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From L to R: Michael Mayo, Vuyo Sotashe, Sachal Vasandani, and J.D. Walter. Photos courtesy of the artists.

For his upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery, vocalist Sachal Vasandani has assembled a true vocal super group. With Michael Mayo, Vuyo Sotashe, JD Walter, and Vasandani, the ensemble features vocalists with different perspectives and approaches to their shared craft.

Vasandani is a jazz singer and artist who, throughout the last decade, has released a series of critically-acclaimed albums through the Okeh label and Mack Avenue Records. This upcoming vocal showcase will also include pianist Taylor Eigsti and saxophonist Dayna Stephens, who also played on Vasandani’s latest album, Shadow Train, to be released at the end of May. We spoke with Vasandani about his expectations and anticipation for the upcoming showcase.

The Jazz Gallery: Your theme for this collaborative show is “What A Time To Be Alive”—there’s no doubt about that. How does this put the music in context?

Sachal Vasandani: With this group, we have an opportunity to comment on the state of jazz through the voice. It’s rare, at least for me, to have the opportunity to play with other singers, especially male singers. With JD, Vuyo, and Michael, we’ll have a great chance to explore different directions. The thing about improvisation, and jazz in general, is that it always feels like it’s the right time for it. It’s a celebration of the present. That’s why with the title of the show, “What A Time To Be Alive,” we’re highlighting the opportunity to celebrate the present and comment on how we see the world at this moment through improvisation.

TJG: What do you mean when you say you can comment on the state of being a jazz vocalist today? What is that state, for you?

SV: While I think that the world considers me a jazz vocalist, I consider myself an artist with a statement to make. That statement is sometimes a reflection of the past, but more and more, I’m concerned with the present and the future. I’m thankful that these three other singers, as well as Taylor and Dayna, are all thinking along these same lines. You get us all together, and there’s going to be very individualist approaches. We’re not going to adhere to any particular tradition, it’ll be more a celebration of different viewpoints. That’s exciting to me.

TJG: You’ve assembled a wonderful trio in Michael, JD, and Vuyo. Tell me about your choices. How did those singers come to mind as you put this show together?

SV: In my opinion, they are some of the leading lights. They each represent different attitudes, traditions, even age groups. We might have some free improvisation, we might have something rooted in one tradition or the other, we might have some electronics. That’s part of the collective experience. Personally, I think I will be challenged by what they bring. That’s what I live for.

TJG: Are there things that differentiate each singer approach that you’re excited to explore?

SV: I think you hit it. There’s a mix of traditions, some overlap in the jazz language, some stylistic similarities, and then some domain that might fall more into the specialties of each of the men. I think there’s enough individuality and overlap for there to be some really nice common language.

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Members of Snark Horse playing at The Stone, from L to R: Mary Halvorson, Matt Mitchell, Ben Gerstein, Jon Irabagon, and Kate Gentile. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Co-led by drummer Kate Gentile and pianist Matt Mitchell, the band Snark Horse features a rotating cast of characters assembled to improvise on 1-measure compositions. With these small seeds, Mitchell, Gentile, and company grow vast gardens of sound—simple fragments morphing into grand vistas and back into a completely different fragment. While this notion of process music may call to mind the mechanistic works of composers like Steve Reich and Gyorgi Ligeti, the music of Snark Horse is more elusive and surreal. It follows a logic that makes sense in the moment, but leads to unimagined destinations.

This Friday, April 27, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome Snark Horse to our stage. For this performance, Gentile and Mitchell will be joined saxophonist Jon Irabagon, trombonist Ben Gerstein, and violist Mat Maneri. Before coming out to discover what wormholes the group will travel through next, check out Snark Horse’s debut album, recorded at Korzo in 2015.
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Photo via www.youtube.com

Perhaps you’ve never heard of bassist Walter Stinson. But there’s a good chance you’ve seen him supporting one of the many talented, up-and-coming artists on the New York scene. While collaborating with Arturo O’Farrill, Kevin Sun, Onyx Collective, and Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days, Stinson has been quietly developing his own collection of original tunes. His upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery marks his debut as a bandleader.

Hailing from Ithaca, NY, Stinson grew up listening to his mother play the piano and sing jazz standards. He eventually moved to New York to study with bassist Bernie Upson and drummer George Reed, and graduated from Purchase College in 2012, having studied with John Clayton, Scott Colley, and Larry Grenadier along the way. For his debut at the Gallery, he’ll be joined by Kevin Sun on saxophones, pianist Dana Saul, and drummer David Frazier Jr.

The Jazz Gallery: This will be your first show at The Jazz Gallery as a leader?

Walter Stinson: Actually, this will be my first show as a leader anywhere. That’s what’s so exciting about it. I’ve never had a show of my own music before. It’s also an opportunity to put together a new band, a group of friends who have played together in different configurations but have never come together as a single group.

TJG: Back up a moment: This is really your first show ever as a leader? Does that sound strange when you say it out loud?

WS: [Laughs] Definitely. It’s surprising. That’s what feels so momentous about it. I’ve played at the Gallery many times supporting different groups over the years. I love the venue and the music they present. I’ve been writing for years, and have played my own music in some of my friend’s groups, but having a concert centered on my own compositions is new. It’s exciting.

TJG: How did this opportunity at The Jazz Gallery come about?

WS: I had never really spoken with Rio before one particular gig with Kevin Sun in his trio. After our first set, strangely enough, I felt pretty bad about my playing. It was an oddly dark moment for me. I was walking off stage, beating myself up, and Rio approached me and said “Hey Walter, you sound great.” I was like, “What?” She asked if I had my own group, and since I didn’t, she said having a gig at the Gallery would be a great opportunity to get my own band together. It was amazing. I felt so low, and someone I admired came through and helped me see through the negativity.

TJG: It makes you wonder if she saw you up there beating yourself up about your playing, and approached you in light of that.

WS: I’ve wondered. A similar experience happened when I went to Banff years ago. I was low as low can be, kind of emotional wreck, and I brought that feeling with me on stage. I thought “Man, I’m overplaying my instrument, I’m emotionally vomiting through my bass,” I was just up there being very human. But Vijay Iyer and the other instructors there were looking closely at my playing and saying really kind things. It’s nice to know that in this art form, being genuine is encouraged. If you’re a wreck, if you’re going through a lot, you can still perform and choose to make something from it. That’s the most beautiful thing. It’s genuine expression.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday, April 24, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her group Anti House 4 return to The Jazz Gallery for two sets. Since arriving in New York, Laubrock has become an integral member of a free-thinking, collaborative community of improvisers, including Mary Halvorson, Kris Davis, Tom Rainey, and many others. Before setting off on a European tour, Laubrock and company will convene at the Gallery to stretch out their musical materials in new directions. We caught up with Laubrock to talk about the development of her recent projects, and what’s happened when she’s played her music for young children.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve lived a life with an inspiring amount of globetrotting, from your childhood in Germany, a significant portion of adulthood in London (with lots of virtual traveling to Brazil and Cuba), with your most recent tenure here in New York.

Ingrid Laubrock: I played Cuban music when I was in London but I’ve never been there. I have been to Brazil quite a lot, not only virtually but also physically. Mostly in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, a little bit to Bahia, as well as some time in Belo Horizonte.

TJG: Do you ever reflect on the differences between these cities and if they have any bearing on your musical processes?

IL: Yes, I definitely think so. I grew up in the countryside so there wasn’t much information around at all. I was really raised around nature and animals. But I think that even that aspect is part of my music, having had lots of space and lots of silence and listening to natural sounds— I’m sure that filters in somewhere. I still have this urge to be in silence, in nature, and I need a fix of that every year. And it’s beyond a vacation. It’s just really wanting to be in a forest, or at the sea, and just having space and relative silence.

I would say London was my probably my formation. I started playing there, I learned so much from so many different types of musicians and from folks, and it has a very dedicated improvising scene, which had some great players that taught me a lot of things. But really, across the board—I learned a lot of things from either musicians my own age, where we explored compositions and music together, or from people who are older and showed me things, or concerts I attended. And New York is a whole other kettle of fish. The pool of musicians is so wide here, everybody does very cool things, and, y’know, it kicks your ass in a way.

Since I’ve been here, what has happened to me is that I write a lot more. I already was going that way in London towards the end. I had a steadier rhythm in London—I just didn’t travel as far much—but here, I’m sometimes super busy, I’m away, on the road. But then there are moments when I really have a chunk of time to fill, which I love to use for writing, and not trying to fill everything up with gigs or sessions like I used to do in London.

TJG: Is there a discrepancy between the soundscapes of New York and London?

IL: Yeah, I think so. Yesterday, I had this concert in SoHo and I was grabbing a bite to eat and sitting outside this bodega by the entrance of the Holland Tunnel. And the light went green and there was immediately this ridiculous concert of honking. It was just so incessant, and went on till the lights changed again and became red. You know, it’s basically a traffic jam and people are frustrated. That kind of stuff is so much more intense here than in London. Everything is louder here. There is so much traffic in London but traffic is slow, and less honking. It’s just not such a thing, more politeness between drivers. Also, I live in a neighborhood where buildings are constantly going up—it’s just mushrooming! And I never lived in a neighborhood like that in London. London has many more two story houses, and most of the houses have a yard. Even if you pay a low rent, it’s just the nature of the town. You have a little buffer between houses, there’s a quiet space in between. And here, it’s just so much denser. So yeah, the sounds are definitely different. There are also huge parks in London, so in general just more green and more silence.

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Design courtesy of the artists.

Amir ElSaffar is a performer and composer whose music exists at the crux of ancient and modern traditions. An innovator on trumpet, ElSaffar also plays santur and sings in the traditional Maqam style. His compositions have been commissioned by institutions across the globe, and he has received awards from the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award to the US Artist Fellowship. With his Rivers of Sound Orchestra, he recently released a new album Not Two on New Amsterdam Records to great acclaim. ElSaffar is also the artistic director of Alwan for the Arts, a nonprofit arts & culture organization that showcases cultural and artistic diversity from across the Arab world and South Asia.

For this upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery, ElSaffar will be teaming up with the Brooklyn Raga Massive. Brooklyn Raga Massive was founded in 2012 to bring classical Indian music to a new audience and update the music to match the fast pace and collaborative lifestyle of New York. We spoke at length with ElSaffar about the intricate differences between Maqam and Raga, and the fascinating ways in which they intersect with the world of jazz in New York and beyond.

The Jazz Gallery: For our readers who may not be familiar, what exactly is Maqam, and how does it differ from Raga?

Amir ElSaffar: Maqam is a modal system that are used in the music of the Middle East, North Africa, the Arab world, Turkey, parts of Southern and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Iran, Uzbekistan, all the way to Western China. It’s a system that has many variations, but it’s consistent throughout a large part of the world. Raga and Maqam developed independently of one another, and there’s no overlap, per se. There are even musicians who play Persian, Maqam-based music, as well as Raga, but they don’t necessarily mix the two. Somehow, Raga and Maqam are distinct musical languages. There’s a kind of cross-pollination in North India, with some Hindustani music that was affected by Maqam, and vice-versa with Raga in Persian music, but both are highly distinct.

TJG: Your personal training and immersion has its foundation in Iraqi Maqam. What differentiates Maqam in Iraq from traditions across North Africa, the Near East, Central Asia, and so on?

AE: Iraqi Maqam is one style, one genre, one form within the Maqam tradition. In Iraq, the word “maqam” actually means “a composition,” so by extrapolating on a mode and taking it through all its possibilities, all of the extensions of that mode, in Iraq the Maqams become crystalized as compositions, as forms, that are meant to be performed in somewhat the same manner each time. One can make certain choices within that form, but they become much more specific.

TJG: So it’s a traditional practice, but through that practice it has crystalized into a repeatable form?

AE: Yes. So you have a group of seven notes: It’s not a scale, really, it’s a collection of pitches, each exerting a gravity on the next. Those relationships are powerful. They can be microtonal as well: The E can be half-flat, the F can be half-sharp, there are many gradations of pitch on a continuum. In Raga, you also don’t rest on microtonal pitches as much. There are a lot of glissandi in Hindustani and Carnatic music, but you don’t stop on the microtonal notes between pitches, whereas in Maqam music in general, those pitches have their own characteristic sovereignty.

TJG: How did your relationship with Brooklyn Raga Massive begin, and what kind of material have you been assembling?

AE: We’ve found that there are modes shared between Raga and Maqam, so that was an easy starting point. But the treatment of those modes, how the ornamentation works, which notes get emphasized and which notes get passed over, there’s a lot of subtlety there. The fine tuning is different too. We begin with a Hindustani, Persian, Iraqi, or similar composition, and start assembling the forms. We intersperse improvisation and musical dialogue as well. Maybe we have two people improvising off of each other, with each other.

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