As a musically ambitious paean to honor the recent Black lives taken (and the joy of those lives), composer and pianist Casey Heyo has let the music bleed through every crack of her psyche in the new release called “Raw Session for the Names Remembered.”
Heyo has taken a very complicated, emotional issue and transformed it into a handful of musical ideas that are thematically connected like the movements of an opera without lyrics. Still, each piece stands on its own, a discrete expression of the pain surrounding each life lost. To hear “Raw Sessions” is to witness Heyo mourning, describing, questioning and celebrating through her most natural vessel, the piano.
What age did you start piano and do you recall your first composition?
I believe I started at the age of 5. I always enjoyed creating melodies as well as recreating popular songs on the piano. I wrote my first composition, “Snow Flower,” when I was in high school and it became one of my audition pieces for Berklee College of Music. No one will find it since it is hidden somewhere in my old memory box and because I am absolutely embarrassed, I don’t plan on introducing it to the world.
Why did you choose to go into jazz?
I did not grow up listening to jazz at all. I was not exposed nor introduced to the roots of it until I started taking lessons when in high school. It was just a preparation for me to get into schools I was interested in. But the more I studied and practiced, the more I felt for it. I was fascinated with the complex theory and driven by the energy of the jazz musicians. Improvisation sounded like a new language and I really wanted to be fluent in it.
Later in life, I realized it became such a crucial creative outlet for me. “Rules without rules” is how I approach music and jazz became such a strong foundation for my musical journey (even when I am producing hip-hop and R&B).
Why have current events, especially injustice, inspired you?
I consider myself a minority in many categories in life. I am an Asian, immigrant, and woman. Living in the United States for 19 years has been about teaching myself to be aware of how I might seem to society and who I really am. I learned that for minorities, living is surviving. My personal experiences on racism and gender harassment cannot be compared to Black lives and their experiences. I am especially passionate about social injustice because I understand the hurt and trauma someone might experience due to not what they have done, but simply who they are.
In “Raw Session for the Names Remembered,” I wanted to emphasize two things: grief and simplicity.
All the songs, except ”Pure Imagination,” show the repetition of the chords. The melodies are also very simple and they don’t stand out too much from the chords. I wanted to focus on subtle development within the same chord progressions. That’s how I see grief – hearts circling around the memories of your loved ones followed by a painful heartache over and over again.
Simplicity, because the reason for their deaths is not complicated.
Do you feel jazz bridges racial divides, speaks to what we have in common; that it can heal?
Yes! Over the years, many different genres of music have been born through and by jazz, whether people are aware of it or not. Therefore, I truly believe jazz can be the common ground to mend and heal wounds caused by racial, gender, cultural, and generational gaps. I feel like jazz introduced the way to, especially in contemporary music, express freely with its own language called music.
In “Names Remembered” how do you match the music to each individual who has passed?
I tried to match the incidents of their deaths through expressions of certain chords, notes, dynamics, etc.
In “George Floyd,” the clustered and heavy chords describe the process of this death, the “knee to neck” move, and how there was no room to breathe.
In “Ahmaud Arbery,” I started off with a rather more “rhythmic” feel because he was jogging right before he was shot. The Rhodes sound shows an upbeat scene of enjoying nature, and the piano enters in an unexpected way to show how Ahmaud’s simple jog ends in tragedy.
In “Breonna Taylor,” I wanted to capture her beautiful heart to want to serve people as a medical technician. I imagined all the positive changes she would have continued to make if she was alive. I wanted to start the song with “Grace” and made sure it was carried out until the end of the song. That’s how I want to honor Breonna Taylor.
For “Elijah McClain,” I honestly did not know what to feel. I just remember being in tears. I closed my eyes and kept seeing his face and just played whatever came to mind on my muted piano (muted because I did not want to get distracted by my own playing).
Did you learn anything unexpected or surprising about yourself when you were writing and producing this album?
It is very interesting how this album came to life. A few years ago, I had some piano composition ideas but I couldn’t figure out what I want to do with them. I didn’t have a clear vision. “Should I turn them into Hip Hop beats?” “Should I write lyrics to it?” “Should I make a jazz quartet arrangement?” I couldn’t put a finger on it and eventually, I forgot about them.
Years pass and it’s 2020. After hearing about the death of Elijah McClain, my heart broke into pieces. And I wanted to honor him personally and quietly through music because he was a musician, too. From there I got an idea that I needed to make a tribute album for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and their families. That’s when I suddenly remembered that I had these old, unfinished piano recordings somewhere.
It was almost weird to me because each recording reminded me of these individuals very specifically. I realized why I couldn’t complete those compositions for a very long time. Could it be that they were possibly reserved for a very specific occasion? I am not sure. I was able to finish the compositions shortly after understanding the purpose of them.
Did you get feedback from any of the families of those lost?
I haven’t yet. Although I really hope to, I’d just be happy if this reaches them one day and brings them comfort.
How did you release this music and will you perform it in person at some point?
All the songs were recorded in my apartment with no special equipment. Just me, my old piano, and my vintage keyboard going through the pandemic together.
I am very open to collaborating with artists who want to share a similar message. Perhaps I will come up with a new arrangement or “remix” of the album. When the entertainment field gets better in the future and if I am given the opportunity to share, I would love to perform it in person.
My heart goes out to those who lost someone special because I felt like the world flipped upside down when I lost my dad a few years ago.
For more information visit www.caseyheyo.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Casey Heyo.
(c) Debbie Burke 2020