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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Kevin Laskey

Design courtesy of the artist.

Saxophonist Alfredo Colon would be the first to tell you that he has a big head. That outsized cranium birthed an inside joke with bassist Nick Dunston, which in turn became the name of Colon’s newest project. While Colon has established himself as an adept practitioner of the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI), with Big Head, he seeks to spawn energetic interplay in an acoustic environment. In an interview with Jazz Speaks, Colon spoke about how the timbral possibilities of the EWI have impacted his sound on saxophone:

On saxophone, there are range limits and there’s resistance on the instrument so you get a lot of notes that sound crackly and broken up, and they don’t sound anywhere near as clean as on the EWI. That’s something which I personally like about that sound—just the distressed sound of reaching for something that isn’t easily accessed. I like the sound of struggling to play around your limits. A lot of my favorite players have that kind of sound—if you listen to Jackie McLean records like Dr. Jackle, that music sounds evil, you know? It sounds like they recorded it in the Black Lodge. Or when you hear Logan Richardson start going into it, and his sound just starts gurgling or cracking up, that’s when it gets the best for me.

This Thursday, June 6, Colon and Big Head return to The Jazz Gallery for two sets. Colon will be joined by regular bandmates Jacob Sacks on piano and Connor Parks on drums, while bassist Steve Williams will fill in for Nick Dunston. Before coming out to hear the band, take a listen to the band’s recording from their previous show at the Gallery, below.

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Clockwise from top left: Matt Mitchell, Colin Stranahan, Mark Shim, Ches Smith. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This weekend, The Jazz Gallery will present two evenings of exploratory duos. On Friday evening, pianist Matt Mitchell will be joined by drummer/percussionist Ches Smith to perform material from Mitchell’s 2013 album, Fiction (Pi Recordings). On Saturday, drummer Colin Stranahan has invited saxophonist and EWI player Mark Shim to join him for two fully-improvised sets.

The music on Fiction began as etudes that Mitchell wrote for himself, exploring relationships between fixed and open structures, and challenging his formidable technique. While on tour with saxophonist Tim Berne’s band Snakeoil, Mitchell would warm up with these pieces during soundcheck. Over the course of the tour, Smith—the band’s drummer—would join in, laying the groundwork for this acclaimed record. Before hearing Mitchell and Smith revisit this material at the Gallery on Friday, take a listen to the tracks “Veins” and “Dadaist Flu” from the record, below.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

As both bandleaders and sidemen, saxophonist Tony Malaby, guitarist Ben Monder, and drummer Nasheet Waits can instantly make their presences felt with rich tones and decisive gestures. In a collective trio, they make spontaneous compositions built on two decades of collaboration.

The trio will convene at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, May 29 for two sets. Before the shows, we caught up with Tony Malaby by phone to talk about his history with Monder and Waits, his methods for breaking out of improvisational tendencies, and the influence of drummer Paul Motian.

The Jazz Gallery: I’d like to hear about how you and Ben first met, and how your musical relationship has come together over the years.

Tony Malaby: I met Ben in 1995 or ‘96. I remember it was at the Tap Bar at the Knitting Factory. I had just moved here from Arizona and I had heard Ben on a record—a Marc Johnson record called Right Brain Patrol. There was this break that Ben played on a blues nad it was just insane. I was just, “Wow! What is that? Who is this guy?” Then sure enough I’m playing in one of the rooms at the Knitting Factory and then he’s sitting at the bar. I go up and say, “Hey, you’re Ben Monder. I’ve been listening to this record and my favorite part is this one break you play,” and I said that I have a feeling that we’re going to play together someday. I said it really cocky [laughs]!

I think the next thing is that we ended up in Guillermo Klein’s band. We did a recording and then I just started playing sessions with Ben, and playing with other in other people’s bands with him.

TJG: Didn’t you both overlap in Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band?

TM: Oh yeah—that came a little bit later. I used to play at this place called the Internet Cafe on 3rd Street in the East Village. That’s where I started putting together a lot of my own bands and projects, including a quartet with Ben. The band eventually dissolved and then the next thing was the Motian band.

TJG: One of your longer-term projects with Ben is the band Paloma Recio. In the liner notes to the band’s first record, you talk about wanting to orchestrate the band in a different way. What do you mean by that and how do you go about it in your work with Ben?

TM: I started proposing different strategies for how Ben framed me and really trying to get away from straight accompaniment. We could be improvising at different speeds or tempos. We both have really mid-range-y, dark sounds, and so we experiment with tessitura, what the sound is like if we go higher or lower. Really exploring a lot of different kinds of textures.

A lot of this came from playing free improv gigs and me remembering certain sounds that we would hit that were incredible, and then making them the group’s main themes. The music really grows out of improvisation. I’ll then make some graphic scores. I’ve really gotten away from giving Ben chord changes. When the band started, I gave him too much information, and the same goes with Nasheet. The goal is always trying to make it a certain type of tension, which comes from not getting framed the same way every time.

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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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