Anita Woodley and N4HC to perform at Glenwood Community Bookstore
Fans of free jazz are generally pretty open. Duck sounds, abrasive sonic smears, a-rhythmic clatter, atonality, wild flurries of notes, glacial stasis or disjointed fragments — it’s all cool when the act of listening itself and the attention to sound waves and how they move is part of the point. But even the occasional free jazz audience member has been challenged by the improvised vocalizations of Anita Woodley, who performs with the group N4HC, a Durham-based quartet that will play Greensboro on Dec. 16 at the monthly Perceiver of Sound League event at Glenwood Community Bookstore. Woodley’s performance style has as much to do with theater and narrative and even shamanism and channeling as it does with singing in the traditional sense.
The group formed three years ago after Woodley met bassist Vattel Cherry at a performance event in Little Washington, North Carolina, which was a free-form event.
“People were beating toasters and all this stuff — it was wild,” Woodley said.
Woodley was interacting with the musicians, serving as a kind of roving MC, portraying her 100-year-old great-grandmother, which Woodley does in many of her roles as an educator and performer. Woodley doesn’t just enact the voice and behavior of her deceased great-grandmother; she communes with her spirit, “dips in,” as she puts it, adopting a different posture and facial expressions and changing her voice. Woodley tells stories of her great-grandmother’s life, imparting her perspective on events of the day. At that particular event, Woodley, in character, plucked on the bass a little, making some observations about the instrument. Cherry called her up a few months later to see if Woodley wanted to tell stories and join in on vocals with a free improvisation project he had along with drummer Jason Hines and woodwinds player and multi-instrumentalist Chris Lipscomb.
“We all got in there and jammed, and they told me ‘Just be our seer,’” Woodley said.
That’s a role Woodley takes seriously.
It’s not uncommon in the age of self-help to hear encouragement along the lines of ‘just be yourself’ in many contexts. But the fact that we need to be nudged along those lines suggests that being oneself is something many of us don’t feel at liberty to be, or that maybe it’s not even something we all know how to do.
Woodley is committed to what you might call radical realness. She was raised in Oakland, California, and she’s had a career as a journalist and educator, writing and performing in one-woman shows about breast cancer, leading workshops to instruct young people about sexual violence, bullying and harassment.
With Cherry, Lipscomb and Hines creating grooves that ebb and flow behind her, Woodley rolls with the live setting, tapping into what she senses in a room, interacting with the audience, assessing what she senses to be their preoccupations and concerns, and spinning tales from her great-grandmother’s life. She might dive into the subject of police brutality or about the oppressive nature of history. Cherry and her bandmates give Woodley freedom to do whatever comes to her involving her voice.
“He said your voice is the instrument, it’s the ultimate instrument,” Woodley said. “I get to be myself now, every frickin’ day. That is the best feeling in the world,” said Woodley of her mission. “Just show up and be you, and that’s gonna be good.”
You can find footage of Woodley and N4HC extemporizing about “Cubicle Booty” in an improvised performance online, a playful riff on the emotionally and physically confining realities of office-job life. Or you can see footage of the group making music about the pressure to be on time or to wait. The Last Poets or Sun Ra and June Tyson might come to mind.
She does moves, she morphs her face and exaggerates her mouth or her eyes. She might strike poses akin to surfing or tai chi. It all depends.
It’s not all about storytelling, channeling and characters though. Sometimes, particularly when she’s trying to process or move through intense emotions, Woodley will bellow and howl. It’s a technique or behavior — what she calls “movin’ it” — that she learned from her great-grandmother, a way of embracing grief and letting it move through the body. It’s loud and animalistic, she said. She describes it as “tonal healing.”
Her great-grandmother told her: “When you’re feeling it, just cry. Just let it out from the back of your pinky toe.”
Woodley remembers watching her great-grandmother learn of the death of a loved one. “She would do this howling. She would be in her chair, and she would go prostrate with her body and just start screaming and howling out these sounds. It was like this releasing of something.”
It may not be pretty, and if Woodley is moved to do it on stage, it may make some audience members uncomfortable, but that’s okay. Woodley figures we — as Americans, and Westerners — are probably a little too invested in holding it in, preserving appearances and conforming to what’s expected of us. She’s not entirely won over by that approach.
“Everyone talks about how they want to know other cultures and accept other cultures, and it sounds good until it’s in your face,” Woodley said of the challenges that some might have with embracing different modes of expression.
“I’m finally, at 41, coming around to accepting that this is just my job,” Woodley said. “A wrench’s purpose is to turn the bolt; my purpose is to make people comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.