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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Kevin Laskey

Clockwise, from top left: Chris Dingman, Bryan Copeland, Fabian Almazan, Joe Nero, an aardvark, and Jesse Lewis. Photos by Dominick Nero.

Over two albums and a decade of live performances, bassist Bryan Copeland’s band Bryan and the Aardvarks have honed a unique and personal brand of instrumental music, memorably dubbed “pastoral shred” by Rolling Stone Magazine’s Hank Shteamer. This Sunday, May 26, Bryan and the Aardvarks return to The Jazz Gallery alongside special guest drummer Kenny Wollesen to celebrate their tenth anniversary as a band and premiere a new suite of compositions commissioned by the NPR program StoryCorps. We caught up with Bryan Copeland by phone to talk about the band’s history and how he approaches writing direct, confessional music without lyrics.

The Jazz Gallery: Since this concert is celebrating ten years of the Aardvarks, I’d love to talk a bit about the band’s history. What made you want to start the band in the first place?

Bryan Copeland: We actually started in 2006, which is when I moved to New York. Joe Nero—our usual drummer—and Fabian Almazan were going to school together at the Manhattan School of Music. The only person I knew in town was this bari saxophone player who was going to school there named Jacob Rodriguez. So when I got to town, I called Jacob, and he hooked up a session with Joe & Fabian. They had a collective going on—it was a septet I think—and everybody just brought in tunes. We would play gigs, we played in Philly a lot, actually. So I started writing some songs for the group. The first song I wrote was “Sunshine Through the Clouds,” which ended up on the Aardvarks’ first record. So I brought that tune in, and it didn’t really work for the big group. We had all of these horn players, and it wasn’t really a horn player tune. It’s this kind of folky tune. At the gigs, we would play that tune as a trio.

So we did that for quite a while, and then I started writing more music. Then this good friend of mine Barry Bliss—he’s a wonderful singer-songwriter—contacted me. He had a residency at the Sidewalk Café—which is no longer the Sidewalk Café. He emailed me and said, “Do you want to play this gig on a bill with my band?” I was like, “Yeah, sure,” and he was like, “What’s your band name?” Bryan and the Aardvarks just popped in my head. I don’t really know how it came. I guess a lot of those bands were singer-songwriter projects and they all had band names, so I didn’t want to be “The Bryan Copeland Jazz Trio” or something like that. So that was our first gig as the Aardvarks.

TJG: How did you expand out from the trio configuration?

BC: At about the time of our first gig, vibraphonist Chris Dingman moved to New York. He had just gotten out of the Thelonious Monk Institute. Fabian set up a session with Chris and I remember being blown away by Chris. He was just a monster. I was kind of intimidated by his playing! He was so good that I was getting nervous at the session! I then talked to Fabian and asked if he thought Chris would be a good addition to the Aardvarks and he was really into it. So we ended up playing that Sidewalk Café gig as a quartet.

It was a good venue for us because the music we were playing had this pop music influence, and that heavy folk element. The audience was really receptive to the music there. Everybody was raving about the group, and that was really encouraging for us. We ended up playing there quite a bit. They ended up trying to do these “jazz nights” to accommodate us, but they ended up kind of being a disaster, because that wasn’t really their audience. People didn’t come out, and I was like, “I’d rather just keep playing with the singer-songwriters.”

We added Jesse Lewis after Chris couldn’t make a gig. Jesse was one of the first people that I met in New York, so I asked him to sub for Chris. It went really well, and then Chris came back, and I was like, “I miss having Jesse, too.” He added a lot to the music and so became a regular. That was maybe a year after our first gig.

One of our first major gigs with this configuration was at the old Jazz Gallery. It was a big goal of mine to play there since I moved to New York. I remember seeing some really heavy groups there, like Brian Blade’s group—I used to go see them all the time before he left New York. I saw some really life-changing shows there, so it was really great to get to play there myself.

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From L to R: Sean Rickman, Miles Okazaki, Craig Taborn, and Anthony Tidd. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Friday, May 24, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome guitarist Miles Okazaki and his band Trickster back to our stage. The band has a strong history at the Gallery, as it was where they first performed and workshopped the material, as well as celebrated their record release in April 2017. In an interview with Jazz Speaks before the record release concert, Okazaki described the album’s composition’s unique qualities:

Some of these songs are short little tunes, where I spent a really long time on them, but all that remains is what I think of as, you know, hieroglyphs on the cave walls, washed away over the years. You just see a little bit of what remains. There’s one tune on there called “The Calendar,” which pairs a three-note voicing concept and a rhythm concept I’ve been working on for at least ten years. The whole tune is really only four bars long, it just has certain rules about how the harmonies change. Nobody would know this from listening to the tune, it’s a pretty simple tune [laughs].

For this Friday’s performance at the Gallery, Okazaki will be joined by bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman, with pianist Matt Mitchell filling in for Craig Taborn. Before coming out to hear the band at the Gallery, check out the aforementioned tune, “The Calendar,” in the video below.

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Photo by Jessica Carlton-Thomas, courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday, May 21, saxophonist Kevin Sun returns to The Jazz Gallery to present a new, hour-long work called The Middle of Tensions. Written for his working trio of bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor alongside pianist Dana Saul, the work explores the links between musical and emotional tension, working with dense, dissonant chords and unsettling polyrhythms.

We caught up with Kevin by phone to talk about the work and his writing process, just after he returned from 10 days of performances with his trio in Beijing, China.

The Jazz Gallery: How was Beijing?

Kevin Sun: It was fun! It was also tiring. For me, it’s not such a big deal because I go back every few months or so. Obviously for Walter and Matt it was different—it was their first time in Asia—but I think they took to it very well. We got lucky in that the weather was beautiful: It was in the 80s during the daytime, and clear skies in the 60s in the evening, with no rain. It’s sort of like being in California.

Traveling around was really comfortable. We took the subway a lot, which I think it was good for them to see more of the city and just understand how the public transit works. The rest of the time we took cabs, which are much cheaper than here. The gigs were great—we played a lot, maybe 10 sets of music, which is more than we’ve played in the past year-and-a-half. It was really interesting just to play the same songs night after night and see where we went with them. New ideas came to the surface gradually through the process. Some were obvious things like transitioning between songs without a break, naturally figuring out how to pace a set, getting the music in a certain flow. We had a really great time and I thought the audiences were into the music. Hopefully, we’ll go back again.

TJG: In some ways, it feels like that’s a lot of effort to get over there, but that ability to play night in, night out is such a rarity over here that it feels worth the travel.

KS: I’ve mentioned it to other people, but I remember complaining to Mark Turner at the Vanguard about how it’s so hard to book gigs in New York, but when booking in China, I can just text the club owner and they’ll give me a date immediately. But he said that’s just the case for everyone in New York, which was obvious, and that’s also why a lot of people go overseas. Sometimes it really is to make money, like with big festivals, but other times it’s just a way to get experience on the bandstand, to set up a string of gigs in different places. Putting together that many shows in China was so smooth that I can imagine myself going back more often with other bands.

TJG: You got this good place with the trio and now they’re part of this Middle of Tensions project. How do you think the continuity that you’ve developed with the trio is going to come out on this new music, and how do you think about incorporating Dana into the mix now?

KS: This was my master plan all along—to get the trio really warmed up, getting ready to tackle this even more challenging piece. We’ve played the piece with Dana before and the guys all have really deep long-standing connections. Matt and Dana live together, and so they hear each other and see each other all the time. They grew up in the same town and were the first people they knew who were into playing improvised music and jazz. They’ve been playing longer than I’ve been playing with Walter and Matt combined!

In terms of writing this piece, I really focused on the trio these past few years to really strip down to the essentials: bass voice, percussive voice, treble voice. Composing with a piano or another chordal instrument, I feel like there are so many possibilities. In the trio, I originally felt really constricted. I couldn’t really write chord symbols; I just had to write a bass voice and a treble voice. Those constraints were interesting in terms of learning to express more extended harmonies, or certain textural effects. One of the things about a piano or guitar trio is that’s all you need to have a full orchestra. I can only play one note at a time, or at the most a couple and it’s not quite the same, so having someone who can really unleash tons of pitch information and create lots of color is beautiful. Dana is one of the people I know who’s the best at that. He just generates this kaleidoscope of color and texture. That’s his magic power. I don’t know how to describe it—he really has his own thing at the piano which I love, and I feel like it complements the different aspects that Walter and Matt also brings the table.

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Photo by Jonathan Chimene (courtesy of the artist)

This Friday, May 17, The Jazz Gallery welcomes pianist Ethan Iverson and his quartet back to our stage for two sets. This spring, Iverson has been busy performing Pepperland, choreographer Mark Morris’s acclaimed Beatles tribute, for which Iverson wrote and arranged the music. You can check out a podcast with Iverson talking about the music, below:

For this performance at the Gallery, Iverson will convene his current New York-based working quartet, featuring saxophonist Dayna Stephens, bassist Ben Street (filling in for Thomas Morgan), and drummer Eric McPherson. Iverson played the Gallery with this band back in September, and told Jazz Speaks about what it was like to work with these particular players:

Eric McPherson is a real jazz drummer. It’s sort of corny to talk about this, but he’s one of those guys that lives his life and plays the drums with the same texture. That’s what they used to do, actually. Now most of us are quite divided—we’re very Western in our roles. But when I hang out with the old school jazz greats, there’s less division between who you are as a person and the way you play. Of someone remotely in my age group, E-Mac is just about as close as anybody to having that feeling.

What’s hip about Dayna is that he’s got a real sense of fun play in his abstraction. I think Wayne Shorter is a real reference for him; I never played with Wayne, but when I’m comping for Dayna I’m like, “Oh, man, maybe this is like I’m comping for Wayne.” He’s sort of got this elliptical thing, but Dayna’s also really fun. That aspect reminds me of my old friend Bill McHenry, who can be a goofball sometimes. I love that.

The group plays a mix of Iverson originals and standards, and for this performance, Iverson has brought in a few new tunes, including the drolly-titled “It Was the 70’s” and “Technically Acceptable.” (more…)

Photo by Una Stade, courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, May 16, The Jazz Gallery welcomes vocalist Arta Jēkabsone back to our stage for two sets. Having just finished her undergraduate studies at The New School, Jēkabsone will present a new series of compositions entitled My Suite. Reflections. In a Walt Whitman-esque turn, this work aims to articulate outward the inner multiplicities of Jēkabsone’s personality.

This self-reflection has found Jēkabsone utilizing a larger compositional palette. In addition to her working band of pianist Theo Walentiny, guitarist Lucas Kadish, bassist Hwansu Kang, and drummer Connor Parks, Jēkabsone will be joined in this performance by a string quartet, adding a layer of lushness to her bright and lyrical material. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear a burgeoning vocalist and composer stretch her craft in new directions. (more…)