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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by James Kogan

Photo by Gaya Feldhiem Schorr, courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, August 17, trombonist Kalia Vandever returns to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of her debut album, In Bloom. Upon the record’s release in May, Vandever and her bandmates received positive notice from WBGO’s Nate Chinen: “This is a cohort that has obviously metabolized many different approaches,” Chinen writes, “and chosen its own path.” You can check out the record yourself, below.
Before her show at the Gallery, Vandever sat down with us at Jazz Speaks to talk about developing a band sound, her observations on the current New York jazz community, and her recent forays into solo performance (which she’ll continue to explore at the Gallery on Saturday).

The Jazz Gallery: Your trombone playing captures the instrument’s capacity for being a vastly dynamic and emotionally resonant melodic voice. What initially drew you to the trombone and has your relationship with the instrument changed over time?

Kalia Vandever: I first heard the instrument on this record my dad used to play around the house. I told him that I wanted to play the trombone without realizing what it looked like. It’s funny because when I received my first horn, I couldn’t reach 7th position and I felt so limited on the instrument, but really loved the challenge. I honestly feel similar about the instrument today. There are certainly days that the instrument and its limitations really frustrate me, but the feeling motivates me to lean into the really beautiful qualities of the trombone.

TJG: You’ve said that the people in your band include some of your closest friends in New York City, both personally and professionally. How have these friendships influenced the way that these compositions have developed since their conception?

KV: I’m always pretty confident that a piece I bring into rehearsal will sound way better once I hear what they have to add to it. I try to leave room for the guys to take liberties with the music, so if they’re hearing something that I didn’t write, I trust that it’s going to be thoughtful and musical. The way we sound as a band is constantly evolving because we’re all changing as musicians and improvisers.

TJG: Perhaps it’s because of the pedal that runs throughout, but the track “Renee” invokes a rising sensation of ascension or elevation, almost as if something is being searched for while it floats higher and higher. What is the story behind this composition and what is the feeling of playing it with the group?

KV: Renee is my sister’s middle name and this piece was inspired by her perseverance and strength during a difficult period of her life. I’d say the forward moving element in the melody reflects her resilience. The piece sort of devolves and can often get a little chaotic in the middle, which I really love. It’s something I really try to employ in my writing and performances; striking a balance between beauty and chaos. It’s become one of my favorite songs to play.

TJG: How do you envision the kind of space that gets created between you, your bandmates and the audience when this music is performed? Is there a certain invisible narrative you want to bring forward through the music, like the experiences at the Whitney Plantation that inspired “Lost in The Oaks,” or is it more about creating a mood or valence shared between everyone?

KV: Not all of my compositions have a clear narrative and even if they were inspired by a specific experience, I generally err on the side of letting the audience experience the music in the way they want to experience it. There’s certainly a mood that we create on stage, but it might be different for those listening in the audience, so I try not to influence the way they hear things.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

A native of Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, vibraphonist Nikara Warren grew up surrounded by many universes of music. Jazz was imparted to her by her grandfather, pianist Kenny Barron. Music of the West Indies, like Trinidadian soca, shown to her by her father. Hip hop, dancehall, and trap all resounded in the streets of the neighborhood. Warren’s music fluidly navigates these many cultures and sound worlds now present in Black American music.

Sharp, funny, urgent and engaged with the past and present of American cultural politics, Nikara Warren comes to The Jazz Gallery for her first bandleader residency here, spanning April 4th, May 10th and June 25th. The program includes two nights paying homage to politically outspoken musical greats and one night of her flagship band, Black Wall Street. We caught up with Warren to talk about putting her spin on iconic music, as well as blending both new and old musical sensibilities.

The Jazz Gallery: This residency at the Jazz Gallery is entitled the Political Gangster Trilogy. The first night, you spotlight Curtis Mayfield, Charles Mingus, and Marvin Gaye. The last evening focuses on Nina Simone and Meshell Ndegeocello. On the second night, it’s the Black Wall Street project. Is it a collection of music or a collection of musicians?

Nikara Warren: You know, It started as a collection of music, that’s how it started, that’s what the folder of music was called, but it became a band name. [laughs] Which was not really the intention. I originally would say, Nikara Presents Black Wall Street but everyone kept calling the band Black Wall Street, and then, well, you can’t really help when that happens.

TJG: I couldn’t help but notice that have a very joyful manner of singing to yourself when you are soloing. What is your compositional process? Do you sing a lot to yourself and vamp and develop it in your head, or do you sit down at the piano with a piece of paper?

NW: I think there are a few ways. I am no stranger to the voice memo. I looked through a bunch of them last night, there are lots of 4 A.M.: me being, like, yo, this melody is dope, and afterwards I can work something out with it. A lot of times, I think I probably hear melodically first. Basslines too. I work a lot in Logic, so I’ll just throw something down. It doesn’t always come out when you want it to, though, which is difficult thing about writing on deadlines, which I’m doing right now.

TJG: Deadlines for yourself?

NW: No, this is deadlines for the show. This is all new music—all of the arrangements for the Trilogy we have not yet played at all. They actually haven’t even seen the music at all [laughs] so I’ll finish that off, and then we’re gonna rehearse. It’s going to be a brand new thing! But you know when you have that feeling, that you got this show and you gotta get it down. It can be difficult to write, because you don’t have that free ability but then there’s the beauty of it, which is that I work well under pressure. And I always am able to get more done when I have to do it for something important.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tonight, FutureFest kicks off at The Jazz Gallery with a set by the “mad-sad noise rock band” Tiny Gun. Featuring Kathryn-Agatha Lee on voice & guitar, Michael Beckett on synths, Jesse Bielenberg on bass, and Zane West on drums. The group’s raw and searing music reflects both their eclectic tastes and jazz training, striking a balance between formal complexity and emotional directness. We sat down for a conversation with Lee and Beckett, talking about the group’s development, writing process, and sonic palette.

The Jazz Gallery: Tiny Gun has been performing for a few years now. How old is the band and what is the project about?

Kathryn-Agatha Lee: We’ve been an official band for about 3 years but we were all friends and colleagues who met at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Our record coming out on October 26th is called Crazy, I Can Be, and it sort of dives into a toxic relationship throughout stages of denial—trying fit a form, self-hatred and rage. [laughs] That writing process was sort of a way for me to lean into being called some coded words like ‘crazy, sensitive, demanding, or damaged’ and have it be this radical reclaiming of agency that gets taken away from you when you’re being belittled. Like, maybe I’m not ‘sensitive,’ maybe you’re just an asshole?

TJG: The band is described as a “mad-sad noise rock band.” Did you listen to lots of heavy music growing up and what are the things that draw you to it?

KL: I listened to a lot of metal and shreddy guitar music growing up! I came around to it when I was a teenager as sort of the next extension that tacked onto my emo music phase. I think I liked it because I was always so fucking angry. Now I still love heavy music mostly because I find music with lots of sections and strange forms to be really interesting, which is something that definitely finds its way into my songwriting.

Michael Beckett: Tiny Gun really started to become Tiny Gun when we embraced the music we grew up with. Going back to heavy/emo music that bares its heart on its sleeve gave us a place to be emotional and messy from. It allowed in a part of ourselves that wasn’t finding a way out through other music.

TJG: Which of those bands have stuck with you? Where is your taste and interest going these days?

KL: I still love Fall of Troy, Animals as Leaders, Periphery, Veil of Maya, and also, I love really fucking sad songs. These days I’m really into Palm, Tera Melos, Great Time, Tricot, Buke and Gase, Deerhoof, Andy Shauf, altopalo, Covet, Gregory and the Hawk…

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With FutureFest coming to The Jazz Gallery this weekend, we at Jazz Speaks are continuing our series of conversations with some of the festival’s featured artists. Today, we have a conversation with festival curators Alfredo Colon & Edward Gavitt on the band Secret Mall, and Abdulrahman Amer of Ba Akhu, discussing the origins and motivations behind the festival.

The Jazz Gallery: Tell me about the genesis of this festival.

Alfredo Colon: I think it started with us trying to set up a double bill with our friends and then we were like, “Yo, we should actually get a third band!”. And then we were like, “Yo, what if we get more bands?” And at some point Ed was just like, “We might as well just make a festival at this point.”

Edward Gavitt: The thing is, Secret Mall as a band, first of all, is just a band based in excess. We like to do excessive things. Nothing illegal or nothing bad. Like, just…

Abdulrahman Amer: [interrupting] Yeah, you can’t do that.

EG: Yeah, yeah. You can’t do that.

AC: [laughs]

EG: So when the idea came of doing a double bill, let’s get it as far as we can. Let’s get away with as much as we can get away with. [laughs] Basically. So we all came to the idea of a festival, a couple bills, a bunch of bands. Although at this point, the final version of this festival came through as a bunch of bands that have played here [at the Jazz Gallery] and some that haven’t, we really wanted to bring forward people that haven’t had an opportunity to play here, whether it based on the curation or based on just they haven’t even thought about thinking to play here. A couple of people that we asked couldn’t do it, and a couple people ended up just not feeling right for the bands we had already confirmed. We tried to curate a certain vibe as well, you know what I mean?

Sasha [Berliner Quartet], Rocky’s band [BA AKHU], us, and Adam [O’Farrill and Gabe Schneider] have all played here. But Blake [Opper’s Questionable Solution] and Tiny Gun haven’t played here yet. We hope to bring more groups in the future and see if we can keep this going.

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Photo by Amy Touchette

This Saturday, August 11, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and his group Triple Double return to The Jazz Gallery for two sets of music. Featuring brass players Taylor Ho Bynum and Ralph Alessi; guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook; as well as drummer Gerald Cleaver, the band has cut its teeth on the Gallery stage—they performed here before recording their debut record in 2016, and returned to celebrate the album’s release in 2017. Before their return to the Gallery this weekend, we caught up with Fujiwara to talk about the group’s methods of improvisational interaction, the process of recording their album, and the incredible mentorship of drummer Alan Dawson.

TJG: In the press release for the record, it states that “while these collaborative efforts could define and sustain him, a more ambitious musical intelligence emerges on closer inspection.” What does this mean?

TF: I think part of what was meant here was that, especially as a drummer, you’re very much pigeonholed into being a side-person. Sometimes, especially as it relates to getting your music supported and out into the world and getting opportunities to perform your music live, it’s a little harder than if you played a different instrument. I’ve been so fortunate to be involved with great musicians in their bands and projects as leaders—something I love doing and have no desire to do less off—as well as a number of collective ensembles, that those things could be enough to “define and sustain” me. I certainly don’t want to stop any of that activity, but for me, and certainly other drummers, I’ve made a conscious decision to step out as a bandleader and composer as well. That’s probably what the “more ambitious” part is. For anyone, taking a leadership role is a big challenge and requires a lot from the individual.

TJG: You’ve been playing with the individual members of Triple Double in a variety of arrangements for a long time. How did the Triple Double project arise and come into fruition? When did you first start working on its songbook?

TF: I have a trio with Ralph [Alessi] and Brandon [Seabrook] that I had put together a year before Triple Double. I was really enjoying the gigs we had done, and we made a live record (Variable Bets on Relative Pitch Records). With most of the ensembles I’ve led, from The Hook Up to the trio with Ralph and Brandon, one of my main interests has been new combinations of musicians. In the case of Ralph and Brandon, they had never played together before. There were members of the original Hook Up that had never played together before. So that was one idea behind Triple Double—these new combinations of people that I felt could work and that I was curious to hear how they would interact. Because I think that musicians, artists in general, are put into categories way more than they would actually like to be, and they have more diverse aesthetics than they’re given credit for. I know for myself, I love to get thrown into unusual situations, or situations where it’s not quite my comfort zone, or the usual cast of characters I might be playing with at that time.

So that was one thing behind it—taking the trio and thinking about it as a template for new combinations. Then, being a drummer, I’ve always loved the drums but also the sound of multiple percussion ensembles, whether it be two drum sets or drum set and any number of percussion instruments from around the world. I love the vibraphone, the marimba, etc. The album that first got me interested in drums was Rich Versus Roach, which isn’t quite a double drum album but a conversation between two drummers and their bands. Years ago, I toured with Stomp, which was essentially an eight person percussion ensemble, and it could be really fun when everything was really in sync and everyone was communicating and forming this unified voice. So that’s something that I’ve always been interested in doing something with two drums but, also, something with Gerald [Cleaver] specifically, who is one of my absolute favorites, and wanting to get in there and have a musical dialogue with him. With Taylor [Ho Bynum] and Mary [Halvorson], two musicians who I’ve played with and known the longest, we have so much history and such a rapport from all of the music we’ve played in various ensembles—I wanted to include them as well. It was really more about the personalities and a sonic idea, and then it took shape into these three duos, or two trios, and this mirroring effect in terms of the instrumentation. Taylor and Ralph had never played together, me and Gerald had never played together, so there were also a lot of first times, which was cool—to see those relationships develop over time within this group.

TJG: Where was the album recorded?

TF: Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT.

TJG: The whole thing in a live room, everyone together?

TF: We had the drums and guitars in one room, and each trumpet/cornet isolated.

TJG: The reason I ask is because one of the things I really love about the record, and there are so many moments where one can hear this, is that the trios seem to be split symmetrically between the left and right channels. Especially on a track like the opening one, “Diving For Quarters,” one hears the interaction spatialized very clearly, with Mary Halvorson consistently on the left and Brandon Seabrook consistently on the right.

TF: Well, the credit for that goes to Nick Lloyd. It’s his label and studio, and he engineered the session, as well as mixed and mastered the album. He just knows the room and the board and the equipment so well, has an amazing ear and is great to work with. We certainly talked about the sound for the album but the majority of the credit goes to him in terms of getting these great sounds and really figuring out how we wanted these 6 musicians to exist in the space. In terms of the drums, we talked a lot about the sound, and it was about wanting to find that balance between these two distinctive drummers, but then also creating a kind of eight-limbed drummer, and I feel like he achieved that very well. Sonically, he gets the credit and did an amazing job.

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