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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Design courtesy of the artist.

Kassa Overall uses language like he uses music. Everything is a metaphor, a colorful snapshot of a larger picture. When he speaks, the next idea could be from poetry or chemistry, economics or philosophy, film or fashion. In Overall’s words, African-American music has frozen assets in the form of meaning and interpretation; these musical flowers will bloom for larger audiences when people begin listening to new music like they read unfamiliar poetry. Everything is a remix. This type of genre-clashing in the world of music, according to Overall, is a way to “reconnect the dots, intuitively and systematically, of the past present and future.”

Raised in Seattle and trained at Oberlin, Overall has performed around the world over the last decade with Geri Allen, Vijay Iyer, Das Racist, Mayer Hawthorne, Wallace Roney, Ravi Coltrane, Gary Bartz, The Late Show band, and many more. His identity as a jazz drummer blends seamlessly with his production and rapping skills, which can be seen on his recent Drake It Till You Make It EP, where he covers Drake, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West–the new standards, says Overall–alongside Theo Croker, Julius Rodriguez, Dominic Missana, and Aaron Parks.

TIME CAPSULE is the name of Overall’s new project, a Jazz Gallery residency and commission that will unfold over the next seven months. Overall’s idea is to “expand the limits of time and genre in music,” and to generate fresh, remix-able material with pianists including Jason Moran, Aaron Parks, Sullivan Fortner, Kris Davis and Craig Taborn. The first date will feature Jon Batiste, widely known from his gig as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In  our recent phone interview, Overall spared no words, laying out his plans for the next six months in enthusiastic, technicolor detail.

The Jazz Gallery: Kassa, it’s my pleasure to interview you about the very first show in your TIME CAPSULE residency at The Jazz Gallery. What’s been keeping you busy?

Kassa Overall: Right now, I’m finishing up a new body of recorded work. I tend to make songs in a kind of backwards way. For example, I had this song with drums, keys, organ, all this different stuff. After it was finished, I wrote a little melody, and had a pianist record and sing it to me. I added it to the track, and I’m trying to figure out if it fits.

TJG: So it’s kind of a three-step process, where you put in everything except the melody, you add the melody, and you rebuild the song around it?

KO: That’s how it went this time. With every song, I never really know when it’s finished, until I’m at the deadline, and I say “Word, it’s finished I guess” [laughs]. This thing started as more of an interlude or intro, so it didn’t really need a melody, and the drums were introduced throughout the song as a speaking part. The melody is minimal, just one or two notes, but it almost re-contextualizes the whole piece. Do I want to do that or not? Do I want to keep the drums out front, or should I give the people the melody? A lot of it is decision-making, more so than composing. It’s like, “Do I wear the red shoes, or do I wear the black ones and let the colorful shirt be the main focus?” The answer is different for every song.

TJG: Got it. So, let’s jump to the Jazz Gallery show, I’ve got some questions about the upcoming residency. I’ll start art with a quote from Jonathan Zwickel, who interviewed you for City Arts Magazine in Seattle.

KO: Oh yeah, I loved that interview.

TJG: Me too. Jonathan wrote, “Kassa is one of those people who’s not only good at everything he does but is often the only one doing the thing he’s doing.” How would you describe what you’re doing, and do you think you’re the only one doing it?

KO: Because I do a lot of different things, the correct thing to say would be, “No, I’m not the only one doing what I’m doing.” But, at the same time, the answer is yes, because I’m the only one doing what I’m doing in the way I’m doing it. A lot of it has to do with the way I’ve divided myself and my surroundings in the past. For example: I play the drums, and many people play the drums. But I approach drumming a certain way. For me, that magic thing that speaks to me is the polyrhythmic side, or the harmonic rhythm, of drumming. Elvin Jones was one of the greatest independence guys, where the cymbal, snare, and bass drum are doing different things. A lot of cats from that era, from Art Blakey and Max Roach to Tony Williams and Kenny Clarke, were dealing with that kind of information. But even back when Elvin was the man, there were a lot of drummers who weren’t dealing with independence, and were coming from different aesthetic perspectives. So in that sense, considering the harmonics of drumming, there are only a certain number of cats who see that evolution as an important aspect of drumming today. I’d consider myself one of those drummers.

Then you have different producers who are dealing with jazz aesthetic, chopping up live music, and so on. A lot of musicians and producers are doing that, but there aren’t that many jazz musicians that are also doing that. That puts me in a smaller group of people. You have the lineage of J Dilla, Madlib, Flying Lotus… For example, I was just in Chicago, hanging out with Makaya McCraven. He showed me his own approach, coming from that same hip hop/jazz/live beats lineage. There’s not too many people doing that. And then, I also write lyrics and rap. So when you take all of these different elements and compound them, there’s probably nobody doing exactly what I’m doing. If you take any specific element of what I do, there are people I look up to in every direction. I’m the only one with my perspective, but we all have our own perspective, and it takes a long time to find out what that is. It’s an infinite journey.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Though he only just graduated from Manhattan School of Music last spring, Adam O’Farrill is a longtime member of The Jazz Gallery family, and more generally, the jazz community in New York. He was one of the recipients of the 2016-2017 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission, and performs here regularly with dozens of bands as a leader and sideman. His most recent album is titled El Maquech (Biophilia), and has received glowing reviews.

For this project, titled “Bird Blown Out of Latitude,” O’Farrill assembled a large band, and began composing and rehearsing well in advance, something that O’Farrill says is new for him. The new music stems from the search for identity that comes with the feeling of displacement. In O’Farrill’s words, “This music represents the distillation of feeling dislocated—physically, mentally, maybe spiritually. To travel and lose sense of place, that’s what this music reflects.”

The Jazz Gallery: How are things going, Adam? I’m sure you’ve been busy.

Adam O’Farrill: Things are good. I’m leading a horn sectional for the Gallery gig later today, and I have a gig tonight with a singer named Eliana Glass at Cornelia Street Cafe. It’s been a hectic few days: On Wednesday afternoon, I got called for a last-minute gig in Miami for Thursday. They bought us tickets to Miami the next morning, and we played this corporate cocktail event for Adidas and David Beckham. I got back yesterday morning, and things have been busy since then, but it’s all good stuff.

TJG: I was recently reading an old interview with you in this blog, where Rafiq Bhatia asked you about the physical demands of the trumpet. Your response at the time was that you felt some mental fatigue, but mostly, “When I’m done playing a gig, I usually just wanna play another!” Is that still true, now that you’re out of school and are doing all this traveling?

AO: I would be lying if I told you things hadn’t changed in that regard. It’s a combination of few things. I don’t have the highest physical tolerance or immune system, and I easily get sick if I don’t get enough sleep, or if I’m not giving myself time to breathe and relax. It’s been like that my whole life. Since mid-August, I’ve been traveling every week or two. So when I’m home, I’m home. I feel bad because I want to get out more, integrate myself more into the scene, and sometimes I feel like I know I’m neglecting things or people. But, especially since I’m trying to compose as well, it’s easy to the hermit thing. Also, I’ve begun to form musical relationships, with different people and bands, where I don’t really want to give anything less than my full effort. That’s something we should all have built into our mindsets to begin with, but it took certain relationships and learning from certain bandleaders to come to that conclusion. When I play gigs that I really care about, I’ll realize just how much I put into it when I finish playing, physically and mentally. Sometimes it’s hard to even hang after that.

TJG: Do you see a way to work around this feeling, or are these the sacrifices you learn you have to make as you pursue a career in music?

AO: That’s exactly it. It’s a matter of knowing the sacrifices that you’re making. It’s funny, sometimes you even feel like you’re doing the right thing when you’re sacrificing something, but that’s a weird feeling, because that act of sacrifice seems like it’s often viewed in a negative light. I think when you learn how to be able to do that, it’s good. You need to be able to make tough choices, and to accept that there are difficult consequences to whatever choices you make. That’s hard.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Accomplished mridangam artist and composer Rajna Swaminathan is bringing a brand-new project to The Jazz Gallery, consisting of Gallery regulars including saxophonist María Grand, bassist Linda May Han Oh, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and vocalist Imani Uzuri. The project, Mangal, represents an aesthetic change of pace for Swaminathan, as she described in our lengthy interview below. The music, by design, treats time and rhythm with a looser approach, and focuses on the potential for interaction and overlapping textures between pairs and trios of musicians.

Swaminathan performs frequently with Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, and Amir ElSaffar, and leads the ensemble RAJAS, an explorative project that brings together musicians from Indian classical and jazz idioms. She frequently teaches workshops on South Indian rhythm, most notably at the Banff International Workshop and PASIC. In addition to her performance career, Swaminathan is currently pursuing a PhD at Harvard University, and is writing a dissertation bridging the ideas of Carnatic music in the South Asian diaspora, the role of the arts in community activism, and cross-cultural improvisation. In her words, she’s hoping “to find more points of contact between those two worlds” of academic study and performance practice.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making the time to chat! Where are you now?

Rajna Swaminathan: I’m in Wyoming near the Montana border, at an artist residency called Ucross. I’ve been here for about a month already, and will be here for a couple more days. I’ve been working on new music, a lot of which will be played at The Jazz Gallery, and have more generally been composing for my dissertation project, writing the dissertation, and thinking about different configurations of musicians. A lot of the music I’ve written here is for the configuration of the upcoming show at the Gallery next week, and from there, ideally, it’ll evolve to suit other ensembles.

TJG: Has it been a good residency? Sometimes it’s hard to write music for a group when you’re isolated.

RS: It is hard in isolation, and on top of that, I haven’t played with this particular group and in this specific configuration before. I’ve played a lot with María, but I haven’t played my music with any of the other folks. It’s going to be interesting to start rehearsing next week. It’s an experiment, so it’ll be cool.

TJG: How did this experiment come to life?

RS: It’s funny, the idea began as a text between me, María, and a vocalist named Ganavya. We were talking about doing a performance where we read poetry and create some music around it. Ganavya wasn’t available for this Jazz Gallery date, so I ended up finding other people and, as things go, the idea became something else. The group got bigger, and I thought, “I’ll write some new music for this group,” and it’ll be more of an open thing, though we may incorporate poetry if people feel moved to do so. So far, the plan is to play my new compositions, which are different from what I usually do, in that they’re more loose. Usually my writing features a gridded, polyrhythmic framework. There’s a little of that in this music, but my idea is to create a more interpretive situation. There are a lot of great sensibilities in these musicians, so I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out.

TJG: What underlying form do you anticipate these interpretive experiments taking? If someone were to come to the show, and wanted to be hip to what you’ll be doing onstage, what might they listen for?

RS: At this point, I’m not sure if there will be one specific thing they should listen for. Some people who have heard my music before may be surprised by how little driving rhythm there is, and how my playing will probably end up becoming more textural. I’ll be singing as well, so that’s different and equally experimental. The loose time is where you’ll here something more experimental happening.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday, December 11, The Jazz Gallery welcomes bassist Harish Raghavan and his working quintet back to our stage for two sets. A top-call sideman for elder musicians and peers alike, Raghavan convened his first working band at the beginning of 2018. In an interview with Jazz Speaks, Raghavan spoke about the band’s origins.

This had been a long-term idea of mine. I wanted to do a record, because I hadn’t done one yet. I didn’t want to just throw something together. I wanted to get the music out in front of people and feel that energy. I had never really led a band before—I led gigs here and there.

So with that idea for the record, I wanted to go out and book some gigs—for the first six months of the year, I was going to book a gig a month and see if we could get a sound together. I recorded the second gig that we did at ShapeShifter Lab and even by that point, it really felt that we had a sound. I think it’s because I know all of these guys, but also because they’re all friends with each other. Instantly, there was a rapport and we really got through the music quickly.

Raghavan’s quintet will head into the studio this month to cut their debut record. Before checking out their ever-deepening rapport at the Gallery this week, take a listen to the leader’s composition, “Ween,” below:

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Eric Revis (L) and Julius Rodriguez (R). Photos courtesy of the artists.

This week, the third edition of this season’s Jazz Gallery Mentoring Series kicks off with performances at The National Jazz Museum in Harlem, The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, and The Jazz Gallery. This third edition features bassist Eric Revis mentoring pianist/multi-instrumentalist Julius Rodriguez. Beyond his longstanding association withs saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Revis has put together an acclaimed body of work as a bandleader over the course of several records, including 2017’s Sing Me Some Cry (Clean Feed). Writing in the New York Times, Nate Chinen notes that Revis’s working trio with Kris Davis and Gerald Cleaver has “a rare and mystifying cohesion.”

Currently studying in the Juilliard jazz program, Julius Rodriguez has established a strong reputation in New York as both a drummer and pianist. In an interview with Jazz Speaks, Rodriguez noted how this dual perspective informs his playing:

[Piano and drums] are different worlds, though they connect through rhythm. When I’m playing drums with a piano player, there are a lot of things we catch rhythmically, and vice versa when I’m playing piano with a drummer. People notice that, and they love to see that connection. They’re both accompanying instruments, and their job is to make the soloist feel comfortable and sound good. It’s different on the piano, because you have all the harmonic things you can do. On the drums there’s the rhythm. So the harmonic sense helps me on drums, and the rhythmic awareness helps me on piano.

In addition to creating a strong hookup with Revis on the leader’s open and mercurial compositions, Rodriguez will be sparring with drummer Nasheet Waits and saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo over the course of the concerts as well.  (more…)