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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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Starting with a state department tour in 2002, flautist and composer Jamie Baum has had a long engagement with the musics of South Asia. In 2013, she released a record with her Septet+ called In This Life (Sunnyside) featuring music inspired by the Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.This past year, Baum released Bridges (Sunnyside), probing the deep connections between South Asian, Arabic, and Jewish musics.

This Friday, October 19, Baum and Septet+ return to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of Bridges. We caught up with her by phone to talk about her ensemble’s evolution, her travels & research, and her constant pursuit of good polyphony.

The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of your septet over the years?

Jamie Baum: Early in my career, I played a lot of chamber music gigs—flute, violin, and cello; flute, harp, and cello; flute and piano. I’d play Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart. Having moved to NYC In the ‘90s, while getting myself established, I did a lot of weddings and corporate gigs. I didn’t mind it, because I was playing with great classical players, and we were playing great music. I really learned a lot by playing all of that contrapuntal Baroque music. That thinking carried over into the making of the septet because at that time, I felt in a jazz setting the flute would always be on top playing the melody. When I’d do small group jazz gigs, it often seemed to me that the rhythm section was having more fun than I was; interacting and getting into some interesting rhythmic things. After playing all of that classical chamber music, I would go to jazz gigs thinking, “I would love to be an inner line and find a way to interact more” and became interested in seeing what would happen if I took a more polyphonic approach with my jazz composing. Of course, I wasn’t the only one thinking like that, but that was my own experience. I would say that now, about half the time in my Septet+ I’m playing alto flute and am often not the one on top playing the melody.

I started the septet in 1999 and had a different lineup then— for several years Ralph Alessi,George Colligan, Johannes Weidemuller, Doug Yatesall played in the band… The septet has always been a muse for me in terms of exploring different ideas about compositional development and formats for improvisation. At first, I was focused on taking the music of 20thcentury classical composers and seeing what I could do with those influences. Our first recording—Moving Forward, Standing Still—had some Stravinsky and Bartok, and then in 2003 I got a Chamber Music America grant to compose music based on Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony and The Unanswered Question. That led to the second septet CD, Solace.

At that time, I was doing quite a bit of touring. In 2002, I did a state department tour for six weeks, three of which were in India and then toBangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka. For the tour, they set up collaborative concerts with some top musicians, like the tabla player Sandeep Das, who played in the Silk Road Ensemble; Vishwa Mohan, who’s developed a particular kind of guitar playing; Karaikudi Mani, who is a mridangam master, guru and was the teacher of Jamey Haddad. With Karaikudi, we spent a whole day in a hotel conference room where he taught us his pieces, and then spent three days rehearsing. But that was just a small taste. Of course, in that tradition, when a musician is four or five, they often go live with a guru and study, and sometimes won’t really perform publicly until they’re in theirtwenties.

After that first tour, I was invited back to India, and then Nepal twice. During my tours, I was introduced to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and really got into him. Around 2010, some of the guys in my Septet were either moving out of NYC or getting very busy with other touring projects so it seemed like a really good time to make a change and follow a new direction. I wanted to explore and see what I could do with these influences from South Asian music. I had met Amir El-Saffar a couple of years before that at a Chamber Music America event and we talked about wanting to play. He seemed like a perfect fit. And then adding guitarist Brad Shepik made the group the Septet+. He’s done a lot of work with Eastern European and South Asian music, so that was a really good fit too. So the group morphed into something different.

TJG: You released In This Life to much acclaim in 2013. How did you get from the music on In This Life to Bridges?

JB: Right when In This Life came out, I had some people asking me, tongue-in-cheek, “What’s a nice Jewish girl like you being obsessed with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan?” It did make me think and so I was trying to better understand what it was that was really attracting me to this music. When I listened to his recordings, I felt he moved me like Miles or Coltrane or Pavarotti did. There was a very deep, spiritual thing happening. For several years when I was a kid, I went to Hebrew school three times a week and on Saturdays to services at our synagogue. This was before they tried to update and reform the music with a more Americanized style. I really grew up with those ancient melodies and sounds. When I listened to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the way he embellishes melodies and the scales he uses felt familiar to me on a certain level, as does maqam and middle easternmusic.

Around the time that I was thinking about this, I had a very good friend whom I had first met in India. She was from the US, but had moved to India to study mridangam and married there. It is interesting because her father was a rabbi and I think her mother was one of the first female cantors in the United States. We started talking about how there were all of these connections between South Asian and Jewish musical traditions. There were actually Sufi rabbis living in the 10th through 13th centuries. At this same time, Amir and I talked about the connections between Jewish music and Maqam and how Jewish-Arabic relations had been much better in other eras.

In 2013, I applied for a Guggenheim grant for a project that was originally about researching these connections between South Asian and Jewish music, like these Sufi rabbis… and perhaps the music that they were sharing. At the beginning of the research process, I talked to several rabbis who gave me people to contact all over the place to try to get what I was looking for. I even contacted the Library of Congress in Jerusalem. Then in 2014, the Septet+ was performing at Scullers in Cambridge, MA, and Hankus Netzky came out to see us (I went to NEC and my first year I was a Third Stream major, so had studied with Ran Blake and Hankus). After the show, we were talking and it hit me that I probably should have talked to him about my research in the initial phase—being that he is so knowledgeable about all of that! The moment I told him about my research, he started laughing, and said, “You’re not going to find any information about that! None of that music was written down back then, so forget it!”

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This Thursday, October 18, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome pianist Lex Korten back to our stage with his new project Make/Believe. Korten made his Gallery debut as a leader in June of this year, presenting new work with a quartet of his peers. In an interview with Jazz Speaks, Korten spoke about challenging himself and his band mates with different approaches to composition:

I played this music with the band during the session, and they killed it. I know what sort of music they’re going to make sound good. Now, instead of writing for them, I’m going to write against them, because I trust them so much, and I want to see what comes out of that. Sometimes, it’s easy to write within this idiom when you’re dead-set on the language that’s going to be used. So I challenge myself to write differently than I normally do, and to challenge these guys to play in a different way than they’re used to playing.

For this week’s Gallery performance, Korten is once again is pushing himself and his band in these challenging directions. While the set of compositions from June focused on personal experiences and daily life of the city, the compositions for Make/Believe live in a more fantastical realm. Before coming to hear Korten and company at the Gallery, check out Korten’s evocative “Free Suite,” below:
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Already with an acclaimed big band record under her belt, composer and vocalist Jihye Lee steps out in a new direction on her newest release, As The Night Passes. Instead of the extensive big band palette she used so deftly on her debut album, April, Lee strips down the music on As The Night Passes to just her voice and piano.

This Saturday, October 13, Lee returns to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the album’s release, alongside pianist Vadim Neselovsky. We caught up with Lee by phone to talk about her approach to delivering her music in a vulnerable setting and the diverse origins of her musical materials.

The Jazz Gallery: How would you describe this project, and this show?

Jihye Lee: Before this project, I did a lot of big band writing, so this is a drastic change; I have seventeen people in my band, and now I’m having a duo album release show! So I think it’s a very different project, I think I’ve been more vulnerable. Before I was facing my back to the audience, I was conducting. I let my band play my music; now I have to deliver it. At the same time, it’s more me, I composed it and I’m singing with my voice. It’s more of me delivering my music; it’s very different. It’s kind of unusual, that a big band composer sings.

TJG: Why did you decide to move from a big band to a duo?

JL: I was a singer-songwriter in Korea, and I came to the United States and became a big band composer. I loved the harmony of jazz, the intricate rhythms, while I was in Korea already. I’ve lived in the states for seven years, and I dedicated myself intensely for five years to the big band writing. But meanwhile I was still writing vocal music, it was natural for me to write songs, singing stuff. This is the collection of songs I’ve been writing for five years. Two years ago, I was thinking, I have to put it out there! Otherwise I’ll let my ideas down. So I recorded all of my songs, like ten songs that I chose, and recorded it. I neglected it again, for two years, and this fall I just thought I should do it. It’s not a surprise to me; it’s natural. I’m a writer who uses different forms.

TJG: Do you think of this as jazz?

JL: I don’t know! [Laughs]. It’s hard to describe; it’s not swing music at all. It’s not one music at all either. It’s very European jazz, modern jazz, I would say. And also there’s some Korean pop music in it, because that’s what I listened to growing up! Even though I didn’t really intend to write music like that, I was thinking that there’s a lot of jazz harmony, it’s still Korean. I don’t know how to describe it. Some people say my singing is like musical theater; jazz-y, folk-y. It can be anything; it’s a hard question for me to answer, because I’m inside of it; I can’t see myself objectively. I honestly don’t know.

TJG: What was your compositional process like?

JL: I mostly write lyrics, melody, chord changes at the same time. It’s kind of crazy. Some songs, I wrote the melody and chord changes first, and then I put the lyrics later. Two of the songs, I collaborated with another lyricist; I gave her Korean lyrics and she translated or wrote me lyrics.

I think composition to me is all about delivery and expressing myself, so when I have something that I want to say, I think about the image and what kind of melody will deliver this emotion or thoughts in the proper way. It always starts with my imagination, with thoughts, and thinking about the form that the music will take.

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The harmonica is an intimate instrument, held softly in cupped hands as if the performer is telling secrets. Grégoire Maret is always pushing to expand, learn, and develop as a jazz harmonica player, and he speaks fluidly and sensitively through the instrument. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Maret move to New York City to pursue jazz studies at the New School. Over time, he has developed his own unique sound across a wide range musical genres, playing with the likes of Youssn’Dour, Me’ Shell Ndegeocello, Pat Metheny, Pete Seeger, Sting, and many more.

Maret is bringing his Gospel Project to The Jazz Gallery, which we have hosted before, and has also been featured on stages such as Montreux Jazz. Joining him will be Ondrej Pivec on organ and piano, Chelton Grey on bass, Nathaniel Townsley on drums, and Linwood Smith on vocals. Read below to check out Maret’s thoughts on his own his Gospel project, performing like a vocalist, and working with some of the great jazz masters alive today: We caught up with Maret via phone while he was running around town getting his visas and passport in order for an upcoming tour with Herbie Hancock.

TJG: You must be excited for this show. It’s a great lineup of musicians. I know you’ve performed with The Gospel Project here at The Jazz Gallery, with a slightly different personnel.

Grégoire Maret: Yes, what we did before was sort of a tribute to Stevie Wonder, our approach to the Stevie Wonder songbook, which is related to this project as well. We did that concert without a vocalist, and for this concert, we’re going to have vocalist Linwood Smith, who’s coming from church and he’s incredible, incredible, sensational, really. It’s going to amazing. We’ll probably play a few of the songs from last time that sounded so good, but other than that, they’re all originals that have been written for this particular group. I had the help of Stephanie Fisher to do all of the vocal arrangements and write lyrics, and Jean Baylor to do some vocal arrangements and help with lyrics. Cedric Hanriot has been producing this project and arranging a lot of the music, and I wrote everything originally. It was my take on trying to write songs rather than instrumental tunes. I wanted to write something completely for vocalist, and to think of the harmonica like a vocalist as well. We’ve traveled and recorded quite a bit already. The record isn’t finished, but we’ve gone to Europe and Asia, all over the place in the States, and it’s a thrill, getting people excited about the music.

TJG: Well, you’re playing music that feels good.

GM: Exactly. One of the goals is to make something that feels good, sounds great, is accessible, but at the same time is really sophisticated, not just feel-good music with nothing beneath the surface. I’ve been highly influenced by a lot of the people I’ve played with over the years, people like Pat Metheny, who are masters of that kind of stuff. Really pretty melodies, and when you check out what’s going on underneath, there’s so much, you know, it’s really complex. That’s what nurtures both the listener and the musician. It’s challenging to play, exciting, and at the same time, everybody can relate to it. That’s the music I love to play. When you listen to Herbie, his songs have relatively simple melodies, and then underneath, there’s all kinds of stuff going on. Of course, when you talk about Herbie, he can take the simplest form and make it the most beautiful, sophisticated thing. That’s always been the music that attracted me.

TJG: So when you talk about composing something that has both simplicity and sophistication, and you’re working with a singer like Linwood Smith, how do you approach that?

GM: I usually start by writing some chords, and see if I hear a melody. Or, I’ll start with a little melody, and see how I can reharmonize it. I’ll find three, four, five ways to reharmonize a melody, see which one suits the melody best. That’s the starting point, around the melody, and to have good counterpoint between the bass and the melody, always. That’s huge. You basically have two melodies, the bassline and the main melody. Then you fill in the dots, the chords and that kind of stuff, after that. That’s the way I think about a lot of music. I’m always trying to come up with a relatively simple melody that I’ll sing while I’m writing at the piano. I’ll sing the melody and start playing chords to accompany the melody, until I feel like I have something really strong. Sometimes, I have some chord changes I want to explore, and I’ll try to find a melody that suits that at the same time that it is really singable. That’s really the whole key of this project, to create melodies that can be sung easily.

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Photo by Natalie Deryn Johnson, courtesy of the artist.

Describing his musical upbringing, Patrick Bartley, Jr. speaks with clarity and wonder. His musical identity is concretely tied to formative memories, concrete interests, and inspiring role-models. His playing style is similarly grounded and confident. He has been featured on profile stages such as the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and an Emmy-nominated HBO special with Wynton Marsalis, and puts on shows with a wide range of ensembles in New York.

Many of his own projects involve approaching composition and improvisation from a visual and narrative perspective, but rather than following the more conventional musical theater or film-scoring paths, Bartley takes his inspiration from video games, anime, and sci-fi adventure. For his upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery, Bartley will present “Original music inspired by dreams, fantasies, stories, and images from childhood to present.”. Joining Bartley for this performance will be saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, pianist Chris Pattishall, bassist Marty Jaffe, drummer Savannah Harris; Kevin Moeti will do a live narration to accompany the music.

The Jazz Gallery: Before we get to the project you’re bringing to The Gallery, I want to ask about your tribute-style shows, such as “Bix and Tram: A Retrospective” that began at Dizzy’s. How did this interest in “trad jazz” start?

PB: The show is an interesting homage not just to the music of Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, but also to my relationship with the trad jazz scene in New York for the last five and a half years. Alphonso Horne got me into the trad jazz scene by getting me on a gig with Dandy Wellington, a singer and bandleader in the city who was looking for another clarinet player, specifically a black clarinet player, which for some reason is hard to find in New York [laughs]. The gig opened me up to a world of new music and new people, which I loved. There are great gigs in the more standard jazz scene, as we know, but sometimes the logistics are not the most concrete, whether because of the institutions, the bandleaders, or the scene itself. In the trad jazz scene, things are more consistent. The music is great, you learn all these new songs—even though they are technically older. You take one chorus, and you only take two if the bandleader thinks you’re really killing it. Everyone’s having fun, it’s all smiles, it’s always a good time, and I love that. It really makes people happy.

In college, I found a collection of Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer’s music online, which I listened to constantly. When Michael Mwenso was still at Dizzy’s Club, I pitched to him that we should do some of Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer’s music. We made it happen, and the event was met with a great response. I didn’t expect that a large portion of the trad jazz scene would show up, which gave me even more of a reason to continue the project. We’ve done various shows since then, including a main stage show with legendary clarinetist Dan Levinson, who has been dealing with this music for almost 40 years now. A number of other people, including Vince Giordano, have encouraged me to continue with it and get deeper. I’ve done most of the transcriptions myself, for our own instrumentation, have listened to the music as much as I could, made my own charts. At the same time, I try to let people know that this is a side project, not the main thing that I’m doing.

TJG: Your passion and interest lead so naturally to other people getting inspired—I wonder if there was a moment where you said “Wait a second, this was supposed to be fun, but now I have to do all of this work, it’s feeling like a bit much.”

PB: You hit the nail on the head with that sentiment, but the work was not the labor, it wasn’t the hard part. I’m the kind of person who loves doing work for fun. I mean, I don’t want people not paying me for gigs, but if it’s work that means something to me, I’ll put my life on the line for it. So it’s less about being work-averse, and more about not wanting to be pigeonholed into one style from people who don’t understand that I do more things.

In the past I’ve discussed how I think there should be more black people playing trad jazz music, that side should be more represented. We bring a different perspective, a different sound. When I’m listening to the music of Bix and Tram, I hear what they were bringing to the music, but in addition, I hear my own experience on top of it. I’ll hear a certain rhythmic thing they do, and it’ll remind me of a Caribbean thing or an R&B sound, and I’ll try to integrate that while still playing in the style. Trad music becomes a vehicle, a landscape to learn and explore those other feelings. But it’s an infatuation right now, not necessarily a lifelong mission.

TJG: By comparison, you’ve put over five years into the J Music Ensemble. The music clearly means a lot to you, and it also comes from a personal infatuation. Could you tell me a little about the J Music ensemble?

PB: Over the last five years, the J Music Ensemble has gone through a plethora of changes, in its mission and intent, in my style as a bandleader, in our repertoire, and in our fanbase. We have a sizable, loyal audience now, and we don’t have to put as much work into getting fans as we used to. We’re still seeking support, sponsorship, and management, and I still pay out of pocket for a lot of our gigs. With the Bix thing, I’m willing to put my time and energy into it, but I need to get paid for it: J Music, on the other hand, came from a personal creative awakening, a realization that I should wear my lifelong influences on my sleeve as my musical identity. Whatever happens with this band, I’m ready for anything. It feels like my child, you know: You don’t have a baby then immediately ask the baby to start paying rent [laughs]. No, you take care of it, you nurture it, no matter what happens. You don’t sleep, you get sick, just for the sake of making sure the child grows, is nurtured, loved, gets the experience they need. That’s how I treat J Music ensemble.

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