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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Instantly recognizable for her soaring voice and multi-instrumental virtuosity, Jen Shyu is a category-defying performer. Ben Ratliff wrote in The New York Times that Shyu’s concerts are “the most arresting performances I’ve seen over the past five years.” Her accolades include a Doris Duke Artist award, Downbeat Critics Poll Rising Star award, a Fulbright, and support from organizations from New Music USA to Chamber Music America, as well as The Jazz Gallery. Shyu has produced and recorded seven acclaimed albums as a leader, and her solo performances, such as Nine Doors and Solo Rites: Seven Breaths have been toured and performed extensively, pushing the limitations of what a solo performance can be.

For her new project, In Healing | Zero Grasses, Shyu has assembled her Jade Tongue ensemble, featuring Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. This brand new Jade Tongue project “offers new poetic narratives addressing and aiming to heal the loss of communication between humanity and nature and to restore the bonds between one human being and another.” Shyu herself will be singing and playing piano, as well as Taiwanese moon lute, Korean gayageum, and Japanese biwa. We spoke with Shyu about her vision for the project in this early creative stage.

The Jazz Gallery: I’d like to start by asking about the new Jade Tongue project. Let’s start with the name, In Healing | Zero Grasses.

Jen Shyu: Like many jazz projects, it’s still in progress, and likely will be right up to the performance. The name was given to me by an Indonesian director named Garin Nugroho. We’ve worked together a lot, most recently on Solo Rites: Seven Breaths, my solo piece before Nine Doors. In talking about doing a new work, he ‘assigned’ me the number zero, in something of a sequence from Seven Breaths and Nine Doors. He said, “Let’s work with zero,” and had this idea for a premise for the piece. He said, “Let’s do a piece that deals with the loss of human ability to communicate with nature.” I thought that was beautiful, and manifests in so many ways. We can’t, for example, really predict or prevent tsunamis, earthquakes, wildfires. We can track them, but ultimately can’t prevent tens of thousands of people from dying. Despite our advances in technology, we are still at the mercy of an environment that we are not helping to take care of.

I have also gone through some personal changes as well, including the recent ending of an important relationship, which has been significant while working on this piece about the disconnect between humanity and nature. Now, I see parallels between these two things. How can we, as a species, not predict environmental destruction with all of our advanced technology, and similarly, how can we, as individuals, not predict the ending of important relationships? We have so many new ways of communicating, so much new technology, yet things aren’t necessarily becoming more clear. There are potent parallels.

TJG: So what’s an example of how In Healing | Zero Grasses looks at these parallels?

JS: It’s about relationships, in many ways. We need relationships: It’s part of being human. When people are interviewed near the end of their lives, there are so many accounts of people saying, “What really mattered to me were my relationships, after all… I wish I had spent more time with this person, I wish I didn’t take this person for granted,” that kind of thing, wishing they had reached out, worked through grudges, talked to people with whom they’d had a falling out. It’s all centered around relationships. So the piece is both an exploration of how we need each other, and how we navigate relationships, both personal and environmental.

One aspect I’ll be working, singing, music-ing about is what I saw while I was recently in Florida for a month. They have this thing in the gulf, and in many parts of the word, called “red tide,” where algal blooms release toxins and deplete the oxygen in the water, due to factors including global warming and pollution. So many fish, manatees, turtles, are dying and washing up on the shore. When I was in Florida, at all of these supposedly beautiful beaches, there were so many dead fish along on the shore. And there were still people out there, in the ocean, sunbathing, walking among the dead fish! There are lots of stories of locals going swimming and feeling things bump up against them, or finding piles of things under water, and it’s so disturbing to find that it’s actually dead fish. How many dead animals does it take to make a human uncomfortable enough to really consider what’s happening? While they’re just strolling or wading, how many dead fish does it take? That’s just one example of something that may come out in the show.

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Album art courtesy of the artist.

Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory has been a constantly evolving musical organism for nearly two decades. The current iteration, Dapp Theory + 5, just released a new record, described by Pop Matters as a “daring, gorgeous achievement.” The new record is The Seasons of Being, an evening-length suite commissioned by Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works grant. The album has also been nominated for a GRAMMY in the category of “Best Jazz Instrumental Album.”

In this project, Milne explored the body, spirit, and mind on music, using the diagnostic principles of homeopathy while working with homeopath David Kramer to capture the emotional characterization of each soloist. According to Milne, “My composition process was empowered by the principles of homeopathic healing, helping me identify the musicians’ emotional lineage. My objective was to place each featured improviser in a musical setting that would support their unique emotional characterization, creating a pathway for participation in their own healing.” In a conversation with Jazz Speaks, Milne dives into the origins of the homeopathic musical process, as well as his thoughts on the evolution of Dapp Theory.

The Jazz Gallery: Let’s jump right into the new album, The Seasons of Being. Reading the section of the liner notes where you describe the homeopathic listening techniques you used, it completely blew my mind. Would you mind explaining the backstory of how that technique, that way of thinking, came onto your radar?

Andy Milne: It’s funny that you use the word backstory because, no pun intended, it started when I had issues with my back. Through a series of different healers, I found my way to homeopathy, and while I was undergoing observation–if you will–with a homeopath, I began to learn a bit about the way a homeopath diagnoses a person. Our bodies and spirits are always dealing with something, and our emotions tell us about different points in our lives. It’s a holistic approach, literally considering the whole body. If you go to a Western doctor for pain in your back, they may not be terribly concerned with other things going on in your life, because that’s not what they’re looking for. With this particular homeopath, the investigation was broad. He talks about how elements within the body, and the way disease can move through the body, has musical overtones, in terms of material, texture, cadence. That idea sparked my curiosity.

On another level, I had this observation about how musicians respond to requests from bandleaders. This is going back about eight year or so. Usually, a bandleader writes a bunch of music, brings it to their band, and distributes activity based on their vision. They’ll say “Take a solo here,” or “Try soloing here,” and ask for the musicians to do this or that. I had an experience years ago in Dapp Theory, where one of the musicians basically said, “No, I’m not feeling it.” It felt like they were being difficult, but at the same time, I’ve been in the same position. I’ll often think, “I’m not really feeling a solo here.” I was curious to see if there was something deeper happening, aside from just musical taste. So I began to build models for trying to figure out how either a musician or non-trained layperson might respond to sound, to music. I worked on this idea with the support of this homeopath, and began crafting questions and music to essentially ask: “You’re a musician, you’re going to solo on this piece; what’s the sweet spot based on your emotional lineage?” I spent a lot of time thinking about which aspects of my music I could sculpt to build a better picture of what it might sound like from the point of view of an emotional space, rather than trying to convey a certain emotion or thinking about the way a certain musician might play.

TJG: So when your back hurt, and you went to the homeopath, did you go that route because traditional or Western medicine wasn’t working? It’s interesting, because if you hadn’t seen that homeopath, this project and musical inquiry may not have happened quite this way.

AM: Well, my father was a doctor of conventional Western medicine. I never really had a “doctor” growing up, because my dad was my doctor, so I didn’t have to interface with conventional medicine in the way people usually do. That set the stage for my relationship with formal medicine. Because my relationship with my dad was so personal and matter-of-fact, that changed my relationship with how I view healing. As I grew older, I felt committed to seeking an alternative to mainstream medicine, especially once I began to have back problems. Now, I was concurrently seeing a few doctors, because I recognized I had a complex problem to solve, but as I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t getting the understanding of the results that I was seeking in Western medicine, so I was trying everything.

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Design courtesy of the artist.

Kassa Overall uses language like he uses music. Everything is a metaphor, a colorful snapshot of a larger picture. When he speaks, the next idea could be from poetry or chemistry, economics or philosophy, film or fashion. In Overall’s words, African-American music has frozen assets in the form of meaning and interpretation; these musical flowers will bloom for larger audiences when people begin listening to new music like they read unfamiliar poetry. Everything is a remix. This type of genre-clashing in the world of music, according to Overall, is a way to “reconnect the dots, intuitively and systematically, of the past present and future.”

Raised in Seattle and trained at Oberlin, Overall has performed around the world over the last decade with Geri Allen, Vijay Iyer, Das Racist, Mayer Hawthorne, Wallace Roney, Ravi Coltrane, Gary Bartz, The Late Show band, and many more. His identity as a jazz drummer blends seamlessly with his production and rapping skills, which can be seen on his recent Drake It Till You Make It EP, where he covers Drake, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West–the new standards, says Overall–alongside Theo Croker, Julius Rodriguez, Dominic Missana, and Aaron Parks.

TIME CAPSULE is the name of Overall’s new project, a Jazz Gallery residency and commission that will unfold over the next seven months. Overall’s idea is to “expand the limits of time and genre in music,” and to generate fresh, remix-able material with pianists including Jason Moran, Aaron Parks, Sullivan Fortner, Kris Davis and Craig Taborn. The first date will feature Jon Batiste, widely known from his gig as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In  our recent phone interview, Overall spared no words, laying out his plans for the next six months in enthusiastic, technicolor detail.

The Jazz Gallery: Kassa, it’s my pleasure to interview you about the very first show in your TIME CAPSULE residency at The Jazz Gallery. What’s been keeping you busy?

Kassa Overall: Right now, I’m finishing up a new body of recorded work. I tend to make songs in a kind of backwards way. For example, I had this song with drums, keys, organ, all this different stuff. After it was finished, I wrote a little melody, and had a pianist record and sing it to me. I added it to the track, and I’m trying to figure out if it fits.

TJG: So it’s kind of a three-step process, where you put in everything except the melody, you add the melody, and you rebuild the song around it?

KO: That’s how it went this time. With every song, I never really know when it’s finished, until I’m at the deadline, and I say “Word, it’s finished I guess” [laughs]. This thing started as more of an interlude or intro, so it didn’t really need a melody, and the drums were introduced throughout the song as a speaking part. The melody is minimal, just one or two notes, but it almost re-contextualizes the whole piece. Do I want to do that or not? Do I want to keep the drums out front, or should I give the people the melody? A lot of it is decision-making, more so than composing. It’s like, “Do I wear the red shoes, or do I wear the black ones and let the colorful shirt be the main focus?” The answer is different for every song.

TJG: Got it. So, let’s jump to the Jazz Gallery show, I’ve got some questions about the upcoming residency. I’ll start art with a quote from Jonathan Zwickel, who interviewed you for City Arts Magazine in Seattle.

KO: Oh yeah, I loved that interview.

TJG: Me too. Jonathan wrote, “Kassa is one of those people who’s not only good at everything he does but is often the only one doing the thing he’s doing.” How would you describe what you’re doing, and do you think you’re the only one doing it?

KO: Because I do a lot of different things, the correct thing to say would be, “No, I’m not the only one doing what I’m doing.” But, at the same time, the answer is yes, because I’m the only one doing what I’m doing in the way I’m doing it. A lot of it has to do with the way I’ve divided myself and my surroundings in the past. For example: I play the drums, and many people play the drums. But I approach drumming a certain way. For me, that magic thing that speaks to me is the polyrhythmic side, or the harmonic rhythm, of drumming. Elvin Jones was one of the greatest independence guys, where the cymbal, snare, and bass drum are doing different things. A lot of cats from that era, from Art Blakey and Max Roach to Tony Williams and Kenny Clarke, were dealing with that kind of information. But even back when Elvin was the man, there were a lot of drummers who weren’t dealing with independence, and were coming from different aesthetic perspectives. So in that sense, considering the harmonics of drumming, there are only a certain number of cats who see that evolution as an important aspect of drumming today. I’d consider myself one of those drummers.

Then you have different producers who are dealing with jazz aesthetic, chopping up live music, and so on. A lot of musicians and producers are doing that, but there aren’t that many jazz musicians that are also doing that. That puts me in a smaller group of people. You have the lineage of J Dilla, Madlib, Flying Lotus… For example, I was just in Chicago, hanging out with Makaya McCraven. He showed me his own approach, coming from that same hip hop/jazz/live beats lineage. There’s not too many people doing that. And then, I also write lyrics and rap. So when you take all of these different elements and compound them, there’s probably nobody doing exactly what I’m doing. If you take any specific element of what I do, there are people I look up to in every direction. I’m the only one with my perspective, but we all have our own perspective, and it takes a long time to find out what that is. It’s an infinite journey.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Though he only just graduated from Manhattan School of Music last spring, Adam O’Farrill is a longtime member of The Jazz Gallery family, and more generally, the jazz community in New York. He was one of the recipients of the 2016-2017 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission, and performs here regularly with dozens of bands as a leader and sideman. His most recent album is titled El Maquech (Biophilia), and has received glowing reviews.

For this project, titled “Bird Blown Out of Latitude,” O’Farrill assembled a large band, and began composing and rehearsing well in advance, something that O’Farrill says is new for him. The new music stems from the search for identity that comes with the feeling of displacement. In O’Farrill’s words, “This music represents the distillation of feeling dislocated—physically, mentally, maybe spiritually. To travel and lose sense of place, that’s what this music reflects.”

The Jazz Gallery: How are things going, Adam? I’m sure you’ve been busy.

Adam O’Farrill: Things are good. I’m leading a horn sectional for the Gallery gig later today, and I have a gig tonight with a singer named Eliana Glass at Cornelia Street Cafe. It’s been a hectic few days: On Wednesday afternoon, I got called for a last-minute gig in Miami for Thursday. They bought us tickets to Miami the next morning, and we played this corporate cocktail event for Adidas and David Beckham. I got back yesterday morning, and things have been busy since then, but it’s all good stuff.

TJG: I was recently reading an old interview with you in this blog, where Rafiq Bhatia asked you about the physical demands of the trumpet. Your response at the time was that you felt some mental fatigue, but mostly, “When I’m done playing a gig, I usually just wanna play another!” Is that still true, now that you’re out of school and are doing all this traveling?

AO: I would be lying if I told you things hadn’t changed in that regard. It’s a combination of few things. I don’t have the highest physical tolerance or immune system, and I easily get sick if I don’t get enough sleep, or if I’m not giving myself time to breathe and relax. It’s been like that my whole life. Since mid-August, I’ve been traveling every week or two. So when I’m home, I’m home. I feel bad because I want to get out more, integrate myself more into the scene, and sometimes I feel like I know I’m neglecting things or people. But, especially since I’m trying to compose as well, it’s easy to the hermit thing. Also, I’ve begun to form musical relationships, with different people and bands, where I don’t really want to give anything less than my full effort. That’s something we should all have built into our mindsets to begin with, but it took certain relationships and learning from certain bandleaders to come to that conclusion. When I play gigs that I really care about, I’ll realize just how much I put into it when I finish playing, physically and mentally. Sometimes it’s hard to even hang after that.

TJG: Do you see a way to work around this feeling, or are these the sacrifices you learn you have to make as you pursue a career in music?

AO: That’s exactly it. It’s a matter of knowing the sacrifices that you’re making. It’s funny, sometimes you even feel like you’re doing the right thing when you’re sacrificing something, but that’s a weird feeling, because that act of sacrifice seems like it’s often viewed in a negative light. I think when you learn how to be able to do that, it’s good. You need to be able to make tough choices, and to accept that there are difficult consequences to whatever choices you make. That’s hard.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Accomplished mridangam artist and composer Rajna Swaminathan is bringing a brand-new project to The Jazz Gallery, consisting of Gallery regulars including saxophonist María Grand, bassist Linda May Han Oh, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and vocalist Imani Uzuri. The project, Mangal, represents an aesthetic change of pace for Swaminathan, as she described in our lengthy interview below. The music, by design, treats time and rhythm with a looser approach, and focuses on the potential for interaction and overlapping textures between pairs and trios of musicians.

Swaminathan performs frequently with Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, and Amir ElSaffar, and leads the ensemble RAJAS, an explorative project that brings together musicians from Indian classical and jazz idioms. She frequently teaches workshops on South Indian rhythm, most notably at the Banff International Workshop and PASIC. In addition to her performance career, Swaminathan is currently pursuing a PhD at Harvard University, and is writing a dissertation bridging the ideas of Carnatic music in the South Asian diaspora, the role of the arts in community activism, and cross-cultural improvisation. In her words, she’s hoping “to find more points of contact between those two worlds” of academic study and performance practice.

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

Rajna Swaminathan: I’m in Wyoming near the Montana border, at an artist residency called Ucross. I’ve been here for about a month already, and will be here for a couple more days. I’ve been working on new music, a lot of which will be played at The Jazz Gallery, and have more generally been composing for my dissertation project, writing the dissertation, and thinking about different configurations of musicians. A lot of the music I’ve written here is for the configuration of the upcoming show at the Gallery next week, and from there, ideally, it’ll evolve to suit other ensembles.

TJG: Has it been a good residency? Sometimes it’s hard to write music for a group when you’re isolated.

RS: It is hard in isolation, and on top of that, I haven’t played with this particular group and in this specific configuration before. I’ve played a lot with María, but I haven’t played my music with any of the other folks. It’s going to be interesting to start rehearsing next week. It’s an experiment, so it’ll be cool.

TJG: How did this experiment come to life?

RS: It’s funny, the idea began as a text between me, María, and a vocalist named Ganavya. We were talking about doing a performance where we read poetry and create some music around it. Ganavya wasn’t available for this Jazz Gallery date, so I ended up finding other people and, as things go, the idea became something else. The group got bigger, and I thought, “I’ll write some new music for this group,” and it’ll be more of an open thing, though we may incorporate poetry if people feel moved to do so. So far, the plan is to play my new compositions, which are different from what I usually do, in that they’re more loose. Usually my writing features a gridded, polyrhythmic framework. There’s a little of that in this music, but my idea is to create a more interpretive situation. There are a lot of great sensibilities in these musicians, so I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out.

TJG: What underlying form do you anticipate these interpretive experiments taking? If someone were to come to the show, and wanted to be hip to what you’ll be doing onstage, what might they listen for?

RS: At this point, I’m not sure if there will be one specific thing they should listen for. Some people who have heard my music before may be surprised by how little driving rhythm there is, and how my playing will probably end up becoming more textural. I’ll be singing as well, so that’s different and equally experimental. The loose time is where you’ll here something more experimental happening.

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