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Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist.

It’s hard to find a combination of forward-thinking jazz musicians that Tomas Fujiwara hasn’t played with—he’s relentless in his experimentation with sounds, compositions and ensembles. Fujiwara brings a brand new group to The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday and Thursday: a double trio with Ralph Alessi & Taylor Ho Bynum on horns, Mary Halvorson & Brandon Seabrook on guitars, and himself and Gerald Cleaver on drums.

Following this gig, the band will then immediately head into the studio to record their debut album on Firehouse 12 (here’s the Indiegogo campaign). The group includes some of his closest compatriots: he appears with Halvorson in groups like the Hook Up, Thumscrew, and Code Girl; he has a working trio with Alessi and Seabrook; and he shares a duo project with Bynum. But bringing these players together presents a whole other challenge. We talked to him about the upcoming show—here are excerpts from that interview.

The Jazz Gallery: The phrase ‘double trio’ might be misleading, because it hints at two separate entities. Are you writing songs for two trios, or one six person group?

Tomas Fujiwara: More as six voices and six distinct musical personalities. I like the fact that while each instrument is doubled, the approach to those instruments couldn’t be more different. I really have each player’s sound in my head very clearly. So when I write I can really hear how each one will play a particular piece of a composition. I’ve been trying to think about and utilize all the solo, duo, trio, quartet, options in an orchestrational and improvisational way.

TJG: So for instance, did you write two guitar parts, or one part specifically for Brandon and one for Mary?

TF: I wrote specific parts for everyone. There will be a lot of multiple ensembles happening. Maybe a duo is playing one section while a trio is playing another—and the sixth person is improvising.

TJG: Can you give me an example of how you play to a certain musician’s strength?  

TF: It’s not only their strengths; it’s also trying to challenge them. There might be things that sound very Brandon, and there might be other things I give him that may not. I want to see how he deals with that. I definitely don’t want to give anyone the role of just “this person.”

TJG: How much have you played alongside other drummers, and what have you learned from those experiences?

TF: I’ve done it a few times: in Living By Lanterns with Mike Reed; with Jim Black; and in a large ensemble piece with Joshua Abrams. I learned that if the other drummer is good and open and creative and into the idea of playing together, it’s always going to be a lot of fun. I haven’t experienced any challenges in terms of conflicting approaches or aesthetic dogma or time.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

This weekend, The Jazz Gallery is excited to welcome bassist Linda Oh back to our stage. Ms. Oh last appeared at the Gallery this past April with her quartet, Sun Pictures. We spoke with her then about new compositions and playing in new bands (like Pat Metheny’s quartet), as well as how her perspective as a female jazz instrumentalist informs her work as a teacher.

This week, Oh returns with a sprawling new project—a double quartet called Aventurine. Aventurine is a kind of quartz that glistens and shimmers in the light, which is an apt descriptor for the kinds of multifaceted instrumental textures Oh is working with in this group. One side of the double quartet features a group of adventurous improvisers (and bandleaders in their own rights), including pianist Matt Mitchell, saxophonist Greg Ward, and drummer Ches Smith. The other side of the group is a string quartet featuring violinists Sara Caswell and Fung Chern Hwei, violist Benni Von Gutzeit, and cellist Jeremy Harman. In her compositions for the group, Oh both plays these instrumental forces off each other and brings them together, creating distinct music that is more than the sum of its parts. Before coming to the Gallery this weekend, check out how the band has been sounding in rehearsal in the video below.

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Photo by Larisa Lopez.

Photo by Larisa Lopez.

This Friday, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome saxophonist Román Filiú back to our stage. Over the past year, Filiú has continued to stretch himself both as a leader and sideman. He’s led performances with long-running groups like Ouroboros and Musae, as well as newer projects, like his lithe chamber trio with cellist Christopher Hoffman and drummer Craig Weinrib. As a sideman, Filiú appeared on Henry Threadgill’s newest record Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi), a stunning tribute to the great composer-conductor Butch Morris (which also featured masseurs Weinrib and Hoffman).

This Friday at the Gallery, Filiú will bring yet another project to our stage—Quarteria. This group features some heavy rhythmic propulsion from the rhythm team of drummer Damion Reid and percussionist Yusnier Sanchez, as well as many of Filiú’s regular collaborators, including tenor saxophonist Maria Grand and pianist David Bryant. Before checking out this exciting group at the Gallery, watch this video of Filiú and Ouroboros at the Gallery from earlier this year.


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Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Percussionist, composer, and improviser Rajna Swaminathan is a trailblazer in the fields of South Indian traditional music and beyond. Not only is Swaminathan one of only a few female mrudangam players in the world, she has expanded her art to encompass diverse forms of improvisation. Over the past several years, Swaminathan has been exploring this netherworld between musical styles with her group RAJAS, which features a rotating cast of top New York improvisers. This week, Swaminathan and RAJAS will make their debut at The Jazz Gallery, performing two sets of music. We caught up with her last week to hear about how she thinks about combining different musical traditions and the complex gender politics of her varied musical communities.

The Jazz Gallery: You have performed in classical South Indian concerts, with different jazz musicians, and with dance and theatre companies.  How does your foundational background in South Indian Carnatic music affect the way you approach working with dance groups, and jazz and other creative improvisational settings?

Rajna Swaminathan: The dance company that I work with is called Ragamala, and they are a South Indian dance company.  There is a branch of carnatic music that is used to accompany Bharatanatyam which is the South Indian dance style. So in that case it’s pretty much seamless, it is using the vocabulary that is traditionally used, but they also do a lot of collaborative projects with different genres of music.  So for those productions, it involves some more creative thinking, using a foundation in Carnatic music. And depending on who’s the collaborator—like, we’ve worked with Taiko drummers before, there was one project with Rudresh Mahanthappa, so that was jazz, and the most recent one was with Amir ElSaffar composing, so he brought some stuff from the Maqam tradition. So it just involves months of trying to figure out musically what’s going to work.  Also, dancers have a very specific relationship with my instrument, mrudangam, with the specific footwork in South Indian dance, so we have to try to work the music for that to match up and also to be musically somewhat seamless.

As far as the jazz scene, I’ve been a little more intensely involved over the past few years, since about 2011 I would say. I started working with Steve Coleman, so he was the first person to get me thinking outside of my perspective. There’s a kind of fusion that happens when people are just playing what they would normally play in their traditions, almost like autopilot, tracking against each other, but he was against that approach. He was like, you really have to learn how to think polyrhythmically if you’re going to be playing with jazz musicians. And there are some related concepts in South Indian music, but it involves some work and rewiring and it’s mostly been work on listening, and being able to hear.

South Indian music is so linear.  There’s usually a singer, mrudangam player, and violinist, and you’re usually expected to match each other and mirror each other almost phrase for phrase, anticipating what the other person is going to do. So the emphasis isn’t really on this polyphonic sound at all. For me to even get into the jazz scene, I had to be able to hear multiple things going on that are complementary to each other, but not in one stream of musical thought. So it required some work, directly working with Steve, and some other folks on the scene, like Vijay Iyer. At first I was just curious about this music, and I spent my undergrad studying anthropology, so I got some research funding to actually spend a Summer in New York and do field work. During that summer I got together with several drummers and musicians all in this creative music scene, went out to listen to a lot of music—a lot at the Jazz Gallery actually—just to get this music in my body, because I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of jazz, and I was very interested in learning more and being a part of the scene.

It’s really become like a home for me. I still do traditional Carnatic music gigs every once and a while, I travel to India and do that, and I’m obviously involved with the dance company, but this has been another way for me to feel at home in music, in the creative music scene. Of course, not everyone is looking for a mrudangam player, so at first it was hard to find work, and find situations where people were willing to spend the time and really write parts that made sense for me, or had the time to work on it, how would you fit a mrudangam into this context. So in 2013 I started this band, with the idea that I would write my own music, and I would try to curate my own group so that I could experiment with how I would carve out a space for myself in the creative music scene, like how would I structure things. It was just a way of running through different ideas and working with musicians that I really resonated with, and try to learn in the process. This ensemble that I have now has been three years of working with different configurations and learning the whole time, how to come from the foundation that I started with, and bring it into this completely different scene, with different sensibilities and aesthetics.

TJG: Can you talk a little bit about how you approach composition with your group RAJAS, which is a very cross-cultural improvisation based group?

RS: So basically every time there has been a slightly different instrumentation, but this particular group, we’ve been playing together for the past year or so, and I find that it’s been a really solid group of people, and compositionally it ends up reflecting who’s in the band. I compose these sort of frameworks, more or less, melodic, and to some extent harmonic and rhythmic frameworks, and it’s not so much a traditional jazz composition to play through everything and have these set solo sections, but the whole thing is like this world that you can enter, and everyone is expected to collectively improvise. It’s highly textural and involves a lot of rehearsal and finding those spaces that work best for different instruments and different people. And as I’ve been doing more shows with the group, it influences how I write, and how I direct them, and get directed by them. And I’ve worked in the past with folks like Amir ElSaffar, and Miles and Stephan, who are in this group, and they’re  all senior musicians that have a lot of experience not only in their field, but also collaborating outside their field. Miles actually has a lot of experience with South Indian rhythms, so that’s a great anchoring force in the group. I’ve been learning a lot in terms of not just composing but also curating improvisation within the group, which I think is where the focus is really at in my band.

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Photo via Okay Player

Photo via Okay Player

Just under two months ago, the Blue Note opened a new jazz club in Bejing. Pianist Chick Corea was invited to inaugurate the space with an opening concert, and he performed in a duo setting with drummer Marcus Gilmore. Reporting on the show, Nate Chinen of the New York Times noted that Mr. Gilmore “…almost reduced the stage to rubble.”

Members of The Jazz Gallery family are intimately familiar with this feeling. Whether playing with Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, or one of his many other projects, Marcus Gilmore has always left his mark on the Gallery stage. This weekend, we are proud to welcome Gilmore back to our stage for two nights of shows that put his unparalleled drumming on full display. Each night, he’ll be playing solo and with longtime friend-pianist David Virelles in a duo setting. And on Friday, the pair will be joined by special guest saxophonist Yosvanny Terry. Before coming out to see Gilmore and friends play some more earth-shaking small-group music, check out his performance with the Mark Turner Quartet from this past summer’s Chicago Jazz Festival.

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