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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

Photo courtesy of the artist.

David Leon is a Cuban-American saxophonist, woodwinds player, and composer/improviser, born in Miami, Florida and living in Brooklyn, New York. Leon is a busy sideman around New York as well as a full-time member of several ensembles including Threeplustwo and Sound Underground. Leon is no stranger to The Jazz Gallery, having participated in The Jazz Gallery’s Mentoring Series in 2018, performing alongside pianist Kris Davis.

This week, Leon will bring a new band to The Jazz Gallery to present his first show as a leader on the Gallery stage. The band features Leon on saxophone plus Sonya Belaya on piano, Florian Herzog on bass, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. The new quartet is a laboratory for improvisational experimentation, such as extended solo playing, disruption, and unison, all in search of increased mobility and expression within the band dynamic. We caught up with Leon on the phone while he was on tour with another of his bands, Threeplustwo.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making time to chat! Where are you today?

David Leon: I’m in North Carolina with my band Threeplustwo. It includes two of my college roommates, and one of my college roommates’ siblings—he’s a triplet. We’re down here playing some shows, and today is our first day.

TJG: It’s funny, I interview a lot of people, but I rarely, if ever, hear of anyone playing in North Carolina.

DL: That’s hilarious. I don’t know what the scene is down here, but we ate some nice ‘craft ice cream’ today, and have been playing pool and practicing. We’re playing mostly colleges, as well as a place called Sharp Nine Gallery in Durham, another place in Durham, and a show in Baltimore. It’s three shows, seven masterclasses, and an excuse to hang out.

TJG: What’s the music like? What are the classes all about?

DL: The ensemble is a chamber jazz ensemble. I play saxophone, Jonah Udall plays guitar, Lowell Ringel plays upright bass, and the other two triplets Ivy Ringel and Evan Ringel, play bassoon and trombone. We come from a bunch of different musical places, but we all meet in the middle. There’s improvisation, but also heavy writing, rather specific writing. Only three of the five are here now, so we haven’t figured out the masterclasses yet, but I think we’ll talk about our writing progress and how we incorporate improvisation. We have a recording that’s been out for a little bit, and this short tour is an opportunity for us to come together and talk about next steps.

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A still from Shoes (1916) by Lois Weber. Public domain.

In recent years, bassist and composer Alexis Cuadrado has expanded his focus to encompass scoring for film and radio. His latest long-form score is for Lois Weber’s 1916 silent film Shoes, a drama following a young woman who struggles to replace her only pair of shoes while supporting a family of six with deadbeat father. In Cuadrado’s words, “The score is a dialogue meditating on the fight for women’s rights, poverty, and workers’ rights over a period of a century, reflecting how these issues continue to plague our world today.”

The score was premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and will be performed with the film at The Jazz Gallery by vocalist Kavita Shah, trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis, cellist Brian Sanders, vibraphonist Christos Rafalides, pianist Martha Kato, drummer Shirazette Tinnin, and Cuadrado himself on bass. We discussed the score with Cuadrado in depth, and dove head-first into a discussion on he composes music that reflects complex social and personal questions.

The Jazz Gallery: Your upcoming Jazz Gallery show is a live performance of your “Shoes” score. I’ll link your beautiful blog post on the process here, but would you mind briefly telling me how the project started?

Alexis Cuadrado: Three years ago, I wrote a score for Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant.” I wanted to write another film score, a follow-up relating to a social justice angle, a shift that has been happening in my last few years of original work. I was prompted by my daughter, a beautiful transgender girl, which I mentioned in the blog post: Before she came out as transgender, she was always asking “Why are you always playing with men? Where are the women? Why aren’t there enough women musicians?”

I had the lucky chance to sit down with Richard Brody, film critic for The New Yorker: He gave me a lot of suggestions, and this film Shoes was among them. I saw a trailer about the restoration of the film online, then found the film through the New School library and had it shipped from a library in Philadelphia. When I saw it, I knew this was the film I want to work on. It’s so beautiful, so aesthetically strong, so thematically resonant with what’s going on today. In many ways, it looks at the same issues as the Chaplin film. These films were made a hundred years ago, but they still reflect many of today’s social issues. They describe a kind of social injustice, and it’s good for us to watch and reflect. It’s a good checkpoint.

TJG: When you first saw the film and had these immediate feelings, was there a scene that encapsulated those feelings for you?

AC: There’s one scene with astounding cinematography in which there are these big superimposed hands that hound the main character at night. The hands have the word “poverty” painted in large script, you know, like poverty is hounding this woman. It really shocked me. Here we are today, class is still difficult to overcome, women are still being abused. That was a powerful scene.

TJG: You had the challenge of building a musical arc from the beginning to the end of the movie.

AC: Yeah, and it’s 53 minutes [laughs].

TJG: Could you talk about the trajectory of the score? As if you were describing an album or symphony?

AC: I wanted to to achieve a few important things with this score. “The Immigrant” was a more literal score, it really follows the movie, with classic comedy moments where the music follows the visuals. I wanted Shoes to be more like musical theater, with songs rather than a conventional film score. That was my point of departure. So every piece had to have a beginning and an end, last a few minutes, and work as a standalone song too. If you don’t see the film, you can still listen to the songs and they tell the story. Of course, the songs had to work with the film at the same time.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Fabian Almazan is busy as ever, keeping up his longstanding gig in Terence Blanchard’s band, as well as his record label, Biophilia. In addition, Almazan just finished recording his sophomore album with a trio consisting of bassist Linda Oh and drummer Henry Cole. He’ll be bringing the brand-new book of music to The Jazz Gallery, along with Cole on drums and bassist Yunior Terry-Cabrera. We caught up with Almazan, as he was en route from Arizona back to New York, for a quick chat about the new music.

The Jazz Gallery: What brought you to Phoenix this week, and where are you off to next?

Fabian Almazan: We were playing in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona University, where we brought in some big band music for the students. We also played a trio concert. I’m headed home to NYC now. I’ll be for twenty hours before flying off to Seattle, where we’re playing with Terence Blanchard at Jazz Alley for a couple of days.

TJG: And what will you do in New York for twenty hours? Sleep? Catch up on rest? Do you have to run around?

FA: I’ll be running around like crazy [laughs]. First, we’re going to rehearse for the gig at the Gallery, because Yunior hasn’t played this music with us yet. I’m also releasing a couple of albums this year on Biophilia, so I need to do a bunch of things for those releases.

TJG: I hope you can relax on the plane for a few hours!

FA: Yeah. Christmas holidays are right around the corner, so I’ll be able to relax a little then… only ten months away [laughs].

TJG: Exactly. They’re always singing about the three hundred days of Christmas [laughs]. Props to you for keeping busy, and doing a lot of wonderful things! You mentioned the music is new to Yunior?

FA: Exactly. I’ve played with Yunior in different musical settings, but he hasn’t played the music we’re bringing to The Gallery yet. Some of it is new to Henry as well. We recorded an album with a bunch of new music in December, Linda, Henry, and myself, so this will be a chance to keep it fresh.

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From L to R: Tom Rainey, Mary Halvorson, & Ingrid Laubrock. Photo courtesy of the artist.

After thirty years as a sideman, working with the likes of Nels Cline, Tim Berne, and Fred Hersch, drummer Tom Rainey released his first record as a leader in 2010—a fully-improvised trio date with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson. This month Rainey celebrates the release of his fourth album, Combobulated, his third release on the Intakt label, featuring his trio with Halvorson and Laubrock. A momentary gap opened up in Rainey’s schedule, so we seized the opportunity to talk on the phone about the new album.

Tom Rainey: I’m in Scottsdale right now, playing tonight with Nels Cline’s band. Today is the first day of his tour. I actually met Nels in LA yesterday, and we drove to Phoenix last night. We’ll mostly be moving every day to different cities now.

The Jazz Gallery: Has it been intense for you, with the release of your new album, Combobulated, and also getting ready for this tour?

TR: Not really, we’re just doing the concert at The Jazz Gallery, and there’s not a lot of conflict right now between my trio and the other things that I’m doing. It probably won’t happen until next year, but we’re planning a tour in early 2020. Everybody’s busy doing lots of different stuff, so we just get together when we can get together anyway.

TJG: Do I have it right that Pool School, released in 2010, was your first record as a leader?

TR: Yeah. I don’t remember the dates so much, but Pool School was the first thing I ever put out as a leader. I’ve been involved with projects that were more collective, but this was the first thing I ever called “mine.”

TJG: Were you waiting for the right people to come along?

TR: You know, I’ve always been, and still am, pretty creatively satisfied just by doing all the things I do, things I’m not necessarily leading. I never felt a big need to have a band. But when Ingrid and I started playing together, that was a big part of the incentive to create more situations where we could play together, and that was part of the impetus for putting together this group. After a couple of gigs, I knew the musical chemistry had the potential to go a lot of different places.

TJG: The first album was from 2010, the year you and Ingrid got married, correct?

TR: Oh yes, I guess it was.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tiny Tree is a fiercely improvisational quartet led by bassist Steve Williams. The group balances delicate soundscapes with freewheeling compositions to explore, among other things, the emotional-affective capabilities of rhythmic intricacy. The group features Steve Williams on bass, Noah Becker on woodwinds, Lesley Mok on drums, and Juho Valjakka on piano, stepping in for the group’s usual pianist, Theo Walentiny. We talked with Williams about the backstory behind his compositions, and his excitement for stepping into the unknown with his bandmates.

The Jazz Gallery: How did this ‘Tiny Tree’ quartet come together?

Steve Williams: Noah and I met at the New School my second semester there. We played in school ensembles and had classes together, but didn’t become close until about two summers ago. We were in Canada together, where we really bonded and have been close since then. I met Lesley at Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl show at The Jazz Standard. Nick Dunston introduced me to her. I saw her play with Nick and Noah at The Owl Music Parlor. She has this sensitive fierceness on the drums, this focused intensity. I walked up to her after the gig and said “We need to play.” That, along with pianist Theo Walentiny, is the current iteration of this group Tiny Tree. Theo is out of town right now, doing a three-month residency in China, so I had to try to find a different pianist. That’s where Juho comes in. We met last summer in Estonia, we were both there for the IASJ, and were in an ensemble together. We instantly connected, musically and personally. He’s a special pianist, not afraid to take chances. We really bonded over that week, and it so happened that he would be in New York around this time, so I asked if he could extend his stay just to do this gig.

TJG: It’s great that it could work out for you to play together on this gig.

SW: Yeah, I’m excited. This music really leaves improvisatory space open for people who are willing to take chances. They are all very capable of doing that, and I’ve really enjoyed what everyone has to add to the music.

TJG: Tell me a little about the songbook.

SW: Right now, everything is written by me. First, I wanted to challenge myself as a writer and improviser. That’s not necessarily groundbreaking, because that’s what everyone’s writing is. But I really wanted to explore the ‘affect’ of rhythm. Every composition in this book starts out with a rhythmic idea, as opposed to a harmonic idea. I’m trying to explore the emotions behind rhythms, to transfer ideas that might be challenging or theoretically dense, and translate them to something rhythmic, then move forward with the rest of the material. That was my personal challenge in each of these pieces.

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