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Melissa Aldana and Glenn Zaleski. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This week, Melissa Aldana and Glenn Zaleski return to The Jazz Gallery this week with their powerhouse sextet. The ensemble features a fluctuating personnel and an evolving set of original tunes. It’s a crucible for experimentation and musical growth, with members contributing new music and arrangements at each show. Aldana and Zaleski are no strangers to the Gallery, having performed here plenty of times with a wide array of projects. In anticipation of their two-night stint with the sextet, featuring Philip Dizack [trumpet], Alex LoRe [alto sax], Craig Weinrib [drums], and Pablo Menares [bass], we called Zaleski and Aldana to talk about the origins and development of the sextet project.

The Instrumentation

Melissa Aldana: I proposed a sextet to Glenn because it’s a form I love. The idea came from me wanting to hear some different sounds while performing. I’m so used to playing trio, which really pushes you to grow. But now I’m ready to experiment with new things. The sextet is a challenge, an opportunity to get together, talk, and grow collectively. We’ve all been writing, reharmonizing, exploring. Every time I play with the sextet, it’s an opportunity for something new.

Glenn Zaleski: In every new version of the sextet, we’ve each played with each other before, but often only in duo or trio settings. I play with Craig [Weinrib] in my trio, I might play with Pablo [Menares] in Melissa’s band, might play with Philip [Dizack] in Lucas Pino’s nonet, and so on. When there are six people who are all loosely connected but don’t always literally play together, there’s a lot of potential energy. The unique thing about this sextet is having a group of like-minded people who wouldn’t usually be together at the same time. It’s exciting, there’s a lot of energy to explore, and it only ever gets better. The repertoire of the sextet grows as we incorporate more people to try this music.

Connection and Contribution

MA: The first gig Pablo and I did together was when Randy Brecker went to Chile. Somebody set up a tour, and Pablo was there. That was the first time we actually played together, I was fourteen or fifteen. We’ve known each other for many years. There was an age difference, so we weren’t friends when I was young. But when I was at Berklee, he came to Boston to visit, and we became good friends. We’ve been playing in a trio for many years now.

GZ: We’re doing one of Pablo’s tunes, “En Otro Lugar,” a tune I’ve played with Pablo and Melissa a bunch of times. It’s a staple in Melissa’s book. It’s a really beautiful tune, and I’m always happy to play it. I contributed the tune “Fellowship,” from my upcoming record. My first two years of college were at the Brubeck Institute Fellowship program in California, 2005-2007. A decade later, the 2015 fellowship quintet asked me to be a special guest for a concert at Dizzy’s. That was a big honor. I wanted to write something for them to commemorate the occasion, and ended up with something introspective, complex in a slow way. I kept “Fellowship” alive, played it on the record, then decided to arrange it for sextet.

MA: I love Glenn’s playing. He’s one of those players with huge ears. He’s always himself in the sextet, but completely adapts to the situation. Hearing Glenn play, he’s a beautiful musician with a wide sense of space. As a horn player, that’s one of the things I love. So much freedom for me to explore and feel supported. Beautiful harmony, truly organic.

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Photo courtesy of the artists.

Dan Tepfer was just twenty-five years old when, after listening to Duplicity by Lee Konitz and pianist Martial Solal, he was seized by the desire to meet Konitz himself. He asked Solal for Lee’s number, called him up, and booked a session. The chemistry between Konitz and Tepfer was immediate, and a duo took flight. They premiered their work at The Jazz Gallery, and eventually released Duos with Lee on Sunnyside Records in 2009. A second album is forthcoming later this year, marking nearly a decade of sustained musical dialogue.

Fifty-five years apart, Konitz and Tepfer are a remarkable pair. Whether riding in a tour bus across France singing Lester Young solos or sharing lunch uptown near Lee’s apartment, the two have built a musical friendship founded on trust, mutual admiration, and exploration. In every sense, they are kindred spirits.

With two sets on Friday and Saturday, you’ll have plenty of time to get comfortable at The Gallery and experience the art of the duet. Over two separate phone interviews, Konitz and Tepfer discussed how they challenge each other on the bandstand, the joys of playing in harmony, and the intangible element of surprise.

The Jazz Gallery: Dan, could you tell me a little about the development of your duo with Lee?

Dan Tepfer: I’ve had the privilege of playing with Lee for almost a decade. In 2009, Lee was 81 years old, and we released our first duo record. Now, 2017 is a special year: We’re putting out a new duo record on Impulse in September, and Lee turns 90 in October. Working on this record, I realized what a gift it is to have maintained a musical relationship. Lee and I have toured all over the world. Listening back to the mix of the new record, I hear the trust that’s developed between us. There’s no substitute for time.

TJG: How does that trust manifest itself in your musical relationship?

DT: It manifests at a mysterious level. It’s like when you’re hanging out with old friends and they’re finishing each other’s sentences, you know? You can tell they know each other really well, they’re comfortable with each other. Lee is a friend, even though he’s fifty-five years older than me. He lives between New York and Cologne, and when he’s here, we get together, go to shows, hang at his house on 86th street, play together, have lunch. It’s more than just a professional relationship.

TJG: Lee, how would you describe your musical relationship with Dan, and its evolution over the last decade?

Lee Konitz: Playing duo, it’s a different perspective. Things get a little bit less complicated with just two instruments, so I particularly look forward to it beforehand. With Dan, things have gotten more familiar. We know our tendencies to react to one another. We can throw something in, knowing, somehow, what kind of result you’ll get.

TJG: Would you say Dan’s playing has changed over the years you’ve known him?

LK: It’s just gotten more interesting, you know? It’s as interesting as it can be. He’s really listening and trying to light the fire, so to speak. In terms of new sounds and approaches, he’s absolutely opened my ears in new ways. I’m very interested in what he’s doing, when he’s doing it, and how I can supplement it. I’m always in step with the music. I’m not thinking about anything else.

TJG: In a previous interview, you discussed the idea of preparation, or as Lee would put it, being “preparing to be unprepared.” What kind of trial and error have you experienced over the years?

DT: It’s changed over time. I met Lee when I was twenty-five. I had just moved to the city, and there were things in my preparation that were part of the basic craft. For the first five years, Lee would spontaneously change keys mid-tune. When you’re on a big stage and Lee switches keys on you, you’ve gotta do it without any thought. I worked on getting that fluency in order to be able to really hang in a duo context. Lee also loves to lay back on the beat. Like chamber music, we strive for a sense of agreement without letting the tempo sag. I’ve had to figure out how can I deal with this in a duo setting. Lee’s thinking about music has evolved too. He’s stopped enjoying the concept of the solo. He wants continuous counterpoint while we’re playing, and that took me a while to get used to. When you focus on your own integrity, it leads to some surprising music. Sometimes you need to tend your own garden, and trust that things will belong together.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Arun Ramamurthy navigates both jazz and Indian Classical circles. He’s a Carnatic violinist with a vested interest in improvisation and broadening musical horizons. Not only is he the co-founder of Brooklyn Raga Massive, and he also plays music that he calls “jazz carnatica” in a trio setting.

Ramamurthy and his trio, featuring Michael Gam on bass and Sameer Gupta on drums, will play two sets at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 26th. We caught up with Arun by phone to discuss the different musical worlds he navigates and the way he finds his voice and a cohesive community in performance.

The Jazz Gallery: Your trio plays jazz carnatica; that’s also the title of your record. What does that mean to you?

Arun Ramamurthy: Basically, the music is drawing from the Carnatic repertoire. So a lot of the compositions we’re doing are actually part of the traditional songs of South Indian classical music, and we recontextualize the music within this jazz trio—a lot of the elements of jazz, or other styles of music that don’t exist in Carnatic music like ensemble playing. Playing a role, collectively making the sounds together, is what I also want to experiment with in this trio—how each person can kind of bring things to the table. In Carnatic music a lot of times the violinist would shadow a vocalist or the percussionist, and the percussionist is also shadowing and playing to this one sound; there’s this one linear movement as opposed to everyone playing their own role and together it becomes this one sound as a band.

I also try to see into these Carnatic songs and view it from a different place, a different perspective. There are certain songs, apart from compositions, that can be explored, and when a bass line is put behind it and Sameer [Gupta] and [regular bassist] Perry [Wortman] are hearing in one way, we can vibe and vamp on something that creates a whole new atmosphere within a song that didn’t always have that. I’m trying explore the Carnatic songs that have existed for a long time, and breathe a little new life into them from my own perspective.

TJG: There are also new compositions that you play.

AR: Yeah. Many of those songs, I’m using rhythmic concepts that exist in Carnatic music, and then using that as a foundation for these new compositions, moving between different rhythmic concepts. There will be some rhythm in the bass and the melody on top of that, different repeating patterns that sit over the time cycle. I’ll usually pick a raga, a scale that I want to write in. And I’ll pick a thala, the time signature that I want to write in. So there’s a rhythmic landscape that rides underneath and then the melody is kind of sitting on top, and then we interact and play with each other, adding another dimension.

A lot of this Carnatic training has helped me seeing things rhythmically in a different way than a jazz musician might. But it would all make sense to both of us, and we would all feel it in a different way. That’s the excitement: we feel things in different ways, and the result is surprising. I think the original songs especially, I think they’re really drawn from the experience of playing with these guys and what they would feel and how they would feel certain things. I find that some of the inspirations come from all the different artists that I end up collaborating with. You hear certain things that really make sense to you, and then I try to incorporate that into my own language, and when you internalize that it comes out as you, but you’re still coming from the root of Carnatic music.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Jen Shyu is a fixture in the jazz and improvised music scenes, and dexterously wears the ever-multiplying hats of multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, dancer, and scholar. She has been prolific in creating and releasing her own solo and group work with her band Jade Tongue, as well as singing and playing on projects led by other musicians—Steve Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and John Hébert, to name a few. Jen is a Fulbright Scholar, and has done extensive research throughout the world, and Indonesia in particular. Read our 2014 Jazz Speaks interview with Jen to discover more about her exploration of a number of Asian musical traditions through fieldwork.

At The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, January 21st, Jen will present her latest project, Song of Silver Geese. Song of Silver Geese, composed by Jen and co-directed with Satoshi Haga, is a full-length multilingual ritual music drama, influenced by music and folklore, and sometimes Jen’s own fieldwork, in Korea, Taiwan, Timor, and Java. Commissioned by Chamber Music America, it was premiered at Roulette in March of last year, and performed in a number of different configurations since then. This Saturday at the Gallery, Jen and her cohort will perform Song of Silver Geese in its entirety. On top of Jade Tongue (Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Thomas Morgan on bass, Dan Weiss on drums, and Anna Webber on flutes), there will be a string quartet (Christopher Hoffman on cello, Mat Maneri on viola, Erica Dicker and Jen on violins), dancer-improviser Satoshi Haga, and Jen herself singing, dancing, and playing piano, gayageum, and Taiwanese moon lute. All proceeds from the performance will go to the ACLU in solidarity with women who will be marching earlier that day.

We caught up with Jen on the phone to talk about this performance and what it means to be having it on the same day as nationwide protests in response to the President-Elect’s inauguration. Our conversation very quickly plunged into the depths of Jen’s expansive creative and activist world—her future premiere of a solo piece based on distillations from Song of Silver Geese at National Sawdust on June 29th, 2017; the history of the circuitous and complex relationship between dance and music in her work; the tough choices she was faced with as a young artist; her involvement in community building and activism through creativity and improvisation, particularly in this moment in the nation’s political landscape; and the power of encouragement to offer creativity to the world.

The Jazz Gallery: What has your experience been with dancing?

Jen Shyu: Well, I was in ballet school from age six to high school. I want to say fourteen or fifteen is when I had to stop because I was focusing on piano at that time. When I got to college I started taking modern. At Stanford, I had this amazing teacher named Robert Moses who still teaches there and has his own company. Amazing. He’s one of my favorite dancers ever. And then I learned some tap as well. But the great thing from Stanford was that I took this contact improv class. And, even in childhood, my first experience with improvising was through dance. I would just choreograph, make these dances in my room, when no one was looking. And I didn’t do that musically at all. I wasn’t improvising at all musically, which is a very funny thing. Even when I was at home alone, I was really scared of improvising with music. Because at that time I was training so hard on a classical path. I even studied opera later with a great teacher Jennifer Lane at Stanford, even though singing was just fun for me, starting out. My parents weren’t pushing me into the career at all, but my studies with these teachers were very serious, so it felt like I was training to be a concert pianist. Ballet was always there because I loved it and I didn’t want to quit. Even though my piano teacher said, “You have to focus!”

TJG: And you didn’t feel the pressures from the dance side?

JS: Well, my piano teacher—he was a fantastic, I’m still in touch with him, I just saw him in Champaign in November—his name is Roger Shields. He’s a master teacher. He was just amazing. And he was telling me, “You can’t be a jack of all trades, you have to focus.” And I remember having the crisis—I think it was in high school—because I wanted to be in this musical, but I had to prepare for this piano competition. And I just remember being in the family room, crying, because my parents were saying, “Maybe you have to choose.” They weren’t pressuring me so much as knowing that logistically, it was impossible to be in two places at once, and they were the ones driving me everywhere, so they were thinking about it more than I was. And I was crying, “Nooo, I don’t want to choose.” It was hilarious! I mean looking back at this young age, having a crisis. Hilarious. But I remember crying, sobbing, and it was a really traumatic moment.

TJG: And what did you choose?

JS: I didn’t do the musical. I ended up focusing on piano. And it was for a competition. And I made the finals. Which was a big deal. Because when I was little I got sixth place or something. But then when I was older, this was fourteen or something, and I made the finals, I felt that was a big deal even though I didn’t get any further, because these other kids were crazy. All they did was practice, they didn’t do anything else. They didn’t go to school. It was an international competition. And so to get to the finals for me was a big honor. I did not practice an inch of what those kids practiced.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

For almost four decades, drummer Tom Rainey has been one of the most creative and versatile drummers working in New York. Whether playing with lyrical pianists like Fred Hersch and Kenny Werner, or bracing and experimental horn players like Tim Berne and Ray Anderson, Rainey is an ideal sideman, always supporting the music, but never afraid to mix it up. Rainey has also begun to step out as a bandleader in recent years, with groups like a free-improv trio featuring saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson, and a standards quintet called Obbligato.

This Friday, January 20th, Rainey and Obbligato—featuring Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, Kris Davis on piano, and Drew Gress on bass—will come to The Jazz Gallery for two sets. The group released an eponymous debut record in 2014, and are heading into the studio this week to make a followup. We caught up with Rainey by phone to hear about the origins of the band and their collective approach to enlivening the standard repertoire.

The Jazz Gallery: In classical music, “obbligato” can mean a few different things, whether “essential” or “decorative.” What made you decide on this name for the band?

Tom Rainey: That’s true in the classical world, but in the jazz world, it can refer to when a horn player is playing behind a singer. That could be the decorative element that you mentioned. It’s not really a solo, but it’s a soloistic line that accompanies the singer, or the main melody of a song. That’s sort of the approach of the band—it’s not centered on soloists, but more on group interaction. I never thought of the word decorate here, but everyone is decorating what the others are doing. The focus can shift from musician to musician, but it’s never really about anyone taking a solo, and then somebody else taking a solo turn. So the name is somewhat descriptive of what the music is like, but I also just liked the sound of the word.

TJG: What made you want to focus on group improvisation with jazz standards, rather than with original compositions, or playing free?

TR: I guess if I were doing a lot of original composing, I may have opted to do that, but I don’t really spend much time composing. And I have a trio with Ingrid and Mary Halvorson where the music is completely improvised. I’ve always liked playing standard songs, but it’s tricky because I don’t enjoy those gigs where you play the song and then there’s a string of solos and then the song is played another time.  But then again, I like playing on forms. I like drawing on those kinds of materials. So in the spirit of improvisation, I really wanted the effect to be a group improvisation where everyone is dealing with shared materials. I liken it to each song being its own playground. Different playgrounds have different apparatuses that you can play with, and these songs—whether harmonically or melodically—also offer that.

TJG: On some of the tunes on your first album, it seems that some players will stick closer to the given melody and chord changes while others would play farther out. Were those roles discussed beforehand, or fixed in the arrangement, or did that happen more on its own while playing?

TR: As far as how people interpret the songs, I have absolutely no fixed opinion about how one should go about it. As far as I’m concerned, everyone is free to abstract it as much as they want. The one thing that I asked of everybody is to just deal with the form and keep the form. You can take it as far afield as you want, but you have to be able to snap back to it at any point. On the record, we really adhere to the forms. If you were to listen closely, all of the forms are very much in tact, no matter what is going on on top of them. Like I said, it’s a playground, and so you can play with it in any way that you want. You just need to know where you are in the playground so you can join up with the others. The only things I set beforehand were the tempos or the vibe of each song. Sometimes I decided to play them in a different mood than they were originally intended, or change the time signature. I made some suggestions about how to start particular songs, whether it’s just Drew and Ingrid, or just Kris and Ralph. It was some very light arranging in terms of how to present these pieces.

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