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Posts by James Kogan

Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Friday, March 16, The Jazz Gallery welcomes guitarist Miles Okazaki and his Trickster project back to our stage for two sets. The project began as a book of tunes premiered and honed at the Gallery in 2016, and came out on record last year to much acclaim, appearing on several “Best of” lists. Before Trickster’s return to the Gallery this week, we caught up with Okazaki to talk about how the music has continued to develop over time, and the notion of ideas versus information in a piece of art.

TJG: You first presented this music a little over two years ago. Has anything about it changed in that time?

Miles Okazaki: Well, everything changes, because people change, and they forget some things. And I forget things, or I change them, and things become less interesting. But that’s part of what this record was about. Not worrying about what you forget. I didn’t use any sheet music, for example. I’ll just play whatever I remember from what I wrote. And that’s what I’ll do this week, I guess [laughs]. I’ll just do whatever I can remember. I’m trying to remember but I’m not going to go look at the sheet music. Cause this particular set of music is an embodied type of feeling. I want it to be like that, like stories—I remember this story from my childhood, or from my relatives. Something about that has a meaning to me that’s internal.

I deal a lot with sheet music, and a lot of quite structured and determined things, and I’ve done a lot of things like that. My previous records are quite meticulous, and so I’m trying to let go of some of that, you might say. These are just little spaces, so you can just remember what that space feels like and go back into it.

TJG: You make a lot of allusions to mathematical forms—like in The Calender, with the inclusion of ratios of celestial movements—but on the top, the music has this very buoyant and tuneful quality. When you write, do these two things happen at the same time? Do you lead with a snippet of melodic content, or do you first sit down with a concept and develop some kind of systematic way of thinking?

MO: That tune was actually written on an airplane… all it is is just some notes moving, and some rhythms, and then a shape that it goes through. So yeah, you can say mathematical, but I never use that word to describe music. There’s no mathematical operations happening.

I mean, if you’re saying concerned with numbers, and you say that’s mathematical—well, you can say that’s numerical, but I’m not saying, “this multiplied by this, the square root of something.” I’m not doing any of those type of operations. Anything that you want to want talk about with pitches and discrete numbers of things, you can say is mathematical, you can enumerate them. And a calendar, and all these things things that we use—it’s a natural thing for humans to try to make order out of things. And for them to make order out of things, they make things like calendars. Something is repeating, there’s a cycle. It’s something that we a call a year. How long is it? We want to know how many days, why isn’t it this many days, how can we organize it in some kind of a way?

So, yeah, those are structures. But they’re largely metaphors for how we think and put order into things that are disorderly. Like pitches and rhythms—they’re organized. People are always looking for a dialectic, or a binary type of things. There’s something that’s soulful, and something that’s mathematical, and these things are sort of opposed somehow—and I think that’s all bullshit.

That being said, yeah, there are some structures involved and there are some hidden things, but I prefer to let them remain hidden. It’s more about how it feels. I do, personally, get very interested in music theory and stuff like that, but nobody in this particular band cares about what theory is behind it, at all. They just wanna play, so I have to make things playable and easy to memorize.

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Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist.

Over the next couple of weeks, composer and cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum will develop a new body of music working with a nine-piece ensemble of some of his closest collaborators. Titled “The Ambiguity Manifesto,” the music is designed to blur the lines between composition and improvisation, between solo and ensemble, between different genres, timbres, and instrumentations. In a cultural moment when so much is left or right, right or wrong, in or out, “The Ambiguity Manifesto” celebrates the beauty and necessity of the unknown and the indefinable, the enigmatic and the subversive, the boundary-crossing Trickster spirit.

Bynum and company will kick off this new project at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday and Thursday this week. We caught up with Bynum to talk with the impetus behind the new music, and his many hats as a composer-performer-writer-teacher-organizer.

The Jazz Gallery: From your moving tribute to Muhal Richard Abrams in the New Yorker to your stewardship of Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Foundation, it is apparent that your life is marked by a engagement with the creative music of the AACM. How did you come to be acquainted with them and their work?

Taylor Ho Bynum: I first became aware of the AACM back in high school. One of my very first mentors is the trombonist and tuba player Bill Lowe, who does the honor of playing in my ensemble still, and will be with us at the Gallery. I met him when I was 15 or 16 years old, and he had worked with Muhal Richard Abrams and Henry Threadgill. He wasn’t an AACM member, but he worked closely with several of those musicians—so that’s the first exposure I got to that creative music practice. And then of course I went to Wesleyan as an undergraduate, where I came under Anthony Braxton’s extraordinary influence. And so, that then was a life-changer for me, and I’ve been working with him ever since. My understanding of that history and that collective came out of some very personal relationships, and my embrace of both that musical aesthetic and the organizational aesthetic, and the self determination, and the various messages of that organization that go up above and beyond musical practice.

TJG:How do see you the role of non-profit organizations, much like that one, in the music world that we’re living in today? As it seems to be in the midst of a lack of funding and, as you made reference to some of your liner notes, a flux in the way that we deal with recorded music and how we value it.

THB: I think I’ve been lucky to have mentors, like those gentlemen—Bill, Anthony—who’ve always been very aware of the need to apply the music lessons of non-hierarchical leadership and individual initiative being not at odds, but actually in concert with collective development and ensemble understanding. And I think those things need to be applied past the music itself, and really, past even the art field but especially the arts field. We need to organize ourselves as creatively as we play music [laughs]. You know what I mean?

I think the music presents lessons on how to do that that we too rarely look to, and I think we take for granted that we work as collaborators and dedicate ourselves to working with the people we love, and innovating and experimenting. We take for granted that we’re going to do that in our music but we really need to do that in our survival practice as a whole.

And so for me, I see the two as very related. I think that in an ideal world, I would love to not have to organizing [laughs] and have, you know, really wonderful competent people partnering with to do that. It’s sad that we haven’t lived in that ideal world. So I think having some skills and inclinations towards that, I’ve found myself really wearing those multiple hats and finding that to make possible the things that I want to have happening as an artist, I have to also step up sometimes as a presenter, or a producer, or an organizer, to make those things happen. But again, I think that’s always been a part of the tradition of this music.

TJG: The advocacy?

THB: The advocacy and the self-determination. You know, Duke Ellington didn’t make enough money to support his orchestra from the orchestra gigs. That was a choice he made because he had income coming from pop songs. One has to navigate within the industry in such a way as to support our creative practice and that’s always going to be a balance, and that’s always going to be a related but different identity that we need to keep fighting for. We need more good people as partners engaged in that. I would urge anyone who’s interested to consider that – it’s not necessarily the most [laughs] financially rewarding task but I think it really is vital when it’s done in partnership with artists, and artists definitely value that.

I think it’s also good for me as an artist, having done those others kinds of jobs and run an organizations and having produced festivals and having done all that—it really helps me learn how to converse with and partner with people coming from that field. I think too often, it’s easy in a field where, as you said, everything is so under-resourced, there end up being, even, antagonistic relationships between people who really naturally should be allies, y’know? In terms of artists and presenters, or in terms of artists and each other, or in terms of presenters and each other. We really all should be fighting together in this, but it’s easy, in a capitalist economy with limited resources, to have it become a competitive thing when in fact, there are ways in which we really could be helping each other out across the board. And that’s something that I think the music demonstrates at its best, and we have to learn how to translate out of the musical world into the practical one.

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Photo by Steven Schreiber, courtesy of the artist.

This week, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome Jen Shyu back to our stage to present two of her ritual music dramas, Nine Doors and Song of Silver Geese. Both works reflect Shyu’s extensive field research into music from across East and Southeast Asia. We spoke with Shyu about the myths and storytelling traditions that undergird these pieces, her process for synthesizing her diverse sources, and the relationship with her Biwa, a Japanese lute.

The Jazz Gallery: In addition to the true story of the “Phone of the Wind,” a phone booth in the backyard of a Japanese gardener, which Japanese citizens have been using to communicate with their departed family and friends, the two main threads of Nine Doors are the Timorese Wehali Kingdom myth of Ati Batik and the Korean legend Baridegi. What is the resulting work about and what insights do traditional mythology offer us in our turbulent times?”

Nine Doors was inspired by the death of my friend Sri Joko Raharjo “Cilik,” who was a young master of the Javanese shadow puppet theater tradition called Wayang Kulit, killed in a car crash along with his wife and 11-month old son. The main story follows Nala—his surviving 6-year old daughter—who is given guidance by the powerful woman warriors Ati Batik and Baridegi and their respective myths. Within the piece, Nala draws wisdom and insight from them about how to carry on and be strong as a woman shouldering an enormous burden. She’s just a 6-year-old girl, so how is she going to go forward having lost her family? Though it is Nala receiving this guidance, the audience is receiving it too. Of course, it’s all abstract and I’m not telling the audience—I don’t do that. But the intent is there. I prefer abstract myth anyway, and letting the audience receive what they receive.

TJG: What is the difference between this work and the material from your last album, Song of Silver Geese?

JS: To this solo version, I folded in the “Phone of the Wind” story from Japan and a lot more material in English. I ended up translating a lot of the stories of Ati Batik and Baridegi in my own way. But of course, I couched them in Korean and Timorese rhythms. I was just looking for what was the best way I could tell the story in English and still keep the essence of the materials that I was dealing with. The larger structures, however, are the same between this iteration and the original Song of Silver Geese.

TJG: How did you come to know about the myth of Ati Batik?

JS: I was attracted to the story of Ati Batik because it was so ancient and not that well-known. Even in Betun where it came from, now in West Timor, the people who can tell the story are few and far between. This past September and October, I was there for 5 weeks, just living in the heart of that area, what used to be the huge Wehali Kingdom but is now focused in a little town. They say, yes, this used to be the heart of Wehali. The customs are still very strong and the general summary of the story is known. However, the number of people who can tell these types of stories, called “Ai Knanoik”—we really found only one person who really, as you say, spiritually received and channeled the story, whereas other storytellers we recorded knew the story, but it was clear that they had just memorized it. It’s a different thing.

What’s amazing about the research of these traditions is that you can only find out these things by going to the place. The original source where I found the story was in a book by Tom Therik, and the story was transcribed in the original Timorese language, Tetum Wehali, and then translated to English. So of course, when I went back there, my guide and assistant Desri Yulita Taek- a local and a friend of another researcher colleague of mine—and I went looking trying to find the speaker, the orator of the story that we found in the book. But of course, the orator had died already. His family members didn’t know the story. So we just had to go out and search [laughs]. And what we learned just from talking to people was that, oh yes, this tradition is not memorized. If you really can speak this type of storytelling, it’s something you can only receive.

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Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Tuesday, December 12th, saxophonist Yosvany Terry and bassist Darryl Johns finish off their Mentorship Series tour with a performance at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn. The experience has found Johns jumping right into Terry’s working band, playing the leader’s characteristic originals alongside the likes of drummer Marcus Gilmore and pianists Manuel Valera and Glenn Zaleski. We caught up with Johns after the group’s show at the Jazz Museum in Harlem to talk about his work with Terry thus far.

The Jazz Gallery: I saw you perform at the Gallery with “Orange” Julius Rodriguez’s group, and another time as part of Adam O’Farill’s work “I Want My Life Back”. How do you know these guys, and what’s it like to grow up in a community with so many talented, young musicians?

Daryl Johns: Well, I’ve known Adam for a long time, since both of our dads are musicians. The first time I met Adam was at a rehearsal with his dad’s band, when I was 9, and Adam was 11. Orange Julius I’ve known since we did precollege together. I was a junior in high school and he was in 8th grade. So he’s always been my little bro, and I love him. And I’ve kinda just stuck with them. We’re both very close. As people, I can be myself around them, so they’re very cool people to play music with because of that. It really helps when you know the person because it’s chill and you feel like you don’t have to be anybody or play a certain way.

TJG: You come from a very musical family. What was that like, and how deep are the family’s musical roots?

DJ: The roots go as deep as my great uncle. His name was Jimmy Tyler, and he was the first of the musical people in my family. He never really made it that big, he was always low key but he played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. There are some recordings of him, actually, with Count Basie and Clark Terry, and he sounds really good. He has, like, a bar-honking tenor player vibe. And he played, also, with Wild Bill Davis, so he’s almost like a rock and roll saxophone player—he’s sick. There’s a good recording of him called “Bleep Blop Blues” with Count Basie. Then, besides him, there’s his brother, Robert Tyler, who’s my other great uncle. These are all my dad’s mother’s siblings. And my mom’s dad used to play trumpet. And my parents met at NEC, actually!

I started playing bass at 7, and I’ve always played drums.

TJG: You make some music under the moniker Sweet Joseph. Is that project the result of a specific kind of energy for you? How does that part of your musical personality interactive with your more traditionally jazz-oriented playing? Both are lyrical, but perhaps in slightly different ways.

DJ: Sweet Joseph is a band I started when I got to college, and it’s mostly a recording project right now. I wrote the first song that started it all called “Whoops, Reason Is Bathtime.” I was in a practice room and wrote this song that sounds like the theme song to Full House, with crazy jazz modulation and it’s a pretty orgasmic song. So I called down to my friend, guitarist David Zyto, “Come down to the second floor and let’s play this duo,” and it sounded like Mike Moreno and Aaron Parks guitar and piano.  And I just remember smiling while playing it. It was just such a sweet… it was almost like biting into the sweetest vanilla custard—you’re eating this thing, and you’re smiling, and you can’t stop smiling. And that vibe is why it’s called Sweet Joseph. That project, which is still ongoing, is a reflection of the feeling of inspirational emo rock, but there are still sad undertones. In the indie rock vein, but with jazz influences, of courses.

I definitely went through a period when I got to college that I got a little burnt out. I have some hand problems with bass that are still going on that I’m trying to get under control, so Sweet Joseph is my way of resting from bass and still being creative. I found that playing with band, it was more like friends getting together and messing around, whereas with jazz it almost feels like, especially playing with older people, it can feel like they’re not your friend and they need to earn your respect. And I got tired of that. And I got into Mac DeMarco—this indie rock guy who goes crazy on stage—and I saw that and realized that seems way more fun, and unlike my experience in the jazz world. So I had this feeling of wanting to do what I want. I don’t care if I don’t make money doing it. I don’t care about being the best. I just want to make dope music and I want to have fun, and that’s it. Just with my friends. I don’t have to impress anyone. But now, these two worlds are starting to cross paths and I am realizing how I can make my jazz experience feel like that

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Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, November 30th, The Jazz Gallery continues our Mentorship Series with a performance featuring mentor-saxophonist Yosvany Terry and mentee-bassist Daryl Johns on our stage. This is the third show for Terry and Johns—earlier this month they performed at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and The National Jazz Museum in Harlem. We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Terry after the show in Harlem to talk about developing rapport with new musicians on the bandstand and the diverging paths of formal education and musical mentorship.

The Jazz Gallery: Your last show in the series was at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and the atmosphere was jovial. Being someone who travels a lot and also a resident of Harlem, how does it feel to play in the neighborhood?

Yosvany Terry: I think it’s a special feeling, especially because the music that we’re playing came out of the community and we don’t get the opportunity to play there as much as we we would have loved to, and just to see what the warmth and incredible reception was. It stimulates musicians who perform in Harlem. It’s special, also, because I’ve been living in Harlem for sixteen years and if I count the amount of times I’ve played in the neighborhood, two hands would be too much. It’s hard to believe.

I’ve performed a lot through the Jazz Mobile, which brings jazz to the community in their truck. So whenever I work with them, I feel a similar way. You see that people really engage with the music. No matter what you play, they feel the connection of being one with the community and the neighborhood. It’s vibrant. It’s an important feeling for us musicians, and especially me, to perform in Harlem.

TJG: What do you learn from playing with younger musicians about the direction and health of jazz today?

YT: More than anything, I would say a different sensibility and approach to making music. I’m the kind of person that likes to play with older people because that’s how I get to learn from their experiences, and that’s the only way one can learn, so I like to think of it the other way around. This has been a wonderful opportunity for Daryl to perform with musicians who are somewhat older than him and a result to get more experience. So I like to think it flows the other way and works to his advantage. Whenever I’m working with a new member in my band, I’m always open to whatever they bring. And yes, I tell them how I hear the music, but it’s in their hands to bring their own sensibility to it. I’m always to new interpretation of the material, because that’s the only way that it stays fresh and renovates itself.

TJG: Is there a difference between instruction and mentorship? Do you think about pedagogy when you are mentoring someone, or is it a different kind of relationship?

YT: The difference between education and mentorship is that you have completely different relationships with the people in question. Once you’re in the classroom, you’re sharing information with students. The level of the students are different, so it can be challenging to create a one-on-one relationship. But when you’re mentoring someone, you have more opportunities for an intimate relationship where you can be super precise and you can be direct, which is conducive to growing and learning this art form.

TJG: In a lot of traditional art forms, there have always been distinctions between apprenticeship and mentorship, but a lot of those practices solidify hierarchical relationships, and insist that younger practitioners “pay their dues”. Do you think it is the same with jazz music?  

YT: Yeah, of course. This is all connected, and it’s coming from the old African ways of teaching—the elders passing information to the younger generation. I’ve never looked at it from a hierarchical form, because the only way you can get experience is to get together with someone that has and has lived through those experiences. It’s something natural, in a way, when we think about how one gets knowledge. The only difference is that now you can go to a college to get a jazz education but, still, once you graduate, you have to learn from elders. So you still have information to acquire. So far, this is the only way that it’s been done and still, today, it’s the way things happen.

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