By Jack Rubinger
As a saxophonist, I’ve played in unusual combinations, but I’ve never jammed with two cellists before and I’ve never heard two cellists trade fours.
That’s the kind of openness, collaboration and “uncategorization” of music happening at Swaha Studios.
The studio is under the leadership of Kendra Carpenter, a classically trained cellist/pianist/teacher who launched Swaha in 2009. Many are now enjoying the fruits of her approach to teaching music.
Folks can come taste the jam experience and meet some of the musicians from Swaha Studios at the Hawthorne Street Fair on August 26.
The studio is a safe and fun place to jam. Here, all can learn and experiment without alcohol or waiting your turn to blow, and no bad food, or strange lighting.
The atmosphere is all about learning through listening — not notes on a page, whether you’re simply going from one chord to another or navigating a complex piece of music.
Carpenter played in several local indie and world music bands and is now on a mission to give music back to the people.
“Our approach to learning music is about being relaxed and playful and spending time with professional resident artists while actually playing our instruments rather than emphasizing particular classes and schedules,” she explained.
What does Swaha mean? “It’s a Sanskrit word that essentially means: ‘And so it is.’ or ‘So be it,’” Carpenter said.
She said Sanskrit was a language based more in vibration and feel than meaning and definition. Thus, how words and syllables feel is more important than attaching mental meanings to the sounds.
Allegedly, when one says “Swaha!” they create and emanate the feeling that we have given something our best and are finally releasing it to become whatever it is meant to become. We surrender to whatever it is we know to be greater than ourselves.
Pianist Chris Azorr lives in the Lents area, and is one of the participants in the jam session. Azorr is into a lot of music: jazz, salsa, rock, pop and Latin, and is working with four different bands, gigging several times a month. He and Carpenter connected through fellow musician Brooks Brown.
“Swaha offers something that other schools/situations do not: the opportunity for frustrated musicians of all levels to jam and learn in a non-judgmental environment,” he said. “There are typically one or two professional musicians to jam with the others and provide some guidance and suggestions.”
“Kendra is what makes this work. She has a love of music, life and people that is infectious and she gives of herself completely. She is the reason I joined and the concept is what keeps me excited about giving back to the community,” Azorr added.
Jam sessions can be weird, uncomfortable, and cringey. This was all of those things in the beginning, but it quickly turned fun and free despite the two chords we improvised on over and over again.
We learned that you can say a lot over two chords by varying the rhythm, choosing what notes to play, changing the dynamics and laying out (not playing).
After about 20 minutes, we broke into duos based on skill level. I was paired with a jazz pianist, the two guitars stuck together, the two cellists stuck together and Carpenter worked the singer, a middle school student who wasn’t in the least bit uncomfortable hanging out with a bunch of adults.
When the pairs returned, the vibe and the laughs got bigger, as each pair showed off what they’d learned together. “Lice in the City” was the name of the tune the teen created on the fly.
Carpenter gets a particular kind of joy from working with young people. “Too many people quit lessons,” she says. “I have several tricks I use with kids to keep them musically motivated.” Carpenter is experimenting with a monthly subscription model for lessons vs. charging by the hour, although both approaches are available.
Greg Thelen, another of the resident artists in the session, recorded and toured with Carpenter in the cello/guitar duo Sweeter Than Later. He’s played keyboards since the ‘50s, studied jazz piano in the 90’s and has been playing acoustic and electric guitar since 1965.
“I like the scene at Swaha because the vibe is so relaxed and accepting,” Thelen said. A retired electrician and multi-instrumentalist who appreciates legendary trumpeter Clifford Brown, Bach and The Beatles, he adds, “Kendra shows that she cares about people and finds ways to include people who have a wide range of abilities on their instruments.”
“She’s also an inspiration because she’s dynamic, loves to jam, has great tone and is classically trained, which I find to be an interesting complement to my mostly play by ear approach to music.”
Carpenter’s own band, Sounds Like Love, performs August 1 at The Jo Bar and Rotisserie, 715 NW 23rd Ave., from 7-10 pm. She describes the group as “groovy electric-cello-sax-keys-guitar-sultry vocals.”
For information about lessons, jam sessions, classes and special events, see swahastudios.com.