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Posts by Hannah Judd

From L to R: Max Jaffe, Matt Nelson, Brandon Lopez, Amirtha Kidambi. Photo by Reuben Radding.

Amirtha Kidambi is a vocalist who draws on traditions of contemporary classical music, rock, jazz, Carnatic music, rock, and free improvisation in her work. Her band Elder Ones performs her compositions, which incorporate lyrics and vocal phonemes, at the Jazz Gallery this Thursday, April 13.

Last November, the group released their first record, Holy Science, on Northern Spy Records, receiving rave reviews from Ben Ratliff in the New York Times and Seth Colter Walls in Pitchfork. You can stream their memorial to Eric Garner, “Dvapara Yuga,” below.

We caught up with Kidambi by phone to talk about the group’s current evolution and her perspective on musical activism.

The Jazz Gallery: This concert with Elder Ones is going to feature some new music for the group. What direction do you feel it’s going?

Amirtha Kidambi: It’ll be a combination of the previous record, and a new set. Each set will probably be a combination of both, some of the older and some of the new stuff.

There are certain coherent threads that seem to be running through my compositions for this band. There’s definitely some use of the same phonemes, the wordless vocals that I was using in the previous set of music, but one of the biggest differences between the last set and the current one is I am starting to write lyrics and utilize direct language in a way that I didn’t at all on the last record. Part of it is, I think, the moment that we’re in. I felt compelled to as a singer be able to actually really voice certain thoughts and feelings I’ve been having about the state of our world, the state of our country, in a way that it felt important to me to directly vocalize and not deal as much in the abstract. The last record, there is a tune dedicated to Eric Garner and it’s wordless. And it’s potent, and I felt it helped me express that, but I wanted to go one step further for this and really verbalize what I’ve been thinking about. So it’s a kind of combination: each tune has a few sentences for the whole tune, of lyrics, and also interpolates between lyrics and the wordless improvisation as well.

Another thing that’s changed is the instrumentation, a little bit, in that I’m adding a synthesizer to the band. I play harmonium, and it’s always been harmonium, voice, soprano saxophone, bass and drums, and I wanted to see what it would do, how it would influence my writing. There are certain limitations to the harmonium. One thing I love about it—it’s a folk instrument, it’s kind of laborious and notes don’t sound exactly when you play them, with pumping; it has kind of creaky noises, which is such a beautiful quality and I love that. But I wanted to play some fast lines, I wanted to have some parts of the music that really get loud in a way that we were cognizant of not drowning out the harmonium element of the band, so we always played full force, but the synthesizer allows us to have moments that are in another zone. Max Jaffe, the drummer, has experimented with electronic triggers that he uses on his drums, and Matt Nelson, who’s also in the group Battle Trance, has some solo recordings where he uses the saxophone with pedals. So we might be playing with some electronic elements in this new set. There are similar musical elements: still a lot of drone and a lot from Indian rag, but this other thing with the electronic music and the lyrics, and it’s developed in this other place.

TJG: With the choice of syllables or lyrics, what makes you decide to go in one direction or another?

AK: For the lyrics, what I want is to create an impression, rather than it being more like narrative or every single note in the music is set to a lyric. Part of the reason I’ve used the syllables in the past and why I continue to feel like I gravitate towards using them is because of the freedom and improvisation. I might set the basic melodic line to the lyrics, but when I want to do variation or improvise on the line it makes more sense to leave the lyrics because sometimes it’s difficult, it can kind of hinder the improvisational process, like if you’re singing this particular word with three syllables in it and you want to do something rhythmically that kind of breaks that up or makes it awkward, or the word in some part of your voice doesn’t sound as well and might be an open vowel or something up top.

There are still so many ways in which the wordless syllables help me to be much more free and much more interactive with the band. I can respond—like if I hear saxophone do something, I can change my game plan the way a horn would do. Which is not something I feel like lyrics can always facilitate, but I do feel like I like the idea that there is—it’s a special thing to be a singer and I don’t want to erase that. The last record was an experiment in trying to do something different, but in this one I’m excited about being able to directly say something, create an impression, and then maybe that’s in the listener’s mind and then for improvising in that world, even if I leave the lyrics, that impression is still in your mind.

That’s a lot of things that we’re dealing with, now, about human rights and oppression and all these different issues that I feel like are impossible for me to not express right now, because it’s such a crazy time. One thing that was interesting with writing the piece for Eric Garner, which was absolutely a direct reaction to that event—I wrote that piece in 2014—was that it helps facilitate conversation, it helps, when I would get interviewed or something, to bring his name into the room and talk about it. So I feel like having lyrics can help shape these themes, and maybe facilitate discussion. I want to have elements of activism in my life as a musician, and this helps me express that feeling.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

A Brooklyn-based singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist, Nerissa Campbell grew up on the west coast of Australia and on the island of Bali, where she became enamored of the island’s traditional gamelan music. She later studied jazz at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts and since then has released four records as a leader, showcasing her distinct and worldly musical personality. Her 2016 album After the Magic (Crooked Mouth Music) is a beautifully ethereal affair, featuring original compositions performed by a mixed ensemble of jazz improvisers and members of the New York gamelan ensemble Dharma Swara.

This Thursday, March 23rd, Ms. Campbell will take The Jazz Gallery stage to perform selections from After the Magic, as well as new material. We caught up with Campbell by phone to talk about working with traditional folk instruments in a new context and how she’s carved out a niche for herself in New York’s busy and diverse jazz scene.

The Jazz Gallery: I wanted to talk about your latest album, After The Magic. The gamelan ensemble, Dharma Swara, is in New York, and it’s one you’re a member of. How did you get connected to that scene?

Nerissa Campbell: When I was a kid, we spent a lot of time in Bali, living there, but I wasn’t allowed to play gamelan, since I was a girl. I was always totally fascinated with it, and always asked if I could play, but it was like, “no, no, no, you can’t.” So I was living in New York for a while, and I saw this Balinese gamelan, Dharma Swara, was going to be playing at BAM café, and I was super excited and wanted to take my husband to see it, so he could see the music that I grew up amongst. So we went along to that show, and there were women in the group! So I was like, “maybe I can play gamelan finally!”

I’d already been thinking about writing some music that was an exploration of our time in Bali, using the sounds that I remembered and my background in jazz, trying to combine the two, so I was really excited at the prospect that I could actually join a gamelan and learn more about the music. I’ve been playing with Dharma Swara on and off since 2010. I’m not playing in the group at the moment, but I feel very much a part of it, and hope to get back to it soon.

TJG: What was the composition process of the album like for you?

NC: It was really challenging, actually. Not so much compositionally but more personally and emotionally. I felt a really strong pull to write for gamelan in a technical way that honored how gamelan is played traditionally, but the more I explored that, the more I realized that it wasn’t going to be true to the project. I had some concerns about that, because I didn’t want to take away from what gamelan music was. I was lucky to meet Balinese composer and musician Dewa Ketut Alit who was here teaching Dharma Swara as an artist in residence. We became good friends and had a lot of conversations about writing new music for gamelan and what it meant for Balinese music and new music in general. Alit, along with a few people close to me, were a great help in me getting my head around what I wanted to do and being true to the project.

TJG: You came up with this idea in 2007, and the album came out in 2016. Clearly, a lot of things must have changed, because it was a long process—can you talk about that?

NC: Yeah. I had the idea in 2007—I started writing the songs after a return trip to Bali, and played some of them in a jazz setting over the years. So they came into being in a more traditional jazz combo setting. The songs on the album were always sort of mulling around, becoming, and in that time, 2007-2016, I actually released two other albums of completely different music. This allowed for the After the Magic material to really develop itself, which is an amazing luxury to have.

It went through different iterations, I was always revisiting the material, thinking it needs to be more of this and less of that, and it was kind of a confusing process. It was an album I was really glad to have had so much time to contemplate, and in the end it came out how I imagined I wanted it to be; it’s a simple album, very dreamlike and haunting, and very close to my heart.

TJG: I’m interested—not that it has to be one or the other—in if you felt your presence more as a vocalist or as a composer, or how both those things are present for you in your work.

NC: I see them both as being entwined. Performance is an important part of what I do, and then the other side of being a composer is just as important, it’s just a different process. I guess a lot of musicians can understand that, if they write and perform. It’s been my focus for a really long time to write original music, so they’re both who I am. My background is in jazz, so I came up singing standards and doing a lot of gigs in that setting, but I felt like personally I didn’t have anything additional to contribute to that particular world, which I love, and which is always a part of who I am musically. But at an early point in my career it became clear that I wanted to write original music; it has been a way for me to really develop my personal style, both in performance and writing, and contribute that way.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Arun Ramamurthy navigates both jazz and Indian Classical circles. He’s a Carnatic violinist with a vested interest in improvisation and broadening musical horizons. Not only is he the co-founder of Brooklyn Raga Massive, and he also plays music that he calls “jazz carnatica” in a trio setting.

Ramamurthy and his trio, featuring Michael Gam on bass and Sameer Gupta on drums, will play two sets at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 26th. We caught up with Arun by phone to discuss the different musical worlds he navigates and the way he finds his voice and a cohesive community in performance.

The Jazz Gallery: Your trio plays jazz carnatica; that’s also the title of your record. What does that mean to you?

Arun Ramamurthy: Basically, the music is drawing from the Carnatic repertoire. So a lot of the compositions we’re doing are actually part of the traditional songs of South Indian classical music, and we recontextualize the music within this jazz trio—a lot of the elements of jazz, or other styles of music that don’t exist in Carnatic music like ensemble playing. Playing a role, collectively making the sounds together, is what I also want to experiment with in this trio—how each person can kind of bring things to the table. In Carnatic music a lot of times the violinist would shadow a vocalist or the percussionist, and the percussionist is also shadowing and playing to this one sound; there’s this one linear movement as opposed to everyone playing their own role and together it becomes this one sound as a band.

I also try to see into these Carnatic songs and view it from a different place, a different perspective. There are certain songs, apart from compositions, that can be explored, and when a bass line is put behind it and Sameer [Gupta] and [regular bassist] Perry [Wortman] are hearing in one way, we can vibe and vamp on something that creates a whole new atmosphere within a song that didn’t always have that. I’m trying explore the Carnatic songs that have existed for a long time, and breathe a little new life into them from my own perspective.

TJG: There are also new compositions that you play.

AR: Yeah. Many of those songs, I’m using rhythmic concepts that exist in Carnatic music, and then using that as a foundation for these new compositions, moving between different rhythmic concepts. There will be some rhythm in the bass and the melody on top of that, different repeating patterns that sit over the time cycle. I’ll usually pick a raga, a scale that I want to write in. And I’ll pick a thala, the time signature that I want to write in. So there’s a rhythmic landscape that rides underneath and then the melody is kind of sitting on top, and then we interact and play with each other, adding another dimension.

A lot of this Carnatic training has helped me seeing things rhythmically in a different way than a jazz musician might. But it would all make sense to both of us, and we would all feel it in a different way. That’s the excitement: we feel things in different ways, and the result is surprising. I think the original songs especially, I think they’re really drawn from the experience of playing with these guys and what they would feel and how they would feel certain things. I find that some of the inspirations come from all the different artists that I end up collaborating with. You hear certain things that really make sense to you, and then I try to incorporate that into my own language, and when you internalize that it comes out as you, but you’re still coming from the root of Carnatic music.

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Photos courtesy of the artists.

Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, December 15th, The Jazz Gallery caps off its final edition of the 2016 Mentoring Series with a performance by saxophonists Dayna Stephens and Patrick Bartley. Over the course of three performances, the pair have explored their own original compositions, as well as different instrumental possibilities including the clarinet and EWI. We caught up with Bartley by phone to hear about his experience working with Stephens thus far; our conversation is below.

The Jazz Gallery: Had you worked with Dayna before this experience?

Patrick Bartley: Yes, actually. I’m a big fan of Dayna. He’s been one of my favorite saxophonists that I’ve heard since coming to New York in 2011. But the reason this all came about was because I met him on this big band gig with trumpeter Etienne Charles that I had at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola a year and a half ago. Etienne called me to play second tenor in the band and Dayna was playing first tenor, so I met him on that gig. It was really great because I was able to connect with him on this mutual level. We both really like playing EWI—the electronic wind instrument—and so that was a bridge that brought out this inner geek in both of us. We talked about that for a good hour or so. I feel that getting to know him has helped me learn how to play his music. I’m not just learning the notes, but seeing his personality through the writing.

TJG: What kind of stuff have you been working with Dayna for this project?

PB: We’ve been exploring some of his new music, but he’s also given me the opportunity to bring in some of my own music. Most of Dayna’s pieces haven’t been recorded or performed before. This is exciting for me because I’m piloting an inaugural element in these pieces. Some of the pieces he’s been playing in groups with trumpeters, like Philip Dizack. Some of his tunes are family-inspired, which is really cool—he has one tune dedicated to his uncle Junior.That kind of personal approach is really resonant for me. There is this one tune that I’ve brought in called “Blues for the Living.” I recorded it on an album in 2013 called The Red Planet and it’s a tribute to those who are alive and those who are suffering, who are just living on this planet, as opposed to just mourning for those who have gone. It’s a celebration of life, but also an acknowledgment of what people have to go through on a daily basis and the experience of being able to pass that down through family. This kind of writing makes me think of Dayna because of all that he has been through and getting the new kidney last year, which is incredible, and getting to push on. I feel we have a meaningful set of music that’s also quite fun.

I was a little hesitant at first to bring in my own material because I had never played with the guys in the rhythm section before. I didn’t know what they would like or what they would be interested in playing or how the vibe would work out. But I ended up bringing in two of my songs, and one has been working out really well so far.

We’ve really just been playing, hanging out, talking to each other. I’ve tried to absorb the band’s vibe, and hopefully they’d be saying the same thing about me. It’s a great learning process seeing how these guys naturally operate in their environment because it’s just another gig for them. Since the rhythm section and Dayna have known each other for a long time, it’s really interesting to see how they play and how comfortable they are with each other. I’m trying to tap into that and grow within their energy.

TJG: How has the rehearsal process been?

PB: We actually haven’t gotten to rehearse that much. The groups have been a little different every show because everyone’s an in-demand musician in New York, especially the rhythm section. Each time it seems that the new person in the band has to listen to the chart, look at the sheet music and then go. The guys have been able to fool the audience at every single show. It’s incredible. We got to do a good rehearsal the day of our first show, and the recordings we made that day have been helpful in teaching the music to the new players. I think it’s a testament to Dayna’s music that it really works in this context. It’s music with a cyclical form that gets more comfortable the more you play it on stage. Even though there may only be 12 to 36 bars of material, it’s rich enough that you can keep cycling through it for ten minutes and it doesn’t get old. Every 40-second cycle through the form, you’re learning something new about the musicians on stage. This is what’s really cool to me and what keeps the music pushing forward.

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Photo via Wikimedia commons.

Photo via Wikimedia commons.

We previously spoke with composer and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock several times: about her 2015 Residency Commission Series premiere concerts, again in the summer of 2014 when the band returned under the name “Nor’easter,” and we when she released her Ubatuba record in 2015. She will return to the Jazz Gallery this Friday, October 21, with her band Anti-House 4, which also includes Mary Halvorson on guitar,  Kris Davis on piano, and Tom Rainey on drums. We caught up with Ingrid by phone; here are excerpts from that conversation.

Ingrid Laubrock: We’re driving through Oregon, through some severe weather, but it turned out to not be so severe after all [laughs], so we can talk now!

The Jazz Gallery: Oh, good! The group you’re playing with is Anti-House 4, your usual band minus the bass. Why did you pick that iteration for this concert?

IL: Last year when I was doing my big Jazz Gallery commission, I wrote a bunch of trio music for one of the days. Since that music has not been played by anyone since, and since the bassist couldn’t make the gig, I decided to resurrect the trio and perform with something else, by adding Tom Rainey.

We’ll be playing the compositions that I wrote for the Jazz Gallery commission last year, which will be new to us, because we haven’t actually played i, in this band. And what I will also do is add a couple of pieces from the full Anti-House repertoire.

TJG: You’ve been with this band for quite a while. How has the music changed as you’ve gotten to know the musicians better?

IL: I think once you know people’s voices, you kind of write differently, you tend to have them in mind when you compose. I kind of write for them, where there will be a sound and a feel, and make sure I write room to explore together, basically.

TJG: How do you feel that your compositions change with different instrumentations and different bands, since you have some very chordal bands and some that are horn-heavy?

IL: Yes. I think it’s a number of different things. I sometimes write pieces that are off instrumentation, they’re not really geared towards any particular orchestration. They tend to be more changable, so I’m experimenting with that. For other groups, for example my Ubatuba, which is saxophone, brass, and drums, I wrote all the material on my saxophone or in my head. When I write for groups like Anti-House I often compose at the piano. That changes a little bit how all the music turns out, I think. But even having chordal instruments in my groups—like in Anti-House I now have two chordal instruments—I don’t tend to use it in a heavily kind of vertical way, I think much more horizontal, using lines rather than stacks of chords.

TJG: So do you often start with melodies?

IL: I often take really varying approaches with different pieces. Sometimes I hear a melody and in that case I will write a melody. Other times I will just pick around a lot of material to choose from and play around with cells, or intervals. And then there’s other times where I have a big sonic structure in my head, and I will try and write down the shapes of where this music needs to go to, rather than melodies or chords.

TJG: How do you build improvisation into that?

IL: Improvisation’s always very open. Occasionally I’ll have a vamp, but even if I have vamps, I tend to make them quite long, so they don’t really feel that much like vamps. Most of the improvisation is open so the musicians who play with me can explore in different ways every time we play it. Other times, I prescribe the combinations of musicians that improvise. A few times, I write in cells of the notes that I want to hear at that point, but most of the time I leave improvisation up to the musicians.

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