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For four decades, Michael Formanek has been a fixture on the international jazz scene as a bassist, composer and improvisor, comfortable in any idiom. This Saturday, September 23rd, Formanek will convene his working quartet at The Jazz Gallery for two sets. We caught up with him to talk about his approaches to writing for this group, and to improvising more generally; excerpts of our conversation are below.

The Jazz Gallery: First, I wanted to just ask you about what music you’re going to be playing at this show.

Michael Formanek: It’s going to be a combination of some new music and older pieces for this group. I’m doing a few different groups now, but this is one quartet that I’m working on, and so there’ll definitely be some new music for that group. There’ll be a few pieces that I have that I’ve played in some different versions that are unrecorded, some recorded music, probably one or two things from one of my other groups, depending on how I structure the sets. And there’ll be a lot of improvisation, so you never want to let the music get much in the way of all the possibilities.

TJG: The quartet is such a fierce group of improvisers, so I’m sure it’s really dynamic playing together.

MF: Definitely. Some of my favorite musicians, of course.

TJG: How do you approach composing for a group where you know going in improvisation will feature heavily?

MF: Well, the main thing for me is to consider, in most cases when I’m writing for a group, the people. I consider things that I know that they do incredibly well, and also things sometimes that I might want to push a little different, in one way or the other. Just to kind of set up certain kinds of challenges that might make it a little more interesting, not just a complete improv gig. The compositions, I really do try to think about kind of getting things going certain ways, and structuring things enough, but not too much. I think it’s important to be willing to let the improvisers sense things a certain way, so I don’t think of things being completely finished until they’re actually played. And even then it’s different and evolving, as a process. That’s sort of what I think about.

TJG: That would make it different too, the live versus recorded iterations of the music.

MF: Yeah, definitely. I mean, just in terms of how you want to let things grow and develop over time, it doesn’t have to be so different than recorded versions, but oftentimes that is going to be the case.

TJG: How do you approach leading the group?

MF: In different groups, it kind of depends on the people involved sometimes, because I do like to get things going in such a way that there doesn’t have to be a lot of direction in the course of the actual performance. People have things they can get to, and they can start when they want to start, so everyone gets a little more directly involved in the composition, in the way the thing unfolds. To begin with whichever instrument, I could start something, but musically it might eventually move into another section, or move into another part of a piece. In some cases I can give that starting composition to somebody else, also for me it becomes a little irrelevant who’s the leader as much as I set up the problem and the situation, I try to pick the basic material we’re dealing with, in such a way that involves it being as natural as possible. And so in the best case scenario I’m just not thinking about that part of it at all.

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Photo by Amy Touchette

Drummer Tomas Fujiwara has been a central figure in a number of different communities of forward thinking improvisers, including Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson, and many others. This Friday, September 22nd, Fujiwara returns to the Gallery with his Triple Double ensemble to celebrate the upcoming release of their newest eponymous album on Firehouse 12. The group features 3 pairs of exhaustively-creative improvisers—brass players Taylor Ho Bynum and Ralph Alessi; guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook, and drummer Gerald Cleaver paired up with Fujiwara. Check out the new track “Blueberry Eyes” below.


We caught up with Fujiwara by phone to talk through the conceptual underpinnings of the music for the band, especially how he uses different combinations of players in each piece.

The Jazz Gallery: Over the years, you’ve played in Taylor Ho Bynum’s Sextet, Mary Halvorson has been in previous ensembles of yours, and you released a trio album with Brandon Seabrook and Ralph Alessi. So for this band, how did Gerald Cleaver come into the fold?

Tomas Fujiwara: I’ve always admired Gerald’s playing, his work as a drummer, composer, bandleader, artist, and he’s been a friend for some years. As drummers, we rarely get to play together in an ensemble context. So when assembling this group with the ‘mirror instrumentation,’ he was the first one to come to mind. I wanted to sit at the drums and have a musical conversation with him. I’ve worked with other drummers before, such as on an Anthony Braxton trio record with Tom Rainey, and with Living By Lanterns, Mike Reed and Jason Adasiewicz’s group. I’ve done a fair amount of double drumming, considering how infrequent it usually is. But with this group it was less about Gerald being a drummer and more about putting different voices together. The instrumentation came more into focus once we started to explore different configurations of the ensemble.

TJG: Speaking of ‘different configurations,’ you mentioned in an interview with us last year that “I wrote specific parts for everyone. There will be a lot of multiple ensembles happening.” Could you talk about that idea, of ‘multiple ensembles,’ and how that concept has evolved as the group has matured?

TF: In the composing and arranging process, I look at every combination possible with these six musicians. From solo to sextet, and every duo and trio in between. In terms of the evolution, I was initially thinking about two trios. Visually, almost facing each other, each person having their foil. We do have moments like that in the group. But the idea of three duos has also emerged gradually. On the album, there are some clear duo moments. Gerald and I have a drum duet, Mary and Brandon have a guitar duet, and so on. That being said, there are plenty of moments of two drummers and one guitar player, two horns and one drum. We tried every combination of the six of us. Just looking at three names on paper, knowing these musicians, would give me a new, different trio sound in your head. When arranging these pieces and searching for a mood, I’d think of the configurations as a kind of color palette, while at the same time trying to give a lot to the unknown, to be open to the experience of exploration.

TJG: Does the ensemble naturally fall into two ‘trios’ of drums, guitar, and brass, and if so, who gravitates towards whom?

TF: No, that never happens. I would say that most of the improvised sections have a fixed grouping of people, specific to the arrangement of the song. Places where people have free agency to jump in or out, people are being guided by what’s happening in the moment. I never get the sense of “Oh, so-and-so’s playing, I want to play with him now.” Everyone’s thinking of it as a whole, with balance, texture, and so on.

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The members of Aurelia Trio—pianist Theo Walentiny, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Connor Parks—met during their first year studying at the New School and quickly formed a tight musical bond. Out of their diverse backgrounds and musical interests, they have begun to forge a distinct and individual sound. Last year, they self-released an eponymous debut record, which you can check out below.
This Thursday, September 21st, Aurelia Trio will make their debut at The jazz Gallery, playing original compositions by all three members of the band. We sat down with the trio to talk about their origins and their constantly-evolving musical rapport.

The Jazz Gallery: How did the Aurelia Trio form?

Theo Walentiny: At the end of my first year I started an octet out of which this band formed—it’s kind of funny, that band has a lot of bands within it. There’s a quartet with a guitarist in it and us as well.

TJG: Has the concept for the band remained consistent since the beginning?

Connor Parks: It’s evolved but some things have remained consistent, especially the way that we deal with time and rhythm. We really had a rhythmic consensus from the beginning. That feeling is the same, the connection is the same. But the kinds of aesthetics and the various types of music that everyone writes and wants to play has evolved over time.

TJG: The first track of your EP, Blue Air, seemed to be very free. What was the time consensus on that tune?

CP: I feel like everyone will have a different answer. Nick and I have a very unique way of playing together, and Theo and I have a very unique way of playing together, and they have a unique bond too. Speaking rhythmically, I’m very free to play on some kind of grid or to not play on that grid, but we still move together.

Nick Dunston: We’ve always been so comfortable playing together from a rhythmic standpoint, so musical freedom is a given at this point. For me, I get to think a lot of orchestration, in the sense that we’re trying to give a lot of attention to our broad range of timbres—it’s almost as if we’re thinking very texturally on top of our intersecting rhythmic concept.

TJG: Does the textural quality of the music make the time harder to keep?

TW: There’s such a strong connection when you’re in the music, it’s oddly clear that you don’t have to think about it.

CP: I think the level of trust is very high, and that frees us to explore less common sounds on our instruments—to make a very orchestral sound or some other sound outside of classic jazz piano trio. That’s a product of the time we spend together—it frees us to try these new things.

TJG: Does this style of playing lead to certain roles emerging amongst yourselves? Connor, based on what I’ve listened to, it sounds like you play a heavily textural role in the group.

CP: Textural playing is something I’m very into—I think the way I relate to the drums is very textural and more broadly compositional than “drum” stuff. My goal is not to be playing drum-specific information. Obviously that’s what I studied for most of my life—trying to express the jazz drumming feel as an art form. But my interests very much lie in furthering that—getting beyond simply knowing it and referencing it.

Tyshawn Sorey is a huge inspiration in terms of composition and drumming, mostly because each time I hear him it sounds like a whole percussion section. It almost sounds orchestra, compositional, the way he improvises. I’m never thinking, “That’s so amazing, what he’s playing on the drums,” which of course it is. When it washes over me I’m thinking “This is composition.  He’s transcended the drums.” He has all of the knowledge and the history, and he’s just going past all of it.

Elvin Jones is also great example of someone who shattered our expectations of the drums. He took it so much further than people thought it could go. It’s so rhythmic, it’s so textural—the arcs are huge. The phrases are so long. But the history of the drums and the language are still so strong. It really is a beautiful duality. I grew up playing percussion, so I very much come to the drums from that makeup. I thought I would be an orchestral percussionist for a long time, but then I picked up the drums—that’s my passion now and I feel very connected to it. I’m certainly freed by Nick and Theo also. The way Nick relates to the music very much allows me to play this way.

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This Tuesday, September 19th, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome pianist Theo Hill and his trio back to our stage. Over the past decade-plus in New York, Hill has become a highly-regarded sideman with the likes of the Mingus Big Band, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, and trombonist Frank Lacy, his irrepressible energy always raising the band to new heights. Hill has only recently begun to step out as a leader, releasing his debut record Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE) in 2014, and a followup, Promethean (Posi-tone) earlier this year. Check out his decidedly funky reimagining of Bobby Timmons’ “This Here” below.

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In what has become a regular event at The Jazz Gallery, saxophonist Lee Konitz and pianist Dan Tepfer will take the Gallery stage this Friday and Saturday, September 15th and 16th. Since 2009’s Duos With Lee (Sunnyside), the pair have continually honed their intimate art, finding new means of conversation, even when dealing with old standards, like “All The Things You Are” in the video below.

With Konitz’s playing as astringent and unpredictable as ever alongside an ideal sparring partner, these performances are not to be missed. (more…)