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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by David Austin

Photo by Rori Palazzo, courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, February 20, The Jazz Gallery welcomes saxophonist Nicola Caminiti to our stage for his Gallery debut. A native of Sicily, Caminiti came to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music and graduated last spring. Inspired by Jazz Gallery favorites like Walter Smith and Will Vinson, Caminiti sports a style that’s rhythmically-dextrous and harmonically-lush. We caught up with Caminiti to talk about growing up with jazz in Sicily and finding himself in the New York jazz community.

The Jazz Gallery: What were you doing in Italy before you came to New York?

Nicola Caminiti: I was born and raised in Sicily, so I spent most of my life there growing up, playing, and listening to music. I started playing saxophone when I was 8. I’ve been listening to jazz forever though. It’s funny—I was exposed only to jazz until I was about 4 or 5 years old, so I thought that was what everyone listens to until I got to elementary school where I realized no one even knew what jazz was.

TJG: Are your parents musicians?

NC: My father used to play guitar, but he’s moreso just a really big fan of jazz. I tell people that he knows more about jazz than I do even though I’ve been playing it for a while now. He got hip to all of the modern stuff before I did. Around 2008 through 2010 I was in my early Kenny Garrett stage and he was already showing me recordings of Jonathan Kreisberg, Will Vinson, Gary Versace, Mark Ferber. He found them all on Youtube, which has really opened up a lot of music to the world.

When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but 2 or 3 years later that was my favorite stuff to listen to. My dad always seemed to be a step ahead of me.

TJG: Would you say that there is an Italian musical tradition to grasp onto? How did you become a jazz musician specifically?

NC: Well, classical Italian music is opera, and there are also regional traditional musics that sometimes incorporate pop elements. In Sicily, there is the Tarantella and Neapolitan music, which I love. There are also Neapolitan musicians who have crossed over with jazz musicians—for example, one of my favorite singers is Pino Daniele, who is a guitar player and singer. He even played with Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Santana…it was kind of pop music, but not consumerist pop: meaningful pop.

Italian traditional music isn’t really that prevalent in every day life though. I feel like this type of tradition is stronger in countries like Cuba, for example. I have a lot of Cuban friends and friends from Latin America in general, and they tell me that music is being played on the street. It’s there. You can feel it. Even in Washington Heights where I live, you can feel it to some degree. It may be far from the Afro-Latin heritage, but you can still kind of get that feel. In Sicily, you don’t get that. You get pop, and usually it’s American.

But really, the reason jazz has always felt natural to me is because I was listening to it day and night with my dad.

TJG: And you starting touring around Italy before you came to Manhattan School of Music, correct?

NC: Yes, I started going outside of Sicily around 2013 when I was 18, and I need to thank a good friend of mine—a killing guitar player from Vicenza, Italy, Joe Clemente, who took me outside of my comfort zone. He brought me north, playing with musicians from the area, and that was the first time I toured and played some gigs outside Sicily

TJG: What was your jazz education like up to that point?

NC: My academic education was mostly in classical music—that’s what I studied when I was 12. But regarding jazz, I was always around the Sicilian jazz scene, and between 2008 and 2014 I felt like the scene was really strong. There was a good 25 or 30 of us who would get together during the summer for workshops and work on material together.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This month marks the grand finale of The Jazz Gallery 2018-19 Residency Commission projects. On June 28 and 29, vocalist/guitarist Camila Meza will present her new work, entitled Portal, while on June 21 and 22, drummer Kassa Overall will conclude his ongoing Time Capsule project with a concert featuring visual artist Nate Lewis and a slew of special guests. The festivities start this weekend with two evenings of performances by a new trio led by pianist Shai Maestro, featuring trumpeter Philip Dizack and vibraphonist Joel Ross. We sat down with Maestro to talk about the excitement and challenges of writing for this chamber-like instrumentation, and communicating a view of modern life through an abstract medium.

The Jazz Gallery: So how to you treat an event like this? Is this an opportunity? A challenge? A chance to step out of bounds a little bit?

Shai Maestro: Exactly, that’s what it is. Rio Sakairi asked that I do something that I wouldn’t do otherwise. You get funds from The Jazz Gallery through different foundations and that just allows you to sit at home and compose without needing to constantly work. It allows you to explore, experiment, and yeah, step out of bounds even further.

TJG: Will the bigger experimentation be in the instrumentation you’ll be using or in the lack thereof?

SM: I chose to write for Joel Ross and Phil Dizack. It’s going to be a trio—trumpet, vibraphone, and piano. Usually I write for solo piano or trio, but I saw this as an opportunity to experiment with the instruments and moreso than the instruments themselves, with the guys I chose to play with. Both of them are incredibly open-minded and capable musicians that will do a lot with written material and will do a lot with the space you leave for them. I’ve written many songs or melodies with them in mind.

TJG: Before this project started?

SM: No, it had originally started as a duo with Joel, but I thought Phil would be a complimentary sound. It really made sense to me.

TJG: You’ve played with Joel as a duo before, right?

SM: Yeah, it was great. We played tunes mainly. There were a few of my songs but we mostly played standards. Playing standards is always a great opportunity for me to get to know the person I’m playing with on a deeper level because I don’t have any agenda. Whereas with my music, I wrote it, so I have a vision. The goal is to not have an agenda with my music as well, but it’s harder since you know what the song is about. So playing standards with Joel allowed me to communicate with him in a really direct way.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

As one-fourth of the collective Secret Mall, Alfredo Colon has established himself as a rare dedicatee to the Electronic Wind Instrument, or EWI. However, for his upcoming solo show at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 11, Colon has put together a fully acoustic project called Big Head with pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Connor Parks joining Colon on alto saxophone. We caught up with Colon to talk about his differing approaches to saxophone and EWI, capturing the spirit of electronic music  with acoustic instruments, and the not-so-elusive origins of the project’s title.

The Jazz Gallery: What is the significance of the title, “Big Head?”

Alfredo Colon: It’s very literal—I just have a big head. It’s also an inside joke between Nick Dunston and me. Lately I’ve been playing sessions with him pretty frequently where we just improvise. I feel like I can play anything and he’ll make it sound like a tune under me. Just anything he adds sounds so big and full with so much motion.

TJG: Is there a theme to the music besides your large head?

AC: A lot of it is inspired by my time in middle school—just being 12 or 13.There’s a tune about running around in the woods with my friends, getting lost all the time. We used to hang out in Inwood Park, the last remaining natural forest in New York City [laughs].

TJG: How did you decide to write about this stuff?

AC: I’ve been listening to a lot of pop punk from when I was that age. The Starting Line is my shit. Shout-out to Steve Williams—he’s a fellow Starting Line fan. Listening back invoked a lot of feelings and brought back those memories…

TJG: How do you capture the spirit of pop-punk for example in acoustic music?

AC: I think it’s all about energy. When you break that music down, it’s really kind of just dumb and loud, but in a good way. Put a 17 year-old kid in front a microphone and tell him to scream and sing about how he feels. There are a lot of feelings when you’re 17 years old. So I think the takeaway is I have a lot of feelings and I want to play loud (laughs).

TJG: What were you like as a kid?

AC: I was kind of annoying [laughs].

TJG: Is that something you’re looking to capture in the music?

AC: No, I’ve filtered out the annoying stuff. I’d describe the music as very catchy but frantic at the same time.

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From L to R: Shai Maestro, Ari Bragi Karason, Arthur Hnatek, Rick Rosato. Photo courtesy of the artist.

A native of Switzerland, drummer Arthur Hnatek arrived in New York a decade ago to study at the New School. Now based in Berlin, Hnatek is seemingly always on the move, touring with the likes of pianist Tigran Hamasyan and trumpeter Erik Truffaz. A composer of diverse interests and expansive vision, Hnatek is equally comfortable writing for large ensembles as he is devising work for his solo project, SWIMS.

This Saturday, February 23, Hnatek returns to New York to perform at The Jazz Gallery with the collaborative quartet, Melismetiq. Featuring New School peers Rick Rosato on bass and Ari Bragi Karason on trumpet (along with pianist Shai Maestro), the group explores stripped-down forms as a jumping-off point for melodic expression. We caught up with Hnatek at home in Berlin via Skype, where he spoke about Melismetiq’s development and expanding the expressive vocabulary of the drum set.

The Jazz Gallery: I understand you just arrived home?

AH: Yes, I just got back today from Switzerland, where I’m from originally. I played in this city called Basel, where I played my solo drums and electronics project, SWIMS.

TJG: Does that stand for something?

AH: It’s just one of those words where if you spell it in capital letters and turn it on itself, it remains the same. Most of my titles with that project are either palindromes or other forms of wordplay—I just like the games (laughs)—simple words with some kind of visual meaning to them.

TJG: It seems like a lot of drummers have recently been adding electronic sounds to their repertoire. I’m sure you know Marcus Gilmore and Ian Chang.

AH: Yes, of course. Ian was actually the one who hooked me up with Sunhouse Sensory Percussion.

TJG: I personally think it’s amazing how natural the integration of the electronic sounds has become. It’s almost like DJing in that you can instantly trigger a sound or loop in time the same way you might hit a snare for example. Do you see these additions as a natural progression of the instrument?

AH: I think drummers in general have always been interested in audio technology—if you look back to jazz drummers of the past, some of them would record and mix their own albums and were very savvy with technology in general. I know so many drummers who are sound engineers, and who do really great production work. So yes, I think it comes naturally for a drummer to be interested in using these types of auxiliary equipment, maybe in the same way a guitar player is interested in all of their gear and pedals.

TJG: So you’ve been touring SWIMS a bit—have you been touring with Melismetiq recently?

AH: No, we’ve never really toured the band. We kind of play one-off gigs here and there. The last one was actually also in Switzerland. Usually the gigs either come from my contacts or from Ari, the Icelandic trumpet player. In the past, festivals have asked us to bring a project, and we try to feature Melismetiq. We played this last summer in Geneva for a festival, but it was only one show. Both Shai and Rick had to fly to all the way from New York just for that one concert.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This weekend, The Jazz Gallery is proud to present the first FutureFest. Curated with Abdulrahman “Rocky”Amer and the band Secret Mall, FutureFest features a diverse slate of emerging New York bands, showcasing the current generation’s full range of improvisational practices. On each night, the Gallery will present three groups—Tiny Gun, Ba Akhu, and Blake Opper’s Questionable Solution—on Friday, and Adam O’Farrill/Gabe Schneider, Secret Mall, and the Sasha Berliner Quartet on Saturday.

Over the course of the week, Jazz Speaks will have interviews with some of the artists and curators of FutureFest, and today we have a conversation with saxophonist Blake Opper. Opper is a native of Houston, Texas and an alumnus of the city’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (“where all the famous people went,” reads Opper’s deadpan bio). He graduated from the New School this past spring and already has his hands full with a number of different musical projects. We spoke with Oppler about the formation of his so-called “logistical dumpster fire” of Questionable Solution, and his synthesis of myriad influences, from the music of Stephen Sondheim to the comedy of Chris Gethard.

The Jazz Gallery: The band is called “Questionable Solution.” What is the problem and what is the solution you’re proposing?

Blake Opper: I think the problem is the functionality of the instrumentation—mainly our having two pianos. Having an 8-person band in New York is hard, but not impossible. But having two pianos is a bit extreme. So that’s where the name came from. And the solution is people hiring me (laughs). Yeah, I’m still not quite sure what the solution is yet.

TJG: Why did you create this problem?

BO: It started pretty arbitrarily. I had a class with Dave Douglas at the New School, and in that ensemble we happened to have a room with two grand pianos. One of the pieces that I wrote for that class turned out light years better than anything I had written before, almost to the point where I wasn’t sure I could duplicate it. But then, another year went on and I thought, what if I try to write with that instrumentation again since that one time went so well? So I worked out another arrangement and it also turned out to be light years ahead of anything I had written before. So then I thought, maybe there is something to this instrumentation that allows me to write better somehow.

TJG: Why do you think that instrumentation resonates with you?

BO: I really like the sound of the bottom of the piano, but I don’t like the jazz trope of having bass and piano doubling a bass line. It’s overdone at this point. But I also need the rest of the piano available, and with a piano player devoted exclusively to bass, a second player becomes necessary. I also just like the challenge of it. Compositionally, I like to start with a challenge. A lot of the stuff I write starts with “What if this happened? How would that work?”

TJG: Are these ideas usually functional, like unique instrumentation, or abstract?

BO: They can be instrument-specific or they can be music-specific. I had an idea for a group that would have two electric basses, two tenors, drums, and then separately a guitar player. They would never play at the same time—it would be the band, and then solo guitar. I think that would be really dumb, and that excited me. A lot of my decision-making boils down to, “That sounds dumb, let me see if I can pull that off.” And when I say “dumb,” I don’t mean it in a pejorative way. If I think something will be really dumb or absurd, I feel like it’s a good place to start, because it’s probably an original idea—either no one has thought of it yet, or if they have, they still probably wouldn’t do it.

TJG: Is there guiding principle or sonic vision that ties your writing for Questionable Solution together? I notice a lot of what you might call ambient, or “soundscapey” techniques being used in a lot of your compositions. Is that a result of the instruments being used, or does that just capture your inclinations as a composer?

BO: I think both. Generally, I like an ambient sound to be present, but one thing I really like about the instrumentation is that because I don’t have a bass player, there are a lot of jazz tropes that I can’t fall into. For example, I can’t just have the bass player walk. I also think having two pianos specifically lends itself to a moody, repetitive, soundscape-y environment.

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