind and awareness that it puts me in, “the zone,” is the closest I come to living in the Now.

But this doesn’t really explain why I do all of the extra work to put music out into the world for others to hear. Don’t you ever wonder why we artists choose to step out of our creative state (which, for many of us, begins with a reclusive state) to put their work out there to the public?

For me, the purpose of music is to heal. I am driven to compose, record, and perform music to contribute to a healing energy to the planet. Music is a uniting balm to soothe the wounds of separation — from each other, from ourselves, from our God or whatever creative life force we believe in. It is a bridge to span the barriers of language (even misunderstandings among speakers sharing the same native tongue), of geographic and socioeconomic boundaries, of culture. Hans Christian Anderson said, “where words fail, music speaks.” And it is a language we all seem to understand. Those of us who share no other common bond can come together because a certain artist or genre or even a single song speaks to us. These beautiful shared moments restore hope that someday, we really all can get along.

Besides uniting us, music centers us — not just the creators of music, but the listeners, or recreators of it, as well. This is also healing. When listening to music, you are paying attention to time; you are marking time in a way that pleases you (ideally). Maybe listening to music you love helps you find the Now, as it does with me as I’m playing. Maybe you get lost in the music and time stops, or maybe a song from your youth transports you back to another moment entirely; whatever it does for you, it makes the passing of time bearable, doesn’t it? There is an anonymous quote circulating on social media right now: “Art is how we decorate space; music is how we decorate time.” Frank Zappa said something similar: “Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.” How drab and intolerable life would be without music to “decorate” it!

So in my humble way, I hope to help people experience this when they hear my music: “YES! This is how moving through space and time, at this moment, feels to me. This feels right.” And to find others who agree is to build a positive energy … In this way, music builds a sense of community, of not feeling alone, on a deep level. It puts us all in a better frame of mind, so we can all move through this modern life, with its glittering technological distractions, with less isolation, less, judgment, less fear. It connects us to a form of storytelling that humanity began using thousands of years ago to mark rites of passage with drumming and chanting, a practice that continues to this day.

To be a musicmaker is a gift, and I am honored to be among the ones called to help us all dance through the Now together, in unity. I appreciate the love and support I have received in this endeavor, and know that I will continue to create with this sense of purpose in mind. Thank you for listening, and for reading!

aa mp_sigMichelle

Hello, World!

Michelle Pollace

Michelle Pollace

Welcome to my blog, and thank you for reading my “Maiden Voyage” post. My goal is to curate and invent content that entertains you and maybe even enlightens you! 🙂 Jazz, the creative process, suburban farm-to-table (I’m an avid gardener), these are a few of my favorite things …

Some of you already know I actively post on my Facebook page and Twitter about famous musicians’ birthdays, as well as quotes from them that I find inspiring or amusing. I will use this blog space to further reflect on some of these pearls of wisdom, the ones that are particularly germane to my own creative process and/or philosophy.

I also like to garden. And eat. And specifically, tend to a garden of things I can eat. I am blessed with a beautiful garden featuring not only raised beds where I grow fresh herbs and seasonal vegetables, but a veritable orchard of fruit trees that provide a bounty of fresh, organic produce year-round. My garden is a pretty good size by San Francisco Bay Area suburban standards, but by no means is it huge. So, I hope to offer tips on how to care for plants, how to harvest and store the fruits of your labor (I’ll try to keep puns to a minimum, promise), and share some of my favorite recipes and uses for various fruits and veggies.

A lesser-known fact about me is that I used to run an editorial business. One of my clients was Sunset Magazine … so, I’ve had more than a casual exposure to some of the best gardening and cooking information I feel is out there. I pored over copy every month in that publication’s production stage for the better part of 10 years. How could my experiences working for the West’s largest and longest-running lifestyle publication NOT influence at least some of my subject matter here? I loved my time working with Sunset.

I also love music … if you’ve found your way here, you probably know me as a musician. My main website has tons of info, music samples, video clips, and photos for you to peruse regarding my music. I figure I don’t need to spend too much of this introduction here regurgitating info that already accessible at the top and bottom of this and every page of my site. 🙂

Well, thanks for reading, and I’ll be posting something again in a couple weeks! Every other Wednesday, that’s the goal. Till then, keep swingin’, siempre en clave, dig it!