Artist Spotlight: Alexis Lombre Plays the Saugatuck Center for the Arts

Artist Spotlight: Alexis Lombre
Monday, February 8, 2021
By: CristiEllen Heos Zarvas, Program & Performance Coordinator

This Thursday evening, February 11th at 6:30pm, Alexis Lombre will take the stage at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts for our second performance of the 2021 Hempy Keyboard Series. If you haven’t already snagged a ticket, you can still purchase yours here. This series is generously made possible by our sponsors: Rex Hempy, Perrigo, and the Allegan County Community Foundation.

For those that don’t know Alexis Lombre, she is a jazz pianist from Chicago who discovered early on that the true essence of music is not just about what you hear but how music makes you feel. Her musical mission is to keep the ‘Soul’ in music alive. The 2017 release of her debut album, “Southside Sounds”, does just that, as it is a soulful reflection of her upbringing on Chicago’s Southside. Though she’s still early in her career, Alexis has already played with a long list of internationally-recognized musicians and has been mentored by U.S. jazz giants such as: Willie Pickens and Geri Allen. In anticipation for her Saugatuck debut, Alexis and I jumped on call to get to know her more and speak candidly about her experiences as a woman and performer of color.

As it is Black History Month, I thought we could start with talking about some Black performers who have either inspired or mentored you and how that influence manifests in your own work.

From the age of 14, Willie Pickens was a mentor of mine who really taught me how to apply myself musically. We were connected through a Chicago Public School program that the Ravinia Festival put in place called the Jazz Scholars Program. This program pairs young performers with well-known artists for year-round intensive training. Because I played piano, I was lucky enough to be paired with Mr. Pickens. Another significant influence is Geri Allen. Geri’s existence means so much to me. We were first introduced when I attended an all-girls jazz camp, which looking back, I wish I would have attended sooner.

Something I’ve learned and am growing to embrace in myself is the idea of Greatness. When you have mentors who are older and experts in their field, you have to recognize that their time is finite in this world. They have to really see something in you to want to pour their wealth of knowledge, time and talents into you. So often women specifically have been told to tone themselves down or make themselves more palatable as artists. This messaging comes from audiences, record labels and others. People like Geri Allen, with her relentless sense of ingenuity, never accepted that — she unapologetically took up musical space which allows me to do the same. Visionaries like Geri and Mr. Pickens affirmed the Greatness in me because they chose to invest in my future and defied narratives of limitation.

Other artists who are significant influences for me are Shirley Scott, who was an American jazz organist popular in the ’50s and ’60s, Esperanza Spalding, a transcendental jazz bassist, composer and singer (winner of 4 Grammy Awards, a Boston Music Award, and a Soul Train Music Award), and Erykah Badu — and her sense of owning her uniqueness — which really strikes a chord with me. The list is long….Thelonious Monk, whose uniqueness also heavily inspires me, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones…I could go on and on!

Thank you for sharing that. Continuing to think about Black artists and different historical spaces and moments. Would you be open to sharing a bit about your own experience in the industry and how the pandemic or the social-political climate has impacted you?

An interesting aspect of this moment is I feel like people are more willing to hear what I have to say than ever before. For instance, if I write a social-political piece, I think more people, not just Black people, are receptive to listen and hopefully receive it. I think that’s in part because they were forced to see really horrible things on social media, sit at home and digest it.

The pandemic has impacted me in a few different ways. At first, I was happy to have a break and it really gave me time to recalibrate. What makes me hopeful is that everyone is at ground zero. No one can tour. No one has gigs. For someone, like me, who is truly grassroots and independent, it gives me an opportunity to better connect with my audience through social media. Even the huge industries and labels are suffering, so there’s no need to pander for their attention or accept less than what we deserve as artists. Because of the present situation, I think this is a moment of growth for the industry in that artists have more bargaining power because we are largely representing ourselves. I now find a lot of people are more interested in supporting artists and small businesses in general which really excites me.

Over the weekend, I watched the Sam Cooke documentary on Netflix. Also a Chicago-based performer, he was known as the “King of Soul.” As an artist, he was constantly challenging discrimination in the music industry. While much has changed since the 50s and 60s, where do you think the biggest gains are to be made for Black performers?

As history shows us, Black people have always been at the forefront of entertainment innovation. Whatever is going to be the next big thing comes from Black creators. For instance, some folks who appreciate jazz may pigeonhole themselves into the “suits and sounds” that came out of the ’50s and ’60s. For me, I’m excited to be a part of that innovation — even just by being Black and being myself. By being true to who I am, however that unfolds, will inform the next trend.

Because the music industry has largely been leveled-out in many ways, there’s an opportunity for many performers to not really need labels — or even venues due to closures. With the emergence of social media, we can really channel our music and messages to people directly. When these institutions, which have historically held power over musicians, and in some cases exploited them, have lost relevance in the present moment, it re-opens the conversation about how best to support artists and what we are trying to do. When I think about the future of our industry, I wonder what we can build amongst ourselves.

You’ve recorded several albums independently, can you share a bit about that process?

Well, I can say it all starts from the artists’ pocket, which has its own challenges, but ultimately means I can create the album as I intended it. Without someone giving me an advance expecting the masters to my music in return, I have unlimited artistic license. Some independent studios I’ve worked with are Studio 2424, Rax Trax Recordings and Narwhal Studios in Chicago. Other times I’m in my own house or basement studios of friends. Presently, I’m working on a new album (Title – to be announced!) in collaboration with several Chicago-based artists including Isaiah Sharkey (a featured artist on D’Angelo’s Black Messiah album). And I am especially excited to work with Aminata Burton (who has played with Lizzo, Jennifer Hudson, and Jamila Woods).

I hear you’ve been working on a mini documentary series called, THE PROCESS – Can you tell us more about this project and when and where it will become available?

My current album, which is still in the works, is so different from my last which was purely jazz instrumental. This record really has a life of its own, but draws upon musical influences like Esperanza Spalding, Solange, George Duke and Thundercat. As I was working on it, I wondered how I could bring my audience alongside through my thoughts and my creative process to better understand it. So, the mini-series called, THE PROCESS, emerged. The series will be available for free on YouTube and I’ll also be releasing a single from the album titled, “Come Find Me” hopefully within the coming weeks. The pandemic has shown me that nothing is promised and life is short, so why not make the music exactly the way you want to regardless of what anyone else thinks?

Again, thank you for sharing with us today. While Black History Month is a great opportunity to spotlight conversations like these, Black Futures are something to discuss year-round. We thank you again for sharing with us and we look forward to Thursday’s show!

If you are interested in supporting grassroots artists and projects like THE PROCESS, you can support Alexis Lombre by following her on Instagram (@AlexisLombre), Twitter (@Aglombre), Facebook (@AlexisLombre) and visit her website alexislombre.com to sign up for her mailing list! You can also support her directly by sending funds via Cash App ($AlexisLombre), or Venmo (Alexis-Lombre).