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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, March 31, alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins returns to The Jazz Gallery with his working quartet. While still a student at Juilliard, Wilkins has established himself as an in-demand sideman and burgeoning bandleader. In 2018 alone, Wilkins has gotten the call from such luminaries as Jason Moran, Gerald Clayton, E.J. Strickland, David Weiss, and Ben Wolfe.

For the Gallery show this weekend, Wilkins and company will be playing a mix of old and new tunes, including new settings of poetry featuring vocalist Alyssa McDoom. We caught up with Wilkins for a wide-ranging conversation about his music as a religious outlet, the sources of his saxophone sound, and his noted fashion sense.

The Jazz Gallery: So who’s in this iteration of the band?

Immanuel Wilkins: Micah Thomas, Kweku Sumbry, Daryl Johns, and Alyssa McDoom will be singing on some tunes. Those were the musicians this concept was built around.

TJG: What was the concept? I feel like I hear a lot of open gospel-like voicings in your music?

IW: Yeah, I played piano in church up until I moved to New York, and I usually compose on the piano. The idea was to write modern day hymns—music that is influenced by my upbringing. But the general sound that you’re referring to almost came about by accident. I didn’t necessarily try to do it. It was just what was on my fingers at the time. I wanted a band that understood my vision of what the music was and I also wanted individual voices that would be able to bring it beyond what I had had in mind.

For the first couple of years being here I was just searching to find the closest I could get to my vision. But when I found it I knew it. It was then time to move forward.

TJG: How did you go about picking your bandmates? I don’t necessarily imagine all of them as the religious type.

IW: (Laughs) Believe it or not, Micah’s dad’s a pastor. Micah has actually become one of my closest friends—we’ve really been able to hold each other up as far as spirituality and just dealing with the music school experience.

TJG: Are you still a church regular these days?

IW: I’m trying to find a church but I want something that’s real. I just haven’t really found that yet.

TJG: Is part of the missing connection the fact that you’re not playing?

IW: It’s partly that, but I’m also trying to make it a point not to play now, and actually go and be on the receiving side only instead of the giving and receiving side. I want to just be there.

TJG: Outside of Church, when you’re playing with your band, would you call that a “religious experience?”

IW: Definitely, yeah. I want it to be religious for everybody hearing it and I hope that comes across. I want my music to be so undeniably what it is that it just draws cats in. That’s also why I love playing in a band so much, especially playing in my band; I’m trying to write music that facilitates a space for us to be religious vessels for the music—have us actually act as vessels for Jesus. And as we build, I feel us getting closer to that role.

TJG: How does it work when you play sideman gigs—when you play with musicians who may not necessarily be religious?

IW: This is my personal pursuit, and I’m leaving it at the doorstep of whoever I’m playing with. If it affects you then you can dive into what I’m doing, or say “No, that’s not for me. Let me find my own path.” But this is my thing. This works for me. If my playing touches you in a way that makes you think, “That’s the way,” then you’re welcome to come on in.

TJG: What are you thinking about when you’re soloing? Are you thinking?

IW: No, but I’m really aware. That’s one of the things I pride myself on. I’m really aware of what’s happening all around the band. That’s allowed me to be a better sideman and better musician in general. It takes a certain musical vulnerability to do that—I try to listen a lot and then add my own language based on that context.

TJG: The language you add in a musical context seems to be very different than in an everyday context.  When speaking, you come across as laid back and really nice, but your playing almost reminds me of an exorcism (laughing). Occasionally I’ll even catch you yelling between notes. When I asked you why that is previously, Micah jumped in and joked that you’re “repressed.” What do you think is going on?

IW: Ha, people have told me about the yelling thing and so I’ve listened back, and yeah, I’m actually screaming (laughs). I think it all goes back to spirituality. I’m not repressed, but that is pretty funny that Micah called me that. I think I’m just private day-to-day and about my spiritual walk. I don’t talk about it much, but music is my outlet for that kind of stuff to come out. I’m not coming from an angry place, but I am trying to get a lot out all at once. The screaming comes from me losing my meditative train of thought. Going back to the vessel thing, I don’t want to get in the way of whatever I’m channeling. Once my mind gets in the way of what’s happening, that’s when the screams happen. The goal is to get to a place where I’m so focused that I’m almost out-of-body.

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L to R: Stephan Crump, Cory Smythe, Ingrid Laubrock. Photo courtesy of the artists.

This Friday, March 30, The Jazz Gallery welcomes Crump/Laubrock/Smythe—a veritable supergroup of free-thinking improvisers—to our stage for two sets. Each player is a forceful leader in their own right, and the collective has quickly found their footing in the murky space between New York’s jazz and concert music scenes. The trio released their debut record—Planktonic Finales (Intakt)—in February 2017, showcasing their easy rapport through 11 freely-improvised vignettes.

Before coming to the Gallery on Friday to hear the group’s latest improvised explorations, check out their recent performance at the Cornelia Street Cafe, below.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Korean-born composer and vocalist Jihye Lee brings a rich, kaleidoscopic new voice to the realm of big band writing. Her first big band album, April, was composed in response to the catastrophic wreck of the Korean ferry Sewol in April of 2014, which killed over three hundred travelers, many of whom were teenage children. The music on April runs the gamut of human emotions, and affords Lee the opportunity to respond to the tragedy in a concentrated yet multifaceted way: April reflects not only the unfolding of this disaster, but offers a ray of hope, as April is viewed as a month of life blossoming, as life emerging from a long winter.

Lee, who has been featured in The Jazz Gallery Jazz Composers’ Showcase twice in the last season, will return to the Gallery as leader presenting new and old works of delicately-woven, modern big band music. We spoke with Lee about the complexity of being a composer in a city as solitary as New York, and the ways in which creative and emotional challenges manifest themselves in her music.

The Jazz Gallery: Tell me a little about the new music you’ll be presenting at the Gallery.

Jihye Lee: I recorded and released my album April last year, so some of the music at the Gallery will be from that album. I’ve composed maybe seven or eight more tunes since I moved to New York two years ago. Our living environment is very important, I think. Music is the reflection of your life right? Since I’ve moved to New York, I think the energy of the city has changed my music in a good way. There’s more crunchiness, more anger, but in a positive way. New York can be very radical, but cold at the same time. I like those changes.

TJG: Can you tell me a little more about that crunchiness? Is it in the orchestration, rhythm, timbre?

JL: I think it’s in everything. I faced some hardship when I came to New York; it could be a reflection of that. The crunchiness is also in the harmonic material as well. I used a lot of minor 2nds and 9ths. We learn in school, “Don’t use minor 9ths,” but in order to make personal, emotional statements, you need to use those forbidden harmonic moves. Rhythms too. My new music can be rhythmically very unexpected. It’s not always 4/4. It can be going along, and suddenly have a fast measure of 3/8. It surprises you. In some situations, it’s like you’re walking on the street, and then you stumble, and then you’re staggering. “What’s happening?” you ask in the moment. So it’s harmonic and rhythmic material, but there’s emotional statements too. The soul you put into your music is the most crucial thing, a spiritual thing, and it has to be delivered to the audience.

TJG: When your compositional voice is the big band, how do you compose, and imagine how it might sound, when alone with your computer in your office or studio?

JL: It’s quite an adventure [laughs]. I don’t consider myself a very experienced writer yet, so every time I write new music, I have a lot of self doubt. How will it sound? What if it’s terrible? What if it doesn’t work with the live band? I don’t write music that’s comfortable or safe. I always want to challenge myself and the musicians, to experiment a bit. Sometimes, I revise the music after I hear the real players, but most of the time I’m happy with the sound. The experience I do have helps me imagine the sound from the band while I’m writing with the computer or on paper. Even still, every time I have my music in front of the musicians, I get a little nervous.

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Photo courtesy of the artists.

Pascal Le Boeuf returns to The Jazz Gallery as a bandleader on March 26th to present “Ritual Being.” You may know Le Boeuf from any of his wide-ranging projects across the chamber jazz spectrum, including Le Boeuf Brothers (co-lead by Pascal and his twin brother Remy), works for ensembles such as JACK Quartet, RighteousGIRLS, and Shattered Glass String Orchestra, or Pascal’s Triangle, his trio featuring bassist Linda Oh and drummer Justin Brown. However you may know him, you know that his ambitious works push boundaries and defy expectations.

“Ritual Being” is a focused yet open-ended treatise on our daily habits. The new work encourages listeners to think about the semi-subconscious activities we undertake every day, and to consider the impact of those actions, whether social, environmental, or economic. The nine-piece hybrid ensemble features San Francisco’s Friction Quartet, as well as Remy Le Boeuf on alto saxophone, Anna Webber on tenor saxophone, Martin Nevin on bass, and Jochen Rueckert on drums. We spoke with Pascal Le Boeuf, as well as Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers of Friction Quartet, about “Ritual Being.” We started with the work’s core themes, and opened into a larger discussion about audience engagement and the creative process.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you describe your conception of ritualistic behavior? How did the project begin?

Pascal Le Boeuf: I grew up in a family of biologists. Both of my parents, for example, researched social hierarchies and behavior in marine mammals. As a kid, they would talk about elephant seal social behavior at home all the time, and would occasionally take me to lectures at UC Santa Cruz. By the time I was old enough to begin thinking about human behavior, I had a little David Attenborough in my head, narrating the mysteries of human interaction. 

What sparked this project into being was my perspective on human behavior, combined with a book I recently read called “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, which looks at our development as a species. It discusses how we spread from Africa, how we’ve developed over 200,000 years, and how we became a dominant species through our unique capacity to cooperate in large numbers. I’ve always been interested in patterns of human behavior from a more objective perspective, and that’s what rituals are to me: The behavioral tendencies of our species, the habits which we’re predisposed to exhibit. This project is all about exploring rituals. Some are beautiful, some are not. Some are sustainable, some are destructive.

TJG: So how does the new work explore this type of human behavior? How does this concept inform how we listen?

PL: That’s the fun part. Though the work explores the objective idea of human behavior, my way of musically interacting with the material is from a subjective perspective. As an artist, I can only draw upon my experiences, and I create sound in response. I almost think of composing as writing in a journal. It’s part of being alive for me. “Ritual Being” exists as a multi-movement work, with separate pieces that sit well together and are related in certain ways, but the individual movements exist as a result of my natural writing process.

TJG: Otis, how does the piece feel after the quartet’s initial rehearsals with Pascal?

Otis Harriel (Friction Quartet): It’s exciting. It’s a very challenging piece, and it takes a while to digest. Our individual parts are extremely virtuosic, and we’re constantly playing in odd meters. We have to hocket with each other in these meters, or pass off difficult figures. There are a lot of hoops to jump through. It’s tough music, but it’s coming together.

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Photo by Herbert Ejzenberg.

This Friday, March 23, pianist Shai Maestro returns to The Jazz Gallery stage with his working trio, featuring Jorge Roeder on bass and Ofri Nehemya on drums. Maestro has been a frequent presence at the Gallery in recent years, performing in many different configurations, including solo, in dialogue with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and with larger ensembles. The show on Friday is a return to home base, as the trio prepares for an upcoming recording. We caught up with Maestro by phone to talk about the group’s new material and Maestro’s evolving compositional mindset.

The Jazz Gallery: What music will you be playing at the show?

Shai Maestro: We’re going to play very new material—in two weeks we’ll be recording a new album.

TJG: Could you talk about the new music?

SM: Definitely! It’s been an interesting process. Composing it, it didn’t go so easily this time. It opened up mainly when I let go of trying to do it, like many other things in life. This time it’s a lot more song oriented, rather than grandiose compositions and crazy odd meters and that kind of stuff. It’s more focusing on the songs, the DNA of a simple song, and trying to play within that, just with the material and the playing, the actual improvising. That’s something new for me. I came in being comfortable with a world of a lot of composed material. So that’s great—I’m excited to play with the guys, they’re incredible. Super open for adventures and the moments that might arrive. I’ve learned the music in all twelve keys, and different tempos, for flexibility to play with what I feel in the moment.

TJG: How do you approach writing for improvisation?

SM: I try to write things that will stimulate creativity. Usually that’s an artistic choice. Static material, melodies that’re kind of downbeat-oriented; things that don’t move a lot, tend to put you in a certain mood, and if I go to that mood, I try to find small movements that will inspire creativity. Or go to a completely different world, something that will just be uncomfortable to play, or placed at a weird place in the bar, or with tension on chords where when you play the chord other options are laid in front of you, of where you can go. So every time is different; sometimes there’s very little material, sometimes there’s a lot. The idea is the same.

TJG: With writing music, do you start at the piano when you’re composing, or do you think away from an instrument?

SM: You know, my phone is full of voice memos with me singing melodies in the street. I try to write on planes, on trains when I’m traveling, on little keyboards. The best songs come out when I sit next to the piano, and when I sing. When I play and sing at the same time, singing the melody, something about that action brings more honest notes.

TJG: This new music is more song oriented—does that come out of that vocalizing?

SM: Probably. Composition is such a mysterious process. I’m very systematic, in all of the aspects of music, practicing, pretty much anything. But composition is one of those rare things that just stay mystic, this spiritual, ungraphable quality that you can’t define, you can’t catch. The singing helps, but I don’t know! [laughs]

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