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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Artists hard-pressed to consider the vibraphone to be their first-call instrument nevertheless find Joel Ross to be a first-call instrumentalist. A typical work week might take Ross downtown on a Monday night, uptown on a Thursday night and leading his own group on Saturday and Sunday—and those are just the New York gigs.

At 23, the vibraphonist and composer has traveled the world, collaborating with some of the music’s most enduring and distinctive voices, from Herbie Hancock and Christian McBride to Gerald Clayton and Ambrose Akinmusire. In a rare moment of rest just after his hit with Marquis Hill’s Blacktet at the White Plains Jazz Fest—and right before his record date with Melissa Aldana’s quintet—Ross slowed his tempo to a walking pace long enough to discuss rhythmic interpretations, reactions versus reflections and what he learned—and unlearned—studying with Stefon Harris.

The Jazz Gallery: You have a deliberate way of articulating each sound while maintaining a fluidity in your lines and across all your ideas. Can you talk about how your touch, specifically, allows you to interpret the music the way you hear it—or the way you want to play it?

Joel Ross: When I was at the Brubeck Institute, I was studying with Stefon Harris, and he basically revamped—we had to deconstruct, then reconstruct—my entire technique. After working with him was when I started feeling better on the instrument. I used to get pain in my forearm or in the palm of my hands from not stretching before a gig or from using the wrong technique while playing. So once he helped me get that together, I felt like I could do more with the instrument.

With that newfound freedom, I was able to figure out what I wanted my sound to be. I very specifically want clarity. I want people to be able to hear every note. I’m very particular with how I approach rhythm, so most of my playing is very rhythmic-oriented, first and foremost, and I want the clarity of those rhythms with whatever harmony might be happening at the same time.

TJG: You began on the drum kit.

JR: I started playing drums with my brother. We were about 2 or 3 years old. I didn’t start playing mallet instruments or the vibraphone until I was about 10—in the fifth grade.

TJG: And how would you say your commitment to clarity of rhythmic intention and rhythmic articulation has influenced your clarity with what you want to articulate harmonically?

JR: I’ve only recently reached this feeling of how I relate to rhythm. But I’ve had this type of harmonic—well, I’ve always been a big theory fan. I’m not sure how much I actually know, but I’m very interested in theory. So I would learn, at least in high school, what harmony and scales relate to what chords, but I was never one to transcribe. I never transcribed in high school. Me and my brother, we were church musicians, so we’d just be using our ears. I would listen to records—Miles, Trane and Monk—and just kind of hear what they’re doing, hear the language, but I never transcribed it. So when I would go back to try to play something I heard—I was usually just trying to go from memory—I knew it wouldn’t be exactly what they played, but it would be inspired by [their sound] enough to my liking, and it would also include my own sound. So that was the harmonic concept I had for a long time. And then once I studied with Stefon, we also went over some harmonic stuff that helped get my ears together. So at that point, which was when I started figuring out more of my rhythmic thing, I was able to connect the harmony—from my ears getting stronger—to the rhythm I was hearing and wanting to play.

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Bassist Hwansu Kang will present a collection of all original compositions at The Jazz Gallery this week. The overarching theme is “We go forward,” which has become something of a mantra for Kang. A graduate of The New School and a masters student at the Manhattan School of Music, Kang uses music to emphasize how he and his peers have collectively been discovering the beauty of a tradition of “music that never stays same.”

For his show at the Gallery, Kang is presenting a quintet featuring New York-based colleagues—Brandon Woody on trumpet, Abdulrahaman “Rocky” Amer on trombone, Guy Moskovich on piano, and JK Kim on drums. Speaking by phone, Kang dove into a few of his compositions, and shared his artistic vision for the upcoming generation of young musicians.

TJG: You graduate from school next year, correct?

Hwansu Kang: This will be my last year, yes. I graduated from the New School last year, and I’m at Manhattan School of Music right now for my masters, so I have one more year to go. It’s really good, things just got started again this week. Stefon Harris is the chair right now, and he’s bringing great artists through school. Buster Williams, Kendrick Scott, lots of amazing people.

TJG: You assembled an interesting quintet for this show at The Jazz Gallery. Could you tell me a little about some of the people you’ll be playing with?

HK: JK Kim is my best friend. I met him in New York about two years ago. When I first played  him, he was the drummer I always dreamed of, the one I’d always wanted to play with. We speak the same language, we’re from the same country, and we understand each other musically. In a short amount of time, we grew up together as musical partners. He always brings more than I expect. I also met Brandon, the trumpeter, at MSM, where we put a combo ensemble together. He’s got a great thing going. He speaks through the trumpet. His language is so unique, his voice is so fresh to me.

We met Rocky, our trombone player, through the same MSM ensemble. He can literally speak anything through his instrument. He knows how to control it, how to make any sound, how to express himself. And Guy Moskovich, I’ve probably known him for a couple of years, but had never played with him until last year. I brought him in to play a tune of mine once, and he played exactly how I wanted it to be played: I didn’t explain anything, we didn’t really talk, we just started playing, and he just got it. We’re all from the same generation, and I believe we understand certain things that we don’t have to talk about. I trust and appreciate every one of these musicians in the band, and they respect me as a composer and bassist.

TJG: What will you be playing?

HK: It’s going to be all my originals. Almost everything has been written while at MSM, and the music has just come out of me. I’m going to playing some of these tunes for the first time in this show, and I’m really looking forward to it.

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From L to R: Tomeka Reid, Michael Wimberly, Melanie Dyer, Gwen Laster, Ken Filiano, and Charles Burnham. Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis.

This Wednesday, September 19, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome the band WeFreeStrings to our stage for two sets. Led by violist Melanie Dyer, the ensemble has just released their debut record, Fulfillment. The record features five original compositions by Dyer, linked by collectively-improvised paraphrases. The inspirations for Dyer’s compositions run far and wide. There’s “I’m Still Here,” a meditation on womanhood.

Then there’s “Bayaka/Yangissa,” inspired by the traditional music of the Batwa people from the Congo:
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“I’ve been in New York for thirteen years,” says bassist Harish Raghavan, “and I can probably count the gigs that I’ve led on one hand.” It’s not like Raghavan hasn’t been busy during his time on the New York scene. He’s a top-call sidemen for veteran bandleaders and his peers alike, including vocalist Kurt Elling, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and saxophonist Walter Smith III. But since the end of 2017, Raghavan has started stepping out as a leader with a working quintet, featuring four young Jazz Gallery regulars—saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, vibraphonist Joel Ross, pianist Micah Thomas, and drummer Jeremy Dutton.

Raghavan and company return to The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, September 15, for two sets, with guitarist Charles Altura filling in for Mr. Ross. We caught up with Raghavan by phone to discuss the impetus for starting this band, where the project has taken him as a composer, and what’s next for the group.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been working in this quintet figuration for several months now. What made you want to start a working band?

Harish Raghavan: 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.

That was the first six months. Since then, the guys in the band have gotten super busy. In June, I was looking for a time for us to get into the studio, but we couldn’t get everyone together for a session until December. So at that point, I decided to book more gigs, which is how this Gallery show happened.

TJG: In terms of putting out a record, did the motivation come more from having a band or presenting your compositions?

HR: I’m a very goal-oriented person. I need something to push me to do something. The music didn’t come first. I chose the band and booked the gigs, and then I decided that I wanted all new music for the gigs. It didn’t take that long—I don’t know why—but I was able to get a some new music together more quickly than usual. Back in December of last year, I booked our first gig—not with this band exactly, but with a few of the guys—just to see how it felt to lead a group and it felt really good. It almost felt obvious that this is what I should be doing more of. That inspired me to write more, and that’s the material that we’ve been playing up until now. Since we can’t all get together until December, I decided to write a new music. For this gig, I wanted to have two sets of all new music, but that’s not going to happen. Though we are going to have one new set of music.

Mainly, I’ve been writing from the piano, but I feel I’ve exhausted everything I can do at the piano right now, so for this gig I composed everything from the bass. This is a bit of a change for me, and I definitely needed a goal like this gig to get me to try something new and finish it.

TJG: Why did you pick these young guys to be in the band, rather than players with whom you have a longer history?

HR: First of all, these guys are mature beyond their years. I had heard them a lot and knew them and knew that they could really play. Second, they could do the gigs! Because I wanted to do six gigs as a band, if I wanted to do that with Eric Harland, Taylor Eigsti, Logan Richardson, and Charles Altura, we could only do that many gigs over the course of like three years. The young guys were here in the city, could rehearse when we needed to, and then play all the gigs. Having those regular monthly gigs also really helped me with the writing because I always had a deadline. This process really helped me progress as a composer.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Friday, September 14, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin back to our stage. In 2016, Guerin released his debut record, The Saga, a sprawling, yet tightly constructed effort where he played most of the instruments. He followed that up with a sequel in 2017, and since then, has continued to expand this ongoing project, working out new material on the bandstand. Before his last performance at the Gallery in March, Guerin spoke about how his compositions for The Saga‘s next chapter have been going in a new direction:

There’s a new sound that I’m exploring right now. I’ve got to be honest, I was almost there with The Saga II—I was almost at the sound that I wanted. But in the moment, [it’s not that I gave] up, but I felt like if I had added more, it would overdo it. This next series of compositions—I’ve never explained it, I’ve just been writing and writing and writing—is definitely a lot of sounds and a lot of melodies. I’m super big on parts nowadays—specific parts. When I was growing up in New Orleans I wasn’t introduced to Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, The Flaming Lips, The Beatles—all those bands. I moved to New York and all my friends were like, ‘Ah man, you don’t know?’ There was a lot of stuff I needed to catch up on. I mean, I’ll be catching up my whole life, but in this sense, [I heard] all those specific parts, people playing roles and not as much improvisation—as in ‘featured soloists,’ not improvisation as freedom in the music, because that’s different. And [all those parts] create the song.

At The Jazz Gallery on Friday, Guerin will present yet another new slate of compositions, alongside Lex Korten on keyboards, Val Jeanty on electronics, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass, and JK Kim and drums. Don’t miss the next leg of Guerin’s heady musical journey this Friday. (more…)