Words by Luke LaBenne
As a child Georgia Anne Muldrow would sit under the piano and listen to her mother play. She would map the movement of her mother’s fingers and absorb the sounds. Now, as an acclaimed and accomplished musician, she’s using her mother’s instrument to return the favor and send her mother some love. Under the name Jyoti, a sacred moniker given to her by late jazz legend Alice Coltrane, she delivers her most powerful and personal music compositions to date.
On Mama, You Can Bet! Jyoti sits you down at the piano beside her and invites you to absorb the sound and feel what she feels. Whether it’s gentle piano ballads that explode into visceral hymns, ethereal instrumental jams, or G Funk remixes of jazz classics; each new creation brings you further into Georgia’s mind. On this record she celebrates the women in her life who shaped her, the women who came before and paved the way for her to be the rare and daring artist that she is today.
OS: How are you doing today?
GM: I’m finding reasons to laugh.
OS: That’s great! I enjoyed your voicemail message because it told me to enjoy the sunshine and I appreciated that.
GM: [laughs] I don’t even remember what I said on there.
OS: You put out your last Jyoti record in 2013, what made you put out another one in 2020?
GM: Just because I had enough songs to do one, just enough of them had accumulated.
OS: Do you always know when it’s a Jyoti song? What’s different about it?
GM: It’s a different space, the music and the way it’s coming out. I think with this one, it just made itself clear. A lot of the songs spring from me being at the piano improvising and just feeling. I’m really emotionally connected to the piano, like so much that I don’t even play it every day because it’s too much to unpack. I play a combo of everything, but piano is the instrument of my mother. I play it when my eyes are closed, I’m not thinking about anything and these songs just come out on their own. Sometimes I’ve got to sing on it. There’s just certain things that make it really clear that a jazz song is about to happen. It’s an emotional thing.
OS: Did your mother teach you to play the piano?
GM: By playing it all the time around me, I mean I grew up with a piano in the house. I grew up under it.
She was never like, “This is a B flat.” I mean I think she tried that with me, but I had a learning style that is so different. Now that I’m older, when I go to visit her I just let her know, “I want to learn your songs mom.” I sit by her and it’s been very amazing to see the way that she works out her chords and the way that she problem solves with her hands. I can see a lot of kinship with the way that I play and the way that she plays. We play different chordal structures but the way we problem solve with our fingers is very similar. It’s really fun, but she’s a thousand times the pianist that I am. She hustled with her piano and her voice, playing standards and playing the Fake Books and all that. The Fake Books put food on the table. But through the whole thing she had songs of her own. She’s really a true singer/songwriter, picking up change playing standards. Then she joined the spiritual community and wrote songs there. That’s where she found a way to fuse the joy of songwriting with her spirituality. She really found herself through that. That’s how I learned my spirituality too, by seeing her work out her feelings on the piano. I think that’s the reason why it’s an emotional instrument for me, very emotional. I would never play more than two songs on the piano during a concert. It’s just too much I’d probably end up going off the rails.
OS: You play the piano very beautifully on the song “Orgone” and your vocals and the piano are constantly going somewhere new. I feel like it’s just a stream of different thoughts and emotions. Is that how you felt when you wrote it?
GM: Yeah, it was definitely an improvisation on the piano. That’s the language of how I feel. Even the words, I tried my best to translate what I was saying with the piano. That’s what you hear.
OS: You play all the instruments on this album, other than the saxophone from the great Lakecia Benjamin. That’s pretty amazing.
GM: Thank you. To be fair the instrument I’m really playing is the computer. I’m using all types of things, though, like the sensibilities I’ve learned from living and watching as a child. Like I use vibraphones all the time, I have no vibraphones at my house though. But my Uncle, growing up watching him play it at the gigs, he taught me all of that, vibes and how they’re supposed to sound. So I think of that, I’ll be on the keyboard but to me I’m not playing piano no more, I’m playing vibes.
In my mind I am totally a vibe player, like even the way I use my hands on the keyboard is different. I consider the weight of the mallets in my head, I consider all those things and that’s what makes it come across like I’m really playing the vibes. I’m not really playing it like there’s not no mallets in my hands. It’s fun. It’s like my little dream land, the computer.
OS: The first song is called “Mama, You Can Bet!” which is also the name of the album. That song is very hopeful and encouraging saying, “Love is waiting for you.” What made you pick that title for the album?
GM: Because that’s the biggest message that I wanted to give. I want to give this record to my mom, because she has built so much and given so much of herself to other people. She’s a community activist. What I find is a lot of the sisters out here, our elders, the ones that during the Civil Rights movement and the Black Liberation movement, they was there first. Showed up first, but they gettin the love last.
So this is my statement saying, “You know what woman, you deserve love. You deserve passionate love.” It’s me seeing my mom as a woman, because she’s so selfless. I always tell her, “Save some space for you.” It’s to all our mothers who give so much to the world. If they would consider themselves as women it would be the last thing on their mind and I’m saying, “No! Think about you.” She’s going through a very transformative period and I’m just saying, “Get your groove back, woman. Get your groove!” It’s to all the ladies of her generation, that find themselves in the interesting state that they haven’t been reciprocated the love they deserve. It’s just a call to celebrate them. If it wasn’t for them I’d be wearing an afro for the first time. These sisters, these women, our mothers gave us the aesthetic that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around, like they put it down. What it meant to wear an afro in the time that they did it, it was a radical thing, like you could get arrested. There’s certain things, like the way that they did it and that they just were not going to conform to nobody’s plan. They saw that something needed to change and the changes they were able to affect with no cellular phone… I’m celebrating those women.
OS: Speaking of carrying on these things from your mother and your ancestors, there’s a song on the album titled Ancestral Ducketts and I initially interpreted that as you taking these gifts passed down from your ancestors. But if you interpret the literal monetary meaning of ducketts, then it made me think of Generational Wealth which we know contributed to systematic racism in America. Was that your intention?
GM: No but that’s awesome. I think that’s a great read and I’m happy that the title could give multiple pathways of considering it. What I was talking about was that there’s a way that you honor your ancestors. You strengthen their memory so that they become stronger in you and you have more of a sense of direction because they’ve been strengthened within you. I spent some time in China, going to the shrines. They had this incense and it’s this special incense, don’t smell good to me, but they lit it and it let off a lot of smoke. I saw how they would put in the sand altar, they would just light it up and send it up and give it to the ancestors. Then, they had actual money, like these bills that looked like, just some other currency. It’s like this is ancestral money, we burn this up so that they have money to do what they want to do. So I just liked the idea of appreciating the ancestors. The ancestors fuel my work, they’re the ones that remind me that I have to be bold. They didn’t go through all this craziness and all this abuse, and all the interpersonal abuse, for me to not be myself. I owe it to my ancestors to find inner peace, I have to pay them that. Me finding inner peace is me paying them, that’s the money. Because I wouldn’t want my great-great-great-granddaughter to grieve for anything, only life’s grievances that make her a better person but I wouldn’t want her to just be in a constant state of suffering and oppression. I don’t want none of that in her life. I want her to be as free as the hummingbirds are.
OS: I love the two Charles Mingus remixes on the album, “Bemonable Lady Geemix” and “Faubus Foo Geemix.” What was that like remixing those?
GM: Well, I love Mingus, I love him inside out. I like Mingus a lot for his harmonic nature, where he’s coming from and I like how visual he is. He’s like an action movie, there’s never a dull moment. He’s coming from a whole different field of harmony to explain what he’s saying. Faubus was a foo, trying to call his police on these people and hurt these people.
OS: Who was Faubus?
GM: Faubus is the last name of the governor who sent dogs and police after the people during, I believe it was, the Freedom Riots. He called for extra pressure on the people protesting and called for them to get hurt. That’s why he [Mingus] called the song Fables of Faubus.
OS: That’s one of the catchiest songs on the album and I didn’t even realize it had that meaning behind it.
GM: I heard it a long time ago because my dad really liked Mingus a lot. I feel like that’s what made my dad really like me, when he knew I knew about Mingus. [Laughs] I think I was probably about 19 or 20 when I first heard that song. When I first heard it, it was on his documentary Triumph of the Underdog. I used to watch this documentary back to back because my heart was breaking for this country, for this world, for the same problems we’re having right now. My heart was breaking. More people need to lift up their voices for this stuff but everybody’s telling me that you don’t make no money doing that. It’s weird it’s like things have to be so incredibly horrible for someone to say, “Ok I’m going to lift my voice.” Lift your voice before it becomes horrible, but it’s been horrible a long time so I guess it’s all relative. I was watching The Triumph of the Underdog and it really gave me so much, because he was saying what I felt. I completely heard everything he was doing and I felt everything he was trying to do. It wasn’t a mask he was putting on, his music was a way to know him better. Because he was that dude, he was that torrential dude. You don’t know what he’s going to do, if he’s upset he’s not going to be here smiling for you and his music’s not going to smile when he feels upset. I like that. So for me the Faubus Foo is to celebrate the West Coast and I wanted to do some funk. Both of the Geemixes, I’m West Coast and super hard because that’s where he was from.
OS: That’s sweet. It’s like paying homage to him in another way.
GM: Yeah. In another way, like something that you can scoot to in a West Coast way. I wanted to give him some G Funk.
OS: One last thing I wanted to ask, Jyoti was a name given to you by the great Alice Coltrane [Turiyasangitananda]. How did you meet her and what is the story behind her giving you that name?
GM: My aunt is one of her devotees, she’s a guru of my aunt’s. I’ve known her since before I was born, my mom goes way back with her to the 70’s. My first time meeting her was learning how to see again and learning how to walk, because I went through some crazy things, some health complications when I was a little girl. The story is that she and my mom helped me come back here because I was in a coma. I was supposed to be a quadriplegic, when I came back to full health she would call me her baby.
How I got my name though, the night I met Dudley it was love at first sight. I took him to my mom’s house and I introduced him to her and I told her, “Get ready to know this person for a long time, because he’s gonna be here.” That morning she said, “We’re going to the ashram.” I think she wanted my aunt to check us out first, she has a very deep insight into people. So we’re up at the ashram and Dudley’s like, “Oh my god look at all the butterflies, this is such a peaceful place.” At that time, if you walked up there it was amazing it was like an oasis of peace. It was fun just listening to her talk about life, like getting life lessons from her in the ashram, sitting right at her feet. Then when we had a break my aunt took me to the side and said, “It’s time for you to get your name. She wants to meet with you.”
Through my life, Turiyasangitananda, this woman has saved my life. Just being in her field helped me be inspired to live again and not commit suicide. I have a picture of that night. She had a concert and it was on my birthday, I was turning 21 and I had decided it’s over, that’s it. I came back from New York to LA to give my mom my computer so she could have my music. I didn’t have no suitcase, nothing. I’d given most of everything away. I had felt this way for a long time because with everything happening I was like, “What’s the use? There’s always going to be abuse in the world.” So I was at that point.
For her to be having a show on the day that I’m thinking that I’m going to be doing something else and it was right down the street. I find myself getting dressed for something. I was like, “Woah this is interesting how this is happening like this.” I go up there and hear her play on that organ. Her record was Translinear Light, it was that record. Something went through me. There’s only certain artists where they just go through me with their instrument and I feel like they’re from my home planet. It almost felt like a rescue beacon. I was like, “Ok I can live. I can do it, because she’s here and she’s doing that. She’s doing that on an instrument. She’s doing that!!” You know what I mean!? [Laughs] And I was like, “I can live, yo, there’s a place for me.”
OS: That’s incredible.
GM: She put my name in the program as like a special guest and that was kind of like… it was just enough. She called me backstage and the things that she said made me know I wasn’t crazy, made me know that she had my back. It was gangsta, you know, [laughs] it made me know she had my back. She always made a special time, just a little bit of time, but her little bit of time with me always meant so much.
So back to my name, it was time to go back and meet her and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I’m getting in trouble for telling my mom to get ready to know this man for a long time. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I go back there and she just tells me to sing. I sang for her and it seemed like from her hearing me sing, she got a read out of what she needed to know. What she told me back there I will never forget and will never share with anyone. Her essence is healing, I don’t know how to explain it. Once I got that name, that was it, I was Jyoti. It’s not a nickname, that’s what I want people to understand.
OS: Yeah, it’s not just the name of a musical project, it goes beyond that.
GM: Yeah it’s a real name. Dudley gave me the idea that I should use it. The first song I wrote for the first record was called “Turiya’s Smile” It was the first song that came out like this. It sounded kind of like an organ trio and there was no melody, the chords were the melody. Dudley’s like, “You should call the record Jyoti because it’s Turiya’s Smile.” My name, it keeps unfolding the older I get, I get more information about it, I do more study about it and it has many explanations. The first explanation I found is Light, but it keeps unfolding the more I study it. It’s just crazy that she already saw. It was wonderful and she touched my life in a real, tangible way.