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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by James Kogan

Photo courtesy of Pi Recordings.

Guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Stomu Takeishi have been playing together for over two decades, first as members of Henry Threadgill’s band, then as an intimate duo, beginning in the year 2000. Honing their interplay over many years, the pair released their debut studio album in 2014, Revealing Essence, originally composed with a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grant.

This Thursday, July 19, the duo returns to The Jazz Gallery for two sets. We caught up with Brandon by phone and email to talk about the duo’s history and his own evolving relationship to sound.

The Jazz Gallery: What is it like to have such a longstanding musical partnership with someone developing into such a personal, intimate practice?

BR: I think it’s an interesting thing. I mean, longevity in this respect is something you can’t know about till you know about it—until it happens. In that way, it’s one of these really wonderful surprises. We constantly refer to that period, that band—Make A Move—when we were in it, because it was such a pivotal moment for Henry [Threadgill] in his writing, and in his ensemble selection. He went from having bands that always had at least multiple horns in it and multiple strings to a band that had a form of keyboard, with the harmonium and accordion, and then one string, and then bass—electric bass, first of all—and drum set, and himself on winds. And then it was also the beginning, during the Make A Move era, of his evolving his compositional approach into the current intervallic system that he’s been developing for the last twenty, almost twenty years now. It was a seminal period for us—Tony Caesar, Jake Lewis, Stomu and myself—being involved in that.

And so Stomu and I have that as a reference point in terms of musical dynamics, musical language. What we have been able to distill from that experience at that time, and evolve and mature in the duo relationship that we have. Although, you know, the duo relationship was already present when I heard him play and I recognized him as someone that I would like to play music with, and I happened to do that in the context of Henry’s band—cause, y’know, Henry asked me to keep my eyes out for a bass player and a drummer. So that was J.T. and Stomu, so ultimately, in a way, was a band that I had yet to realize but wound up becoming so. And I guess the longevity of the language that we share and that we developed is something that is has a lot to do with the instruments that we’re playing—Steve Klein-designed instruments. They have such a particular character of sound production and the way they interact with one another – we just want to hear them! In the writing that we do, I just want to hear the instruments [laughs].

TJG: You’ve made note of how the compositions focus on balancing the weight of the two instruments, with Stomu on acoustic bass and you on either acoustic guitar, soprano guitar, or banjo.

BR: It’s a common compositional practice: you begin with a sound of some kind. Certain instruments, certain sounds send the imagination and the creative impulse in a particular direction as a response to it. That’s an interesting thing. This last set of music that I’ve written for us, for the Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grant that I got, and I incidentally happened to be playing a lot of nylon string guitar, and most of that music came out of that—being on the nylon string guitar. Stomu and I did a concert last weekend at the Guild Hall in Easthampton where we played a couple of those pieces. I was playing the steel string guitar and I really noticed how they felt very differently from being played on the nylon, and I was like, right, these are choices and musical circumstances and situations that came about as a result of that.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday, April 24, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her group Anti House 4 return to The Jazz Gallery for two sets. Since arriving in New York, Laubrock has become an integral member of a free-thinking, collaborative community of improvisers, including Mary Halvorson, Kris Davis, Tom Rainey, and many others. Before setting off on a European tour, Laubrock and company will convene at the Gallery to stretch out their musical materials in new directions. We caught up with Laubrock to talk about the development of her recent projects, and what’s happened when she’s played her music for young children.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve lived a life with an inspiring amount of globetrotting, from your childhood in Germany, a significant portion of adulthood in London (with lots of virtual traveling to Brazil and Cuba), with your most recent tenure here in New York.

Ingrid Laubrock: I played Cuban music when I was in London but I’ve never been there. I have been to Brazil quite a lot, not only virtually but also physically. Mostly in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, a little bit to Bahia, as well as some time in Belo Horizonte.

TJG: Do you ever reflect on the differences between these cities and if they have any bearing on your musical processes?

IL: Yes, I definitely think so. I grew up in the countryside so there wasn’t much information around at all. I was really raised around nature and animals. But I think that even that aspect is part of my music, having had lots of space and lots of silence and listening to natural sounds— I’m sure that filters in somewhere. I still have this urge to be in silence, in nature, and I need a fix of that every year. And it’s beyond a vacation. It’s just really wanting to be in a forest, or at the sea, and just having space and relative silence.

I would say London was my probably my formation. I started playing there, I learned so much from so many different types of musicians and from folks, and it has a very dedicated improvising scene, which had some great players that taught me a lot of things. But really, across the board—I learned a lot of things from either musicians my own age, where we explored compositions and music together, or from people who are older and showed me things, or concerts I attended. And New York is a whole other kettle of fish. The pool of musicians is so wide here, everybody does very cool things, and, y’know, it kicks your ass in a way.

Since I’ve been here, what has happened to me is that I write a lot more. I already was going that way in London towards the end. I had a steadier rhythm in London—I just didn’t travel as far much—but here, I’m sometimes super busy, I’m away, on the road. But then there are moments when I really have a chunk of time to fill, which I love to use for writing, and not trying to fill everything up with gigs or sessions like I used to do in London.

TJG: Is there a discrepancy between the soundscapes of New York and London?

IL: Yeah, I think so. Yesterday, I had this concert in SoHo and I was grabbing a bite to eat and sitting outside this bodega by the entrance of the Holland Tunnel. And the light went green and there was immediately this ridiculous concert of honking. It was just so incessant, and went on till the lights changed again and became red. You know, it’s basically a traffic jam and people are frustrated. That kind of stuff is so much more intense here than in London. Everything is louder here. There is so much traffic in London but traffic is slow, and less honking. It’s just not such a thing, more politeness between drivers. Also, I live in a neighborhood where buildings are constantly going up—it’s just mushrooming! And I never lived in a neighborhood like that in London. London has many more two story houses, and most of the houses have a yard. Even if you pay a low rent, it’s just the nature of the town. You have a little buffer between houses, there’s a quiet space in between. And here, it’s just so much denser. So yeah, the sounds are definitely different. There are also huge parks in London, so in general just more green and more silence.

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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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