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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

Gregg August

Photo by John Marolakos, courtesy of the artist.

The release of Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race feels darkly relevant: The unsightly realities of how Covid-19 is disproportionately damaging black and brown communities is yet another reminder that America’s institutional inequities have daily and deadly consequences. Using the platform of his 2009 Jazz Gallery commission, bassist and composer Gregg August grapples with hard realities through Dialogues on Race, an album and series of beautiful videos using source material from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Marilyn Nelson, and Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till. Though the album release show at The Jazz Gallery was postponed due to Covid-19, we spoke with August via phone to discuss the new reality.

The Jazz Gallery: Hey Gregg. Are you still in New York City?

Gregg August: I live in Brooklyn, but I’m actually at a second place that my lady and I bought a few years ago up in Massachusetts. We’ve been safely out of New York for about a month now. My place in New York is tight. I have four basses, a piano and drums, and couldn’t think about moving within New York, because of the real estate market. It’s impossible to afford a new place to rent, forget about buying anything. So, we bought this old Victorian house in the Berkshires in a city called North Adams. There’s a great museum here, MASSMoCA, where I do a residency every summer with Bang On A Can. I’ve grown fond of the area, so we bought a place. Right now, it’s saving us.

TJG: Is it big enough for you to at least not feel claustrophobic?

GA: Oh yeah, it’s an old Victorian duplex. We usually rent the units, but nobody’s renting right now. So we’re here, just figuring everything out. I’m just beginning to get my studio functional, trying to organize things. It’s not easy. I’m sure we’ll talk about… reality [laughs].

TJG: Are you in a headspace to jump in and talk reality?

GA:  I’ll do my best, but things feel distant. The record isn’t where my head is right now.

TJG: Let’s start simple. Can you give me a run down of what you would have been doing during this time?

GA: Well, we had the record release for Dialogues on Race planned for May 29th. We had a gig that revolved around this release at The Jazz Gallery, scheduled for April 10th, which obviously was cancelled. The Jazz Gallery commissioned this piece ten years ago. When the recording was finally finished, Rio was nice enough to suggest that we do the release at the Gallery. Of course it’s all been postponed indefinitely. The CDs were in the process of being manufactured when the plant closed down. The LP’s are finished and on a boat coming from the Czech Republic. But my publicist Matt Merewitz needs CDs in-hand to get to journalists. Everything was going smoothly, but… the process has stopped. It’s disappointing, but certainly not life-or-death.

TJG: The videos are really nice. I’ve worked with Four/Ten before, they’re great.

GA: Oh man, they are so great. They just did another video for me, “Stand Up With Me,” which I published a few days ago. This was actually a separate project from Dialogues. I have a friend/colleague from The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra who is a bassoonist, but also sings! Her name is Gina Cuffari, and she commissioned the piece from me last year.

The videos associated with Dialogues On Race are “Your Only Child” and “Sherbet.” We did those last year in an amazing space in Brooklyn Heights, at a school called The Packer Collegiate Institute. Their chapel has 19th century stained-glass windows made by Tiffany. After first working with Evan and Kevin at Four/Ten on a video of my Trio for Violin, Piano and Bass, then discovering the beautiful chapel, it occurred to me that I needed to make videos of Dialogues on Race, in that space, with those guys. Making those videos helped incentivize getting the record done. With a lot of musicians, it’s expensive. Plus I’m balancing rehearsals, sessions, scheduling commitments, etc. Having those videos gave me a clear pathway to thinking, “Okay, now I have to get the record done.”

Publicity-wise, everything was going great and moving forward towards the release. To be clear, it’s not a big deal whether or not the record comes out right now. But the subject matter–race relations in the US–is a big deal. A big problem. Now, inequality is built into this Covid situation. We keep hearing about how African-Americans and Hispanics are more prone to getting and dying from the disease in the US. If I it understand correctly, it’s because many of these folks are “essential workers.” They have to go to work because they need to eat. Racism in the United States is once again rearing its ugly head, even in a pandemic… My record doesn’t matter, but the subject matter obviously does. (more…)

Ben Williams

Photo courtesy of the artist.

The rise of Ben Williams is deeply tied to New York. Days after winning the prestigious Monk Competition in 2009, Williams played his first concert as a bandleader at–where else–The Jazz Gallery. Since then, Williams has toured with greats across the genre’s wide field, most recently José James and Kamasi Washington, while always returning to the Gallery to premiere new work, present fresh ideas, or bring a new band.

Williams’ most recent album, I AM A MAN, was released just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic brought New York to a standstill. We caught up with Williams to find out about how he’s doing in self-isolation, as well as his thoughts on The Jazz Gallery’s position in the world of New York jazz.

The Jazz Gallery: Hey Ben. How’s the self-isolation treating you?

Ben Williams: I’m trying to make the best of it. I live alone in New York, and this is the most time I’ve spent at home, basically ever, since I’ve been here. I’m trying to use the time to, first of all, get some rest. Then, I’m working on things. Long-term projects, personal projects, musical things. Over all, being still.

TJG: You released I Am A MAN pretty recently, right?

BW: Yeah, that came out in January.

TJG: It’s super fresh. It’s funny, after a big project like that, people either hit the road and start touring immediately, or take some time, rest, and reflect. This time, the world seems to have made that choice for you.

BW: Luckily, I got a chance to release the album and do some shows after the album came out. I went out on the road with Kamasi Washington about ten days after the record was released, and we were out for about a month. By the end of that tour, everything had hit the fan in terms of the pandemic. I had to cancel or postpone dates that were scheduled for when I was getting back. Everyone’s in the same boat. I know people who had really long tours they had to cancel or postpone. We’re all in this mess.

TJG: Did you have gigs booked to support the album that got cancelled?

BW: Yeah. I’ve got more stuff coming up, things that are pending. Not sure if they’ll happen. They may have to postpone those shows too. We’ll see. I’m not trying to dwell on it. I’ve gotten somewhat over the urgency of doing a ton of shows right when a record comes out: These days, because there’s so much content coming out all the time, it’s more important to give the project some longevity. You obviously want to capture the momentum at the release and strike the iron while it’s hot, but I’m always thinking long-term. There’s no expiration date on an album. We’ll get back to these shows at some point, and I have other ideas for expanding the project down the road. It’s going to have a long life.

TJG: It’s beautiful music too, I was listening all morning.

BW: Thank you.

TJG: So you’re now at home alone, twenty-four hours a day. What kind of stuff are you doing to keep yourself occupied, musically or otherwise?

BW: I was just talking to a friend about this yesterday. I’ve been going pretty hard, touring, recording, being busy for the greater part of the last fifteen years. I realize–and I feel a bit conflicted about it–that this has been a necessary break. Sometimes it’s okay to just stop, do nothing for a little bit. It took me a few days, probably a couple of weeks, to embrace not doing something. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. I’ve been going so fast I didn’t realize it, until I came to a complete stop. I’ve been taking things back to the basics.

To be honest, the first week of the lockdown, I said “I’m gonna be practicing all day, I’m gonna write a symphony, a big band chart…” [laughs]. That didn’t happen. I had to tell myself, “This is an unprecedented moment. Just sit down.” I didn’t do much the first week. I’d pick up my instrument, but without any rigorous plan to accomplish or do anything. I needed that. I needed to stop, take this time to recalibrate, reset. Think about the future, focus on being present. I’ve probably done more cooking in the last two weeks than I did all of last year. I’m getting my space together in my apartment, tossing out stuff, going through clothes, stuff that’s been sitting around that I don’t need, paying some attention to the space I’m going to be in for a little bit.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

These days, bassist/composer Alexis Cuadrado leads perhaps more of a local life than many of his constantly touring jazz compatriots. Much of his writing, producing, and recording happens at home, and live performance is not as central to his practice. And yet, the Covid-19 pandemic has deeply altered many aspects of his creative routine and educational work. There has been so much new terrain to explore, navigating quarantine and caring for his family while picking up the creative pieces. We spoke in depth via phone about his relationship with The Jazz Gallery over the years, as well as ways in which he and his family are dealing with this period of self-isolation.

**A note on the interview, which occurred on March 25. Since that interview, Cuadrado has been doing more producing, writing, and creating tracks for The New Yorker. In addition, “Teaching has been healing,” says Cuadrado, who is currently educating remotely at The New School.**

The Jazz Gallery: Hey Alexis. How are you?

Alexis Cuadrado: I’m okay, I’m okay. I’m in Brooklyn with my family.

TJG: Tell me about your situation.

AC: We’ve been together in the house for about two weeks now. We self-confined early and before everyone else, mostly because my family is in Barcelona, and they are about a week ahead of us with the pandemic. It seemed, at that point, that this wasn’t going to be good, so we immediately wanted to try to minimize the risk of either getting or spreading it. It’s been two weeks of home living for the four of us here, which honestly has been a big adjustment, as it has been for everyone else.

TJG: Everyone has a different situation right now. How are things with your family, dealing with new things like homeschooling, on top of your career stuff–

AC: What career stuff?! [laughs]… Right now, there’s no career stuff. I’m in this loop where work usually comes in and out pretty quickly, because for the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of production work. That loop has slowed down. I just finished a large film score, a commission that I was able to finish in a couple of months. So I’m not in the middle of a project, but right now, the possibility of a new project, production work, gigs, or scoring work is totally gone. Generally, when I’m between projects, I have a slow month, which this has been. I clean my hard drives, do my taxes, empty out a closet, get my chops better, compose something. On paper, I do have a few hours a day for myself, but mentally… Yesterday I was talking to my wife, and told her, “I’m trying to push myself to be creative right now, but I just can’t be. I have to be okay with that right now.” Eventually, I think this energy will channel into something creative, but right now, I’m trying to make sure my kids are okay.

My wife is a radio producer who works for The New Yorker Radio Hour, and her co-producer seems to have pretty intense Covid-19 symptoms, so my wife is literally running the show herself, from home. I am also getting my stuff together to teach remotely, starting next week. I mostly teach music technology, but my students don’t have the software… We’re trying to get the companies to get the software to the students. Right now, it feels like we’re all just getting it together. I do have a lot to do with my career and my creative endeavors, with music business, but it’s all stalled right now, and I’m okay with it. Making it to the end of the day, being okay, that’s good enough right now.

TJG: On top of everything, how has your home life changed, with everyone being home 24-7?

AC: We have two bedrooms and four people. It’s not great. We try to get out. The first thing the four of us do every day is go on a jog. We live right by Prospect Park, and at the bottom of the park is the Parade Ground, ballfields and soccer fields. We run for twenty minutes there, the four of us. We play tag: We’ve made up a tag game called Corona. If you’re ‘it,’ you’re the coronavirus, and try to infect the other people [laughs].

TJG: Oh my gosh [laughs]. That’s hilarious.

AC: Yeah, and then the next person comes to save you as the respirator [laughs].

TJG: How old are your kids?

AC: Eleven, they’re twins. Anyway, we’re trying to make the best of it. Cooking a lot, making healthy food, doing online yoga classes, trying to keep it all together, mentally.

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Photo by Harrison Weinstein, courtesy of the artist.

From conservatory students to seasoned road veterans, everyone across the jazz community is grappling with the same questions right now: How to maintain our mental health, how to keep writing and practicing, how to take care of ourselves and our families, how to make up lost income, how to stay safe and sane. Last week, we spoke about these issues with saxophonist and composer Melissa Aldana. As a core member of The Jazz Gallery community, Aldana had wonderful thoughts on how to develop a routine amidst this crisis, as well as fond memories of the Gallery looking ahead to the ongoing 25th Anniversary celebration.

The Jazz Gallery: Hi Melissa. How are you doing?

Melissa Aldana: I’m in New York. Right now, it feels like everything is so fragile… It’s hard to accept everything that’s happening. But somehow… [laughs] I’ve been able to do about five, six hours of practicing a day. My purpose right now is to take care of myself, practice, and stay calm and positive. Everyone is having those same feelings.

TJG: Did you lose a huge amount of work?

MA: Yeah, I did, I lost a lot of work. But I was able to finish out a tour. The hard thing is to stay calm, positive, and try to make the best of this situation. Of course, I’m sad that I can’t play with people right now. I need to do an online concert, or something, but right now I’m working on getting through the quarantine.

TJG: What have you been practicing?

MA: I’ve been working a lot on sound, which I’ve done for years. I do a good hour of long tones, a good hour of time feel, some other various techniques focusing on control. I’ve been working on Bach on piano too, an hour and a half every day. I’m trying to compose a little bit, been transcribing solos, working on claves, standards in all keys, whatever I can do to keep my head busy right now [laughs].

TJG: I like how you start your day with control—it’s really important to practice being in control during this out-of-control time.

MA: Oh yes. To me, that’s the most important. A big part of my practicing can be boring, in a sense. A bit obsessive. But years and experience have proven that if I’m consistent like that, if I am aware of how I practice, I start moving forward. I know that it really works for my sound and helps get things together.

TJG: What have been some important resources for you during this time? People, apps, websites, walks… What’s keeping you held together?

MA: I’m walking a lot, exercising quite a lot, a good hour and a half every day. I’ve been constantly doing yoga, trying to meditate, though it’s really hard. Long walks. I have an elliptical at home. I’m slowly getting it together… I’ve been walking, I’ve been giving myself homework, things to learn, like Bach on piano. Doing basic things, reading books, taking advantage of the time.

At the same time, I’m telling myself that there’s no reason to push myself so hard. Why not learn just how to be? That’s something a lot of us don’t do, just be. We don’t have to be working all the time, running around, writing music. What about just being yourself? It’s been an interesting week, and it’s going to be an interesting couple of months of personal growth.

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Clockwise from top left: Tyshawn Sorey, Sasha Berliner, Morgan Guerin, Nathan Reising, Lex Korten, and Nick Dunston, Photos courtesy of the artists.

For Jazz Gallery fans, Tyshawn Sorey requires no introduction, and any description of his music or style invariably leaves out something vital. Simply put, as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, Sorey moves in the realm of the rigorous, visceral, and sublime. Recently, the 2017 MacArthur fellow has been performing a sextet of young creative improvisers, featuring saxophonists Nathan Reising and Morgan Guerin, vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, pianist Lex Korten, and bassist Nick Dunston. After a completely packed concert at The Jazz Gallery last spring, the sextet will return to the Gallery with an unprecedented run of five shows over five consecutive evenings, one long set per evening.

Sorey spoke in depth via phone in a conversation about the group’s granular yet uninhibited approach to his music.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to start by asking about the length of each set. Every evening will feature a single set, starting at 7:30pm and stretching at least two hours. What begins to happen for you, physically and mentally, when you hit that two hour mark and beyond?

Tyshawn Sorey: At that point, it’s about the experience of being in the music itself. To me, this is not about performing a “concert.” I don’t care for “performances.” What I am interested in is the art of experience and how our relationship to time evolves over that experience, at which point, at least for me, time doesn’t exist. You lose your sense of time by being immersed in the experience of playing challenging music. You get to a point in the set where you’re not even thinking about time at all: it’s an out-of-body experience. That’s what I’m after in these situations.

When doing extended sets, things move toward a very heightened level of consciousness, effortlessness, and awareness—it’s an experience that you wouldn’t necessarily have in playing a 45- or 60-minute set. That hour and a half, two hour mark is a threshold that we’re used to arriving at during a given performance, but beyond that, you arrive at a different kind of zone, where time no longer exists. No matter the style of the music, I want to get to something well beyond how one feels while merely playing tunes for 45 minutes that contain structures that operate in the same fashion, which brings us to another reason why the sets are so long.

There is so much detail in each composition that we play. I hate stopping in between tunes. I’m not into standing there announcing song titles or cracking jokes between songs trying to be cute, funny, or likeable. I’m only there to do one thing: To play music that expands one’s consciousness, to tap into some beautiful zones, and to get into other areas of music-making that are interesting to me. Well, that’s three things [laughs]! Simply put, my job is to produce the best possible experience of music that one can think of, to give the listener something else to take with them.

TJG: The band is young—everyone’s in their twenties—so that extra length must be a unique aspect of these shows for them, since most of them are probably playing 45- to 90-minute sets at their usual gig.

TS: Right. It’s a different experience for them. And for me, too, because when I play in other people’s groups, we don’t even really get to do that. But ever since 2004, I’ve tended towards doing longer concerts with my group Oblique, and my quartet with Cory Smythe, Chris Tordini, and Ben Gerstein, and then my piano trio, so that hasn’t really changed since the formation of this band.

But in the case of performing with other bands, I’ll never forget one particular experience I had with Vijay Iyer in the summer of 2013 when I lived in Copenhagen, Denmark for a brief time, and I did a month-long tour of Europe with Vijay Iyer and Stephan Crump. In the middle of that tour, on July 13th, George Zimmerman had been acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. We were on our way to board a plane to Berlin at the time of hearing about this, and obviously it was devastating news for all of us. We were scheduled for a performance that same night, at a club called A-Trane. We didn’t really talk about what we were going to play or what we were going to do. We don’t really plan sets anyway. But I’ll never forget: On that night, we basically played a three hour set at this club [laughs]. The audience was with us, from start to finish, all the way.

Because we were so emotionally charged—we were deeply saddened by the news, of course—we wanted to offer something that really was more about celebrating life. Was it mournful? Yes. But we tapped into a very different energy that I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. It was fascinating for me to make music in that space with the understanding of our relationship with what’s going on in the world. To share that with Vijay, who I consider a brother of mine… I’d say it was the most vulnerable I’ve been on any bandstand. I can’t put into words how much that whole experience affected me. That night in Berlin, hearing about all of the crazy stuff that was going on out here at home, and having an opportunity to use our art as a way to relate to our experience, and to express our hopes, our sorrow, our disappointment in society… It was unlike any other experience we’d had together before, or probably since. We were in that same vibe for the rest of that tour, thinking about all of that. I’m emotional, thinking about this… It was deep on so many levels. I’ll never forget it.

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