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Clockwise from top left: Warp Trio, Kevin Sun, Kevin Laskey, and Variant 6. Photos courtesy of the artists.

At first glance, almanacs seem like pretty dry subject matter for a piece of music. But for composer Kevin Laskey, they have become a source of high drama. This week marks the premiere of Laskey’s Almanac, an evening-length work written for the vocal ensemble Variant 6, the postmodern chamber group Warp Trio, and jazz saxophonist Kevin Sun’s quartet. By compiling texts and musics both new and old, the piece explores an almanac’s dual nature as an information compendium and prophetic text.

Recently, the composer sat down with three of Almanac’s thirteen performers—pianist Mikael Darmanie, saxophonist Kevin Sun, and mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland—to talk about putting the piece together and navigating new collaborations.

Kevin Laskey: What was it like working with these musicians for the first time?

Kevin Sun: It was wonderful. I feel like knowing you, there was a lot of trust in terms of what you would come up with. I’ve known you for a while, and I felt like I didn’t have to worry about who was getting called to the play the piece. It was just going to be a situation where I could focus on preparing my part and be open to the surprise, seeing how it all came together.

Mikael Darmanie: In Warp Trio, we’re used to that. We all play with different people every few days. Kevin Sun knows you, and I know you, and we trust the vision—there was no question about that. I felt that you knew us intimately and so we could trust you to write what would make sense for us.

Elisa Sutherland: I sometimes feel that singers are a special breed of musician, in that because of the nature of our instruments, we end up having to communicate with each other a lot. There are so many parameters that singers are considering all the time because our parts are usually so interconnected. For choral music, it’s often very homogeneous. You’re thinking about vowels, you’re thinking about articulations, you’re thinking about where you’re going to breathe. You all got a front row seat to our rehearsal process. It’s all of us yelling at each other—what are you doing here? Where in this measure should we cut off? Should this be a sixteenth note, or should it be more like an eighth? It’s very collaborative and very specific. We’re used to being in rooms with other people, but we do have a tendency to take over, and definitely are used to not having any filters ever.

I will say that it was really inspiring for us to sit there and do our way of figuring things out, and then we’ll look across the room and see Mikael talking to Matt [Honor], the drummer, and they’ll be figuring something out in a completely different way than how we’re figuring it out.

KL: Ellie, what was different about working with Warp and Kevin Sun’s group, compared to, say, working with a chamber orchestra doing baroque music?

ES: It’s one thing to have a bunch of instruments and add voice on top. With the solos that you wrote for Rebecca [Myers] and Molly [Netter], they’re very different from each other, but at the same time, this is a chamber ensemble with a single voice over it. We understand how that works, we understand what that’s supposed to sound like and what issues we’re going to have. But to talk about taking a chamber choir and a small chamber ensemble and putting them all together feels kind of chaotic in a fun way.

There’s this part—I think it’s in the fourth movement—where the jazz people go into this groovy section and they’re just playing and we haven’t really heard them do that yet. When we rehearsed that for the first time, all of us from Variant 6 were just, “Oh my God, this is so cool—they’re playing off each other and doing all of this neat stuff.” It was great to see that, because improvising isn’t part of our practice as a group. As a choir, we’re used to all being the same function all the time, not ever having a dynamic where we’re going to support you and then you’re going to pass it off as someone else.

That kind of fun, chaotic dynamic also comes in the parts where you break us up as a choir. That fourth movement starts with a madrigal, all of us singing pretty conventionally in a style that we know. And then you take us and go cut people out of tempo, while other people stay strictly in tempo. It feels like we’ve been ripped apart in an awesome way.

KL: One thing I was trying to do in the piece was set up these different musical ecosystems with all different combinations of musicians. There’s barely any music in the piece that’s just for Variant, or just for Warp, or just for Kevin’s quartet. I wanted to set up these different cooperative dynamics where everyone who was playing had to figure out a way to interface with a different kind of performance practice. From a zoomed-out vantage point, it all looks like a single scene, but if you zoom in, you see all of these different interactions, these frictions that give the scene its particular texture.

ES: That’s a beautiful metaphor, speaking about different arrangements of instruments and voices as their own ecosystem. What that ecosystem looks like when Molly’s soloing is very different from when Rebecca is soloing, which is different from the movement that Steven [Bradshaw] and I sing. You’re going to put these things together in a pot and see what emerges, and it’s always different.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This week, The Jazz Gallery welcomes bassist Harish Raghavan back to our stage for two nights of performances. Over the past year and a half, Raghavan has been developing a working band with top young improvisers, including saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross. For this week’s shows at the Gallery, however, Raghavan will convene a quartet of peers—saxophonist Logan Richardson, guitarist Charles Altura, and drummer Justin Brown. As extremely in-demand sidemen, these players don’t get to join voices very often, making these dates a special occasion.

To get a sense of the shared vocabulary of this peer group, check out Raghavan performing Denzil Best’s rhythm changes standard “Wee” with saxophonist Ben Wendel and drummer Nate Wood, below (definitely don’t miss Raghavan’s solo starting at the 6:30 mark).

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Clockwise from top left: Tyshawn Sorey, Sasha Berliner, Morgan Guerin, Nathan Reising, Lex Korten, and Nick Dunston, Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Saturday, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome drummer & composer Tyshawn Sorey back to our stage. Fresh off an acclaimed Composer Portraits series concert at the Miller Theatre, Sorey will convene his new sextet project at the Gallery. Featuring saxophonists Nathan Reising and Morgan Guerin, vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, pianist Lex Korten, and bassist Nick Dunston, the group made their debut this past fall at The Kitchen, and this will be their second performance.

We caught up with Tyshawn by phone to talk about the group’s inception and the new musical avenues they explore in Sorey’s compositions.

The Jazz Gallery: How was the band formed?

Tyshawn Sorey: We met at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in August 2018. We had rehearsed for two weeks leading up to a concert that we gave at the workshop premiering the pieces. Nick Dunston was not there for that—we had another bass player who was playing with us, and we also had a vocalist and no vibes. The group became what it is now when we performed at the Kitchen this past October as part of my three-night residency there. We performed, and on that second night we basically rehearsed for about five or six hours, and we then took a break and then we played the show. And that’s how that went!

TJG: What is the music that you’ll be performing at this show?

TS: We’ll be performing seven or eight compositions. We will be doing that as one very long show. We don’t do set breaks, so we’ll do one long show from 7:30 until about 9:30 or 10 o’clock, or maybe 10:30 even, depending on how we get through the material. We’ll be doing some very intense rehearsing and then we’ll arrive at the concert. We’ll just perform the music at the Gallery. It’s seven pieces that I created during my residency in Captiva, Florida as part of their Robert Rauschenberg artist residency, and I was one of the fellows. It was a six week program in Captiva, where I spent a great amount of time in Rauschenberg’s main studio as well as hanging around a lot of different visual artists and people like that. I was the only musician/composer who was there, at the part of that residency. I wanted to develop a set of pieces that show a side of me that not a lot of people are very familiar with, I wanted to explore another side of my work. And so all these compositions are meant to represent a side of me, in terms of my own compositional creative output, that maybe people are less familiar with.

TJG: How would you describe that side of you? What is unfamiliar about it to people?

TS: I think people know my work as mostly being very quiet and slowly unfolding and with a great deal of compositional material that people are reading and stuff like that. There is a lot of is always a lot of detail in what we do as a sextet, in terms of how we go about navigating through the material. No two performances of the music is ever the same. However, the music sort of—I guess there’s less, I don’t want to say less rigor because there’s a lot of rigor in everything that I do, but—I don’t really know how to describe it other than—the music well, you will definitely hear a lot more drumming coming from me, and you’ll also hear a lot more opportunities for creative interplay and that sort of thing so. Not that that doesn’t exist in any of my other music but it’s more about how we function as a unit together, and how we best navigate through material. As I said before, no two performances of the music is ever the same, even though people have charts in front of them. Just like in my trio, we determine certain forms ahead of time, and if train wrecks happen we find other ways of navigating through the music that work in real time. That’s generally how the group functions. I don’t like to give too much away in terms of what people should expect to hear in a given performance of what we’re doing, because I’d rather they come here and get surprised by what we’re playing. Hopefully they will take a little bit of something else about my work with them, that maybe they didn’t otherwise realize.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Perhaps more than any other force, curiosity fuels Tomeka Reid’s prolific artistry. The New York-based cellist-composer left Maryland-D.C. area for Chicago when she was a young student with the intention of disrupting her familiar comfort zones and collaborating with people she’d never met. 

 She’s released more than a dozen records as a leader and co-leader, performed with masters and emerging legends from Anthony Braxton to flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell, and recently recorded as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago for the aggregation’s 2019 release We Are on the Edge (Pi Recordings). 

Her performance at The Jazz Gallery this week celebrates Reid’s forthcoming collaborative release with drummer and producer Filippo Monico, The Mouser (Relative Pitch, 2019), with sets featuring her quartet and a duo with drummer Tomas Fujiwara.

The Jazz Gallery: There’s a distinct, intimate voice-like quality to your playing. Is that quality something you’ve developed over time, or has that always been a natural part of your expression? 

Tomeka Reid: I do think about that. Even the pieces that I write, the compositions, come as a result of me singing the melodies. So I guess it does lend itself to [the voice], and I’m flattered that you’d actually say that. As a string player, you’re trying to get the jazz language into your playing, and it’s like you’re trying to replicate horns, but you’re just not a horn player. There are certain things that are easier on those instruments and certain things that cellos can do, like double stops—those types of things are to play on string instruments. So I try to definitely incorporate all of my training—along with musicians that I’m influenced by—into my playing. 

TJG: You’ve lived in three powerhouse hubs for musical development; you were born in D.C. and raised close by in Maryland, then later you moved to Chicago as a student and now you’re here in New York. Have you noticed each of these very vibrant, very different musical environments having a distinct influence on your sound? 

 TR: I would say Chicago probably had the biggest one. When I was in Maryland-D.C. area, I wasn’t really improvising a whole bunch; I was just kind of dabbling in it. And I didn’t leave campus much, so I wasn’t participating in whatever was happening in D.C. at the time. I feel like most of my influence definitely comes from my musical life in Chicago. Coming out here, I had a band that already lived out here so I connected with them. Through various projects, I’ve connected with more New York-based musicians. But I’ve only been here about three years, so I think I’m still very much bringing my Chicago sound or voice here. 

 TJG: I read that you were a bit of a timid improviser when you began playing out in Chicago, getting involved in those sessions. Has becoming comfortable as an improviser informed your composing tendencies? 

TR: I would say it has. I think playing in a wide variety of ensembles has. I was shy about certain things, so I would write forms that I didn’t feel comfortable [playing] over, so I could write a melody over that and learn how to feel comfortable in that form. So yeah, [becoming comfortable improvising] has impacted my compositions. I use GarageBand to compose all the time. I would often record myself and play that back and write down little snippets of ideas that I liked from what I was playing.

 TJG: Do you feel as though you have more freedom in the way that you compose now? 

 TR: I do. Again, I think part of the timidity was probably because I was a shy person, but also because everyone around me seemed like they had such a clear idea of what they were doing—or they were just more familiar with the aesthetic or with the genre. The jazz that I heard prior to coming to Chicago was more straight ahead. You know, everyone knows Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder and all this hard bop or bebop type of stuff. And in Chicago, I mean they were using everything, but there was more of an emphasis on creating your own voice and composing and playing more free. And so that part was like, “Whoa. What do I—how do I do that?” because I just wasn’t exposed to it. And now I’ve had numerous opportunities to play in those contexts, so I feel more comfortable in them. I still find it challenging, and that’s probably why I keep doing it because you’re always trying to make a musical happening. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You’re always learning something from the form, and I really appreciate that. 

 TJG: You mentioned that quoting in a Chicago club is like—the kiss of death. And you can’t go into a New York club without hearing 50 million people quoting a Monk tune or something. Not every club—you’re not going to hear people at the Gallery quoting Jerome Kern, but downtown, you hear it all night long. So that seems like a striking difference between the two cities. 

 TR: Oh yeah. For me, it didn’t matter so much because I play the cello, not saxophone—meaning no one was exactly expecting me to quote too many things. But if you heard it, some people would then intentionally crash the song. I’d be thinking like, “Damn. Okay.” So that didn’t help my shyness, of course. I was like, “Okay, I don’t wanna do that,” (laughs). 

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

At the last installation of the TIME CAPSULE residency, Kassa Overall and Sullivan Fortner traveled to outer space. With Fortner on B3 organ, Rhodes, and piano, the two musicians charter a path to a completely improvised world of sparkling rhythms and melodies. In Overall’s words, “After the first set, I felt like we had just finished getting a spa treatment.”

In our fifth interview, Overall told us about a few more of his current projects, how they feed into and result from the ongoing TIME CAPSULE residency, and the upcoming show with Kris Davis and Stephan Crump.

The Jazz Gallery: You mentioned that you’re in the middle of doing some remixes?

Kassa Overall: Man, it’s exciting. I’ve had some recent opportunities to give guest DJ mixes to different radio stations. The first one was for KMHD, the main jazz radio station in Portland, and the one I’m working on now is for BBC 6, which has Gilles Peterson, new music, jazz, quasi-jazz vibes, everything. KMHD hit me up about doing an interview to promote a show in Portland, and they said I could also do a guest DJ mix. So I started taking recordings by some of my favorite jazz friends, chopping up their songs, and adding a little production to the tracks. I took a Jon Batiste song from his piano and voice album, chopped it up, and added drums. I did it to a Vijay Iyer song, a Charles Tolliver song, an Esperanza song. It was like, “If this were my album, this is what I would have done.” You know?

TJG: Like you were being a producer, in a way?

KO: Yeah. It’s remixing, but a little more creative. Somewhere between sampling and remixing. When we make something, we often think about defining it first, then making it from that context. If you say “I’m gonna make a remix,” and you start making a remix, you assume all these positions, you assume what it is to remix something. You might limit how much you add original content. When sampling songs, people often just sample four to eight seconds. When you think about it, you realize these definitions break up the creative process. So when I started to really dig in, I got excited. I was having a bit of writer’s block, and wasn’t really getting excited about anything creative. Then I started working on these remixes, and I got that excited feeling. I worked for three days, and at the end of it, I knew I had something good. KMHD played it on the radio and loved it. Now I’m working on a thirty-minute version for BBC 6. I’m currently chopping up one of my favorite songs from Makaya McCraven’s new album Universal Beings.

TJG: This isn’t so different from what you’re doing with TIME CAPSULE.

KO: Exactly. It’s all related experimentation with the idea of finished-work-as-source-material. It’s a big circle. This song, I realized, has the same chord changes as the Nas and Lauryn Hill song “If I Ruled The World” from 1996. Once I figured that out, boom, I started chopping that up, and now I’m in this big rabbit hole.

TJG: You think this is connecting some neurons around what you’re about to do with the residency?

KO: Yeah. Honestly, it’s all the same kind of experimentation. In every project, you lean more heavily on one aspect or another. But they say there’s nothing new under the sun. The key is letting go of that mental inhibitor that says “Nah, I can’t do that,” or “That’s too sacred.” From time to time I think about the Campbell’s Soup Cans that Andy Warhol did. I’m sure it was the early version of trolling, in a sense, but half the people were like, “Oh my god, amazing, it’s Campbell’s Soup!” And then the other half were like “I can’t believe you like this guy.” Anyone could have that thought, but to take the time to do it in its best possible way. It takes a certain amount of courage.

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