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2016-2017 Jazz Gallery Fellowship commissionee Johnathan Blake is both a bandleader and tireless sideman, and has been featured on albums by artists including Q-Tip, Jaleel Shaw, Tom Harrell, Donny McCaslin, and the Mingus Big Band. His acclaimed 2014 album Gone, But Not Forgotten featured Chris Potter, Mark Turner, and Ben Street, and was dedicated to both legendary musicians and victims of tragedy. As the young child of a traveling musician in Philadelphia, Blake found himself immersed in the tradition from a young age. In one story he recounted for JazzTimes, Blake’s father introduced him to the legendary Elvin Jones. Shortly thereafter, Blake found himself sitting on stage with Jones, watching his idol perform from only a few feet away.

Blake’s upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery will present the culmination of his 2016-2017 Fellowship, entitled “My Life Matters.” The work is a suite of songs that serves as a dual treatise on the importance of family values and the social imperative to stand up in the face of injustice. With Blake on drums, his compositions will be performed by a cast of Jazz Gallery regulars: Dayna Stephens on saxophones / EWI, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Fabian Almazan on piano, and Rashaan Carter on bass. We spoke with Blake about his new suite of work, the realm of family responsibility, and the imperative to speak out against injustice in the world today.

The Jazz Gallery: Talk to us a little bit about your new Jazz Gallery Fellowship Commission, “My Life Matters.”

Johnathan Blake: Around the time I started composing one of the pieces, a lot of brutality was happening to young African-American men and women. As a person of color, I thought, ‘Man, maybe I’m not speaking out enough, as my parents stressed for me to do.’ I started thinking about the ones who came before me, who spoke through their music. Max Roach with his “Freedom Now” suite, John Coltrane with “Alabama.” I asked myself, ‘How can I speak out through my music?’ That’s where the title comes about, “My Life Matters.” It’s not just about Black Lives Matter, it’s about us as a whole. We have to learn how to coexist. We spend so much time worrying about ourselves that we can forget to care about others, notice our differences and similarities. We all were created here to live in harmony with one another. These pieces will hopefully serve as a jumping point for open discussion on that.

So, it’s a series of tunes I composed dealing with family, my upbringing in Philadelphia, and speaking up in the face of injustice, which is something my parents always stressed to me and my sisters. When my father passed away in 2014, we were all in the hospital with him. He was looking at me, my wife, my kids, giving us some strong advice. I think he knew his time was coming to an end. I have to continue to keep the torch lit, to live up to what he taught us, to continue his legacy.

TJG: Do you mind if I ask what his advice for you was?

JB: For me, it was basically “Always be taking care of your family.” He really stressed it. To my kids, he said “Look, things might get hard in life, and you’ll have to persevere. Giving up is the easiest thing to do.” That really resonated with me too. Don’t let anyone try to persuade you, to put you down. Really work at what you’re serious about. And again, if you’re a bystander, don’t ignore injustice, or you’re adding to the problem. All these things were going through my head as I was writing the music, so it started taking on a life of its own. I wanted to make it a tribute to my father, because he instilled such great values in me. He was a traveling musician, but he was a family man. Any chance he got to take us with him on the road, he took that opportunity. Now, I travel a lot, but when I’m home, I try to be home. I don’t take a lot of gigs around town.

TJG: You mentioned this importance of melody in keeping the audience engaged (“Give them something to hang on to!”) in a JazzTimes interview, specifically citing Tom Harrell’s music as a great example.

JB: Exactly. I wanted to create melodies that people will walk away singing, and in doing so, really think about them. I have a tune called “I Can’t Breathe,” related to the death of Eric Garner. It starts with a vibes melody. I’m big on memorable melodies, melodies you can walk away with. Once you have it in your head, if you can walk away singing it, it sticks with you. It will transcend into your daily life. I think this is a way it can start to open up discussions about these injustices.

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Gamelan Yowana Sari. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday, November 21st, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to once again collaborate with members of the percussion group Talujon to present an evening of boundary-crossing percussion music. For this concert, the Gallery welcomes Gamelan Yowana Sari, founded and directed by Talujon member Michael Lipsey. Based at Queens College, Gamelan Yowana Sari performes both traditional and contemporary music for Balinese Gamelan, collaborating with composers of diverse backgrounds to create new work. Check out the group performing Lipsey’s own composition Tabung Asli in the video below.

At the Gallery on Tuesday, the ensemble will present a mixed program indicative of their multi-faceted approach to Gamelan music, including works by Balinese composer I Gusti Komin, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, and founding Bang on a Can All-Star Evan Ziporyn. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear this music in an intimate space. (more…)

Photo by Claudio Roman.

This Friday, November 17th, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome guitarist Charles Altura back to our stage. With his unmatched fluidity and multifaceted sound, Altura has become one of the most sought-after sidemen on the jazz scene, playing with the likes of Chick Corea, Terrence Blanchard, Tom Harrell, and Ambrose Akinmusire.

For his two sets at the Gallery, Altura has assembled a quartet of players not afraid to throw down and mix it up—John Escreet on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, and E.J. Strickland on drums. Before checking out Altura’s development as a leader, watch his potent solo on tour with Terrence Blanchard’s E-Collective.

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Guitarist and lifelong New Yorker Adam Rogers returns to The Jazz Gallery this week with DICE, his band featuring Fima Ephron on bass and Nate Smith on drums. If you’re not familiar with Rogers’ guitar playing, you’ve surely heard him alongside artists such as Michael Brecker, Norah Jones, Paul Simon, Regina Carter, John Zorn, Marcus Miller, The Mingus Orchestra, Chris Potter, and Ravi Coltrane, among others.

Known as a guitar virtuoso of eclectic taste and unimpeachable technique, Rogers cultivates a sound on DICE that at once elicits comparisons to guitarists Jimi Hendrix, Allan Holdsworth, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Roy Buchanan. Released last summer, DICE has both raw and immersive, spacious qualities, with tracks contrasting blistering trio jams with dense, swirling sonic layers. Rogers himself plays a wide range of instruments on the album, including clarinets, synthesizers, organs, and different loops and samples. We spoke at length with Rogers about the recording process, the role of compositional limitations, and the importance of mic’ing the room.

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The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for sharing the DICE record in anticipation of the show. I really enjoyed listening to it, and it sounded like it was a fun record to make.

Adam Rogers: The actual recording part was fun, yeah. When you’re making a record, there’s a certain part of your brain that doesn’t allow for as much fun as you’d like to be having. It was very rewarding, but it was a lot of work.

TJG: Is there a part of the process that necessitates the ‘fun’ being shut off?

AR: That’s hard to articulate. For this record, we recorded for a couple days, then I worked on it for a long time before releasing it. Recording was as fun as could be. And I’ve played with Fima and Nate for a long time, so as far as their parts are concerned, there’s not much I had to worry about. But when you’re only in the studio for a couple of days, there are a lot of concerns on your mind. When self-producing, there are a lot of ‘i’s and ‘t’s that need to be dotted and crossed, in terms of getting the takes you need, the sound you want, being in the music while also taking care of things. Doing that while also having fun can be a tricky combination.

TJG: Was it helpful that your sound was ‘limited’ in a way? In your Guitar Player Magazine interview, you talked a bit about a limited gear setup, which gave you some boundaries.

AR: Not really. That’s my setup. If I had twenty years to make the record I’d use the same setup. I don’t really use pedals. I use three guitars on the record, mostly the Strat, the Telecaster, the Les Paul, plus the amps. That’s my desert island setup. There’s no overarching principle that says I shouldn’t play with pedals, but I like the idea of having one sound or one thing that doesn’t give you 25,000 choices at the click of a mouse. Working within sonic and compositional limitations forces you to explore, to go deeper.

TJG: Regarding musical limitations, you’ve said that “With DICE, I wanted to explore mostly one sound. That limits things, but through limitations you can discover things.” Could you talk a bit about those discoveries?

AR: With DICE, when I conceptualized the band, I was thinking about the sound of an electric bass, specifically Fender Precision, drums, and a Fender Stratocaster. With this instrumentation, there are things I don’t hear where I might hear them with a “jazz trio.” As broad a swath of musics as I’m interested in, I like to explore one concept, even if it’s very broad, when working with one specific band. I like to create a framework that, without explicitly limiting me, informs what the music can be, and provides compositional ideas. So as a composer, you can choose to break out of those limitations, or explore within those limits.

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This week, The Jazz Gallery kicks off the next edition of its Mentorship Series with saxophonist Yosvany Terry mentoring bassist Daryl Johns. For nearly two decades, Terry has been at the forefront of progressive Afro-Cuban jazz in New York. Whether leading his own groups, or playing alongside his talented fellow countrymen like Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Dafnis Prieto, and Manuel Valera, to name a few. In 2015, Terry was named Director of Jazz Ensembles at Harvard, where he has mentored many talented young musicians and programmed exciting collaborations, including recent concerts with Jeff “Tain” Watts. In the video below, watch Terry talk about improvisation and the shekere—an Afro-Cuban percussion instrument—with fellow Harvard professor Vijay Iyer.

Daryl Johns has been making waves in the New York jazz community for several years, belying his age. He was a semi-finalist for the 2009 Thelonious Monk Competition at the age of 13, and since then, has played with both talented peers and elder statesmen. Check out his musicianship and poise playing knotty, risk-taking music with the Kassa Overall trio this past summer, below the fold. (more…)