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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

Photo by Spencer Ostrander, courtesy of the artist.

Over the last six months, Kassa Overall composed, improvised, and took musical risks at The Jazz Gallery alongside six deeply contrasting pianists. Each session was meticulously recorded, generating raw material for Overall to sample, recompose, and produce. Now, Overall (plus some surprise guests) will return to The Jazz Gallery for two final nights showcasing the results of the long-form experiment. The Jazz Gallery will effectively become a live production studio, and audience members will witness a new kind of re-contextualization, improvisation, and listening experience.

Jazz Speaks writer Noah Fishman interviewed Kassa Overall every month for half a year, following Overall’s creative process and growth. It’s our pleasure to present their final conversation, serving as both a retrospective and a nod to the future.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to start by asking you to briefly describe your big-picture lessons from each show.

Kassa Overall: With Jon Batiste, I had no idea where we were headed. It was a great adventure. Afterwards, I felt confident about the whole series. I realized that I had high-level musicians, and it wasn’t so much about over-preparing, but rather creating a space for everybody. If I did that, then they could shine. The first show gave me that perspective.

Jason Moran’s set had the most earthly intensity of all the shows. Between him and bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, there was a lot of power on stage. After that one, I remember thinking, “I’m playing with some heavy-hitters, and I gotta make sure my drum chops are on the right level.”

With Aaron Parks, we leaned in with the Valentine’s Day energy. With that one, I realized the importance of setting a tone for each show. After that show, there were still some remnants of the Jason Moran thought. So I decided to practice every day for thirty days.

With Sullivan Fortner’s set, I was beginning to understand that as well as having these great musicians, I had to prepare myself, and put myself in the right space. I though, “Let me just prepare on my own.” I gave Sullivan a piano, B3, and Rhodes, and I practiced every day. Then we just improvised. That was the first set where I decided to improvise the whole set: For the rest of the shows, it was all improvisational.

With Kris Davis, again, the thought was, “How can I set the stage?” With this one, I decided to incorporate my vocals and effects. That one was one of the most intense shows. Ever. Especially the first set. A new thing opened up. It was faith-affirming in the idea of spontaneity.

This all lead me to Craig Taborn. We couldn’t get into the Gallery to rehearse, so we decided to just walk around the city and talk. That was our rehearsal. Again, it was assurance that there’s something to spontaneity, to preparing in a way that’s not typically considered preparing. It was another amazing experience. I was shocked at how we arrived at a concept without really discussing it. We just talked about what we love about music. Through that, we created an identity.

This whole experience has brought me to a realization. It’s great to prepare music, but there are many ways of preparing: Don’t use preparation as a creative crutch. Don’t use preparation as a way of saying, “I can’t improvise, so I’m going to perfectly orchestrate all of this stuff. It’ll sound like I’m improvising, but what I’m really doing is a magic trick, a circus act.” Now, I’m really trying to accept that that’s what people like. There’s a time to cut the edges off the crust. There are times to make things more correct. But don’t sacrifice the magic of spontaneity.

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Photo by J.R. Jensen, courtesy of the artist.

In Shawn Lovato’s words, “We live in a creative golden age of music.” Artists today have so much at their fingertips, and this wealth of inspiration has lead to remarkably multifaceted careers. Lovato himself embodies this reality through his own winding path as a working composer and bandleader: He is an integral member of the contemporary ensemble Hotel Elefant, co-leader of the group Open Tabs, and his ‘flagship’ ensemble is Cycles of Animation, an improvising quintet drawing inspiration from free jazz, hip hop, punk, and chamber music.

Cycles of Animation released their inaugural album on Skirl Records in October 2017. The group, consisting of Lovato on bass, Oscar Noriega on alto saxophone, Brad Shepik on guitar, Santiago Leibson on piano, and Chris Carroll on drums, will visit The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, May 30. Lovato just became a father, which was the introductory topic of our recent phone conversation. 

Shawn Lovato: We just had a kid a couple of months ago. It’s an exciting time! He’ll be eleven weeks old tomorrow. Man, every day is different. Having a new person with us, watching him, smiling, recognizing him, his eyesight is getting better… Watching a human grow is pretty intense.

The Jazz Gallery: That’s so cool. Anything new today?

SL: You know those baskets that hang fruit? We have a small place here in Brooklyn, and we have a hanging basket between the living room and the kitchen. I was making a smoothie, and when I grabbed some bananas I moved it. It started rocking back and forth on its chain. I looked at him, and he was just staring at it. It’s about five feet from him: The fact that he was focused on it, watching it move, that was a cool ‘first.’

TJG: [Laughs] Then did it start to mesmerize you as well?

SL: Yeah man. I had a moment yesterday. We were talking, you know, the two of us, I was making sounds, he was laughing, totally into me, trying to figure me out. It was one of those moments where I realized, “Wow, this is it, my whole being is centered around this child” [laughs]. It’s amazing, scary, wonderful.

TJG: You must be playing some music around the house for him.

SL: My wife’s been making fun of me because I haven’t played any concert music, no classical music yet, but yes. We were listening to California by Mr. Bungle the other day [laughs]. We have a record player, and I have Blues And The Abstract Truth on vinyl, one of my favorite records, so he hears that a lot. Of course, I just play for him too. I put on a solo concert for him the other day. If I play for him, he gets quiet [laughs]. I think he just likes to be engaged. I play music at him, improvise or play melodies to him, he’s into it. He’s not the greatest audience, but at least he’s there [laughs].

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Clockwise from top left: Mark Turner, Joe Martin, Kevin Hays, & Nasheet Waits. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bassist, composer, and bandleader Joe Martin has been a fixture of the New York jazz community for over two decades, whether collaborating with the likes of Chris Potter, Gilad Hekselman, Anat Cohen, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, or leading his own ensemble of Mark Turner, Kevin Hays, and Nasheet Waits. Martin’s third and newest release is Étoilée. According to the liner notes, “Martin, himself a product of a musical upbringing, lives with his Parisian-born wife in Brooklyn where they have been raising their young Franco-American family of two sons and a young girl, whose middle name Étoile inspired the name of the recording… Joe Martin takes the powerful spirit instilled by his nuclear family to fuel the passion of four longstanding musical peers on his emotionally enriching release, Étoilée.” We spoke about family, distractions, and keeping things fresh in the studio.

The Jazz Gallery: Congratulations on the release of the new record! In your liner notes, I love that you cite your family as an inspiration and motivation for the record. Many musicians have families, but usually discuss their families in the context of being one of their many responsibilities, and not necessarily as a creative sources of inspiration. 

Joe Martin: Yeah. Of course, it’s a deeply personal thing, and is more the result of observation and reflection about where I was when I was writing this music. I’ve been entrenched in family life for quite a number of years. It’s not that having children changes who you are, exactly, but it certainly adds another layer to life, takes you out of your head. Especially as a musical artist, you’re always thinking about yourself and your music. It’s a beautiful thing, and has certainly lead many great musicians to creating great music, but when you have family, you’re aware that you’re responsible for other people, and their energy affects you. It brings awareness and acceptance. So, to say that my family directly inspired every song on the record wouldn’t be completely accurate. But in looking for titles and thinking about what’s been happening in my life, family is definitely a big part of who I am these days, and I wanted to acknowledge that with the album.

TJG: So when you’re listening back to the record, even though it’s not necessarily a programmatic record describing your family, when you listen back to certain things, do you hear your life reflected in your music in that way?

JM: I don’t know if I would say it’s that direct. It was largely when I was searching for titles. For example, I came up with the title “Malida” from my wife and two sons’ names–I didn’t have a daughter at that time. There was a certain intensity and energy about that song that captured a bit of their spirit and energy. But when I listen to music, I’m just thinking about the music and the other musicians, the atmosphere that’s being created, and where we arrive in these different songs. That’s the most compelling thing for me.

There’s my writing of the music and what it means to me, but then you have the other three musicians on the record playing. They all have their own stuff going on in their lives, and however they come to the music, they’re not necessarily thinking about my family when they’re playing those songs [laughs]. Unless you’re doing a completely solo project, there’s always going to be this other energy in the music. That’s what I like. It’s the essence of getting together and playing with great musicians and having a band, seeing where you arrive in the music, how you get inside it. The spirit of my family’s energy is certainly a part of me, and is certainly an inspiration in coming up with themes for the record, but when I play music, I’m usually just thinking about the music.

TJG: I hear you, absolutely. I’m not suggesting there needs to be anything beyond that.

JM: Sure, sure. It’s a good question!

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

At Kassa Overall’s most recent performance from his TIME CAPSULE residency, he ventured into unknown territory with pianist Kris Davis, bassist Stephan Crump, and an assortment of electronics and vocal processing gear. Stepping even further into the void, Kassa will be joined for his next performance by the inimitable Craig Taborn on piano, rhodes, and electronics. While Taborn and Overall share an affinity for exploring electronic sounds and styles, the two have no prior history of playing together. In Overall’s words, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen… I’m excited to take the journey” Read more below, starting with how Overall starts his day.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks again for making time to chat about your ongoing residency. Do your days tend get started pretty early?

Kassa Overall: It depends. I try to sleep in as long as possible, and usually try to keep all my plans to the afternoon, keeping mornings open for my most strenuous mental work and my own creative endeavors. If I’ve done my morning routine and done something important to me, like working on new music, then whatever I have to do for the rest of the day, at least I got a little bit of the heavy lifting out of the way.

TJG: So what did you have on the creative table this morning?

KO: Well, that whole previous explanation is a theory [laughs]. Today, I actually woke up really early, and I went to the practice space and practiced drums at around 7:30 A.M., so the whole thing is a little different. I just finished my morning routine, and now I’m trying to finish one of these TIME CAPSULE joints. I’m taking these recordings and making original pieces out of them. There’s a part where Sullivan Fortner goes to the organ during our first duo set, and we play a kind of improvised ballad. I chopped it up, sped it up, and made a whole piece out of it. It’s almost really good, but it still has some rough edges in terms of the arrangement and direction. It has the ingredients of something special, but it’s not done yet. I have to make some decisions.

TJG: What form is it in right now? Lead sheet? Demo?

KO: I’m making a recorded piece of art in Ableton. It’s not so much a demo, but a piece of recorded work, a new sound recording, which I’ll probably release as an official song, then find a way to play it live.

TJG: Speaking of live, how was your Blue Note show with Paul Wilson and BIGYUKI?

KO: You know? It was another step in the right direction. That was my first attempt at playing the album material live in a “correct” way. It’s a lot harder than other performances because you’re trying to recreate something that lives on the album. It’s always an internal debate as to how similar it should be to the album, and how creative we should get. This time, we went extreme with recreating the album. I automated vocal delay stuff, we had all sorts of stuff being triggered from laptops. In order for that performance to work, it had to ping pong between precision and open creativity. The Blue Note show lacked some of that open creativity. From playing these TIME CAPSULE shows at The Jazz Gallery, I’ve tapped into a new kind of spontaneous composition, and have to rely on a new type of performance approach. For the live album set, it still has to have that oceanic-waves-crashing-spontaneity, and then fall into something precise. We’re working on it.

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Album art courtesy of the artist.

The Jazz Gallery welcomes saxophonist and composer Godwin Louis in celebration of his debut double-album, Global (Blue Room Music). As a saxophonist, Louis reaches startling depths through his intricately-woven lines and phrases, and his compositions are emotionally charged yet always danceable. Louis attended the Berklee College of Music and went on to study at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and has played and toured with Herbie Hancock, Clark Terry, Ron Carter, Madonna, Mulatu Astatke, Wynton Marsalis, and more.

Louis has lived in Haiti, Harlem, Connecticut, and New Orleans, and through Global, Louis explores all of these places and beyond, to the music and culture of people from West and Central Africa, Brazil, and islands in the Pacific and Caribbean. Global is about looking at the sounds of the African diaspora, beyond the slave trade ands its horrors, to its influences on pop culture. Discussing the new album, Louis notes that “Global focuses on and explores the history of music in the American continent. It traces the roots via West Africa, and its journey through the four hubs of music in the Americas: Congo Square/New Orleans, Santiago de Cuba, L’Artibonite/Haiti, and Bahia/Brazil.”

For Louis, everything was on the table, and no tradition, people, or way of music-making was left unconsidered. “This is about my traveling experiences all over the world. I’ve been to 100 countries as of now. I have so many stories, some sad, some triumphant. So did our ancestors. Global is the history of music and culture in the Americas. Cultures that came from Africa, met with indigenous aestheticism, and were refined or rarefied via colonialism, as a result changing the course of music history and culture worldwide.”

At the upcoming show, Louis will present music from the new album with his band featuring Etienne Charles on trumpet, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Jonathan Michel on bass, and Charles Haynes on drums. (more…)