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Kris Davis & Julian Lage. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Pianist Kris Davis and guitarist Julian Lage are two hard-to-pin-down musicians. Davis’ and Lage’s individual projects over the years, have engaged a huge range of personalities. For Davis, that includes Terri Lyne Carrington, Craig Taborn, Ingrid Laubrock, and Mary Halvorson; while for Lage, that includes Nels Cline, Eric Harland, Nicole Henry and Fred Hersch. Ahead of their duo hit at The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday and Thursday, they discuss the merits of judgment, cooperative exploration and those persistent playback scaries. 

The Jazz Gallery: Musicians are always engaging in conversation, bandstand dialogue, etc. Both of you obviously are very receptive conscious listeners. Kris, to me there’s something about your playing that feels like a very close to literal translation of the idea of conversation, almost a voice speaking. In what ways, if any, do you feel like there’s a connection between your actual speech patterns and your phrasing choices or broad musical choices? 

Kris Davis: I guess what I would say is that I’m innately a shy person and some times it’s hard for me to come up with things to say. So when I’m playing music, it’s kind of the opposite. I feel completely free to generate material and express myself. And I think that’s really how I express myself in general. 

TJG: When you’re playing, do you feel as though you’re not going to be judge for what you’re saying musically in the way that you might be judged for what you say verbally? 

KD: I’m from the school of “There are no mistakes.” It hasn’t always been that way but, at this point, anything I come across, if I think it’s not sounding that exciting or I’m not happy with my choice, sometimes I’ll just stick with it and see where I can take it. Things that might seem dissonant or, I don’t know, things that other people might consider a mistake or a bad sound, to me, I try to come from a place of loving all sound and just rolling with that and going with it. 

TJG: That concept relates directly to the practice of reserving self-judgment. Julian, over the course of your career as an artist, have you transitioned into that headspace of being far less critical of yourself than maybe when you began playing? 

Julian Lage: That’s a good question. I suppose in certain respects, the stakes seem a little clearer now than maybe they did when I was younger, as far as what’s really at risk, what’s really at stake if I don’t play exactly as I had hoped or it doesn’t go the way I’d wished it would. 

KD: Yeah, I understand that sentiment. 

JL: As far as critique and judgment, I’m very much aligned with Kris in that respect. I embrace critique as kind of a dramatic subtext. Maybe a player is going about their business and then you hear something happen that you maybe think, “Ooh, that’s awkward,” and then you hear how they reconcile it. I would say it’s like that. It’s very dramatically interesting. And it’s not divorced from judgment per se; it’s just the relationship to judgment is not stifled. I’m pretty blunt. If I play something that I feel is not going well, I’ll say, “That sucked. Cool.” And then if it’s killing, there’s something happening and I might say, “Well that was amazing.” I’ll feel empowered to say, “Did you hear that? I’ve never heard a guitar do that. It’s amazing.” I don’t take any credit for it, but I do think amazing things happen and it’s fun to rejoice. 


Photo by Gaya Feldhiem Schorr, courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, August 17, trombonist Kalia Vandever returns to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of her debut album, In Bloom. Upon the record’s release in May, Vandever and her bandmates received positive notice from WBGO’s Nate Chinen: “This is a cohort that has obviously metabolized many different approaches,” Chinen writes, “and chosen its own path.” You can check out the record yourself, below.
Before her show at the Gallery, Vandever sat down with us at Jazz Speaks to talk about developing a band sound, her observations on the current New York jazz community, and her recent forays into solo performance (which she’ll continue to explore at the Gallery on Saturday).

The Jazz Gallery: Your trombone playing captures the instrument’s capacity for being a vastly dynamic and emotionally resonant melodic voice. What initially drew you to the trombone and has your relationship with the instrument changed over time?

Kalia Vandever: I first heard the instrument on this record my dad used to play around the house. I told him that I wanted to play the trombone without realizing what it looked like. It’s funny because when I received my first horn, I couldn’t reach 7th position and I felt so limited on the instrument, but really loved the challenge. I honestly feel similar about the instrument today. There are certainly days that the instrument and its limitations really frustrate me, but the feeling motivates me to lean into the really beautiful qualities of the trombone.

TJG: You’ve said that the people in your band include some of your closest friends in New York City, both personally and professionally. How have these friendships influenced the way that these compositions have developed since their conception?

KV: I’m always pretty confident that a piece I bring into rehearsal will sound way better once I hear what they have to add to it. I try to leave room for the guys to take liberties with the music, so if they’re hearing something that I didn’t write, I trust that it’s going to be thoughtful and musical. The way we sound as a band is constantly evolving because we’re all changing as musicians and improvisers.

TJG: Perhaps it’s because of the pedal that runs throughout, but the track “Renee” invokes a rising sensation of ascension or elevation, almost as if something is being searched for while it floats higher and higher. What is the story behind this composition and what is the feeling of playing it with the group?

KV: Renee is my sister’s middle name and this piece was inspired by her perseverance and strength during a difficult period of her life. I’d say the forward moving element in the melody reflects her resilience. The piece sort of devolves and can often get a little chaotic in the middle, which I really love. It’s something I really try to employ in my writing and performances; striking a balance between beauty and chaos. It’s become one of my favorite songs to play.

TJG: How do you envision the kind of space that gets created between you, your bandmates and the audience when this music is performed? Is there a certain invisible narrative you want to bring forward through the music, like the experiences at the Whitney Plantation that inspired “Lost in The Oaks,” or is it more about creating a mood or valence shared between everyone?

KV: Not all of my compositions have a clear narrative and even if they were inspired by a specific experience, I generally err on the side of letting the audience experience the music in the way they want to experience it. There’s certainly a mood that we create on stage, but it might be different for those listening in the audience, so I try not to influence the way they hear things.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Friday, August 16, cornettist Taylor Ho Bynum returns to The Jazz Gallery stage with his 9-tette. The group strikes a balance between the well-honed interplay of Bynum’s long-running sextet and the expansive palette of  his fifteen-piece PlusTet, providing a rich environment to explore varying combinations of structures and colors. The group ignites creativity both through the contrasting personalities of its players and its instrumentation of nested pairs—four treble instruments and four bass instruments, as well as high-low pairs of brass, saxophones, guitars, and strings.

At the Gallery this weekend, Bynum and company will be playing material from their upcoming release, The Ambiguity Manifesto, coming out on Firehouse 12 Records in September (though you can pick up an advanced copy at the show). To get a taste of what the 9-tette has in store, check out their studio performance of Bynum’s composition “neither when nor where” in the video below.


Photo by Dan Chmielinski, courtesy of the artist.

This Wednesday and thursday, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome saxophonist Michael Thomas to our stage for two nights of performances. Since moving to New York in 2011, Thomas has become an ace big band sideman, appearing on big band records by Miguel Zenon and Dafnis Prieto, as well as performing with Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck. He’s an accomplished big band composer as well, writing regularly for Brooklyn’s Terraza Big Band, and receiving a commission from the New York Youth Symphony’s jazz ensemble in 2016. As a leader, Thomas released his debut album The Long Way in 2011, featuring music written during his stint in Boston.
While in Boston, Thomas performed weekly with trumpeter Jason Palmer, who appears with Thomas on the front line for this week’s Gallery shows. With the support of photographer Jimmy Katz’s Giant Steps Arts, these performances will be recorded for future release. 2019 has marked some of the first fruits of Giant Steps’ work with the release of albums by Palmer, saxophonist Eric Alexander, and drummer Johnathan Blake (who also joins Thomas on the bandstand this week). Before coming to the Gallery to witness this live document of an emerging voice, check out Thomas’s slippery version of the standard “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” below.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This weekend, pianist Manuel Valera’s New Cuban Express Big Band fills The Jazz Gallery stage over two nights of performances. As an extension of his long-running New Cuban Express project, Valera’s big band takes musical inspiration from Cuban artists of the 1970s and 80s, fusing Afro-Cuban rhythms with the sounds of American pop music and post-bop improvisation.

For these performances at the Gallery, the band will be performing compositions from Valera’s 2015 project, José Martí en Nueva York, originally premiered at The Jazz Gallery. The work features settings of poems by the Cuban writer José Martí, which he wrote while in exile in New York. Valera’s contemporary perspective, featuring knotty and richly-layered settings, show that Martí’s words have continuing relevance.

Before coming out to the Gallery to hear Valera’s José Martí compositions and others, take a listen to the composition “Por tus ojos encendidos” in the video below.