Your best intro to the seven-piece ensemble Nerija could be the full and brassy unity on the downbeat of “For You.” Trumpet gives a considered and melodious solo, backed expertly by at first electric guitar, then the whole band. Restating the original theme, an outstanding drumbeat backs their fullness once again. The funk of “Pinkham” featuring guitar makes marvelous use of that phenom percussion and a sudden turn to a Latin-inspired horn statement.
There is room onstage and in the music itself for all seven of these amazing jazzers. No overcrowding here: each plays out her groove with heart, and makes the puzzle pieces fit in a gratifying, satisfying way. Deftly trading solos with sass and respect, Nerija shines as they swing.
How did you meet one another and why did you decide to form a band?
We have all passed through Tomorrow’s Warriors and Trinity College of Music [London] in the last 10 years. We started playing together in this line-up around a year ago, with the addition of Rio and Liz who joined about a year after we started playing regularly in 2014. We were originally started as part of a scheme at Tomorrow’s Warriors to support and nurture women musicians. We are now good friends with a really great overlap of musical influences to explore.
What does the name of your band refer to?
Nerija is a Hebrew word meaning lamp of God. We chose it because it sounds lovely.
Talk about the band members and how they bring it.
Drummer Lizy Exell’s version of the musicians:
Everyone in the band plays with fire, for starters. We all have our own musical intensity. Rio is a solid grooving, tasty bassist with great facility to play explorative solos. Shirley has quite a dry sound on guitar which makes her linear solos really rapturous. She is so grooving and often plays the grooviest comping patterns which start a party by themselves. Cassie is very influenced by Jackie Maclean and has this hard sound and plays lots of notes and chord shapes, implying loads of tense stuff over the music. Rosie has a big sound on trombone, plays really melodically and delves into her ideas and makes them into a great story. Sheila has every sound on trumpet. She makes so many different sounds and uses them with wonderful expressive effect. She whispers and screams. Her default sound has all the strength and punch of Freddy and she is a very interactive player, sitting right down with the band. And I love lots of different drumming styles, like metal, hip hop, Afro beat and jazz. Nubya is warm and raspy and plays with ideas throughout a solo, building one idea into an entire five-minute, mind-melting solo.
Liz: when did you get started on percussion and why?
I started when I was 11 because my friend had a drum kit and I went ’round there just to play drums and his mum said I should get lessons so I would stop going there to give her headaches. And then I wanted to be in that magical place at the back of the orchestra with an array of toys!
Was your family supportive of a career in music?
My family was happy for what made me happy and they were enthusiastic about coming to performances and getting me lessons. There were a few occasions where I was told by the older generation in my family it was not ladylike to play drums.
Who are some of your favorite percussionists?
I am influenced by Questlove, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Brian Blade. They all have incredible technique and facility, and they use it to make great, exciting music. They have amazing control of tension and release and so many gears to move through.
What was the highlight of your formal music education?
Going to music college was amazing in many respects because it was free rehearsal rooms, loads of information about the music and lots of people to play music with. I formed friendships and started playing with the people I play with today. It starts us building our networks.
What advice would you give to drummers just starting out?
I would say play along with your favorite records, listen to music which lights you up every day, play drums every day even if just for five minutes, and go to see music/people/bands who inspire you as often as possible. Watch interviews on YouTube of the musicians you listen to, watch them play. Get to know other musicians of your level, find situations where you can play with others and do that as much as possible.
Join educational programs or classes to get to know other musicians or find jam nights. Learn to understand the music, the history of jazz and how it developed, how it works, how songs are put together. Learn basic keyboard skills and learn to sing your favorite songs and play the chords underneath, even on a super basic keyboard.
What kind of sound are you after?
Something that sounds like us. I think we let all this sort of thing unfold as we play and reflect on it after rather than seek to fulfill an objective.
How have you been received in London?
It’s been amazing. Lots of people love the music and like to talk to us and see us play and we play to lovely audiences. It’s brilliant.
What is the status of your upcoming CD – does it have a name? Are you going for a theme?
It’s all recorded and is with the producer now. I can’t tell you the name… you’ll have to wait…
What is the production schedule and when will it be released?
We think it will be out this autumn.
How exciting is it to have made your first album?
It was amazing to spend days together recording the music; it was our sound and had really defined us. We explored directions to go from there after recording as well, just jamming. We were in a beautiful place in Oxfordshire and ate and cooked and stayed in a fitted-out PortaCabin which was great.
Who writes and arranges the music?
We all write the music and arrange it together. Sometimes we bring in fully formed ideas and give people parts, sometimes we jam grooves or riffs and see where they take us.
What are the challenges in being a seven-member band?
We like to see where things take us and how they go. We’re excited to have made new music together and we have a solid common ground with lots of different avenues of influence between us.
There are a few logistical challenges with all of us being really busy with our own projects and other work.
Festival and/or venue that you would most like to play?
Glastonbury would be cool! I think bigger clubs in London would be nice too… like KOKO or Cargo or XOYO…that sort of thing.
Places you will perform this year?
We’re doing a few jazz festivals and jazz clubs but the big tour will be happening around the release of our album this autumn, so stay in touch!
What would you most like people to know about the band?
I’d like them to know what our music sounds like. We get gigs, and we get heard and the audience seems to love it. That’s the most important thing.
Are you thinking about your collective sound when you play or are you in your own head?
The band as a whole and the music is where my head is at when the music is at its best. I personally sometimes get lost in my head and I call that a bad day.
Do you typically give one another full solos in each song?
Yes, if someone wants a solo, they have one.
Most exciting thing about being a jazz musician today?
I love that I get to play music for a living, go on adventures to other cities and meet people who feel moved by our music. I get to write, to make music, to hang out with friends as part of my job and a chance to share ideas and thoughts with people.
Thank you for your interest.
For more information, visit www.nerijamusic.com.