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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Jessica Carlton-Thomas, courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday, May 21, saxophonist Kevin Sun returns to The Jazz Gallery to present a new, hour-long work called The Middle of Tensions. Written for his working trio of bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor alongside pianist Dana Saul, the work explores the links between musical and emotional tension, working with dense, dissonant chords and unsettling polyrhythms.

We caught up with Kevin by phone to talk about the work and his writing process, just after he returned from 10 days of performances with his trio in Beijing, China.

The Jazz Gallery: How was Beijing?

Kevin Sun: It was fun! It was also tiring. For me, it’s not such a big deal because I go back every few months or so. Obviously for Walter and Matt it was different—it was their first time in Asia—but I think they took to it very well. We got lucky in that the weather was beautiful: It was in the 80s during the daytime, and clear skies in the 60s in the evening, with no rain. It’s sort of like being in California.

Traveling around was really comfortable. We took the subway a lot, which I think it was good for them to see more of the city and just understand how the public transit works. The rest of the time we took cabs, which are much cheaper than here. The gigs were great—we played a lot, maybe 10 sets of music, which is more than we’ve played in the past year-and-a-half. It was really interesting just to play the same songs night after night and see where we went with them. New ideas came to the surface gradually through the process. Some were obvious things like transitioning between songs without a break, naturally figuring out how to pace a set, getting the music in a certain flow. We had a really great time and I thought the audiences were into the music. Hopefully, we’ll go back again.

TJG: In some ways, it feels like that’s a lot of effort to get over there, but that ability to play night in, night out is such a rarity over here that it feels worth the travel.

KS: I’ve mentioned it to other people, but I remember complaining to Mark Turner at the Vanguard about how it’s so hard to book gigs in New York, but when booking in China, I can just text the club owner and they’ll give me a date immediately. But he said that’s just the case for everyone in New York, which was obvious, and that’s also why a lot of people go overseas. Sometimes it really is to make money, like with big festivals, but other times it’s just a way to get experience on the bandstand, to set up a string of gigs in different places. Putting together that many shows in China was so smooth that I can imagine myself going back more often with other bands.

TJG: You got this good place with the trio and now they’re part of this Middle of Tensions project. How do you think the continuity that you’ve developed with the trio is going to come out on this new music, and how do you think about incorporating Dana into the mix now?

KS: This was my master plan all along—to get the trio really warmed up, getting ready to tackle this even more challenging piece. We’ve played the piece with Dana before and the guys all have really deep long-standing connections. Matt and Dana live together, and so they hear each other and see each other all the time. They grew up in the same town and were the first people they knew who were into playing improvised music and jazz. They’ve been playing longer than I’ve been playing with Walter and Matt combined!

In terms of writing this piece, I really focused on the trio these past few years to really strip down to the essentials: bass voice, percussive voice, treble voice. Composing with a piano or another chordal instrument, I feel like there are so many possibilities. In the trio, I originally felt really constricted. I couldn’t really write chord symbols; I just had to write a bass voice and a treble voice. Those constraints were interesting in terms of learning to express more extended harmonies, or certain textural effects. One of the things about a piano or guitar trio is that’s all you need to have a full orchestra. I can only play one note at a time, or at the most a couple and it’s not quite the same, so having someone who can really unleash tons of pitch information and create lots of color is beautiful. Dana is one of the people I know who’s the best at that. He just generates this kaleidoscope of color and texture. That’s his magic power. I don’t know how to describe it—he really has his own thing at the piano which I love, and I feel like it complements the different aspects that Walter and Matt also brings the table.

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Album art courtesy of the artist.

The Jazz Gallery welcomes saxophonist and composer Godwin Louis in celebration of his debut double-album, Global (Blue Room Music). As a saxophonist, Louis reaches startling depths through his intricately-woven lines and phrases, and his compositions are emotionally charged yet always danceable. Louis attended the Berklee College of Music and went on to study at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and has played and toured with Herbie Hancock, Clark Terry, Ron Carter, Madonna, Mulatu Astatke, Wynton Marsalis, and more.

Louis has lived in Haiti, Harlem, Connecticut, and New Orleans, and through Global, Louis explores all of these places and beyond, to the music and culture of people from West and Central Africa, Brazil, and islands in the Pacific and Caribbean. Global is about looking at the sounds of the African diaspora, beyond the slave trade ands its horrors, to its influences on pop culture. Discussing the new album, Louis notes that “Global focuses on and explores the history of music in the American continent. It traces the roots via West Africa, and its journey through the four hubs of music in the Americas: Congo Square/New Orleans, Santiago de Cuba, L’Artibonite/Haiti, and Bahia/Brazil.”

For Louis, everything was on the table, and no tradition, people, or way of music-making was left unconsidered. “This is about my traveling experiences all over the world. I’ve been to 100 countries as of now. I have so many stories, some sad, some triumphant. So did our ancestors. Global is the history of music and culture in the Americas. Cultures that came from Africa, met with indigenous aestheticism, and were refined or rarefied via colonialism, as a result changing the course of music history and culture worldwide.”

At the upcoming show, Louis will present music from the new album with his band featuring Etienne Charles on trumpet, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Jonathan Michel on bass, and Charles Haynes on drums. (more…)

Photo by Jonathan Chimene (courtesy of the artist)

This Friday, May 17, The Jazz Gallery welcomes pianist Ethan Iverson and his quartet back to our stage for two sets. This spring, Iverson has been busy performing Pepperland, choreographer Mark Morris’s acclaimed Beatles tribute, for which Iverson wrote and arranged the music. You can check out a podcast with Iverson talking about the music, below:

For this performance at the Gallery, Iverson will convene his current New York-based working quartet, featuring saxophonist Dayna Stephens, bassist Ben Street (filling in for Thomas Morgan), and drummer Eric McPherson. Iverson played the Gallery with this band back in September, and told Jazz Speaks about what it was like to work with these particular players:

Eric McPherson is a real jazz drummer. It’s sort of corny to talk about this, but he’s one of those guys that lives his life and plays the drums with the same texture. That’s what they used to do, actually. Now most of us are quite divided—we’re very Western in our roles. But when I hang out with the old school jazz greats, there’s less division between who you are as a person and the way you play. Of someone remotely in my age group, E-Mac is just about as close as anybody to having that feeling.

What’s hip about Dayna is that he’s got a real sense of fun play in his abstraction. I think Wayne Shorter is a real reference for him; I never played with Wayne, but when I’m comping for Dayna I’m like, “Oh, man, maybe this is like I’m comping for Wayne.” He’s sort of got this elliptical thing, but Dayna’s also really fun. That aspect reminds me of my old friend Bill McHenry, who can be a goofball sometimes. I love that.

The group plays a mix of Iverson originals and standards, and for this performance, Iverson has brought in a few new tunes, including the drolly-titled “It Was the 70’s” and “Technically Acceptable.” (more…)

Photo by Una Stade, courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, May 16, The Jazz Gallery welcomes vocalist Arta Jēkabsone back to our stage for two sets. Having just finished her undergraduate studies at The New School, Jēkabsone will present a new series of compositions entitled My Suite. Reflections. In a Walt Whitman-esque turn, this work aims to articulate outward the inner multiplicities of Jēkabsone’s personality.

This self-reflection has found Jēkabsone utilizing a larger compositional palette. In addition to her working band of pianist Theo Walentiny, guitarist Lucas Kadish, bassist Hwansu Kang, and drummer Connor Parks, Jēkabsone will be joined in this performance by a string quartet, adding a layer of lushness to her bright and lyrical material. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear a burgeoning vocalist and composer stretch her craft in new directions. (more…)

From L to R: David Frazier Jr., Keith Witty, and Christophe Panzani. Photo courtesy of the artist.

THIEFS is an ongoing and evolving brainchild of bassist Keith Witty and saxophonist Christophe Panzani, with drummer David Frazier Jr. as well as a rotating cast of additional improvisers and vocalists. The electro-acoustic ensemble transcends idiom and merges musical approaches in startling ways, as on their latest record, GRAFT. This performance at The Jazz Gallery will be THIEFS’ only New York City performance in 2019. Over the course of the evening, the trio of Witty, Panzani, and Frazier plan to take old and new compositions and blast them wide open.

In prior interviews with WBGO and Bandcamp Daily, Witty spoke thoroughly about the specific inspirations and processes behind the music. In our recent phone call, we took a different angle, and spoke about the challenges of having a transatlantic band, preparing new music on a tight schedule, and the creative growth of a logistically complex project.

Keith Witty: The fundamental challenge of our group is finding a way to exist, survive, and create. Getting gigs is one thing, but booking gigs that get us onto the same continent is more tricky. A gig at a small club in Boston might be wonderful, but it’s not going to get Christophe over the ocean. Same for a small club in Paris, or any city really. We have to bring everything we have to the table to try to figure out how to play. That’s detrimental in many ways, but it’s a benefit in that it makes us focus on what we want to do. We don’t have time to be frivolous. That has helped us hone our ideas and put an extra layer of thought into our conceptual movement as well. It has driven discussions about what we are trying to do, how we might hone it, how we can make it happen, and how we might change and grow. A lot of times, we’re sending each other things transatlantically, and for the gig in New York, we’ve set aside a rehearsal day for new material, which is a challenge, because we have a lot of current material to brush up on as well. We always have to find a way to make it work.

TJG: Having new material seems vital in a band like yours. In the WBGO interview, you discussed how you view jazz as music that’s alive, of the present, authentic to the group. Having new music must feel critical, even though it’s hard to get it together when you’re not living together.

KW: It does. I produce a lot of records these days, and there’s something vital and beautiful about the process of bringing compositions to their live iteration glory, to full fruition. In so many cases these days, people are recording and sculpting music in the studio that they haven’t pressed on the stage, pushed around, tugged and pulled at for months before it takes shape. In some ways, even though our last record came out over a year ago, we’re still figuring out how we best want to play some of the music. We’re stretching some of it out, so we’re figuring out what the improvisational approach is. There’s a lot of creativity, newness, freshness to that. We’ve added maybe three compositions to the repertoire since then that will make their way onto the next record. We’re trying to make sure that when we get together, there’s some opportunity to play through something new, even if it’s a sketch, just to keep the creative wheels turning.

TJG: When and where were your most recent shows?

KW: Our last shows were in Europe. We played a festival in Switzerland, NoVa JaZz. It was a small festival in a small town, but had such a great lineup. Ambrose Akinmusire, Shai Maestro, BIGYUKI, it was wonderful to be in the company of such artists who I feel approach music in a similar way, completely void of traditional parameters. There may be loose guidelines of what jazz might mean to each person, but everyone who the festival programmed, it felt like to me, was making the exact music they wanted to make, straight out of their heads and their hearts. It’s nice when programmers get what you’re trying to do, and put you with people who don’t necessarily sound like you, but are approaching music-making from a similar standpoint.

On that run we also did a masterclass and concert in Grenoble, France. That was the first concert we’ve done as a trio, as we’re going to do at the Gallery, no vocals, just instrumental explorations of the material. The room was packed with students. It felt great.

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