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Photo by Phil Knot.

Photo by Phil Knot.

2015 has been a big year for vocalist Sachal Vasandani—he released his fourth album as a leader featuring all original compositions, Slow Motion Miracles, on Sony’s Okeh imprint and followed that release with extensive touring around the world. Back home in New York this month, Sachal has been focusing on a different project, celebrating the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra. Earlier this month, Sachal performed this material at the Jazz Standard with a big band. But this Tuesday, December 22nd, he returns to The Jazz Gallery to perform more intimate versions of Sinatra’s classic repertoire, featuring an ace young trio of James Francies on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums.

We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Sachal by phone to hear about how he made his deftly-orchestrated new album, and how performing his own material live informs his approach to singing old standards.

The Jazz Gallery: Your latest album, Slow Motion Miracles (Okeh), is an amalgam of musical styles, including indie-hip-hop, pop, electronica, Afro-beat, and jazz. Could you talk a little bit about what inspired you to move into this new musical sound, a bit of a departure from a typical jazz record?

Sachal Vasandani: Sure, the inspiration just kind of came from allowing myself to lead with my pen. If I lead with my songwriting, then some different styles flow out, and they are a reflection of the styles that you mentioned, and more, you know? They are held together by melodies and lyrics that have a certain resonance at this time for me, so making a record that is led by that process is going to be a little bit different than one that is led by only my singing or only my interpreting other people’s music.

TJG: Do you want to share about your composition process? Do you have a specific way you go about writing your music? What does that look like for you?

SV: When I compose, I try to respond to inspiration from a few different sources.  One is melodies that stick in my head, and come from nowhere, really, they just stay with me.  Another is chords—chord progressions that I play that move in a certain way that just happen when I play the piano. Another is rhythm—they speak, they come into my head, that I want to respond to; and then another is lyric, different lyrical themes or ideas, often times just phrases or little words that stick in my head, or I repeat to myself, and I have a hard time getting away from them, although sometimes I want to, and so they come out in song. So I try to be ready for all those by kind of having the sheet music and a voice memo, and my logic on my computer and my piano handy, some combination of those handy so that I can flesh out ideas, and then the song is hatched you could say.  Then I start a long editing process, and I take the best of all those songs, which is a lot, and then I cut stuff out, and maybe add a few little things here there everywhere, and those end up being the songs that end up on the record.

TJG: You’ve been touring internationally a lot lately. What has the experience of touring been like for you? What’s something that you may have learned from touring?

SV: It’s just been a lot of fun, and it’s been diverse in terms of not just the places you’ve mentioned, but the opportunities, you know? I experienced a lot of those places for the first time this year. I had never been to, for example, Brazil, Finland, or Korea before, so that was new and fun. I think what’s really nice is just sharing music with people and seeing people respond, especially when I sing my new songs, or seeing people listen, and I have to say it’s a pretty great feeling, it’s pretty simple.

TJG: Do you have a fun/funny story from the tour you could share?

SV: Well just a recent experience is I did a gig at Mezzrow in New York, with Taylor Eigsti the pianist, and he’s played my music for a really, really long time, and he always finds new tempos and new harmonic elements to introduce to my songs, so I was really happy, I was almost laughing—I mean I didn’t because I had to sing, I mean it’s not so much funny like ha-ha, it’s funny like, this man is amazing and he’s been in my group now for a few years and he’s always finding new ways to attack music that I’ve written.  So there’s a song that I wrote from my first album, and Taylor plays it as a solo piece, and I said to the audience after, you know you got a guy building a mansion out of a composition that was basically built like a tin shack. So that’s how he played the song. It’s pretty awesome.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Praised by Downbeat Magazine as an artist full of composure and imagination, saxophonist and composer Dayna Stephens has been a rising yet vital force on the New York City jazz scene. Known for his vocalistic and syrupy saxophone tone, heart-rending melodic lines, and thought-massaging compositions, Stephens has collaborated with the leading lights in jazz from John Scofield and Al Foster to Aaron Parks and Gretchen Parlato, to name a few. His latest record, Reminiscent, features the dueling tenors of Stephens and Walter Smith III, and showcases several of Stephens’s original tunes.

The last six years have been difficult for Stephens. He suffers from a rare kidney disease called Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FGS) but after a long wait Stephens finally received a kidney transplant in October. Mr. Stephens has jumped immediately back into the jazz scene, and in the past two weeks, Stephens has played as a sideman on gigs with Gerald Clayton and Johnathan Blake.

Dayna Stephens’ show at the Jazz Gallery on December 19th will mark his first as a leader since the kidney transplant. It also will be a first look at a set of original music that Mr. Stephens has been working on with the young trumpeter Philip Dizack. Joining Stephens and Dizack at the Gallery will be pianist Theo Hill, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Jonathan Blake. Jazz Speaks was lucky enough to sit down and talk to Stephens about his musical process.

The Jazz Gallery: In an interview you did with the Jazz Speaks about a year ago, you said “I’ve been here in New York now for 10 years and have never had the same band twice at any of my gigs—sometimes on purpose, sometimes not.”  Tell me about this particular band that will be playing at the Gallery, and what your process is behind picking rhythm sections, and combinations of players.

Dayna Stephens: I did a session seven or eight years ago with Johnathan [Blake] and Harish [Raghavan] and I really enjoyed that hook-up. I played on a gig with Johnathan last week, and I knew he’d be in town, so I got him to play. And I knew Ben Street was going to be on his gig, and I didn’t want to have the same rhythm section. But I remembered that session we did eight years ago with Harish, and I thought “if Harish is down, that would be awesome!” And Phil [Dizack] was a given because Phil and I had been writing music together for the past year, so this show will give us a chance to introduce this music to the world. And I played in Theo [Hill]’s band before, and I really dig his energy. He obviously knows how to play the piano really well, but he’s also got a spark that I really appreciate.

TJG: I wanted to ask a little bit about your sound. Compared to other saxophonists, I hear a sweetness in the upper midrange going on that reminds me of the way that some vocalists sound. When you’re improvising, there’s a patience, sense of phrasing and melodic arc to your solos that reminds me of vocalists too. Are there certain vocalists that you’ve drawn inspiration from consciously?

DS: Weirdly enough, I think we JUST passed his hundredth birthday, but I love Sinatra, specifically for his phrasing, but also his sound. Sarah Vaughn has also been a huge influence on me. Even pop singers like Luther Vandross…Radiohead. I listened to those guys pretty heavily. It’s just that human quality of expressing music that I really appreciate.

And a part of that human quality is that you can’t sing if you don’t have any breath. So you have to be patient and be conscious of your breath. To be honest, during dialysis, I didn’t have as much breath as I do now, and it definitely affected my playing, my lung capacity, and my energy. And if you think about having to get through a whole gig…I don’t want to burn it all out on one tune. And I see that as a plus actually. Breath capacity is not something that a lot of guys my age are thinking about. But I was forced to think about phrasing in that very physical way. I feel like I have so much more energy now that my sound is starting to come back to the way it was, but how can you forget what you’ve learned during the last six years?

The thing is, I think space, in general is really important for whatever you’re doing….talking, building a building….you need that space to digest what you just did and think about what you’re going to do next, so that’s what I’m doing while I play. I digest what I just did and think about it for a second, and let that guide what I’m going to do next. The more time you give yourself between the phrases, the clearer the ideas are and the easier it is for people to digest. That’s kind of what I’m going for.

TJG: Do you do anything to center yourself while you play and get into a creative headspace?

DS: No, not really. Usually I try to get to the gig not long before I have to play, because I hate waiting around. I don’t have any rituals or anything like that. I’ve done a little bit of meditation, and checked out some thinkers like JK Krishnamurti and Eckhart Tolle that focus on ego suppression. They have some simple awareness techniques that I don’t necessarily do before the gig but just stay mindful of all the time. I basically try to be a beam of awareness, that’s observing everything. If you can be in that mindset, then it tempers all the crazy emotions that might bubble up!

TJG: I want to ask about the interplay between you and Walter Smith III record Reminiscent. It seems like you have a focus on counterpoint and contrapuntal lines when the two of you are melodically interacting on the record. There are a bunch of tracks on the record where Walter will be playing a melody, and you’ll be weaving around that. Do you write those lines or are you improvising?

DS: On that record, it’s a combination of things. There’s a tune of Walter’s called “Walt’s Waltz” He wrote the harmony lines that are on the head. But on “New Day”, I think on the head out, I play some harmony stuff. And then on Walter’s track “contrafact”, which is basically a contrafact of “Like Someone in Love,” I improvised everything on the head, honestly because the tune was so hard that I didn’t have time to learn it! So I just improvised that part on baritone saxophone. I went to college with Walter and I’ve admired his playing since then. We’ve been wanting to do a record together for a long time.

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Mark Guiliana performing on our stage, December 2014. Photo via youtube.com

Mark Guiliana performing on our stage, December 2014. Photo via youtube.com

For those of you who haven’t scored advance tickets to the opening of Star Wars this Friday evening, The Jazz Gallery is hosting an arguably just-as-powerful force: the drumming of Mark Guiliana. The past year has been a watershed for the drummer. First off, Guiliana put together his first all-acoustic band, released a pair of albums with them, and then toured internationally (with a couple of stops at the Gallery on the way).

Second, Guiliana has become an increasingly towering figure in the drumming world, having been named as one of the top 8 jazz drummers on the planet by Rhythm Magazine and hosting his first major clinic at the drumming mecca known as the Percussive Arts Society Annual Convention (PASIC).

And if that all wasn’t enough, Guiliana has been blasting his way through speakers and headphones around the world as the drummer for David Bowie’s newest record, Blackstar (along with the likes of saxophonist Donny McCaslin, keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and guitarist Ben Monder).

We at The Jazz Gallery are pleased to welcome Guiliana and his Jazz Quartet back to our stage once again—a return to the launching pad, if you will, for this powerful and endlessly versatile drummer. (more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Like many of New York’s top jazz pianists today (including Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, and James Francies), Helen Sung grew up in Houston, Texas and attended the Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSVPA). However, Sung’s journey to playing jazz in New York is quite a bit different than those other alums’. Sung played exclusively classical piano through high school and most of college, before a Harry Connick, Jr. concert changed her musical direction. Sung would go on to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute at New England Conservatory and later settled in New York in 1999.

Since then, Sung has released six albums as a leader on Fresh Sound, Sunnyside, Steeplechase, and Concord, and has kept up a busy schedule of sidewoman work with the likes of Clark Terry, Steve Turre, Regina Carter, and Terri Lynne Carrington. Sung’s latest project is a collaboration with the poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia. Supported by a “New Jazz Works” grant from Chamber Music American and the Doris Duke Foundation, Sung and her group will premiere this work at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, December 17th. We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Sung by phone this week to discuss the origins and challenges of her exciting and expansive project.

The Jazz Gallery: What’s keeping you busy these days?

Helen Sung: I was on the road for two weeks, and I’m just back home after playing a gig last night. It was a great gig with the saxophonist Scott Robinson and bassist Rufus Reid at The Kitano. And then, this Chamber Music of America project, trying to finish everything. There’s so much more to it than the music. The peripheral stuff. We’ve been working with Revive Music, making videos and other things. There’s so much to do, and I’m always learning. Sometimes I joke that this is my “continuing education.”

TJG: So this work you’re bringing to the gallery is called Sung With Words. Could you tell me a little about the project?

HS: It’s something I’ve been tinkering with in the back of my mind for a while, ever since I met the poet, my collaborative partner, Dana Gioia. He was the former chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts under George W. Bush. I was playing a performance at the White House, which they were taping live for PBS. They had a state dinner right before, and I happened to be seated next to him. We started talking, and he was interested that I liked to read, especially science fiction. We talked about my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury and Orson Scott Card. So we became friends, and he would send me his works.

TJG: How did the collaboration begin?

HS: I remember telling him that I felt a little intimidated by poetry because I could never be sure of the meaning. I felt like I was the only person in the room who “didn’t get it.” I feel like Gioia has the same gift for poetry that Wynton Marsalis has for jazz. He makes it really accessible and interesting for the layperson. He told me not to worry about literal meaning, or any other kind of meaning. Poetry is musical, and should be read out loud, to get a sense of the rhythm and sounds of the words, and then the meaning will come. This inspired me to read poetry a little more. I began to wonder, what if I set certain lines of poetry to music? That helped illuminate the poem for me, and started an interest in writing songs with words.

I’d been fascinated by the relationship that singers have with the audience, because they have words and they use their voice. Whereas, I’m an instrumentalist and am dealing exclusively with sound. So, I had an envy for singers, thinking “Gosh, that must be really cool to actually tell the audience a story.” That all came together through the Chamber Music of America grant, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. They have a wonderful grant program called “New Jazz Works,” and Dana and I had been talking about writing songs together. So I asked Dana, and we decided to write a jazz song-cycle together. I was lucky enough to receive the grant in 2014, and Sung with Words was officially formed.

It’s been a cool experience to have a hand in crafting the words. Sometimes it was simply taking a phrase, maybe from a conversation with a friend, and using it as a seed and setting it to music, or sending a melody or phrase along to Dana.

TJG: Could you give us an example of some of those “seed” lines?

HS: Sure. For example, he wrote a poem called ‘Too Bad.” Dana consciously shortened the lines of his poem, inspired by a song I had written. The poem has just a couple of words per line. Poems can be wordy, but when you consider singing or melody, I really didn’t want these songs to sound like vocalises. I wanted to write songs that were hummable and singable, and fun to listen to. Another example; A friend and I were having a conversation, and one of us said “You just need to say what you mean, and mean what you say.” So, Dana wrote a poem called “Mean What You Say.”

TJG: You mentioned that when you first met Dana, he re-inspired you to read more poetry. What poets did you reach for during that time?

HS: I read his poems, of course. I remember reading Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Edith Wharton, Robert Friend, Billy Collins. I’m sure there were more. Stephen Dunn is another one.

TJG: And in terms of the melodics and sonics of these poems, who really resonated with you as you began collaborating with Dana?

HS: I remember the first time I heard Dana read one of his poems live, I had never seen a poet read their own work out loud before. Most of the poets I was reading were either no longer alive, or I didn’t know them personally. So I was blown away by the experience. It’s theatrical, musical, such a performance. That was my main inspiration. Hearing him read my own work was so different then reading it off the page.

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Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Mary Halvorson drew acclaim this year for her album Meltframe (Firehouse 12), in which she explored a varied set of songs on solo guitar. But her setup at the Jazz Gallery on Dec. 15 and 16 will feature seven additional musicians. “It’s pretty drastically different,” Halvorson said, laughing, by phone. “I went from the smallest group I’ve ever done something with to the largest group.”

These concerts will mark the public debut of the Mary Halvorson Octet, which features many of Halvorson’s longtime collaborators, including those that make up her trio (Ches Smith on drums, John Hebert on bass), quintet (Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone), septet (Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone and Jacob Garchik on trombone), and finally, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. Excerpts from our conversation with her are below.

The Jazz Gallery: What does this group signify, and what will it sound like?

Mary Halvorson: I started with a trio, then I added two people and made a quintet, then added two more people to make a septet, now I’m adding one more person, Susan Alcorn, to make an octet. I’m thinking about this as an extension of those other bands. The idea was basically to integrate her sound into the existing septet and see what happens. So I wrote a whole new book of music with her in mind.

TJG: What will she add to the group?

MH: I heard her over the years in a few different contexts, was always completely blown away by what she does, and by the instrument itself. It’s such an unusual and beautiful sound. It has some resemblance to a guitar, obviously, but it has this whole other element: crazy sustain and a beautiful tone and an enormous range.

TJG: Have you ever played a pedal steel guitar?

MH: Once I did at my friend’s house. I felt like a kid in a candy store. It’s that amazing feeling you only get when you play an instrument that’s not your regular instrument. It’s just so beautiful and also so complicated, with all the knee levers and foot pedals and the guitar neck.

TJG: It’s a pretty full-sounding instrument. Are you worried about cluttering up the sound of the group at all?

MH: The music is pretty dense. That’s something I’ve been thinking about. I enjoy the density, but while I’ve been writing, I try to be aware of leaving space and having moments where smaller configurations of people can play. And also for surprise: for things to come out that aren’t necessarily on the page. We’re gonna get together on Saturday for the first time and work pretty intensively until the performances. I don’t really know what it sounds like yet [laughs].

TJG: You have extensive history with all of these musicians. Was there an instant connection from the first time you heard them?

MH: All of them are friends of mine, all people I hang out with and really like. That’s important to me: to have a group of people that I trust. Also, people that have a wide range of what they can do musically. Some of this stuff is on the complex side of written material, and some of it is pretty free and open. Some of it has changes, some of it doesn’t. I try to choose people that I felt can navigate between these different zones.

TJG: Did the work you did in 2015, specifically Meltframe, feel like an extension or a break from your previous work?

MH: Doing the solo record was a pretty drastic departure from what I normally do. That felt really nice. I never played solo before I started doing that project. It was definitely difficult and continues to be a learning experience. It’s also very intense. When I do those gigs, I’d be practicing a lot leading up them. 

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