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Album art courtesy of Pi Recordings.

Miles Okazaki seems to have a lot of concerns: Straying away from predictability, diving into new ways of interpreting material, parsing out intervals and rhythms to the smallest detail. But at the core of his music, Okazaki seeks what all musicians seek—to collectively breathe life into musical ideas. When it comes to Okazaki’s sound, nothing is predictable and nothing is certain.

Continuing in his mode of deep inquiry and total immersion, Okazaki infused his newest album with concepts of physical tactility, astrological motion, and sonic disruption. In celebration of the release of Trickster (Pi Recordings), Okazaki will bring Craig Taborn, Anthony Tidd, and Sean Rickman to the Gallery to breathe life into the ‘seeds and cells’ of the project’s compositional material. And, in the spirit of Okazaki’s creative process, we spoke in depth about the project, from the broad strokes to the minutiae.

The Jazz Gallery: In the Trickster trailer, you mentioned that “With these types of musicians, it’s a waste of their abilities for me to be trying to have too much control. These are small ideas that can open up some space for us to do something.” Did you begin this musical approach before the “Trickster” project?

Miles Okazaki: It has primarily evolved out of the process of becoming a better editor of my own material. If I write a certain amount of material, can I cut out nine-tenths of it and still get at the main idea? I try to find a good thing, then use it. Generally, the smaller the seed, the more flexible and mobile it can be, especially if you’re dealing with the types of musicians who can realize the implications and possibilities of that seed.

TJG: So what does that editing process look like, whether on the guitar, on staff paper, on the computer?

MO: Some on guitar, but on this record, I wanted a tactile element to it, wanted to see how these things would feel on the instrument. So I wrote the drum parts by sitting at the drums, the bass and guitar parts at the guitar, the piano parts at the piano. That’s an editing process in itself, because I don’t play any of those instruments very well, including the guitar [laughs]. The editing process for this record was that I’d sit down and ask, “What do I remember from last time I explored this material?” Whatever I remembered, I figured that was the good thing, and the rest I’d just let go.

TJG: Was this approach in response to a way of making music that wasn’t really working for you?

MO: I’ve been moving toward something like this, trusting my intuition and judgement about the material. Not to be overly precious, not to hold on just because I spent a long time figuring something out. Some of these tunes are the results of years of work on certain concepts, but they shouldn’t exist just because I spent a long time on them. It’s not like playing poker and being ‘pot committed,’ where you just have to keep betting. Some of these songs are short little tunes, where I spent a really long time on them, but all that remains is what I think of as, you know, hieroglyphs on the cave walls, washed away over the years. You just see a little bit of what remains. Like the cliche of the sand castle that gets washed away, and you just see the general shape where the strongest parts remain. Memory is like that too. You remember the most important things, and some of the details disappear over time. You slowly build a personal story as some things stand out and other things fade.

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Design courtesy of the artist.

This weekend, The Jazz Gallery is proud to kick off our 2017 Residency Commission series. For this year, the Gallery has commissioned work from three young musicians who have already been making waves in the New York jazz scene—vibraphonist Joel Ross, saxophonist Maria Grand, and this weekend’s performer, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill.

Since being a finalist in the 2014 Monk Competition, O’Farrill has made the leap from budding talent to force-to-be-reckoned-with. He has made head-turning appearances on recent records by Rudresh Mahanthappa and Stephan Crump and released an acclaimed debut album with his group Stranger Days on Sunnyside just under a year ago (which you can check out below).

For his Residency Commission, O’Farrill has composed an evening-length song cycle dealing with the feelings of loss and paranoia through the lens of contemporary environmental issues. Titled “I’d Like My Life Back,” the song cycle finds O’Farrill synthesizing a huge range of influences, from the art rock of Nick Cave to the vocal music of Benjamin Britten. We caught up with Adam by phone to discuss his motivations for the project and how he managed to give such a sprawling composition a unified through-line.

The Jazz Gallery: Where did the title of your project come from?

Adam O’Farrill: The literal origin of the title comes from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The CEO of BP Oil’s response to all the damage was this:

“We’re sorry for the massive destruction it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

This quote in particular is a pretty dark example greed and corporate interests minimizing the struggle of people who’ve actually been impacted by environmental issues. The CEO is trying to paint himself as the real sufferer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about issues like this since the election. I feel that among the people I know, there’s been a big awakening since then, people becoming more socially aware, a greater sense of responsibility. But there’s also this aspect that during the Obama era, we took care of ourselves a little less because it felt like we had someone in power who cared about our interests more. Now, we’re really having to fight more for what believe in, so in the process, we’re putting out personal needs aside a little bit in service of the bigger picture. So it’s also a bit of wanting my own personal enjoyment back with all this stuff going on that we have to deal with.

With this message in mind, I wanted to capture the feeling of dread that’s been in place for the past several months. It’s very much a post-Obama piece.

TJG: One of the difficulties of writing music with socio-political messaging is that the message can overpower the music, making the whole experience feel preachy. How have you dealt with these potential pitfalls and have there been any particular political music inspirations you’ve drawn from?

AO: Right away, knowing my own tastes, I knew I didn’t want my music to be preachy, or explicit in its message. There are some great artists whose music can be really explicit in this regard, like what Samora Pinderhughes has done with his Transformations Suite, where the message is explicit in this really great way. And my dad has done work with Cornell West. But I was going for something more focused on that feeling of dread, more than the issues themselves.

I found that environmental issues were, figuratively speaking, fertile ground, musically. There are so many great representations of nature and the environment throughout music history. One of the pieces in this project is called “Six Degrees of Removal” and it’s about the six-step process of mountaintop removal coal mining, which has been happening all throughout Appalachia. Each step is a different action. For the step of clearing, I wrote this arpeggios that move all over different registers. And then for the step of blasting, I had these sporadic and bombastic instrumental hits. The last part is called reclamation, which describes the after-effects of the mining. They call the blown out mountains moonscapes because of the way they look, really barren and indented. I represented that with funereal, dirge-like music. There’s voice over all of that and the voice fits with the music by focusing on more poetic lyrics, rather than just describing what happens.

TJG: It sounds like you’re exploring different means of musical storytelling to communicate metaphorically about the environmental issues, rather than explicitly.

AO: Exactly. I think because the subject is more technical than say the Civil Rights Movement, you have to approach it differently.

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From L to R: Max Jaffe, Matt Nelson, Brandon Lopez, Amirtha Kidambi. Photo by Reuben Radding.

Amirtha Kidambi is a vocalist who draws on traditions of contemporary classical music, rock, jazz, Carnatic music, rock, and free improvisation in her work. Her band Elder Ones performs her compositions, which incorporate lyrics and vocal phonemes, at the Jazz Gallery this Thursday, April 13.

Last November, the group released their first record, Holy Science, on Northern Spy Records, receiving rave reviews from Ben Ratliff in the New York Times and Seth Colter Walls in Pitchfork. You can stream their memorial to Eric Garner, “Dvapara Yuga,” below.

We caught up with Kidambi by phone to talk about the group’s current evolution and her perspective on musical activism.

The Jazz Gallery: This concert with Elder Ones is going to feature some new music for the group. What direction do you feel it’s going?

Amirtha Kidambi: It’ll be a combination of the previous record, and a new set. Each set will probably be a combination of both, some of the older and some of the new stuff.

There are certain coherent threads that seem to be running through my compositions for this band. There’s definitely some use of the same phonemes, the wordless vocals that I was using in the previous set of music, but one of the biggest differences between the last set and the current one is I am starting to write lyrics and utilize direct language in a way that I didn’t at all on the last record. Part of it is, I think, the moment that we’re in. I felt compelled to as a singer be able to actually really voice certain thoughts and feelings I’ve been having about the state of our world, the state of our country, in a way that it felt important to me to directly vocalize and not deal as much in the abstract. The last record, there is a tune dedicated to Eric Garner and it’s wordless. And it’s potent, and I felt it helped me express that, but I wanted to go one step further for this and really verbalize what I’ve been thinking about. So it’s a kind of combination: each tune has a few sentences for the whole tune, of lyrics, and also interpolates between lyrics and the wordless improvisation as well.

Another thing that’s changed is the instrumentation, a little bit, in that I’m adding a synthesizer to the band. I play harmonium, and it’s always been harmonium, voice, soprano saxophone, bass and drums, and I wanted to see what it would do, how it would influence my writing. There are certain limitations to the harmonium. One thing I love about it—it’s a folk instrument, it’s kind of laborious and notes don’t sound exactly when you play them, with pumping; it has kind of creaky noises, which is such a beautiful quality and I love that. But I wanted to play some fast lines, I wanted to have some parts of the music that really get loud in a way that we were cognizant of not drowning out the harmonium element of the band, so we always played full force, but the synthesizer allows us to have moments that are in another zone. Max Jaffe, the drummer, has experimented with electronic triggers that he uses on his drums, and Matt Nelson, who’s also in the group Battle Trance, has some solo recordings where he uses the saxophone with pedals. So we might be playing with some electronic elements in this new set. There are similar musical elements: still a lot of drone and a lot from Indian rag, but this other thing with the electronic music and the lyrics, and it’s developed in this other place.

TJG: With the choice of syllables or lyrics, what makes you decide to go in one direction or another?

AK: For the lyrics, what I want is to create an impression, rather than it being more like narrative or every single note in the music is set to a lyric. Part of the reason I’ve used the syllables in the past and why I continue to feel like I gravitate towards using them is because of the freedom and improvisation. I might set the basic melodic line to the lyrics, but when I want to do variation or improvise on the line it makes more sense to leave the lyrics because sometimes it’s difficult, it can kind of hinder the improvisational process, like if you’re singing this particular word with three syllables in it and you want to do something rhythmically that kind of breaks that up or makes it awkward, or the word in some part of your voice doesn’t sound as well and might be an open vowel or something up top.

There are still so many ways in which the wordless syllables help me to be much more free and much more interactive with the band. I can respond—like if I hear saxophone do something, I can change my game plan the way a horn would do. Which is not something I feel like lyrics can always facilitate, but I do feel like I like the idea that there is—it’s a special thing to be a singer and I don’t want to erase that. The last record was an experiment in trying to do something different, but in this one I’m excited about being able to directly say something, create an impression, and then maybe that’s in the listener’s mind and then for improvising in that world, even if I leave the lyrics, that impression is still in your mind.

That’s a lot of things that we’re dealing with, now, about human rights and oppression and all these different issues that I feel like are impossible for me to not express right now, because it’s such a crazy time. One thing that was interesting with writing the piece for Eric Garner, which was absolutely a direct reaction to that event—I wrote that piece in 2014—was that it helps facilitate conversation, it helps, when I would get interviewed or something, to bring his name into the room and talk about it. So I feel like having lyrics can help shape these themes, and maybe facilitate discussion. I want to have elements of activism in my life as a musician, and this helps me express that feeling.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Cory Smythe loves the music of the 70s and 80s, from Alvin Lucier to Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail to Prince. In Smythe’s own music, the sounds of these innovators shine through in unexpected and curious ways. An active performer of new, classical, and improvised music, Smythe has played at the Darmstadt Festival, Bang on a Can, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and at clubs and halls across the United States. He’s worked with the International Contemporary Ensemble for over a decade, premiering and performing works by John Zorn, George Lewis, and Iannis Xenakis, to name just a few. In the jazz milieu, Smythe has shared the stage with Peter Evans, Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Anthony Braxton, Tyshawn Sorey, and Nate Wooley.

Cory Smythe will play the first set at The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday, followed by Tyler Gilmore & Pools. In the wake of his celebrated first release, Pluripotent, Smythe will present music form his new record AUTOTROPHS at The Jazz Gallery this week. In anticipation of the show, we spoke about the origins of his hybrid acoustic/electric setup, the process of recording his recent album AUTOTROPHS, and his deep fandom for Prince.

TJG: In the liner notes for AUTOTROPHS, you describe the imaginary premise of “Fats Waller working at IRCAM in the early 80s.” When surrounded by concrete walls and synthesizers of IRCAM, Fats Waller is not the first person that comes to mind. What gave you the concept?

Cory Smythe: I’ve actually never been inside IRCAM, but for me, I connected with the music that I’ve heard from there. It’s opulent. So I wasn’t thinking about concrete, I was thinking about a kind of alternate reality where one sort of musical practice might congeal with another.

TJG: So do you follow composers from IRCAM and their composition processes?

CS: Yeah, I’m into French spectral music from the 80s. I perform a fair amount of that music with ICE. A, few years back, we played Diademes (1986) for solo viola and large ensemble, by Marc-André Dalbavie. Immense forces, extraordinary harmonies, all connected with 80s spectral synthesis. We played it several years ago, around the time when I was putting together ideas for this project. It made an impression.

TJG: On “Blockchain,” I love the use of sustained notes with abrupt, unnatural cutoffs, and the addition of some of the gritty granular string noise. How is the track layered and structured?

CS: There’s an underlying structure that’s the same from performance to performance, but beyond that it’s an improvised piece. I have a pedal setup triggering a freeze effect in Max and Ableton Live, which leads to those textures. The idea was to create something that would sound as if it had been edited and chopped up in software, but it’s actually all live.

TJG: No kidding! Did you make the Max patches?

CS: I wish I could say I did. I mostly pilfer things that other people have built [laughs]. I got into using Max in my live performances because it developed naturally from the music I was playing. My involvement with ICE has put me in contact with a lot of pieces with live electronics in Max or Pd. I wanted to explore some of that on my own.

TJG: So at a certain point, you must have gone from using it at home to introducing it into your live set, yes?

CS: That’s about right. I’m not as big a tech nerd as I’d like to be, but in a way, I’ve been playing with sequencers and synthesizers since I was a kid. I’ve always tried to find ways of integrating technology into live performance. But a sequencer isn’t that interesting; you’re basically playing along with a track. So, working in a more improvisatory and malleable way with electronic elements seemed perfect. Though, the very next track on AUTOTROPHS is basically me playing along with a track [laughs].

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Photo by Willem Kuijpers, courtesy of the artist.

This Friday and Saturday, April 7th and 8th, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome drummer Marcus Gilmore back to our stage. It’s hard to understate Gilmore’s influence and versatility. In the last few weeks alone, Gilmore has toured with Taylor McFerrin in San Francisco and South Africa, lit up the stage at SXSW with Robert Glasper (check out his continually inventive solo below), and had his work dissected in DRUM! Magazine.

This weekend at the Gallery, Gilmore convenes a group of musicians from across the stylistic spectrum, including pianist David Virelles and vibraphonist Joel Ross. With Gilmore’s rare musical range, one can hardly predict what will transpire over the course of his four sets. (more…)