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Clockwise from top left: Matt Mitchell, Colin Stranahan, Mark Shim, Ches Smith. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This weekend, The Jazz Gallery will present two evenings of exploratory duos. On Friday evening, pianist Matt Mitchell will be joined by drummer/percussionist Ches Smith to perform material from Mitchell’s 2013 album, Fiction (Pi Recordings). On Saturday, drummer Colin Stranahan has invited saxophonist and EWI player Mark Shim to join him for two fully-improvised sets.

The music on Fiction began as etudes that Mitchell wrote for himself, exploring relationships between fixed and open structures, and challenging his formidable technique. While on tour with saxophonist Tim Berne’s band Snakeoil, Mitchell would warm up with these pieces during soundcheck. Over the course of the tour, Smith—the band’s drummer—would join in, laying the groundwork for this acclaimed record. Before hearing Mitchell and Smith revisit this material at the Gallery on Friday, take a listen to the tracks “Veins” and “Dadaist Flu” from the record, below.

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Photo by J.R. Jensen, courtesy of the artist.

In Shawn Lovato’s words, “We live in a creative golden age of music.” Artists today have so much at their fingertips, and this wealth of inspiration has lead to remarkably multifaceted careers. Lovato himself embodies this reality through his own winding path as a working composer and bandleader: He is an integral member of the contemporary ensemble Hotel Elefant, co-leader of the group Open Tabs, and his ‘flagship’ ensemble is Cycles of Animation, an improvising quintet drawing inspiration from free jazz, hip hop, punk, and chamber music.

Cycles of Animation released their inaugural album on Skirl Records in October 2017. The group, consisting of Lovato on bass, Oscar Noriega on alto saxophone, Brad Shepik on guitar, Santiago Leibson on piano, and Chris Carroll on drums, will visit The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, May 30. Lovato just became a father, which was the introductory topic of our recent phone conversation. 

Shawn Lovato: We just had a kid a couple of months ago. It’s an exciting time! He’ll be eleven weeks old tomorrow. Man, every day is different. Having a new person with us, watching him, smiling, recognizing him, his eyesight is getting better… Watching a human grow is pretty intense.

The Jazz Gallery: That’s so cool. Anything new today?

SL: You know those baskets that hang fruit? We have a small place here in Brooklyn, and we have a hanging basket between the living room and the kitchen. I was making a smoothie, and when I grabbed some bananas I moved it. It started rocking back and forth on its chain. I looked at him, and he was just staring at it. It’s about five feet from him: The fact that he was focused on it, watching it move, that was a cool ‘first.’

TJG: [Laughs] Then did it start to mesmerize you as well?

SL: Yeah man. I had a moment yesterday. We were talking, you know, the two of us, I was making sounds, he was laughing, totally into me, trying to figure me out. It was one of those moments where I realized, “Wow, this is it, my whole being is centered around this child” [laughs]. It’s amazing, scary, wonderful.

TJG: You must be playing some music around the house for him.

SL: My wife’s been making fun of me because I haven’t played any concert music, no classical music yet, but yes. We were listening to California by Mr. Bungle the other day [laughs]. We have a record player, and I have Blues And The Abstract Truth on vinyl, one of my favorite records, so he hears that a lot. Of course, I just play for him too. I put on a solo concert for him the other day. If I play for him, he gets quiet [laughs]. I think he just likes to be engaged. I play music at him, improvise or play melodies to him, he’s into it. He’s not the greatest audience, but at least he’s there [laughs].

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

As both bandleaders and sidemen, saxophonist Tony Malaby, guitarist Ben Monder, and drummer Nasheet Waits can instantly make their presences felt with rich tones and decisive gestures. In a collective trio, they make spontaneous compositions built on two decades of collaboration.

The trio will convene at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, May 29 for two sets. Before the shows, we caught up with Tony Malaby by phone to talk about his history with Monder and Waits, his methods for breaking out of improvisational tendencies, and the influence of drummer Paul Motian.

The Jazz Gallery: I’d like to hear about how you and Ben first met, and how your musical relationship has come together over the years.

Tony Malaby: I met Ben in 1995 or ‘96. I remember it was at the Tap Bar at the Knitting Factory. I had just moved here from Arizona and I had heard Ben on a record—a Marc Johnson record called Right Brain Patrol. There was this break that Ben played on a blues nad it was just insane. I was just, “Wow! What is that? Who is this guy?” Then sure enough I’m playing in one of the rooms at the Knitting Factory and then he’s sitting at the bar. I go up and say, “Hey, you’re Ben Monder. I’ve been listening to this record and my favorite part is this one break you play,” and I said that I have a feeling that we’re going to play together someday. I said it really cocky [laughs]!

I think the next thing is that we ended up in Guillermo Klein’s band. We did a recording and then I just started playing sessions with Ben, and playing with other in other people’s bands with him.

TJG: Didn’t you both overlap in Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band?

TM: Oh yeah—that came a little bit later. I used to play at this place called the Internet Cafe on 3rd Street in the East Village. That’s where I started putting together a lot of my own bands and projects, including a quartet with Ben. The band eventually dissolved and then the next thing was the Motian band.

TJG: One of your longer-term projects with Ben is the band Paloma Recio. In the liner notes to the band’s first record, you talk about wanting to orchestrate the band in a different way. What do you mean by that and how do you go about it in your work with Ben?

TM: I started proposing different strategies for how Ben framed me and really trying to get away from straight accompaniment. We could be improvising at different speeds or tempos. We both have really mid-range-y, dark sounds, and so we experiment with tessitura, what the sound is like if we go higher or lower. Really exploring a lot of different kinds of textures.

A lot of this came from playing free improv gigs and me remembering certain sounds that we would hit that were incredible, and then making them the group’s main themes. The music really grows out of improvisation. I’ll then make some graphic scores. I’ve really gotten away from giving Ben chord changes. When the band started, I gave him too much information, and the same goes with Nasheet. The goal is always trying to make it a certain type of tension, which comes from not getting framed the same way every time.

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Clockwise, from top left: Chris Dingman, Bryan Copeland, Fabian Almazan, Joe Nero, an aardvark, and Jesse Lewis. Photos by Dominick Nero.

Over two albums and a decade of live performances, bassist Bryan Copeland’s band Bryan and the Aardvarks have honed a unique and personal brand of instrumental music, memorably dubbed “pastoral shred” by Rolling Stone Magazine’s Hank Shteamer. This Sunday, May 26, Bryan and the Aardvarks return to The Jazz Gallery alongside special guest drummer Kenny Wollesen to celebrate their tenth anniversary as a band and premiere a new suite of compositions commissioned by the NPR program StoryCorps. We caught up with Bryan Copeland by phone to talk about the band’s history and how he approaches writing direct, confessional music without lyrics.

The Jazz Gallery: Since this concert is celebrating ten years of the Aardvarks, I’d love to talk a bit about the band’s history. What made you want to start the band in the first place?

Bryan Copeland: We actually started in 2006, which is when I moved to New York. Joe Nero—our usual drummer—and Fabian Almazan were going to school together at the Manhattan School of Music. The only person I knew in town was this bari saxophone player who was going to school there named Jacob Rodriguez. So when I got to town, I called Jacob, and he hooked up a session with Joe & Fabian. They had a collective going on—it was a septet I think—and everybody just brought in tunes. We would play gigs, we played in Philly a lot, actually. So I started writing some songs for the group. The first song I wrote was “Sunshine Through the Clouds,” which ended up on the Aardvarks’ first record. So I brought that tune in, and it didn’t really work for the big group. We had all of these horn players, and it wasn’t really a horn player tune. It’s this kind of folky tune. At the gigs, we would play that tune as a trio.

So we did that for quite a while, and then I started writing more music. Then this good friend of mine Barry Bliss—he’s a wonderful singer-songwriter—contacted me. He had a residency at the Sidewalk Café—which is no longer the Sidewalk Café. He emailed me and said, “Do you want to play this gig on a bill with my band?” I was like, “Yeah, sure,” and he was like, “What’s your band name?” Bryan and the Aardvarks just popped in my head. I don’t really know how it came. I guess a lot of those bands were singer-songwriter projects and they all had band names, so I didn’t want to be “The Bryan Copeland Jazz Trio” or something like that. So that was our first gig as the Aardvarks.

TJG: How did you expand out from the trio configuration?

BC: At about the time of our first gig, vibraphonist Chris Dingman moved to New York. He had just gotten out of the Thelonious Monk Institute. Fabian set up a session with Chris and I remember being blown away by Chris. He was just a monster. I was kind of intimidated by his playing! He was so good that I was getting nervous at the session! I then talked to Fabian and asked if he thought Chris would be a good addition to the Aardvarks and he was really into it. So we ended up playing that Sidewalk Café gig as a quartet.

It was a good venue for us because the music we were playing had this pop music influence, and that heavy folk element. The audience was really receptive to the music there. Everybody was raving about the group, and that was really encouraging for us. We ended up playing there quite a bit. They ended up trying to do these “jazz nights” to accommodate us, but they ended up kind of being a disaster, because that wasn’t really their audience. People didn’t come out, and I was like, “I’d rather just keep playing with the singer-songwriters.”

We added Jesse Lewis after Chris couldn’t make a gig. Jesse was one of the first people that I met in New York, so I asked him to sub for Chris. It went really well, and then Chris came back, and I was like, “I miss having Jesse, too.” He added a lot to the music and so became a regular. That was maybe a year after our first gig.

One of our first major gigs with this configuration was at the old Jazz Gallery. It was a big goal of mine to play there since I moved to New York. I remember seeing some really heavy groups there, like Brian Blade’s group—I used to go see them all the time before he left New York. I saw some really life-changing shows there, so it was really great to get to play there myself.

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Clockwise from top left: Mark Turner, Joe Martin, Kevin Hays, & Nasheet Waits. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bassist, composer, and bandleader Joe Martin has been a fixture of the New York jazz community for over two decades, whether collaborating with the likes of Chris Potter, Gilad Hekselman, Anat Cohen, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, or leading his own ensemble of Mark Turner, Kevin Hays, and Nasheet Waits. Martin’s third and newest release is Étoilée. According to the liner notes, “Martin, himself a product of a musical upbringing, lives with his Parisian-born wife in Brooklyn where they have been raising their young Franco-American family of two sons and a young girl, whose middle name Étoile inspired the name of the recording… Joe Martin takes the powerful spirit instilled by his nuclear family to fuel the passion of four longstanding musical peers on his emotionally enriching release, Étoilée.” We spoke about family, distractions, and keeping things fresh in the studio.

The Jazz Gallery: Congratulations on the release of the new record! In your liner notes, I love that you cite your family as an inspiration and motivation for the record. Many musicians have families, but usually discuss their families in the context of being one of their many responsibilities, and not necessarily as a creative sources of inspiration. 

Joe Martin: Yeah. Of course, it’s a deeply personal thing, and is more the result of observation and reflection about where I was when I was writing this music. I’ve been entrenched in family life for quite a number of years. It’s not that having children changes who you are, exactly, but it certainly adds another layer to life, takes you out of your head. Especially as a musical artist, you’re always thinking about yourself and your music. It’s a beautiful thing, and has certainly lead many great musicians to creating great music, but when you have family, you’re aware that you’re responsible for other people, and their energy affects you. It brings awareness and acceptance. So, to say that my family directly inspired every song on the record wouldn’t be completely accurate. But in looking for titles and thinking about what’s been happening in my life, family is definitely a big part of who I am these days, and I wanted to acknowledge that with the album.

TJG: So when you’re listening back to the record, even though it’s not necessarily a programmatic record describing your family, when you listen back to certain things, do you hear your life reflected in your music in that way?

JM: I don’t know if I would say it’s that direct. It was largely when I was searching for titles. For example, I came up with the title “Malida” from my wife and two sons’ names–I didn’t have a daughter at that time. There was a certain intensity and energy about that song that captured a bit of their spirit and energy. But when I listen to music, I’m just thinking about the music and the other musicians, the atmosphere that’s being created, and where we arrive in these different songs. That’s the most compelling thing for me.

There’s my writing of the music and what it means to me, but then you have the other three musicians on the record playing. They all have their own stuff going on in their lives, and however they come to the music, they’re not necessarily thinking about my family when they’re playing those songs [laughs]. Unless you’re doing a completely solo project, there’s always going to be this other energy in the music. That’s what I like. It’s the essence of getting together and playing with great musicians and having a band, seeing where you arrive in the music, how you get inside it. The spirit of my family’s energy is certainly a part of me, and is certainly an inspiration in coming up with themes for the record, but when I play music, I’m usually just thinking about the music.

TJG: I hear you, absolutely. I’m not suggesting there needs to be anything beyond that.

JM: Sure, sure. It’s a good question!

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