Meilana Gillard's Reawakening

After years out of the spotlight, the saxophonist speaks candidly about depression, getting help and returning with new album Dream Within a Dream

When saxophonist Meilana Gillard moved to Belfast in 2012 the impact she made was colossal. Here, after all, was a musician who had been a highly rated up-and-comer on the brutally competitive New York jazz scene, so local audiences and fellow musicians alike were blown away by her technique and musicality.

More recently, however, Gillard has been less prominent. Her liner notes on her superb new album Dream Within A Dream explain why, as she writes of having suffered from debilitating depression.

‘I really crashed hard after my mother passed away at the end of 2014 and that triggered a big depression episode,’ she says. ‘It affected me a lot. It’s like having a voice inside your head telling you that everything you want to do is stupid and you’re not worthy and that everything you worked hard for or have accomplished is fake and that you’re fake. It attacks you on the worst level and it makes you so exhausted sometimes that you don’t want to get out of bed.’

Meilana Gillard

Fortunately Gillard found treatment that has been successful. ‘I’m in a really good place right now. I’m on medication and it’s working well for me,’ she says. ‘And I would definitely want to let people who are going through a similar thing know that they can still have a good life. They just need to accept that they have to get help.’

Gillard believes that many in the arts world are prone to depression. ‘There are a lot of musicians and creative types who suffer from it,’ she says. ‘It’s tough because some of the things in it are like a gift: they allow you to be sensitive and creative and you don’t want to change that because of your treatment. But on the other hand [it’s] destructive because it keeps you from doing things and from connecting with others in the way you want to. It’s a very isolating problem to have.’

On Dream Within a Dream, which, bar an interpretation of ‘As Time Goes By’, is self-composed, Gillard’s tenor sax is accompanied only by David Lyttle’s drums and Neil O Loclainn’s bass. Slightly unusually there is no chordal instrument. ‘The focus has to be on melody – and there’s a textural appeal to the sound,’ explains Gillard of the instrumentation. ‘And both David and Neil are very open and very interactive musically. They’re always listening and trying to do whatever they can to serve the music best and that’s my favourite type of player to play with because I know I can have a deep level of trust with them.’

Meilana Gillard Trio

The album was recorded after only a couple of rehearsals. ‘I wanted to be as unrestrictive as possible so that David and Neil could inject their own personalities into it and bring their own magic to it,’ says Gillard. ‘And in the studio we only did two takes of most of the tunes. I really wanted it to be a live energy because that’s where the magic in this music is for me. You do your best and then you move on!’

Gillard’s solos on the album are of course improvised. ‘I try to just let be what will be,’ she says of her approach. ‘I try to be as in the moment as possible so I may have an idea but then the drums or bass may do something that turns that idea in a different direction. I’m open to that. It’s about getting into a space where you’re allowing the ideas to flow and you’re not judging them too harshly – because then you’re not improvising.’

One of the tracks on the album, ‘Gene’s Scene’, is dedicated to saxophonist Gene Walker who, amongst many other accomplishments, toured the States supporting The Beatles, in 1965, as a member of King Curtis’s band. The tour included the performance in Shea Stadium that is still regarded as one of pop music’s most legendary concerts.

‘I started studying with him when I was about 15 and he was a professor at Ohio State University and he was a huge influence,’ reminisces Gillard. ‘He was just such a positive person in my life and he took time out to help me and was so generous. He actually gave me some of my first gigs, playing with him. He was a special man.’

Gene Walker

Gene Walker with John Lennon and George Harrison (left) and Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (right)

Another track, ‘A Day In El Médano’, is named after a town in Tenerife. ‘I’ve been there on vacation and it’s a beautiful place,’ says Gillard. ‘We were so close to Africa, just separated by a little bit of water, and one of my favourite tunes is [Dizzy Gillespie’s] ‘A Night In Tunisia’ so I based ‘A Day In El Médano’ on the chord changes of that. ‘A Night In Tunisia’ is timeless and I just wanted to give it a little update and inject something personal into it.’

The trio are touring the album around Ireland, with upcoming dates in the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast and Bennigan's in Derry~Londonderry. ‘The energy of the audiences is another instrument for us to feed off,’ says Gillard of the band’s gigs. ‘We’re there playing music for everybody but because of the audience’s energy it’s very much a collaborative effort.’

In the longer term Gillard is ambitious for the trio. ‘I’m very proud of the album but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of where we could go because we’re still a new band, so I’m going to keep writing new music and we’ll just see where it goes.’

Dream Within a Dream is available to download from tomorrow (May 26) via iTunes, Amazon and other online retailers. CDs can be ordered from Catch the trio live at one of the following shows.

June 3 - Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast (album launch)

June 7 - Phil Grimes, Waterford

June 8 - Black Gate Cultural Centre, Galway

June 9 - Mullarkey’s, Clifden

June 11 - Bennigan’s Jazz Club, Derry

June 15 - McGarrigles, Sligo