The Jazz Gallery is a hub of creativity, a home to jazz musicians/composers, many of them from all over the world but now permanently settled in the United States. The Jazz Gallery serves an ethnically diverse, international audience that represents a cross section of New York City residents and travelers to New York.
Clockwise from top left: Mark Turner, Joe Martin, Kevin Hays, & Nasheet Waits. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Bassist, composer, and bandleader Joe Martin has been a fixture of the New York jazz community for over two decades, whether collaborating with the likes of Chris Potter, Gilad Hekselman, Anat Cohen, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, or leading his own ensemble of Mark Turner, Kevin Hays, and Nasheet Waits. Martin’s third and newest release is Étoilée. According to the liner notes, “Martin, himself a product of a musical upbringing, lives with his Parisian-born wife in Brooklyn where they have been raising their young Franco-American family of two sons and a young girl, whose middle name Étoile inspired the name of the recording… Joe Martin takes the powerful spirit instilled by his nuclear family to fuel the passion of four longstanding musical peers on his emotionally enriching release, Étoilée.” We spoke about family, distractions, and keeping things fresh in the studio.
The Jazz Gallery: Congratulations on the release of the new record! In your liner notes, I love that you cite your family as an inspiration and motivation for the record. Many musicians have families, but usually discuss their families in the context of being one of their many responsibilities, and not necessarily as a creative sources of inspiration.
Joe Martin: Yeah. Of course, it’s a deeply personal thing, and is more the result of observation and reflection about where I was when I was writing this music. I’ve been entrenched in family life for quite a number of years. It’s not that having children changes who you are, exactly, but it certainly adds another layer to life, takes you out of your head. Especially as a musical artist, you’re always thinking about yourself and your music. It’s a beautiful thing, and has certainly lead many great musicians to creating great music, but when you have family, you’re aware that you’re responsible for other people, and their energy affects you. It brings awareness and acceptance. So, to say that my family directly inspired every song on the record wouldn’t be completely accurate. But in looking for titles and thinking about what’s been happening in my life, family is definitely a big part of who I am these days, and I wanted to acknowledge that with the album.
TJG: So when you’re listening back to the record, even though it’s not necessarily a programmatic record describing your family, when you listen back to certain things, do you hear your life reflected in your music in that way?
JM: I don’t know if I would say it’s that direct. It was largely when I was searching for titles. For example, I came up with the title “Malida” from my wife and two sons’ names–I didn’t have a daughter at that time. There was a certain intensity and energy about that song that captured a bit of their spirit and energy. But when I listen to music, I’m just thinking about the music and the other musicians, the atmosphere that’s being created, and where we arrive in these different songs. That’s the most compelling thing for me.
There’s my writing of the music and what it means to me, but then you have the other three musicians on the record playing. They all have their own stuff going on in their lives, and however they come to the music, they’re not necessarily thinking about my family when they’re playing those songs [laughs]. Unless you’re doing a completely solo project, there’s always going to be this other energy in the music. That’s what I like. It’s the essence of getting together and playing with great musicians and having a band, seeing where you arrive in the music, how you get inside it. The spirit of my family’s energy is certainly a part of me, and is certainly an inspiration in coming up with themes for the record, but when I play music, I’m usually just thinking about the music.
TJG: I hear you, absolutely. I’m not suggesting there needs to be anything beyond that.
JM: Sure, sure. It’s a good question!
TJG: So in the production of this record, was there a particular high point for you that you look back on fondly?
JM: I think the high point is finally getting into the studio and getting the music down, tracking songs. We did the recording part of it in one day with the quartet, so it was a long, intense day. We did it that way mostly for budgetary concerns, because I chose a good studio (Sear Sound) and a great engineer (James Farber). We had played as a band before, and the music was familiar, so I felt like we could probably get it in a day. Getting into the studio, finding the different spirits of each song, getting inside stuff, that’s always a highlight for me when recording. It’s a learning process, and it gets you under the microscope, which is illuminating. There was one song called “Long Winter” where there’s a coda that has an overdubbed bass quartet, which I did separately, but that was its own short recording session.
TJG: Have you done much of that kind of overdubbing of yourself?
JM: I did a little bit on my last record, a similar kind of thing as an introduction to a piece. I wouldn’t mind doing more of it. I need to write a bit more and see what I come up with. Might be a fun thing to do a few tunes like that. It’s challenging to play in tune with yourself, I must say [laughs].
TJG: When I think of you as a bassist and musician, I think of a busy professional who’s doing things on a tight schedule, working and touring with a lot of artists. It sounds like the creation of this album reflected that mindset, to a degree. Anything unexpected that arose in the making of this album?
JM: Nothing was too surprising, but there are always surprises when you’re recording something, when tunes go in a certain direction that you weren’t necessarily expecting. The fifth tune on the record, “Safe,” was most challenging in some ways. We hadn’t played it much, and it was a newer thing that I had brought in. It developed quickly in the studio, in terms of how we shaped different sections. You know, you can never be set in your ways, as a musician. You can have a big-picture idea of what something’s going to sound like, if you have a template of a song you’ve written, but you have to be open to how people will be interpreting it, and whether it goes in different directions while you’re playing. Being open to that, and not trying to force the music into your preconceived ideas, is important.
That gets into how I am as a musician or sideman most of the time: Come as prepared as possible, then be open to supporting where the music goes in the moment. That’s the most exciting thing about playing jazz. It’s the chase, the unknown. That’s why you get up and keep creating, everything can keep being fun and exciting, because as long as there’s improvisation and openness involved, you’ll hopefully get to something new every time you play, even if it’s a song you’ve played a million times.
TJG: Totally. You’ve been playing with Mark, Kevin, and Nasheet for a long while now, right?
JM: I’ve known them all since I moved to New York in the 1990s. I played a session with Nasheet at his place in the West Village in 1992 before I officially moved to New York. I was going to William Patterson in New Jersey at the time, and the first time we met was at that session with my friend, alto player Bruce Williams, who still plays in the city. I met Kevin and Mark around the same time sometime between 1994-96. We played on a John Gordon album together called Along The Way, and Kevin and Mark both play on my first record, Passage, which I recorded in 2001 along with dummer Jorge Rossy.
I’ve played a lot with Mark over the years. I’ve been playing in his quartet for the last seven or eight years with the trumpet/saxophone/bass/drums lineup. We’ve played in a lot of other people’s bands too. Mark is probably the person I’ve played with the most. Kevin and I have played on quite a few gigs and recordings together, and he’s definitely one of my favorite piano players and musicians. Nasheet is an incredible drummer and musician. I like the combination of these elements in the band. It’s an interesting group. There will always be unexpected things, which is great.
TJG: Since you’ve been playing with these guys for more than two decades, do you have ways to keep creative channels open when recording new music, especially when you’re all coming off long tours and want to cover new ground?
JM: Like I was saying before, the excitement of the chase keeps us all in it, in a way [laughs]. We’ve all been playing music for a long time, and it’s not the easiest way to make a living on a strictly professional and practical level. A lot of traveling, ups and downs, financial insecurity. But we’ve dedicated so much to this thing we love, to this element of the unknown and the unexpected, trying to get to something new. It’s part of the drive to play the music. Addiction isn’t quite the right word, but there’s a constant pull to get to something new. Sure, there are times when you’re tired, but that’s life [laughs].
TJG: I play bass as well, and I’ve found that the bass can be quite a defeating instrument, in terms of its size, the effort required to play it, hauling it around. You’re a person who’s hauling your bass around constantly. What keeps your approach to the instrument fresh?
JM: That’s a tough one. There are times when you can hit a creative wall, or be unsure about whether you’re stuck with your sound, feel like you’re playing the same things, and so on. Any time you feel like you need to freshen things up, going and listening to other people and their music is a great idea. It can be as easy as putting on a record, listening to new music, even listening to bassists outside of your normal genre. The luxury of being in New York City is that any night of the week, you can go out and hear someone great. I always feel that can get me out of ruts. That can be an inspiring way to get out of your tunnel vision, however you may be stuck in your head, and to open up your ears and check out other people. That’s a great thing.
TJG: To bring it back around to the album, I read in the liner notes that you grew up in Iowa, and now you’re raising a family in Brooklyn. Any thoughts about what it’s like to be raising a family in New York, especially since when you were your kids’ age, you were in The Midwest?
JM: [Laughs] Yeah, I think about it a lot. It’s hard to know how different it is to raise a family in a big urban setting like New York. And when I was my kids’ age, so much has changed since then anyway. I only know what it was like for myself to grow up and go to school in Iowa, but I would guess that there were a lot fewer distractions [laughs]. Growing up in a place where there was not a lot to do, we played sports, went to school. I had a musical family around me, so that was a big part of my inspiration. We had a lot of time on our hands to be outside, look at the sky, have not a lot of stuff in your head [laughs]. I think there’s something healthy about that.
All of this is leading up to say, some of my concern about raising a family in New York is that there’s so much going on all the time. It can be a bit overwhelming and distracting. But it gets into a gray area about time and place: I think if you were to grow up in The Midwest today, there would still be a lot of distractions. And at the same time, there are so many opportunities in a place like New York. They’re completely different experiences. Can’t say one is better than the other.
I do think that the absence of distractions can foster creativity. It gives your mind a chance to develop something. But people come from all corners of the earth now and do amazing things, so it’s hard to argue that one thing is better or worse than another. Every place has its ups and downs. In terms of my family, this is where we live. We could live a few other places in the world, but it would be hard to leave New York, I must say. As a musician, access to great musicians and collaborators is incredible.
TJG: Do you find that you try to bring a little of that Iowa from the 1980s into the house?
JM: [Laughs] Not consciously, but I’m sure it’s part of who I am as a person. I’m relatively laid-back and relaxed, which is partially due to where I grew up and how I was raised. I do bring that with my persona. I just happen to live in New York now.
The Joe Martin Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, May 25, 2019. The group features Mr. Martin on bass, Mark Turner on saxophone, Kevin Hays on piano, and Nasheet Waits on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.
From L to R: Sean Rickman, Miles Okazaki, Craig Taborn, and Anthony Tidd. Photo courtesy of the artist.
This Friday, May 24, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome guitarist Miles Okazaki and his band Trickster back to our stage. The band has a strong history at the Gallery, as it was where they first performed and workshopped the material, as well as celebrated their record release in April 2017. In an interview with Jazz Speaks before the record release concert, Okazaki described the album’s composition’s unique qualities:
Some of these songs are short little tunes, where I spent a really long time on them, but all that remains is what I think of as, you know, hieroglyphs on the cave walls, washed away over the years. You just see a little bit of what remains. There’s one tune on there called “The Calendar,” which pairs a three-note voicing concept and a rhythm concept I’ve been working on for at least ten years. The whole tune is really only four bars long, it just has certain rules about how the harmonies change. Nobody would know this from listening to the tune, it’s a pretty simple tune [laughs].
For this Friday’s performance at the Gallery, Okazaki will be joined by bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, with pianist Matt Mitchell filling in for Craig Taborn. Before coming out to hear the band at the Gallery, check out the aforementioned tune, “The Calendar,” in the video below.
"The Calendar" from Trickster (2017, Pi Recordings) - YouTube
Miles Okazaki’s Trickster plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, May 24, 2019. The group features Mr. Okazaki on guitar, Matt Mitchell on piano, Anthony Tidd on bass, and Sean Rickman on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.
At Kassa Overall’s most recent performance from his TIME CAPSULE residency, he ventured into unknown territory with pianist Kris Davis, bassist Stephan Crump, and an assortment of electronics and vocal processing gear. Stepping even further into the void, Kassa will be joined for his next performance by the inimitable Craig Taborn on piano, rhodes, and electronics. While Taborn and Overall share an affinity for exploring electronic sounds and styles, the two have no prior history of playing together. In Overall’s words, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen… I’m excited to take the journey” Read more below, starting with how Overall starts his day.
The Jazz Gallery: Thanks again for making time to chat about your ongoing residency. Do your days tend get started pretty early?
Kassa Overall: It depends. I try to sleep in as long as possible, and usually try to keep all my plans to the afternoon, keeping mornings open for my most strenuous mental work and my own creative endeavors. If I’ve done my morning routine and done something important to me, like working on new music, then whatever I have to do for the rest of the day, at least I got a little bit of the heavy lifting out of the way.
TJG: So what did you have on the creative table this morning?
KO: Well, that whole previous explanation is a theory [laughs]. Today, I actually woke up really early, and I went to the practice space and practiced drums at around 7:30 A.M., so the whole thing is a little different. I just finished my morning routine, and now I’m trying to finish one of these TIME CAPSULE joints. I’m taking these recordings and making original pieces out of them. There’s a part where Sullivan Fortner goes to the organ during our first duo set, and we play a kind of improvised ballad. I chopped it up, sped it up, and made a whole piece out of it. It’s almost really good, but it still has some rough edges in terms of the arrangement and direction. It has the ingredients of something special, but it’s not done yet. I have to make some decisions.
TJG: What form is it in right now? Lead sheet? Demo?
KO: I’m making a recorded piece of art in Ableton. It’s not so much a demo, but a piece of recorded work, a new sound recording, which I’ll probably release as an official song, then find a way to play it live.
TJG: Speaking of live, how was your Blue Note show with Paul Wilson and BIGYUKI?
KO: You know? It was another step in the right direction. That was my first attempt at playing the album material live in a “correct” way. It’s a lot harder than other performances because you’re trying to recreate something that lives on the album. It’s always an internal debate as to how similar it should be to the album, and how creative we should get. This time, we went extreme with recreating the album. I automated vocal delay stuff, we had all sorts of stuff being triggered from laptops. In order for that performance to work, it had to ping pong between precision and open creativity. The Blue Note show lacked some of that open creativity. From playing these TIME CAPSULE shows at The Jazz Gallery, I’ve tapped into a new kind of spontaneous composition, and have to rely on a new type of performance approach. For the live album set, it still has to have that oceanic-waves-crashing-spontaneity, and then fall into something precise. We’re working on it.
TJG: Do you see a path forward, in terms of a type of show or band where you can do both of those approaches?
KO: Absolutely. The things that are meant to be tight need to be really tight, and we have to master them so we can play them effortlessly. There can be no preparation on stage, no “Let me pull the music up,” or “Let me load these files,” everything needs to be at our fingertips, so we can be in this field of open improvisation, and at the click of a button, drop in. More preparation will allow us to become more spontaneous and less calculated.
TJG: I was just talking to Keith Witty about the same approach.
KO: My name didn’t come up, did it? [laughs].
TJG: It did, actually! He said he had called you for a gig, and you recommended David Frazier.
KO: Yup. I recommend David Frazier all the time [laughs]. It’s funny that came up, because in the last two weeks I must have recommended David Frazier four or five times. It’s funny. There are a lot of great drummers. But I know what a lot of people are looking for… and they don’t know it, but they’re looking for David Frazier [laughs]. He’s got the pocket, he’s got everything. There are a lot of things in my own playing that I aspire to be more like David Frazier. I’m not necessarily like him at all, I have my own particular voice, which is ultimately what I want. But everything that’s not that, I’d like to be more like David Frazier [laughs].
TJG: It seems like if people are calling you, you must have some of that going on. Maybe David will start recommending you for all his gigs, and in the end you’ll just have each others’ gigs.
KO: You know, that would work. Depends on the gig [laughs].
TJG: So talk to me a little about Craig Taborn.
KO: He’s a mystery. Geri Allen was a mystery, even though I played with her for many years, and part of the reason it hurts when people like her move on is that, it’s almost like, “But wait, I had so many questions still. If I’d known you were leaving, we could have had a mystery talk, and you’d have given me all the keys.” Roy Hargrove was like that too, soft spoken, didn’t use a lot of words to say a lot. Craig is one of those cats. He’s oozing with knowledge, wisdom, inspiration. But he doesn’t waste it. In my opinion, he puts all of that into making music. He doesn’t spend a lot of time packaging the music or dealing with anything that’s not conducive to that mindset. I’ve bumped into him a few times over the years, overseas, once at the beach in Brooklyn. Each time, we’ve been congratulatory to each other, and always say “Man, we’ve got to do something together one of these days.” He’s the kind of guy where if I don’t figure out a way, I’m not gonna get that lesson. I want to get close to him, see what his process is, and try to get a little of that going in my own process.
The last time I heard him was at the Geri Allen tribute at The New School at Winter Jazz Fest. I didn’t notice at the time, but there was a video of Geri playing as an opening sequence, and Craig played along with her. Then Geri faded out and Craig kept playing. Geri had some type of science in her use of harmony. I have a limited technical knowledge, so I couldn’t tell you what it is or what she does, but it makes sense. You can feel the divine geometry. With Craig, I heard it in his playing too. It was like he spoke the exact same language. When he was playing, it was like icicles of light… I asked him about it, and he said he was freestyling, he didn’t know what Geri was playing, but that he’d studied Geri in such depth that he could slip right into it, he spoke that language too. I’m most excited about this one, in the sense that I don’t know what’s gonna happen, and we don’t have any musical history together, but I feel like I understand where he’s coming from. I’m excited to take that journey.
TJG: So what preparation have you been doing to get your ears warmed up for playing with him?
KO: I’ll be listening to some of his records over the next week. I also know that he does some electronics stuff, so I want to do a little research and see what I can dig up in terms of what he’s into when it comes to electronics. Maybe I’ll bring something in… Are we going to talk about the Kris Davis show too?
TJG: Absolutely [laughs]. That’s as good a transition as any. Tell me all about it!
KO: I know the formula now [laughs]. Did I tell you about my vocal setup with the laptop?
TJG: Yeah, we were talking about it last month when you had just rehearsed, the chromatic auto-tuning.
KO: Exactly. Man. It was cool. I’ve always had heated debates about autotune. Not even debates, but just heard people condemning it, and with it this whole section of music that they find problematic. I get it, there are things that I think are trash too. But maybe autotune isn’t what people are so mad about. Maybe it’s more about the use of it. Autotune is used in certain kinds of ways, for the most part, and they’re all connected to a specific pop sensibility. That lead me to think about what it might be like to make the autotune chromatic. You still have to be musical, you can’t just yell into the microphone and make it sound like you can sing: You still have to have a harmonic or melodic sensibility. When Kanye did “808s & Heartbreak” back in 2008, the whole album was auto-tuned. That gave him a bad rap, but he said in an interview that he recorded everything chromatic, and you still have to sing everything in tune for the notes to be right. It nullifies the concept that autotune is this simple tool. If a singer bends a note with autotune, it cracks and jumps around, you know? You hear it on Kanye’s album. He said that’s the “heartbreak,” the imperfection in a metaphorical sense. The human element.
All of that all being said, autotune is out there. That was ten years ago. It’s only a matter of time before people take tools to their virtuosic, musical limit. So when I was messing with the chromatic pitch correction with Stephan Crump and Kris Davis harmonizing with me, it was mindblowing. Taking autotune and using it with two of the most out-there harmonic ears in the game, it worked. We were hitting some weird harmonic worlds. I had a blast.
TJG: So even if autotune restricts your pitch range, it’s adding so much more emotional possibility for you.
KO: Exactly. It’s happened in a few different arenas in life. Something comes around, and it’s like boom, everyone can do this now with the push of a button, and now you have to show your personal ability. Like Stephen Curry coming on the scene, and now everyone can do it. Things change the game, but the game stays the same. You know what I mean [laughs].
Kassa Overall continues his TIME CAPSULE residency at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Mr. Overall, on drums, will be joined by Craig Taborn on piano & keyboards. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.
Photo by Jessica Carlton-Thomas, courtesy of the artist.
This Tuesday, May 21, saxophonist Kevin Sun returns to The Jazz Gallery to present a new, hour-long work called The Middle of Tensions. Written for his working trio of bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor alongside pianist Dana Saul, the work explores the links between musical and emotional tension, working with dense, dissonant chords and unsettling polyrhythms.
We caught up with Kevin by phone to talk about the work and his writing process, just after he returned from 10 days of performances with his trio in Beijing, China.
The Jazz Gallery: How was Beijing?
Kevin Sun: It was fun. It was tiring. For me, it’s not such a big deal because I go back every few months or so. Obviously for Walter and Matt it was different—it was their first time in Asia. I think they took to it very well. We got lucky in that the weather was beautiful. It’s in the 80s during the daytime, and clear skies in the 60s in the evening with no rain. It’s sort of like being in California.
Traveling around was really comfortable. We took the subway a lot, which I think it was good for them to see more of the city and just understand how the public transit works. The rest of the time we took tabs which are much cheaper than here. The gigs were great—we played a lot, maybe 10 sets of music, which is more than we’ve played in the past year-and-a-half. It was really interesting just to play the same songs night after night and see where we went with them. New ideas came to the surface gradually through the process. Some were obvious things like transitioning between songs without a break, naturally figuring out how to pace a set, get the music in a certain flow. I think we had a really great time and I thought the audiences were into the music. Hopefully, we’ll go back again.
TJG: In some ways, it feels like that’s a lot of effort to get over there, but that ability to play night in, night out is such a rarity over here that it feels worth the travel.
KS: I’ve mentioned it to other people, but I remember complaining to Mark Turner at the Vanguard about how it’s so hard to book gigs in New York, but when booking in China, I can just text the club owner and he’ll give me a date immediately. But he said that’s just the case for everyone in New York and that’s why a lot of people go overseas. Sometimes it really is to make money, like with big festivals, but other times it’s just a real way to get experience on the bandstand, to set up a string of gigs in differ places. Putting together that many shows in China was so smooth that I can imagine myself going back more often with other bands.
TJG: You got this good place with the trio and now they’re part of this Middle of Tensions project. How do you think the continuity that you’ve developed with the trio is going to come out on this new music, and how do you think about incorporating Dana into the mix now?
KS: This was my master plan all along—get the trio really warmed up, getting ready to tackle this even more challenging piece. We’ve played the piece with Dana before and the guys all have really deep long-standing connections. Matt and Dana live together, and so they hear each other and see each other all the time. They grew up in the same town and were the first people they knew who were into playing improvised music and jazz. They’ve been playing longer than I’ve been playing with Walter and Matt combined!
In terms of writing this piece, I really focused on the trio these past few years to really strip down to the essentials: bass voice, percussive voice, treble voice. Composing with a piano or another chordal instrument, I feel like there are so many possibilities. In the trio, I originally felt really constricted. I couldn’t really write chord symbols, I just had to write a bass voice and a treble voice. Those constraints were interesting in terms of learning to express more extended harmonies, or certain textural effects. One of the things about a piano or guitar trio is that’s all you need to have a full orchestra. I can only play one note at a time, or at the most a couple and it’s not quite the same, so having someone who can really unleash tons of pitch information and create lots of color is beautiful. Dana is one of the people who I’m friends with who’s the best at that. He just generates this kaleidoscope of color and texture. That’s his magic power. I don’t know how to describe it—he really has his own thing at the piano which I love, and I feel like it complements the different aspects that Walter and Matt also brings the table.
TJG: How has focusing on writing trio music impacted your compositional process?
KS: I purposefully stopped writing at an instrument for the past couple of years, and I just wrote straight sketching out on paper. I’llcheck it sometimes, but even if it sounds weird at the piano, I usually like to keep it because it was something I would have never written otherwise. It’s kind of fun to do that, when you’re forced forced to make that idea expressive, or find expression through different means. I’m now in a headspace where I’m not scared to touch the piano. I don’t think the piano is going to ruin my compositions. I feel like now I can work comfortably use the piano to help me refine the colors and the sound that I’m going for.
Another thing about this music is that I try to be pretty specific in terms of writing out the actual chords. Dana and I had this other quintet thing with a different bass and drums and we also trumpet, but for that I didn’t write any piano part. When we recorded it in February, Dana wrote his own piano part. I think he felt this way through the piece and he tried to make it more fixed, or have a more fixed reference point.
It’s for the same with this piece—there’s a lot more definition than just writing chord symbols. I really wanted to make it extremely dense in terms of the harmony, and in terms of rhythm, but also I know I don’t want Dana to just be like a computer and read it. Dana might revoice something across registers, or if there’s something like a big, 10-note chord, he’ll find a better way to voice it, or do something more to his taste, or leave things out. I love that. It keeps it dynamic and makes sure the piece is always something that we are collectively exploring and creating in real time.
TJG: How does having this detailed, specific approach to part-writing impact the way you as a group improvise collectively? How do you think about extrapolating out from that kind of material, rather than chord symbols?
KS: That’s something I really struggled with in high school and college—creating different spaces for improvising. I really love playing over changes. That’s what I started with, and I’m still studying it, but there’s something about how far can you take having this pre-established sequence of chords. The first thing I feel is that you want to have lots of substitutions to make it more interesting, but then you kind of have a dead-end a certain point. If you only think about that being the most interesting thing that you can do, it gets less meaningful over time. One thing I like to do is to try to find get inside the tonal logic of music, thinking in the same broad principles about tension and release, creating a space that the listener can relate to and feel emotion.
TJG: I’d like to talk a bit more about this relationship between musical tension, in a technical sense, and this emotional tension. What are the musical vectors of this emotional tension that you’re talking about?
KS: This is a really simplistic way of thinking about it, but a lot of it is having different streams, two different things happen at the same time, like different tempos. There are these polyrhythms where you’re aligned, and then you go away for a while, and then you intersect again, and it’s hard to tell if there’s a dominant pulse. On the harmonic side, there are these dense chords and it sounds like it’s going to resolve, but then doesn’t really resolve, or it does resolve, but the resolution isn’t totally satisfying because there’s a lot of other stuff going on in there. It’s unrelenting.
There’s something about that unrelenting quality in life, especially living in New York. It just doesn’t give up, doesn’t lighten up. I feel that Walter and Dana and Matt, I don’t want to say everyone is neurotic, but it’s very true everyone has something that they’re fixated on and everyone has their own opinion about how to express time how to relate to one another. In some ways, the piece of music is just a chance for us to get together and see what we can make of it. I think naturally they are moments of tension when you’re going for something with a lot of risk involved. It’s cool if everyone on the same page, but sometimes I feel that maybe I should hold it down more, or maybe I should let loose on purpose.
I try to not give too much direction. I know that Dana and Matt have practiced the piece a lot together because they live together, but I know they had tense moments just rehearsing. There this part where it starts with a 9 over 4 polyrhythm, and then switches to 7 over 5. It can be hard to figure out how one speeds up or slows down. Honestly, at the end it doesn’t really matter to me. No one’s ever gonna see this music, I hope, except for these musicians and I think for the listener, it’ll never be about what subdivision this is. It will be more about having this feeling of unsettledness that is purposeful. I don’t want to be doing these complex rhythmic things just to show that we can execute them. The point is not the formal element as much about how can you get to these emotions in interesting ways.
TJG: This discussion of process and expression in regards to rhythm are bringing Olivier Messiaen to mind. Are you into his music?
KS: I love Messiaen, especially the organ music.
TJG: He’s probably best known for his particular approach to harmony & color, but he’s also interested in particular rhythmic processes and dividing time. He was asked in an interview about how it important it was for listeners to know what exactly was going on rhythmically, and he basically said no—that if the listener receives some kind of shock, or emotional reaction to it, that’s all that matters.
KS: I remember looking at some of his scores with a friend, just really nerding out. We were listening with recordings, and we could tell the performer wasn’t playing the rhythms exactly right, though he’s trying to really hard. It’s probably impossible except for a machine. That kind of writing is a tricky thing because one side, it’s really exciting, but then in terms of band morale, if you ask the band to play something really hard, but then say it’s ok if it’s not exactly right, why are you making us practice so much? We want to get as close as we can without killing ourselves.
Another thing that I found is that if you write something that’s a little bit out of reach, there’s this really interesting space where the execution is not perfect, but there’s this friction and humanity to it. It feels like making the beat so wide that it stretches beyond what you think a beat can do. It’s not about perfect mentronomic time, but having time contract and dilate, like there’s a rushing force and a slowing-down force and they’re rubbing against each other.
On the last night on tour in Beijing, we were playing this song that has a bass line at the beginning—an ostinato that has a regular rhythm. But when Walter started playing it, it was sort of rubato and sort of in time, but it was definitely not completely right. It was amazing because they was such feeling to it. It was so raw, I think it encapsulated how we felt because we were just so exhausted playing a lot and trying to eat as much good food as possible and staying out and hanging with musicians.
TJG: In some ways, I feel that humans’ musical timekeeping mechanisms are more flexible than the grid suggested by western music notation. My teacher in undergrad was a fiddle player and did a lot with this Norwegian folk dance music that has three beats to a bar, and each beat is a different length, but there’s no common subdivision. It’s just a long beat, a medium beat, and a short beat, but you can dance to it and it has such a strong groove. Sometimes, polyrhythms may look really complex on the page in terms of these nested grids, but I feel that we can teach our bodies to feel them intuitively.
KS: I feel that notation is just a tool, just a means of quickly suggesting to musicians what the piece sounds like. If I could teach a band by ea,r that be amazing but I only have so much time. I know these guys are good readers, so we can quickly start getting beyond that point where we’re just reading and can begin to listen to what’s happening and respond to that listen. That’s the most exciting for me in a quartet context. I’m really glad when I can take a step back and just listen to the rest of the band, and get lost in the sea of mysterious rhythm happening all around.
Kevin Sun presents The Middle of Tensions at The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. The group features Mr. Sun on tenor saxophone, Dana Saul on piano, Walter Stinson on bass, and Matt Honor on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.
The Jazz Gallery welcomes saxophonist and composer Godwin Louis in celebration of his debut double-album, Global (Blue Room Music). As a saxophonist, Louis reaches startling depths through his intricately-woven lines and phrases, and his compositions are emotionally charged yet always danceable. Louis attended the Berklee College of Music and went on to study at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and has played and toured with Herbie Hancock, Clark Terry, Ron Carter, Madonna, Mulatu Astatke, Wynton Marsalis, and more.
Louis has lived in Haiti, Harlem, Connecticut, and New Orleans, and through Global, Louis explores all of these places and beyond, to the music and culture of people from West and Central Africa, Brazil, and islands in the Pacific and Caribbean. Global is about looking at the sounds of the African diaspora, beyond the slave trade ands its horrors, to its influences on pop culture. Discussing the new album, Louis notes that “Global focuses on and explores the history of music in the American continent. It traces the roots via West Africa, and its journey through the four hubs of music in the Americas: Congo Square/New Orleans, Santiago de Cuba, L’Artibonite/Haiti, and Bahia/Brazil.”
Godwin Louis - I Can't Breathe - YouTube
For Louis, everything was on the table, and no tradition, people, or way of music-making was left unconsidered. “This is about my traveling experiences all over the world. I’ve been to 100 countries as of now. I have so many stories, some sad, some triumphant. So did our ancestors. Global is the history of music and culture in the Americas. Cultures that came from Africa, met with indigenous aestheticism, and were refined or rarefied via colonialism, as a result changing the course of music history and culture worldwide.”
At the upcoming show, Louis will present music from the new album with his band featuring Etienne Charles on trumpet, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Jonathan Michel on bass, and Charles Haynes on drums.
Godwin Louis celebrates the release of Global (Blue Room Music) at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, May 18, 2019. The group features Mr. Louis on saxophone, Etienne Charles on trumpet, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Jonathan Michel on bass, and Charles Haynes on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.
Photo by Jonathan Chimene (courtesy of the artist)
This Friday, May 17, The Jazz Gallery welcomes pianist Ethan Iverson and his quartet back to our stage for two sets. This spring, Iverson has been busy performing Pepperland, choreographer Mark Morris’s acclaimed Beatles tribute, for which Iverson wrote and arranged the music. You can check out a podcast with Iverson talking about the music, below:
The Music of Pepperland: A Conversation with Ethan Iverson - SoundCloud (639 secs long, 444 plays)Play in SoundCloud
For this performance at the Gallery, Iverson will convene his current New York-based working quartet, featuring saxophonist Dayna Stephens, bassist Ben Street (filling in for Thomas Morgan), and drummer Eric McPherson. Iverson played the Gallery with this band back in September, and told Jazz Speaks about what it was like to work with these particular players:
Eric McPherson is a real jazz drummer. It’s sort of corny to talk about this, but he’s one of those guys that lives his life and plays the drums with the same texture. That’s what they used to do, actually. Now most of us are quite divided—we’re very Western in our roles. But when I hang out with the old school jazz greats, there’s less division between who you are as a person and the way you play. Of someone remotely in my age group, E-Mac is just about as close as anybody to having that feeling.
What’s hip about Dayna is that he’s got a real sense of fun play in his abstraction. I think Wayne Shorter is a real reference for him; I never played with Wayne, but when I’m comping for Dayna I’m like, “Oh, man, maybe this is like I’m comping for Wayne.” He’s sort of got this elliptical thing, but Dayna’s also really fun. That aspect reminds me of my old friend Bill McHenry, who can be a goofball sometimes. I love that.
The group plays a mix of Iverson originals and standards, and for this performance, Iverson has brought in a few new tunes, including the drolly-titled “It Was the 70’s” and “Technically Acceptable.”
The Ethan Iverson Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, May 17, 2019. The group features Mr. Iverson on piano, Dayna Stephens on saxophones, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.
This Thursday, May 16, The Jazz Gallery welcomes vocalist Arta Jēkabsone back to our stage for two sets. Having just finished her undergraduate studies at The New School, Jēkabsone will present a new series of compositions entitled My Suite. Reflections. In a Walt Whitman-esque turn, this work aims to articulate outward the inner multiplicities of Jēkabsone’s personality.
This self-reflection has found Jēkabsone utilizing a larger compositional palette. In addition to her working band of pianist Theo Walentiny, guitarist Lucas Kadish, bassist Hwansu Kang, and drummer Connor Parks, Jēkabsone will be joined in this performance by a string quartet, adding a layer of lushness to her bright and lyrical material. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear a burgeoning vocalist and composer stretch her craft in new directions.
Arta Jēkabsone presents My Suite. Reflections. at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, May 16, 2019. The group features Ms. Jēkabsone on vocals, Theo Walentiny on piano, Lucas Kadish on guitar, Hwansu Kang on bass, Connor Parks on drums, Zosha Warpeha and Uta Habbig on violin, Kate Barmotina on viola, and Julie Kim on cello. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.
From L to R: David Frazier Jr., Keith Witty, and Christophe Panzani. Photo courtesy of the artist.
THIEFS is an ongoing and evolving brainchild of bassist Keith Witty and saxophonist Christophe Panzani, with drummer David Frazier Jr. as well as a rotating cast of additional improvisers and vocalists. The electro-acoustic ensemble transcends idiom and merges musical approaches in startling ways, as on their latest record, GRAFT. This performance at The Jazz Gallery will be THIEFS’ only New York City performance in 2019. Over the course of the evening, the trio of Witty, Panzani, and Frazier plan to take old and new compositions and blast them wide open.
In prior interviews with WBGO and Bandcamp Daily, Witty spoke thoroughly about the specific inspirations and processes behind the music. In our recent phone call, we took a different angle, and spoke about the challenges of having a transatlantic band, preparing new music on a tight schedule, and the creative growth of a logistically complex project.
Keith Witty: The fundamental challenge of our group is finding a way to exist, survive, and create. Getting gigs is one thing, but booking gigs that get us onto the same continent is more tricky. A gig at a small club in Boston might be wonderful, but it’s not going to get Christophe over the ocean. Same for a small club in Paris, or any city really. We have to bring everything we have to the table to try to figure out how to play. That’s detrimental in many ways, but it’s a benefit in that it makes us focus on what we want to do. We don’t have time to be frivolous. That has helped us hone our ideas and put an extra layer of thought into our conceptual movement as well. It has driven discussions about what we are trying to do, how we might hone it, how we can make it happen, and how we might change and grow. A lot of times, we’re sending each other things transatlantically, and for the gig in New York, we’ve set aside a rehearsal day for new material, which is a challenge, because we have a lot of current material to brush up on as well. We always have to find a way to make it work.
TJG: Having new material seems vital in a band like yours. In the WBGO interview, you discussed how you view jazz as music that’s alive, of the present, authentic to the group. Having new music must feel critical, even though it’s hard to get it together when you’re not living together.
KW: It does. I produce a lot of records these days, and there’s something vital and beautiful about the process of bringing compositions to their live iteration glory, to full fruition. In so many cases these days, people are recording and sculpting music in the studio that they haven’t pressed on the stage, pushed around, tugged and pulled at for months before it takes shape. In some ways, even though our last record came out over a year ago, we’re still figuring out how we best want to play some of the music. We’re stretching some of it out, so we’re figuring out what the improvisational approach is. There’s a lot of creativity, newness, freshness to that. We’ve added maybe three compositions to the repertoire since then that will make their way onto the next record. We’re trying to make sure that when we get together, there’s some opportunity to play through something new, even if it’s a sketch, just to keep the creative wheels turning.
TJG: When and where were your most recent shows?
KW: Our last shows were in Europe. We played a festival in Switzerland, NoVa JaZz. It was a small festival in a small town, but had such a great lineup. Ambrose Akinmusire, Shai Maestro, BIGYUKI, it was wonderful to be in the company of such artists who I feel approach music in a similar way, completely void of traditional parameters. There may be loose guidelines of what jazz might mean to each person, but everyone who the festival programmed, it felt like to me, was making the exact music they wanted to make, straight out of their heads and their hearts. It’s nice when programmers get what you’re trying to do, and put you with people who don’t necessarily sound like you, but are approaching music-making from a similar standpoint.
On that run we also did a masterclass and concert in Grenoble, France. That was the first concert we’ve done as a trio, as we’re going to do at the Gallery, no vocals, just instrumental explorations of the material. The room was packed with students. It felt great.
TJG: When you’re doing a trio hit like that, how are you able to push and pull the material? How does your live performance speak in conversation with the music on the record?
KW: Performing with vocalists, with this music or any music, is so fresh and dynamic. There’s a presence to it that’s hard to match. The human voice is draws people in, it’s so attractive, so persuasive. It’s a wonderful thing to prioritize. However, it requires structure. I’ve come across very few vocalists in my life, including rappers, singers, poets, whatever, who can roll with the punches when the structure disintegrates or changes. These real improvisationally-minded MCs or vocalists exist, but it’s rare. So we’ve geared what we’ve done musically toward that vocal presentation in the last couple of years, and usually a third to a half of our shows will feature vocals on some section. But when we play trio, all the doors fly wide open. Instrumentalists who have steeped themselves in improvisation, that deep comfort with the uncertainty of what’s happening next, can respond to things in such different and developed ways. Approaching the music with this trio, anything goes. We’ve been talking in rehearsals about trying this or that, but in performance, it doesn’t matter which of those choices we make, which avenue we travel down, because we’ll emerge on the other side one way or another. Mistakes don’t exist.
TJG: In this upcoming show, do you have a sense of how you’ll be balancing the old and new material?
KW: We’ll see. As a band, we like the idea that some pieces are very structured, and we can still play a three- or four-minute song if we want to. There’s nothing wrong with executing a well-written composition, just as there’s nothing wrong with blowing the roof off another composition and disappearing into another 20-minute improvisation that veers from its origins. As we make a setlist, we’ll keep a conversation going.
TJG: You know how the the Gallery is such a space of experimentation. Whatever you do will be most welcome.
KW: Yeah. I’ve always felt that way as I’ve played there over the last couple of decades, every time I find myself there.
TJG: Talk to me a little about the unique chemistry between you, David, and Christophe.
KW: Are you a musician?
KW: So you know. The hookup is its own thing. It’s hard to put it into words. It deserves poetry. It’s not a very scientific thing. Certain sounds just go well together. Certain feelings of the way we move through time just seem to latch up because they are very symmetrical, or they are deeply opposite in ways that balance each other. This band started with me, Christophe, and the drummer Guillermo E. Brown. Guillermo and I go all the way back. We have that kind of ‘fighting’ thing in the music: After we would play, people would say “Wow, you sound so good together,” but we’d be sort of pissed at each other [laughs], one of us would be thinking “He was so behind the beat,” or “He was so far ahead” or whatever it might be. The space between us was creating friction that people, myself included, really loved.
The first time Christophe and I played together at his studio in Paris, about ten years ago now, it was like we were painting with the same brush. The sounds we made were like puzzle pieces, they clicked together. We started practicing together, exercises, shapes, things like that. It was easy, like practicing by myself but way more fun. He’s been a natural partner for me ever since. It’s funny, we’re almost the same size and body type. I’ll look at him and ask “What are you wearing,” because it’s so close to what I’m wearing [laughs]. We have symmetry in a lot of ways.
David was called in as a sub for a tour in 2015 when Guillermo got the job drumming for The Late Late Show under Reggie Watts’ direction. I called Kassa Overall to do the tour, but he couldn’t make it. I explained that we needed someone who comes from a jazz background, is deeply fluent with hip hop and beats, fluid on the drum set but also has a fully-integrated electronic drumming, sampling, triggering rig and mentality, who can move from the snare drum to the drum pad employing the same creative impulses. That’s a tall order. I said, “Kassa, who would you call?” He said: “David Frazier Jr.” with no hesitation.
So, David came over to the house and started playing. You know those days where your perception is off? I kept asking myself, “Why does it sound so good? Why is it so easy to play with this guy? I must be missing something, or I must be wanting to find a sub quickly.” But I was second-guessing myself and my instincts: David is an amazing musician. His relationship with the kit is super deep, and he’s a great fit. The band has been able to elevate since he stepped in, and has allowed us to write in a different way. It’s boundless, what we can ask David to do, and he cam make it feel great and accessible. We love him.
TJG: So when you’re scattered across the globe in the way you are, but you still have to get stuff done, plan tours, and put together new material, how does the responsibility fall on each of you?
KW: Since the beginning, it’s been mine and Christophe’s band, and we would employ a drummer we loved, even if it was a drummer we employed over and over again. When we’re in the states, I’m typically trying to work out the logistics, and working with venues and agents to make things happen. When we’re in Europe, the majority of the time, it’s Christophe who’s meeting those charges. At this point, David is every bit a band member. We’re not just calling someone else if he’s not free for a gig. We’ve asked him to bring material for the next project and he’s into it, so I can’t wait to see what he’ll bring in compositionally.
David is also out there touring more extensively than I am. I’m home a lot with my kids, and trying not to be on the road as much. He’s a great source of ideas and inspiration, in terms of how people are touring these days, and what’s happening on stages. We had a long talk the other day about how James Blake is performing his new album and using electronics at festivals, how youth music markets are approaching innovation, and especially how technologic innovation is happening in R&B, hip-hop, electronic music, but not in jazz. Those things are important for us in figuring how to emulate some of those processes, and make our music as fresh and living as ever, not just in trying to keep up, but to extend the creative palette.
THIEFS plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. The group features Keith Witty on bass, Christophe Panzani on saxophone, and David Frazier Jr. on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.
This Saturday, May 11, The Jazz Gallery welcomes pianist John Escreet back to our stage. Escreet is a composer & improviser of eclectic tastes, as comfortable building psychedelic textures will electronic instruments as he is creating collaborative, acoustic music in real time. Escreet’s most recent album, Learn To Live (Blue Room Music), embraces an electrified sound world with a top-notch band including saxophonist Greg Osby, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist Matt Brewer, and a double drum team of Eric Harland and Justin Brown.
For his performance at the Gallery however, Escreet leans into the open and mysterious with a trio featuring the influential British saxophonist Evan Parker and do-anything percussionist Ches Smith. The group is likely to draw on material from Escreet’s recent pair of Sunnyside recordings, The Unknown and Sound, Space and Structures, both of which featured Parker.
John Escreet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, May 11, 2019. The group features Mr. Escreet on piano, Evan Parker on saxophones, and Ches Smith on percussion. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.
This Friday, May 10, The Jazz Gallery welcomes vibraphonist Nikara Warren back to our stage for the second installment of her Political Gangster Trilogy. Back in April, Warren focused on the music of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Charles Mingus, but for this show, Warren will convene her Black Wall Street project. Black Wall Street is named for the affluent black neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma that was burned to the ground during the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, but for Warren, the project name isn’t meant to evoke the violence of that event. As she described in a recent interview with Jazz Speaks:
I didn’t want to focus on the negative, especially with Black Wall Street name—I actually had a pretty famous trumpet player say to me, [laughs] “Why you highlightin’ that? That’s a Klan job.” And I decided to explain to him, “nah, I’m not highlighting what happened—I’m highlighting what was, what was before.” And hopefully bringing some historical knowledge to people that are like, oh, what’s Black Wall Street? Why’d she call it that? And trying to keep my eye on the excellence portion of this, and that’s why I grabbed from all these amazing parts of Black American music. And I shouldn’t really even say Black American music—I should just say Black music. There’s a lot of African influence in there too, and Latin America.
Before coming to the Gallery to hear Warren’s potent synthesis of historic and contemporary black musics, check out Black Wall Street’s recent performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Black Wall Street - Millennium Stage (February 10, 2019) - YouTube
Nikara Warren’s Black Wall Street plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, May 10, 2019. The group features Ms. Warren on vibes & vocals, Hailey Niswanger on saxophone, Steven Fowler on trumpet, Paul Wilson on keyboards, Corey Sanchez on guitar, Diego Ramirez on drums, and a bassist TBA. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.