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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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Photo by Rachel Thalia Fisher, courtesy of the artist.

Camila Meza engages listeners by sharing her unique experiences and personal longings. Hers are stories of movement, both journeys and emergences.

On the heels of her studio release Ámbar (Sony Masterworks), the Chilean-born singer, guitarist and composer returns to the bandstand to perform Portal, her 2019 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission. While composing the project, Meza chose to explore new music in an instrumental context unfamiliar to her, in part, so she could inhabit one of Portal’s essential themes: the struggle to seek and find solutions to hard questions.

Ahead of her performance, Meza spoke with the Jazz Speaks about joys and challenges of creating possibilities, her connection to vocal harmony, and the enduring aesthetic of “layering” in her work.

The Jazz Gallery: In terms of instrumentation, this project is a departure from your work with the Nectar Orchestra.

Camila Meza: I’d say so. Although in its quantity, it’s similar. It’s a lot of people.

TJG: And you’ve been playing with and composing for Nectar over the past three years—or longer than that?

CM: Well [the Nectar] project started maybe around six years ago but, in the middle, I was taking care of Traces. There was some sort of hiatus for that album, so the last three years have been totally dedicated to Ámbar.

TJG: In what ways do you feel your compositions have expanded—or maybe your compositional style has expanded—as a result of spending so much time with the orchestra?

CM: Having the possibility to experiment with a larger group of people, a wider instrumentation, it really, intuitively gives you so many more options in terms of arranging and landscaping the songs and compositions. It puts you in a position of having to pay a lot of attention to detail and ask yourself “How am I going to use all of these sounds in a cohesive way so that I take advantage of them and also use them in a way that serves the music?”

TJG: Did you ever find those possibilities overwhelming, or did you always sort of find them to be intriguing?

CM: Both. It definitely enhances your creativity. You suddenly have more colors to play with, which sounds enticing, but you’re also in front of another problem to solve. You have to pay attention so you’re able to use these colors without overusing them only because you have them in front of you. That’s the challenge.

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Photo by Alan Nahigian.

This week, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome guitarist Liberty Ellman and his sextet back to our stage for two nights of performances. Ellman is an acclaimed and versatile sideman, holding down the guitar chair in acclaimed groups including Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio, Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, and Joe Lovano’s Universal Band. Ellman’s work as a leader builds on the relationships he has cultivated as a sideman. His last album—2015’s Radiate on Pi Recordings—features a sextet composed of longtime collaborators, including trombonist/tubaist Jose Davila from Zooid and bassist Stephan Crump from Rosetta. You can take a listen to two tracks from the record—the knotty “Supercell” and “Rhinocerisms”—below.
At the Gallery this week, Ellman’s sextet will be presenting new music commissioned as part of Chamber Music America’s 2018 New Jazz Works grants. While Ellman has worked with great musical system-makers like Threadgill, Butch Morris, and Steve Coleman, he says his own music comes from a more intuitive place. In an interview with JazzTimes, Ellman says:

I haven’t yet developed anything that I could say is purely mine in terms of a codified system. For me, it’s more about things that I’ve learned from being around these people and listening to their music. When I write music, basically I start from an idea. A lot of times it’s something rhythmic, either a groove or a bassline or a small fragment of a melody, and then I try to see where it goes, and that’s an intuitive process. Sometimes I find a melody that I feel is really strong, and I keep writing, and if I’m in the zone, 20 bars later is where I actually find the piece, and I throw away everything else. [But] there has to be a melodic shape. I make sure that every line has its own melody. Every part someone plays should stand on its own. That’s one of my rules.

Don’t miss these two nights of both fierce and fiercely melodic new music from Liberty Ellman and his sextet. (more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Vibraphonist-composer Nikara Warren combines a broad lineage of music with the very personal and diverse artistry she grew up embracing in her native Brooklyn, creating new music that confronts injustice and celebrates humanity.

While her debut recording Black Wall Street awaits release, Warren invites the Black Wall Street band back to The Jazz Gallery stage for the final performance of her Political Gangster Trilogy, which offers original interpretations of music from Nina Simone and Me’Shell Ndegeocello. In her interview with Jazz Speaks, Warren discusses similarities and differences in political inquiries through music, the atmospheres she creates for listeners, and the universal need—and love—for the process.

The Jazz Gallery: You have a connection to the human voice—this performance in more of a literal way, many of the horn parts for Black Wall Street to have kind of a choral quality, and you sing through your instrument—listeners can hear you sing while you play, and you’ve been known to grab the mic yourself in different contexts. In what ways has the decision to become politically gangster with your artistry given you a stronger connection to the human voice?

Nikara Warren: Well politics, that’s what it’s all about—people speaking their truths—which is also what music is all about. I’m not really someone who enjoys talking about politics; if I’m hanging out, it’s not on the list of things I want to chat about. But, because of the state of the country and the world, I feel like I guess I have to be. And I don’t always know that my words can really do it. But [the state we’re in] has forced me to find ways to make statements, musically, that were directly related to my political stance, which I guess is kind of difficult – being able to say things with no words, because I don’t always have them.

TJG: I’d like to read you a quotation from the one-sheet for Me’Shell’s Ventriloquism.

NW: Okay.

TJG: “In times so extreme and overwhelming, when there is no known expression for the feeling, no satisfactory direction for art or action, then [artists] might take refuge in a process, a ritual, something familiar, the shape and sound of which recall another time altogether, so that they can weather the present long enough to call it the past.”

NW: Yeah that’s the blues. That’s the premise of the blues, where all this music started.

TJG: How does that sentiment resonate with your choices as an artist?

NW: The beauty of music is that it can move you. It can move you, and it can change the place that you’re in mentally. And I think a lot of the reason artists make art is to reflect the times emotionally, or what’s going on. So there are times for artists when things are difficult, you might want to cling on to, or submerge yourself in a process that maybe feels like home. For a lot of artists, that’s just creating—being creative. Because, if you do that, you can kind of weather the storm. You can get through it. Thank you for reading that.

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Photo by Spencer Ostrander, courtesy of the artist.

Over the last six months, Kassa Overall composed, improvised, and took musical risks at The Jazz Gallery alongside six deeply contrasting pianists. Each session was meticulously recorded, generating raw material for Overall to sample, recompose, and produce. Now, Overall (plus some surprise guests) will return to The Jazz Gallery for two final nights showcasing the results of the long-form experiment. The Jazz Gallery will effectively become a live production studio, and audience members will witness a new kind of re-contextualization, improvisation, and listening experience.

Jazz Speaks writer Noah Fishman interviewed Kassa Overall every month for half a year, following Overall’s creative process and growth. It’s our pleasure to present their final conversation, serving as both a retrospective and a nod to the future.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to start by asking you to briefly describe your big-picture lessons from each show.

Kassa Overall: With Jon Batiste, I had no idea where we were headed. It was a great adventure. Afterwards, I felt confident about the whole series. I realized that I had high-level musicians, and it wasn’t so much about over-preparing, but rather creating a space for everybody. If I did that, then they could shine. The first show gave me that perspective.

Jason Moran’s set had the most earthly intensity of all the shows. Between him and bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, there was a lot of power on stage. After that one, I remember thinking, “I’m playing with some heavy-hitters, and I gotta make sure my drum chops are on the right level.”

With Aaron Parks, we leaned in with the Valentine’s Day energy. With that one, I realized the importance of setting a tone for each show. After that show, there were still some remnants of the Jason Moran thought. So I decided to practice every day for thirty days.

With Sullivan Fortner’s set, I was beginning to understand that as well as having these great musicians, I had to prepare myself, and put myself in the right space. I though, “Let me just prepare on my own.” I gave Sullivan a piano, B3, and Rhodes, and I practiced every day. Then we just improvised. That was the first set where I decided to improvise the whole set: For the rest of the shows, it was all improvisational.

With Kris Davis, again, the thought was, “How can I set the stage?” With this one, I decided to incorporate my vocals and effects. That one was one of the most intense shows. Ever. Especially the first set. A new thing opened up. It was faith-affirming in the idea of spontaneity.

This all lead me to Craig Taborn. We couldn’t get into the Gallery to rehearse, so we decided to just walk around the city and talk. That was our rehearsal. Again, it was assurance that there’s something to spontaneity, to preparing in a way that’s not typically considered preparing. It was another amazing experience. I was shocked at how we arrived at a concept without really discussing it. We just talked about what we love about music. Through that, we created an identity.

This whole experience has brought me to a realization. It’s great to prepare music, but there are many ways of preparing: Don’t use preparation as a creative crutch. Don’t use preparation as a way of saying, “I can’t improvise, so I’m going to perfectly orchestrate all of this stuff. It’ll sound like I’m improvising, but what I’m really doing is a magic trick, a circus act.” Now, I’m really trying to accept that that’s what people like. There’s a time to cut the edges off the crust. There are times to make things more correct. But don’t sacrifice the magic of spontaneity.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

In the spirit of Midwestern-bred bands like Happy Apple and The Bad Plus, bassist Chris Morrissey has cultivated a musical language that merges an expressive directness from rock with a penchant for formal experimentation and fierce improvisation. For the past few years, Morrissey’s main outlet as a composer and bandleader has been the group Standard Candle, featuring guitarist Gray McMurray, drummer Josh Dion, and a rotating saxophone chair of Mike Lewis and Nick Videen. Building off material written for a Jazz Gallery Residency Commission in 2015, Morrissey released the album Laughing and Laughing last year.

This Thursday, June 20, Morrissey will convene a new group at the Gallery, featuring trumpeter Philip Dizack, pianist Jon Cowherd, guitarist Ryan Ferreira, and drummer Dan Rieser. We caught up with Morrissey by phone to talk about his plans for the group and reimagining old songs in new ways.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re bringing a new band to the Gallery this week. Do you have a new book of music as well?

Chris Morrissey: I’m doing a lot of the same music that came out of my Gallery commission from a few years ago, but with different personnel. There are some newer pieces that were written with a similar identity to the commission music. I’ve added a pianist to the band, and I’ve changed the melody instrument from saxophone to trumpet. I feel that the last couple of years have been me taking stock of my catalog and choosing the music that I still wanted to play in this new setting. I wanted to pick songs that were still true to me, still current to me, and try them in this new environment.

TJG: When you did the original commission project, you spoke about wanting to activate the rock side of your music more explicitly. Now that you’re going back through your compositions—which include stuff for more jazz-oriented instrumentations, too—are you finding aesthetic points of contact between different pieces that you haven’t seen before?

CM: They all share DNA, so song selection had more to do with what songs I liked the most and would work in a quintet. I wanted to see the catalog with fresh eyes, and get clearer and simpler with how and when I present it.

I’ve also wanted to become much more flexible with how I present this music. I took this year and got somewhat-skilled in the music notation software program Sibelilus. I wanted to make  clear documents of the music so that I’m not only tethered to the people who have the music memorized. It’s a little bit of a concession, because a working band is the dream. And as a Minnesotan, coming out of the school of Happy Apple, where dense music was always memorized, and personnel was not malleable. The reality in New York is different. I feel that the NYC scene rewards people who are good readers.

Ultimately, I took on this chart-writing as a means to clarify how I want the music played. Also, I can now book shows with a larger community of musicians that don’t have to take a month to memorize a ton of music, which is what Josh and Grey and Mike and I did for Standard Candle.

TJG: I’m interested in how you’re working with these two different songwriting traditions. On the one hand, there’s this band songwriting tradition where material is worked on in a group and transmitted aurally. On the other, there’s the more commercial—like Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building—tradition where a single songwriter writes down a song that could be performed potentially by many different artists. How does the music change when it gets translated from one method to another?

CM: The arrangements for some of the older things were fleshed out as a band with Grey McMurray and Josh Dion and Mike Lewis, and later, Nick Videen. They brought that music to life. The arrangements, and how they deepened with those particular players, made their way into the notated arrangements. It still bears the marks of that band, for sure. Now, just because there are different personalities in the band, it takes on a new shape.

While I’ve talked about wanting to write music that I can just plug different people into, I want to make clear that this show isn’t some kind of reading session. We have rehearsed a lot over the last few months, and chart-editing is like my new full time job. So there hasn’t been less effort in the cultivation. But presenting the musicians with a chart is a way to define what I want and what I hear and hope to present it clearly enough that they aren’t bogged down by a nebulous conceptual description from a rehearsal. In the last few rehearsals, I feel like I’ve gotten to a new place, the place where I wanted to present these songs.

For all of the strengths of a free, kind of socialist band, there are some weaknesses. It’s nice to see the other side of that and go into a rehearsal with a clear sense of what I want the music to sound like and have that backed up in the chart. I still get to surround myself with some of my best friends in the music community and see what they bring to the music.

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