Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

11/17/2018

Sarah Reich talks with Shoehorn: The instrumental voice of tap shoes Q&A

By MICHAEL CONLEY // Dancer Sarah Reich has done 7 tours with Postmodern Jukebox, playing in Portland, and aims to bring her Tap Music Project our way. She is a dynamic presence on the tap scene, and at age 28 has just released an album of tunes featuring tap dance as a primary instrumental voice.

Michael Conley is a tap dancer and saxophone player, hence the name most of us know him by: Shoehorn. He has released six albums with tap included. -- ed.

Dancer Sarah Reich has done 7 tours with Postmodern Jukebox, playing in Portland, and aims to bring her Tap Music Project our way. She is a dynamic presence on the tap scene, and at age 28 has just released an album of tunes featuring tap dance as a primary instrumental voice.

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I have a few questions about your particular journey with tap dance and music.

First, I am listening to “New Change”, and I am very impressed with the whole production! The arrangements and recording quality are superb, and we hear what you are doing as a musical soloist. The tremendous energy comes across on a track like “It’s Tappening” where you dig in to the floor and let go volleys of clearly articulated notes and bring the band in around your steps. In “New Change” we get to hear your funky declarations, polyrhythmic exchanges, plus some top-notch modern jazz horn playing. The whole project is sophisticated and meticulously executed, and it comes off with the sense of intimacy one feels at a club gig. Congratulations!

What came first for you, the dance, the song, or the sound?

I would improvise an idea, like a four-bar idea, and once I found a groove I liked or a rhythm that I liked I would just keep it, and repeat it, and I would teach the rhythm of that step to the musician and also scat to them how I hear it melodically, and they would write notes to match the rhythm and we would experiment with various melodic ideas and that's how the songs are written. And from there  I would also choreograph, do choreography to the song after they were written.

One of the songs has you doing unison lines with horns.

Maybe it's Gemini Vibe? (she sings it )  That's actually the first song I ever wrote, and that’s with (saxophonist) Danny Janklow- we wrote that song together- that was the first time I ever experimented with that. So for example with that piece I actually tapped out that rhythm  ( scat sings her line) and that was cool, I liked that, so I taught Danny the rhythm and he put that melody to it.

And then you know, just knowing jazz music from the Kennedy’s (Tap Studio in LA run by Paul and Arlene Kennedy) and everything growing up and listening to Jazz,  I knew the basic form structure of jazz songs, knowing that AABA is the form of a traditional Jazz standard, so when we wrote that song I was like “cool, let’s repeat it, (sings) let’s resolve it, let’s do that again! That’s our 8 bars, that’s our “A”. Alright cool, let’s write a bridge- check this out I’m gonna go (sings) I’m like “learn that”.

You can almost hear the collaborative process on the recording.

 You studied at the Kennedy studio. I know that Paul and Arlene Kennedy turned out some really great dancers. Is there anything more you would like to say about your background?

The Kennedys always played big band music- Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and so as a kid as I was always exposed to that kind of big band swinging music. And then with Jason Samuels-Smith, introducing the concept of improvisation to me was also very important, and a different kind of dialect of rhythm- I like to call it a dialect. Like there's a way that you dance- there's certain rhythms you play when you're swinging, versus certain rhythms you play when you're in a funk groove.

Very good point.

There's different ways you do that, so you have to know how to shift gears as the song requires it, so that you won’t play the same way on a Rock gig as you would at a Jazz gig, so as a tap dance percussionist,  I have to know how to adjust. So just trying to be exposed to the various styles, like the Kennedys, Jason's funk, to Becky Twitchell with Jazz standards and just swinging, and cool choreography, I got a lot as a kid for my training.

Do you go to jazz jams or other kinds of open-mics to network and find people to work with? How do you find the musicians that you want to collaborate with?

Before I was 21 I had a fake ID, (laughs) mainly for the purpose of networking. I would go around to various jams in LA, which, most of them were in Hollywood. Some would be a Funk Jam, Jazz Jam or Latin jazz Jam- regardless, if there was live music, I was there every week with my board, and excited to share with everyone and to network. A lot of the musicians I met at that time are on the album, and are very good friends of mine. In Leimert Park there is one street that had about three jazz clubs.

There’s one called the World Stage, and that's the one I went to every week as a teenager. The first time I went I was nervous asking to tap with the band. Then when I did, they’d love me and said to come back anytime. At that time I was tapping over all the sax solos and everything and not really understanding the etiquette of it all, but I found that out over time. But regardless, I got to work on my chops, and I was in the midst of (rising saxophone star) Kamasi Washington and other great artists of LA also going to those jams.

Will you be touring with your new CD, and if you do, will you bring musicians from LA or will you try to contract with rhythm sections and soloists from the areas you will be visiting?

Yes I will be, and I would like to contract musicians in the various cities- which will be like a blind date, but fun, because I've done that many times before at tap festivals. But also taking the opportunity to have musicians work with a tap dancer, whether they ever have or not, to have a cool experience learning new music. This way, I have a way to expose my music to other musicians and then build from there. It might be a hit, it might be a miss, you never know- each city will be totally different, but I'll send the charts ahead of time and hope they'll prepare.

 As a leader, is your approach to your tap choreography to superimpose your visual and rhythmic language on top of the music in the way that say, modern dancers might choreograph to a recording, or are you trying to react in the moment with the performers, whether they be fellow tap dancers or instrumentalists playing things like saxophone or piano?

There's a little bit of everything, right? Since the songs are coming from tap rhythms, of course I want to showcase that, and have the audience think “wow I'm listening to tap dance! And how cool would it be to see what’s happening?”  And so they'll want to come to the show and see me and the other dancers doing the choreography, which is very different from seeing me improvising as a soloist. So then they'll see dancers together hitting the same lines, with arms and movement, matching the melodies, the highs and the lows- literally higher upper body movement versus low pliés- just kind of expressing the music fully. And certain songs I'll be improvising the whole time, going in and out of matching the melody.

 Do you use live music in your classes on a regular basis or do you rehearse and teach to recorded music?

Usually it's recorded music unless it's my Tap Music Project Intensive where I definitely always have live musicians; that's a part of the intensive. You know, it just takes more money to pay the musicians for every class, though I'd love to have musicians in every class I teach. But sometimes kids still need to be exposed to the essentials and I'll play them a specific artist that they can tap dance to so they can hear a recording of what Dizzy Gillespie sounds like, what  Erroll Garner sounds like, etc. I still do that as an educational tool.

Do you play any musical instruments besides tap shoes?

I studied piano growing up. After 10 years of that I started playing drums for 3 years- mostly rock and roll style- I was Led Zeppelin fan, and I still am! And then after that I went back to piano just to learn how to play jazz.

And do you read and write musical notation?

I would say rhythm notation more than musical notation, because I feel that's what I really know, and what I share with my students is how to read and write rhythm notation- but that's all stemming from what I learned from Denise Scheerer back in the day when she would bring her drum set to class and break down exercises from a drum book, Syncopation.

Some of the masters of the form from earlier generations have said that the advent of amplified music such as rock and funk was the death knell for tap dancers because they could no longer be heard out on the floor. Is this something that we are finally overcoming? Do you have any particular ways to get what you want from the sound tech? What do you do to make sure you get the right sound quality from your tap shoes for live gigs? Do use any kind of special boards or equipment such as a particular type of microphone?  

I recently had a tap board of mine- I gave it to a sound guy and he put some pickups on it, with the jack with the cord to go to the sound  guy- whatever. So I like it- I like being able to plug in my tap board- it's really loud, but does it get the tone of it, or the tone quality, or is it just like, loud sound? So I'm happy to be amplified, but can I get some tone? And why is it only like right where the pickup is? I have one board but there’s two  pickups on either side, but if I tap in the middle it’s not as loud as when I tap on the side, so I have to be careful of that. It does help when I play with a lot of bands. I play with a Latin Jazz band call the Rodgar band- Carlos Rodgarman who I wrote “Tapping” with.

We're now working on some Latin music and he's got like six horns blasting, we got congas and timbales, like there's already a lot of rhythm going on, so I’m like- I need to really be heard- so that's when I will use the pickups. So yeah, that does help for really loud music - like I just did this cover of “Fire” with Aubrey Logan, a Jimi Hendrix cover. I used my pickups for that and that was cool because we had rock & roll- we had guitar- we had everything, and that was for a recording session.  

Were those drum triggers?  That sounds like what we call a drum trigger.   

Okay, so then yeah- I think that is what that is. It'll help a little but ….

The tone isn’t good on those-

Exactly-  the tone isn't very good so I’m still working on it.  

Do you feel there should be some kind of technical advancement in this area?

There definitely needs to be... I don't know if I'm the one to do that.  I'm happy to be a guinea pig for it, but I know... not much about technology and all that stuff. But I'm looking for good microphones. I would love to be endorsed by a company that has good microphones. I'm trying to still decide if a body mic is better than just miking the floor, you know- to have the mics on the shoes kind-of-thing….

I saw Savion’s Classical and he had mics sticking out from his cuffs, plus the floor mics. But I haven’t really found something that satisfies me, so I am asking you- you’re a touring artist- and with Postmodern Jukebox I think they just used a couple mics on the corners of the board.

With PMJ here's the secret- you have got to have a mic for the bass of the tap. So with PMJ I had two mics on the top corners and one underneath, and the one underneath is the key, ‘cause that gives it  depth. The ones on the top get the highs and the one underneath gets the lows, like a kick drum mic. That for me was always the best sound. I love touring with PMJ for sound, I definitely have full control over that during sound check. I love that I had a great mix in my monitor, so I was very, very, very happy on PMJ tours as far as sound. But, again, that's just one tap board- if I wanted to take up the whole stage…. am I going to have a mic underneath like, every part of the stage? That's when things get really complicated, like how can it last, the bigger the board (tapping surface) gets?

You have a really good speaking voice, as I have noticed from some videos you have posted for the tap fam. Do you have any desire to sing or act, like many of our illustrious predecessors who were also known as tap dancers?

Absolutely. Well, I actually sing on the album a little I don't know if you noticed that that that's my voice on “Tap City” and “New Change”-

Yes I did notice that.  

That was definitely my debut, but I'm taking voice lessons now, getting it together, and I really need to get into acting because I want to. I did musical theater in high school, so I did a little bit then, but I want to really explore it, because that would be an amazing opportunity- and something I do want to do. That was definitely a challenge for me to try but I do plan to use this when I perform live, to hone that as another skill of mine, for sure.

Like there's a song called “Scat Rap”, and scatting is just a part of tap dance culture and how we communicate, how we relate or translate these rhythms to each other, or how we learn rhythms- is through scatting. ’Cause Paul Kennedy used to only scat, that's how he taught us it's like alright (scats a phrase) “Go do it”  you know? Like okay. So I wanted to showcase that on the album- our scat language- even Ivery (Wheeler) and Jason and Ted Levy- I want people to know that's how we communicate- that's like our secret language. (laughs) [author’s note: the voices of Wheeler, Levy and Samuels-Smith are presented on the album scatting short segments and offering encouragement.]

Yeah, it's great.

Do you have a favorite style of jazz music, for example Hard Bop, the Swing era, Latin jazz, or late-period Coltrane, or are we truly in a postmodern age where we we use every historical thing at our disposal?

Home for me is big band. Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal.

Is there anything that you were not able to accomplish technically on this new record of yours?

No.

Do you have a whole bunch more material that you want to record soon, or are you going to ride this particular project for a while and see where it takes you?

I'm halfway done with the second album. The next one is a Latin jazz album called “Tap Latino” and I want to showcase my roots, my Latin roots. And I speak Spanish so I'd like to expose tap dancing to another culture that doesn't know much about it and bring it to them with music they can relate to. So some of the songs are very Montuno, Salsa, one has a Spanish feel, a Flamenco, featuring a Flamenco dancer on it, who is a killer- his name is Manuel Gutierrez, from Spain, and he is one of the more musical Flamenco dancers that I’ve ever seen around- he’ll be on it too. I’m really excited about it so that's the next project, finishing that.

That’ll be kind of like a Timba with Tap thing?

Oh Yeah, and a lot of like, Tito Puente! Tito Puente’s music has always been an inspiration to me and actually the reason I started doing all this anyway, ‘cause listening to Tito Puente’s horn lines and thinking “Man! This shit is killing”, and “I know this!” All these lines that he’s playing with these horns I hear in my head when I tap dance, and I think gee, I wish there was a way I could write music with these ideas I have in my head. If I could do it on my own that would be amazing.

You're a very charismatic performer, glamorous and stellar. Do you feel that you are reaching a lot of people who are reacting to your persona, or do you think that there's a broader, renewed interest in the tap dance form from the population at large? Do you sense there may be a chance for tap to become more commonly performed again and widely popular? I will say that when I saw you with PMJ I said to myself “Yes! this is the thing to do to show audiences what tap is all about!”

I'd like to think of it as both. I know that with the exposure of Postmodern Jukebox, that's really helped bring people awareness of me and of tap dance, and so yeah- I would hope that that's enough to get them come out to the shows and hopefully go support other tap dance artists. I have seen via comments on YouTube people saying “Oh my God, because of these videos I’ve started tap dancing again”

Is tap dancing more acceptable now as an art form for young people to devote themselves to?

Yeah. And that is also my goal and kind of job, is to open doors for the next generation. Right now I've kind of taken a pause from touring with Postmodern Jukebox to pursue my musical endeavors. And so  I've given the opportunity to Anissa Lee and Demi Remick, who are wonderful young ladies, and now they get the opportunity to tour and showcase their talents to the Postmodern Jukebox audience. I feel like the PMJ audience already knows who I am- they’ve seen me in all the videos and I've done seven tours across the world, so now I'm like “alright- y’all know who I am- check out other tap dancers”. So I'm very happy and honored to be able to provide that job to other tap dancers.

I know you worked with Jason Samuels-Smith and Chloe Arnold and other tap dancers a few years older than yourself, and that you were close with the late Harold Cromer, the old vaudevillian hoofer. Are there any other of the masters that influenced your particular concept more so than the others?  Who was your big number-one influence as a tap dancer?

I would say Baby Lawrence (the late Lawrence Jackson) for sure- he created the idea of an album back then, and that was huge for me, just to know that that's a thing- wow, a tap dancer made an album, what a cool concept! ( Dancemaster, recorded in 1959)

That's a great album.

Oh yeah- that's yeah, totally!  Also Gregory Hines- he was on some tracks too- with Stanley Clarke, he worked with musicians. He had this funk and persona- and a cool swag about him, that definitely inspired me so…. I just did a gig last weekend at a jazz fest, and lot of these like old black ladies are like  “oh girl, you remind me of Gregory Hines” and I was like-wow, that’s quite the compliment! So that’s sort of what I channel when I perform as far as Gregory.

Oh yeah, I thought of that Gregory Hines/Stanley Clarke bass duo when I heard your duos with the bass player on the album!

Yeah, thanks!

Did you know Jimmy Slyde made a record?

Yes I do, yes.

And so another thing I wanted to ask about was how you had to choreograph your movement on the video to the recorded sound, which is the opposite of the old Hollywood artists dubbing in their taps to the movement on screen.

Right, so that was “Baked Bean Blues” where I had to relearn my improvised solo simply by listening to it, so I had to figure out what steps I was doing for that whole section of “this sounds like a riff, that sounds like a cramp roll, these are definitely paddle and rolls”. So I could just figure it out by listening to it, it was very much the reverse process of like, Foley work.

Have you ever had a problem with musicians being skeptical of tap as an improvisational voice?

In my own work, especially the first 2 CDs, I always felt like I had to prove the value of tap dance as music. I am hopeful this is changing. I noticed  Michela Marino Lerman was mentioned twice in a recent issue of Downbeat Magazine, once in a review of a gig with a band and the other was a recording credit on an album review by another artist.

Definitely! I think we need more of that. 

Michela is doing it, I'm doing it, there's other dancers doing it in various cities- we just need a bigger opportunities, just some other gigs, PMJ is huge like that, with three million subscribers and tours all over- that's been very, very big and Michela’s touring, which is so good, it's starting to happen, it's really  happening. It's going to take some time but we're getting somewhere. Actually just now I was texting a friend, before your call. My “leap of faith moment” was I submitted for the Grammy, and I made my official announcement on Facebook right before I called you, which is just like nerve-wracking for me because it's been a dream of mine forever to have tap dance be noticed at the Grammy Awards, if that would ever be a possibility, so now I'm asking musicians who are voting members of the Academy Recording Committee to vote for me, which takes a lot for me to do, but I just posted that on Facebook right before I called.

This is a very fresh thing you created, and I wish you the best of luck and success, and hope you score a Grammy! When you come to Portland I’m definitely in your hype corner!

Thank you Shoehorn!

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