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Tiny Tree is a fiercely improvisational quartet led by bassist Steve Williams. The group balances delicate soundscapes with freewheeling compositions to explore, among other things, the emotional-affective capabilities of rhythmic intricacy. The group features Steve Williams on bass, Noah Becker on woodwinds, Lesley Mok on drums, and Juho Valjakka on piano, stepping in for the group’s usual pianist, Theo Walentiny. We talked with Williams about the backstory behind his compositions, and his excitement for stepping into the unknown with his bandmates.

The Jazz Gallery: How did this ‘Tiny Tree’ quartet come together?

Steve Williams: Noah and I met at the New School my second semester there. We played in school ensembles and had classes together, but didn’t become close until about two summers ago. We were in Canada together, where we really bonded and have been close since then. I met Lesley at Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl show at The Jazz Standard. Nick Dunston introduced me to her. I saw her play with Nick and Noah at The Owl Music Parlor. She has this sensitive fierceness on the drums, this focused intensity. I walked up to her after the gig and said “We need to play.” That, along with pianist Theo Walentiny, is the current iteration of this group Tiny Tree. Theo is out of town right now, doing a three-month residency in China, so I had to try to find a different pianist. That’s where Juho comes in. We met last summer in Estonia, we were both there for the IASJ, and were in an ensemble together. We instantly connected, musically and personally. He’s a special pianist, not afraid to take chances. We really bonded over that week, and it so happened that he would be in New York around this time, so I asked if he could extend his stay just to do this gig.

TJG: It’s great that it could work out for you to play together on this gig.

SW: Yeah, I’m excited. This music really leaves improvisatory space open for people who are willing to take chances. They are all very capable of doing that, and I’ve really enjoyed what everyone has to add to the music.

TJG: Tell me a little about the songbook.

SW: Right now, everything is written by me. First, I wanted to challenge myself as a writer and improviser. That’s not necessarily groundbreaking, because that’s what everyone’s writing is. But I really wanted to explore the ‘affect’ of rhythm. Every composition in this book starts out with a rhythmic idea, as opposed to a harmonic idea. I’m trying to explore the emotions behind rhythms, to transfer ideas that might be challenging or theoretically dense, and translate them to something rhythmic, then move forward with the rest of the material. That was my personal challenge in each of these pieces.

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Morgan Guerin isn’t your typical multi-instrumentalist. Rather than specializing in an instrument family, Guerin performs regularly as a saxophonist, bassist, and drummer. He’s recorded and produced two albums under his own name and scored regular gigs with the likes of Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding, all while still an undergraduate at The New School. As he continues to balance his professional and academic life, Guerin will return to The Jazz Gallery for two nights of music. Both nights will feature a core band of Guerin on drums, bass, synths, and saxophone, alongside Chris Fishman on keyboards and synths, Val Jeanty on electonics, and Dana Hawkins on bass and drums. The first night will also feature vocalist Débo Ray, and the second night will feature drummer Marcus Gilmore. We caught up with Guerin about his current gigs, his approach to learning music, and his expectations for the upcoming shows at the Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: I’ve been scrolling through your social media, finding things to ask you about. It’s pretty overwhelming: This fall alone, you’ve played with Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, releasing more of your own stuff, done so many collaborations… How do you keep it all straight?

Morgan Guerin: Honestly, Terri Lyne Carrington’s work ethic completely makes everything I have to do so small. She and Esperanza are the two hardest-working people I know. It’s really inspiring to watch them go from project to project, show to show, and have the energy and passion to be able to share and create all the time. It’s a blessing to see their work ethic, and it has definitely rubbed off on me. It pushes me to create more, to stay up that extra hour, to get up an hour earlier. The way they think and listen to music is so eye-opening and super new to me. Having all that knowledge under my wings at such a young age is a blessing.

TJG: Totally, and it’s amazing that you can see it with that perspective. Behind the social media posts and the live performances, what does it look like with these artists in rehearsal, and how did you get involved in their projects?

MG: I got asked to go on a tour with Esperanza maybe two months beforehand. I believe Matt Stevens had recommended me. They were in the studio trying to figure out how they were going to play all this music live, and they probably needed one person who could handle a couple of roles. For the tour, I was playing my synth, organ, singing, bass, sax, and even kick drum on one song [laughs]. In terms of how we talk, we’re all humans. They’re just humans with an extraordinary knowledge, so we communicate like that, everyone is super respectful, I’m always learning, everybody’s willing to give information and pass it on. Esperanza is super open to ideas from others in general. On the first day of rehearsal, none of us really knew what we’d be playing, at least I didn’t. I found out that she wasn’t really playing bass right now, so I brought everything, just in case. Just the fact that she trusts my bass playing, and to have my bass playing on her live shows and her record is beyond an honor for me.

TJG: Does she talk to about your bass sound, or did she really hand it over to you?

MG: She didn’t say much. Every now and again I’d ask her questions, just because I’d be curious about some of the approaches she’s coming from. She always knows what she wants to hear. If it’s something specific, she’ll point it out. But usually she just lets me play, which is really, really cool.

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Kassa Overall’s six-month residency continues strong into its third installation with an upcoming show featuring pianist Aaron Parks. Not only does Overall bring two prior performances (with Jon Batiste and Jason Moran) to this next show, he is also celebrating the release of a new album. Go Get Ice Cream and Listen To Jazz has already received praise from various outlets such as The New York Times, and features the likes of Theo Croker, Carmen Lundy, Mike King, Carlos Overall, Judi Jackson and the late Roy Hargrove. In our recent conversation with Kassa Overall, we talked all about the new album, and how it relates to the ongoing TIME CAPSULE residency at the Gallery. 

The Jazz Gallery: What brings you from Brooklyn to Toronto?

Kassa Overall: I’m seeing an art installation by an artist named Nep Sidhu, he does the art outfits for people like Erykah Badu and Shibazz Palaces, he’s a real non-commercial type cat, and this is his first big showing, so I’m up here checking that out. My girl is a writer and she’s covering it: I like going to these things, checking out the scene, meeting people, getting ideas, that kind of vibe.

TJG: Since we last spoke, you released a new album. It’s so hip! I can’t believe you didn’t mention it last time we talked.

KO: Thanks man. I guess I compartmentalize things a bit. I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned it either [laughs]. I played drums on everything, and I did the production on everything. The album also relates to TIME CAPSULE in that the sound of the acoustic piano is a strong centerpiece. Mike King is on “The Sky Diver,” Sullivan Fortner is on a few tracks, Julius Rodriguez is on a few tracks. It’s similar to the hip-hop approach to making an album, in that rather than one fixed personnel, I did a track here, a track there. We did the piano recording for Sullivan’s parts in his living room, you get the idea.

TJG: And who else was involved?

KO: Stephan Crump is on a track on bass, Daryl Johns is on a track, Anthony Weir is on flute. I can’t really remember everybody off the top, but credits will be out soon. I haven’t put them up yet, I was rushing to the deadline with the album, and the fact that it got out in time was amazing. I’m still working on things. I should have vinyl soon too.

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Saxophonist Tivon Pennicott is the jazz equivalent of what’s referred to in sports as a “glue guy”—a player who can fit into any situation and elevate the time. For years, Pennicott has palyed with singer Gregory Porter–with whom Pennicott logged over two hundred shows a year–as well as Ari Hoenig, Al Foster, Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor, Esperanza Spalding, and many more. Pennicott is now stepping out more as a leader as well, working with his quartet to complete a new, ambitiously-orchestrated followup to his debut, Lover of Nature. We caught up with Pennicott to talk about the development of this new work.

The Jazz Gallery: Can you fill me in on your current project and the album you’re working on?

Tivon Pennicott: Yeah, it’s a quartet album with Philip Dizack on trumpet, Joe Saylor on drums, and we alternate between bassist Yasushi Nakamura and Dominique Sanders, a big-time producer and great upright player based out of Kansas City. We recorded the quartet version already, and now I’m finishing out the strings: I’m writing a 24-piece string arrangement to compositions that we’ll record later on. I’m out here in LA now, and I just met with a great orchestrator named Inyoung Park, she’s a film scorer and went to NYU, lived to New York, moved to LA, she’s always working. I showed her my scores for her to consult, because this is my first time doing this.

TJG: What did she have to say?

TP: You know, she flattered me, said I’m a natural, and can’t wait to hear the final product. But she had some good pointers for me, in terms of orchestration, part-writing, details like “make sure the violas are doubled here,” or “when you do glissandi, make sure you notate it like this,” talking about the difference between a portamento and a glissando, things I’ll need to be aware of. She helped a lot.

TJG: Sorry if I’m not quite getting this, but is this 24-piece string orchestra going to overdub on the existing quartet recordings?

TP: No, they’ll be separate pieces. Right now, for example, there’s a ballad where I wrote the background string accompaniment. There’ll be sections where it’s just me and strings, other parts where the quartet will back me up with light string accompaniment. That will be one song. And between the quartet songs will be string interludes, giving the effect of a very dry sound, then lush, orchestrated strings, into another dry sound where it’ll be another quartet song. The album will be a complete orchestrated collaboration.

TJG: Will you record the strings in New York or LA?

TP: New York. I’m in LA now for several reasons: I came straight from the jazz cruise with Gregory Porter, and came out to NAMM because I’m endorsed by a few people, and wanted to touch base and make some connections. Instead of heading right back to New York, and before going to Jamaica for my cousin’s wedding, I decided to stay out here a little longer, continue working on my music, and enjoy the weather [laughs].

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This Friday, February 8, multi-instrumentalist Julius Rodriguez returns to The Jazz Gallery for two sets. Rodriguez has had a busy past few months. In December, he was featured at the Gallery alongside bassist Eric Revis for our Mentoring Series, followed by performances at the Winter Jazz Festival in early January.  Rodriguez also appears on drummer Kassa Overall’s new album, Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz, which has received positive notice from WBGO and the New York Times.

Last weekend, Rodriguez and his working group headed up to the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown, NY, meaning they’ll be on the top of their game this weekend at the Gallery. Before coming out to the show, check out this Australian Broadcasting radio interview with Rodriguez from last spring.
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