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It’s a well-worn truism that the sound of jazz today has been profoundly impacted by musicians hailing from Houston, Texas. The city boasts a lineage of influential drummers who have married gospel chops and jazz finesse—Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Kendrick Scott, Jamire Williams—as well as forward thinking, omnivorous pianists like Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, and Helen Sung. The list of illustrious Houstonians continues with bassists Alan Hampton and Mark Kelley, and guitarist Mike Moreno, and saxophonist Walter Smith III. And now, a new generation of talented youngsters like pianist James Francies and drummer Jeremy Dutton are making names for themselves in New York.

Even though these musicians have been based in New York for many years, many of their families still call Houston home. In a recent article by NPR’s Nate Chinen, Scott, Harland, Glasper, Moran, and Sung all spoke of their relatives’ experiences during Hurricane Harvey. Now, as their families and communities begin the rebuilding process, these Houston musicians, as well as New York friends and collaborators, are joining together for a concert to benefit Houston’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. Presented by Kendrick Scott, this concert will feature a rotating cast of some of the most acclaimed players on today’s scene. Don’t miss this special night of generosity, hope, and catharsis, both on and off of the bandstand.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Steve Lehman is a pioneering saxophonist, composer, and Jazz Gallery regular who needs little introduction. Praised by The New York Times as “a state-of-the-art musical thinker” and a “dazzling saxophonist,” Lehman composes and performs across a spectrum of experimental musical idioms. Several of his albums have been voted #1 Jazz Album of the Year by NPR Music, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times, and he is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and Doris Duke foundations. He is currently a Professor of Music at The California Institute of the Arts, having additionally taught at Wesleyan, the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, The New School, Columbia, Berklee, and IRCAM in Paris.

This week, Lehman will take the roll of mentor to Maria Grand in our latest mentorship series. The two saxophonists, accompanied by Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums, will perform sets at The Jazz Gallery, SEEDS, and the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. We spoke with Lehman about his thoughts and expectations for the mentorship process, as well as his own continued growth as an artist.

The Jazz Gallery: Maria had a funny story about asking you to mentor her, and you saying you didn’t think she need the mentorship, and then a few months later coming around to ask her if she was still interested. What’s your version of how the mentorship came about?

Steve Lehman: Well, we did a kind of session together, playing tunes and talking about composition at my studio a few years ago. I knew she was dedicated and hardworking, and had been musically invested in her craft. But I hadn’t heard her up close and personal for several years: I was blown away by how good she sounded, and by what she’d been able to accomplish in terms of developing a voice. I remember, at that session, her saying something along the lines of “Yeah, I’ll be mentored!” [laughs]. It didn’t, at the time, strike me as something that would necessarily be of great value to her. But then, I thought it would be a good opportunity to potentially introduce some new audiences to her music, and to give her an in-depth opportunity to look under the hood at my work, to see how it functions in rehearsals, and how it translates into my approach as a bandleader.

TJG: A discussion of your music invariably entails spectral techniques, rigorous approaches to composition, extended saxophone techniques, different forms of improvisation. There’s so much that you bring to the stage. Given that, how do you approach a short yet open-ended mentorship?

SL: Maria has been able to make such progress because she understands that it’s entirely up to each of us, as creative musicians, to take the initiative and do our homework. We’ve been in touch, talking about ideas, emailing music back and forth. And any time I’ve said “If you don’t have time to get to this or that, it’s not a problem, we can work around it,” she’s always been quick to say “No no no, I’ll take care of it, I’ll put the necessary time in.” She’s got that psychology of being disciplined, of not giving yourself a pass. The ground we cover or the familiarity we reach with my music is less important than the overall process of how she approaches the situation in the first place. I’m hoping to lead by example, in terms of how I approach the music, and to try to take each performance as a serious opportunity to share music with people. I hope that will come across, and expect that to be the lion’s share of what we’ll cover together.

TJG: That phrase, “not giving yourself a pass”—is that a frame of mind you resonate with as an artist? It’s a common mindset for jazz musicians, I think, but it’s not necessarily the only way to approach the learning process.

SL: Right [laughs]. Another way to frame that idea is just to be honest with yourself about what you want your playing to sound like, what you want your music to sound like, what areas of your music need to be reinforced. It’s not easy to be clear-headed when looking at your own work, or to be honest about what you want to share with others. But the more we can do that as performers, the more meaningful the results.

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Album art courtesy of the artist.

Many artists find an affinity for the spontaneous to be a part of their constitution; Adam Larson, over the years, has had to cultivate his. Since he came to New York from the Midwest nearly a decade ago, the 28-year-old saxophonist/composer has pushed himself through transpositions not only of artistic expression, but life philosophy. A need for adaptation has transformed into desire for openness, and an evolving flexibility now pervades his sound.

“I do feel like, in my younger days, I would step on the bandstand and say, ‘Okay, I’ve been doing all this stuff in the practice room; I’m going to just go into shred mode and let the chips fall where they may,” says Larson. “But now—I mean what’s the point of hiring all these great musicians if you don’t take advantage of what they’re going to do? I think listening to how people interact and create has helped.”

A few weeks ago, Larson put together a last-minute gig at 55 Bar. Surrounded by three risk-taking improvisers—Ari Hoenig, Matt Clohesy and Fabian Almazan—Larson felt supported, if a bit nervous. Without time to rehearse before the hit, he considered abandoning a new tune he had been looking forward to premiering, but decided to embrace the raw dynamic instead.

“I almost bailed on it,” he says. “We got to that tune in the set—it was a packed house—and I was like, ‘Okay, I have everybody here I need with me.’ [The anxiety] was irrational because I was playing with three of the best musicians I know, so it could have gone wrong and still been great. And it was great. It was really great.”

A band-leading tenor player, Larson has been involved with certain projects whose members rehearse intently and others whose members don’t rehearse at all. He appreciates each as its own, unique opportunity. “Both have their benefits,” he says. “If you rehearse [the tunes] to death, there’s maybe not as much spontaneity, but if it’s under-rehearsed, it could go two ways; it could be catastrophic or loose and cool.” (more…)

maria-grand-by-amy-mills

Photo by Amy Mills

As an avid student and experienced educator, Maria Grand is no stranger to the mentorship process. Upon arriving in New York six years ago, she became the protégée of legendary musicians Billy Harper, Antoine Roney, and Von Freeman, and quickly found work with Steve Coleman in his various small groups. Additionally, Grand is at home on the stage at The Jazz Gallery, having appeared multiple times as a bandleader and award recipient. She is one of three most recent Jazz Gallery Commissionees, and this summer staged an extended version of her work “TetraWind” as Embracements, expanding the sound and the concept of the project. 

In the latest installment of the Gallery’s mentorship series, Grand will be working with saxophonist Steve Lehman and his band. The quartet will present three shows across the city, at The Jazz Gallery, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and SEEDS in Brooklyn. For all three shows, Grand and Lehman will be joined by Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums. We spoke about her album TetraWind, her hopes and expectations for the concerts, and her thoughts on the mentorship process.

TJG: I’ve plenty of questions about your concerts with Steve Lehman, but first I have a few questions about your last album, TetraWind. Could you talk about the spoken section midway through “South (Quantum)”?

MG: Sure. Originally, there were lyrics to everything. I wrote all the songs on TetraWind thinking about words in some way. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about words while writing melodies, but there was an overall meaning to each song. For “South,” we did that interlude section, and I really wanted to have a poem over it. It felt like the best spot on the album for it. I wrote all the music while in Colombia when a huge amount of police brutality was happening. Somebody over there told me this surreal story where someone put laxatives in old meat and left it out for the birds to eat, so for a week after that, everybody got sh*t on [laughs]. It’s surreal to become aware that one reality is so different than another. It was, for me, a connection with what was happening back in the states. The whole thing seemed surreal. Police brutality has been many people’s reality for a long time, but if you step back for a moment, and think about a policeman killing someone who’s twelve because they have a toy gun, it seems impossibly surreal. That’s how the poem came about. I wanted to make that statement, but at the same time, I wanted the statement to be available to someone who listens to the whole thing and experiences it through the end. It leaves you thinking, ends on a dark note.

TJG: Do you do a lot of writing?

MG: That’s something I want to expand on. I use a lot of different things to write. Some things are more a part of art and not really a part of music. Sometimes I need movement. I write words, even when they don’t make it to the final product. They’re on my mind when I’m writing the music. I sing a lot too, which is something I got from Steve Coleman. I sing all the things I want to play, then transcribe it. That’s how a lot of the music came about.

TJG: Another question about TetraWind: Of the seventy or so interviews I’ve done for The Jazz Gallery, only a couple of people have had projects which included electric bass. Rashaan Carter sounds amazing on electric bass on the record. What was your thinking behind the choice?

MG: I asked him to play electric from the start. I love the electric bass. I think it’s from playing with Steve Coleman and Anthony Tidd a lot. I like the bass to be loud. When Rashaan plays, there’s a weight to his notes. That’s what I wanted in the music, you know? Electric has such presence. And he never wants to walk, he’ll say “If I’m playing electric, I want to try some different stuff.” It works out for me [laughs].

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Album art courtesy of the artist.

Eden Ladin, one of the busiest pianists on the New York scene, has built a deep community for himself in city over the past eight years. When we spoke for the interview, he was running from a rehearsal to a Rosh Hashanah dinner with Omer Avital and his family. Between world tours and recording sessions, Ladin found the time to lead and record his first album. Called Yequm, meaning “universe” in Hebrew, the work encapsulates the spark of Ladin’s vivid imagination as a composer. With narrative imagery and heavy musicianship, Yequm is a personal and fantastical musical tale.

The album features Dayna Stephens (tenor sax and EWI), John Ellis (tenor and soprano saxes), Gilad Hekselman (guitars), Harish Raghavan (bass), Daniel Dor (drums), Camila Meza (voice), and Yonatan Albalak (guitar). Ladin will premiere the album at The Jazz Gallery with the much of the same personnel. We discussed the process of recording the album, the ways being a bandleader has changed his work as a sideman, and the lessons he’ll carry with him to the next project.

The Jazz Gallery: I’ve been enjoying listening to the album! It’s been years in the making; What has been the most rewarding part of watching this album come to life?

Eden Ladin: So many things. I’ve been wanting to do this album for about seven years. But I didn’t have money, I was busy being a sideman, I was at The New School. So, I didn’t have time. One day, I found out that my apartment was rent stabilized, and sued my landlord, which ended in my favor. Right after that, I got called for some long tours with the bassist Avishai Cohen. So after these two things, I had a little money, and it was the perfect time to make the record. But it was a long process. One of my favorite things about that process was the cover. I found this artist from Berlin, Rahel Süßkind, and really fell in love with her style. I contacted her, and she really liked the record. She made the cover as I narrated and art-directed her work.

TJG: I was about to ask about it. The album cover is fascinating, showing these different worlds intersecting, technological, geographical, fantastical, childish, accessible. Can you tell me a little about it?

EL: It’s actually based on the tracks, on each of the songs. “Smell / Faded Memory” is the ‘nose world’ on the upper right, for example. “Lonely Arcade Man” has that digital thing in the lower right. They’re all linked to the stories on the album.

TJG: I was about to ask about those two tracks, too. On track one, “Lonely Arcade Man,” you have this open, electronic, spacious, melodic feel. Then on track two, “Smell / Faded Memory,” you launch into this acoustic world of splashy cymbals, block chords, double bass, soprano saxophone. A big narrative jump, right at the beginning. Did you spend a lot of time ordering the tunes and building a structure?

EL: Yup, yup. I did spend a lot of time with the track order. This track order, the most recent one, was actually done by Gilad Hekselman.

TJG: How did that come about?

EL: I came to his place, we were hanging out, just listening. In my shows, I like to have a lot of differences in the setlist. I love contrast. This order works for me. Chill, dreamy, spacey, then active and engaged, back and forth. Keeps the listener on their toes. The extreme changes in the vibe really drew me. The first track is sad, the second is intense and jazzy, the third is mysterious, I really change it up from track to track.

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