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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

From L to R: David Frazier Jr., Keith Witty, and Christophe Panzani. Photo courtesy of the artist.

THIEFS is an ongoing and evolving brainchild of bassist Keith Witty and saxophonist Christophe Panzani, with drummer David Frazier Jr. as well as a rotating cast of additional improvisers and vocalists. The electro-acoustic ensemble transcends idiom and merges musical approaches in startling ways, as on their latest record, GRAFT. This performance at The Jazz Gallery will be THIEFS’ only New York City performance in 2019. Over the course of the evening, the trio of Witty, Panzani, and Frazier plan to take old and new compositions and blast them wide open.

In prior interviews with WBGO and Bandcamp Daily, Witty spoke thoroughly about the specific inspirations and processes behind the music. In our recent phone call, we took a different angle, and spoke about the challenges of having a transatlantic band, preparing new music on a tight schedule, and the creative growth of a logistically complex project.

Keith Witty: The fundamental challenge of our group is finding a way to exist, survive, and create. Getting gigs is one thing, but booking gigs that get us onto the same continent is more tricky. A gig at a small club in Boston might be wonderful, but it’s not going to get Christophe over the ocean. Same for a small club in Paris, or any city really. We have to bring everything we have to the table to try to figure out how to play. That’s detrimental in many ways, but it’s a benefit in that it makes us focus on what we want to do. We don’t have time to be frivolous. That has helped us hone our ideas and put an extra layer of thought into our conceptual movement as well. It has driven discussions about what we are trying to do, how we might hone it, how we can make it happen, and how we might change and grow. A lot of times, we’re sending each other things transatlantically, and for the gig in New York, we’ve set aside a rehearsal day for new material, which is a challenge, because we have a lot of current material to brush up on as well. We always have to find a way to make it work.

TJG: Having new material seems vital in a band like yours. In the WBGO interview, you discussed how you view jazz as music that’s alive, of the present, authentic to the group. Having new music must feel critical, even though it’s hard to get it together when you’re not living together.

KW: It does. I produce a lot of records these days, and there’s something vital and beautiful about the process of bringing compositions to their live iteration glory, to full fruition. In so many cases these days, people are recording and sculpting music in the studio that they haven’t pressed on the stage, pushed around, tugged and pulled at for months before it takes shape. In some ways, even though our last record came out over a year ago, we’re still figuring out how we best want to play some of the music. We’re stretching some of it out, so we’re figuring out what the improvisational approach is. There’s a lot of creativity, newness, freshness to that. We’ve added maybe three compositions to the repertoire since then that will make their way onto the next record. We’re trying to make sure that when we get together, there’s some opportunity to play through something new, even if it’s a sketch, just to keep the creative wheels turning.

TJG: When and where were your most recent shows?

KW: Our last shows were in Europe. We played a festival in Switzerland, NoVa JaZz. It was a small festival in a small town, but had such a great lineup. Ambrose Akinmusire, Shai Maestro, BIGYUKI, it was wonderful to be in the company of such artists who I feel approach music in a similar way, completely void of traditional parameters. There may be loose guidelines of what jazz might mean to each person, but everyone who the festival programmed, it felt like to me, was making the exact music they wanted to make, straight out of their heads and their hearts. It’s nice when programmers get what you’re trying to do, and put you with people who don’t necessarily sound like you, but are approaching music-making from a similar standpoint.

On that run we also did a masterclass and concert in Grenoble, France. That was the first concert we’ve done as a trio, as we’re going to do at the Gallery, no vocals, just instrumental explorations of the material. The room was packed with students. It felt great.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

At the last installation of the TIME CAPSULE residency, Kassa Overall and Sullivan Fortner traveled to outer space. With Fortner on B3 organ, Rhodes, and piano, the two musicians charter a path to a completely improvised world of sparkling rhythms and melodies. In Overall’s words, “After the first set, I felt like we had just finished getting a spa treatment.”

In our fifth interview, Overall told us about a few more of his current projects, how they feed into and result from the ongoing TIME CAPSULE residency, and the upcoming show with Kris Davis and Stephan Crump.

The Jazz Gallery: You mentioned that you’re in the middle of doing some remixes?

Kassa Overall: Man, it’s exciting. I’ve had some recent opportunities to give guest DJ mixes to different radio stations. The first one was for KMHD, the main jazz radio station in Portland, and the one I’m working on now is for BBC 6, which has Gilles Peterson, new music, jazz, quasi-jazz vibes, everything. KMHD hit me up about doing an interview to promote a show in Portland, and they said I could also do a guest DJ mix. So I started taking recordings by some of my favorite jazz friends, chopping up their songs, and adding a little production to the tracks. I took a Jon Batiste song from his piano and voice album, chopped it up, and added drums. I did it to a Vijay Iyer song, a Charles Tolliver song, an Esperanza song. It was like, “If this were my album, this is what I would have done.” You know?

TJG: Like you were being a producer, in a way?

KO: Yeah. It’s remixing, but a little more creative. Somewhere between sampling and remixing. When we make something, we often think about defining it first, then making it from that context. If you say “I’m gonna make a remix,” and you start making a remix, you assume all these positions, you assume what it is to remix something. You might limit how much you add original content. When sampling songs, people often just sample four to eight seconds. When you think about it, you realize these definitions break up the creative process. So when I started to really dig in, I got excited. I was having a bit of writer’s block, and wasn’t really getting excited about anything creative. Then I started working on these remixes, and I got that excited feeling. I worked for three days, and at the end of it, I knew I had something good. KMHD played it on the radio and loved it. Now I’m working on a thirty-minute version for BBC 6. I’m currently chopping up one of my favorite songs from Makaya McCraven’s new album Universal Beings.

TJG: This isn’t so different from what you’re doing with TIME CAPSULE.

KO: Exactly. It’s all related experimentation with the idea of finished-work-as-source-material. It’s a big circle. This song, I realized, has the same chord changes as the Nas and Lauryn Hill song “If I Ruled The World” from 1996. Once I figured that out, boom, I started chopping that up, and now I’m in this big rabbit hole.

TJG: You think this is connecting some neurons around what you’re about to do with the residency?

KO: Yeah. Honestly, it’s all the same kind of experimentation. In every project, you lean more heavily on one aspect or another. But they say there’s nothing new under the sun. The key is letting go of that mental inhibitor that says “Nah, I can’t do that,” or “That’s too sacred.” From time to time I think about the Campbell’s Soup Cans that Andy Warhol did. I’m sure it was the early version of trolling, in a sense, but half the people were like, “Oh my god, amazing, it’s Campbell’s Soup!” And then the other half were like “I can’t believe you like this guy.” Anyone could have that thought, but to take the time to do it in its best possible way. It takes a certain amount of courage.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Ryan Keberle’s longstanding band Catharsis is bringing a new suite of music to The Jazz Gallery based on “Let America Be America Again,” a long-form poem by Langston Hughes. Packed with versatile multi-instrumentalists, the tight-knit group features an orchestral mix of voices, horns, keyboards, drums, bass, and guitar. Catharsis was featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, and has released a number of albums, including Azul Infinito, which was listed as one of “5 jazz albums you need to hear” by Billboard magazine’s Natalie Weiner in 2016.

Keberle’s musical life is rounded out by other projects, such as his recent quartet project Reverso, which reimagines the music of Maurice Ravel. He has performed and collaborated with The Maria Schneider Orchestra, David Bowie, Sufjan Stevens, Ivan Lins, the Saturday Night Live house band, Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, Rufus Reid, and Wynton Marsalis. He directs the jazz program at Hunter College, and maintains a robust private teaching studio. Keberle is no stranger to this blog, and it was our pleasure to speak with him again about development of the upcoming Catharsis record, The Hope I Hold.

The Jazz Gallery: Let’s start with the new album that Catharsis will be releasing in June. Could you tell me a little about the music itself, some of which you’ll be playing at The Gallery this Thursday?

Ryan Keberle: The impetus for the new set of tunes was a Chamber Music America ‘New Jazz Works’ commission which I received about three years ago. At the time, we had just released Find The Common, Shine A Light, an album of social protest music, some original songs and some arrangements of classic protest tunes. One of the things I enjoyed throughout that process was working with a lyricist. I worked with Mantsa Miro on previous records, and usually I would write music, send it to her, and she would set words to it. With the past album, Find The Common, we did the opposite: We had a specific message already, so she wrote the poetry, and I set that to music. The album coincided with my creating and teaching a new songwriting course at Hunter College, which got me thinking about utilizing the human voice in setting sounds to rhythm and melody.

This new project looks to expand on those text-setting and songwriting experiences. I decided to use a Langston Hughes poem called “Let America Be America Again,” written about ninety years ago. It’s a social protest work, and it feels like it could have been written last week. It’s utterly poignant, and so little has changed since it was written. As depressing as that might sound, it’s an uplifting poem, a message of hope, which is something I try to balance within our band. So I used excerpts of the poem—if I’d used the whole thing, I would have wound up with a mini-opera [laughs]. The name of the suite, and of the album, is The Hope I Hold, a play on words that Langston Hughes uses in the poem. The project features all the same people in Catharsis with one exception, Scott Robinson, who is now our regular horn player in place of Mike Rodriguez. Excitingly, everyone will be at The Jazz Gallery next Thursday, which doesn’t often happen anymore.

TJG: So you decided to set portions of this Langston Hughes poem: You chopped, spliced, explored, composed. Day one, when you bring it into the band, how does that look?

RK: I come at composition from a bigger-picture mindset. Jazz tends to get buried in the details pretty easily, but ever since my experience with Sufjan, as well as my experience with Maria Schneider, I’m always thinking more about the flow, the arc of a song, the story it tells, where the drama unfolds, the tension and release. I typically have a specific idea of how the music will flow, but early rehearsals don’t provide that bigger picture, when everyone’s learning the notes, rhythms, and orchestration. Many orchestration decisions depend on the big picture, and I don’t want to start figuring out, say, when Camila should sing unaccompanied wordless vocals versus wordless vocals with guitar in unison, until the whole band has an idea of the arc of a piece.

So the first few rehearsals are usually pretty rough, and you just have to deal with it. When we first performed this music, we had one rehearsal where we just got to know the music on a fundamental level, and then we went on tour. We played it four times in North Carolina, and finished up here in New York at Smalls. Even the way the music sounded at Smalls… It was good, but it is so different now on the recording from how it was on those initial live gigs. You’d hardly recognize the similarity between them. A lot of it has to do with how we’re using the studio. Eric Doob, our drummer, has a studio that he shares with Chet Doxas and Matt Stevens. He’s a burgeoning engineer himself. We’ve spent hours and days over the course of a year building some of these tracks. That gives an additional set of orchestration options. We’ve come 180º from the initial Catharsis group, where we had relatively limited choices, to what almost seems like unlimited options now.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Since starting his undergraduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music, trombonist Abdulrahman Amer has found himself in the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program, and Arturo O’Farrill’s Grammy-winning ensemble, the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Amer is about to finish his degree at MSM, and will simultaneously re-enroll as a masters student for the next two years. Alongside it all, Amer has performed twice at The Jazz Gallery as a bandleader.

For this upcoming show, Amer will be performing at the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning for a series featuring projects by emerging jazz musicians. His band, Ba Akhu represents an effort to heal and change the world through the power of sound and emotion. Playing Amer’s original music, the band consists of pianist Chris Fishman, bassist Hwansu Kang, and drummer Savannah Harris. As we discussed via phone, Amer was particularly eager to use this upcoming Ba Akhu performance to spread love, empathy, and personal connection.

The Jazz Gallery: Tell me a little about the band you’re bringing to this upcoming gig at the Jamaica Center.

Abdulrahman Amer: It will be my band, Ba Akhu, which consists of pianist Chris Fishman, bassist Hwansu Kang, and drummer Savannah Harris. This time around, we’ll have a guest artist, a brother of mine named Nicola Caminiti, an amazing alto player. The band started last year, during my junior year at Manhattan School. We’ve almost been playing for two years now. When I met each of these people, I thought, “Yeah, these are the people that I want to play my music.”

TJG: What is it about them that made you envision a band?

AA: Each person stands out in terms of their individuality. They have paved their own roads, you know? They’re true to themselves, which creates a selfless environment: There’s freedom in being yourself with other people. That resonates with me, my band, and the name of the band, in terms of what Ba Akhu means to me, what I want to give people through the music, and what I want to continue exploring myself.

TJG: What does Ba Akhu mean to you?

AA: It’s a combination of ancient Egyptian words—I’m Egyptian, it’s part of my heritage, and I’ve been exploring my ancient people. Ba is the term that refers to our physical container, and Akhu is about existing beyond any container, everything touching everything, no divisions. One beautiful thing about these people, and why they resonate with me and my vision, is that I hope for people to find the freedom to leave their container by staying true to themselves. To destroy any concept of division through acceptance, empathy, understanding, loving people who hate. We’re trying to combat the toxins that have developed over so many years of pain and harshness. We need people who are in tune with themselves in order to bring that kind of humility and honesty to the bandstand. That’s something I want people to come to terms with: Embracing vulnerability and accepting humility is part of the process of growth, the process of finding your most true and beautiful self.

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Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of the artist.

The Erica Seguine/Shan Baker Jazz Orchestra has been around for just shy of a decade. For one of those years, the band had a monthly residency in New Jersey where they were able to workshop new compositions and develop an expansive network of big band personnel. In our recent phone call, we talked about how the sound of the band has evolved over the last eight years, and how the two bandleaders approach composing for a large ensemble.

Both Seguine and Baker contribute compositions to the band, while Sequine conducts and Baker performs. New York Daily Music notes Sequine’s “vivid, cinematic narratives, counterintuitive Gil Evans-like color contrasts,” and Baker’s “tectonically shifting sheets, atmospheric crescendos and long panoramic stretches.” The large ensemble will be camping out on The Jazz Gallery stage for an evening of new and old works, with eyes toward a late-summer recording date for the ESSBJO debut album.

The Jazz Gallery: Thank you both so much for taking a moment to chat! You mentioned you’re based out of New Jersey—do you do most of your rehearsing out there too?

Erica Seguine: We mostly rehearse in the city, actually. Most of the band lives in the city, though a few of us live in New Jersey as well. We’ll often rehearse at City College because one of our band members, Scott Reeves, teaches there. For this performance, we’re rehearsing at iBeam in Brooklyn.

TJG: Do you find that rehearsal spaces influence your perception of the band? As you’re making changes and interpreting the music, does space play a factor?

ES: Space is definitely one of the factors, though not the primary factor. When we bring in a piece for the first time, everyone’s naturally just reading the notes. On a first reading or first rehearsal, or even after the first couple of performances, it takes time to get into the subtleties, so often the result is that I’ll hear the music and think, “Oh my god, did I really write that?” I’ll find out later that it just needed more time to sink in with the band. That’s why I usually wait to change something until after I’ve had a couple of readings, unless something is totally not what I had in mind, or is technically impossible. Shan writes really dense harmony sometimes, and can take a few performances before things really gel. Rarely does it sound right on the first read-through.

TJG: There’s a big sight-reading culture in New York. People are busy, and play in so many bands. So, a lot music is heard on a first read. Do you think the sight-reading experience is integral? Would you prefer it to be different?

ES: Frankly, I would love to rehearse more, to have rehearsals where we comb through harmonies, chords, voicings. Once, we had the luxury to have a rehearsal where we could stop and go chord-by-chord to tune the band. That was amazing, but a rare luxury [laughs]. We happened to have already had a couple of rehearsals, plus we had performances that were close together, so we were able to use one rehearsal and say, for example, “Let’s take three notes within the ensemble, and slowly add the other instruments until the chord is built.”

TJG: Tuning with so many musicians is such a big part of the sound, it really defines the ensemble.

ES: It does! I remember something from Ray Wright’s “Inside the Score” book that analyzes music by Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer. There’s a line in there about how if the band is not totally in tune, the whole thing can just go out the window.

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