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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Andrew Chow

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…)

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Raga Massive.

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Raga Massive.

Some 55 years after John Coltrane began his foray into the study of Indian classical music, cultural exchange between raga and jazz culture is flourishing within the borough of Brooklyn. Brooklyn Raga Massive was founded in 2012 with the aims of both bringing classical Indian music to a new audience, and updating the music itself to match the time and setting. These simultaneous backward and forward-looking impulses will be on display at The Gallery on August 10, when the Massive will present two distinct sets, including a workshop.

The Massive draw from a myriad of sources: Hindustani music of northern India, John Coltrane, George Harrison & the Beatles, and modern Western classical composers like Terry Riley. Of course, Ravi Shankar has an outsized influence on the group. And as opposed to the guru-driven hierarchy typically found in Indian musical studies, the collective prides itself on being collaborative and democratic, and hosts open jam sessions on a regular basis.

The early set will feature a face familiar to The Jazz Gallery: drummer Dan Weiss, who will man the tabla along with singer Samarth Nagarkar and Rohan Prabhudesai on harmonium. The late set features a group called DRONE GHOST, which consists of Kane Mathis on kora and oud, Joshua Geisler on bansuri flute, Max ZT on hammer dulcimer, and Rich Stein on percussion and hydra, an instrument of Stein’s own design. (more…)

Photo by Vincent Soyez, via www.jamiebaum.com

Photo by Vincent Soyez, via www.jamiebaum.com

Flautist Jamie Baum has traveled through countries and eras for inspiration for her compositions. “She’s into tone color and timbre and the blending of languages, jazz, and 20th-century classical and Afro-Latin music,” Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times in 2013. Her gig at The Jazz Gallery this Saturday has a simple framework—writing streamlined melodies for her top-notch band to improvise over—but there’s no doubt she’ll draw from her many sources to create something unique. We spoke with her this week; here are excerpts from that conversation.

TJG: How did this project, “Short Stories,” come about?

JB: I’ve been focused on this large group [the Jamie Baum Septet and Septet Plus], writing longer extended forms. As I wrote longer and longer over 15 years, I would start really hearing who would play on what: really thinking of a recording, or compositionally. It became more removed from the typical blowing thing, and I was soloing less and less. I wanted to complement that with something that was completely different. I’d been really thinking that I wanted to get back to, or at least have, another outlet focusing more on playing.

TJG: What was the inspiration for these pieces you’ve been writing?

JB: I came up, as most jazz musicians do, working on standards: Porter, Gershwin; studying the tunes of Thelonious Monk. And really being enamored by short pieces of Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis: “Nefertiti,” or “Frelon Brun,” or “Filles de Kilimanjaro.” They’re really short, but create a vibe immediately. And certainly with Monk, he has short melodies, but they’re so strong that they gave you so much material to solo on. So after writing longer and longer things, I wanted see if I could take what I learned from that, and write short pieces with those concepts with Miles or Wayne in mind.

TJG: So are you essentially writing new standards?

JB: That’s a very lofty idea. [Laughs] If they become that, wouldn’t that be cool? But I got my masters in composition. If there’s anything I learned from all the time I spent there, it’s better not to put that kind of pressure on myself when I write. That’s the kiss of death right away.

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Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo courtesy of the artist

Rudresh Mahanthappa was one of the biggest players in jazz last year: he topped year-end polls at NPR and DownBeat for his explosive album Bird Calls (ACT), inspired by Charlie Parker. But his upcoming gig at The Jazz Gallery will harken back to very different time in his life. He’s reconvened Saturn Returns, a group he formed in 2001 with pianist James Hurt. (The group played at the Gallery in May 2001.) The long dormant group will fly back into action, featuring group originals Hurt and David Gilmore on guitar, as well as Anthony Tidd on bass and Gene Lake on drums.

We spoke to Mahanthappa this week; here are excerpts of that conversation.

The Jazz Gallery: What is the origin of this band?

Rudders Mahanthappa: Saturn Returns is an astrological phenomenon that is unique to every person. From what I understand, it’s a period of your life where the universe is testing you and everything seems to be going wrong. If you look at astrology and destiny and all these things, there’s always the sense that fate is written. But the interesting thing with this idea is supposedly, how you negotiate this horrible reckoning will actually determine your future. If you negotiate Saturn returning into your sign well, and constructively, ideally you’ll have a great life. It’s supposedly something that happens in your early to mid 30s.

I had hit a point around then when I didn’t know what was going on with my life on a professional and personal space. James Hurt was one of the first people when I moved to New York in 1997. We ended up sharing a cab, as strangers, after a gig at the Knitting Factory. James and I were on the same wavelength about what we were thinking about musically, both as composers and improvisers. We talked about co-leading this band.

I think before that Jazz Gallery gig, we had steady Sunday nights for a month or two at the Izzy bar. It was kind of the electric rock band that I always wanted to have: very groove oriented. It wasn’t about playing tunes. James was investigating a lot of electronics, and I had no sense of how that worked. We would set up a mic for me that actually would pipe into his effects. He would manipulate these effects while I was playing. There would be a suddenly a harmony or delay would come on. It was really fun to have somebody else being in charge of that.

TJG: What your life was like at the time?

RM: I wasn’t married. I was single in Carroll Gardens. I had one album under my belt, which I had recorded in Chicago in the mid-90s—but by 2001 that was ancient history. So for all intensive purposes, I had not made an album. I was still primarily doing little local gigs in the East Village. I was trying to figure out how to make rent. I was teaching lots of private lessons. I was writing… what was I writing? I was just getting started! I was continuing to think about how I could deal with my ancestry in a musical way that was authentic, what being Indian-American meant. I look back at some of that music, and I remember what I was thinking when I wrote that stuff: taking these real specific elements of Indian music, and putting it very much in a contemporary light of groove and funk. It’s wild to think I’ve made 15 albums since then.

When Rio approached me about returning, I was like, ‘Wow! Are we doing this? This is crazy!’ I take it for granted, but these are the guys. I kind of forget about how blessed I should feel to be in their presence. The reality was that in 2001, I couldn’t believe those guys even wanted to play with me. It was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m playing with David Gilmore! These are the guys that were playing with Steve Coleman when I was in college!’ I never imagined we’d be doing stuff together.

TJG: What advice would you give to the 2001 version of yourself?

RM: It wouldn’t be so much musical advice as career advice. I think I would say, don’t compare your career to anyone else’s. Forge your own path and be confident in that path. If you keep using other people as measuring sticks, it’s just destructive. You end up not really developing. A lot of people move here and want to have a career in jazz that’s modeled after someone else. People want to be Chris Potter, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner. That just ends up stunting you even in ways that you don’t realize until much later in life.

The other thing is embrace to all technology. As a businessman, I took way too long to join Twitter and Facebook. These are all tools that you don’t have to be a slave to, but can be very productive. Music technology too: electronics are great. Learning how to make beats is great. It’s all part of the jazz continuum. The more you look around you to see how civilization is moving forward, the better off you are. (more…)