Saxophonist, composer and vocalist Hailey Niswanger is a Portland native, but like many who have sought the next level in the jazz world, she relocated to New York City in 2011 after graduating from Berklee College of Music. She’s since worked with fellow Portlander Esperanza Spalding as well as other greats like Maceo Parker, Christian McBride, Wynton Marsalis, Terri Lyne Carrington and many more.
But after independently releasing PDX Soul in 2015, Niswanger decided to try a new tact with her next release. Gathering a cast of musical talent including Nikara Warren on vibraphone, Axel Tosca Laugart on keys, Andrew Renfroe on guitar, Aaron Liao on synth and electric bass, and David Frazier Jr. on drums, welcome MAE.SUN—and their debut full-length Vol. 1: Inter-be, out November 3—to the scene.
“Vol. 1: Inter-be takes listeners on an immersive, genre-bending journey rooted in the hope for universal harmony,” Niswanger says. “This music is for the world,” and the first track, “River of Perception,” is the opener to an album that is “meant to be digested in one sitting.”
Niswanger, known for her ability to artfully orchestrate eclectic influences into her songs, which often draw on contemporary jazz, soulful funk and neo-soul, provides soprano saxophone and vocals on Vol. 1: Inter-be, while the entire band shares a deeper vision that goes beyond standard musical camaraderie.
“The whole concept of MAE.SUN comes from a very meditative state,” Niswanger explains. “We are trying to build a stronger connection between all forms of life and bring awareness to the interdependent nature of reality. Thich Nhat Hanh [a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who is a spiritual leader, peace activist and poet] has been a huge influence on the music of MAE.SUN.”
“River of Perception” starts with a solid bassline ready to support a creative and unfolding arrangement. The rhythm section is thick as thieves throughout, cementing the groove foundation while also providing some wonderful and tasty accents. The keys, guitar and vibes often function as a back-and-forth rhythmic pattern, while Niswanger’s saxophone voices a soaring, melodic narrative comparable to an eagle gliding in the lowland hills before blasting upward to whip between mountain summits. Also, Renfroe’s wicked guitar solo must be mentioned here.
“As humans, we are constantly being exposed to so many things, and our mind has the ability to create what seems like an endless river of thoughts, feelings and perceptions that we can easily get carried away with. We play scenarios over and over in our head, looping back and jumping forward with erratic ideas. In ‘River of Perception,’ the music starts with a low, cyclical bassline that gradually gains more elements of thought; the drums, vibes, keys, guitar, and then this saxophone voice starts running off with these ideas, like our mind, and builds to a place that almost feels out of control. Screaming through the horn, trying to find the way, then retreating, showing that one’s own mind is the reason for one’s exhaustion,” Niswanger explains, with a mindful touch.
“The suite continues to explore our connection to all that is, the need for love and peace, the magic of limitless life, the call for universal harmony, and how rather than trying to suppress our thoughts and feelings, we can shine the sun of awareness onto these perceptions and illuminate our true selves and deepen our consciousness,” elaborates Niswanger on the album’s trajectory. It is safe to say that this introductory salvo, which you can listen to below, is to be viewed as the first slice of a bigger picture, surely whetting your appetite for the rest of the experience.
“The entire album was tracked live with the whole band in one room, with very few overdubs made to thicken the sound,” Niswanger proudly relates. Recorded with Zach Brown at The End in Brooklyn on December 29 and 30, 2016, the collective will celebrate the release of Vol. 1: Inter-be in NYC on November 10, but you can get ready for Niswanger to bring the MAE.SUN experience to Portland in late spring of 2018 when the group is planning a West Coast tour.