Flutist Amber Underwood on her funky debut, This Is Me
Jazz flutist Amber Underwood’s new album, This Is Me, is credited to Amber “Flutenastiness” Underwood, and there’s no mistaking the fact that this is not your typical jazz flute album. Elements of 808 kick through on some tracks, giving is a real ’90s g-funk vibe, but it also manages to find time to chill out and relax, as well as dropping party jams. It’s a unique, catchy, and utterly addictive album that I’ve listened to nearly every day since Underwood emailed it to me early last month, so I was really excited to hop on the phone with the musician to talk about her journey making this record.
You’re a band director for KCMO public schools – how many schools is that?
I’m at the middle school level, so there’s two middle schools whereas there are five high schools, maybe, and then a ton of elementary schools. I’m not going to attempt to try to teach beginning band virtually. That’s not going to happen. I ordered some recorders. I refused to put instruments with beginning band students, as they don’t know what to do and they’re away from me
It’s more, “You take this three dollar and fifty cent recorder and then we’ll learn that way, and then we come back in person, then we can kind of introduce the instrument and work on the fundamentals,” but really, the first few weeks is learning how to use all the different apps and how to get on to things like that.
I have a lot of friends who are teachers and I am continually in awe of everything you all are doing. It’s been, what, six months since March and you’ve had to completely relearn how to do your job?
Yes. The things that I do naturally–I feel like a beginner teacher again. And, if we have a learning curve just as adults trying to learn how to put all this stuff online and do everything–just imagine us trying to teach a kid how to do this. And, our district wasn’t one one-to-one on computers, so trying to get all the whole district with computers and hot spots–yeah, it’s learning the hard way.
How long have you been teaching?
I’ve been in the KCMO school district going on my ninth year. I was in KCK for two or three years so a total of about 12 years. When you start to think about it, I felt like I just started teaching yesterday but within that amount of time, I’ve had my own private studio since 2008.
I was going to ask about that because I know a lot of teachers who do things like music or sports also do offer one-on-one education What attracts you to the whole teaching aspect of music – was that your intent from the very beginning?
No, I feel like it found me. I used to reject it a lot because I come from a background where my parents were both teachers, so I was like, “No, I’m not gonna be a teacher. No no no. I’m gonna play all over the world and be in the orchestra!” That was my thinking: “I’m gonna be an entertainer.”
My dad’s like, “Okay, since you’re gonna major in performance, maybe you should also – just in case, you know – go with teaching, too.” But, yeah: it kind of found me and I think it’s just something that comes naturally. I’m glad that I’m doing it because I’m able to teach through performance.
Watching your performance videos, it seems like you really enjoy not just being on stage but interacting with the audience and interacting with the other members of your band that are on stage, as well. Personal interaction: is that a big thing for you?
It is. I feed off other people and I always wanted to be an entertainer. I just didn’t know what it was going to look like. I always enjoyed performing. As a kid, I wanted to be an ice skater and I was in gymnastics. I always wanted to try out something where it allowed me to perform, but I never thunk that was going to be a jazz flautist, you know? It just kind of ended up that way.
I’ve always wanted to be the female Prince. I like the whole entertainment aspect from the pomp and circumstance clothes and the glitz and glamour, but also the music and things like that. I like the whole entertainment aspect, from building the show and the lighting. I like to see it all come together and one day, I’m gonna have that show: I’m gonna have my lights. I’m gonna have my background dancers. I’m gonna have choreography. I’m gonna have my horns section, my background singers.
How did you come to the flute as your instrument?
Well, my first instrument was piano. I started at the conservatory when I was in second or third grade because my mom wanted me to play piano and then I played violin in the fourth grade, but I remember in the fifth grade was when you could join the band. I thought it was really cool. I was like, “I’m going to be part of this!” My dad played a lot of Motown and soul and jazz music growing up, and so I heard a lot of these instruments, but I really didn’t want to play the flute.
It was like, “I want to play the saxophone!” you know? That was my instrument I wanted to play. When I had a chance, they told me, No,” and so I was like, “Well, what am I going to play?”
My dad played drums in high school, so I was like, “Well, I’ll play drums.” My mom was like, “No, I’m not going to hear all that,” and then was like, “Well, why don’t you play clarinet?” Man, I was like, “No, I don’t want to play clarinet,” so I just kind of gravitated to the flute because all of my other friends played the flute.
That’s the most horrible way to end up on an instrument but that’s kind of how it happened with me but I’m the last person standing so, plainly, it came naturally to me and I grew to love it. I was probably the worst in the band and my teacher could tell you I didn’t know the difference between E flat and E naturals, but it just grew over time. I had really great teachers that had encouraged me and I just pursued it.
Did you come to jazz through education or through your folks?
It wasn’t through education. It was mainly just being around the music and being interested in the music. It wasn’t really until college that a good friend of mine, DeAndre Manning–he’s a bass player here in the city, but we grew up together and went to the same college–he was like, “Amber, you need to get on this jazz tip.”
I was just like, “I don’t know.” He was all into jazz and I was still in the mindset of “I’m gonna be in the orchestra. I’m gonna be like in the New York Philharmonic.” He opened my eyes to a lot of that and I started experimenting a lot with it in college and once I graduated, was on the scene here in Kansas City. I liked to go to the jam sessions and try it, and then I had a mentor, Horace Washington, who’s no longer with us, but he was one of Kansas City’s premier jazz flutists and saxophonists and he would see me.
I was like, “I want to learn how to do that,” and he was like, “I’ll teach you jazz and you teach me Bach and Mozart,” so I started just hanging out and learning the scene. I have to say that I’m not formally educated in jazz. I picked it up off the street – learned it on my own, I guess you can say – by going to the jam sessions and learning my standards and things like that and hanging around all these cats that played it.
Then, my dad used to work at UMKC and he told me about Bobby Watson. This is right before [Watson] accepted the position for the director of jazz studies. He was like, “You need to contact him,” so I basically blew up his phone one summer and I was like, “Hey my name is Amber Underwood and I want to take jazz from you.” He thought it was a joke when I first walked into his studio. He was like, “I was wondering who this girl was that wanted to learn.”
I studied with him for a while and he introduced me to a lot of different people and I hung down on the scene and just did it from there. I would say I’m street educated in jazz and sometimes I feel like that’s the best way, because Charlie Parker didn’t go to school to learn jazz.
Your album has these elements where there are songs that are really laid-back and really chill but then there are these songs that just slap. I love the ebb and flow of the whole album. How did you get hooked up with your producer, Desmond Mason?
He was a blessing in my life. Prior to Desmond Mason, I was trying to work on an album. I didn’t know the concept, but I knew it was about time for me to start because I had been playing a lot on the scene and people are asking me, “Do you have anything out?” I was thinking maybe I’ll just do a live album at the Blue Room, but when I worked with a few people, that fell through and I was kind of like, “I don’t know what I want to do.”
I’d seen [Desmond] a couple places and I was peeping him out. I was like, “I want something fresh. I want a new sound. I don’t want to do a typical ‘Live at the Whatever.’ I don’t want that sound–I want to create my own sound, authentically: just me and a producer.” I didn’t want the traditional, “get a jazz band together and put some music together” album.
My lane is contemporary fusion jazz. I like standard jazz, but that’s not me. There’s also another side of me: I’m a little bit ratchet. I like that booty popping. I go out. That’s another side of me and so I wanted to incorporate all these different things. Desmond was kind of on the rise. Now he’s so busy, I swear he’s gonna be like the next Grammy winner, but I just peeked him out.
I felt his talent and I knew he did producing. I was like, “Hey, Dez: I’m looking to record an album. Would you want to work with me?” and he was like, “Yeah, that would be dope.” I told him that I just wanted to create something new and fresh that no one has heard before that’s not typical from a jazz flute player, and that’s how it kind of started.
Jazz flute isn’t a thing where I can think of too many examples of in conjunction with hip-hop. The Beastie Boys sample it a couple times or you might think of it as weird kung fu soundtrack samples on Wu-Tang albums, but otherwise, it’s such a unique combination.
It’s all sides of me. I realized I had to develop my own sound and style. When I was coming up, I felt like I had to emulate all of the horn players. I tried to emulate that but I was like, “No. This doesn’t feel right for me, trying to get all these different scales.” I wanted to get back to the melody, you know? I want to do this and this and this and that’s all I heard. I just needed to find my own voice and make my own voice for my instrument and what I hear, but with the same elements of what I had learned.
Before this album, a lot of people would compare my music to other flute players and I took it as a compliment, but I needed to establish my own sound so people would stop comparing me to other flute players.
As a title, I think This Is Me is very appropriate because this is an album where I heard the two songs you’d emailed me and I was like, “I like this,” but when I heard the whole album, I was not expecting it to go all these places. I love being surprised like that. It’s music that you can dance to you can dance, but it’s also music you can relax to, as well. You can listen to it on all these different levels. Was it helpful that it was just you and Desmond? Going back to what you had said about not putting together a whole band, in that it kind of lets you do you?
Yes. I didn’t want to go off any other blueprint. I wanted to make my own blueprint. The first song I made was “Alter Ego.” I wanted a booty popping, going to strip clubs, 808 track. With “Warwick,” that’s where I lived and it was one of the first songs that I came up with and wrote. I never thought that I would be writing songs or coming up with concepts and so, that particular song is very very close to my heart. “Strobe Light” was all about freedom. I had just got out of a four-year relationship and weight was off of my shoulder and I just wanted to feel free. I wanted a “Go out, have fun, ‘I’m gonna dance’ party mix.” These were the different things that were going on in my life and it just came out in the music.
Amber Underwood’s This Is Me is out on Wednesday, October 28.