By Cristina Schreil
When violinist, violist, and singer Jasmin Charles was eight, she received a gift from her mother. It was a children’s book about jazz—and, it came with a letter. “Jazz is the music of our people. Jazz is America’s classical music. You are jazz. You are as complex as jazz is,” Charles recalls reading. “In every letter she wrote to me, she said, ‘Hi Baby Jazz.’”
Though it was bursting with rich mixed-media portraits, biographies of musical greats, and words by Wynton Marsalis, Jazz: My Music, My People was not a welcome present. To Charles, it was a reminder of the distance between her and her estranged mother: “Like a huge heavy shadow of her not being there.” As a kind of coping mechanism, she avoided listening to and playing the genre for years, even as her musical world expanded. This is surprising, considering Charles’ eclectic array of influences, from classical to bluegrass to cinematic soundtracks to hip-hop to electronic to world music to music from the ’60s and ’70s. Like many contemporary instrumentalists, she’s inspired by a variety of music and artists, including Cardi B and Sade.
Charles—formerly of the hip-hop-classical duo Chargaux and who now goes by Jasminfire—says that when she moved to New York City, however, she couldn’t help but explore what she’d long avoided. She befriended passionate jazz musicians. “After a while, it crept in.” Charles is also a visual artist; around the time she began composing works that would eventually be on her new album, she painted to meditative world music; minimalism of the same vein as Philip Glass; and, of course, some jazz. She listened to Bill Evans and Alice Coltrane, the latter a direct inspiration for how she’d build string layers and play with meter. Her exploration mirrors the same kind of enthusiastic adventurism at the heart of her life as an artist—especially when living in New York, she describes it as a determined hustle.
In 2017, everything crashed to a halt. Her mother passed away, sending Charles into an immobilizing depression. “The whole month I spent in bed,” she says. “I literally did not go anywhere. My hair was falling out.” Her music-making stopped—that energy she bounded with, in her art and social life, stagnated. The only thing that motivated her to act was a small garden that she needed to water, eventually forming the basis of a new, reluctant self-care routine. Little by little, she picked up her instruments again. But, it wasn’t the same. “Eventually, what I would do is pour myself a glass of wine and improvise. Every single thing I came up with was melancholy,” she recalls. “Even singing long notes, I could pour the notes out of my throat like fluid into a glass, taking you up and down into your feelings with one word.” It took about a year to bounce back and “look for myself,” she says.
Her mother’s death sparked and coincided with deep transformations musically, spiritually, and culturally. She journeyed to Cuba, her estranged father’s homeland, and immersed herself in her heritage. It was an emergence of a new spiritual self, she says, that “brought me to a place of absolution. An acknowledgment of where I’ve been in my own way the entire time.” The compositions resulting from it comprise Charles’ first album as Jasminfire: named, aptly, Baby Jazz.
As is her usual method, she recorded herself playing her violin and viola, using looping stations and other electronic software, in whatever bedroom she occupied during her travels. (She composed across Toronto, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Havana, with the last four tracks manifested in a whirlwind two weeks in Atlanta. “Plants,” about her mournful depression, features Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Baby Rose reading one of Charles’ poems.) She recorded vocals in different Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York studios. Softglas, a producer with whom she’s collaborated with through Chargaux, provided percussion beats that she composed around. Acting as a kind of chronicle of her metamorphosis—from a high-energy yet anxiety-riddled twenty-something to someone living with intention—the record’s eight tracks encompass little chapters of her change. Listeners will start with Charles’ frenetic energy and joyful life (in the first songs featuring percussionist Vernon Strayhorn, bassist Shad Marshall, and keyboard player Darius Scott). Then, she captures her sinking depression through soulful, ethereal string layers and a meditative vibe.
For Charles, unique textures are vital to her expression. (Charles has synesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon wherein a triggering of one sense stimulates sensations in another; she closely associates colors with musical notes and chords and can “see” colors when listening to or learning music, as if viewing lines on an Etch-a-Sketch). The same kinds of rhythmic patterns in her music also populate her vibrant visual art.
There’s these beautiful chord changes and spurts of pizzicato. I wanted to write it so it didn’t sound like your ears are being assaulted. It’s smooth and beautiful, with lots of resonance.
Throughout Baby Jazz, textures are plenty. Track 4, “Lajuana Beach,” reflecting her mother’s name, captures her emotions spreading her mother’s ashes. Charles had realized that, because of their distant relationship, this was one of the rare times she actually touched her mother. “It’s completely pizzicato—violin and viola,” Charles says of the folk- and soul-inflected song. “There’s these beautiful chord changes and spurts of pizzicato. I wanted to write it so it didn’t sound like your ears are being assaulted. It’s smooth and beautiful, with lots of resonance. I take advantage of using one note and making a huge feeling—making a bed out of just one note.”
Another track, inspired by Charles’ recurring dream of trying to breath underwater, employs playful synths and string sounds that emulate bubbles floating to the top, like sound effects in a video game. While most works resonate as electronic-classical, with elements of folk, hip-hop, and soul, the seventh track, “Oro,” channels Alice Coltrane. “She has all these things that don’t necessarily fit in a meter but they still sound beautifully musical,” she says, adding that one Coltrane song she adores sounds like layers of birds. Throughout, her creative process led to new musical choices. “I choose my colors the way that I use my chords,” she says, explaining the way synesthesia informed this project. “When I’m listening to something that sounds very ABAB I like to throw in a different color, whether it’s one chord here or there.”
Baby Jazz, released digitally this April, also comes with a zine-like editorial foldout with her visual art, credits, and excerpts from her mother’s letter that started it all. “Up until my mom passed, I was completely trying to prove myself,” she says of her entrepreneurial 20s. (She turned 30 soon after her mother’s passing.) “There was no guidance. Even though I was finding success and pushing for things, and opening unlocked doors, I was still kind of rough about it all. Instead of being cool and being calm and collected, I was always on the defense.”
Through the self-described “ego-deaths” that the last half of Baby Jazz contends with, she achieved more balance. “I ended up learning in different situations that that kind of mentality will kill something from the inside—it will rot you from the inside and not allow you to further progress.” In a way, the project fueled her as she created it. She said the album wouldn’t have emerged if she didn’t “slow down” and focus on inner work. She still hopes listeners sense the energy that she had before, however. Her artistry isn’t totally new—just matured: “I’m just going to approach it with a lot less anxiety and a lot more intention.”