The terms “genre-bending” and “unclassifiable” are thrown around a lot today in musical discourse, but one performer who truly fits those descriptors is vocalist Theo Bleckmann. Bleckmann’s voice is a singular instrument: a rich, plaintive baritone one moment and an ethereal halo of a falsetto the next. He can deliver a lyric with unmatched nuance and clarity, or multiply his voice into an unearthly choir using a rig of electronics. Bleckmann has worked with artists as diverse as the iconoclastic vocalist and composer Meredith Monk, drummer/composer John Hollenbeck, guitarist Ben Monder, and the plugged-in jazz group Kneebody. Bleckmann’s own projects as a leader have covered a huge aesthetic ground, from the music of Weimar Germany to Kate Bush to nursery rhymes to his own settings of poetry. This Fall, Bleckmann will be featured at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in a collaboration with the poet Carl Hancock Rux and director Anne Bogart.
On Friday, May 29th, Bleckmann will perform at The Jazz Gallery in a duo setting with pianist Shai Maestro. A Gallery regular, whether playing with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ziv Ravitz in a collaborative trio or backing up the likes of guitarist Gilad Hekselman, Maestro always imbues his music with a delicate touch and effortless lyricism. Like Bleckmann, Maestro juggles many projects simultaneously—his trio with Roeder and Ravitz will release their newest record, Untold Stories(Motema Music), in July.
Bleckmann and Maestro make a natural pairing, so it’s somewhat of a surprise that their first performance together was just a month ago at the Brooklyn Public Library. The Gallery is proud to present these peerless musicians on Friday for an evening of exploratory song. (more…)
(From L to R) Tom Erickson, Nathan Parker Smith, and John Yao. Photos courtesy of the artists.
This Thursday, May 28th, The Jazz Gallery is proud to present the third installment of our Jazz Composer’s Workshop. Curated by composer Miho Hazama, the series presents works by up-and-coming big band writers performed by a top-notch band featuring several Gallery regulars.
This week, the workshop features the work of Nathan Parker Smith, Tom Erickson, and John Yao. Smith is a Northern California native and has been leading his own large ensemble in New York since 2009. His music is energetic and in-your-face, drawing from heavy metal, 20th century classical, and progressive improvisation traditions alike. Check out his group’s performance at WNYC’s the Greene Space from 2013.
Tom Erickson has studied at the University of Denver and William Patterson University, and his compositions have been performed by big bands all over the world from Croatia, to South Africa, to Texas, and beyond. Check out this interview with Erickson and listen to his knotty composition “Jaguar-shark” below.
A versatile trombonist in addition to an accomplished composer, John Yao came to New York from the suburbs of Chicago via the University of Indiana. He has toured with tribute big bands associated with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, and has played with two of the most decorated big bands in New York —The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra directed by Arturo O’Farrill. Yao’s band, which he calls his “17-piece Instrument,” will be releasing a new album Flip-Flop (See Tao Recordings) this June. Yao’s music is exuberant and hard-swinging, as you can tell from the performance below.
Thursday is sure to be filled with a whole range of new, exciting big band music, a performance not to be missed. (more…)
Alan Ferber has always worn a closet’s worth of hats. Indeed, when he’s not a solid sideman for jazz-world superstars like Esperanza Spalding and John Hollenbeck, the trombonist-composer can often be heard in the low brass chair with orchestrally minded indie bands like Beirut, The National, and Sufjan Stevens. And then, of course, there’s Ferber’s own music, which gently breaks genre divides and makes the most out of horn-heavy ensembles like his nonet and big band.
Ferber’s most recent hat, though, is fatherhood, and upon winning a recent commission from Chamber Music America, he resolved to reflect on his young son’s life through music. The resulting composition, “Roots and Transitions,” is a typically sprawling work that returns Ferber to his original nonet after two years of supporting a big band record, 2013’s March Sublime (Sunnyside). On Tuesday night, the band takes the Gallery stage to perform “Roots and Transitions” in its entirety. We caught up with Ferber by phone to discuss the piece.
The Jazz Gallery: How has your nonet writing been informed by your experience writing and touring the big band album?
Alan Ferber: I didn’t think it would. I started writing for the nonet because I got a grant from Chamber Music America—New Jazz Works grant, and I essentially proposed a project and then had to follow through with it by writing a brand-new piece of music. It was a Chamber Music America piece so I tried to really think about writing it by limiting myself as a composer. I’d been doing big band for the last couple of years and it can be a very dense sound; you have thirteen horns to work with, and chord voicings and whatnot. But for this nonet project, I didn’t want to treat it as a little big band. I really wanted to treat this piece as true chamber music.
Doing the big band for a couple of years, it’s hard to really say if that changed the way I wrote for nonet. But I think what did change was the compositional process that I undertook this piece with, which involved me writing most of the main compositional material with just the trombone. On the piano, you can come up with mediocre melodic ideas but then you play a nice, juicy chord voicing and it’s like, “Aw yeah, that sounds great.” But on the trombone, you can’t do that. You have to have something melodically compelling in order to move forward compositionally with the piece. Honestly, the other part of it too was the fact that I’d just had a kid, and I needed to be playing the trombone. It’s such a high-maintenance instrument and I didn’t really have time to divide my time between composing and practicing.
That seemed appropriate for this piece because the premise of this piece is essentially based on my son. I tried to write something that moved through periods of rootedness and comfort and transition or discomfort, but ultimately, growth. It’s an eight movement piece and I tried to really mirror the natural human growth cycle. As a composer, I tried to write things that would be comfortable for the players but also write things that would be really uncomfortable for the players and see how the improvisers would respond.
TJG: The concept of the piece rests heavily on your recent personal history. Are you often trying to capture your current state or place in life through your music?
AF: I don’t think it’s something I try to do. I just think it’s something that happens no matter what. I really try to be genuine. One of my favorite quotes is Thelonious Monk; I’m not going to call myself a genius here but, he says that a genius is someone most like himself. When I’m playing my instrument in a band and improvising, or when I’m composing music, I just try to connect with what I’m honestly feeling rather than try to reflect something that I’m not. When I sit down and compose, it’s kind of sacred time for me. I try to really clear myself and let the most compelling ideas that I’m hearing come to the forefront and then work with those. So in that sense, it totally reflects my current state of being.
TJG: Your writing is often very specific, and this being a particularly “chamber music” piece, how much direction did you give the improvisers in your band?
AF: Actually, a couple of the movements have no improvising at all. They’re some of the shorter, interlude-type pieces. But I think that what I try to think about is how the players play melody. I toss the melodies around depending on how I think that they’re going to play the melody or how they express a written line. Ten different tenor players are going to play one written line differently. I have one tenor player that I’m writing for, and I can hear in my head how he’s going to play certain melodies, so it really affects the way I write my written material, even inner melody parts, secondary counter-melodies. Ultimately, I want the writing to sound improvised. I don’t want any of it to sound calculated. I want it all to have this human flow to it: whether it’s all written out or not, it’s going to sound natural and improvised in a way.
The musical form of an étude, or study, usually has a didactic quality to it, and for good reason: the first so-called études written in the early 19th century were designed to teach students various techniques at the piano. However, in the years since then, many composers have found deeper inspirations in the form—just check out the poetic piano works of Chopin and Debussy. In the 20th century, composers like John Cage and Györgi Ligeti pushed the form in even further directions, exploring the whole range of the piano’s sonic capabilities.
Saxophonist and composer Ohad Talmor has now put his own contemporary stamp on the étude repertoire. In between running the Brooklyn club SEEDS, playing in a wide range of small groups, and doing big band arrangements for a host of today’s biggest jazz names, Talmor has composed his own set of big band études, patiently exploring the instrumentation’s technical range. Talmor has never had the chance to present this music in the United States, and so The Jazz Gallery is proud to present the US debut of this music on Friday and Saturday, May 22nd and 23rd. The pieces will be performed by Talmor’s so-called Grand Ensemble, named for the “grandeur of the musicians who play in it,” says Talmor. We caught up with the composer and saxophonist to talk about the pieces’ musical influences and the challenges of bridging the gap between jazz and classical forms.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve done large ensemble arrangements for different projects led by Kurt Rosenwinkel, Joshua Redman, and Lee Konitz in Europe. When you’re in this situation, what do you feel your role is? Are you just thickening or coloring what’s already there in the music, or are you there to add your own personality and push the material in a new direction?
Ohard Talmor: It would definitely be the second option. I’m not a stock arranger by training—I never really learned the conventional way of writing for big band. I just learned by doing. I started pretty early in my early twenties in Europe. I associated with an excellent big band, the Big Band de Lausanne in Switzerland, and started writing for them. When I’m writing for these soloists, I make a point of telling them that I can’t be Lennie Niehaus or someone like that, but I try to get to their music and infuse with my kind of work, my own background.
Working with Rosenwinkel was interesting because Kurt has such a strong personality, and is accustomed to doing things his way, so it wasn’t necessarily all smooth sailing. It was always respectful, but I had to tinker with things so that he would agree to it. When he first played it, he did a bit of a double take. I took his music and deconstructed it a little bit, put my own voice in it. He relented at first, then went back to it and played it in concert, and then recorded some of the stuff that I wrote and added his own touches. It was great. It became this new thing, his own thing, two degrees removed from the music originally.
But just in general, whomever I’m working with, I just try to integrate what they do into my own musical universe.
TJG: You’re presenting a series of what you call big band études at The Jazz Gallery this weekend. What kind of musical concepts do these pieces “study?”
OT: An étude focuses on a particular area of music, a specific set of problems or constraints. But I had never heard something like that done for so-called big band or large ensemble, where you take these musical problems and grind them down into something. So that’s what I’ve done—I’ve focused on one or two aspects of music in each étude, and try to carry them as far as I can and explore all the facets that they evoke.
The first deals with my fascination with the composer György Ligeti, especially his sense of counterpoint. I’m exploring different types of counterpoint within complex harmonies without ever deviating from that abstract world. The second one is much more urban and reflects my love of A Tribe Called Quest and groups like that, so I messed with that aspect.
(Étude no. 2 by Ohad Talmor, performed by the Orquesta Jazz de Matosinhos)
The third one reflects many nights of conversation with Steve Coleman. I run the venue SEEDS in Brooklyn, and we’ve hosted Steve here and worked with him. Both of us share this love of the composer Per Nørgård, and so this piece focuses on Nørgård and the naturalistic ideals of music—sound for sound’s sake.
The challenge for all of these pieces is two-fold: you can write all this complicated stuff for the sake of writing complicated stuff and it has no real meaning. Everything is written for jazz musicians who have a jazz vocabulary, and today’s musician is a very educated beast, playing many different things, echoing the world they live in. So it’s jazz and it’s Indian music and it’s hip-hop, and so it’s all part of the same package of all of us playing the music. So the challenge is to incorporate that vocabulary of improvisation into the pieces, because how can you craft something out of what’s just a constraint? And then there’s the rhythmic formula that doesn’t fall into a simple groove or a straight swing feel. These two things are the big hurdles that I’m trying to go around with these pieces.
So we’ll play these three études that really dig into very different areas, and then we’ll play this 30-minute piece I wrote that was originally a three-part suite for Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, and Chris Cheek. One movement focuses on Hindustani music, which I’ve played for a long time, like with Dan Weiss—I play the bansuri flute. The second one has to do more with the modern classical world, and the third one is my take on the blues and all the different things you can do with it. The piece is sort of my early foray into writing études without actually calling them that.
Heralded by Modern Drummer magazine as a “player to watch” and Time Out New York as a “rising jazz drummer with a deft touch”, Eric Doob has brought a refined sense of swing and focused brand of interactivity to New York’s modern jazz community. Just a few years out of conservatory, Doob has collaborated with luminaries such as Miguel Zenon, Manuel Valera, Chet Doxas, Paquito D’Rivera, Matthew Stevens, Ryan Keberle, and Christian Scott, to name just a few.
Check out a cool clip of Eric’s sideman work with Miguel Zenon here: