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Posts by Hannah Judd

Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, The Jazz Gallery is teaming up with the Polish Jazztopad Festival to present a night of international improvisational exchange. Representing Poland will be the Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet. Based in Warsaw, the group is made up of the Wójciński siblings on trumpet, piano, and bass, as well as drummer Krzysztof Szmańda. The group first gathered in the studio in 2014, releasing their electric interplay on record last year (which you can check out below).
Representing the United States is cellist Erik Friedlander. As a staple of the downtown jazz and improv scene for three decades, Friedlander has been a close collaborator of many musical luminaries, including Laurie Anderson, Dave Douglas, and John Zorn. He’s released dozens of diverse albums under his own name, including 2016’s Rings, featuring multi-keyboardist Shoko Nagai and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. We caught up with Friedlander via Skype to hear about the origins of this project and his thoughts on the cello as a jazz instrument.

Piotr Turkiewicz invited me to the Jazztopad Festival in Wroclaw, Poland two or three years ago. He commissioned a premiere and what resulted was a piece called Kore, which was a piece for small orchestra and cello. It was super exciting. Piotr is one of these great presenters who has such a love of music and is curious and is just a good guy—I am really glad that I can call him a friend. He’s really been a great proponent of the Polish scene. The last couple of years, I’ve gone to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola to see some of the Polish jazz groups and it’s been great.

This year, he invited me to participate in the New York edition of the Jazztopad Festival with the Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet. They like to do a lot of free improvisation, pieces with loose structures, and they’re very good at it. I have a feeling our concert will be a mix of organization and structures by design and free playing. One thing we’re going to do a lot of is dividing up into groups, like different combinations of duos—bass and cello, bass and piano, trumpet and cello, and so on.

In terms of fitting into a preexisting group, I feel it’s less about being a cello player and more about being a musician in general. It’s about getting on the same page in terms of how the music flows, and making sure we can all be creative together. I’m always looking for moments—moments of clarity, moments of inspiration, and hope to stay away from moments of boredom.

The cello in jazz is a tricky proposition. I feel when I play pizzicato like a bass player, it fits in really well. When I play with a bow, I feel it’s a much more modern sound—it’s less “jazz” per se, it’s something else. The cello can take on a number of different roles then—I’ll comp, I’ll play bass lines, I’ll play melodies, textures, sounds. With that in mind, the cello needs some kind of acceptance from the musical material and the other players. I’m really excited to see what happens.

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Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

Peter Evans is a trumpeter, bandleader, and composer navigating the nebulous worlds of jazz and other contemporary experimental musics with aplomb. In his latest venture, a new trio of trumpet, drums and vibraphone play a limitless series of new pieces. This trio will perform at The Jazz Gallery on June 1st; Peter will also perform a solo set that evening. We caught up with him via email to talk about politics, composition, and everything in between.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re opening this concert with a solo set, with trio following. How do you feel those formats interact with each other? Do they change your approach to playing?

Peter Evans: ​The ensemble and solo playing has been converging a lot more in the last year or so. It’s something I never really expected, but maybe it was inevitable. In my solo music I have been searching for ways to create coherent and interesting structures that can shape the music—structures that are clearly audible as structures but at the same time are flexible and malleable in the moment if need be. There are a bunch of different ways to achieve this, and some paths I have taken from my work as a composer for improvising ensembles: for instance, a 12 tone mode that repeats at the 2-octave point. This is a field of harmony and melody that fixes each pitch in space, allowing me to work with set materials in a very detailed and sometimes very fast way without having to juggle what note goes where. Strict modal improvisation, in short—nothing new about that! But it’s a development for me in the solo music that comes out of my writing for one of my bands (the piece “Intergalactic“).
Conversely, there are ways of developing and organizing material that grew directly out of my solo playing—for instance, juggling 2 or 3 small chunks of music (I think of them as characters or spirits)​ and bouncing them off one another, developing each character in isolation and in dialogue with the others. 

TJG: Do you prefer to play solo, or within a group?

PE: ​I don’t really think in terms of preference. I just try to answer the musical situation as naturally as I can and let things happen. The best feeling during a solo concert is when I feel like I’m just tending the fire, keeping it going and observing, almost as if I’m an audience member.​ It’s all a very strange process that I don’t actually understand. That feeling of participation somewhere between active and passive is much easier to achieve when you have other people to bounce off of.

TJG: You’re premiering some new compositions for this trio with Max Jaffe and Joel Ross—can you talk about what direction you feel they’ve taken, or what you were interested in while composing them?

PE: The pieces are still in the works.  I change them a little after each rehearsal. It’s a purposefully tricky instrumentation, but I’m into the challenge.  In addition to being virtuosos, both Max and Joel are extremely flexible and great listeners.  The vibe of the trio so far seems to be that there aren’t really any limits and that we can explore whatever we want, which feels great! I already have some other gigs booked for this group for the rest of the year. I can’t really predict what’s going to happen but I’m very optimistic.

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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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