A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by David Austin

Photo by Chris Shervin, courtesy of the artist.

This Wednesday, February 21, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome bassist Chris Morrissey and his band Standard Candle back to our stage. The group has grown out of a 2015 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission, continuously building a unique repertoire of what Morrissey calls “singing, kind of asymmetrical, through-composed stuff with improvising.” We caught up with Chris to talk about the group’s development, his musical lineages, and his love of American musical theater.

The Jazz Gallery: What are you working on these days?

Chris Morrissey: I have a record coming out March 9th. It’s been done for a long time, so I’m happy to finally be able to share it. We’ve also been working on editing a music video for the first single that comes out next week, so that’s been occupying some of my creative brain. I have been writing a lot—this has been a strikingly slow few months, so I’ve been trying to navigate space that has no borders—no demands on my time. I’m normally pretty good at creating my own schedule—like incorporating time to practice, time to do yoga and run and everything, but this has been a longer than normal period for that. I’m happy with the writing and the music video I’ve been working on, but there’s also been a lot of looking out of windows, wondering what to do.

TJG: If another period like this comes up, would you approach it differently?

CM: Well these periods have come before. The last time something of this length happened was probably 9 years ago when I wrote most of what was my 2nd record, which is a rock record. I look back very fondly on that time even as stressed out as I was, and I try to apply that perspective to this time, even though this time is very different in a lot of ways because I have touring periods peppered throughout the next 18 months. Back then the feeling was more, “What am I going to do in New York?” And now I have a pretty firm grasp on what I do in New York, so it doesn’t have the same sense of freefall. These days, if things are just not moving, I try to let that be, knowing that it’s bound to change. January and February are notoriously like that—I’ve always felt immune to that, or have had some sense of entitlement to work but I’m learning that that’s not always the case.

TJG: Your approach sounds very Taoist. I know from other interviews you’re very into Buddhism and yoga.

CM: I love many Buddhist authors and speakers like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron and a lot of others. What I was sort of paraphrasing, which I think got you to think that it was Taoist, was a Murakami quote from Wind Up Bird Chronicle. In the book, the main character has a spiritual advisor, and he references this one session where the advisor said something like “You are either moving upwards or you are moving downwards, or you are staying perfectly still. Your job is to assess which of those things is happening and then not resist. If you’re going down, go all the way down. And if you’re going up, go all the way up. And if you’re still, stay as still as you can be.”

TJG: Let inertia take you.

CM: Yeah, I think so. Knowing the influence that you have over your ability to enjoy your moment or be driven mad by your moment—even if it’s an unpleasant thing, knowing that it will shift at some point. That your state of being is the sum of controllable factors interacting with uncontrollable factors.

TJG: It seems like a lot of musicians are practitioners of or are at least “into” Eastern Religion. Where do you think that connection lies? Does your interest in Eastern tradition play into your music directly or is that more a mindset that occurs independently?

CM: There are parallels. I have a progressive family—from a line of progressive artist-type people, but we were in a suburban, Midwestern, not very diverse community, where religion was just Catholic or Lutheran. Our church was Catholic and very progressive. Our priest, who is no longer with us, went on to fight for women to be able to be in the priesthood, and fought for some things that you don’t normally associate with Catholicism and priests. But it was still Catholic, and never really resonated with me the way some of Buddhism has.

So as I got older I had the desire for some sort of spiritual community that felt like music did. Celebratory, current, honest…I’m fishing around a little bit, because I don’t know exactly where that spiritual desire came from. I just know that if you’re pursuing music, you have this sense that you aren’t creating by yourself, that there is some sort of mystical community in this pursuit. I think some religion, Buddhism specifically, in its celebration of inter-being parallels musical creativity’s dependence on the community and the social.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday, November 28th, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome drummer Kate Gentile and her quartet to our stage. Gentile has had a breakout 2017, appearing on Matt Mitchell’s acclaimed large ensemble record A Pouting Grimace (Pi Recordings) and releasing her own debut Mannequins (Skirl), which also received very positive notice from WBGO, PopMatters, and DownBeat.

At the Gallery on Tuesday, Gentile will convene her working quartet to present two sets of brand new music. We caught up with her to talk about her ever-shifting compositional process, the quartet’s rapport, and her philosophy of rhythm; excerpts of our conversation are below.

The Jazz Gallery: What was your musical education like?

Kate Gentile: Well, I had the jazz school experience. Eastman was pretty bebop-oriented—there’s always some kids there that are into some weird shit, but they’re usually in the minority, at least when I went. I think it’s good to have that experience because I don’t think most kids check out bebop on their own, so it’s good to go to school and have someone show you stuff you wouldn’t otherwise learn.

TJG: How do you feel about bebop?

KG: I love all that music. I feel like that music in its time is, in some ways, a lot like the music I’m interested in now. Bebop was a harmonically and rhythmically complex music—finding rhythms and harmonies, voice leading, phrases that felt good relative to the way people were playing before that. What I’m doing—what a lot of the musicians in the zone I’m thinking of are doing, it sounds so different from traditional jazz, but in many ways it’s not. The same idea is there—you’re playing music and you’re improvising through it, but in these cases instead of chord changes there are raw chunks of material. It’s almost more exacting than chord changes.

TJG: I almost feel like your music lends itself to more emotionality than bebop.

KG: A lot of the classic bebop recordings make me think of playing with different attitudes, whether it’s being clever and slick, and witty—that’s how Philly Joe Jones strikes me, for instance. With lots of players that come to mind, the whole range of emotions, including joy, is in there. It’s just more subtle than total rage or metal.

TJG: I definitely do hear some metal in your playing.

KG: Yeah, both Matt [Mitchell] and I spend hours listening to metal.

TJG: Which bands?

KG: I don’t know a lot of the metal bands that everyone knows. I just know some bands that I’ve found out about. Defeated Sanity, Malignancy, Incantation, Immolation, Deeds of Flesh are some…and Wormed and Cenotaph, which both have this insane vocal multphonics thing happening that I love. 

TJG: What sort of compositional approach do you take and how do you title your tunes?

KG: A lot of the titles are aesthetically driven. Part of what’s enjoyable about writing for me is the whole range of possible approaches when composing. I don’t write with the same approach every time. Sometimes it starts with an idea about a form, or sometimes it might start with a rhythmic idea, or sometimes I might write a bunch of chords or a four-part harmony chorale. Sometimes it’s at a keyboard, sometimes it’s at a guitar, sometimes it’s away from any instruments. Sometimes it’s direct brain into Finale. For the opening track on the record I had a metronome on and I sang a rhythm against the metronome and then transcribed it, which made it totally different. Sometimes you know right away that something will really sound good. Sometimes you don’t, and it’s just a theoretical idea, and then you see if you can hear it.

TJG: Do you try to write what you hear?

KG: I don’t think you have to write what you hear—I find that limiting. I think melodicism and having a good rhythmic feel is important, and good voice leading is important—that’s kind of how you make all of these weird harmonies sound good and perceptible, but I think if you write only what you hear, you don’t get to all this other awesome shit. You can hear it later—you can teach yourself to hear more by writing this kind of stuff.

“Unreasonable Optimism” is an example of me sort of freestyling what I’m hearing and not worrying about it. I find that to be one of the safer ways of composing, actually—when you hear it you know what it’s going to sound like. There’s note doubling within piano chords in some of that tune, and I went back and thought, “There’s doubling. Should I change that?” And then I think “No, that’s what I want to hear.” I love how those harmonies work. It doesn’t have to follow these rules that you can get sucked into.

TJG: What sort of harmonic theories do you use in your writing?

KG: It’s different for every tune. In “Alchemy Melt with Tilt,” I had pitch collections first, but not totally invertible pitch collections. I was thinking of one or two notes in the bass—in the bottom of the pitch collection.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, October 26th, The Jazz Gallery is proud to present pianist Micah Thomas’s debut on our stage. An undergraduate at Juilliard, Thomas has already made a name for himself outside of the classroom, playing with the likes of guitarist Lage Lund, saxophonist Stacey Dillard, and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. At the Gallery, Thomas will convene his current working trio, featuring Dean Torrey on bass and Kyle Benford on drums. We caught up with Thomas to talk about his musical upbringing, his current technical pursuits, and getting out of one’s critical mindset.

The Jazz Gallery: Where are you from?

Micah Thomas: I’m from Columbus, Ohio.

TJG: How’s the music scene there?

MT: For a city that’s not a major jazz hub like New York or Philly, I’d say it’s really good.

TJG: Were you gigging there early on?

MT: I wasn’t really part of the scene, but I had gigs with Byron Stripling, who was the director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra and Christian Howes, who’s a jazz violinist from there.

TJG: And piano’s always been your instrument.  When did you start playing?

MT: Since age 2. I think either the theme from Bob the Builder or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star was playing on TV and I played it on the piano by ear, and my parents said, “Let’s get this kid some lessons.”

TJG: So you have perfect pitch?

MT: Yeah.

TJG: How is that? Blessing or curse?

MT: I think I’ve actually lost a little bit of it because of how annoying it can be at times.  But it’s definitely helpful—certainly for music.

TJG: There’s this crazy video of this young kid online where he can piece out these extremely dissonant chords-

MT: I know exactly what you’re talking about—where the guy is just playing random notes on the piano. Yeah, that kid’s pretty crazy. He’s working with something different than I am.

TJG: Do you think perfect pitch lends itself to musicality? Will having that gift help him in the long run?

MT: If he wants to be a musician then definitely.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

The members of Aurelia Trio—pianist Theo Walentiny, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Connor Parks—met during their first year studying at the New School and quickly formed a tight musical bond. Out of their diverse backgrounds and musical interests, they have begun to forge a distinct and individual sound. Last year, they self-released an eponymous debut record, which you can check out below.
This Thursday, September 21st, Aurelia Trio will make their debut at The jazz Gallery, playing original compositions by all three members of the band. We sat down with the trio to talk about their origins and their constantly-evolving musical rapport.

The Jazz Gallery: How did the Aurelia Trio form?

Theo Walentiny: At the end of my first year I started an octet out of which this band formed—it’s kind of funny, that band has a lot of bands within it. There’s a quartet with a guitarist in it and us as well.

TJG: Has the concept for the band remained consistent since the beginning?

Connor Parks: It’s evolved but some things have remained consistent, especially the way that we deal with time and rhythm. We really had a rhythmic consensus from the beginning. That feeling is the same, the connection is the same. But the kinds of aesthetics and the various types of music that everyone writes and wants to play has evolved over time.

TJG: The first track of your EP, Blue Air, seemed to be very free. What was the time consensus on that tune?

CP: I feel like everyone will have a different answer. Nick and I have a very unique way of playing together, and Theo and I have a very unique way of playing together, and they have a unique bond too. Speaking rhythmically, I’m very free to play on some kind of grid or to not play on that grid, but we still move together.

Nick Dunston: We’ve always been so comfortable playing together from a rhythmic standpoint, so musical freedom is a given at this point. For me, I get to think a lot of orchestration, in the sense that we’re trying to give a lot of attention to our broad range of timbres—it’s almost as if we’re thinking very texturally on top of our intersecting rhythmic concept.

TJG: Does the textural quality of the music make the time harder to keep?

TW: There’s such a strong connection when you’re in the music, it’s oddly clear that you don’t have to think about it.

CP: I think the level of trust is very high, and that frees us to explore less common sounds on our instruments—to make a very orchestral sound or some other sound outside of classic jazz piano trio. That’s a product of the time we spend together—it frees us to try these new things.

TJG: Does this style of playing lead to certain roles emerging amongst yourselves? Connor, based on what I’ve listened to, it sounds like you play a heavily textural role in the group.

CP: Textural playing is something I’m very into—I think the way I relate to the drums is very textural and more broadly compositional than “drum” stuff. My goal is not to be playing drum-specific information. Obviously that’s what I studied for most of my life—trying to express the jazz drumming feel as an art form. But my interests very much lie in furthering that—getting beyond simply knowing it and referencing it.

Tyshawn Sorey is a huge inspiration in terms of composition and drumming, mostly because each time I hear him it sounds like a whole percussion section. It almost sounds orchestra, compositional, the way he improvises. I’m never thinking, “That’s so amazing, what he’s playing on the drums,” which of course it is. When it washes over me I’m thinking “This is composition.  He’s transcended the drums.” He has all of the knowledge and the history, and he’s just going past all of it.

Elvin Jones is also great example of someone who shattered our expectations of the drums. He took it so much further than people thought it could go. It’s so rhythmic, it’s so textural—the arcs are huge. The phrases are so long. But the history of the drums and the language are still so strong. It really is a beautiful duality. I grew up playing percussion, so I very much come to the drums from that makeup. I thought I would be an orchestral percussionist for a long time, but then I picked up the drums—that’s my passion now and I feel very connected to it. I’m certainly freed by Nick and Theo also. The way Nick relates to the music very much allows me to play this way.


From L to R: Edward Gavitt, Andres Valbuena, Steve Williams, Alfredo Colón. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Jazz musicians have long mined contemporary popular culture to find new avenues of expression, whether Sonny Rollins’s inveterate exploration of hidden songbook gems, Miles Davis’s psychedelic fusions, or Brad Mehldau’s rhapsodic takes on Radiohead. Secret Mall—a young collective featuring Alfredo Colón on EWI, Edward Gavitt on guitar, Steve Williams on bass, and Andres Valbuena on drums—continues this tradition through their exploration of electronic music subgenres like Vaporwave and popular music more generally.

This Thursday, July 27th, Secret Mall will make their Jazz Gallery debut with two sets of subversive covers and curious originals. We caught up with members Colón, Gavitt, and Williams earlier this month to talk about the group’s origins, their upcoming EP release, and their thoughts on the silly and the serious in music.

The Jazz Gallery: How did you guys meet and how did this project start?

Alfredo Colón: I took a few lessons with Dayna Stephens and I was really inspired by his group 3WI, which features Gilad Heckselman on guitar and Adam Arruda on drums. I wanted to try doing the EWI trio thing—a bassless EWI trio with guitar and drums. So I tried that out with Ed, and a different drummer, and the result was, to be honest, kinda sad. Later, we got these gigs where we had the opportunity to put together our own music. We were playing outside, and it was a very low pressure gig, so we were really just focused on getting guys we liked hanging out with. Eventually the group became what it is now, not a bassless EWI trio, but Secret Mall.

Steve Williams: I got the call for the gig via Skype—well actually no, not Skype. I was in Texas visiting home for part of the summer, and Alfredo sent me about 10 Snapchats in a row while he was pretty drunk, being like “Yooo, we’re trying to do this EWI group. I want you to play bass.  We have this gig on July 21st, can you do it?” I was thinking “that’s the day I’m coming back from Texas” so I replied “ok, that’s the day I get back, I can do it then, but we have to rehearse that day.” Keep in mind, up to this point they have not heard me play bass yet.

AC: I hired Steve based on personality alone. And then when I got to the gig and he starts playing, I was like “Oh shit, he can play!” 

TJG: So this is definitely a friends group. What does that allow you guys to do musically, that you might not be able to do with people you don’t know?

Ed Gavitt: I think it allows us to open up more from a musical perspective. A really good example is when we took this gig at Yale. We basically hung out for 9 or 10 hours straight that day. We got into some deep jokes and I think that translated to the show—I still think that’s the most successful gig we’ve had yet. We were so comfortable in the musical setting to mess around with stuff and go in lots of different places that well-rehearsed bands don’t get to because they rehearse so much—for many of them it’s all about getting the music right and how it is on paper.

SW: I think there’s a certain amount of trust that’s there when you’re good friends with the people you’re playing with in that if we were all just sideman on this gig, and if all we did was only rehearse and not talk before and after the gigs, it wouldn’t be the same. Knowing each other so well creates an inherent trust that goes in. Our personalities off the instruments lead us to trust the personalities on the instruments.

TJG: And your inside jokes make their way into the music literally, right?

AC: So we have an EP coming out called the Yee(P)—Yee is a meme from 2010 that’s become probably the biggest inside joke in the group. If you look up Yee, it should be a six second video of a dinosaur singing [scats the melody]—we found out that the source video for that meme was from a bootleg version of the Land Before Time made by German people and sold in Italy, and we transcribed some of the text that one of the characters named Peek says, and it’s become not only the inspiration for title of our EP, but one of the tunes that we play and it’s become a musical phrase that we use throughout our sets.