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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Andrew Chow

From L to R: Okkyung Lee, Stephan Crump, and Mat Maneri. Photos courtesy of the artists.

From L to R: Okkyung Lee, Stephan Crump, and Mat Maneri. Photos courtesy of the artists.

There are not many string trios that roll through the Jazz Gallery, and there are certainly no string trios that sound like this. On April 12, the fiercely independent and adventurous musicians Okkyung Lee (cello), Mat Maneri (viola) and Stephan Crump (bass) will perform improvised sets of music at The Gallery.

Lee is an established experimental solo act whose albums have received indie love from places like Pitchfork. Crump works most prominently in the Vijay Iyer Trio, and also has a large array of ongoing projects like the Rosetta Trio and Rhombal. Maneri has worked with a legion of cutting-edge collaborators, from Cecil Taylor to Matthew Shipp, and leads many of his own groups. Together, they’ve built a trio based on equal exchange and uninhibited textural wanderings.

The trio has played together a grand total of 2 times, both live in concert. Crump organized the group last fall, as a way to explore playing with other string instruments. We caught up with Lee and Crump in Brooklyn; excerpts of that conversation are below.

The Jazz Galley: How did this group come together?

Stephan Crump: I wanted to respond to these timbres. And I’m not drawn to doing things that everybody else does. There’s something to be said for the challenge putting together a piano bass and drums trio, and see if I can make this new. But I also like putting some different characters and textures together and trying to come up with something. I also like that even in a classical context, which string trio is more reflective of, this is an oddball lineup—cello, viola and bass—even if you’re coming from that perspective.

Okkyung Lee: I would have said no if it was anybody else. Because the last thing I want to do is be playing with two other string instruments. But Mat is someone who’s very important to me. He was the first person I saw somebody playing non-jazz improvised music. I was at 21 or 22, and I thought improvised music was all jazz. I saw him at the Knitting Factory and remember thinking, “wow, what is this? It’s so beautiful.” But I never thought I would be improvising.

So it was Mat and you [Stephan], and I thought, that can be very interesting and challenging. And we are so different. Which is a good thing. Because lots of times, some of the improvising string quartets basically sound like one person playing altogether. Everybody’s playing the same sound all over the range. So the individuality doesn’t come out.

TJG: What was your first rehearsal like?

SC: We didn’t have a rehearsal. We just played at Korzo.

OL: I don’t like to rehearse improvised music. I already know what Stephan sounds like. I like improvising to an audience. It throws you into a spot that you have to be really in the moment. To me, that’s really important. I think it’s very important that we just got together and played.

SC: Chemistry is either there or it’s not. I agree with Okkyung: if you’re going to be doing improvised stuff, I don’t need to or care to rehearse.  And it was so satisfying and thrilling to engage in that format that part of me doesn’t want to mess with it, at least for now.

OL:  I think it was really interesting, because the feeling that this was working was almost instant, within a few minutes into the gig. Somehow we were just all in it, and we went with it, and things just started to come out. I thought, “wow, this is really exciting.” And challenging, which is the most important thing for me.

TJG: How would you describe the purpose or sound of this trio?

SC: I like playing with musicians who are not stuck in a particular vocabulary. So with the three of us, it feels like it’s beyond that and it can be anything, and it can just be expression. That can happen on a harmonic and melodic levels, it can happen rhythmically, it can happen just texturally or sonically.

OL:  One of my favorite experiences in concert ever was seeing Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis playing a trio. It was like 2003, in Venice. It was these three individuals, totally in three parallel universes at the same time. Often they would find a way to come together, and then just go away again, and there would be these crazy moments where they would be not together—not in the traditional sense—but keep this thing going at the same time. So I think to me, that’s why I like this trio. Because we have different approaches, personalities, sounds. But somehow we still have 3 things going at the same time, but still connected.

Right now these days, improvisational stylized music is becoming kind of a problem, because it’s becoming something someone can take from someone else and start to wear. It’s already developed this body of vocabulary that everybody shares. That’s what I get in Europe a lot. If it’s improvised music, you have to have this sound. It’s not really free anymore.

SC: To me a pitfall of a lot of improvised music is that automatic knee jerk aggression is the leading vocabulary of it. That is a huge turnoff to me. Because it seems like it comes out of nowhere. If you’re going straight to that, how does that have anything to do with what our engagement is? You’re totally leaving me out. You have to be with people who are sensitive and perceptive as human beings: what’s flowing? And then the music comes from that. It’s not like you throw your shit at everybody else.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Steve Lehman has built a career not only through his muscular tone on saxophone, but also formidable intellect. “He’s a state-of-the-art musical thinker,” raved the New York Times two years ago. His forays into spectral harmony and liminality have taken him across disciplines and into collaborations with Anthony Braxton, the Talea Ensemble, and Vijay Iyer. This weekend, he’ll resurrect his Quintet, which last released an album, “On Meaning,” in 2007. This iteration will feature Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Matt Brewer on bass, and Justin Brown on drums. We caught up with Lehman by phone; excerpts are below.

The Jazz Gallery: What’s the occasion for this concert?

Steve Lehman: Really, the occasion is getting together without an occasion. Especially when I perform in New York, it’s so often oriented toward getting ready to make an album, or a tour: having to frame it as a big event. I wanted to give myself the space to be serious about the music, but also create a platform to play with people I haven’t played with in a while. And to feel like it’s okay to do a concert without thinking about what the press release is gonna be.

TJG: What will the material be?

SL: There might be some new arrangements. We brought in a René McClean piece. We’re doing a Kenny Kirkland piece called “Chance” that I’ve done with the trio a fair amount. But I’m not premiering any new music.

TJG: Have you played with any musicians recently that have had a profound impact on your playing?

SL: I’ve had pretty long standing relationships at this point. I don’t shake the personnel up. At the same time, I love getting to play with new people. This will be the first time I get to play my music with Justin Brown. We’ve played in a couple other contexts. That’s always great to connect with someone whose music you feel an affinity for.

I have been working on a project that has a recording coming out later this year, called Selebeyone. That was the first time I worked with any kind of vocal component. It was two rappers: one from Senegal [Gaston Bamar Ndoye], and one from the states [HPrizm], who’s also a longtime collaborator of mine. The way we integrated electronic and acoustic elements, I certainly learned a lot from it.

TJG: Has it been any different working with hip-hop artists?

SL: Labels aren’t that important. I’m focused on the nuts and bolts of the music: what’s going on with rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre. That’s usually what draws me to somebody’s music rather than the genre distinctions.

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Painting by Linda Okazaki

Painting by Linda Okazaki

Miles Okazaki has brought his swaggering, high-concept quartet to the Jazz Gallery many times over the past decade. But don’t expect a retread at his Tuesday and Wednesday sets: his quartet has brand new personnel and material. After spending much of 2015 with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements band, Okazaki has grabbed its rhythm section, Anthony Tidd on bass and Sean Rickman on drums, for himself. They’ll be joined by preeminent pianist Craig Taborn and debut “Trickster,” which is slated to be Okazaki’s fourth album. (The group will record next week and plans to release the album this year.) In an interview, Okazaki spoke on the idea of the trickster, his evolving relationship with guitar, and writing a book; excerpts are below.

The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell me about the idea of the Trickster and how you became interested in the idea?

Miles Okazaki: In the back of my mind I was always interested in it because my mother is a painter, and it’s a theme in her paintings. She always had these ravens and coyotes.

A couple years ago, I was reading “The Book of Imaginary Beings,” by Borges. One of its characters is called a heyoka. This is a character who does everything backwards: up is down, he rides a horse backwards, etc. He has these sticks that he uses to beat out rhythms and make a thunder. I thought, “this guy is like an improviser!” It just sparked my interest.

My mom sent me this book called “Trickster Makes This World” by Lewis Hyde. That opened up a bunch of stuff. I started looking at all these different characters and stories, and they all just seemed really musical. You have an area where something is comfortable and things are in order, and an area where things are chaotic, and there’s this borderline area. That’s where these trickster figures operate. They operate by bringing people across that border, or by transgressing the border themselves and making it okay for people to do it. Or showing people what’s possible on one side or another of the border, or by disrupting the order so that new things can be created.

The creative function of these figures is, I feel like, musicians from the past. Somebody like Thelonious Monk, this very mysterious person… That idea of the origin of how do we get to the next thing: that’s what I’m looking for. I’ve done a certain amount of stuff, I need to break it up and get to the next thing.

TJG: So how did these ideas manifest in the music?

MO: There’s a famous one about the raven. He finds a hole in the sky, he goes to the other world, and the light is inside of this infinite nest of boxes. He steals the light and that becomes the sun. That has a lot of musical things in it. First of all, it has this thing about two areas. So in this song there are these two harmonic areas, and they’re bridged by this little melody. Rhythmically, there’s a thing happening that’s like nested boxes.

TJG: How do the trickster and the musician relate?

MO: Improvising musicians are like these trickster figures in that we exist in between stuff. People still like to go out and see live music: there’s something happening there ritualistically. It’s a form of storytelling, people communicating with sound in real time, that is gone after it’s done and never to be repeated again. That’s something special. That points to musicians as bearers of this tradition of live storytelling.

And opening up doorways, possibilities, for ourselves, for others. That’s the way we progress, by discovering new things, in a live situation, where things are slightly out of control. You get to those places where things open up and you can go a little bit farther. If people are there, they see it’s possible. Once people see something as possible, it becomes part of the common knowledge.

TJG: What did you take from playing with Steve Coleman this year?

MO: It’s essential for certain bands to do a lot of playing to really get their own sound. Steve’s philosophy is to take that to the extreme, where he really wants the band to be operating on a reflex type of level. His stuff is not based on charts and setlists: it’s more based on a whole sort of language that he’s developed. The learning curve, for me, is pretty steep. But I’m getting there. (laughs)

TJG: How long did it take to feel comfortable within the group? Or is comfort not the point?

MO: Comfort is definitely not the point. It’s about maybe something more like the opposite, trying to push it all the time. To the point where it’s in control but slightly on the edge of not being in control. That’s that liminal area where things happen. I think he does a really interesting job in leading the group into that place consistently.

TJG: You’re bringing Coleman’s rhythm section, Sean Rickman and Anthony Tidd, into your own group. What’s special about their connection?

MO: I first went to see them with Dan Weiss to see them at the Knitting Factory in 1999. It freaked us out. We didn’t have any idea what was going on. Sean’s playing freaked Dan out, which I had never seen before. He’s pretty impervious to getting freaked out.

They have some very special stuff that’s really impossible to quantify or write down. Let’s say you give an improvising musician a set of chord changes to improvise over. They’re not gonna just play the chords: they’ll play some melodies that are based on that thing, that is underlying but not being explicitly stated. Those guys can do that with rhythm. Instead of repeating a same rhythm, that rhythm can be in the background like a melody that you’re referring to, and with these variations on top of it.

TJG: Usually your quartets are with a saxophonist. How will you interact with another harmonic instrument—Craig Taborn on piano—in this project?

MO: I think of the guitar less as a harmonic instrument than a rhythmic instrument. That’s one of the reasons I wanted the piano: to deal with the harmonic information, because there’s a lot of it.

My previous records didn’t focus on my own playing. I wasn’t really interested in taking big solos. I don’t really care about that. But I spent a few years writing a book on the guitar and doing some more research into the instrument, and as a result, I  got more into my instrument, how it works, and how I play personally. I felt like featuring that a little bit more. So people who are not used to seeing me play a lot will see me play a lot.

TJG: Is this project a break from the compositional cycle of your last three albums?

MO: No, nothing is a break. I’m still writing the same music I was writing ten years ago. It’s just I’m finding ways to get across the ideas with more economy, and with more purpose.

My idea for this project is that all the music physically feels good to play. You’re not forcing yourself into these twisted up knots to try to make the notes. I did it deliberately in order to get some stuff that’s gonna jump into groove territory pretty quickly and not be too egg-headed. Balance out the physical and mental a little better.

TJG: You published “Fundamentals of Guitar” last year. What was the process of writing a book like?

MO: I thought I was gonna lose my mind when I was writing that book. I didn’t realize what a big deal it was. That solitary thing is really rough.

It’s quite detailed and obsessive. In a way it’s good because I got that off my back now, I don’t need to look around for practice material. I can only actually do a small percentage of things that are in that book. Everything is one idea and then all the possible things you could do with that idea based on what I could imagine.

Miles Okazaki’s Trickster plays The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, January 12th, and Wednesday, January 13th, 2016. The group features Mr. Okazaki on guitar, Craig Taborn on piano, Anthony Tidd on bass, and Sean Rickman on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Mary Halvorson drew acclaim this year for her album Meltframe (Firehouse 12), in which she explored a varied set of songs on solo guitar. But her setup at the Jazz Gallery on Dec. 15 and 16 will feature seven additional musicians. “It’s pretty drastically different,” Halvorson said, laughing, by phone. “I went from the smallest group I’ve ever done something with to the largest group.”

These concerts will mark the public debut of the Mary Halvorson Octet, which features many of Halvorson’s longtime collaborators, including those that make up her trio (Ches Smith on drums, John Hebert on bass), quintet (Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone), septet (Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone and Jacob Garchik on trombone), and finally, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. Excerpts from our conversation with her are below.

The Jazz Gallery: What does this group signify, and what will it sound like?

Mary Halvorson: I started with a trio, then I added two people and made a quintet, then added two more people to make a septet, now I’m adding one more person, Susan Alcorn, to make an octet. I’m thinking about this as an extension of those other bands. The idea was basically to integrate her sound into the existing septet and see what happens. So I wrote a whole new book of music with her in mind.

TJG: What will she add to the group?

MH: I heard her over the years in a few different contexts, was always completely blown away by what she does, and by the instrument itself. It’s such an unusual and beautiful sound. It has some resemblance to a guitar, obviously, but it has this whole other element: crazy sustain and a beautiful tone and an enormous range.

TJG: Have you ever played a pedal steel guitar?

MH: Once I did at my friend’s house. I felt like a kid in a candy store. It’s that amazing feeling you only get when you play an instrument that’s not your regular instrument. It’s just so beautiful and also so complicated, with all the knee levers and foot pedals and the guitar neck.

TJG: It’s a pretty full-sounding instrument. Are you worried about cluttering up the sound of the group at all?

MH: The music is pretty dense. That’s something I’ve been thinking about. I enjoy the density, but while I’ve been writing, I try to be aware of leaving space and having moments where smaller configurations of people can play. And also for surprise: for things to come out that aren’t necessarily on the page. We’re gonna get together on Saturday for the first time and work pretty intensively until the performances. I don’t really know what it sounds like yet [laughs].

TJG: You have extensive history with all of these musicians. Was there an instant connection from the first time you heard them?

MH: All of them are friends of mine, all people I hang out with and really like. That’s important to me: to have a group of people that I trust. Also, people that have a wide range of what they can do musically. Some of this stuff is on the complex side of written material, and some of it is pretty free and open. Some of it has changes, some of it doesn’t. I try to choose people that I felt can navigate between these different zones.

TJG: Did the work you did in 2015, specifically Meltframe, feel like an extension or a break from your previous work?

MH: Doing the solo record was a pretty drastic departure from what I normally do. That felt really nice. I never played solo before I started doing that project. It was definitely difficult and continues to be a learning experience. It’s also very intense. When I do those gigs, I’d be practicing a lot leading up them. 

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Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo courtesy of the artist

O’Farrill has been a potent last name in jazz for decades. First there was Chico, who started as Benny Goodman’s arranger before taking the helm of his own big band; then his son Arturo, who carried the tradition of Latin jazz with dizzying piano work and leadership; and now his sons Adam and Zack, the cubs carving out their own names in the jazz world. Adam, the 21-year-old trumpeter, has shown in his burgeoning career that he is standing on the shoulders of giants without simply hitching a free ride to the top. He plays with poise and authority, and brings his group “Stranger Days,” featuring Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on saxophone, Walter Stinson on bass and his brother Zack on drums, to the Jazz Gallery on November 20.

O’Farrill has had a busy year. He’s just coming back from a global tour with the fearsome saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who featured O’Farrill on his latest album, “Bird Calls.” He tore up Birdland with the Boss Sextet, featuring other members of the O’Farrill clan, and also has a debut album with Stranger Days slated for May.

O’Farrill actually came to The Gallery with the same group around this time last year, and Jazz Speaks caught up with him then. He talked about his admiration for Ornette Coleman and Daniel Day Lewis, and said of playing with his family members: “It’s similar with my dad’s group; we’ve always been playing with each other: my dad, my brother, and I. It’s just like goofing around and beating each other up.” You can read the full interview here, and be sure to check out Adam blowing over this slinky arrangement of “My Favorite Things” with the Steven Feifke Big Band, below.

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