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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Amy Touchette

This Saturday, August 11, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and his group Triple Double return to The Jazz Gallery for two sets of music. Featuring brass players Taylor Ho Bynum and Ralph Alessi; guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook; as well as drummer Gerald Cleaver, the band has cut its teeth on the Gallery stage—they performed here before recording their debut record in 2016, and returned to celebrate the album’s release in 2017. Before their return to the Gallery this weekend, we caught up with Fujiwara to talk about the group’s methods of improvisational interaction, the process of recording their album, and the incredible mentorship of drummer Alan Dawson.

TJG: In the press release for the record, it states that “while these collaborative efforts could define and sustain him, a more ambitious musical intelligence emerges on closer inspection.” What does this mean?

TF: I think part of what was meant here was that, especially as a drummer, you’re very much pigeonholed into being a side-person. Sometimes, especially as it relates to getting your music supported and out into the world and getting opportunities to perform your music live, it’s a little harder than if you played a different instrument. I’ve been so fortunate to be involved with great musicians in their bands and projects as leaders—something I love doing and have no desire to do less off—as well as a number of collective ensembles, that those things could be enough to “define and sustain” me. I certainly don’t want to stop any of that activity, but for me, and certainly other drummers, I’ve made a conscious decision to step out as a bandleader and composer as well. That’s probably what the “more ambitious” part is. For anyone, taking a leadership role is a big challenge and requires a lot from the individual.

TJG: You’ve been playing with the individual members of Triple Double in a variety of arrangements for a long time. How did the Triple Double project arise and come into fruition? When did you first start working on its songbook?

TF: I have a trio with Ralph [Alessi] and Brandon [Seabrook] that I had put together a year before Triple Double. I was really enjoying the gigs we had done, and we made a live record (Variable Bets on Relative Pitch Records). With most of the ensembles I’ve led, from The Hook Up to the trio with Ralph and Brandon, one of my main interests has been new combinations of musicians. In the case of Ralph and Brandon, they had never played together before. There were members of the original Hook Up that had never played together before. So that was one idea behind Triple Double—these new combinations of people that I felt could work and that I was curious to hear how they would interact. Because I think that musicians, artists in general, are put into categories way more than they would actually like to be, and they have more diverse aesthetics than they’re given credit for. I know for myself, I love to get thrown into unusual situations, or situations where it’s not quite my comfort zone, or the usual cast of characters I might be playing with at that time.

So that was one thing behind it—taking the trio and thinking about it as a template for new combinations. Then, being a drummer, I’ve always loved the drums but also the sound of multiple percussion ensembles, whether it be two drum sets or drum set and any number of percussion instruments from around the world. I love the vibraphone, the marimba, etc. The album that first got me interested in drums was Rich Versus Roach, which isn’t quite a double drum album but a conversation between two drummers and their bands. Years ago, I toured with Stomp, which was essentially an eight person percussion ensemble, and it could be really fun when everything was really in sync and everyone was communicating and forming this unified voice. So that’s something that I’ve always been interested in doing something with two drums but, also, something with Gerald [Cleaver] specifically, who is one of my absolute favorites, and wanting to get in there and have a musical dialogue with him. With Taylor [Ho Bynum] and Mary [Halvorson], two musicians who I’ve played with and known the longest, we have so much history and such a rapport from all of the music we’ve played in various ensembles—I wanted to include them as well. It was really more about the personalities and a sonic idea, and then it took shape into these three duos, or two trios, and this mirroring effect in terms of the instrumentation. Taylor and Ralph had never played together, me and Gerald had never played together, so there were also a lot of first times, which was cool—to see those relationships develop over time within this group.

TJG: Where was the album recorded?

TF: Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT.

TJG: The whole thing in a live room, everyone together?

TF: We had the drums and guitars in one room, and each trumpet/cornet isolated.

TJG: The reason I ask is because one of the things I really love about the record, and there are so many moments where one can hear this, is that the trios seem to be split symmetrically between the left and right channels. Especially on a track like the opening one, “Diving For Quarters,” one hears the interaction spatialized very clearly, with Mary Halvorson consistently on the left and Brandon Seabrook consistently on the right.

TF: Well, the credit for that goes to Nick Lloyd. It’s his label and studio, and he engineered the session, as well as mixed and mastered the album. He just knows the room and the board and the equipment so well, has an amazing ear and is great to work with. We certainly talked about the sound for the album but the majority of the credit goes to him in terms of getting these great sounds and really figuring out how we wanted these 6 musicians to exist in the space. In terms of the drums, we talked a lot about the sound, and it was about wanting to find that balance between these two distinctive drummers, but then also creating a kind of eight-limbed drummer, and I feel like he achieved that very well. Sonically, he gets the credit and did an amazing job.

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Photos courtesy of the artists.

An ensemble of omnivorous tastes and collective intention, Mute—featuring saxophonist Kevin Sun, pianist Christian Li, bassist Lim Yang, and drummer Dayeon Seok—began playing together in the summer of 2017. According to Kevin Sun, “We all knew each other separately in New York, but I’d credit Dayeon with having the vision to assemble us in one place and make music together.” Though the musicians all call Brooklyn home, much of their musical development has come on bandstands far away from the borough. “After joking during our first gig about how great it would be for Dayeon and Lim to play in China and me and Christian to get to play in South Korea, we decided to book a tour for the winter.” Below, check out the band’s performance of Christian Li’s composition “Follow the Leader,” recorded at Formtec Works Hall in Seoul.

“That trip helped us explore and refine the approach of the band,” writes Sun, “which is on the looser side and allows for spacious, relatively unconstrained improvising while also favoring varied song forms. Everybody in the band writes for the band, and I find that, for myself, this quartet is an opportunity to bring in compositions that will be radically interpreted and extended beyond their starting point or what I have in mind.”

All four musicians are involved in numerous other bands and projects, making it difficult to schedule rehearsal time. But the band approaches this as a feature of their practice, rather than a bug. “We’re kind of a ‘last-minute’ band,” says Sun, “but I think that drives us toward spontaneity and risk. We played last month at Barbes, and I remember speaking with Dayeon and Lim afterward about how easy it felt to just jump right back in; no rehearsal, Christian made it to the gig 15 minutes before it was supposed to start (was teaching lessons in Boston), and yet I felt like we’d just resumed where we stopped on the last tune of the previous gig.”

This Wednesday, August 8, Mute will make their debut at The Jazz Gallery, picking up where they left off from that July Barbes gig. The show is a warmup for an upcoming recording session, where the band will put together their first album. Sun writes that “we’re recording largely the material that’s been in the book since we started and toured in the winter, and then we’ll see about the next iteration of the band book.” That kind of open-ended road ahead suits the group just fine, according to Sun. “There’s a lot of humility and humor in the band, and I think that lack of ego enables both chaos and moments of startling group cohesion.” (more…)

Photo by Jimmy Katz, courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday, August 7, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome saxophonist Eric Alexander and his trio back to our stage for a live recording. With over three dozen albums as a leader to his name, Alexander is among the most prominent saxophonists of his generation. His sound is firmly built on bebop and the blues, a foundation that he has passed on to many musicians as a faculty member at William Patterson University.

This live video recording is presented with Giant Steps Arts, a new organization founded by famed jazz photographer and recording engineer Jimmy Katz. The mission of the organization is to create a sustainable system for jazz musicians to record and release their work. Under Katz’s perceptive eyes and ears, these recordings will be given free of charge to the performers, who can release and market the recordings without a label middleman. Katz is also making biographical profiles of these musicians, such as this one with Marcus Gilmore, below.

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From L to R: Anna Webber, Matt Holman, Brian Krock. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Friday, August 3, The Jazz Gallery is proud to present the latest edition of our Jazz Composers’ Showcase. Curated by composer and conductor Miho Hazama, the Showcase gives up-and-coming composers the increasingly rare opportunity to have their work for large ensemble performed by a top-notch group. The two sets on Friday will feature music by Anna Webber, Matt Holman, and Brian Krock.

Whether working with her flexible Simple Trio—featuring pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck—or writing more precisely detailed music for larger ensembles, multi-instrumentalist Anna Webber makes music that has been described as “bracing and argumentative” by critic Ben Ratliff. Webber’s most recent project features music for a septet inspired by 20th century works for percussion by the likes of Varese and Cage. To get a sense of how her musical ideas scale up for large ensemble, check out her composition “Parallelissimo,” performed by the Jazz-Institut Berlin Big Band.

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From L to R: Kassa Overall, Evan Flory-Barnes, Vijay Iyer, and Ravi Coltrane. Photos courtesy of the artists.

A video circulating Instagram depicts trumpet player and composer Theo Croker quoting the words of his colleague Kassa Overall in an effort to describe their mutual approach to music: “Forget everything you ever played on this song.”

Overall meditates inside ambiguity. Over the years, he has approached making music from many vantage points: behind the drum kit, behind the mic, behind the audio mixer, and behind the hand-scribbled journal entry. Perhaps these different perspectives inspire him to remain open; perhaps his openness inspires the pursuit of different perspectives.

This weekend at The Jazz Gallery, Overall brings together Persistence of Memory, a new quartet that features Evan Flory-Barnes on bass, Ravi Coltrane on saxophone and Vijay Iyer on piano—artists who walk unique paths but share a common goal: finding connections through spontaneity, creativity, and trust.

Persistence of Memory promises an evening of spontaneous composition with very little—if any—traditional preparation ahead of the set. To approach a live performance with no expectations, no written music and no rehearsals, the players rely on their own instincts and an ability to honor each other’s instincts.

One of those instincts is Overall’s tendency to build a vibe and allow an energy to drive the direction of the music, an instinct that offers Flory-Barnes open-ended space for his lines to resonate. Though the two artists have a long collaborative association, their musical connection has intensified in recent years.

“I’ve always been attuned to what [Kassa’s] been doing since he’s been away from Seattle,” says Flory-Barnes who grew up with Kassa in the same zip code. “It’s always felt natural when we’ve played together in passing over the last 12 years, but within the last two and a half, it’s started to amplify. There’s that core of home, and then there’s this resonance of our own unique musical paths and spiritual paths. It’s a nice convergence of timing – being home and being out in the world at the same time.”

“It reminds me of when you’re in middle school,” says Overall, reflecting on his association with Flory-Barnes, “and everybody signs up for one thing—say it’s chess club or something. And then light dawns, things change and people move around. And then you come back and there’s only three people left, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re still doing the thing?’ ‘Yeah, I’m still doing the thing from way back then.’ ‘Me, too, still trying to do it.’ So at that point, we have similar visions and it’s like, ‘Yo bro, how been? Where you headed?’ ‘I’m headed the same place you headed.’ ‘Well I got gas money, let’s go.’”

Both Overall and Flory-Barnes embrace what some describe as the challenge of being authentic, as artists and as humans. Kassa uses his Tuesday Revive session in the West Village as a platform for experimentation and self-discovery. He invites new players into his performance on a weekly basis—that have included, among others, Ben Williams, James Francies and China Moses—as he bounces new lyrics, compositions and digital mediums off the audience and the other players. Flory-Barnes’ recent undertaking “On Loving the Muse and Family” reflects his own vulnerabilities through different mediums such as variety show sketches and monologues in addition to original orchestral compositions and a choir. (more…)