It was a lovely June evening two years ago when guitarist Beau Bledsoe convinced me to attend a concert by jazz cellist Helen Gillet in Grunauer restaurant’s small, upstairs room in the Freight House district.
Bledsoe was hugely impressed by Gillet and was convinced I would be, too.
Gillet, who was joined by local jazz musicians saxophonist Mark Southerland and bassist Jeff Harshbarger, gave a performance that was by turns passionate, deeply introspective, thrashing and lyrical. I was hypnotized by this New Orleans musician. Gillet’s intensity in such an intimate space was overwhelming.
She is, indeed, the real deal, and, yes, I was very, very impressed.
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Gillet is back in town, collaborating with choreographer Jennifer Owen, composer Brad Cox, Southerland and his wife, artist Peregrine Honig, to create “Memory Palace,” which will be performed Saturday by the Owen/Cox Dance Group . Gillet, Southerland and Cox will provide live musical accompaniment for the event at the Spencer Theatre on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus.
With her French name and devotion to jazz, one could easily assume that Gillet is a native of New Orleans. In fact, she was born in Belgium, and has a strong background in classical music.
“My father is a Walloon, a French-speaking Belgian,” Gillet said, “and I was born over there in a French-speaking household. But my mother’s from Chicago, so we also spoke English at home. Then we moved to Singapore, where I spent nine years in a French school in the middle of the tropical jungle in Asia.”
At the age of 12, Gillet moved with her parents to Chicago where she received a thorough grounding in the standard classical repertoire at a high school with a good classical music program.
“I was lucky to get really good training, but it seemed like there was more in the music world for me than just classical music,” she said. “After hearing all of this music of my Belgian family — we’d get together and sing songs around the table — and in Singapore hearing all these strange, weird Chinese New Year cymbal crashings, I knew there was a lot of world music out there, and I was very attracted to it. I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with just one type of music.”
While attending college in Beloit, Wis., Gillet met a woman in Madison who added another exotic color to Gillet’s musical palette. She was a master of classical Indian cello, and she shared her knowledge with Gillet.
“She was the first person to give me a lesson that was entirely off the page,” Gillet said. “She just sang to me, and I played what I heard. I was very bad at it. I had won a concerto competition, but I didn’t know how to find a very simple phrase. She really opened up my ears and put me in my place. I owe a lot to my Indian teacher in Madison.”
One hears many influences in Gillet’s sound. Whether tenderly cradling her instrument or rocking out with flailing arms, Gillet performs with intensity. So it’s not surprising to learn that she played drums in a punk rock band.
“My brother was a drummer, and I thought you’re not supposed to play very well to be a punk band anyway, so I’m going to try playing drums, and it worked out perfectly,” she said. “It was really fun. My girlfriends and I were all in our raging early 20s with lots to say. It was a fun experience, and I loved it.”
Gillet realized the jazz potential of the cello when she attended the New Directions Cello Society Festival in 2000 in Connecticut. She heard a cellist playing avant garde jazz and her mind was blown. It was then she decided she was going to be a jazz cellist.
As she searched the country to find a school to help her in her quest, Gillet made the fateful decision to pursue her master’s degree in musical performance at Loyola University in New Orleans.
The tropical climate and vegetation, the French history of Louisiana and the openness of the music scene made Gillet feel at home. She set out to make her career as a jazz cellist in the Big Easy.
“I had three months worth of savings when I moved to New Orleans and was a very poor master’s student,” she said, “but I didn’t take a job outside of playing music to force myself to get on stage with players. And it worked.
“There wasn’t any other cello player on the scene when I arrived that was doing improvised music in jazz. There also weren’t very many women instrumentalists, even though there’s a long, beautiful history of female vocalists in New Orleans.
“Since I just came out of a punk band with strong-minded, very smart women, I decided to go for it. I don’t know where I got it from, but I had some sort of drive to make it happen. I was convincing bands left and right that they needed a cello player.
“I’d tell them ‘You know, your trombone player can’t play that gig, but I can read a trombone chart. Oh, your violinist has just left town? I’ll just bring it an octave down.’”
Gillet has become an important part of New Orleans’ music scene, performing at the Jazz and Heritage Festival and jamming regularly at various venues around town. She’s been warmly embraced by the community, and recently received the 2014 Big Easy Award for best female performer.
Gillet plays progressive jazz rather than traditional New Orleans jazz, but for a while she was playing classical string quartets with three other musicians for a weekly Thursday gig at Cafe Brasil.
Mark Southerland, who is a regular visitor to New Orleans, met Gillet as they were waiting to take part in a late-night jam session. Gillet, who had been waiting for hours for her turn on the stage, was becoming increasingly frustrated.
“It was a very male-oriented jazz jam,” she said, “but I remember being slightly miffed because I hadn’t been invited on the stage, and it was 3 in the morning, and I had been there since 10. So I went into the green room, and there was Mark Southerland.
“He had this very friendly aura about him, that I felt like I could approach him. I told him how frustrated I was that it was 3 in the morning and hadn’t been asked onstage, and he said, ‘If it makes you feel better, I haven’t been asked on stage, either.’”
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. They spent the rest of the night improvising backstage, with Gillet playing cello and Southerland a vacuum hose. Gillet made up words and sang songs to kill time until they both got their chance to play together in the jam session.
“We had a musical chemistry that just continued from the green room,” Gillet said. “He’s used to being around strong women. He’s married to one. So soon after that he invited me to come to Kansas City to work on a Charlotte Street-funded show he was putting on called ‘Moon Bears and Sister Wives.’ That was the first time he invited me to come to Kansas City. So that’s what started it all.”
Gillet’s now semi-regular appearances in Kansas City have become much-anticipated events for local jazz cognoscenti, and she returns the affection. Gillet is very impressed with the city, its people and its history.
“Being aware of the history of jazz is a big part of being a musician in New Orleans. I feel similarly about Kansas City. There’s a creativity in the way people improvise that is not as cold and detached from the history as in places like New York.
“The avant garde music scene (in Kansas City) seems to be rooted in and connected with the history of jazz. The creativity is very, very much alive and unique. There are a lot of unique voices in Kansas City. I love it.”
Gillet’s touring career has started to take off, and she enjoys exploring other parts of the country and is constantly honing her craft, seeking new musical influences. But after a lifetime of peregrinations, Gillet calls New Orleans home.
“I don’t know if I have a choice really,” she said. “New Orleans kind of chooses you. I’ve seen it happen where you you think, ‘I’m going to move to New Orleans and it’s going to be great.’ And then you go there, and it either decides that you’re good for New Orleans, or it decides to spit you out. I was lucky because it got me.
“Katrina even sealed it for me. It’s like when you have a sick friend in the hospital, and you realize, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to be by that friend’s side.’ That’s what Katrina did. It sealed my love for New Orleans even more. I’m a New Orleans musician now.”
Owen/Cox Dance Group performs “Memory Palace” at 8 p.m. June 28 at Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St. Tickets are $17.50-$22.50 through OwenCoxDance.org.