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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

At the last installation of the TIME CAPSULE residency, Kassa Overall and Sullivan Fortner traveled to outer space. With Fortner on B3 organ, Rhodes, and piano, the two musicians charter a path to a completely improvised world of sparkling rhythms and melodies. In Overall’s words, “After the first set, I felt like we had just finished getting a spa treatment.”

In our fifth interview, Overall told us about a few more of his current projects, how they feed into and result from the ongoing TIME CAPSULE residency, and the upcoming show with Kris Davis and Stephan Crump.

The Jazz Gallery: You mentioned that you’re in the middle of doing some remixes?

Kassa Overall: Man, it’s exciting. I’ve had some recent opportunities to give guest DJ mixes to different radio stations. The first one was for KMHD, the main jazz radio station in Portland, and the one I’m working on now is for BBC 6, which has Gilles Peterson, new music, jazz, quasi-jazz vibes, everything. KMHD hit me up about doing an interview to promote a show in Portland, and they said I could also do a guest DJ mix. So I started taking recordings by some of my favorite jazz friends, chopping up their songs, and adding a little production to the tracks. I took a Jon Batiste song from his piano and voice album, chopped it up, and added drums. I did it to Vijay Iyer song, a Charles Tyler song, an Esperanza song. It was like, “If this were my album, this is what I would have done.” You know?

TJG: Like you were being a producer, in a way?

KO: Yeah. It’s remixing, but a little more creative. Somewhere between sampling and remixing. When we make something, we often think about defining it first, then making it from that context. If you say “I’m gonna make a remix,” and you start making a remix, you assume all these positions, you assume what it is to remix something. You might limit how much you add original content. When sampling songs, people often just sample four to eight seconds. When you think about it, you realize these definitions break up the creative process. So when I started to really dig in, I got excited. I was having a bit of writer’s block, and wasn’t really getting excited about anything creative. Then I started working on these remixes, and I got that excited feeling. I worked for three days, and at the end of it, I knew I had something good. KMHD played it on the radio and loved it. Now I’m working on a thirty-minute version for BBC 6. I’m currently chopping up one of my favorite songs from Makaya McCraven’s new album Universal Beings.

TJG: This isn’t so different from what you’re doing with TIME CAPSULE.

KO: Exactly. It’s all related experimentation with the idea of finished-work-as-source-material. It’s a big circle. This song, I realized, has the same chord changes as the Nas and Lauryn Hill song “If I Ruled The World” from 1996. Once I figured that out, boom, I started chopping that up, and now I’m in this big rabbit hole.

TJG: You think this is connecting some neurons around what you’re about to do with the residency?

KO: Yeah. Honestly, it’s all the same kind of experimentation. In every project, you lean more heavily on one aspect or another. But they say there’s nothing new under the sun. The key is letting go of that mental inhibitor that says “Nah, I can’t do that,” or “That’s too sacred.” From time to time I think about the Campbell’s Soup Cans that Andy Warhol did. I’m sure it was the early version of trolling, in a sense, but half the people were like, “Oh my god, amazing, it’s Campbell’s Soup!” And then the other half were like “I can’t believe you like this guy.” Anyone could have that thought, but to take the time to do it in its best possible way. It takes a certain amount of courage.

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Photo by Federico Rodriguez Caldentey.

In what has become an annual tradition, bassist & composer Pedro Giraudo will bring his acclaimed tango and large jazz ensembles to The Jazz Gallery for a weekend of shows. Since moving to New York in 1996, Giraudo has released 10 albums as a leader or co-leader, including 2018’s An Argentinian in New York (Zoho) with the WDR Big Band of Köln, Germany. Giraudo leads a double life in the New York jazz and tango worlds, and spoke with Jazz Speaks about his approach to working in these different musical idioms:

I don’t believe that people must only do one thing. For me as a composer, when I write in any context, it’s all my music. I actually re-arranged some pieces for WDR big band that were originally written for my Tango ensemble: I love both versions, and I feel they’re both true to who I am. I’ve done things the other way around too, with pieces I wrote for the big band that I later adapted for the Tango quartet. It’s all my music. If you hear my Tango band and the big band, the way the music is played and the instrumentation makes things sound so different, but from an aesthetic and emotional point of view, it comes from exactly the same place.

Before coming out to Giraudo’s tango ensemble on Friday and big band on Saturday, check out the WDR Big Band performing Giraudo’s compositions in the video below:

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Ryan Keberle’s longstanding band Catharsis is bringing a new suite of music to The Jazz Gallery based on “Let America Be America Again,” a long-form poem by Langston Hughes. Packed with versatile multi-instrumentalists, the tight-knit group features an orchestral mix of voices, horns, keyboards, drums, bass, and guitar. Catharsis was featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, and has released a number of albums, including Azul Infinito, which was listed as one of “5 jazz albums you need to hear” by Billboard magazine’s Natalie Weiner in 2016.

Keberle’s musical life is rounded out by other projects, such as his recent quartet project Reverso, which reimagines the music of Maurice Ravel. He has performed and collaborated with The Maria Schneider Orchestra, David Bowie, Sufjan Stevens, Ivan Lins, the Saturday Night Live house band, Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, Rufus Reid, and Wynton Marsalis. He directs the jazz program at Hunter College, and maintains a robust private teaching studio. Keberle is no stranger to this blog, and it was our pleasure to speak with him again about development of the upcoming Catharsis record, The Hope I Hold.

The Jazz Gallery: Let’s start with the new album that Catharsis will be releasing in June. Could you tell me a little about the music itself, some of which you’ll be playing at The Gallery this Thursday?

Ryan Keberle: The impetus for the new set of tunes was a Chamber Music America ‘New Jazz Works’ commission which I received about three years ago. At the time, we had just released Find The Common, Shine A Light, an album of social protest music, some original songs and some arrangements of classic protest tunes. One of the things I enjoyed throughout that process was working with a lyricist. I worked with Mantsa Miro on previous records, and usually I would write music, send it to her, and she would set words to it. With the past album, Find The Common, we did the opposite: We had a specific message already, so she wrote the poetry, and I set that to music. The album coincided with my creating and teaching a new songwriting course at Hunter College, which got me thinking about utilizing the human voice in setting sounds to rhythm and melody.

This new project looks to expand on those text-setting and songwriting experiences. I decided to use a Langston Hughes poem called “Let America Be America Again,” written about ninety years ago. It’s a social protest work, and it feels like it could have been written last week. It’s utterly poignant, and so little has changed since it was written. As depressing as that might sound, it’s an uplifting poem, a message of hope, which is something I try to balance within our band. So I used excerpts of the poem—if I’d used the whole thing, I would have wound up with a mini-opera [laughs]. The name of the suite, and of the album, is The Hope I Hold, a play on words that Langston Hughes uses in the poem. The project features all the same people in Catharsis with one exception, Scott Robinson, who is now our regular horn player in place of Mike Rodriguez. Excitingly, everyone will be at The Jazz Gallery next Thursday, which doesn’t often happen anymore.

TJG: So you decided to set portions of this Langston Hughes poem: You chopped, spliced, explored, composed. Day one, when you bring it into the band, how does that look?

RK: I come at composition from a bigger-picture mindset. Jazz tends to get buried in the details pretty easily, but ever since my experience with Sufjan, as well as my experience with Maria Schneider, I’m always thinking more about the flow, the arc of a song, the story it tells, where the drama unfolds, the tension and release. I typically have a specific idea of how the music will flow, but early rehearsals don’t provide that bigger picture, when everyone’s learning the notes, rhythms, and orchestration. Many orchestration decisions depend on the big picture, and I don’t want to start figuring out, say, when Camila should sing unaccompanied wordless vocals versus wordless vocals with guitar in unison, until the whole band has an idea of the arc of a piece.

So the first few rehearsals are usually pretty rough, and you just have to deal with it. When we first performed this music, we had one rehearsal where we just got to know the music on a fundamental level, and then we went on tour. We played it four times in North Carolina, and finished up here in New York at Smalls. Even the way the music sounded at Smalls… It was good, but it is so different now on the recording from how it was on those initial live gigs. You’d hardly recognize the similarity between them. A lot of it has to do with how we’re using the studio. Eric Doob, our drummer, has a studio that he shares with Chet Doxas and Matt Stevens. He’s a burgeoning engineer himself. We’ve spent hours and days over the course of a year building some of these tracks. That gives an additional set of orchestration options. We’ve come 180º from the initial Catharsis group, where we had relatively limited choices, to what almost seems like unlimited options now.

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Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of the artist.

The ability to be vulnerable in performance is a vital trait for singer-composer Emma Frank. With the release of her third album Ocean Av (Susan Records, 2018), Frank draws listeners in to the depth of her intention. Within each song, the New England native shares not only her thoughts but the often messy process that leads from one thought to another.

Only months after recording Ocean Av, Frank found herself back in the studio, settling into her forthcoming release Come Back (Justin Time, 2019) that features Aaron Parks, Franky Rousseau, Tommy Crane and Zack Lober. This Tuesday, April 16, at The Jazz Gallery, Frank and Parks, along with Rousseau, Desmond White and Daniel Dor, premiere new music from Come Back including the album’s newly-released single “I Thought.”

The Jazz Gallery: Your compositions sound and feel as though they’re very thoughtfully arranged. In terms of your process, are you typically composing at the piano or with a guitar, and does that process vary depending on the project?

Emma Frank: The instrument I write on is piano, if I’m sitting at an instrument. Sometimes I am. I guess, ideally, a song will come out kind of in one piece—not necessarily the full song itself, but just like I’m writing lyrics and chords and melody kind of at the same time. And that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, especially if I’m challenging myself to write with a musical idea that’s challenging to me, I might hone in on that before I set words to it. Or I’ll be a little bit looser with what those words are, maybe depend more on sounds to guide my lyrical process. And then there’s a lot of writing that just happens walking around.

TJG: Do you document that writing on your phone?

EF: Totally. A hundred percent.

TJG: During those instances when you feel you have to deal with the music ahead of the lyrics, do you ever find yourself revising the music based on what lyrics you come up with?

EF: Interesting question. I guess I was kind of unclear. I can’t even think of a single situation where I’ve written an entire piece and then set lyrics to it. So it’s more like 16 bars of something and I’m like, “That’s a cool idea. And here are some words to go with it. Okay. What’s next?” Really, if I don’t know what the lyrics are about, I don’t know what the piece of music is about. And I wish that I—I’m so in awe of composers that are telling fully-fledged stories musically, and have that vision all set out. And if there aren’t lyrics, it’s very rare that I do.  

TJG: We’re talking about compositions that go to some very haunting and, to me, very unexpected places harmonically and rhythmically, and it almost feels as though you’re working out certain internal struggles – human struggles – in your music.

EF: (Laughs)

TJG: Is that somewhat relevant an interpretation of your expression?

EF: Totally. It’s so spot on that it’s actually a little embarrassing to hear. The things that we set out to do and the things that we now want to do are often different. I think that I developed a bit of a philosophy for how I wanted to write music, at least in a certain period. And I don’t know if it’s the same now. But it was that listening to odd meters, listening to music that had a lot of rhythmic variation, was a way for me to learn to feel new things. I had to move with it because I didn’t always know how to count it. I had to learn how to feel it. And there were a handful of records that were just so powerful and therapeutic to me because they were introducing me to musical ideas that I had to feel and integrate physically and, at the same times, were presenting lyrics that were really deep and beautiful and powerful. I’m thinking about Becca Stevens’ album Weightless, and I just spent a lot of time, in my room, you know – modern dancing to that album (laughs), and really learning a lot from it, spiritually.

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From L to R: Cory Smythe, Ingrid Laubrock, and Stephan Crump. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, April 13, the free improvising super group Crump/Laubrock/Smythe returns to The Jazz Gallery stage to celebrate the release of their newest album, Channels (Intakt). Featuring bassist Stephan Crump, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and pianist Cory Smythe, the trio began working together in 2015 and released their debut studio album, Planktonic Finales (Intakt) in 2017. This new record showcases their ever-deepening rapport, as it documents a live performance at Hamburg, Germany’s unerhört!-Festival in December 2017.

Before coming out to the Gallery for an evening of intrepid spontaneous composition, stream the track “Medium” from the trio’s new album.
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