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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

David Leon is a Cuban-American saxophonist, woodwinds player, and composer/improviser, born in Miami, Florida and living in Brooklyn, New York. Leon is a busy sideman around New York as well as a full-time member of several ensembles including Threeplustwo and Sound Underground. Leon is no stranger to The Jazz Gallery, having participated in The Jazz Gallery’s Mentoring Series in 2018, performing alongside pianist Kris Davis.

This week, Leon will bring a new band to The Jazz Gallery to present his first show as a leader on the Gallery stage. The band features Leon on saxophone plus Sonya Belaya on piano, Florian Herzog on bass, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. The new quartet is a laboratory for improvisational experimentation, such as extended solo playing, disruption, and unison, all in search of increased mobility and expression within the band dynamic. We caught up with Leon on the phone while he was on tour with another of his bands, Threeplustwo.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making time to chat! Where are you today?

David Leon: I’m in North Carolina with my band Threeplustwo. It includes two of my college roommates, and one of my college roommates’ siblings—he’s a triplet. We’re down here playing some shows, and today is our first day.

TJG: It’s funny, I interview a lot of people, but I rarely, if ever, hear of anyone playing in North Carolina.

DL: That’s hilarious. I don’t know what the scene is down here, but we ate some nice ‘craft ice cream’ today, and have been playing pool and practicing. We’re playing mostly colleges, as well as a place called Sharp Nine Gallery in Durham, another place in Durham, and a show in Baltimore. It’s three shows, seven masterclasses, and an excuse to hang out.

TJG: What’s the music like? What are the classes all about?

DL: The ensemble is a chamber jazz ensemble. I play saxophone, Jonah Udall plays guitar, Lowell Ringel plays upright bass, and the other two triplets Ivy Ringel and Evan Ringel, play bassoon and trombone. We come from a bunch of different musical places, but we all meet in the middle. There’s improvisation, but also heavy writing, rather specific writing. Only three of the five are here now, so we haven’t figured out the masterclasses yet, but I think we’ll talk about our writing progress and how we incorporate improvisation. We have a recording that’s been out for a little bit, and this short tour is an opportunity for us to come together and talk about next steps.

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Design courtesy of Indiana University.

This week, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome Indiana University’s Plummer Ensemble back to our stage for two nights of performances. Under the direction of saxophonist Walter Smith III, the group features top students from Indiana University’s jazz department, hailing from across the United States. To get a sense of students’ impressive artistry, take a listen to last year’s Plummer Ensembles, recorded live at WBGO.

For these performances, the ensemble will be joined by acclaimed saxophonist Ben Wendel. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see these young, talented musicians spar with one of New York’s leading soloists. (more…)

A still from Shoes (1916) by Lois Weber. Public domain.

In recent years, bassist and composer Alexis Cuadrado has expanded his focus to encompass scoring for film and radio. His latest long-form score is for Lois Weber’s 1916 silent film Shoes, a drama following a young woman who struggles to replace her only pair of shoes while supporting a family of six with deadbeat father. In Cuadrado’s words, “The score is a dialogue meditating on the fight for women’s rights, poverty, and workers’ rights over a period of a century, reflecting how these issues continue to plague our world today.”

The score was premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and will be performed with the film at The Jazz Gallery by vocalist Kavita Shah, trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis, cellist Brian Sanders, vibraphonist Christos Rafalides, pianist Martha Kato, drummer Shirazette Tinnin, and Cuadrado himself on bass. We discussed the score with Cuadrado in depth, and dove head-first into a discussion on he composes music that reflects complex social and personal questions.

The Jazz Gallery: Your upcoming Jazz Gallery show is a live performance of your “Shoes” score. I’ll link your beautiful blog post on the process here, but would you mind briefly telling me how the project started?

Alexis Cuadrado: Three years ago, I wrote a score for Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant.” I wanted to write another film score, a follow-up relating to a social justice angle, a shift that has been happening in my last few years of original work. I was prompted by my daughter, a beautiful transgender girl, which I mentioned in the blog post: Before she came out as transgender, she was always asking “Why are you always playing with men? Where are the women? Why aren’t there enough women musicians?”

I had the lucky chance to sit down with Richard Brody, film critic for The New Yorker: He gave me a lot of suggestions, and this film Shoes was among them. I saw a trailer about the restoration of the film online, then found the film through the New School library and had it shipped from a library in Philadelphia. When I saw it, I knew this was the film I want to work on. It’s so beautiful, so aesthetically strong, so thematically resonant with what’s going on today. In many ways, it looks at the same issues as the Chaplin film. These films were made a hundred years ago, but they still reflect many of today’s social issues. They describe a kind of social injustice, and it’s good for us to watch and reflect. It’s a good checkpoint.

TJG: When you first saw the film and had these immediate feelings, was there a scene that encapsulated those feelings for you?

AC: There’s one scene with astounding cinematography in which there are these big superimposed hands that hound the main character at night. The hands have the word “poverty” painted in large script, you know, like poverty is hounding this woman. It really shocked me. Here we are today, class is still difficult to overcome, women are still being abused. That was a powerful scene.

TJG: You had the challenge of building a musical arc from the beginning to the end of the movie.

AC: Yeah, and it’s 53 minutes [laughs].

TJG: Could you talk about the trajectory of the score? As if you were describing an album or symphony?

AC: I wanted to to achieve a few important things with this score. “The Immigrant” was a more literal score, it really follows the movie, with classic comedy moments where the music follows the visuals. I wanted Shoes to be more like musical theater, with songs rather than a conventional film score. That was my point of departure. So every piece had to have a beginning and an end, last a few minutes, and work as a standalone song too. If you don’t see the film, you can still listen to the songs and they tell the story. Of course, the songs had to work with the film at the same time.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Since she was a small child, Saraswathi Ranganathan has been focused on opening her ears to new sounds, and encouraging those around her to do the same. Raised in Southern India amid a family of musicians who play in the Carnatic tradition, the artist-composer cradled her first veena at age 6. By 11, she was performing concerts with her other siblings—including her younger brother, mridangam master Ganapathi Ranganathan.

For the past 15 years, Ranganathan has lived, worked, played, and composed as a world renowned veena artiste from her home base in Chicago. In between teaching master classes on raga-based music—and raga-inspired collaborative expressions—at DePaul and University of Chicago, she has managed to release four records as a leader with more in the works.

To Brooklyn Raga Massive’s Out of the Woods festival, Ranganathan brings with her a legacy of firsts. She is the first Indian woman and veena artiste to win a Chicago Music Award in its 35-year history, the first veena artiste to perform as an orchestra member of Disney’s Jungle Book production and the first veena artiste to receive a $10,000 grant from the Logan Foundation in Chicago. She attributes her path-carving success to the inclusive energy in her music and in her life. Her goal? Bring artists and listeners together as one community united in music and understanding.

The Jazz Gallery: The Gallery was founded on ideals of creative expression and individualism but also on community. Can you talk about your interpretation of “one-stage one-music one-community” as it relates to your artistic narrative?

Saraswathi Ranganathan: When I think about the intent behind my work, it’s to bring a diverse community together. The way I do this is, I take the veena, and mingle raga-based music with other genres of music, like Spanish music or Maqam music and then a little bit of blues music. What I do is take all these acoustic instruments and present it to an audience. So then we get a cross-cultural listener versus someone who, for example, only wants to listen to raga-based music. If I were to collaborate with a cross-genre, then I might have more people—a wider base, a wider cross-cultural audience. My goal is to showcase all these different genres to different types of people under the same platform.

You see a lot of conflicts that are happening these days, and a lot of that is happening because of hate. A lot of the time, hate arises out of fear. And the fear is because of a lack of awareness—a fear of the unknown. So my goal has been, because of my own personal experiences in life, to make people aware of what is different out there so that, at the very least, even if they’re not able to embrace the differences, they’re able to appreciate what’s different. And then they’re aware: “Hey, this is different, but it’s not really harmful.” And then, at best, they embrace it. They say, “Hey, this looks different—the music looks different, the way they’re dressing looks different,” [but they embrace it]. I share some of the language, some of the culture, some anecdotes and some things about the instrument. I try to showcase many acoustic instruments from around the world. So there’s a lot of exchange that happens, and community outreach is part of that.

So to cut it short, my intent is: less hate, less fear, greater awareness—so that we all can live as one family.

TJG: Is this your first show at the Gallery?

SR: Yeah, it’s my first show in New York.

TJG: Ah, you totally buried the lede for our readers.

SR: I’m so excited.

TJG: You’ve been drawn to a number of musical styles and cultures throughout the years, and obviously you’ve worked very deeply through them. You’ve just mentioned some of them—Flamenco, the blues, Middle Eastern music, etcetera. I know how this openness has influenced your approach to your artist mission, but I’m curious to know how embracing these different styles of music has informed your technical approach to the instrument?

SR: Yeah, that’s a great question. I like that. Essentially I was trained in traditional Carnatic music. That music encompasses a lot of emotive expression on the instrument. So we place a lot of emphasis on how a raga is interpreted. The meaning of a raga is emotion and expression. So that’s the basis of Indian classical music, especially Carnatic music and Southern Indian style. So, and I do this at schools as well, I play something and I ask them how they feel about it. And then I tell them that the raga, you can interpret it in so many different ways, and the children always come up with so many cool words to interpret the ragas. The main essence is more melodic and that’s how it becomes universal.

In terms of the actual technique from other genres of music—for example, the chords—I have learned to do a few things [on the veena] that sound like the blues scale using a fingering technique that uses a little bit of modification. So I know a little bit of jazz and a little bit of the Spanish style, but I’m not an expert.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

In 2009, Shai Maestro traveled to New York to play music with like-minded artists. But the Israeli-born pianist-composer soon discovered how much he enjoyed the spontaneity and inspiration that only comes from playing with artists who think and feel and sound “different.” Such scenarios have included his long association with drummer-composer Ari Hoenig, and a recent trio performance that featured none other than saxophonist Joshua Redman as a special guest.

Maestro is currently touring The Dream Thief (2018, ECM), his fifth recording as a leader. In between rehearsals for respective duo gigs with Joel Ross and Chris Potter and sorting through compositions for a forthcoming and soon-to-be-announced orchestra project, he set aside a few moments to reflect on bandstand humanity, global communication and the inevitable post-recording process of decompression.

The Jazz Gallery: Your website bio discusses your “differentiated touch.” I find this to be a fascinating description of your playing, and I’m curious to know how you might approach the instrument differently depending on the emotional context of the moment, or even that day.

Shai Maestro: I always make the comparison to language—spoken language. You learn the alphabet, you learn the words and you learn how to make sentences, paragraphs, chapters—books, if you want. But you use the basic building blocks to express something different every time you speak—sometimes you’re angry, sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re sad. It’s the same with music, with two exceptions; one is how much you allow yourself to get out of the scripted narrative that you might have, and two is the essence of music being abstract so you can make up words on the spot—you’re not just dealing with a given set of words; you create new ones all the time, based on tradition of course, but you can also get out of it and create your own ways of expression. Everything you can apply to language, you can apply to music. It’s a pretty simple idea, but sometimes I find it can be harder to apply in music. It has to do a lot with just letting things happen.

TJG: Letting things happen and the idea of a natural progression is an important and deeply personal aspect of your expression. We’re skipping ahead a little, but do you want to talk about the trio behind The Dream Thief and how the three of you allow the music to happen in that natural way as opposed to forcing it to be?

SM: When I teach new music to my band members, I try to get as clear as I can with the vision of how I imagine it to be. When you’re the composer, you have to have strong vision otherwise you can’t create. We don’t use charts; it’s all by heart. So if we have a drum part, then we’ll all know the drum part; if there’s a bass part, we’ll all know the bass part. So we all know the music from every angle. The next instruction is, “Forget everything I just told you.” That comes from the trust. They know my vision. They know what the song is about. And now, we can just play. What that means is we can start from different tempos all the way to [playing in] different keys, changing a chord from major to minor, displacing stuff, repeating sections, not playing the melody at all—just playing the structure itself, playing the melody but no harmony. Whatever tools you might want to use in the moment are valid if it comes from an authentic and honest place.

And what we try to do is strengthen the radar—the honesty radar—to be able to identify what is real and what is not, because if something is real but it means omitting an “important” part of the song, by all means, go ahead and do it. Don’t play that part. If we get to the bridge and we never play another song, I’m completely fine with that, if it’s honest for us. That comes from trust. It comes from trust, knowledge and ability. And then you can just play.

When I came to New York, I studied with Sam Yael. He said that when you practice, to balance between the child and the parent. The child is the creative voice. It’s kind of the spontaneous and chaotic voice, “Oh let’s go here—now let’s go here!” And the parent is the disciplined voice: “Okay, eat your vegetables,” or “We’re practicing scales now.” And that’s how you create balance at the practice session. You are both the parent and the child. But, when you go to play a concert, you never bring the parents with you. You always take the kids. That means you have to trust that what you’ve learned and what you’ve worked hard on became second nature for you now, and you can just be you. That’s what jazz can offer us, I think—to just be ourselves.

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