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Posts by Noah Fishman

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Saxophonist and composer Caleb Curtis lives at the junction of rigorous preparation and willingness to explore. This combination of rigor and abandon has placed Curtis in high demand, having performed with a vast cross-section of New York’s jazz community. In addition to leading his own band, he co-leads Walking Distance, a Brooklyn-based collective which released Neighborhood (Ropeadope) in 2015, with a new album to be released this fall. Curtis also performs and records regularly with Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band, as well as Josh Lawrence & Color Theory.

Curtis’s upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery celebrates the release of Brothers (Imani Records). The record has some of everything: Detailed orchestration and free improvisation, layered audio production and dry acoustic presence, concise compositions and wild musical gestures. The session for the record included Curtis on alto saxophone, Josh Lawrence on trumpet, Seamus Blake on tenor, Eric Revis and Luques Curtis on bass, and Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums, and was produced by Orrin Evans and mixed by Ben Levin. We spoke in depth with Curtis about Brothers, which represents his debut release as a bandleader.

The Jazz Gallery: The new album Brothers features two bassists (Eric Revis and Luques Curtis), and many of the tracks have different combinations of musicians. How did you organize the session, and how did the session unfold?

Caleb Curtis: The session was one day, and we just went for it. Luques Curtis did half the day, then we did one tune and some improvising with both bassists. Eric Revis took over, Seamus Blake came in, and we finished the session. I’d played some of the material with Josh, and I play with Josh, Luques, and Mark a lot, often with Orrin Evans. We have a common understanding about how to play together. For this record, we didn’t rehearse, and we’d never played this music together as a full band, but the tunes were open enough that we weren’t weighed down by a heavy obligation to the written material.

TJG: What was Orrin Evans’s role as producer?

CC: Having Orrin in the studio really made it possible for us to work quickly and clearly. I didn’t have to evaluate what we were playing in terms of whether it was working, because we all trusted Orrin. If he says “We got it,” then we’re good. There was no “Let’s get another one for safety,” or “Let’s do another take that’s slightly more grooving,” because Orrin was the one saying whether we got it or not. He would either say “Do it again,” “You got it,” or “Maybe a little shorter and more concise,” just enough to keep the wheels spinning and let us play, which I appreciated. It made me feel like I’ll never go into the studio again without someone in the booth who I trust to evaluate what’s happening, even a friend who knows the music and who will be straight with you.

TJG: The longest track is under six minutes, and most are quite shorter. I feel like if “Tried in the Court of Public Opinion” were on your more archetypical jazz album, it would be nine minutes long.

CC: Right. But then what? There’s little I dislike more than an unnecessarily long song. Short pieces can stitch the record together, help it move along without getting bogged down. It keeps the pace going. A friend of mine, commenting about a record he recently heard where everyone took a solo on every ten-minute track, said “I’d rather have one soloist play for ten minutes.” I’d have to agree with that. At this point in my writing, my songs certainly don’t demand a long journey. If I were to write something that demanded it to be long, then I would be happy to make a long recording. And if we’re playing a gig and we’re exploring, that’s cool, we don’t have to keep it short. But if there’s no reason for it to be long, then I really don’t want it to be.

I wanted “Tried in the Court of Public Opinion” to be under two minutes on the album: Even though it’s so aggressive, it’s a kind of palette cleanser. I was surprised by how much slow, spacey time there is on the record. Listening back, I realized how much I like that sound, which is why there’s so much of it. It clarified for me the idea that “It’s okay, I can make a spacey record.” Did you feel the album had a lot of space and open time?

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Pedro Giraudo and the WDR Big Band. Photo courtesy of the artist.

A New Yorker since 1996, bassist, composer, and musical director Pedro Giraudo maintains a strong connection to the music of his native Argentina. Giraudo’s compositions combine classical forms, Argentine tango, and folk music, as well as the spontaneity of jazz improvisation. He has been featured on records by Pablo Ziegler, Paquito D’Rivera, and Ruben Blades’ Grammy Award-winning album “Tangos” (2014), and has released seven award-winning albums as a leader on the Zoho Music label including “Vigor Tanguero” (2018), “Cuentos” (2015), and “Córdoba” (2011).

Giraudo has been commissioned to write for numerous ensembles and organizations, and has performed on recordings for Sony, Warner, Nonesuch, Naxos and Harmonia Mundi. He is principal bassist for the Hudson Symphony Orchestra and the Música de Cámara String Ensemble, all while leading his own Tango Orchestra, Tango Ensembles, and Big Band based in New York.

Giraudo’s most recent album, An Argentinian in New York (Zoho Music 2018), was recorded live with the WDR Big Band at the WDR Funkhaus in Köln, Germany. To celebrate the release, Giraudo adapted those compositions for his New York-based ensemble and will present them at The Jazz Gallery on July 14. We spoke with Giraudo about the development of this project and his personal style over his career to date.

The Jazz Gallery: Tell me about the birth of the new album, “An Argentinian in New York.”

Pedro Giraudo: I’ve been leading bands since 2000 of increasing size, starting with an octet, and through different projects my band gradually became a big band around six years ago. This project is part of the evolution. Four or five years ago, the WDR Big Band in Germany began reaching out to me for different projects. For this last project, which was two years ago this November, we did a concert that we recorded for a live CD which will be released on Zoho Records. Several of the pieces from the concert had been recorded previously with the 12-piece band, and one piece I recorded with a full big band, but most of the others were unrecorded compositions.

TJG: What comes to mind as you listen back to the CD?

PG: The whole session was an amazing learning experience. When I write new music, I usually write with my New York ensemble in mind, which is very much a band—many of the members have been with me since 2000. So for me to write music for a different ensemble was exciting and new. I got in touch with some of the people in WDR with whom I had personal relationships, especially bassist John Goldsby. He gave me a detailed, personal description of the band, going chair by chair, so I tried to write this music for WDR as much as possible, which made it fun and different for me. When I re-adapted the charts from the WDR session for my band, I changed a number of things so it would work better for my guys here in New York.

TJG: In terms of your own playing, how does your playing change when you’re surrounded by a big band?

PG: My bass playing doesn’t change much, other than that I try to play less behind the big band. My number-one priority is to generate comfort in the band, so I sacrifice activity to make sure everyone feels comfortable, that the changes come across, that everyone feels rhythmically solid. The biggest difference with the WDR big band concert was that I was only conducting. In my New York projects I’m usually playing and conducting from my bass chair. For the WDR project I didn’t have to play bass, so I could focus on the outcome of what the musicians were playing, standing in front, reminding people about dynamics, shaping things as they approached.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

On June 21st, New York City-born pianist Lex Korten will premiere a new body of original work with a hard-hitting young quartet. This will be his first outing at The Jazz Gallery: According to Korten, The Jazz Gallery is “a special venue I’ve turned to for inspiration ever since I attended as a starry-eyed high school sophomore. This is the debut of my first project as leader in a very long time with a formidable new generation of songs written almost entirely in 2018.” The quartet features saxophonist/drummer Morgan Guerin, vibraphonist Joel Ross and bassist Benjamin Tiberio who, in various configurations, have been Korten’s bandmates for over two years.

During our conversation in anticipation of the show, Korten brought two ideas to the forefront. The first was that this show represented an opportunity for Korten to write new music that would inspire and challenge his bandmates. The second was that Korten partially conceived of these songs as “tributes to the actions of others,” where the music forms a loose narrative about the importance of agency, observation, and activism. Read on for more about the inspiration and impetus behind Korten’s new music.

The Jazz Gallery: You must be getting excited for the upcoming show at the Gallery.

Lex Korten: It’s crazy, the way it happened. At the end of 2017, I set a goal for myself to bring a new project to The Jazz Gallery as a leader in 2018. I’d had writer’s block for a long time: When I was at University of Michigan, I was a factory, spitting out tunes all the time. I brought a really nice body of work with me to New York, and have been playing it for the last year and a half. But it had been a long time since I had anything new. So I used the idea of playing at The Jazz Gallery as an impetus, since it’s one of the places I love which supports experimentation and creativity. Of course, a lot has gone into the music in other senses, but in the sense of having a deadline and a goal, The Jazz Gallery got me moving again. One thing lead to another, and here I am.

TJG: What was it about the idea of The Jazz Gallery that could help you clear that block?

LK: It was a mix of things. I grew up in New York City, and when I was in high school, I went to The Jazz Gallery’s old location on a semi-regular basis. At that time of my life, I had no sense of whether or not I was going to become a jazz musician. Everyone I saw at The Jazz Gallery was someone I was infatuated with musically, who I put on a very high pedestal, which I still do. So when I moved back to New York after school, and was starting to play out with some of my peers, I realized that the Gallery was a major bridge between generations of musicians. It provides a very natural incline from being a young artist who’s trying to find their voice, and the more established musicians in creative music, Jazz, black music, who are willing to use The Jazz Gallery stage to showcase new ideas.

TJG: So when you began doing the work of assembling this project, what came first? The group, the musical ideas, the message, the narrative?

LK: When I first played with the group which is going to be on this show, I had about half of this music written. At that time, I’d put together a session with no specific expectations, and it was before I’d been offered this date at the Gallery. I got these guys together because I’m close with all of them, and I wanted to see what my music sounded like with them. There was an incredible mix of intuition and commitment. As far as intuition, the music was coming so naturally to them: They were listening and making musical decisions while still reading new material. In terms of commitment, this music isn’t easy, and though naturally it didn’t sound right the first time we read it, they were on the ground and ready to workshop this music.

After that point, I was like, “I can’t believe how well that went. That’s the band I want to use.” The date at the Gallery was extended to me, so then I did a weird thing: I actually said, “Look, I played this music with the band during the session, and they killed it. I know what sort of music they’re going to make sound good. Now, instead of writing for them, I’m going to write against them, because I trust them so much, and I want to see what comes out of that.” Sometimes, it’s easy to write within this idiom when you’re dead-set on the language that’s going to be used. So I challenge myself to write differently than I normally do, and to challenge these guys to play in a different way than they’re used to playing.

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Album art courtesy of Criss Cross Records

With his new record It’s Alright With Three (Criss Cross), saxophonist and composer Will Vinson presents guitarist Gilad Hekselman and drummer Antonio Sanchez in a fresh, dynamic, bass-less trio setting. Each of the three musicians shines in his own way, exploring a balance of originals and standards with open interplay and spontaneity (and as to be expected, much effect pedal wizardry from Hekselman).

Born in London and based in New York, Will Vinson has been featured on stages around the world as a bandleader as well as with artists from Ari Hoenig, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Miguel Zenón to Sufjan Stevens, Sean Lennon, and Rufus Wainwright. Vinson is also a member of the acclaimed OWL Trio, alongside guitarist Lage Lund and bassist Orlando Le Fleming. In a recent phone conversation, Vinson had much to say on the joys and constraints of making his new record on a tight timetable with a brand-new trio.

The Jazz Gallery: Your upcoming performance at The Jazz Gallery is the release show for this album. How much playing had you done with Gilad and Antonio before this project?

Will Vinson: Individually, quite a lot over the last several years. In this trio configuration, about ninety minutes [laughs]. We did a short rehearsal the day before the recording, and that was it. I’d done some gigs with Antonio’s band, he’d done some gigs with mine. The same with Gilad, who I met playing with Ari Hoenig not long after Gilad moved to New York. I don’t think Gilad and I had ever played on a record together, though Antonio and I appeared on Orlando Le Fleming’s first record. In New York, we all have our projects, we all gravitate toward doing a certain thing, but there’s a whole other cast of musicians who we each occasionally play with: Often, you can go years without properly collaborating with an artist.

The impetus with this record was getting a call from producer Gerry Teekens from the Criss Cross label. The way that Criss Cross often operates is that they call you at relatively short notice to do a record, and you come up with your personnel. Normally for a record, you have a project in mind and you try to make it work, but with Criss Cross, it works the other way around. So of course, given an opportunity like that, why not record with people I wouldn’t otherwise have? At the time I got the call from Criss Cross, I was having a parallel idea to do a bass-less trio record. Gilad clearly seemed the person for that, and I’d wanted to record with both Antonio and Gilad for a while. Miraculously, they were both available at six-weeks’ notice, so I took that as a sign. Well, as a sign of their availability, anyway [laughs].

TJG: Clearly, it was destined to be! Tell me about the balance of originals and standards on the album.

WV: One of the things I like about this short-notice recording session is that you don’t have endless months to ponder what you’d do on your next project. Instead, it’s much more spontaneous. I did write one tune for the record, which is called “The Pines.” We dug out an old tune from a record I’d made a long time ago, and in general, I just thought of tunes that would be fun to play in this context. Without a bassist, there are limitations and opportunities in trying to bring out the right aspects of a trio like that. I definitely wanted to have originals, but I wanted us to play in a way that was relatively free and unselfconscious, to have a good time. Between the bass-less constraint and the short timeline, those limits dictated to a large extent the material we played.

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Design courtesy of the artists.

With their recent album Weatherbird, pianist Cory Smythe and trumpeter Peter Evans used “Weather Bird” by Louis Armstrong as a compositional point of departure. The piece, recorded by Armstrong and pianist with Earl Hines in 1928, is something of a landmark in the world of jazz duets. To quote musicologist and Earl Hines scholar Jeffrey Taylor:

“Unmatched in its passion, innovation, and brash sense of fun, “Weather Bird” is perhaps the most famous jazz duet ever recorded… As an intensely focused performance, undertaken without the support or distraction of a rhythm section or any accompanying instruments, it has invited both inquiry into the styles of two of jazz’s greatest artists and a detailed examination of the improvisational process itself.” (Taylor, Jeffrey: Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and “Weather Bird”, American Musics, 1998)

Smythe and Evans grasped the spirit of this seminal recording and ran with it, using the material to build a program of new duets for trumpet and piano. The collaboration began in 2014 as a commission from the International Contemporary Ensemble, of which Evans and Smythe are both members. To celebrate the release of the new album (a mind-bending listen when paired with the original “Weather Bird”), Smythe and Evans will be playing at The Jazz Gallery alongside another duo, vibraphonist Joel Ross and saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. We caught up with Evans and Smythe about the original “Weather Bird” and their thoughts on the upcoming collaborative show.

TJG: Weatherbird was released a few days ago, congratulations! For those who haven’t listened yet, what exactly is it? A re-composition, a tribute, a live concert?

Cory Smythe: It’s all three of those things. The project began with a prompt, a commission from ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, of which Peter and I are both members. The idea, going back several years now, was to program a concert that was responding in some way to older music. We decided to look at the collaboration between Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, particularly in this duet “Weather Bird,” and then to spin things out from there in various directions. We distilled the project down to the pieces presented on the recording, which deal with the “Weather Bird” material either head-on or, in the case of a couple of compositions of mine, refracts the material it in different ways. Peter wrote a kind of version of “Basin Street Blues,” and another original piece that’s related in a more abstract way to the underlying material.

TJG: Peter, how did you construct your compositional and musical responses to the piece? What kind of approach did you take?

PE: Many approaches. “Bsnst Bls” in the A section is taking a certain flavor of major triad and dominant chord motion and just going crazy with it, so that the colors change super fast, like a kaleidoscope. The B section contrasts with blues harmony and a really florid, virtuosic melody on top. It’s almost like an improvisation, but notated for the two of us. The piece “bls” was written really intuitively from the skeleton of blues melody, but then taken further and further out until it just became this delicate spiderweb of a line. I then added a totally different changing harmonic colors underneath, I think three or four different types of colors, which were done really fast and intuitively at a piano when we were on tour in Brazil three summers ago. 

TJG: Cory, how did you tackle the “Weather Bird” material?

CS: I was just approaching it in the spirit of play. “Weatherbirdhouse” and “Weatherbird Wave” both deal with materials from “Weather Bird” through a kind of prism. I wrote “Weatherbird Wave” by messing around with the recording of “Weather Bird,” processing it, and transcribing it. What’s going on in “Weatherbird Wave” is a stylized exaggeration of what would happen in a warped record. Maybe in that way, it invites that connection because of the age of that recording. Weatherbird itself remains such a startling, refreshing performance. I continue to find inspiration in investigating it.

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