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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Design by Paul Jackson

Design by Paul Jackson

The Man’yōshū, or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, is the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, dating back to the 8th century C.E. The collection is filled with evocative depictions of nature and the seasons, and is emotionally direct, speaking across centuries to modern readers.

This weekend, The Jazz Gallery is proud to present a very special multimedia project inspired by the Man’yōshū and other arts from Classical-era Japan. The project Ten Thousand Leaves features music composed and performed by singer-songwriter Becca Stevens and composer/sound artist Aya Nishina, as well as video projections by artist Shimpei Takeda. Drawing from both the Man’yōshū and Makura no SōshiThe Pillow Book—another great work of Classical Japanese literature—Stevens and Nishina have crafted a set of compositions that seek to bridge both time and place. The music itself reflects the pair’s diverse musical upbringings, finding common ground between traditional Irish folk music and Japanese Gagaku court music from the 7th century C.E.

To get a sense of what the artists might have in store this weekend, check out their previous collaboration below, a haunting synthesis of music and moving image made in memory of the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Flora – Aya Nishina (feat. Gretchen Parlato, Becca Stevens, Sara Serpa, Monika Heidemann) from ayanishina.org on Vimeo. (more…)

Melissa Aldana and Glenn Zaleski. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Melissa Aldana and Glenn Zaleski. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Both saxophonist Melissa Aldana and pianist Glenn Zaleski—still in their twenties—have been laden many with accolades over their burgeoning careers. Aldana was the winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 2013, and has received the National Arts Award in Chile and the Martin E. Segal Award from Lincoln Center. Zaleski was a Monk semi-finalist in 2011, and was Cole Porter Fellowship finalist, attended the Brubeck Institute, and both studied and taught at NYU. Zaleski and Aldana’s album releases bubble with energy, featuring a collaborative approach to composition and fresh takes on musical phrasing.

For their upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery, Zaleski and Aldana have put together a group of some of their most talented musical peers, including Ben Van Gelder (alto sax), Philip Dizack (trumpet), Rick Rosato (bass), and Craig Weinrib (drums). We caught up with them by phone at their homes in Washington Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, and discussed the origins of their musical friendship, as well as the music they’ve been preparing for the show.

The Jazz Gallery: How are you both doing?

Melissa Aldana: Good, thanks. Just practicing now, actually.

Glenn Zaleski: I’m doing quite well, thank you.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you each tell me a little about your musical life over the last month?

MA: Sure! As you know, I’ve been playing trio for a long time, and have been playing with Glenn for a long time too. These last few months, I thought it would be nice to try to expand what I’m doing and try some new things. It occurred to me to ask Glenn to play this gig at The Gallery and to try this collaboration, with the idea of trying some new musical ideas and expanding what I have been doing compositionally. It would also be a good opportunity to write for more horns. I wanted to have the chance to play with Ben Van Gelder, I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time; same with Philip [Dizack], Rick [Rosato], and Craig [Weinrib]. The whole idea of the sextet is to play with new people, to write for sextet, and to see what will happen. These last few months have been pretty focused on that, just trying to write and see what’s next.

GZ: For the last few months I’ve generally been busy around the city, playing all sorts of different gigs. I’ve spent some time writing for this project: I’ve been looking forward to this project very much, it’s an exciting group of musicians and friends. I tried to put music together that would bring out the best in everybody. Most members of the sextet have produced music for the band, so there’s an interesting group personality. Everyone’s getting an opportunity to present themselves and their original music.

TJG: How did you and Melissa meet?

GZ: We met probably three or four years ago, and we had a lot of mutual friends. I can’t remember the exact situation where we met, actually. Melissa?

MA: I think the first time we played together was actually at The Jazz Gallery? We’d played a few other gigs as well, at The Kitano, and at Smalls as well.

GZ: Yeah. I don’t remember where we met first, exactly, but we’ve always had a good time playing together whenever we’ve had the chance, which has been pretty regularly.

TJG: Were those early gigs sessions, projects, other people’s gigs?

MA: I called Glenn many times to play with my quartet, and we sat in a few times with each other playing duo. Remember, at The Kitano, we did that duo thing?

GN: Oh yeah, of course. It’s been a lot of miscellaneous playing over the last four years, sitting in, playing with each other.

MA: With the trio, now, it feels like I’d like to add some harmony. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to start playing more regularly with Glenn, because I’ve always been a fan and liked his music. It seemed like putting on a gig at The Gallery would be a good idea, to force myself to focus on putting the music together. Then, when I proposed a sextet, the musicians came together, and in the last few weeks we’ve started rehearsing.

GZ: We’ve got three or four of Melissa’s tunes, and a few of my tunes. Philip has a few tunes, Ben brought in a tune; it’s really cool. I’ve played some of Melissa’s tunes in a quartet setting before, and it’s great to hear them expanded for sextet. Melissa’s also played a couple of my tunes before, so it’s exciting to hear the whole group play them. Each person has brought their own tunes and with it their own personality, and it’s exciting because we’re all friends and we all really admire each others’ playing and writing. It’s not often enough that an opportunity like this comes up, where we have an open stage to experiment and play some new music together. At the core of it is a respect and admiration for what each other musician is doing. It’s going to be an exciting thing to hear.

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Photo by Steven Sussman, via All About JazzThis Friday, June 17th, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome bassist John Benitez and his group Love Revolution to our stage for two sets. It’s hard to find a more accomplished bassist in New York than Mr. Benitez. Since coming to the city from Puerto Rico in the early ’90s, Benitez has played with many of the biggest names in jazz and Latin music—Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, and Roy Hargrove, just to name a few. Even though Benitez has almost always worked as a sideman, his yeoman’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Back in 2001, Ben Ratliff on the New York Times proclaimed Benitez, “…with his rock-solid groove, the best new Latin jazz bassist in the city, great at using the fewest possible notes to maximum swing potential.”

Benitez’s new project Love Revolution is a genre-crossing, family affair. The group features his sons Francis on drums and Joshua on keyboards, as well as the up-and-coming conscious rap artist Juanito Jones. In a week marked by tragedy, there is perhaps no better cure for the blues than the vibrant, uplifting music of John Benitez and company. (more…)

Cover art by Long Vu,  courtesy of Destiny Records

Cover art by Long Vu, courtesy of Destiny Records

Ricky Rodriguez, a bassist with a heavy history of touring with the greats, will bring his own band to The Jazz Gallery for the release of his first album as a leader. Raised and schooled in Puerto Rico, Ricky has been on the New York scene for almost eleven years. Looking Beyond (Destiny Records) presents the inimitable lineup of Adam Rogers (guitar), Luis Perdomo (piano), Myron Walden (alto saxophone and bass clarinet), and Obed Calvaire (drums). The album also features special guests David Sanchez (tenor saxophone) and Pete Rodriguez (trumpet). We caught up with Ricky by phone, and talked about his composition and arrangement style, the backstory behind the formation of his quintet, and his philosophy on approaching the New York scene as a young musician.

The Jazz Gallery: Your last gig at the Gallery was in April 2015, with Ben Wendel, Fabian Almazan, and Henry Cole, where you reworked several tunes from “Looking Beyond” with an electric approach. How did the show go down?

Ricky Rodriguez: It went well, man. As a double bass player and electric bass player, I respect the instruments’ different sounds, from classic and acoustic to electric and crazy, you know what I mean? I picked some tunes from the record, and combined them with new ones that I was writing for that particular project. It worked great, because the bass lines I wrote on acoustic, I can play on electric too, and it doesn’t sound out of context. When I compose, I try to think of those days when the airline might not let me travel with my acoustic, so I have to bring the electric. So I try to make my music work for both. Except for when we play straight-ahead jazz of course; I respect that sound so much that I have to play acoustic. But the rest of my music works fine for both. I can play with Fender Rhodes or acoustic piano, and it sounds good either way. So with the electric band, we had a good time, and people liked it. For this week, it will totally be like the real shit, you know? [laughs]. The ‘real band,’ with the acoustic instruments, so I’m really excited about that.

TJG: With Myron Walden in the band as a doubler, do you write differently for his alto playing and his bass clarinet playing?

RR: Oh yeah, definitely. As I said in a previous interview, I’ve known Myron for years. Even before I moved to New York, I was listening to him on his records. I wanted to play with him when I moved to New York, and he was playing with the Ray Barretto Sextet, a band that I really enjoyed. I was young at the time and I considered him one of the masters, as I still do, so later when I wrote this music I was thinking of him. It’s funny because I’d played his music already with different saxophone players, like David Binney, John Ellis, and Ben Wendel, and they’re incredible. But the Myron sound and approach is so particular to what I was looking for. I guess that’s important; when you write for someone specific. You write it into the band, like Duke Ellington did with his musicians.

TJG: How does Myron’s sound change from alto to bass clarinet?

RR: I wrote a couple of tunes for him on bass clarinet, because of course when I heard him he was playing with the [Brian Blade] Fellowship, and I loved it, so I wanted to channel that. For this show, I asked him to try some of the same music with him moving from alto to bass clarinet, to try something new, because I love bass clarinet. It matches so well with the acoustic bass and piano. The approach between alto and bass clarinet changes a lot, so I have to do some thinking as I write, or else it won’t sound right. For most of the bass clarinet stuff I was thinking about tenor [saxophone]. On the record, I had special guest David Sanchez, so I wanted to try some of those parts on bass clarinet, since it’s in the same register. That’s what I told Myron, so he said “Let’s see” and immediately started exploring.

TJG: Tell me about your decision to have both a pianist and a guitarist in the quintet.

RR: Good question. I always want to record and write, and you know how hard it is to get a label to sign you. I was saving money, and I was thinking of doing a quartet, with no guitar. When I got approached by Destiny Records three years ago, they told me that they were interested in having me record whatever I had ready. I said I had the quartet, but when the studio date got to be about a month away, I wanted to add something, and I had so many guests I wanted to invite. But I had to work with a budget. I definitely wanted to have David Sanchez, one of my mentors, who I’ve been playing with for years, on a couple of tunes. But then I figured out that it would be great to listen to how I can re-harmonize and re-orchestrate some of the music with piano and guitar. Sometimes you hear the two together, and they’re doing almost the same thing; I didn’t want to do that. I started listening to records with guitar, piano, and bass, and started to analyze it. I told the label that I wanted to add a guitar, and the guys asked me, “Who?” I didn’t know, but I definitely wanted to have a quintet. So they said okay! I was scared, because suddenly I had less than a month to put together the guitar part.

One of my favorite guitar players is Adam Rogers. The first time I heard him, he blew my mind. He can play classical guitar at a high level, as well as crazy rock, jazz, everything. Every level is so high with him. So I just approached him, and he said he was interested in recording. I got so excited that in less than a week, I finished all the parts! I was writing for him in particular, like I was doing with Myron. Mike Moreno has played with me before, as well as Ben Monder, and other guitarists too; they sound incredible, but they don’t sound like Adam in the band, because of his approach and background, and because I was writing for his particular harmonic sensibility. He adds another voice to the quintet texture, and so there’s no competition between Luis Perdomo on piano and Adam guitar. I can tell you, I was kind of nervous when I was at the studio because I had one m********ker next to me on guitar, and another m********ker next to me on the piano, and thought it might get into some wrestling, you know? [laughs]. But no, man, it was beautiful. I was so excited listening back, and now I want to transcribe it all. I chose those guys because they take it to the next level, and they hardly needed any explanation from me. They all did an amazing job.

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Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Guitarist Mary Halvorson has gained attention for her dextrous improvisation, her unique, prickly sound sound, and her intricate compositions, which range from solo guitar music to works for bands of 8+. Code Girl, the new project she will debut at The Jazz Gallery as part of the 2016 Jazz Gallery Residency Commissions, features longtime bandmates Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums), as well as trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire and singer Amirtha Kidambi. We spoke with Halvorson this week about the project’s multifaceted inspirations and the new challenges she posed for herself in writing it.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re both a guitarist and a composer, and your sound on the guitar is particularly unique. How do you feel your composition affects your performance, and vice versa?

Mary Halvorson: I definitely think of the two things as related. The composing, for me, comes first when I’m thinking about this group, and then based on what I write, that sets up a mood or a tone for the improvisation. So I definitely think about them as related, but I try to leave the compositions open enough that the improvisation has room to grow, and so the composition won’t necessarily happen the same way every time.

TJG: How much does improvisation play a role in the compositional process for you?

MH: It plays a pretty big role. Usually when I start to compose, I start by just improvising on the guitar. So I’ll sit down on the guitar and start improvising until I come up with something which I think could be an idea, or a theme for a composition, and then I’ll start writing stuff down, and I’ll sort of develop an idea, but it always comes from an improvisational space for me. In the case of this group, which has lyrics, I had written the lyrics first, so I wrote the lyrics and then when I sat down to compose the music I would start improvising on guitar but also singing. So I’d be singing some of the lyrics and then develop the composition in that way.

TJG: So you were writing the lyrics also.

MH: Yes.

TJG: What was your thought process for composing for this band?

MH: It’s a pretty different project for me, and this is the first time I’ve written for a group with a singer, though I have had a couple groups in the past where I sung a little bit, and I’ve written a few lyrics in the past. But this is the first group where I have a dedicated singer, and I’m writing all the lyrics myself. So just because of that, it’s been a little bit of a different process. And like I described, I would write the lyrics first and then build the compositions around the lyrics, so the song structure around the vocal structure, if that makes sense.

TJG: Do you think of the voice as separate from a melodic instrument, in that case? Or is it just a melody line?

MH: I guess I think about it as both, because I’m definitely thinking about melody quite a bit. But then also because it’s expressing words, for me it does take on a different role and a different focus from the instruments. In a way I’m thinking, although deeper, highly improvisational lines, also thinking of them as songs, like you would have a folk song. So sort of combining those elements.

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