Susie Ibarra Trio
At Tonic, 107 Norfolk Street,
one block from Delancy
July 17 at 8 p.m.

Trio of talents: bandleader, drummer and composer

By Sean Fitzell

At stage, drummer Susie Ibarra is poised behind her drum-kit so that she can clearly see the band and give them cues during a gig. She sits with straight posture, moving around the kit with fluid, minimal motions. This meditative appearance and economy of motion often belies the technicality of the rhythms and music she plays. Ibarra presides over shows seemingly without effort. In much the same way, she balances her busy musical career between the roles of bandleader, drummer, and composer.

On Thursday, July 17, at 8 p.m., Ibarra will bring her trio to the Lower East Side club Tonic, before they travel to play the Ottawa Jazz Festival. The group includes pianist and keyboardist Craig Taborn and violinist Jennifer Choi and has been together for nearly four years. Their first recording, “Songbird Suite,” was released on the Tzadik record label last year.

“It gives the illusion of two different piano trios,” Ibarra said on the phone from her Queens apartment. She explained that a classical piano trio includes violin and cello, whereas a jazz piano trio includes bass and drums. With her trio, the sounds are blended, especially when Taborn plays bass lines on the piano. “I don’t think it was anything intentional,” Ibarra said about the sound, adding “I just realized it now.”

The current trio is an extension and refinement of the same instrumentation that Ibarra explored for about a year with pianist Cooper-Moore and violinist Charles Burnham. That collaboration was more improvisational in nature, and Ibarra wanted to focus more on her composing. “I still feel I am a stronger improviser than a composer and am still balancing that out,” she said.

Ibarra has done just that in the last couple of years. In addition to her trio, Ibarra also composes for a quartet she formed and shares compositions as part of the group Mephista with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and electronic musician Ikue Mori. But improvisation still figures heavily with these groups. New recordings with each group are planned for this year.

Ibarra also spent the last year writing an opera. “It really helped my writing. The whole process develops over time,” she said.

Called “Shangri-La,” with libretto by Yusef Komunyakaa, it was workshopped from June 12-14 at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton, N.J., and produced by the Passage Theatre. According to Ibarra, it went well and several opera houses are interested in performing the piece.

Composing an opera may seem incongruous for Ibarra, who first started playing drums in punk bands during high school in Houston, Tex. But she has played piano since age five and studied classical music until she was fourteen. Her father, a Filipino immigrant, played piano by ear and music was a constant part of her childhood.

She came to New York on a visual arts scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College, but couldn’t leave her drums behind. Ibarra saw a Sun Ra concert and was hooked. Although she had been studying music outside of school, she decided to focus on it, took lessons with renowned drummer Milford Graves, and soon became a sought-after performer in the downtown scene.

Ibarra has appeared on nearly 50 recordings with a diverse array of artists, including bassist William Parker, saxophonists David Ware, Assif Tsahar, and John Zorn, trumpeter Dave Douglas, guitarist Derek Bailey, and the art-rock band Yo La Tengo. Her three recordings as a leader have been well reviewed and demonstrate her growth as a composer. For example, the title track from “Songbird Suite” was initially written as a violin solo, which Ibarra decided to rearrange for the whole trio.

“It’s so fascinating that something can seem so natural to notate; to be as precise as to what you’re hearing, but still have the fluidity of it,” Ibarra said about learning to compose more complex music. The longer a group has played together, the easier it is for Ibarra to write specifically for the musicians and their particular sensibilities. In her current trio, Ibarra feels that Taborn, a composer himself, understands the concepts of the music and thinks about how the songs fit together. Choi comes from the classical scene and is becoming a great improviser, according to Ibarra. Together, the trio embodies the blend of classical and jazz trios that Ibarra sought.

The trio is recording a new CD for the Tzadik label that should be out by the end of this year. It will consist of a suite of music called “Lakbay,” which was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution and performed in conjunction with a photographic exhibit by Ricardo Alvarado. It was the first American exhibit of the photographs, which depict the first wave of Filipino immigrants in the San Francisco area in the post-World War II era. The music is “a day in the life of a Filipino fieldworker,” Ibarra said.

All of these different projects feed Ibarra’s love to learn and try new things. She speaks enthusiastically about all her different projects and the people who make it possible. Ibarra said, just before running off to a rehearsal, “I just feel really fortunate to play with the people I have played with.”


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