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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Jen Shyu is a fixture in the jazz and improvised music scenes, and dexterously wears the ever-multiplying hats of multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, dancer, and scholar. She has been prolific in creating and releasing her own solo and group work with her band Jade Tongue, as well as singing and playing on projects led by other musicians—Steve Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and John Hébert, to name a few. Jen is a Fulbright Scholar, and has done extensive research throughout the world, and Indonesia in particular. Read our 2014 Jazz Speaks interview with Jen to discover more about her exploration of a number of Asian musical traditions through fieldwork.

At The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, January 21st, Jen will present her latest project, Song of Silver Geese. Song of Silver Geese, composed by Jen and co-directed with Satoshi Haga, is a full-length multilingual ritual music drama, influenced by music and folklore, and sometimes Jen’s own fieldwork, in Korea, Taiwan, Timor, and Java. Commissioned by Chamber Music America, it was premiered at Roulette in March of last year, and performed in a number of different configurations since then. This Saturday at the Gallery, Jen and her cohort will perform Song of Silver Geese in its entirety. On top of Jade Tongue (Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Thomas Morgan on bass, Dan Weiss on drums, and Anna Webber on flutes), there will be a string quartet (Christopher Hoffman on cello, Mat Maneri on viola, Erica Dicker and Jen on violins), dancer-improviser Satoshi Haga, and Jen herself singing, dancing, and playing piano, gayageum, and Taiwanese moon lute. All proceeds from the performance will go to the ACLU in solidarity with women who will be marching earlier that day.

We caught up with Jen on the phone to talk about this performance and what it means to be having it on the same day as nationwide protests in response to the President-Elect’s inauguration. Our conversation very quickly plunged into the depths of Jen’s expansive creative and activist world—her future premiere of a solo piece based on distillations from Song of Silver Geese at National Sawdust on June 29th, 2017; the history of the circuitous and complex relationship between dance and music in her work; the tough choices she was faced with as a young artist; her involvement in community building and activism through creativity and improvisation, particularly in this moment in the nation’s political landscape; and the power of encouragement to offer creativity to the world.

The Jazz Gallery: What has your experience been with dancing?

Jen Shyu: Well, I was in ballet school from age six to high school. I want to say fourteen or fifteen is when I had to stop because I was focusing on piano at that time. When I got to college I started taking modern. At Stanford, I had this amazing teacher named Robert Moses who still teaches there and has his own company. Amazing. He’s one of my favorite dancers ever. And then I learned some tap as well. But the great thing from Stanford was that I took this contact improv class. And, even in childhood, my first experience with improvising was through dance. I would just choreograph, make these dances in my room, when no one was looking. And I didn’t do that musically at all. I wasn’t improvising at all musically, which is a very funny thing. Even when I was at home alone, I was really scared of improvising with music. Because at that time I was training so hard on a classical path. I even studied opera later with a great teacher Jennifer Lane at Stanford, even though singing was just fun for me, starting out. My parents weren’t pushing me into the career at all, but my studies with these teachers were very serious, so it felt like I was training to be a concert pianist. Ballet was always there because I loved it and I didn’t want to quit. Even though my piano teacher said, “You have to focus!”

TJG: And you didn’t feel the pressures from the dance side?

JS: Well, my piano teacher—he was a fantastic, I’m still in touch with him, I just saw him in Champaign in November—his name is Roger Shields. He’s a master teacher. He was just amazing. And he was telling me, “You can’t be a jack of all trades, you have to focus.” And I remember having the crisis—I think it was in high school—because I wanted to be in this musical, but I had to prepare for this piano competition. And I just remember being in the family room, crying, because my parents were saying, “Maybe you have to choose.” They weren’t pressuring me so much as knowing that logistically, it was impossible to be in two places at once, and they were the ones driving me everywhere, so they were thinking about it more than I was. And I was crying, “Nooo, I don’t want to choose.” It was hilarious! I mean looking back at this young age, having a crisis. Hilarious. But I remember crying, sobbing, and it was a really traumatic moment.

TJG: And what did you choose?

JS: I didn’t do the musical. I ended up focusing on piano. And it was for a competition. And I made the finals. Which was a big deal. Because when I was little I got sixth place or something. But then when I was older, this was fourteen or something, and I made the finals, I felt that was a big deal even though I didn’t get any further, because these other kids were crazy. All they did was practice, they didn’t do anything else. They didn’t go to school. It was an international competition. And so to get to the finals for me was a big honor. I did not practice an inch of what those kids practiced.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

For almost four decades, drummer Tom Rainey has been one of the most creative and versatile drummers working in New York. Whether playing with lyrical pianists like Fred Hersch and Kenny Werner, or bracing and experimental horn players like Tim Berne and Ray Anderson, Rainey is an ideal sideman, always supporting the music, but never afraid to mix it up. Rainey has also begun to step out as a bandleader in recent years, with groups like a free-improv trio featuring saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson, and a standards quintet called Obbligato.

This Friday, January 20th, Rainey and Obbligato—featuring Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, Kris Davis on piano, and Drew Gress on bass—will come to The Jazz Gallery for two sets. The group released an eponymous debut record in 2014, and are heading into the studio this week to make a followup. We caught up with Rainey by phone to hear about the origins of the band and their collective approach to enlivening the standard repertoire.

The Jazz Gallery: In classical music, “obbligato” can mean a few different things, whether “essential” or “decorative.” What made you decide on this name for the band?

Tom Rainey: That’s true in the classical world, but in the jazz world, it can refer to when a horn player is playing behind a singer. That could be the decorative element that you mentioned. It’s not really a solo, but it’s a soloistic line that accompanies the singer, or the main melody of a song. That’s sort of the approach of the band—it’s not centered on soloists, but more on group interaction. I never thought of the word decorate here, but everyone is decorating what the others are doing. The focus can shift from musician to musician, but it’s never really about anyone taking a solo, and then somebody else taking a solo turn. So the name is somewhat descriptive of what the music is like, but I also just liked the sound of the word.

TJG: What made you want to focus on group improvisation with jazz standards, rather than with original compositions, or playing free?

TR: I guess if I were doing a lot of original composing, I may have opted to do that, but I don’t really spend much time composing. And I have a trio with Ingrid and Mary Halvorson where the music is completely improvised. I’ve always liked playing standard songs, but it’s tricky because I don’t enjoy those gigs where you play the song and then there’s a string of solos and then the song is played another time.  But then again, I like playing on forms. I like drawing on those kinds of materials. So in the spirit of improvisation, I really wanted the effect to be a group improvisation where everyone is dealing with shared materials. I liken it to each song being its own playground. Different playgrounds have different apparatuses that you can play with, and these songs—whether harmonically or melodically—also offer that.

TJG: On some of the tunes on your first album, it seems that some players will stick closer to the given melody and chord changes while others would play farther out. Were those roles discussed beforehand, or fixed in the arrangement, or did that happen more on its own while playing?

TR: As far as how people interpret the songs, I have absolutely no fixed opinion about how one should go about it. As far as I’m concerned, everyone is free to abstract it as much as they want. The one thing that I asked of everybody is to just deal with the form and keep the form. You can take it as far afield as you want, but you have to be able to snap back to it at any point. On the record, we really adhere to the forms. If you were to listen closely, all of the forms are very much in tact, no matter what is going on on top of them. Like I said, it’s a playground, and so you can play with it in any way that you want. You just need to know where you are in the playground so you can join up with the others. The only things I set beforehand were the tempos or the vibe of each song. Sometimes I decided to play them in a different mood than they were originally intended, or change the time signature. I made some suggestions about how to start particular songs, whether it’s just Drew and Ingrid, or just Kris and Ralph. It was some very light arranging in terms of how to present these pieces.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Alicia Olatuja is a singer and composer whose diverse musical work reaches far and wide.
Recently, she has worked on drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.’s Songs of Freedom, and pianist Billy Child’s Grammy-winning Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro (Sony, 2014). Her first solo album, Timeless, was released on World Tune Records in 2014. She appeared on the national stage when singing a solo with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at President Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

At The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, Olatuja will present for the first time songs from her new project, Transform, featuring David Rosenthal (guitar), Juan Pastor (percussion), and Keith Witty (bass). We caught up with Olatuja by phone, who was busy in between moving house and preparing for the new project. We spoke about topics of transformation and vulnerability on the personal, musical, and political level. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us about the ensemble for this gig?

Alicia Olatuja: Well, it’s actually going to be a stripped down sound. What we normally have with my shows could be from five to eight people in the band. So we’re going to strip it down to a trio, quartet type of thing, and it’s all acoustic instruments. We’ll have guitar by David Rosenthal, cajon by Juan Pastor, and then on upright bass, for a few of the tunes, we’ll have Keith Witty. I’ve played with all three of them in different configurations. But this is the first time all four of us will be playing together in this group. We’re going to be debuting some new tunes as well, from my upcoming project, so it’s really exciting for several reasons.

TJG: What’s the new project?

AO: It’s called Transform. All the tunes, and the thematic material is about transformation—the vulnerability of it, the tragedy of not growing and changing, the fear of moving on, and also the freedom and joy of transformation.

TJG: What was the motivation to do something with the more stripped down ensemble?

AO: Well, I feel like the music is still in the process of being molded and shaped into what I want it to be, and so I feel like starting a little bit more bare and then building onto it might make the music have a different process of development. With my other album, I recorded all the tunes first, and then released the album, and then toured it. The growth and the transition the music has made since then is crazy! There are many different ways and processes you can use to create music and reveal it to your audience. So I thought I would start from small and build outward, unlike last time which was more like “here it all is!” in its codified form. Because it’s stripped down, we’ll hear the real core of it, which is important for me to hear. It’s about finding out, “what are these songs trying to say? How are they impacting the audience and the listener?” But without bells and whistles and all that.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Ohad Talmor seems to have lived everywhere, studied with everyone, and continues to sustain what appear to be multiple full-time careers. Talmor acknowledges any potential incredulity in a recent interview: “My narrative is confusing for a lot of people,” he admits. “I make sense to myself in my own universe, but it’s difficult to translate my life into a clear narrative on the outside.”

In short, Talmor is a musician and composer. Born in Switzerland to Israeli parents, Talmor was raised in France and is now a longtime resident of New York. Having toured and collaborated with Lee Konitz and Steve Swallow, some of Talmor’s current projects include a quintet featuring Miles Okazaki and Dan Weiss, a trio with Adam Nussbaum, and a nonet with string quartet plus Miles, Dan, Shane Endsley, Mark Ferber, and Matt Pavolka. He arranges for other large ensembles, composes fluently in classical and jazz idioms, and has appeared as a saxophonist on several dozen records. On top of it all, Talmor runs SEEDS, a multipurpose venue that serves Brooklyn’s vibrant jazz community.

For his upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery, Talmor presents “Diokan Suite,” a multimedia celebration simultaneously exploring his late father’s poetry and Talmor’s own musical growth in New York. Ambitious in its scope and glistening in detail, this “portrait” suite enlists young musicians from across Europe under the banner of an orchestra assembled by the European Broadcasting Union. We spoke with Talmor over the phone, discussing his compositional techniques, relentless discipline, and upcoming releases for the new year.

The Jazz Gallery: What is the “Diokan Suite”?

Ohad Talmor: “Diokan” is a Hebrew word meaning “portrait.” It’s the title of a poem by my late father. This is poetry that my father wrote very late in his life. He had already been quite sick with cancer, and this suite is, if you will, the end of my grieving process. He died in 2001, so this is how my homage and grieving comes full circle, by addressing the most painful part of his life and translating it into my own world.

The suite is in eight movements, alternating between solely orchestra and orchestra with pre-recorded sound design, which consists of electronically arranged readings of the poetry though Ableton Live. Four movements are based on my father’s poems, originally written in Hebrew, then translated into French, Portuguese, German, and English. All these voices go through Ableton. It’s highly scripted and the band plays along with the recordings. The purely orchestral movements are an homage to my musical environment here in New York. Each one addresses a different musician or style that has influenced me. The multimedia movements are completely integrated, with the speakers behind the orchestra and playing through the ensemble. It’s not a “literal” reading at all: I’ve been chopping these poems up, moving parts around, re-structuring and re-rendering the works with different sets of music.

TJG: How did it happen that “Diokan Suite” would be played by the European Jazz Orchestra?

OT: In 2015, I was the recipient of the award for “European Jazz Composer of the Year.” It is given by the EBU, the European Broadcasting Union. The award gives the recipient the opportunity to put together any orchestra of any size, drawing on all countries belonging to the EBU. It includes all of Europe as well as England and Russia. The recipient then writes a piece that the EBU commissions. I received the award in early 2015; the work was written and premiered by October of the same year.

TJG: That’s quite a condensed timeline.

OT: [Laughs] It’s a disciplined way of writing. It took me six months to complete the repertoire. I have a dual career as a saxophonist and a composer, so the “composer: side of me was fully occupied with this project during most of 2015. I have a routine, and the “Diokan Suite” fit nicely into that routine.

TJG: What does your routine look like?

OT: It depends on the project. For “Diokan Suite,” there were three parameters I was juggling: The words—a challenge for me—Ableton Live, and the orchestra. It’s a mixed orchestra, with french horn, two double basses; it’s unconventional. The band is made up of musicians under thirty from around EBU. I didn’t know many of them, they were fielded by the French Radio, Croatian Radio, Slovenian Radio, and so on. The musicians come from Portugal, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Norway, Finland, France, England, Austria, Sweden, Germany, Croatia, as well as New York City for the Gallery show. We have four local musicians joining us because not everyone from Europe could make it. Christof Knoche, a German clarinetist in New York, as well as Max Seidel and Brian Drye on trombone, and Justin Mullens on trumpet. All these guys are part of my regular large ensemble and are stepping up to the plate to help out.

For the electronic pieces, I began by framing the piece on Ableton Live, and then orchestrating around it, coming up with a viable dialogue between the orchestra, the poetry, and the sound design. That was fun. For the purely orchestral pieces which intersect the poetry, those come from my notes and compositional scraps. When I move through the city, I always have notebooks with me. I’m often in the process of diligently committing to paper the things that go through my head. So I was able to draw on that material for elements of the piece. Throughout the eight pieces, there is a melodic thread—a six-note sequence that holds the piece together. I used it for the poetic parts and the orchestral parts. You need to project a structure for a piece this size.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

A native of White Plains, an MSM precollege alum, and a freshman at Juilliard, drummer/pianist Julius Rodriguez has been shaped and nurtured by the musical forces of the New York area. While his talents have taken him to festivals and competitions across the country, Rodriguez is deeply woven into the fabric of New York’s complex and tight-knit jazz community. You might find him hosting a jam session at Smalls, or even headlining a show at Lincoln Center, an annual holiday tradition for the past several years where his musicianship and spirit have inspired rave reviews.

Rodriguez is no stranger to The Jazz Gallery, having played here in October with Daryl Johns on bass, Michael Ode on drums, and Morgan Guerin on tenor sax and EWI. Next week, Rodriguez returns from a tour of Japan to play at the Gallery again with the same rhythm section, but this time featuring vocalist Maya Carney. We phoned Rodriguez on a rainy Tuesday afternoon to catch up about his touring schedule, his first year at Juilliard, and his plans for the upcoming show.

The Jazz Gallery: In October you played at The Jazz Gallery—What were your thoughts about the show?

Julius Rodriguez: That show was amazing. It was a bit of a surprise to me, getting to perform at The Jazz Gallery. It’s one of my favorite venues and I’ve always dreamed of playing there. I always knew it would happen, but I didn’t know it would happen so soon. I’ve seen so much amazing music go down in that room. Being on that stage is an honor, knowing that someone thinks that I belong up there with all those people I admire.

TJG: What did you play then?

JR: A whole range of things. Some of my music, some of my friends’ music. I have a lot of friends who write a lot of great music. It’s good to support each other’s music as composers and musicians, to help people say what they need to say. It’s helping me to find my sound too, the more I play others’ music. A friend of mine, Lauren Scales, sat in that night and sang a couple of pieces.

TJG: And what’s on the setlist for the upcoming show?

JR: The next show is going to be all music of The Beatles. I’ve always been a huge fan of The Beatles. In fifth grade my cousin gave me the full Beatles catalog and it changed my life. I’ve gone through, picked out songs people might not know so well, and reworked them in a totally different way. Avant-garde jazz style. I look up to The Bad Plus, Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran a lot. It’s all influenced by them. I’ve done a couple shows with this project before, with [singer] Maya Carney and [bassist] Daryl Johns, and it’s been evolving. I’m excited to bring it to The Jazz Gallery.

TJG: What are some of these Beatles deep-cuts that you’ve sought out?

JR: We’re doing everything from “Day Tripper,” “The Two of Us,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “For No One,” “Fixing a Hole,” all great tunes. My first time at The Gallery, we actually did “I’m So Tired,” another beautiful song.

TJG: So you’re sitting down, you’ve found yourself a Beatles song, and you say, “It’s time to do something different with it.” What are some of the next steps?

JR: I look at how it can be translated into “jazz,” so they say. Sometimes people just take a song and put a swing rhythm behind it. That’s cool. But jazz is evolving to be more than that. Change time signatures, change the tempo, change feels, move sections. Keeps it interesting for the listener and for us.

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