Seattle bassist Abbey Blackwell may not know how exactly to describe the music of her new trio Rae, with guitarist Ronan Delisle and drummer Evan Woodle. But she knows what it is. Blackwell says "it's just about listening, it's just about groove, it's just about how it feels, really. That is what makes music, music to me. That's what makes it fun."
You could call the eight songs on Rae's new debut album Internal Volume "avant garde," but there's — almost always — a melodic center and or grooves to these songs. There are places for the musicians to improvise freely, but Blackwell tells me, "melody is the most important thing to me."
"It's not 'not' jazz," Blackwell teases. And though the trio comes from jazz education backgrounds, each of them have built their young careers around playing in a wide variety of musical settings. The new music of Rae reflects that.
Delisle first worked with Blackwell in a folk music project. Woodle has played with pop groups like Heatwarmer, and Blackwell says working in other people's (mostly rock and pop) bands is how she makes ends meet as a working musician.
"I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin," Blackwell says about the music of her youth. She's been discovering classic country music recently, but Rae is a clear vision of Abbey Blackwell's talent as a composer, band leader and bass player today. From high wire free improvisation to pure melodicism, it's all there with style.
Blackwell points to her master's degree work at the Univerisity of Washington with drummer Ted Poor and others as a turning point in her compositions. The songs on Internal Volume mostly began during this time, fleshed out with input from bandmates Delisle and Woodle.
Beginning with ideas sketched out on piano, Blackwell focused on moving from one phrase of music to another. Beginning with unadorned melodies, Blackwell would figure out a bass note or chord to go with that and then workshop it with Rae. It's all directed by Blackwell's "anchor and rudder" on bass.
Abbey Blackwell has been building a reputation as one of the finest bass players in Seattle, recently nominated for an Earshot Golden Ear Award for Northwest Emerging Artist of the Year last year. Blackwell says she draws energy from her bass: "It's the lowest pitch we're gonna hear. Changing that note can give whatever chord is happening on top of it a different meaning." Directing the trio via "tension and release of the bass is really powerful, it makes me feel good."
She shares the sound of Rae with two good friends, Ronan Delisle and Evan Woodle. "They're just really nice guys," but most importantly, Blackwell expounds, "they listen so intently when improvising. That's what it comes down to, especially with this music... half improvised with no parameters."
As for Delisle's guitar tone, lending a sprawling Americana "roundness" to the songs, Blackwell says, "how he phrases his improvising lines and also improvising music is so thoughtful, it brings music to life. Also his control over his instrument is peerless."
Blackwell has known drummer Woodle since both were teenagers at the UW. She compliments his "attention to detail, and his approach to timbre is unmatched. He is just a spectacular musician all around, and always makes me feel like I'm better."
Together, they're making very cool music...but with odd titles to be sure. The first song is called "04," the second track, "22." The numbers simply refer to the order in which they were written. "Naming them after the fact felt insincere," Blackwell told me. "So they just stayed numbers."
Saturday on The New Cool, you'll hear the final song to find a spot on Internal Volume, "09." I found it's slightly melancholic tune similar to the solo efforts of Seattle rock stars in the '90s. "It's like a pop tune, basically," Blackwell says. "It's because I'm really bad at piano," Blackwell laughs, explaining, "it all comes down to major and minor chords."
Simple, maybe. Moody, provocative, catchy, ultra-cool... for sure. Don't miss Abbey Rae Blackwell's new trio Rae on The New Cool this Saturday afternoon. By the way, that's her middle name, too. "Just a coincidence!" she says. Either way, the trio Rae feels meant to be.
The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.