Amanda Tosoff: Music Made As A Vessel For Poetry
By Susan Frances
The music of Canadian composer-pianist Amanda Tosoff is like a beam of light through the modern jazz landscape. She merges the profound messages of poetry with piano-driven melodies, embellished by a hybrid of strings and horns, adding dynamic hues. Her latest release Earth Voices, the follow-up to her Juno Award-nominated 2016 recording Words, pairs reflective musings with a frolicking rhythm that produces an open and verdant space where listeners can lounge as long as they wish.
She broaches, “This CD is a follow up to my previous recording Words, which started my love affair with poetry, strings, and vocals.”
Delving deeper into Tosoff’s songwriting technique to create musical scores as the backdrop for poetry, she remarks, “Well, it was actually an accident! I like to give myself composition exercises to force myself to always write something fresh. So one day I decided to find a random poem that spoke to me and try writing a melody to it with the aim of seeing how starting with a poem – with a built-in phrasing, rhythm, and mood – would impact my approach to melody.”
She recounts about the exercise, “I ended up finding a very short poem by Canadian poet Tim Bowling, called ‘Owl Pellet,’ which has a mysterious, other-worldly, dark mood. I loved trying to capture the imagery it conjured up,” she examines, “starting first with a bass line and harmony, and then singing a melody overtop to the words of the poem. This was the start of a love affair with writing music from poetry.”
Elements of adult folk pop and modern jazz are sewn into her homespun passages, linking up thought-provoking verses with sophisticated imagery. Her sonic illustrations touch listeners on multiple levels, elevating them mentally and emotionally.
“As far as the folk-pop influence,” she focuses, “that wasn’t intentional but just sort of happened, probably because I was starting with singing first – perhaps a folk-pop influence just came out! But I definitely love the work of artists like Becca Stevens, Joni Mitchell, and Aoife O’Donovan, so I’m sure some of their music may have come out in my writing too.”
Indeed, thought-provoking musings synonymous with folk pop artists became the kindle for Tosoff’s music. Her reimagining of Joni Mitchell’s song “The Fiddle and the Drum” is a stunning addition to Earth Voices.
“I discovered this song,” she recalls about Mitchell’s song, “for the first time while I was looking for repertoire to add to my list for a tour. I thought a Joni Mitchell tune would be good. It was fun to arrange, so I sifted through her work and found this melody, which she sings unaccompanied. I was so struck by her powerful, winding, and interesting melody, which is sort of simultaneously in major and minor, giving it a haunting quality.”
She remembers, “I decided to play with this and add my own chords and band arrangement, and between this and Lydia Persaud’s powerful interpretation, I think we maintained the important message in the song – although Joni’s a cappella version will always be the most powerful version, of course.”
Tosoff features seven distinct vocalists on Earth Voices that include: Lydia Persaud, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Laila Biali, Michelle Willis, Robin Dann, Felicity Williams, and Alex Samaras. Each one personalizes the lyrics, making a palpable impact on listeners. Tosoff answers why she chose to have multiple vocalists perform on the release.
“When I was thinking about instrumentation,” she weighs, “I actually couldn’t decide between the three main singers I’d been working with since the release of Words — Felicity Williams, Lydia Persaud, and Emilie-Claire Barlow. So, I decided to mix it up and feature different vocalists on each song, and then decided to augment the lineup with more guest saxophonists and string players. The project just grew and grew as I started brainstorming.”
While contemplating her transition from Words to Earth Voices, she notes, “This group featured the same core group but the lovely vocals of one singer, Felicity Williams. With this band, I toured a bunch and collected new compositions and arrangements that became the repertoire of Earth Voices. So this CD is really just an extension of that project.”
She adds, “Although I mention this new CD is an extension of my Words project, it’s fun to see how much the project has developed and changed over the years of touring and also from working with all these amazing artists.”
The slate of amazing artists whom Tosoff refers to on Earth Voices are: Morgan Childs on drums, Jon Maharaj on bass, Allison Au on alto saxophone, Kelly Jefferson on soprano saxophone, Alex Goodman on guitar, Laurence Schaufele on viola, Beth Silver on cello, and Aline Homzy and Jeremy Potts on violin. The musicians performing with Tosoff contour her improvised doodles on the keys with twinkling arrangements, which is legible on the track “Oh Life.”
She touts about the melody, “This is a gorgeous song by Mike Ross, who is the musical director of Toronto theatre company Soul Pepper Theatre.”
She explains, “It’s a song from a play called Spoon River adapted from an anthology of poems by Edgar Lee Masters, which I saw live a number of years ago. I won’t spoil the story for anyone, but when the main actress emerged to sing this song, I lost it and started balling my eyes out. I loved the message of the song, the performance, the entire build up of the play. It was magical. I knew I had to cover it and luckily they made a cast recording a few years later where I stole it from. I took the intimate guitar and vocal duo and added my own string parts, bass line and solo section at the end. I just love it!”
Performing on “Oh Life” are vocalists Laila Biali and Alex Samaras, whom she determines, “As far as choosing the singers, when I was imagining who would sing what on the record, I had a pretty easy time just simply imagining their voices singing these songs – I heard the warm, pure, and emotive singing of both Laila and Alex. And they floored me with their gorgeous performances!!”
Another beaming track on Earth Voices is “A Dream Within A Dream,” which comes alive with vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow. Tosoff expresses fondly, “I have been playing with Emilie-Claire Barlow in her band for around five or six years, and I love working with her. She’s a fabulous arranger, singer, bandleader, and she always captivates her audiences with very single note! I knew I wanted to have her sing on my CD and immediately heard her singing ‘A Dream Within A Dream’ as I love the way she can sing so rhythmically precise, and with so much energy. She has some similar rhythmic tune in her repertoire so I knew she’d nail this one and really bring it alive!”
Emilie-Claire Barlow’s part on the recording is not only as vocalist on a handful of tracks but Tosoff also released Earth Voices on Barlow’s label Empress Music Group. She reveals about her decision to go with Barlow’s label, “Well, Emile-Claire is a wonderful artist, friend and business woman. She’s self-released many successful recordings on her label. I think she was just really into the project and wanted to not only be a guest artist, but also help me get it out into the world. She has a wealth of knowledge and is a friend I can trust and just love working with. So it was a no-brainer, really!”
Returning to “A Dream Within A Dream, she provides, “As is the case for many of these poems, I simply chose Poe’s poem because it captured my attention and imagination, I found out after the fact that ths poem was written after the passing of Poe’s wife, so I didn’t end up capturing the sadness in his words, but rather, I played with a sense of confusion and questioning of realty that I really liked about the poem. Sometimes it all does really seem like it’s a dream within a dream, you know?”
Tosoff’s individuality comes through in her music, expressed in the improvised vamps and phrases she composes on the keys. Improvised music is a skill Tosoff fell in love with at an early age when she first heard other practitioners explore the art form.
“I started when I was 7,” she earmarks, “inspired by my mom, who would often play the great works of Debussy, Chopin… and Elton John! I later got into jazz in high-school and fell in love with the music after my Grandma gave me an Oscar Peterson CD. I loved the swing and feeling, even though I had no idea what was going on. It was then I knew I had to pursue music.”
“Hearing Oscar Peterson for the first time,” she maintains, “that hooked me. I think that going to a high school with a strong music program was also key. I had the opportunity to go to music festivals and see amazing musicians like Ingrid Jensen, Roy Hargrove, Slide Hampton and so many more. I also played in small groups with some fellow keen high-school friends. I believe my year had 4 or 5 students who all went to music school. So I think these early experiences inspired me to go to college; but it was really in college when I met my first official band and started gigging around Vancouver, Canada, that I saw myself in performing career.”
“As far as how I’ve grown as a pianist,” she addresses, “I feel like this may be the first time I have let go of trying to play an ‘impressive solo’ and to just be melodic and capture the feeling in the song, which I find more meaningful on a personal level. It’s all about the song, which I think is how we should always approach improvisation!”
“As far as composing,” she probes, “my approach has shifted a little over the years. The piano is always a tool I use to compose, since you can hear everything at once when you’re exploring ideas. When I first started writing, everything I composed was from the piano. But I have tried to also write away from the piano, trying to really hear what is in my head without falling back on what I know on the keys. These days, I use the piano and also record or use notation software to explore more counterpoint and arranging for my ensemble.”
When comparing the writing and recording process between Words and Earth Voices, she admits, “I learned a lot! I learned about writing for voice and singing – as well as string writing. I also learned that the music I was writing might work best sculpted in the studio, with editing and overdubbing as part of the composition process.”
She contemplates, “We can play these pieces live, of course, but there are so many moving parts that this method of recording seemed the best way to capture everything. I was also forced to plan the recording in stages, due to having 16 guest artists, some who live abroad. So we recorded the band tracks, layered in the strings, then vocals. This was really fun, as David Hermiston, my partner in crime/engineer, and I could sift through all the magical performances and then take the moments we loved and compile them together.”
“So in a way,” she evaluates, “this method of recording was more like the process for a pop record, but it was a great experience in using the studio and post production as a composing tool and I’m so pleased with the result.”
In review, she ascertains, “Earth Voices really is the first time I let my composing guide me without judging it and forcing anything, so I think in that sense I’ve really grown – perhaps into a more confident and open-minded composer.”
On the subject of becoming more confident and open-minded as a composer, she discerns, “In regard to more technical elements, I’ve grown in my approach to counterpoint, string writing, form, and melody. This project, in particular, was one that I explored sculpting every piece and playing with the conventions of jazz form etc.”
“I also find,” she considers, “I write better when I sing as many of the parts and melodies as possible before trying to play them on the piano. This gets me away from what I do naturally with my hands, and seems to keep me connected to what I am hearing first in my head and heart. I tell all my students that: ‘if you can sing it, you can play or write it.'”
She describes Earth Voices in a concise summary, “The harmonic, rhythmic approach is modern jazz at it’s core, for sure, but I do love that the album is not entirely one genre or art form — it’s all just painting with sound!”
As Tosoff paints landscapes with sound, Sonia Beckwith, the artist who created the image on the cover of Earth Voices paints with a pallet of colors. Tosoff shares, “Sonia is a good friend and an amazing artist. Her husband is a college friend of mine who is a lovely musician named Josh Cole. So Sonia not only has art chops, but has an eclectic taste in music and is very creative in representing the music in art. It’s funny that the songs started as poems, became music, and then she make them into art! It really all is just art!”
“When she was brainstorming ideas,” Tosoff recollects, “she listened to the songs and read through the poems and lyrics, and noticed some common images – some themes around nature/earth and heavens/sky – and of course life and death. The leaves on the cover are actually an elm bough from the last song ‘Finis,’ which I suppose represents earth and life, and she added stars to it to play with this idea of looking towards the heavens, and pondering what comes after, or perhaps, appreciating what beauty of life, and also death, really. She so wonderfully captured the feeling of the music and poetry in this image!”
Moving forward, COVID-19 temporarily put a stop to live shows but audiences continue to come out, wanting to hear music and discover new artists that appeal to them. The lesson learned is that living does not stop under the conditions of a pandemic, and Amanda Tosoff saw this truth when she released Earth Voices in 2020.
“With COVID-19,” she recognizes, “I can’t tour the music right now, but I do have plans to book a tour in 2022, and I have started this process already, so stay tuned! At the moment, I’m trying to be active on social media, and in my education business www.MusicArtsCollective.com, so I hope that this online presence will continue to help get the music out to a wider audience. Already the response has been incredible.”
On the topic of Music Arts Collective, she presents, “I started an online music education company www.MusicArtsCollective.com with my good friend and bassist Jodi Proznick. I think these early positive experiences inspired me to become an artist-mentor for sure!”
The leap into managing a music education program is not far-fetched as she unveils, “Originally, I had envisioned myself as a high school music teacher, which I didn’t become, although teaching and mentorship is still important part of my life!”
Tosoff graciously acknowledges those members of her audience who have found her through the cyber-sphere as she honors, “I’m also thankful to all the radio and interviewers who have been so supportive of the music, like yourself! Thank you for taking the time to listen and include me here.”
Amanda Tosoff’s ability to cultivate her individuality as a composer and improviser have made her a beam of light in the modern jazz spectrum. Her merging of poetry and piano-driven melodies with the dynamic hues of strings and horns make her latest release Earth Voices music that audiences can embrace. The open and verdant space created by her music invites listeners to revel in, for as long as they like.
About Susan Frances:
Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices, Goodreads.com, Authors and Books (books.wiseto.com), TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com, Epinions.com, Fictiondb.com, LibraryThing.com, BTS emag, BarnesandNoble.com, RomanticHistoricalReviews.com, AReCafe.com, Hybrid Magazine, and BookDepository.com. In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.