Improvising Life: Tomeka Reid

by Lakshmi Ramgopal

Inspiration can catch experimental cellist Tomeka Reid at any moment. So much so, in fact, that she forgot our Skype interview. After logging in and waiting for ten minutes, I texted her. A flustered apology and explanation followed: “Got inspired to put my keyboard together this morning!!!” Her text included a photo of the culprit.

Reid’s dedication to her work has been paying off. Originally from the D.C. area and currently based in Chicago, the 38-year-old has been playing cello since she was a child. She routinely performs around the world, and the previous year marked the debut release of her first self-led group. From the plaintive wails of “The Lone Wait” to the sour skitters of “Woodlawn” to the jubilant tones of “17 West,” The Tomeka Reid Quartet (Thirsty Ear) shows her stretching her affective range further than ever before.

Reid can’t remember a time when she wasn’t drawn to music, so picking up the cello felt natural. Music also mitigated the loneliness she experienced as a child. “I was like oh, I get to play in orchestra, I get to make music with other instruments, with other kids. I grew up very much by myself, and I think I liked the idea of doing things with other people.”

Her preference for creative collaboration eventually birthed the Tomeka Reid Quartet, which includes Mary Halvorson on guitar, Tomas Fujiwara on drums and Jason Roebke on bass. Though her cello is front and center, Reid is hesitant to claim the release as entirely her own. “Personality-wise, I’m the ultimate team player. I think it’s to a flaw. Sometimes I think I need to go in the other direction. I think I can be too accommodating in lots of areas in my life. But I’ve never felt it’s got to be the Tomeka Reid Show.”

Reid speaks as if we’ve known each other forever, and her sentences often end in laughs. Her laidback attitude reflects a confidence she attributes to the black women who have mentored her musically and led some of the bands she’s played with. Seeing black women in leadership roles has motivated her to seek similar roles for herself. It has also shaped how she, as a black woman, views her impact in the worlds of jazz and experimental music. “You just never know how you might touch another black woman. If you don’t see yourself in different positions, you don’t think you can do that. If you see that there’s black dentists, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah! I could be a black dentist.’ I think it’s important that our voices are heard, that we say what we have to say. I think everyone has a voice to share and I think often times, certain stories don’t get shared.”

Reid points to a wider pattern of underrepresentation in her world: the absence of women of all backgrounds. Given that youth orchestras are full of girls, she finds it particularly unsettling. The problem, she muses, is that being a professional musician requires endurance. Unlike male colleagues, female artists make sacrifices for their families that can cost them their careers. As a result, men predominate bands and lineups. She leans toward the screen and her tone flattens. “If you wanna do some free jazz with me on this, feel free.” We share a cackle.

These concerns have propelled Reid to overcome moments of self doubt over the years. They have also prompted her to learn about jazz in parts of the world that the scene tends to ignore, such as Mexico. “What about our brothers just south of us? I’m trying to find out about free jazz in Mexico City and South America. How are they approaching jazz or free jazz, how are they bringing their cultural sensibilities into the music?”

Reid’s curiosity about jazz around the world and her opposition to its deep rooted Eurocentricity reflect her adventurous approach to her own music. While she enjoys performing written music in structured contexts like symphonies, improvisation is her real love. Its unpredictability spurs her continuous search for what she wants to do with the cello. It also forces her to develop an exquisite presence of mind. “It definitely pushes you out of your comfort zone, it forces you to become a better listener.” Above all, improvisation is a way to practice dealing with the world outside of music. “Improvisation makes me a better person. It lends itself to life. Shit happens. You don’t know what’s coming next.”