In Conversation: Georgia Anne Muldrow on Finding Freedom as Jyoti

The Alice Coltrane–gifted pseudonym resurfaced for a third record, Mama, You Can Bet!, released last Friday.

Since her thick 2006 debut, Olesi: Fragments of an Earth, singer-composer-player-producer Georgia Anne Muldrow has paged through the catalog of Black music with spirit, speed, and freedom as her guide. Muldrow is jazz, funk, blues, hip-hop, R&B, nu-R&B, space soul, and beyond. You could compare her to early Roberta Flack, latter-day Erykah Badu, or Nina Simone and Amina Claudia Myers at any point in their careers—but you’d be wasting Muldrow’s time. Just groove to Georgia Anne and avoid comparisons.

One wildly mercurial element that allows you entry into the poetic depths of her soul is the free jazz—gentle and incendiary—of her albums Ocotea and Denderah. Recorded under the pseudonym Jyoti, a name given to her by free spirit and free jazz giant Alice Coltrane, these albums drift and dart in a fashion connecting her to her own ancestors: Muldrow’s father is the late jazz guitarist Ronald Muldrow; her mother Rickie Byars-Beckwith co-founded the Sound of Agape and worked with fellow free people Pharoah Sanders and Roland Hanna. Muldrow and her husband, rapper Dudley Perkins, co-founded the SomeOthaShip Connect record label, and have recorded several albums together such as last year’s Black Love & War under the name G&D.

This year, as Jyoti, she’s released Mama, You Can Bet!, what seems like her most fully free album yet, a record that finds the Spirit of Coltrane (both Alice and John) at its loftiest and most prayerful, while managing a few Monk-worthy laughs, several Mingus remixes (“Bemoanable Lady Geemix Fonk,” ‘”Fabus Foo Gemix”), a jagged funk edge, and a love of experimental noise and synth soul that’s richly undefinable and remarkably concise.

Considering the record label and homemade music which you share with Dudley, tell me what partnership means as a married couple, as business people, and as collaborative artists.

Oh my, it’s everything. It’s being in somebody’s world, and somebody being in your world, and having those merge into one world. There’s children being raised and music being made. At this point, it’s like fish describing water—it’s been fifteen years. It’s the way we get down. I see it as one of my favorite things to do, making music with Dudley. We balance each other out. As far as the label goes, it’s an incredible feeling to have the ability to be embraced for my creativity and not feel pressure. I don’t know where I’d be without him.

How did making music with your husband last time out set you up for making this album which also touches on family—this time your mother on, at the very least, the title track? 

It’s all part of one life—mine. It’s me living, experiencing all of my family. Especially now. Before all this COVID stuff, if I wasn’t working out of town, I was doing something else. Family creates the atmosphere to make what I make. This segue, though, is happening as life is happening—like what is going on with my mother and her transference, opening up. I wanted to celebrate that with a song. When your family is always there, it’s like having an artist’s favorite still life just being stuff around the house. The catalyst is simple. The situation is complex. You’re still painting an emotional landscape.

What’s your earliest memory of your mom making music?

Oh my god. Being very small, all I can recall is having my ear to her heart, or the times I would have my ears to her back and hearing her talk—the vibration was music to me. Very calming sound. The most calming sound.

When your family is always there, it’s like having an artist’s favorite still life just being stuff around the house. The catalyst is simple. The situation is complex. You’re still painting an emotional landscape.

Jyoti stands for light and flame. Do you know why Alice Coltrane saw that in you, enough so to name you that?

When it comes down to what she sees, it’s like E.T. phoning home. You’re talking about someone who had an extreme awareness of, and connection with, her highest self. She always strived to merge with the greatness and realness of creation. That was her goal. She told me that the name came from the spirit, but I don’t even think she’d take credit for naming me that, you know? It’s the name that came through for me. It’s my job to inform what it is. It’s my journey to own it. 

What is that name Jyoti to you? What does it signify?

The beginning of something beautiful. My life changed then, and that name marked that change. Me going within and figuring out what’s in there. Healing myself.  That’s what’s most important—I think that she would want people to know such light, to have people meditate on who they are, and who they’re not. I’m trying to live up to that name with the music I’m making under it. Stay open, stay curious. Uncover everyday magic. I think that’s why she charged me with that name.

Since this music is so deeply personal, how do you relay it to other musicians? What sort of players do you look for? I’m thinking of Lakecia Benjamin, on “Ra’s Noise.”

There’s a motif that’s there in that song, and that motif is strong; strong enough for her to get what I wanted out of her. I didn’t want contemporary jazz coming out of her horn. It comes down to trust, and I’m trusting a musician to impart what they can. If I don’t trust you, I don’t even call you to jam. She came with a complete parade, and a tribute to Sun Ra. She brought all the multi-colored silk scarves. It’s a joyful noise.

 

You made Jyoti records in 2010, 2013, and 2020: could you say if there were any life events that pushed you to speak as or through Jyoti?

Absolutely. On Denderah, I have a song called “Theodosia 3:23” and that’s my auntie who passed away. On the first one, there’s a song titled “Turiya’s Smile,” which was me mourning Alice Coltrane and my father. Ocotea is unique in the sense that it’s a tribute to free everything, free jazz. A tribute to Alice. There’s a lot of her DNA in there. 

This one has spirits who had passed. My mother, too, freed herself from a relationship that was over—that’s a certain kind of death, too. A song like “This Walk” talks of a death, the surety of remaining static, then speaking out. If you’re not careful, you can become a very scripted person. Not me, I just want to be real. So there’s a lot of things that happen to make a Jyoti record. It’s the death of your family and friends, a metamorphosis of your character, a change in your heart to dig for deeper truths. Those are the things that bring a Jyoti record forward. It’s the songs that I have to make—thinking about nothing else, but getting this feeling out.

And musically, are there events and vibes you can speak to?

Well, there’s those hard bop rhythms and the harmonics of a Jyoti record, too—that phrasing—but that’s just me loving on my dad, too. I was raised with that, that’s an ancestral call, an emotional call, an ever-changing call.

Whether through its writing or recording, how do you recognize if something’s “Jyoti?”

It’s the songs that I don’t need a click track to start. It’s when I’m going to the piano with an emotion in my heart that I can’t name, and only my fingers can do the talking. That’s when I know it’s Jyoti. It’s when I’m coming with the most vulnerable… I’m praying. It’s my subconscious mind. I’m making music as if my life depended on it. FL

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