In the noughties saxophonist Meilana Gillard, who was born in London but grew up in Ohio, began developing a reputation on the brutally competitive New York jazz scene. She was a member of and composed for Dizzy Gillespie drummer Charli Persip’s big band Supersound, for example, and her 2009 album, Day One, was produced by Greg Osby, no less.
But despite such successes Gillard remembers a draining struggle for survival. “Before I left there was a week where I was teaching at a college in the Bronx, I was cashier at a grocery store, I’d some $50 gigs with big bands and I played with Christian McBride at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. And that still was not enough!”
When her parents retired to her mother’s home city of Belfast, Gillard followed, in 2012. “I was burnt out,” she sighs. “It got too much for me and I just had to leave.”
Gillard lives in Northern Ireland to this day but the new, self-titled album by her band The RBG Trio shows that her considerable talents have survived her exile from New York. “It’s all new music but we only had one short rehearsal before recording the album,” she says. “That can be scary but we trusted ourselves and allowed the magic to happen. There are little flubs here and there but I’m completely fine with that because on my favourite records there are cracked notes and moments where the musicians are really going for something and they don’t know where the music’s headed – but that’s when some of the most beautiful things happen.”
Gillard’s colleagues in the band are double bassist Dave Redmond and drummer Kevin Brady. “There’s something special about the openness of a trio,” says Gillard. “And Dave and Kevin are excellent technically and fearless and willing to try anything and what’s important in music to them is what’s important to me: making each other sound good.”
The compositions, virtually all by Gillard or Redmond, are notably melodic. “I want to leave people feeling like they were told a story rather than [the tunes being just] vehicles for improvisation,” she says.
Critics have often compared Gillard’s playing to that of musicians like Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Stan Getz. “I have listened to a lot of that music but do I think I sound like any of them? As if I could!” she giggles. “I’m appreciative of the compliments but I just want to live in the moment where I am and not be stuck in any one pocket. Even though I get pegged as post-bop I love free jazz, soul jazz, fusion, straight-ahead jazz, I love it all and want to experience it all.”
Gillard suffers from depression. “It comes in cycles,” she says. “When [2017’s] Dream Within A Dream was out I was experiencing it a lot. I was grieving the loss of my mother and I was having a bit of an identity crisis, as somebody who lives [in Northern Ireland] but was born in London and grew up in Ohio. I feel like I don’t have a home town, don’t have that grounded [feeling], ‘I’m from here,’ that some people have.”
Her illness, she says, needs to be managed. “You can do things like with diet and getting sun but there’re times it becomes difficult. But I’m definitely in a way better place with all of that than I’ve been in a long time.”
Gillard has also had physical problems of late. “Two years ago suddenly I developed this issue where I would reach for something and get these electric shock-like pains down my neck, my shoulders and my hands. The doctors don’t really know: one says I have frozen shoulders, one says it’s a rotator cuff. Playing is really painful so I have to take pain medicine to get through and if I start to get tight when I’m [performing], I have to sit down and play. It’s frustrating but I have faith it will get better.”
Gillard explains her hopes for the RBG Trio: “I create the music because of the effect it has on people. When people say, ‘That really made me feel good,’ that’s worth its weight in gold. I didn’t become a jazz musician because I thought I was going to make major cash. I’m not looking for that. I just want the music to affect people.”
*The RBG Trio play the London Jazz Festival on 18 November.