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Darcy James Argue's Secret Society performing Real Enemies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 2015. Photo by Noah Stern Weber.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society performing Real Enemies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 2015. Photo by Noah Stern Weber.

As The Jazz Gallery heads into 2016, it still has a few special 20th Anniversary Concerts in store. The first one, happening this weekend, features the return of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society to our stage. The Gallery was an early supporter of the band’s work, commissioning Argue’s pieces “Jacobin Club” and “Obsidian Flow” as part of our 2008-2009 Large Ensemble Residency.

Argue’s most recent project, a multimedia theater piece about conspiracy theories called Real Enemies, premiered this past November at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to much acclaim. Secret Society will perform music from this project, as well as other unrecorded works, at The Gallery this weekend. We spoke with Mr. Argue this week about the musical structures undergirding Real Enemies, documenting the piece in the studio, and the elemental attraction of live performance.

The Jazz Gallery: To get started, I was checking out an interview that you did with Brian Pace where you discussed the big band as an “out of date” technology, and therefore as a prime source for continuous innovation, evolution, and repurposing. Could you elaborate on how the big band serves as a continuous source of inspiration for you?

Darcy James Argue: The thing about having a big band in this day and age is that you really do have to be a complete lunatic to want to make music this way. The practical considerations are insane, in terms of getting people in the room for a rehearsal, organizing them for the gig, and having them walk away from the gig with slightly more money than when they walked into it. We’re gearing up not just for this weekend at The Jazz Gallery, but also for a recording session the following week. And the logistics of that are complex: there aren’t that many big recording studios left in New York. You need a space big enough for the sound to bloom and go places. You need isolation booths for the drums, bass, and soloists. So it’s not something where you can just set up a laptop and microphone in your apartment and record.

Any rational person looking at this set of circumstances would simply say, “That is a totally ridiculous and impractical way of making music. I should focus on my duo project.” And certainly with today’s technology of computers and samplers and looping effects and sequencers, you can generate some big sounds from just two people. So it takes a kind of maniacal devotion to acoustic music to be that devoted to writing music for people blowing into tubes. You’re trying to overcome all of these incredible financial and logistical hurdles in order to create this sound of literally eighteen people’s air coming at you.

TJG: So given all of these insane limitations, how does the form continuously motivate you?

DJA: The sound that you get when you’re standing in front of those eighteen players and you can hear the whole picture and it’s hitting you in a massive wave of air… It’s addictive. So when it’s going well, it really is the best feeling in the world. I hope it’s a great feeling for the people listening to the music as well, especially in a more intimate space like The Jazz Gallery. There’s something special about being in a small room with a large band that you can’t get under other circumstances.

TJG: Getting the people together and making the project happen is in itself a huge hurdle. So what is it exactly about that acoustic, immersive sound that speaks to you?

DJA: I’m not sure it’s something I can really put into words. There is something ineffable about it. Certainly there are all the timbral, coloristic, structural choices available to you with a large ensemble, but many of those choices would still be available if you were working with a laptop. So it’s a matter of figuring out that x-factor.

You can also see the means of musical production. They are right there in front of you. There’s no instrument more obvious than the trombone [laughs]. You can see the slide moving, and there’s a direct and visceral connection between the gesture the player is making and the sound that you are hearing. That’s not a connection you’d get from watching someone type a command into their Max/MSP patch on a laptop. It feels a bit like a sort of ancient magic when you have all those acoustic instruments working together.

I try to make unexpected sounds as well: strange combinations of instruments or mutes, timbres and textures that maybe people haven’t heard before, and I really try to use instruments in coloristic and novel ways to generate sounds that are mysterious. Maybe a listener won’t quite know how the alchemy is happening, but they can try to piece it together by looking up at the band. If you hear an intriguing sound you can watch and say, ‘Oh, that’s a bass trombone with a bucket mute, playing together with a piccolo,’ for example.

TJG: Given that The Jazz Gallery performances won’t have multimedia, and in many cases the music and media for Brooklyn Babylon and Real Enemies were conceived together, how do you feel about splitting them up in a case where the full presentation isn’t possible?

DJA: So with Brooklyn Babylon, and with the more recent multimedia project Real Enemies, there was some serious staging involved—screens, lights, costumes, and so on. Those are big multimedia pieces. We’re not able to do that at The Jazz Gallery, because it’s a small space. But with Real Enemies, which we’ll be recording afterwards, for release this fall on New Amsterdam Records, as with Brooklyn Babylon, the music stands on its own. You know, in the way that Stravinsky’s music stands on its own when you listen to any of his ballets. There’s one experience, which is kind of visually and sonically overwhelming, deliberately so. But the music also works in concert—we performed it at Stanford last fall—and that affords the audience a chance to focus more exclusively on musical elements, and have a different and, I think, equally rewarding type of experience. It’s satisfying to play a more intimate venue like The Jazz Gallery and present the music in that smaller space, where people can focus on the individual musicians and really get a vivid sense of all of the intricate details of the music that might get lost in a larger production.

TJG: I think that’s a great sentiment. This New York Times article on Brooklyn Babylon ended with this sentence: “Even if Brooklyn Babylon has a future life through interactive technology, the live performance will be its irreducible identity.” Since you’re going into the studio to record Real Enemies, what do you think there is to be gained from this interactive technology of recording? What can we gain in distancing ourselves from the live performance?

DJA: In the case of recording, it’s obviously a document of the musical work. It allows people who weren’t at BAM—or who aren’t able to make it to The Jazz Gallery—to hear this music. Real Enemies is a work that I’m very proud of. It’s music I’ve been working on for the last couple of years, and I’m excited about going in and, in a detailed and focused way, getting it all on tape.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Something very pastoral and naturalistic occurs when Rudy Royston drums. Rather than simply conversing with the soloist, Royston creates a flowing stream of rhythm to swim in and interact with. His sound is tactile, meditative, joyful, and always flowing.

Since moving to New York City from Denver in 2006, Royston has utilized this unique approach to the drum set to firmly establish himself as a first-call sideman. Royston has made a name for himself working in the bands of luminaries such as Dave Douglas, Javon Jackson, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Ben Allison, Bill Frisell, and JD Allen. After one performance with JD Allen, Tony Hall of Jazzwise magazine said “in a way, he is to JD what Elvin was to Coltrane.” An associate and sometimes-bandmate of Denver cornetist Ron Miles, Royston has been heavily influenced by the compositional style and wide-open approach to texture that Miles has pioneered.

2014 saw the release of Royston’s first album as a bandleader, 303, which was released on Greenleaf Records. Titled after his Denver area code, this album showcased Royston’s diverse compositional skills, and featured tunes that ranged from impressionistic tone poems to rock ballads to hard-burning and cerebral swingers. On this record, Royston turned to left-of-center jazz musicians with an experimentalist bent like Jon Irabagon, Sam Harris, and Nir Felder to help realize his conception.

On January 28th, Royston will debut a new band at the Jazz Gallery called “Cold Moon Road.” This band is made up of many of Rudy’s friends and collaborators from Ben Allison’s band “Man Size Safe,” including Michael Blake on Saxophone, Steve Cardenas on Guitar, and Ben Allison on bass. Added to the mix is Hank Roberts on cello, who Royston has played with on a variety of Bill Frisell’s projects. Allison’s own compositional milieu is certainly rock-influenced, but also has a certain melodic softness, impressionistic beauty, and a pastoral folksiness that Rudy’s drumming style compliments beautifully. Be sure to catch this band, playing Rudy’s compositions here at the Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 28th. (more…)

NATURAL PERCEPTION (Enja Records, 2015)

Natural Perception (Enja Records, 2015)

Tenor saxophonist Tobias Meinhart moved to New York City in 2009, having already worked professionally for several years on the jazz scene in Germany and across Europe. Over the course of the past six or so years, Meinhart has been busy splitting his time between New York and Europe, but over that time completed a Master’s Degree from the Aaron Copland School of Music, where he studied with Antonio Hart, John Ellis, and Seamus Blake, and recorded four albums: Pursuit of Happiness (Doublemoon, 2010), Live at Getxo Jazz Festival (Errebal Records, 2012), In Between (Doublemoon, 2014), and his latest album, Natural Perception (Enja Records, 2015).

Much of the music on the album was inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Spiritual Journey, which led Meinhart to focus on composing music with the emotional and spiritual in mind. To that end, he composed melodies by singing them first without an external instrument, a technique which he gleaned from studying composition with bassist Alexis Cuadrado, incidentally also a 2012 Residency Commission recipient.

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Roxana Amed & Emilio Solla. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Roxana Amed & Emilio Solla. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Singer-songwriter Roxana Amed and pianist Emilio Solla hail from Argentina, but have recently taken up residency in the United States—Amed in Miami and Solla in Brooklyn. Their respective boundary-crossing music reflects their personal journeys, drawing from traditional Argentinian music and American jazz alike.

Amed’s voice is rich and lyrical, and she showcases well on the song “Nosotros Dos” in the video below.

Solla has been leading his large ensemble La Inestable de Brooklyn for over a decade now, concocting deeply-textured music that marries tango with contemporary post-bop improvisation. Check out the videos of the group playing at The Jazz Standard a few years ago.

The Jazz Gallery is pleased the present Ms. Amed and Mr. Solla for the first time on our stage this Wednesday, January 20th. Come out for an intimate evening of songs from Argentina and beyond. (more…)

Photo by Josh Goleman.

Photo by Josh Goleman.

Ben Wendel, perhaps best known for his bold and forward-thinking group Kneebody, has been hard at work for the last two years on a project of ambitious scope. The Seasons is Wendel’s tribute to twelve musical collaborators and friends, including such heavy-hitters as Jeff Ballard, Julian Lage, and Mark Turner. The project unfolds in a series of twelve duets, released monthly as immersive videos over the course of 2015. Wendel’s facility as a composer, saxophonist, and bassoonist shines throughout the project’s 12 movements.

Wendel will be performing the compositions of the project, arranged for quintet, at The Jazz Gallery later this Friday and Saturday, January 22nd and 23rd. While Wendel wrote extensively about the project on his website, we spoke with him via phone to uncover more details of the project, starting with its earliest conceptions.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve written that you were inspired by Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons. In Tchaikovsky’s composition, each movement has a sort of programmatic element to it, to capture the ebb and flow of a year. What kind of overarching themes did you incorporate in your approach to this project?

Ben Wendel: The priorities were to write pieces that somehow honored each guest and that spoke to their musical spirit. The main priority was to write to what I heard in their specific musicianship and artistry. As I started to write and develop the pieces, there were certain moods that I felt in each piece. I’d begin to ask myself, What month does this feel like to me? For example, some people think of December and think of the holidays and of an upbeat spirit. For me, December, and wintertime in general, is a time for reflection at the end of the year. “December” is an example of where I deviated from Tchaikovsky’s vision. His interpretation of December is entitled “Noël” and has a holiday theme. It’s very cheerful. When I wrote the piece for Ambrose [Akinmusire], I was thinking first and foremost about Ambrose and the feeling and mood I get from his playing. I secondarily thought that his mood of reflection matched my vision of December.

TJG: So how did that sentiment of December as a month of reflection go forward to inform how you composed for and played with Ambrose? Did you talk about it beforehand?

BW: I’ve got a mini-blog on each piece on my website, and I wrote a bit about what I was thinking when I wrote the piece for him. By the time I did Ambrose’s piece, I had done all eleven other pieces, so I was starting to feel like I had a rhythm, in terms of writing a piece that fit the artistry of the guest and the sentiment of the month. “December” was also the only piece that was recorded in the same month it was released (December, 2015). In that sense, I had a chance to write this piece for Ambrose and think about how I wanted the ending of this series to feel. I was happy to see that that one struck an emotional chord with a lot of people. A lot of that has to do with Ambrose, he has this power and mood that translate through music.


TJG: Chronology is an important aspect of The Seasons; what’s the significance for you of having your duet with Taylor Eigsti represent “January”? How does it set the tone for the rest of the project?

BW: As I said, each piece was different in this respect. I thought of January as the beginning of the year. I thought of motion, of things starting anew. I was thinking about Taylor and the way he plays; there’s a part of how he plays that really speaks to my upbringing. His technique reminds me of a classical approach. So, I was considering all of these things while writing for him.

Another good example is the piece I wrote for Julian Lage. When I thought of Julian, before I even thought of anything technical that he does on guitar, I mostly thought of his personality. When I think of him, I think of sunlight. He has such a bright personality. So before I even wrote a note for Julian, I imagined that piece would probably be a summer month.

It’s not totally easy to get into hyper-specifics with each month. And I didn’t always stick with this thought process. For example, “April,” which I wrote about in my blog, has a little bit of an inside joke: It’s a loose contrafact of “I’ll Remember April.” Some other of the tunes had little hidden designs that correspond to the month. “September” with Jeff Ballard is based off of a tune called “Gazzelloni” from Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch. Again, I wrote more specifically about how we improvised the piece on the project’s blog.

TJG: To follow up on “January,” could you talk a little about your harmonic concept and the melodic twists and turns in this piece?

BW: It’s hard to say in words, but I’ll try. When I think of Taylor’s playing, I think of clean lines and clear harmonies. There’s a certain kind of crystal clarity in the way he plays and harmonically expresses himself. When I was thinking of writing for him, right away I thought of something that would have a slight classical lope to it, but that would also be harmonically clear in a certain sense. I even think I saw white keys in my head. I thought: C major [laughs]. In general, how I write is very much in the spirit of classical composers. I try to use the absolute minimal amount of melodic material, and try to stretch it in as many ways as possible throughout the course of the piece. So “January” has at most three ideas, maybe even just two ideas. There’s a figure that goes ‘da-Dah, da-Dah’ which can be found throughout the piece, in the bassline, melody, solos. And the other idea is just dotted quarter notes. I was looking for a certain simplicity. I like to experiment with a complex use of simple things.


TJG: So with regard to Matt Brewer’s “March,” you wrote on your blog that you were thinking of “the lonely mood of the Douglass Music venue and what might sound beautiful in that space.” What made that space lonesome, and how did you incorporate that into the music?

BW: The Douglass space is one of those classic Brooklyn spaces, one that probably has a long and sordid history, and you can kinda just feel it, you can see it in the walls and in the floor. You can feel the history. There’s a certain loneliness. And you bring up a good point: The third factor that influenced me while writing these pieces, after the artist and the month, was the actual space we’d be recording in. Sometimes I’d write the piece and try to find a perfect space, but other times I knew what the space was going to be, like the Douglass space. I imagined playing in that space, and tried to understand how that space spoke to me.

TJG: The Seasons has a huge diversity of spaces, from churches and studios to living rooms.

BW: That the plan from the start: I wanted each space to be different.

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