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Photo courtesy of the artist.

A Brooklyn-based singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist, Nerissa Campbell grew up on the west coast of Australia and on the island of Bali, where she became enamored of the island’s traditional gamelan music. She later studied jazz at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts and since then has released four records as a leader, showcasing her distinct and worldly musical personality. Her 2016 album After the Magic (Crooked Mouth Music) is a beautifully ethereal affair, featuring original compositions performed by a mixed ensemble of jazz improvisers and members of the New York gamelan ensemble Dharma Swara.

This Thursday, March 23rd, Ms. Campbell will take The Jazz Gallery stage to perform selections from After the Magic, as well as new material. We caught up with Campbell by phone to talk about working with traditional folk instruments in a new context and how she’s carved out a niche for herself in New York’s busy and diverse jazz scene.

The Jazz Gallery: I wanted to talk about your latest album, After The Magic. The gamelan ensemble, Dharma Swara, is in New York, and it’s one you’re a member of. How did you get connected to that scene?

Nerissa Campbell: When I was a kid, we spent a lot of time in Bali, living there, but I wasn’t allowed to play gamelan, since I was a girl. I was always totally fascinated with it, and always asked if I could play, but it was like, “no, no, no, you can’t.” So I was living in New York for a while, and I saw this Balinese gamelan, Dharma Swara, was going to be playing at BAM café, and I was super excited and wanted to take my husband to see it, so he could see the music that I grew up amongst. So we went along to that show, and there were women in the group! So I was like, “maybe I can play gamelan finally!”

I’d already been thinking about writing some music that was an exploration of our time in Bali, using the sounds that I remembered and my background in jazz, trying to combine the two, so I was really excited at the prospect that I could actually join a gamelan and learn more about the music. I’ve been playing with Dharma Swara on and off since 2010. I’m not playing in the group at the moment, but I feel very much a part of it, and hope to get back to it soon.

TJG: What was the composition process of the album like for you?

NC: It was really challenging, actually. Not so much compositionally but more personally and emotionally. I felt a really strong pull to write for gamelan in a technical way that honored how gamelan is played traditionally, but the more I explored that, the more I realized that it wasn’t going to be true to the project. I had some concerns about that, because I didn’t want to take away from what gamelan music was. I was lucky to meet Balinese composer and musician Dewa Ketut Alit who was here teaching Dharma Swara as an artist in residence. We became good friends and had a lot of conversations about writing new music for gamelan and what it meant for Balinese music and new music in general. Alit, along with a few people close to me, were a great help in me getting my head around what I wanted to do and being true to the project.

TJG: You came up with this idea in 2007, and the album came out in 2016. Clearly, a lot of things must have changed, because it was a long process—can you talk about that?

NC: Yeah. I had the idea in 2007—I started writing the songs after a return trip to Bali, and played some of them in a jazz setting over the years. So they came into being in a more traditional jazz combo setting. The songs on the album were always sort of mulling around, becoming, and in that time, 2007-2016, I actually released two other albums of completely different music. This allowed for the After the Magic material to really develop itself, which is an amazing luxury to have.

It went through different iterations, I was always revisiting the material, thinking it needs to be more of this and less of that, and it was kind of a confusing process. It was an album I was really glad to have had so much time to contemplate, and in the end it came out how I imagined I wanted it to be; it’s a simple album, very dreamlike and haunting, and very close to my heart.

TJG: I’m interested—not that it has to be one or the other—in if you felt your presence more as a vocalist or as a composer, or how both those things are present for you in your work.

NC: I see them both as being entwined. Performance is an important part of what I do, and then the other side of being a composer is just as important, it’s just a different process. I guess a lot of musicians can understand that, if they write and perform. It’s been my focus for a really long time to write original music, so they’re both who I am. My background is in jazz, so I came up singing standards and doing a lot of gigs in that setting, but I felt like personally I didn’t have anything additional to contribute to that particular world, which I love, and which is always a part of who I am musically. But at an early point in my career it became clear that I wanted to write original music; it has been a way for me to really develop my personal style, both in performance and writing, and contribute that way.

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The IU Plummer Sextet with guitarist Dave Stryker on tour in Austria, Spring 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday and Wednesday, March 21st and 22nd, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome the Indiana University Plummer Sextet under the direction of Walter Smith III. Named for alumnus-saxophonist Paul Plummer, who gave a landmark gift to the university jazz program in 2012, the group began in spring 2016 and features some of IU’s most talented jazz students.

This year’s ensemble is composed of trumpeter Tim Fogarty, saxophonist Matthew Babineaux, pianist Evan Main, guitarist Connor Evans, bassist Philip Wailes, and drummer Jake Richter. At the Gallery this week, they will be joining trumpeter Marquis Hill, performing tunes off his recent Concord Records release, The Way We Play. Before coming out to see how these talented students sink their teeth into Hill’s hard-driving compositions, check out the album in the playlist below.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

For one night this weekend, The Jazz Gallery will become home to the evanescent Phantom Station, a modular and exploratory trio assembled by guitarist Brandon Ross. Phantom Station, in this iteration, will consist of drummer JT Lewis and pianist David Virelles. Lewis is a fellow member of Harriet Tubman, Ross’s often-described ‘avant power trio’ which recently released a new album, Araminta.

Over the years, Ross has collaborated with a voracious array of experimental musicians, including Henry Threadgill, The Lounge Lizards, Me’Shell N’degeocello, and Wadada Leo Smith. Beyond his releases with Harriet Tubman and his duo work with Stomu Takeishi, Ross’s Costume was released on the Japanese label Intoxicate Records to rave reviews, and Ross’s compositions can be found in the scores to various films and commissioned works. We caught up with Ross to discuss his musical upbringing in the city, his approach to improvisation, and the life of the author Chester Himes.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been on the scene for a long time. Where would you point a new listener to help orient them to your sound?

Brandon Ross: I would probably bookend the approaches I do, starting with For Living Lovers, my acoustic duo with Stomu Takeishi. We did an album of that music in 2014 on Sunnyside Records. Next, I’d send new listeners to Make A Move with Henry Threadgill back in ’96. Then, to one of my Japanese CDs, Costume or Puppet. Then, of course, anything by Harriet Tubman.

TJG: You’re involved with a large number of projects and collaborators, but it’s not a disparate collection of gestures or statements—it’s a reflection of a singular approach. Do you find yourself referring back to former projects for guidance? How do you keep your integrity while moving forward?

BR: I’ve been talking about this a lot lately. I’ve always gone back to something Ornette Coleman told me the first time I met him in the early 80s: “Always be musically yourself.” In the process of acquiring skills and knowledge, it’s easy to become enamored by things we appreciate. They may have something to do with who we are, or they ultimately may not. With most of my mentors—Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, Wadada Leo Smith—the focus was always on coming to something they were asking you to do as innovators and composers. Coming to something in your own way, finding your own path. Not playing in a style. That early mentoring and musical experience keeps me high, so to speak.

TJG: Young musicians keep pouring into the city. Do you still see that system of mentorship alive around you?

BR: I don’t see it in the same way. I don’t say that critically, it was just another time. When I came to New York, you could get gigs with people who were professionals, they had ideas, concepts, they were working, you could get a direct connection and play somewhere. These days, it’s more about the academy. People are referencing artifacts in recordings. Some people still teach, but it’s largely a new and different process of arriving at what the music’s all about.

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From L to R: Greg Tuohey, Jerome Sabbagh. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Back in 1995, saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh and guitarist Greg Tuohey were recent international transplants in New York City—Sabbagh from Paris, France, Tuohey, from Auckland, New Zealand. They both threw themselves into the city’s vibrant scene, playing with talented peers like Mark Turner, Ben Monder, Ari Hoenig, and many more. Along with bassist Matt Penman and drummer Darren Becket (international transplants themselves), Sabbagh and Tuohey formed the collaborative group Flipside, releasing an acclaimed eponymous album on Naxos in 1998.

After the release of that album, however, the pair went their separate ways musically, while remaining close personally. Sabbagh went on to record a string of highly regarded solo albums and played with drummer Paul Motian and the legendary drummer’s final Village Vanguard shows. Tuohey mostly left the New York jazz world, working as a session and touring guitarist for rock groups, including indie singer-songwriter Joe Pug. In 2010, Tuohey returned to improvised music and released his debut album as a leader, First, in 2013. Tuohey and Sabbagh have now reconnected musically to form a quartet that showcases their own original compositions.

This Friday, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome the Sabbagh/Tuohey group to our stage for two sets. Check their effortlessly-swinging and unapologetically-catchy tune “Vintage,” performed live at Smalls, below.

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Kevin Sun Trio at The Jazz Gallery, March 2017 Poster

Logo graphic by Diane Zhou  //  Design by Kevin Sun

“The trouble with most musicians today is that they are copycats. Of course you have to start out playing like someone else. You have a model, or a teacher, and you learn all that he can show you. But then you start playing for yourself. Show them that you’re an individual. And I can count those who are doing that today on the fingers of one hand.” 

— Lester Young interviewed in 1949 by Pat Harris (DownBeat)


 

I certainly still feel like a copycat these days, but I feel all right with that for the time being. I don’t believe in music or art ex nihilo—especially in improvised, centrally interrelational musical settings such as this trio and other bands that I’ve had the privilege of contributing to since moving to New York in the fall of 2015. As a composer, the strategy that’s been most fruitful for me up to now is to generate something new from something old.

For a few years now, I’ve been enamored with composing compact forms—cyclical rhythmic and melodic material that can be specific and complex, but also brief and conceptually straightforward enough to be written on the back of a napkin or communicated verbally. Most of the music for this trio was composed last spring with this in mind: short, distinct forms to be internalized in a group setting. I wanted us to challenge ourselves and explore these distinct musical environments while discovering what we can construct together in real time.

Bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor (and, on occasion, bassist Dan Pappalardo) have been my unwavering partners in transfiguring my notated ideas into living sound. Like me, both Walter and Matt live conveniently nearby in Brooklyn, and we’ve had the chance to grow together into this music for some time. This weekend, we’ll be documenting the music you’ll be hearing at The Jazz Gallery at Wellspring Sound outside of Boston (where I also recorded my last project, Earprint). The forecast suggests a late 2017 or early 2018 release on Endectomorph Music; stay tuned.

 


 

As I mentioned, I like writing and abstracting from pre-existing material. Much of the music you’ll hear us play on Thursday will have been inspired by particular songs or fragments, so I’ve compiled a playlist below of a few of the songs that I referenced or cannibalized in some way for my own compositions. They’re all paired with my own songs, which won’t mean much if you haven’t heard them yet, obviously, but hopefully you’ll hear what I’m talking about on Thursday. We hope you’ll join us.

“Thunder”

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