CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It’s not often a cellist comes to the University of Illinois School of Music to study jazz.
But Tomeka Reid arrived with a solid classical background and a strong voice in improvised music, eager to refine her work.
“She’s a unique voice on the cello. I’d never heard anybody like her before,” said Larry Gray, a U. of I. professor of jazz and a bassist and cellist. Gray was Reid’s primary instructor while she was working on coursework for her Doctor of Musical Arts from 2009 to 2011.
Reid has been touring with her band, Tomeka Reid Quartet, which released an album last year – her first as a bandleader and her first album of original compositions. She returns to campus with the quartet on March 3. The group will play a Sudden Sound concert at Krannert Art Museum at 7:30 p.m.
Reid was named Chicagoan of the Year in Jazz for 2015 by Chicago Tribune music critic Howard Reich. He wrote that “Reid’s sonorous tone and novel techniques on cello, open-eared sensibility as composer and inspirational stature as conductor rejuvenate our notions of what jazz is and can be.”
The New York Times called Reid “one of the great energies of the past year in jazz: a melodic improviser with a natural, flowing sense of song and an experimenter who can create heat and grit with the texture of sound.”
Reid has a wide range of musical styles, said Gray, who has played with her a couple of times, most recently at a 2015 Chicago Symphony Orchestra MusicNOW performance.
“She has this refinement in her playing coming from all the classical training, but at the same time a deep affinity for other kinds of styles – blues, world music,” he said.
Her quartet is fronted by Reid on cello and Mary Halvorson on guitar, a combination that Gray finds intriguing.
“To have a group where the two front instruments are cello and guitar is a bit unusual in itself, so the contrast is interesting,” he said. “It’s not a traditional jazz group, for sure.”
The quartet also includes drummer Tomas Fujiwara and bassist Jason Roebke.
Jason Finkelman, the organizer of the Sudden Sound Concert Series and the director of the campus’s Global Arts Performance Initiatives, said he’s pleased to have Reid perform at Sudden Sound as she is debuting an album as a band leader.
“I’m really excited about the way her music embodies a blend of modern jazz and avant-garde practices,” he said. “There’s a blending of aesthetics among the players that reflect the different energy and style of the jazz avant-garde of Chicago and of New York.”
Gray said Reid is an inspiration for current students.
“There is no fear in what she does. She has her own sound, her own voice,” he said. “She’s brought her music out and found an audience.”