Release date: June 29, 2023
Label: Unit Records
Washington DC-based flutist, vocalist and composer Alex Hamburger returns on her pictorial sophomore statement What If? The release of What If? follows Hamburger’s conceptual debut And She Spoke (2021), an homage to the ferocity of trailblazing female creatives stretching from Maya Angelou to Terri Lyne Carrington to Hamburger’s own activist-poet grandmother. The highly-orchestrated, textural paths exhibited on And She Spoke became a sketch of Hamburger’s sensitivity to human experience and propensity for transforming feeling into sound. What If? continues this deed in the sublime and empirical fashion that its title suggests — across nine original compositions, Hamburger reminds us that such hypothetical questions entertain possibility and ignite our imaginations.
She enlists her routine roster of collaborators for the operation, including album producer José Luiz Martins, who is also heard here on keys, synths and piano, Tyrone Allen II on electric, acoustic and synth bass, Chase Elodia on drums and Patrick Graney on percussion. Special guest Andrew Bailie joins the track “Gone Too Soon (For Lowell and Aaron)” on guitar and bass. Like her debut, Hamburger called mixing engineer Patrik Zosso for the bright sonic developments we now know as her signature as well as recording engineer Mark Reiter. In 2021, Hamburger was named a recipient of the Chamber Music America Performance Plus Grant, through which she was able to collaborate with powerhouse trumpeter Ingrid Jensen on the production of What If? “Both Ingrid and the whole band’s insight really helped shape the music that I had written into these fully formed pieces they became,” the bandleader adds.
For Hamburger, composing means creating a visceral narrative and scene. As a result, the output of What If? is immense and multi-hued, combining electric sounds, synths and pedals with percussion and acoustic instruments. At times, moments are abstract, while other settings find comfort in more traditional songform moments with lyrics. Album opener “Ladybug” creates a sensible entryway for this kind of genre-bending, methodical tendency. Trading her words for winds graciously, Hamburger balances both instrumental roles without compensation, all while such intermittent sounds complement the track’s themes of dissociation.
Leaning deeper into the abstract, both pieces of “Molinos de Viento” source inspiration from Hamburger’s studies of Dadaist poetry. Honing in on the notion that art is made from randomization, “Molinos de Viento: Meditation on the Wind”, by virtue of track-producer Tyrone Allen II, is characterized by instrumental fragmentation and the especially-ridged textures of Patrick Graney’s percussion. In 2018, Hamburger wrote these sporadic sounds by a name-from-hat drawing method while a part of the prestigious Focusyear band in Basel, Switzerland. The tracks’ title is sourced from a hallucinatory scene in the Don Quixote epic, when Sancho mistakes windmills in the distance for a group of threatening giants. Hamburger connected a thread once more, morphing Sancho’s delusions into grounds for the fantastical. “Things aren’t always what they seem or appear to be,” she notes.
“Every song has a different process, a different starting point, be it a melody, a groove, another song or just a few words or chords,” Hamburger states. Tracks like “Surface Unknown” and “Plastic Stars” are soaked in ambient, trance-inducing and fusion atmospheres, the foremost unfolding into lush rhythmic stylings and resolving itself through transcendent harmonies brought forth by Hamburger’s flute and José Luiz Martins’ synths.
While at times her music grapples with notions of randomness and abstract principles, other moments such as “November 3rd” evoke concrete truths and memories. Written amid the infamous Biden-Trump Presidential election in November 2020, the composition is a device of her devout studying of Wayne Shorter’s catalog at the time and taking long walks in the woods to reflect. “November 3rd” portrays an effort to reach toward sanity, and it’s another moment where Hamburger’s style—here more straigthahead than the rest—matches the story behind it.
“The main concept of What If? is perception,” Hamburger shared in a statement. “The idea of challenging our perception of reality and how it relates to others and can change. It’s about exploring life in transition and questioning the boundaries of our human experience in today’s society.” Keenly, Hamburger closes What If? with “Gone Too Soon (For Lowell and Aaron), a poignant, folk-flushed tribute to her two late friends. Through ethereal multi-tracking, she sings from Lowell’s point of view, relaying a message to Aaron and creating a symbol of eternal connection. This notion feels broadly understood in the context of loss and, too, an essential final impression of What If?, a record imbued with sensations, questions and multiple answers.
And She Spoke
Release date: November 5, 2021
Flutist-composer and singer Alex Hamburger threads generations of voices through her debut release And She Spoke. Focused on sharing women’s stories — from poets and activists to composers and songwriters — the album offers original music and fresh interpretations of enduring works. Exploring pieces from Geri Allen, Maya Angelou, Mary Lou Williams, Joni Mitchell and her own grandmother, poet and activist Ana Maria R. Codas, Hamburger creates a highly orchestrated, textural experience that unfolds in thoughtful sequence.
In her liner notes, Hamburger describes the experience of conceiving and recording And She Spoke as “standing on the shoulders of giants.” She credits her own pathway through the music to the women — and, in particular, the Black women — who came before her. “These women made it so women like me could have a voice,” she says. “Women like Terri Lyne [Carrington] and Mary Lou Williams paved the way.”
Recorded in a single day at JazzCampus Studio in Basel, Switzerland, And She Spoke features quartet members José Luiz Martins on piano and Rhodes, Chase Elodia on drums and Hamburger’s mentor-turned-colleague Doug Weiss on bass. “Playing with Doug is always a lesson,” says the DC artist. “He’s just so solid and grounding yet so interactive — a part of this big swirling thing. What he brought to the music was really his experiences — who he is. Having someone from his generation who’s been around and played around — even the way he talks about music — you can feel all that when you play with him.”
Cool clarity from recording and mixing engineer Patrik Zosso serves the music’s precision and tonal colors, and Hamburger’s overall aesthetic for the recording. “Patrik heard the music and knew what it needed,” she says. The two mixed together remotely, sending each other notes and tracks. “We didn’t have that ‘sitting down moment,’ but he was really patient.”
“A lot of how we view music, on a very visceral level, is through texture,” says Hamburger. She and Martins match and reflect each other’s melodic development against spontaneity, particularly on their stark, haunting arrangement of Mitchell’s “Last Chance Lost” that leads into Beatles classic “Across the Universe,” as well as on Allen’s “Unconditional Love.” Foundational buoyancy enhances the record’s exploration of texture, nuanced and elemental. “Waking in the City,” Hamburger’s response to Angelou’s “Awaking in New York,” delivers a mood-casting drone that rapidly gains momentum. Hamburger serves a strong, soulful statement on her arrangement of Williams’s “What’s Your Story Morning Glory," acknowledging the vastness of the Black, female experience in music. On “Burning the Letters,” the flutist-composer’s instrumental tribute to Sylvia Plath, a channel-driving, reflexive energy evokes a depth of feeling on a vivacious, conversation-like improvisation.
“People outside of certain circles maybe don’t know as much about who Geri was and what she’s done for the music,” says Hamburger. “I just love the way she wrote. I love the way she played and the way she conceptualized music. I had to include her in this project. She’s one of those women who broke the boundary and said, ‘Fuck this. I’m gonna play. Get out of my way.’”
Rich transitions abound throughout “It Comes Unadorned,” Hamburger’s arrangement of Toni Morrison’s vivid verse. But the artist-composer’s most personal gesture memorializes the revolutionary life of her grandmother who fought for academic integrity under the Stroessner dictatorship in Paraguay. “I was blown away by her poems and stories,” says Hamburger, “by this art that I was connected to and how amazing it was and how much it resonated with me. She was the starting point [for this project].”
Through Hamburger’s skilled arrangements and creative interpretations of existing literary works, And She Spoke tells a series of stories that share an arc of resistance, grace and grit. “It’s been a journey for sure,” she says. “That day in the studio was everything I had worked on for so long. And it’s a dream come true.”
DC area-born flutist, composer and vocalist Alex Hamburger began touring at an early age. A young member of Paul Carr’s Jazz Academy of Washington, she received opportunities to perform all over the country with such noted artists as Randy Brecker, Javon Jackson, Warren Wolf and Carmen Bradford. Though emerging in her career, Alex has played at a variety of venues around the East Coast such as Smalls, Birdland, The Blue Note, The Stone, Dizzy’s Club, Rockwood Music Hall, The Falcon, The Kennedy Center, Bohemian Caverns, Twins Jazz and Zinc Bar as well as many venues and festivals internationally such as The Telluride Jazz Festival, The Vienna Jazz Festival, Basel Off Beat Jazz Festival, The Jazz Educators Network Conference and The Washington Women in Jazz Festival. A highly sought collaborator with a distinctive vision, she has been part of a number of different projects, in addition to leading her own. Alex currently co-leads a duo project with José Luis Martins that released the 2019 EP Vapor Trails. In 2018, Alex received placement in the prestigious Focusyear band at the JazzCampus in Basel, Switzerland where she lived, studied and played alongside masters such as Ambrose Akinmusire, Seamus Blake, Billy Childs, Guillermo Kien, Dave Liebman, Jorge Rossy and Norma Winston. She is a 2021 recipient of the Chamber Music of America Performance Plus Grant, through which she and her quartet will have the chance to work alongside her mentor Ingrid Jensen.
"The impressive record is a collection of women's stories - from poets and activists to composers and songwriters - offering original music and fresh interpretations of enduring works." Read this review here.
"An album whose spontaneity and subtle sophistication reveal new treasures with each listening." Read this review in French here.
When Alex Hamburger played CapitalBop’s last DC Jazz Loft at Union Arts, in 2016, it was clear that she had a lot to say — and was ready to take her music on the road. Watch this performance here.
NEW YORK MUSIC DAILY
"It’s reason to look forward to whatever else this eclectic artist has cooking." Read the complete review here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"There is a fireside warmth to Alex Hamburger’s voice." Read the complete review here.
"Hamburger credits Black women as being especially important agents of change in the area of women’s rights, and these figures have helped artists like Hamburger have a prominent voice that’s sophisticated, gritty and highly memorable on this fantastic first record. " Review here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"This music feels light and airy at first hearing but eventually the quiet resolve and clear-eyed optimism in the program comes through." Read the review here.
GEORGE W. HARRIS
"Her voice is clear and calm on pieces like “The Journey” and “Lion’s Den” with her flute dreamy during “Gone Too Soon”." Read the review here.
"Following her conceptual debut, "And She Spoke" (2021), which paid tribute to influential female creatives throughout history, Hamburger continues to showcase her immense talent and ability to transform emotions into captivating melodies." Read the review here.
"The release of What If? follows Hamburger’s conceptual debut And She Spoke (2021), an homage to the ferocity of trailblazing female creatives stretching from Maya Angelou to Terri Lyne Carrington to Hamburger’s own activist-poet grandmother." Read the review here.
THE ART FUSE
"Alex Hamburger has her own style with evocative compositions and ethereal flute playing. It’s improvisatory jazz, but it’s informed by trance music, fusion, and world music without ever dissolving into New Age noodling." Read the full review here.