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Design by Cecile McLorin Salvant, courtesy of the artist.

Anyone who follows Melissa Aldana’s career might recognize generations of influences deep within her playing. Still, the tenor player and composer has managed to merge these contrasting lineages into a distinctive voice. After four records as a leader, myriad awards and recognitions and countless hikes up the steps of “the old” Jazz Gallery with her horn slung across her back, Melissa returns to the first venue that gave her a platform for experimentation when she came to New York from Santiago, Chile nearly a decade ago.

This Friday and Saturday, Melissa premieres Visions for Frida Kahlo, her 2018 commission project for The Jazz Gallery. In her interview, she celebrates the new generation of experimenters, reveals the words that changed the way she views the gig, and discusses her relationship with Frida Kahlo and interdisciplinary art forms.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re known for embracing a range of sound, including some very challenging music. One way you’ve shared how you shed harmony on an unknown tune is through finding common notes in a progression, and I would imagine the entire tune. When you approach practicing an original composition, do you use the same strategy you use when you’re learning an unknown tune or someone else’s music?

Melissa Aldana: Yes, for me it’s always the same process. Either for a standard or an original tune—my original or somebody else’s—I usually approach it as a transcription. When I transcribe, I learn a solo by heart. It’s kind of the same process where I would just try to memorize the melody, then try to memorize the harmony. When you’re more comfortable with it, you can really ‘get started’ instead of thinking about chord changes. So that is why every time I play with somebody else or with my own band, I always try to do everything by heart, because it’s easier for me to express.

TJG: So when you come to the gig having everything memorized, you’re saying it gives you a bit more freedom to make a statement?

MA: Yes. For example, this weekend I was playing with Sullivan Fortner at the Jazz Standard and with him—or with any gig—I just always memorize it, because when I’m not thinking about it, it’s easier for me to try and say something.

TJG: Speaking of live tendencies, when you first came to New York, you had a number of live experiences just trying to get out on the scene and find your voice. Can you talk a little bit about how you got your butt kicked on the bandstand and at sessions, and why getting your butt kicked matters?

MA: Yes, I got it kicked most of time. When I first moved to New York, I used to go to Smalls a lot. I would go to jam sessions a lot. It wasn’t just that I was getting my butt kicked, but I was dealing with my own insecurities. And also, when you’re doing jam sessions, the situation is never ideal. Usually for me it’s one of the most uncomfortable situations, so it really teaches you to be firm with what you want to say, and try to be more about, ‘What can we do so the music sounds more together?’ and less about just going and playing a solo. So my first few years I did go a lot to jam sessions to break the ice and [lose] the fear to just play and be comfortable with the situation.

And I always try to surround myself with people who play much better than me, so that way I can get my ass kicked. Part of why I came to New York was to get better – so I think that getting your ass kicked is a very important part of being in New York. Coming from South America, or places like where I came from, you don’t get these kinds of experiences. New York pushes you to be better. And it’s not just getting your ass kicked, it’s also going to great concerts, playing sessions with great people – younger people, older people – it’s more about the experience.

TJG: And I guess for the first time, really, you’re not the youngest generation, and now you’re calling players from the new ‘generation,’ so that must be a new experience for you, too.

MA: I know, I feel old! I’ve always been the youngest—always. And now I can see these young kids, for example Immanuel Wilkins, who play so great, and they’re so talented and so mature, but at such a young age that it’s actually really inspiring and encouraging. I haven’t seen a generation of so many really strong musicians since I moved here. In three years, they’re going to be on another planet. It’s really cool to see it happen.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Following in the footsteps of Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Kendrick Scott, and others, drummer Jeremy Dutton has established himself as a worthy member of the great Houston drum tradition. He’s equally comfortable holding down the drum chair in groups of his peers and those led by acclaimed veterans like Ambrose Akinmusire and Vijay Iyer.

Dutton is also a probing composer, using his keen melodic sense to explore both his internal and external worlds. This Thursday, May 31, Dutton will convene a top notch group to perform his newest project, Mirrors. We caught up with Dutton to talk about his mindset on the bandstand, how he conceives of his sound, and the composers he admires.

The Jazz Gallery: Are you gigging a lot these days?

Jeremy Dutton: It ebbs and flows, but yeah, pretty consistently.

TJG: What kinds of gigs are you playing?

JD: There are some gigs that are jazz clubs and some that are concerts. It changes month to month. This month I’m doing a good mix of things—I’ll be at the Vanguard with Vijay Iyer, I have some stuff with James Francies out of town, and then I’ll be at the Gallery a few times with Harish [Raghavan], and then for Melissa Aldana’s commission project, and James’ [Francies] commissioned work. It should be a good month—some stuff out of town, and the Gallery is one of my favorite places to play.

TJG: Would you call playing The Jazz Gallery a concert or a jazz club hit?

JD: What I like about the Gallery is it can feel like either depending on the music being played and the audience vibe. I think it’s kind of in between the two.

TJG: Do you play differently in the two contexts?

JD: I try not to. I want to be consistent, and in every setting I am who I am. There are things like playing to the room and understanding balance, but in general, the core way that I approach playing music, the baseline, remains the same.

TJG: What is that baseline?

JD: For me, it’s about being conversational. It’s all about the moment and making something spontaneously, as opposed to everyone just playing their role. That can be cool too, and the moment might call for that, but in general I try to bring openness to what I do so the music can move however it wants to move. The way we do it in soundcheck doesn’t have to be the way we do it on stage. Anything can happen up there—sometimes it’s a mistake. Somebody might go to a section too soon or someone might forget a section. Then we have to react. But in that reaction there’s often an opportunity for something really cool, because the only way to move forward is for everyone to trust each other, and to me, that’s when the music sounds best. So that’s my baseline: listening to everyone and trying to receive what they’re playing and reciprocate that energy.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, May 26, The Jazz Gallery welcomes saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and his quartet back to our stage. Since his last show at the Gallery in March, Wilkins has been quite busy, appearing regularly in the city at Smoke and Smalls, as well as heading out of town to play with the likes of Gerald Clayton and E.J. Strickland.

With his working quartet, Wilkins has been exploring a spiritual vein in his music, drawing from his upbringing playing in church. In a previous interview with Jazz Speaks, Wilkins described his quartet music thusly:

The idea was to write modern day hymns—music that is influenced by my upbringing. But the [gospel harmony] 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.

Before coming out to see Wilkins and company continue to expand this musical vision, check out the group’s performance of Wilkins’s composition, “Warriors.”

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From L to R: Edward Gavitt, Andres Valbuena, Steve Williams, Alfredo Colón. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Friday, The Jazz Gallery will welcome the group Secret Mall back to our stage. Through mining different facets of internet culture and electronic music styles like vaporwave, Secret Mall has created a distinctive collection of compositions, both atmospheric and cinematic.

Before coming out to the show on Friday, check out Jazz Speaks’ previous interviews with the band, and listen to the simultaneously gossamer and hard-grooving “Serotonin Syndrome”—recorded at the band’s last Gallery appearance—below.

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Photo by Jessica Carlton-Thomas, courtesy of the artist.

Alongside being an educated and thoughtful young saxophonist, Kevin Sun approaches composition with clarity and discipline. In our interviews with Sun, our conversations have revolved around the intricacies of his processes, the development of his practices and patterns, and the specific points where he surrenders himself to the creative process.

Sun’s trio, consisting of bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor, has been making waves along the east coast following the release of his album, Trio—according to Giovanni Russonello the New York Times, “This may be the first you’ve heard of Mr. Sun, a tenor saxophonist, but that will soon change.”

Kevin Sun’s upcoming show at The Gallery will feature a new hour-long work for quintet. The work, in the words of Sun, “explores stillness, space, and texture inspired by meditation and self-reflection.” His new quintet features Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Dana Saul on piano, Simon Willson on bass, and Dayeon Seok on drums.

The Jazz Gallery: “The Rigors of Love”—What’s it all about?

Kevin Sun: Good question! I’m still figuring it out. With this project on May 23rd, I knew that I wanted to write a longer piece of music, and I wanted to use a larger ensemble. This is the largest ensemble I’ve written for: Five people doesn’t seem like that many, but going from three to five is a big jump. Especially writing for piano, which is kind of daunting—there’s a lot of information that you can give a pianist. But I don’t have that much to say about the title, though I’ve been thinking about it.

TJG: How did the title come to you?

KS: It kind of came out of nowhere, which happens often. I always have phrases, ideas, things I’ve read in my head. Sometimes I’ll be on a walk and will jot something down. I’ve found that I often have a better time writing music if I start with an interesting title. Words, phrases, or poetry can give me some abstract idea or feeling to work with.

TJG: Since you began with the title as a means of inspiration, where did you go from there?

KS: I’ve been wrestling with the practice and discipline of trying to compose more music in general. It’s something I love, but it’s hard. I’ve found that the more I commit myself to working through all the details, the more satisfied I am with the process, and I don’t give up and go for the first thing that pops into my head. When I first began writing, I would reach for what I already knew, what I thought might be a good melody, some pretty chords and accompaniment to go with it. But I got bored really fast, it all started sounding the same, and I wasn’t enjoying it. I stopped writing for a while, then a few years back I began trying some new approaches, to put a system in place or develop a system as I go.

Sometimes it can be time consuming because you have to work through information, sit with raw material, and think about how to put the elements together. That’s where the rigor comes in, I guess. It can be frustrating because you’re sitting there for twenty, thirty minutes with a piece of paper in front of you. You’re thinking through things, scribbling ideas down, and it doesn’t work. You abandon things that seem weaker because you’re going for the idea that seems strongest. It’s almost like a staring contest. You want to make the next move, and it’s testing your patience and willpower to think through your ideas.

This is something I got from taking composition lessons with John Hollenbeck. A large part of his approach is considering options as deeply as possible before taking action. I began to understand after a few lessons that we might never get to writing a piece, because his demands on really considering all possible options and making a strong decision was the whole point of the process. When composing this way, you might not even get to writing notes of music for a long time, it’s more about the process of trying to figure out the best possible choices.

That brings us back to the title. I don’t know if this is the most rigorous piece I’ve ever written, but I definitely spent a long time just sitting there, contemplating my options, writing things.

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