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Matt Mitchell (L) and Tim Berne (R). Photo courtesy of the artists.

Saxophonist and composer Tim Berne’s presence looms large over the New York improv scene, and it’s not just because he stands well over six feet tall. As a leader, Berne has over 50 albums to his name, and is a constant presence on critics’ annual best-of lists. For the past decade or so, Berne has developed a deep rapport with pianist Matt Mitchell, whether in Berne’s band Snakeoil, a duo format, or with Mitchell performing solo versions of Berne’s compositions.

This weekend, Berne and Mitchell return to The Jazz Gallery in a new trio configuration with a pair of acclaimed young drummers—Kate Gentile on Friday evening and Justin Faulkner on Saturday. We caught up with Berne by phone to talk about his expectations for the new group, his band-leading philosophy, and his gradual embrace of the piano in his music.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re bringing a new trio to the Gallery this week with piano & drums. Do you feel that the group is an extension of your duo work with pianist Matt Mitchell, or is it its own new thing?

Tim Berne: As long as I’m playing with someone I know, there’s going to be some history. Matt and I have been developing this chemistry for ten years or so. But other than that, it’s definitely a new thing. The approach with drums is always going to be quite a bit different. But I’m not that smart—I don’t have a concept for how one group evolves from another. I like to set things up and see what happens.

TJG: With drums in the mix, what do you expect to be different? Do you feel that drums are stabilizing force or destabilizing force?

TB: Hopefully it will be a destabilizing force! It’s another person. I don’t see the drums as playing a role, it’s just another instrument. Sonically, it’s going to be different. But I feel more like it’s guiding a conversation. Like you’re sitting around, having coffee with someone. You have a nice thing going and all of a sudden, someone else sits down, and you have to accommodate them. Even if they don’t say anything, the dynamic will be different just because they’re there. It’s not about instruments playing roles for me—it’s not like we now have a rhythm section in the band. It’s more like we have a person in the conversation with a different dynamic range, a different kind of texture, and a different point of view.

TJG: In terms of different points of view, how do you know Kate and Justin, and how do you imagine their personalities interacting with you and Matt?

TB: I’ve played with Kate. I met her at a workshop where I was teaching. We played together then and we’ve played a couple of gigs together since then. I met Justin through Branford Marsalis. I went to hear Branford play at The Jazz Standard and we were hanging out afterward. I was talking to Justin and I got a good vibe from him. I really don’t know his playing outside of Branford’s group, and in a way, I don’t want to know. He’s a nice guy and expressed an interest in my music, and I dug what he was doing with Branford. It’s fun to try something different—it’s sort of like a blind date in a way.

Sometimes I have to wake myself up. It’s almost too easy to play with the people that I usually play with. I need to challenge myself to see if the music works in other situations, mostly so I don’t get lazy.

TJG: That’s definitely getting back to the destabilizing influence you’re looking for.

TB: Yeah [laughs]. Most people want to be stabilized, and I want to be destabilized. Sometimes I get to a point with my music where I know it’s going to work and I have to do something to mess it up. Like with my band Snakeoil, sometimes I’ll add a person, just to keep us on our toes and give us something else to react to. I can’t always do that with the writing itself. Recently we recorded with Marc Ducret and that really threw a nice wrench into things. We were playing music that we had worked on for a couple of years, and then brought in Marc for one rehearsal before the recording. It’s completely different than anything we’ve ever done. It’s not contrived—it’s the way the band operates.


L to R: Ethan Helm, Miho Hazama, Nathan Parker Smith. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, July 25, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to present the 13th concert in our ongoing Jazz Composers’ Showcase. In this series, emerging composers showcase their music for large ensemble, an increasingly rare opportunity in today’s scene. Many alumni of the series—including Christopher Zuar, Erica Seguine, and Jihye Lee—have since released their own acclaimed big band records.

For this edition of the showcase, composers Ethan Helm, Nathan Parker Smith, and Miho Hazama will present works for string quartet and drums. All three composers embrace multiplicitous practices. While Hazama’s original training was as a classical composer, Smith’s large ensemble music reflects his deep engagement with metal. Helm, on the other hand, is currently pursuing a PhD at NYU, researching applications of classical music theory in jazz. Before coming to the Gallery to hear the composers’ imaginative string music, take a listen to Hazama’s composition “Time River,” performed by the WDR Big Band and vocalist Theo Bleckmann.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, July 20, multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin returns to The Jazz Gallery for two sets. With his abilities on saxophone, bass, drums, and keyboards, Guerin has become a choice sideman for stylistically-fluid bandleaders like Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lynne Carrington. As a leader, Guerin has released two chapters of an ongoing project that he calls The Saga, where he plays most of the instrumental parts alongside smart contributions from peers like vibraphonist Sasha Berliner and keyboardist Julius Rodriguez. You can stream The Saga II below:
In a previous interview with Jazz Speaks, Guerin spoke about how he keeps up with all of his different instruments:

I wake up and immediately pick up my bass every day, out of habit. I have a lot of instruments and recording equipment in my room, and my bass is on the wall above my bead, so every time I wake up, I pick it up without thinking. I’ve been trying to hone in on the bass, because it’s new to me, and I’m in love with the instrument. With the others, I try to practice everything at least once a day, every day. There are times where I don’t get to touch my horn for maybe a day or two, and there are other times where I don’t touch the bass for a day or two and I’m playing a lot of saxophone, drums, or something else instead. It’s a constant cycle, but I can feel when I’m losing familiarity with an instrument [laughs]. I have to stay on top of it.

For his performance this weekend at the Gallery, Guerin will be performing on saxophone, EWI, bass and synthesizer, alongside Alina Engibaryan on vocals and Rhodes piano; Julius Rodriguez on piano, keyboards, and synthesizer; JK Kim on drums; and Val Jeanty on electronics. (more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Friday, July 19, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome singer-songwriter Nerissa Campbell back to our stage. Campbell’s songs are both intimate and expansive, evoking “deserted and poorly lit” city streets (Little Village Magazine) while featuring lush, layered accompaniments. Her most recent album—2016’s After The Magic (Crooked Mouth Music)—features a top-flight New York rhythm section alongside Gamelan Dharma Swara.

For this week’s show at the Gallery, Campbell will be joined by pianist Fabian Almazan. With an array of effects pedals, this duo is an effective conduit of the intimacy and expansiveness of Campbell’s music. They’re as likely to leave tantalizing bits of space as they are to open up with orchestral sweeps. Before coming out to see Campbell and Almazan at the Gallery this Friday, take a listen to a live recording of Campbell’s “Little Little Just” below, featuring Almazan on piano.


Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr, courtesy of the artist.

An alumnus of the Berklee College of Music, drummer & composer Lesley Mok has built a conspicuous presence in New York’s community of young experimental improvisers. She’s a regular performer on Bushwick Public House’s Improvised Music Series, playing with peers like saxophonist Noah Becker and her collaborative trio Thworp.

Though Mok has appeared at The Jazz Gallery in bands led by Jasper Dutz and Nick Dunston, this Thursday, July 18, Mok makes her Gallery debut as a leader. For this performance, Mok convenes her working band The Living Collection, a sextet featuring saxophonists David Leon and Yuma Uesaka, trombonist Kalun Leung, pianist Sonya Belaya, and bassist Steve Williams. Jazz Speaks caught up with Mok by phone to talk about her music for the band, which explores both dense polyphony and stark contrast.

The Jazz Gallery: When did The Living Collection get started?

Lesley Mok: I started writing music for the band in August of last year, but we didn’t really get together as a group until December. I was curious about a lot of different compositional techniques, and I was listening to a lot of new music, so I had a particular sextet sound and a particular aesthetic in mind. When a gig opportunity came up in December, things took off.

Since then, we’ve done three gigs and each gig has been all new music, so it’s felt like three first gigs. The show at The Jazz Gallery will be a chance for us to revisit most of the things that I’ve written in the past six months, and a few new things. I’m excited to have the chance to play things a second time, let them sit and develop.

TJG: What are the some of the compositional methods and techniques that you’ve explored in your work for the band? Are there any particular composers whose work you’re responding to?

LM: There are a few composers who’ve influenced my writing. One is Henry Threadgill, particularly his band Zooid. It’s highly polyphonic music—each voice is its own independent melody but it’s still democratic and balanced. Another is Anthony Braxton. It’s not so much about his graphic scores or systems of notation, but more about the breadth of his music and how diverse it can be. His scores range from really broad to really specific, but I feel that they always bring out the strengths of each band member.

So the writing started as a response to these specific composers, but the more I experiment with the group, the more it’s becoming about the personalities in the band. Everyone has such a unique musical background, so part of the development is hearing what works with everyone’s natural tendencies, and writing in a way that enhances those tendencies. Sometimes, I can get to more clarity by writing less, which challenges my tendency to write a lot. I’ll have a specific idea or sound in mind, but what ends up becoming the composition is something entirely different. Learning to write for strong improvisers is a constant negotiation between what I envision for the band and how they might interpret my ideas. This newest batch of compositions is much more open. Some of the pieces are based on a single idea, like a set of intervals, or a rhythmic cell, or a gestural direction. The music is still really diverse, but it’s definitely becoming more open overall. 

TJG: How much is this openness about letting the band members do their individual thing versus finding simpler ways to get the band to sound the way you want?

LM: I’ve learned with a lot of pieces that the sound I’m hearing can manifest itself within multiple aesthetics. When I listen to the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Sun Ra, it seems that its cacophony comes its band members simultaneously improvising in their own worlds, or playing in unison, but not directly responding to each other. I can’t really notate that, and for that kind of multiplicity, western notation isn’t that valuable. 

For me, the compositional process also continues during the rehearsal process. Communicating certain things, or not communicating them, can really shape the composition. In my first pieces for the group, I would notate the start of an improvisation, like suggest a rhythm to begin with and allow them to take off from there. Now, I tend to give those directions through text, which helps me to communicate an idea more clearly while allowing the players to be themselves.