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40Twenty (2012, Yeah Yeah Records)

“…those ‘forty-twenty’ sets the club owners wanted everybody to play. They wanted you to begin your set twenty minutes after the hour and play until the end of the hour and then come back twenty minutes later and play another set”

Miles Davis

Writing about 40Twenty for The New York Times back in the summer of 2010, Ben Ratliff described the band, a Brooklyn-based collective featuring trombonist Jacob Garchik, pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Dave Ambrosio, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, as reminiscent of the mood of ’60s Paul Bley albums with their “dry, controlled radicalism; a smeary version of chamber jazz.” In advance of their sets at The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday, July 12, 2017, we caught up with the band’s pianist to discuss in greater detail the origins of the ensemble; the past, present, and future of the long-form gig; and how repeat performances enable musicians and listeners alike to move beyond the surface of the music and understand the core values of a band.

The Jazz Gallery: Everybody in the band has known each other for years, but how did this particular ensemble form?

Jacob Sacks: The concept of that band was to try to do a long-form gig, basically. Vinnie Sperrazza and I had talked about this idea: how Monk would play six months at the Five Spot. At that time, we were talking about we felt like we’d missed something, not getting to do something like that, and I’d gotten to play with Paul [Motian] at the Vanguard for a week—five different weeks, actually—and each of those weeks was really instructive.

When you get to do more than one gig in a row, you get deeper into the music, and when Brian Drye gave us two weeks at IBeam, we got it together, more or less.

TJG: There’s that great Miles Davis quote you reference in the 2012 album’s liner notes.

JS: Yeah, but he hated that, though. He eventually got it so he wouldn’t do all those sets they want you to do, because those cats would often play from 9 to 4, six or seven sets, whatever it was, if you can imagine.

TJG: The name of the band’s sort of ironic, then?

JS: Yeah. When we play, we usually try to perform 40 minutes sets and take 20 off. We won’t do that at The Jazz Gallery where the format is two longer sets, but we often set up the gigs like that.

TJG: So even though Miles wasn’t into it, you still tried it out?

JS: Well, it wasn’t so much the convention of 40/20 that was the thing—it was more the convention of playing a bunch of nights in a row. It was to try to experience what our heroes in the music often did (obviously on a much smaller scale). They would do six months, maybe five to seven hours a night; we did two weeks, two sets a night.

When I was a kid though—I grew up in southeastern lower Michigan, northwestern Ohio area—Rusty’s Jazz Cafe was 9 to 2, so you’d play four sets at least at that place. That was my training as a kid, and you might play Friday to Saturday, two nights of five set gigs in a row. Even some places up in Ann Arbor, like I used to play at this place called the Bird of Paradise: That was 9 to 1, and that was 3 sets at least, if I remember correctly; and so that was my upbringing—having to play 25 to 35 solos a night.

You do a lot of tunes, but I realized when I moved to New York that, back in the Midwest on those gigs you could play 35 tunes over the course of a gig, but you might not need to know how to play them 100 different ways. You might know one way of playing on each tune, and the tune itself might change—the variables:  different tempo, different feel, whatever it was—but here in New York, I always felt like, “Oh, you need to know 500 tunes and 500 ways of playing each of those 500 tunes,” which is good, actually. So that’s the one great thing about New York, is that so many different people are here. You just get a sense there are a lot of different ways to play the same old thing, whereas there, there were a number of great musicians, but not the numbers here, where there’s probably 1000 great jazz piano players in New York alone. That’s 1000 great ways to play right there.

TJG: Thinking back to that two week residency, what was your impression of how the music changed over time?

JS: Each night was often the extension of the previous night. It’s almost like you start creating a conversation or a kind of aural history of the piece itself in terms of your approach, and every successive performance adds to that conversation.

Now, it might also be that a band could develop multiple conversations on a piece, and then at any given time, you might delve into one or all of them—or, in the case of this band, because we’ve all known each other for 20 years, in some cases it’s really more like a 20 year conversation being applied to a song, if that makes any sense. Since we’ve all had these experiences and the musicians in the band have great memories, things happen and you don’t even realize that you’re adding to a conversation that may have happened 15 years ago.

On the other hand, because of the creative nature of these guys and all of us as a team, new things will happen or somebody will be hyper-aware that we’re doing the same stuff and just change. The concept is very open; the tunes are not really set, the arrangements aren’t set, or we don’t know the ends of the story at all times. We might have a more or less agreed-to ending that we might often do, but there’s no reason that it has to be that way. Anybody can change it.

One thing I should also mention, another genesis of this band was that Vinnie Sperrazza and I had been talking about how when we were kids, we had worked on certain difficult tempos together, and we started getting together to start doing that again. I remember saying to him, “When I was 18, I could play fast tempos seemingly a lot better than I can right now,” and he said, “Yeah, we should get together and work on it if you’re up for it.” I said I’d really like to get it together again, then Jacob Garchik joined us, and then the conversation went into, at least between Vinnie and I, about the long-form gig, then, “Well, bass players? Dave! There it is. The group to do a long-form gig.”

We did more than one residency, and we even tried doing one day a month for 12 months at IBeam. Having experienced it both ways, I think our feeling was that it was better to have multiple gigs in a row than one per month. We tried both approaches and I thought several in a row was more fruitful, at least from my perspective; the other guys might disagree. I thought that with one a month, it always felt like we were just getting going again, like we were just finding our bearings.

TJG: Like it takes a set just to get back into it.

JS: With Paul’s band, I think that we got deeper because we had six nights in a row. That was a pretty large band, though; maybe if it was a trio, it would be a different type of development, but there definitely was amazing development that was special and unique due to the size of the group. Different textures happened, especially on the freer tunes. Everyone was really creative. It would get deeper, you know—it could even just be that the swing feel on something gets deeper over the course of the week, more swinging by the end.

TJG: I’ve definitely observed that seeing multiple nights in a row of the same band.

JS: Not every band works that way, though, so it’s interesting when you might witness a band that doesn’t actually work that way, and it’s actually literally the same every night.

With some bands, people might say that the best night to see would be the first night; there wouldn’t be as many patterns built up. I don’t know that any of this makes any sense anyway, but there’s an argument to be said for really spontaneous people or improvisers, maybe hearing them on the first night playing better than on the sixth night.

The surface of music doesn’t tend to necessarily give you what’s really happening. It might sound cacophonous and free and you might think these guys are doing whatever, but it could be the most choreographed thing you’ve ever seen. I remember playing gigs with certain so-called straight-ahead players which were as free as anything I’ve ever experienced. I played with Steve Slagle—that’s about as free as it gets. I don’t mean totally tonally, but just in terms of the spirit of it, in that sound world. I felt like I could do anything I needed to do. He didn’t make me do anything in particular. The spirit of it was totally free.

TJG: It makes you wonder if, when things sound really free but you don’t know it’s written, if that matters.

JS: I’m sure you’ve played with certain improvisers where it takes a minute for them to get past their vocabulary—I mean, I know I have that issue. If we played four hours in a row, I would hope that the last hour would be more interesting than the first hour, but you never know.

TJG: Do you and the band have a philosophy about rehearsing?

JS: There’s not much rehearsal. If we were going to rehearse, that would be if there’s something new or to run the head, but it wouldn’t be to necessarily set anything—just to open up possibilities, which I guess is really a different way of rehearsing than a lot of people do. If we get together to play, my perception, at least, is it’s a lot more about opening up possibilities and developing awareness about a piece—what might be possible with it—rather than setting what’s going to happen necessarily.

Some of that’s discovered on the gig, and I’m sure we’ll discover some of it at the Gallery in real time. Somebody will have a feeling and go for something.

TJG: From between when the record was recorded to now, how has the gigging situation changed in the city?

JS: In terms of finding a long-form gig?

TJG: Yes.

JS: There just aren’t that many long-form gigs anymore because most places don’t do them. Anything more than one day in a row, if the band is open to it, you can start to open certain doors that you can’t just open in one night. I’m not trying to discourage people from coming to the gig, obviously—it’s not bad to have a one night gig—but this band was originally designed as a response to the fact that all there were were one night gigs. Thankfully, because we’ve played so many long-form gigs, we can transcend some of the issues.

TJG: Since IBeam is quite important to the formation of this band and maybe not everyone knows about it, could you say a few words about the space?

JS: Well, IBeam is Brian Drye’s spot. Brian Drye is one of the finest musicians living today without a doubt: Great trombonist, great composer, also plays great piano. He’s essentially done something that is too much of a stretch for most people to do, which is to create a space and then share it and let other people perform in his space. He does that, the Drawing Room does that, Ohad [Talmor] at SEEDS has done that a lot over the past few years, and The Jazz Gallery has been doing it even longer. It’s not easy to do. As soon as you take on the role of being the booking agent, of being the person who’s the manager of a place while still being a musician, that’s a bit more of a difficult situation to be in. It means that you have to be the boss a little bit, but I think it’s also about being very giving.

They actually take a risk with their own instruments, letting other people play them in a performance setting. I mean, to have to deal with the city, with sanitation, with the plumbing, with the bathroom, and they have to clean up the place. When you think about all the things that go into making a venue run, a musician-run venue is a musician taking on all the things that we all take for granted as being musicians who just show up to play.

My original idea with Vinnie was to try to find some restaurant that had a back room and say, “Hey, could we bring a piano in and set up a gig and just do it for a while? It’ll be a door gig, you don’t have to pay us anything—the only thing you have to guarantee is that we can do it for a while.” We thought about that, but we never followed through with a restaurant because we thought, well, if we could do this in one of our friends’ spaces, that’d be a much better symbiotic relationship. They’d let us develop something, and maybe it’d cause a bit of a splash or get the word out in a way.  If you can get a band together and do a long-form gig, there’s nothing better: everything will develop, or you’ll figure out pretty quickly if you shouldn’t jettison the whole thing and do something else!

TJG: Right, like why do a gig each month when you could do a week and just know?

JS: I also think it’s why those cats sounded so good. It’s why can Red Garland go into the studio and in four hours make one of the classic jazz records of all time. Part of me has to think that one of the reasons is that, if you play 300 gigs a year, often with the same band, you’re developing a certain kind of conversation. You walk in and it’s like, “Yeah, we do it every day and it’s always great. Here it is.”

My experience making a jazz record is, “Wow, this is tough stuff.” It wasn’t as hard for 40Twenty because we’d played a lot of gigs, but if we’d played 100 more gigs than we’d played, it’d be even easier, better, quicker, more to the point.

I was always hoping that these jazz schools that have set up shop all across North America and Europe and wherever else would each open a venue.

TJG: Like the Stone at The New School?

JS: That’s a step in the right direction, but, like everything in New York, it kind of comes with the territory; it’s not shocking to have a venue in New York. Imagine if, just for sake of argument, the university of wherever, a small town out in the middle of nowhere—what if they had a 300 nights-a-year venue? The students would play every night and maybe people who were traveling through also played, and the students opened for the quote unquote professionals or the area professionals, and there would be a dialogue just because you’re playing in the same place. Some students play every night, and then they watch each other play, and you develop skill sets that you can’t get by having combo rehearsal twice a week, for instance, with one gig at the end of the semester.

The act of playing jazz, instead of being this thing that you develop over many nights over many sets, building trust and a long arc of shared history and whatever you want to call it—instead of that, we’ve reduced it to, like, let’s rehearse 10 times, then present an hour of music, which in my view is kind of the opposite of what it kind of once was.

Miles Davis rehearsed three times in five years or something, and they developed the rest of the ideas on the gig. Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses, but I feel nowadays we have too much of the rehearsal thing leading up to one gig and not enough of one rehearsal leading to ten gigs, let’s say.

TJG: I remember hearing a story from Herbie talking about playing in Miles’s quintet, how the rhythm section would go to a diner after the gig and talk about what went down.

JS: That’s probably a better rehearsal than a rehearsal, right? It’s like, what do you call it?

TJG: Postmortem?

JS: Yeah! I’m sure that those conversations probably inspired the next gig. Do you have the Plugged Nickel box sets?

TJG: Yeah.

JS: So you’re aware that they basically decided to play at times the opposite of what they would have done, right? They had developed a whole system of call and response unique to that band already, and then they decided to almost jettison that as a rhythm section and make the horns deal with it. Now, how many bands do this? I don’t know too many bands these days who operate under these kinds of principles of, “No, we’re actually going to force you to think in real-time onstage, and we don’t care if the tune might fail.”

It might be close to failing—I mean, they never failed, obviously—but for a lot of us, if we attempted that, we’d be taking a huge risk. I think 40Twenty, thankfully, is a band that’s willing to take those risks, you know.

TJG: That makes all the difference.

JS: It is hard to take those risks if you haven’t together played a lot.

TJG: Maybe your next gig is contingent on how this one goes, or that’s what you’re thinking.

JS: Well, l don’t know. I don’t think that things necessarily move in a straight line, either. The development of a band is not a linear phenomenon only; it’s not only necessarily that 10 gigs in a row are going to be the be all or end all. It’s one way, but you could do 10 gigs in a row with people who have a very narrow view of the music, and you might not develop anything. They might not be interested in certain possibilities, so you’ll never try them, but if you have ten gigs in a row with very open-minded musicians, you can go anywhere.

40Twenty plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. The collective features Jacob Garchik on trombone, Jacob Sacks on piano, Dave Ambrosio on bass, and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission, $10 for members, and FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.