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Posts by Andrew Chow

From L to R: Ches Smith, Mat Maneri, Craig Taborn. Photo by Paolo Soriani.

This Thursday, the 16th, drummer Ches Smith will bring his adventurous, battle-tested trio, with Craig Taborn on piano and Mat Maneri on viola, to The Jazz Gallery. You might have caught Smith, a drummer and vibraphonist, at the Gallery before, as a sideman for Linda Oh, Mary HalvorsonTim Berne and other new music luminaries. But this peculiar trio showcases his songwriting and arranging instincts, as well as an unbound freedom for chasing musical ideas to their extremes.

As a unit, the creative and risk-taking Smith, Taborn and Maneri crawl and race through sonic experiments: their album, “The Bell,” was released last year, contained chamber music-like counterpoint, placid pools of sound and furious grooves. “It’s difficult to remember ‘The Bell’ as a single entity after you’re finished with it, because it always seems to be moving somewhere different,” Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times. Before seeing the group’s uncanny interplay on Thursday, check check out a video here of their explosive communal music-making, below.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Eric Harland has been a sideman to many revered bandleaders: McCoy Tyner, Charles Lloyd, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dave Holland, Chris Potter, and Joshua Redman, to name a few. But he will be front and center for “Harlandia,” coming to The Gallery on Dec. 22 and 23. He’s recruited some of his closest colleagues over the years to assist him in realizing his musical vision: Taylor Eigsti and James Francies on piano, Ben Wendel on saxophone, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Love Science Music DJing. In an interview with Jazz Speaks, Harland talked about Tyner, hip hop, and meeting Barack Obama. Excerpts from the conversation are below.

The Jazz Gallery: What does the concept of “Harlandia” represent?

Eric Harland: Harlandia is my world, the way I hear music. It is, in a way, a combination of my worlds from past to present: a little bit of retrospective, current, and future ideas. LoveScience is gonna be interplaying a lot of different music that we’ve worked on, including some that’s very current and hasn’t been released yet. I’m always willing to step on the edge, just to see how people feel about certain things.

Sometimes you just want to hear your world in its entirety. Taylor and Harish are kind of the core of a lot of what I’ve done over the years.The thing I like about both Taylor and James is they’re both very versatile—they can play piano, keyboard, and have an understanding of both instruments in the way they flow in a group setting. And Ben is one of the most versatile sax players on the scene, in how he can play really well in acoustic settings and real nail some big funk band settings.

TJG: You’ve played for so many amazing bandleaders over the years. How does your style as a bandleader compare to those you’ve learned from?

EH: You always learn so much playing as a sideman. You have to be able to react and respond to the needs or desires of the leader you’re playing with. One of the greatest experiences about playing with McCoy is that we never rehearsed. You had to either know the tunes or learn them by the first chorus.

That was a great experience for me because I feel like a lot of musicians tend to over rehearse. They want it to be so perfect so that the presentation is exactly the way they envisioned it. Whereas, I would say the older school of guys like McCoy, Charles Lloyd, Joe Henderson, Benny Carter: these iconic musicians taught me that the spontaneity of the music that brings out something you wouldn’t do repetitively. They were looking to get you to do something different, not for you to overemphasize the same thing you would normally do in any situation. Because then, the music is new for no one.

But then, I do love the current flow of where music is going, how guys are attempting to be perfectionists. If they get their idea to come across as perfect as possible, then there’s no regret as to whether people like or dislike their music.

TJG: So where do you fall on that spectrum?

EH: The middle. I do attempt for the state of perfection. But I’m also open to the fact that whatever happens is perfection. I believe a lot of that does come from having experience as a sideman. Your ultimate job is orchestration: how can I allow this moment to be the best possible moment it can be? The more you practice that, the more it comes across in everything that you do.

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Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist.

It’s hard to find a combination of forward-thinking jazz musicians that Tomas Fujiwara hasn’t played with—he’s relentless in his experimentation with sounds, compositions and ensembles. Fujiwara brings a brand new group to The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday and Thursday: a double trio with Ralph Alessi & Taylor Ho Bynum on horns, Mary Halvorson & Brandon Seabrook on guitars, and himself and Gerald Cleaver on drums.

Following this gig, the band will then immediately head into the studio to record their debut album on Firehouse 12 (here’s the Indiegogo campaign). The group includes some of his closest compatriots: he appears with Halvorson in groups like the Hook Up, Thumscrew, and Code Girl; he has a working trio with Alessi and Seabrook; and he shares a duo project with Bynum. But bringing these players together presents a whole other challenge. We talked to him about the upcoming show—here are excerpts from that interview.

The Jazz Gallery: The phrase ‘double trio’ might be misleading, because it hints at two separate entities. Are you writing songs for two trios, or one six person group?

Tomas Fujiwara: More as six voices and six distinct musical personalities. I like the fact that while each instrument is doubled, the approach to those instruments couldn’t be more different. I really have each player’s sound in my head very clearly. So when I write I can really hear how each one will play a particular piece of a composition. I’ve been trying to think about and utilize all the solo, duo, trio, quartet, options in an orchestrational and improvisational way.

TJG: So for instance, did you write two guitar parts, or one part specifically for Brandon and one for Mary?

TF: I wrote specific parts for everyone. There will be a lot of multiple ensembles happening. Maybe a duo is playing one section while a trio is playing another—and the sixth person is improvising.

TJG: Can you give me an example of how you play to a certain musician’s strength?  

TF: It’s not only their strengths; it’s also trying to challenge them. There might be things that sound very Brandon, and there might be other things I give him that may not. I want to see how he deals with that. I definitely don’t want to give anyone the role of just “this person.”

TJG: How much have you played alongside other drummers, and what have you learned from those experiences?

TF: I’ve done it a few times: in Living By Lanterns with Mike Reed; with Jim Black; and in a large ensemble piece with Joshua Abrams. I learned that if the other drummer is good and open and creative and into the idea of playing together, it’s always going to be a lot of fun. I haven’t experienced any challenges in terms of conflicting approaches or aesthetic dogma or time.

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Photo by Jonas Tarm.

Photo by Jonas Tarm.

At Harvard there are two jazz bands: the Sunday band, which is essentially the JV squad, and the Monday band, the varsity team led by the preeminent saxophonist Don Braden. In freshman year I started as the Sunday band benchwarmer pianist, before slowly and proudly making my way up to Monday band. When I got to the Monday band, I met saxophonist Kevin Sun. Sun was a joint NEC-Harvard student and he blew the rest of us away, in torrents, swells, and squawks on his tenor saxophone. He could make the whole ensemble sound better with the slightest of tweaks: while prepping for a Herbie Hancock tribute show, he detuned and bent notes on his sax to sound eerily like the beer bottles on “Watermelon Man.” Even Braden could only shake his head and laugh.

Two years later, Sun is now an active player in New York and has released an acclaimed album with the collaborative group Great on Paper. This week, Sun released a new record with another collaborative group, Earprint, which includes a few of Sun’s longtime collaborators from Boston: Tree Palmedo on trumpet, Simon Willsón on bass, and Dor Herskovits on drums. I caught up with Sun this week to talk about his time playing jazz in China, having a day job, his songwriting process, and how he soaks up information from teachers and older musicians over the years, including Miguel Zenón, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

The Jazz Gallery: How did this group form?

Kevin Sun: The band was sort of a workshop/lab type project for me: I wanted an outlet to write a lot of music. I was studying with Miguel Zenón. We had done a lot of transcribing up that point, working on a lot of fundamentals. Basically, he was pushing me to do more composition, and being as specific as possible when notating—especially writing bass and drum parts. He would show me examples of his own writing where all the parts were specified.

TJG: How did Miguel influence your approach to music?

KS: I think he really changed a lot about my playing and my outlook on music. At the time, my sophomore spring, I was pretty dark about things. I remember feeling like there was so much information, but I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do with all of it. I was kind of losing sight of what drew me to music in the first place.

He assigned me a Sonny Rollins solo, “Come Gone” from Way out West, and I didn’t get very far—I was really busy at the time. Basically we couldn’t progress at all so I felt, ‘Wow, he’s not going to let me slide.’ So I started working on it seriously, and saw how much work it was to not just transcribe a solo but memorize it note for note. Memorize, play along note for note with the record, convincingly in the style of Sonny, and faithfully reproduce the nuances.

Even after I had put in the effort to memorize it, it still took a few weeks to get to the point where he was satisfied about the way I was phrasing the lines, articulating notes, putting accents. Even the energy of it. I was trying to get the feel of really powerful ‘Sonny Rollins blowing keys off the saxophone’ vibe. I thought I was doing it, but he was like, “no it’s not there yet. Come back next week and try again.” It was pretty frustrating. At the end of the semester he was like, “Okay, that’s good. We can get started on this next thing.”

TJG: Did you really feel like you really got into Sonny’s head?

KS: Absolutely. I don’t think I had gotten into anybody’s head that thoroughly. From there, I really committed to it. I saw a lot of progress from myself, playing-wise. I started listening, becoming more attuned to things, rhythmically, especially playing with other people. That made music a lot more fun, because it more inter-relational.

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Photo by Josh Goleman.

From L to R: Colin Stranahan, John Raymond, and Gilad Hekselman. Photo by Josh Goleman.

“I’m not really not a pyrotechnics, flashy kind of a player,” John Raymond says. “I’m more a subtle kind of guy.”

Don’t mistake subtle for boring, though. Raymond is a top-rate trumpet and flugelhorn player with a warm, assured sound and a keen ear for melody; his flexibility and craft allow him to excel in a variety of settings. In the New York Times, Nate Chinen praised Raymond’s 2015 “Foreign Territory” album, writing: “This is an album about finding new possibilities within a recognizable framework; it’s more rational than radical, with a thoughtful relationship to mainstream convention. It’s also a substantial leap forward for Mr. Raymond.”

Raymond leaps forward again this year with his stripped-down project Real Feels, which features the unusual flugelhorn-drums-guitar trio, featuring Gilad Hekselman and Colin Stranahan. He’s got a new live album coming out soon, and will give out an advance copy to anyone who comes to the show. We talked to Raymond via phone; here are excerpts from the conversation.

The Jazz Gallery: How did this unusual trio come about?

John Raymond: One of my main influences has been listening to Art Farmer. He has those great couple records with Jim Hall. I just love the sound of flugelhorn and guitar. There can be moments where you can sort tell which is which, but it’s less identifiable than a trumpet/guitar, or definitely a sax/guitar. It’s fun to weave in and out of each other like that. Gilad has played in pretty much every iteration of a band I’ve had since I moved to town 7 years ago—I sought him out.

This has been been a band where I don’t really want to bring in a lot of crazy difficult music. The joy of it is we’re playing these simple songs: “Amazing Grace,” “Scarborough Fair,” “This Land is Your Land.” But because of the trio setting, and moreso because how we’re all approaching the music, we’re taking this simple idea and able to then take it in a lot of directions.

TJG: Are there any trios that this group is inspired by?

JR: This group feels partly like a chordless group—but with chords. It has a certain sense of that openness that I really like in groups like Sonny Rollins, Live at the Vanguard, and Mark Turner’s chordless band. All that stuff, it places a different responsibility on each member of the group to carry the time and melody and the harmony.

TJG: Do you ever feel ungrounded without a bass player?

JR: I never do. Maybe part of it is that Gilad will plug in through a guitar amp and bass amp. He can play basslines if he wanted to. He at least gets a certain sense of bottom really fills out the band, so I’m never feel like I’m missing anything.

TJG: Why are you playing flugelhorn and not trumpet in this project?

JR: Playing flugelhorn feels really natural to me. I remember watching an Art Farmer interview and he said something like, “when I play the flugelhorn, I don’t have to think about my sound. It comes out exactly like I hear it, so I can focus on the notes or the melody.” I resonate with that. I feel like there’s a certain natural feeling I get when I play the instrument that I have to work harder for on the trumpet because I hear a different sound.

And playing flugelhorn has really made me a better trumpet player. Once I play the flugelhorn, it reminds me, “that’s what I sound like.” So then I can replicate that more quickly on the trumpet. (more…)