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Chris Morrissey. Photo by Chris Shervin.

Chris Morrissey. Photo by Chris Shervin.

Bassist Chris Morrissey hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Like other Twin City-natives drummer Dave King and saxophonist Mike Lewis, Morrissey wears quite a lot of hats (okay, maybe not these kinds of hats like King). Anyway, you never quite know where Morrissey is going to play on a given night. He could backing up pop singers like Andrew Bird and Sara Bareilles (for whom Morrissey is the music director). He could be holding sway at Rockwood Music Hall for a regular gig with guitar hero Jim Capilongo, or as a part of drummer Mark Guiliana’s jazz band. Or he could be leading his own groups, like his quartet with Guiliana, Aaron Parks, and Mike Lewis that released the critically-acclaimed album North Hero (Sunnyside) in 2013.

While it has always been common for jazz musicians to moonlight in pop music (like bassist Richard Davis and drummer Connie Kay playing on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks), Morrissey doesn’t just see pop music as a day job—the sounds and forms of contemporary music refract their way through Morrissey’s own compositions. While the music on North Hero was instrumental jazz colored with the energy and immediacy of pop, the music for Morrissey’s newest project goes in a different direction. For his new group Standard Candle, Morrissey has written a series of songs for a band of singer-instrumentalists.

Featuring guitarist Gray McMurray, saxophonist Mike Lewis, and drummer Josh Dion (who will all sing as well), Standard Candle is the result of a Jazz Gallery 2014-2015 Residency Commission, a program that helps support new work in the New York jazz community. We sat down with Morrissey this week to talk about his new, exciting project and his evolution as songwriter.

The Jazz Gallery: First, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you came together with The Jazz Gallery as the first commissioned composer in this Residency Series.

Chris Morrissey: The first part of that question predates the residency and the commission. I always heard that The Jazz Gallery was a place where a connection had to be made, if you wanted to participate in the jazz scene in New York City. Through Sunnyside, which is the record label that puts my music out, I got connected with musicians who were frequenters of The Jazz Gallery—Nir Felder, Aaron Parks, Ben Wendel, Mark Guiliana. I played there as a leader a couple of times, as a sideman a couple times, then got to know Rio [Sakairi, Artistic Director of The Jazz Gallery]. The Gallery was incredibly supportive throughout that time, and the commission is an extension of that. I was very moved, and here we are today, a few days away from performing this new music.

TJG: So what has this position as a recipient of the commission allowed you to do musically, in terms of the project’s scope?

CM: You know, the main thing was that it instilled a confidence and sense of job surrounding the creative process. Simply the gesture, the vote of confidence in me, made me realize that if other people in my community are interested in what I can come up with, I’d better give that the respect of showing up to the craft every day. So for the last year or so, knowing that I had this sort of end goal, this thing that was expected of me, I could approach it like a job in a way that I’d always sort of romanticized.

TJG: To get into the specifics of the projects a little bit: You’ve been called a musician who wears many hats, from rocker to quartet leader to composer, arranger and director. How did you choose musicians for this project who would match your versatility?

CM: Well, after I got the call from Rio, these guys were the first thing to appear in my mind. It wasn’t sound, or work, or anything visual. It was these specific guys. Besides just being the musicians in New York who I happen to play with a lot, they’re also the ones who have moved me the most in my quest to Mind my musical team. Of course, that team extends beyond the band that I’m bringing to the Gallery.

Josh Dion and Grey McMurray are two guys that I play a lot of music with. I play in the Jim Campilongo trio with Josh, and my own band and Grey’s band with Grey. To me, they’re an example of a rare thing, something analogous to the way I like to hear music and how I hope my music is heard. Kind of an uncategorizable, un-genre-specific motherfuckery. Josh is like this funk-drumming soul singer, who is also an incredibly musical free player. Grey happens to be holding a guitar but isn’t just a guitarist. And Mike Lewis, who I grew up with, saxophonist who plays on both of my quartet records, is a guy for whom when I’m writing something, it’s his voice that I hear. You’re never getting something you expect from them. They all share a reverence to serving the moment as improvisers, aside from being some of my best friends.

TJG: What are some of the major musical themes that underpin this project?

CM: I’ve written for a rock band that I sing in, I’ve written for quartets, and this represents the combination of those two things. It’s something that could be presented as comfortably at The Bowery Ballroom as at The Jazz Gallery, in that it is very much drawing from my rock influences in terms of instrumentation, but I wrote many of the songs on piano, and the piece has a lot of freedom and improvisation woven into it.

Thematically, there are lyrics in about half the songs, where we’re all singing. I think both musically and lyrically, I’ve spent a lot of the last few years diving into readings on the merger of science and spirituality. I’ve gotten into these from spiritual practices that have come to me through yoga, and from seeing that this is a moment in human history where we’re faced with stark, un-ignorable realities about how close we may be to having seismic global shifts in tragic ways, and how that’s being responded to in humanity, accepting the links and oneness between universe and spirit, between humanity and nature. The Neil deGrasse Tyson show Cosmos really hit me hard, Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction really hit me hard. A lot of these things were on my mind as I wrote. I went into some of this science and spirituality stuff at the acceptance gala, and I wanted to impress upon people a promise that the music is more romantic than all that.

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Marquis Hill. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Marquis Hill. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Trumpeter Marquis Hill has had an exciting past 12 months. He’s moved to New York from Chicago, released a new album Modern Flows (Skiptone), won the Thelonious Monk competition, and was an artist-in-residence at the 18th Street Arts Center in Los Angeles. Back in February, Hill made his Jazz Gallery debut, playing alongside Roy Hargrove as part of our 20th anniversary concert series. This Thursday, June 11th, Hill returns to the Gallery with his tight working band—the Blacktet.

While the group has a standard instrumentation and deep roots in the Chicago jazz tradition, they are much more than a straight-up post-bop unit. Hill’s melodies are angular and unpredictable, while the rhythm section of vibraphonist Justin Thomas, bassist Joshua Ramos, and drummer Makaya McCraven lay down a slippery and hypnotic groove that swings like bop and flows like hip-hop. With a unified group sound honed through regular gigs around Chicago and farther afield, the Blacktet is poised to make a big splash at The Jazz Gallery.

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Brad Linde (l) and Elliott Hughes (r), photos courtesy of the artists

Brad Linde (l) and Elliott Hughes (r), photos courtesy of the artists

For saxophonist Brad Linde and trumpeter-composer Elliott Hughes, this large ensemble show on Tuesday has been years in the making. Linde, a fixture on the Washington D.C. scene who has led the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra in its weekly Monday night residency since 2010, and Hughes, a Melbourne, Australia-based composer, first met at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in 2013, which annually convenes an international cast of artists under the leadership of Vijay Iyer for three weeks of intensive creative inquiry and collaboration. During the workshop, Linde and Hughes only played together once, in an experimental large ensemble co-led by Iyer and Graham Haynes, but after a year had passed, Hughes, who was in Maine in July 2014 attending a composition program, reached out to Linde, who suggested they set up a few gigs to perform Hughes’s music.

One thing led to the next, as often happens with Linde, a restless collaborator and musical community organizer, and they played a string of gigs featuring Hughes’s music, including a very successful show on our stage, which featured fellow Banff alumni and several New York heavyweights, including saxophonst Jon Irabagon, trumpeter Seneca Black, bass clarinetist Oran Etkin, and trombonist Ryan Keberle. We’re pleased to welcome back Brad Linde and Elliott Hughes to our stage, presenting Hughes’s music performed by Linde’s Big Ol’ Ensemble, currently on an East Coast tour that will culminate with recorded performances at the D.C. Jazz Festival. Via Skype, we caught up with Linde and Hughes, who’d just crash-landed at Linde’s house the night before after a string of shows with the Big Ol’ ensemble.

The Jazz Gallery: Elliott, your music is really ambitious: speeding up, slowing down, sections where everyone coordinates and acts as a moving part, then sections that are more open for players to respond spontaneously. When you write, how do you balance your ambitions as a composer with the practical challenges of working with a large ensemble?

Elliott Hughes: That’s part of the reason why I conduct the groups: I know there’s a lot of coordination just to make sure that we are keeping in the same spot. It’s helpful to have a reference point. I have tried to play this music back in Australia without a conductor, and it’s impossible unless you have a week of rehearsals—and even then, it didn’t work! The music demands it, and the ensemble’s of big enough size that you do need that.

When I’m writing, I try not to limit myself by anything. If I can conceive of something that would be a cool sound that I’d want to hear, then I’ll try to write it and the practicalities of that … we make changes on the spot, but I try not to limit what I’m writing by if we only have an hour of rehearsal; the first gig might be terrible, but the next gig will be better.

Brad Linde: He even created full big band charts for the Monday night big band that we still keep in the book, but only about three of them have we been able to revisit without him conducting, because there are so many independent parts, time signature changes, and things like that. But once we do play, the pieces are cohesive and I wouldn’t say easy to read, but everyone’s quick to grab onto the concept. People know what it’s supposed to sound like, the audience and the musicians.

EH: On that as well, I put in a lot of effort to make sure parts are really clear for everyone, so that everyone should be able to see what’s going on after a couple plays through. With limited rehearsal time, the more information that’s on the part, the time is saved in rehearsal. In the past when I haven’t done that in Australia, it does suck away rehearsal time to go, “Where are we going in this bar?”

BL: People comment to me, too; they say, “Boy, these charts look great: they’re well laid-out and they’re easy to follow.” There’s a lot of information when he’s not here.

TJG: Elliott, could you comment a bit about your relationship to recent jazz large ensemble composers, such as Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck? In what ways do you relate to their work?

EH: I played a lot of big band growing up: Basie, Ellington, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis. When the band I was in started playing more Bob Brookmeyer, that really opened up my eyes. That’s kind of the lineage I follow: I was into Bob Brookmeyer, then, from there, Hollenbeck was my next step. Brookmeyer had kind of lost the leadsheet idea, how even in Thad Jones, you had tunes where you had sax solis and ensemble passages and solo sections, and solos were still on a form, generally, but Brookmeyer kind of took that out of having a form within the piece. Does that make sense?

BL: Yeah, more through-composed.

EH: And Hollenbeck for me took that to the next level, using the weirder techniques or having things like building ensemble textures within that and giving the players a bit more creativity, but still having the elements, like having strong grooves and strong melodies. The other thing from Hollenbeck was probably the angular lines he created. I really liked those and I think that’s in my music, as well. The melodies can be fairly angular and cell-based, rather than one long line.

Maria Schneider’s music, also, I guess the smoothness and the flow the music has, I really like that. I mean, I don’t think I write like that at all, but her ensemble sound and the different colors, like having the French horn and bass clarinet, maybe some of that got in there. And with Darcy, what struck me was the almost post-rock kind of stuff that he can filter into his music, because that was something that one of my teachers, Mace Francis, a punk guitarist as a kid who got into jazz bands, his music has a lot of power chords, and I definitely stole a lot of that. Hearing where Darcy was at, those rock grooves and feels, that was something that I really grabbed onto because that was a sound I was already familiar with.

TJG: Wasn’t it Bob Brookmeyer who said something about how he was reluctant to write a solo unless it was absolutely necessary?

EH: That’s the quote Mace told me as well: “Never write a solo just because it’s a solo. Only write it if it’s the only thing that could happen in that part of the chart.” Not “Here’s the melody, here’s the solo,” but you want to take the line and use the band to its full potential before you then open it up again.

BL: And that’s the great thing about Elliott’s music: each piece is so conceptual that it holds together from beginning to end as its own entity. There’s something catchy, something memorable about each of his tunes that stays with you. He also explains each tune, about where it came from; there’s one tune about the extinction of the tiger-wolf, so the audience can to connect to some of the more challenging sounds or concepts, but each piece paints a picture, creates a vibe or a mood. It’s not trite, and just looking at it from a concert or presenting perspective, it’s always evolving through the performance. It’s not just like playing a night of Thad Jones—

EH: —as awesome and as much fun as that is!

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Photo by Alice Zulkarnain

Photo by Alice Zulkarnain

Bassist and turntablist Zack Lober keeps a busy schedule in New York, backing up top jazz musicians like David Binney and Jamie Baum, playing with rockers like Adam Sullivan, or performing expert DJ sets (like at Governor’s Ball this Friday). But in between all these gigs, Zack has developed and honed an evening-length show that combines all his musical interests: The Ancestry Project.

The Ancestry Project tells the story of Lober’s grandfather, Hyman Herman, a longtime musician and bandleader in Montreal. Zack presented The Ancestry Project last May at The Jazz Gallery; definitely check out the Jazz Speaks interview with him here. We are proud to have Lober back again to perform this adventurous and moving work before he takes it on a tour of Canada this fall.

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Adam Larson performing in Kinshasa, Congo. Photo via www.musicinafrica.net

Adam Larson performing in Kinshasa, Congo. Photo via www.musicinafrica.net

Saxophonist Adam Larson has had a very busy spring. A few weeks ago, Larson returned to New York after a month-long tour through Africa sponsored by the US State Department. Larson and his group taught and performed in Kinshasa, Congo; Dakar, SenegalAccra, Ghana; and elsewhere. Since his return to the city, Larson has been hard at work preparing to record his next record, his first for Greg Osby’s Inner Circle Music label. He’s been working on charts, rehearsing with his top-flight band, and raising funds for the project through Indiegogo.

Larson and company will head into the famed Sear Sound Studio this Saturday, June 6th, but first, they will preview their new music at The Jazz Gallery on Friday the 5th. We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Larson by phone this week to hear about his African tour and what to expect on the new record.

The Jazz Gallery: So was this your first time in Africa?

Adam Larson: It was, yeah. We went to four different countries while we were there. It was a tour sponsored by the US State Department and it’s administered by an NGO called American Music Abroad who host auditions annually to find ten different groups to go out to all different places around the world. For 2014-2015, we were one of two jazz groups that got sent out.

TJG: When you hear State Department and jazz, it’s easy to think about those tours in the ’50s and ’60s with Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie that were used to promote American interests during the Cold War. I feel today that the purpose of this kind of trip is a little bit different, so what were the different kinds of things you did on tour in terms of performing or teaching?

AL: It was kind of amazing because one of the places where we got to work with local musicians in a masterclass/workshop kind of thing was at the Sorano Theater for the Arts, which is in Dakar, Senegal, and that’s where Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and a lot of other famous musicians on state department tours performed. So that was a really cool experience.

But with American Music Abroad, the idea is to do a lot of collaborations, so we worked with a lot of different age groups—kids as young as eight all the way through adults. We worked with some professional ensembles, some students. It was all about sharing the American jazz art form. I think probably all of the groups we worked with hadn’t heard swing or straight-ahead jazz, so that was cool to work with and expose people to American jazz.

We certainly learned a lot about the rhythmic traditions that inform so much of American jazz, since those all come from West Africa. It was incredible to be in the world where all that is sourced from. So much of the music we heard over there was rhythmically-driven, so it was eye-opening to be in that environment for five weeks.

TJG: Was there anything in particular that surprised you about your experience on tour?

AL: I think one thing that surprised me more than anything else was that nothing seemed to run on time! It was really difficult for the first week and a half before we could get adjusted to that.

But by and large, I think the audiences really enjoyed the music. You could see some confused faces when we were playing straight-ahead jazz. But I like to write a lot of different kinds of tunes, and I think I was able to present music in a way that an audience was able to get into it, even if they hadn’t heard anything quite like it before. A lot of times because of who we were working with, we would play the other musicians’ music instead of them playing ours. I had one tune that was percussion-based and so other players could jump right in and we could do it. It was an interesting experience of collaborating and compromising.

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