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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

Design courtesy of the artist.

Snark Horse is a constantly evolving group lead by Kate Gentile and Matt Mitchell. The band revolves around a body of small compositions, the conceit being that every composition is one measure long. This iteration of Snark Horse includes Gentile on drums and Mitchell on piano, as well as bassist Kim Cass and trumpeter Davy Lazar. We reached out to them all: Kim’s bass had just been damaged the night before, and Kate and Matt were scrambling to deal with a leaking roof, but everyone managed to take a few minutes and talk via phone about this unusual project.

The Compositions

Matt Mitchell: The deal with Snark Horse is that all the pieces are one bar. It started from an exercise that Kate and I began doing about five years ago. Well, it wasn’t so much an exercise as “I haven’t written in a while, and rather than setting a huge goal of writing a big-bang epic, lets just write a bar of music a day, if nothing else.” So we started to do that, and I realized after twelve or thirteen days that “Well, all these bars are kind of cool just by themselves,” and rather than try to expand them, we decided to just deal with them as-is. It’s not that radical a concept: The history of jazz is filled with one-bar vamps. But they’re kind of weird vamps. Rhythmically, they’re unusual. Sometimes we put a lot of counterpoint in them. Sometimes we write three lines, because we know different instruments are going to play them. Now, we’ve each written over thirty of them.

Kate Gentile: These tiny little compositions are an opportunity to explore material that might be too much to deal with if it were a long composition. Because it’s only one bar, no matter how hard it is, it’s never too hard to learn. We might write something really weird, but since we’re usually looping the material in some way, you hear it so many times that it starts to sound normal. The audience, through the repetition, essentially goes through the process that a musician playing the composition would have to go through, hearing it over and over to internalize it.

Davy Lazar: Matt and Kate’s music has this insane amount of granular detail. It’s all evident in their larger-form pieces, but in these tiny looping bars, it’s still that same hyper-detailed approach. There’s tons of self-reference within each bar, which is insane. Miles Okazaki wrote this essay about endurance and pacing, where he talks about Matt’s music, and says something like “Underneath a microscope, Matt’s music reveals all sorts of hidden worlds.” It’s true. There are all these layers that you can follow, and each one has its own little universe of information. Kate’s music is the same way. Any thread you follow is going to have a ton of information and reasoning behind it.

Kim Cass: One of the things that fascinates me about this music is the way it looks. They’re one bar pieces but they’re super unified. They’re eye candy. Now that they have a book of them, some of them are on the same page, and I love just flipping through it all. It’s not just the material, it’s the way it’s notated. You can get really deep within the single bar, and it’s a really cool exercise making it look a certain way. Matt’s use of lettering and title is totally linked in with the music itself, the sound of the composition. The way he can manipulate that one bar and fit that information in is really quite compelling visually. And it sounds great too. I spend a lot of time on notation, and I write music by hand, but the way Kate and Matt do it, even though it’s generated on the computer, gets so much out of that aesthetic.

The Development of Snark Horse

Kate Gentile: This has actually been one of the easiest projects either of us has done. Because the bars are largely written so that all the parts can be played on piano, Matt and I can play all the material. Our original thought was that whoever we play with can learn or not learn the bars to the degree that they want. Theoretically, someone could play with us like they were playing a free improv gig, and it would be cool, because the material is already covered by us. But every person we’ve played with has wanted to learn the material really well. That’s made it easy. Even in a typical rehearsal with someone new, in twenty minutes they can play the bars right away. Mat Maneri came over and played the bar exactly in one repeat. He played every possible part perfectly once, and then improvised with it. It’d take like two minutes per bar. That’s usually how it is for anyone.

Matt Mitchell: It might seem precious, or willfully strange, but think of other pieces in jazz history that are essentially one bar. A Love Supreme–which I’m a bit reluctant to mention, because I’m not comparing myself to Coltrane–is basically one bar, at least that first part, with the intro. There are plenty of other things that are essentially a single repeated bar, sometimes with a melody. There’s precedent in the overall basic approach: The difference is the content, the innards. Some of these bars have a decent amount of information in them, especially bars that have three layers of counterpoint, that you can use that to shape an improvisation or group improvisation. We don’t dictate how people improvise, we just assume they’ll do something interesting.

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Design courtesy of the artist.

Kassa Overall doesn’t fear a creative challenge, and when he was given a seven-concert commission series at The Jazz Gallery, he came up with a project that would remix his identities as a drummer, rapper, composer, lyricist, and producer. During every show of the TIME CAPSULE residency, Overall will present a pianist and occasionally other instrumentalists as well, and every show will be recorded. The current plan is for Overall to use the recordings as sampling material for a final live production session.

The first TIME CAPSULE show featured pianist Jon Batiste, as well as bassist Ameen Saleem. Overall now continues the residency with Jason Moran. In our first conversation, Overall went deep, and in our second, he went deeper, focusing on how context and audience preparation can change the entire concert experience. Check out our second interview below, where Overall reflected on the successes of the Batiste show, and made some predictions about the upcoming show with Moran.

The Jazz Gallery: How was the first TIME CAPSULE show for you?

Kassa Overall: I couldn’t have asked for a better first show. It came together perfectly, in terms of what we prepared and what we left for spontaneity. I talked to some people after the show, some of the heads that go to all The Jazz Gallery shows, and a few of them said something along the lines of “It’s so great to see some outside stuff, some free stuff here.” I feel like they have lots of outside stuff at the Gallery, you know, but I think they were speaking to the particular approach we were bringing to it, which was very off-the-page, very spontaneous. We connected with the crowd in a different way.

TJG: How do you think people were able to connect with what they saw onstage?

KO: Even if you’re not a master listener, a musician, or don’t know the language of music, everybody knows body language. That’s the funny thing about music. You could bring somebody off the street who has never seen a live show, and there’s certain stuff they could tell you about the performance: Whether it’s good or bad, whether the musicians are communicating well, whether the piano player is enjoying himself. The basic human perceptions. At the first Gallery show, we were discovering the music on stage just like the people in the crowd were. There were moments where Jon would play something, I’d be surprised, then realize he was surprised, and the crowd could feel that something was happening between us in the moment.

We framed the performance in such a way that the audience understood what was about to happen. They knew that there was spontaneous composition happening, and that we were recording it. The show was connected to a bigger story, a bigger frame, if you will. It’s like the audience had an instruction booklet already [laughs]. The way they were listening, you could feel them thinking. There were moments when we’d be playing, maybe just a drum solo or a piano solo with sparse accompaniment, and you could feel certain heads in the crowd were like “Yo, that’ll be a dope sample.” The idea worked.

TJG: Put yourself back in that mental space of the show: Do you remember a specific moment where that feeling happened? Where you were doing something completely unexpected, and thought “This will be cool later”?

KO: Definitely. There was a moment when Ameen Saleem was taking a bass solo, and then he fell into this ostinato thing. It might even be a thing he has in his bag, you know what I mean. He was playing it, and I started rubbing my hands together, clapping a little. Jon started clapping, and we started doing this whole clap beat behind him. It was a breakbeat like something you’d find on one of those records from some live show back in the day. It sounded perfect. It felt good. It felt inspiring, like this could be the beginning of something.

TJG: Speaking of beginnings, this is a new project for you. We spent a lot of time talking about identity last time we spoke: What about this first TIME CAPSULE show felt like “This is me, Kassa, doing my thing,” and what felt like “This is a brand new chapter”?

KO: Every time I’ve done something a little bit abstract, it felt like I had to make the crowd get it. To turn back to the ‘instruction manual’ part, I felt like this was the first time where the audience was ready for what I was about to do. There was a backstory. They weren’t there to see someone play drums: They were there for the whole process. Press, story, and narrative can get a bad rap, and you can be great at something, but at the end of the day, you have to be able to communicate what it is that you’re doing. Otherwise, people will just take it as gibberish. I think this is the beginning of learning how to communicate my intentions in my own voice, in a way that makes people ready for it. I did a whole lot of different stuff at the Gallery, but it wasn’t a surprise to anyone. It all fit into the context of the story. That feels freeing, because when you’re bringing more to the table, it’s hard when people only recognize a piece of what you’re bringing. I want to show the whole picture. This feels like the beginning of being able to show the whole picture, and having people comprehend it. It’s about becoming a better communicator in my presentation of my art.

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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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