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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

Photo by Zachary Maxwell Stertz via http://chrisdingman.com

Members of The Jazz Gallery community have recently been grieving the loss of Roy Hargrove, and grief, like so many facets of our musical lives, looks and sounds different for every person. Vibraphonist and composer Chris Dingman has also been contending with his own grief, in his own way. In the months before and since his father’s recent passing, vibraphonist and composer Chris Dingman developed a collection of improvised solo vibraphone pieces. The improvised music was meant to bring a meaningful experience to his father, who was in hospice at the time, and was also a means for Dingman to contend with his own grief. Today, using music in this way, in Dingman’s own words, makes “the purpose of it all seems stronger.”

This performance at the Gallery will represent Dingman’s first full-length solo vibraphone concert. Dingman is a regular on The Jazz Gallery stage, regularly performing with his own ensembles or in collaboration with Ambrose Akinmusire, Steve Lehman, Jen Shyu, Tyshawn Sorey, Ingrid Jensen, Fabian Almazan, and others. His most recent album, The Subliminal and the Sublime (2015) is a 62-minute continuous work blending layers of jazz, ambient electronica, and minimalism.

This week, Dingman is returning to New York from a tour with bassist Ike Sturm. When we spoke briefly on the phone, Dingman was somewhere in Ohio, en route back to the city. In our short conversation, Dingman discussed the backstory of this upcoming solo concert, and the circumstances that lead him to do take this leap into the unknown at The Jazz Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: Could tell me a bit about the context of your upcoming solo vibraphone show?

Chris Dingman: The primary influence in my decision to do the show was that, beginning late last spring and continuing through today, I recorded a bunch of solo improvisations. I actually recorded them for my dad, who at the time was in hospice care, and who passed away over the summer. I recorded all of the music for him, and we worked together on making it into a project that could be shared with the rest of the world. It was an intense time. I’m currently working on the production and mixing, which has been a long process, as I recorded around six hours of music. As I’ve been working, I’ve had a lot of time to consider what brings me to play solo vibes, and what playing vibes in general is about for me. When Rio approached me about doing something at the Gallery that would reflect where I am right now, I felt that doing a solo vibes show would be the best outlet to express where I’m coming from.

Simultaneously, I’ve still been playing with other people. I recently did this tour with Ike Sturm, which was great in terms of being an outlet for focusing on the kind of solo playing that I do. The instrumentation was bass, vibraphone, saxophone, and voice, so there’s a lot of space to play. Prior to that, I did an improv set at The Stone in October with Okkyung Lee and Sara Serpa. We improvised and had such a good time doing that. I love Okkyung and everything she does, she’s so inspiring to me, and is definitely another reason I’m drawn to playing solo.

TJG: You said you were working with your dad to get the music to where it could be “shared with the rest of the world.” What did the process look like?

CD: I performed and recorded all of the music for him at my parents’ house. I played and recorded it there so that he could listen to it. I did have a feeling that it was music that I would want to share with others, but at the time, it was really just for him. It was recorded in a basement, with no engineer, no studio. Because it’s such a large amount of music, I decided to mix it myself. Together with my dad, we named all the tracks together, because they were all improvisations. He named many of the tracks, and for others, we figured out together what they should be called.

It didn’t start out as an album or a bigger project, but everything you do to produce an album, we began to discuss together. We started talking about what it should be called, and who the music is for. In the past, my projects have been for everybody: I just make the music, and don’t really think about who or what the music is for. But in this case, the music was for him, and he wanted to share it with others who were experiencing what he was going through: The process of dying. So, this music is for people in hospice, people going through that transition. As I’ve played the music for others, people have thought of other contexts where it would be great, which I’m not opposed to either.

TJG: My instinct is to ask if you would consider playing this music for others who are in hospice, but that seems like it would be so difficult.

CD: That’s something I’d definitely consider. Going forward, once this project gets released, I will be doing exactly that, playing in person for people who are in hospice. It’s hard, but it’s really meaningful work. It’s so helpful to those who are going through that.

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Album design courtesy of the artist.

Pianist and composer Sam Harris returns to The Jazz Gallery this week to celebrate the release of his second album of original compositions, HARMONY. The album was recorded earlier this year at Sear Sound and mixed in house by prolific engineer Chris Allen, and features Harris’s steady trio of bassist Martin Nevin and drummer Craig Weinrib. From the excerpts we’ve heard of the album, the trio sounds strong as ever. Harris’s bold, full voicings stride thoughtfully across cyclical, cascading harmonies, as Nevin and Weinrib provide decisive and expressive support.

In a prior profile of Harris discussing his debut release as a leader, Interludes (2014), our own Kevin Laskey described Harris as “one part Herbie Hancock, one part Paul Bley.” Harris has been featured many times by this blog, and can be found regularly behind the piano at The Jazz Gallery supporting Ambrose Akinmusire, Melissa Aldana, or Ben Van Gelder. Currently on tour with Aldana across Australia and Europe, Harris will return to The Jazz Gallery for one of his only shows as a leader in New York this fall. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear new original music from one of today’s creative and sought-after pianists. (more…)

From L to R: Tony Malaby, Michael Formanek, Kris Davis, Ches Smith. Photo by John Rogers.

Michael Formanek’s approach to jazz and the double bass has changed and evolved over the decades. The ‘70s saw Formanek on the road with Tony Williams and Joe Henderson, and the ‘80s featured engagements with Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Fred Hersch and Freddie Hubbard. By the ‘90s, Formanek had become a central figure in New York’s creative jazz scene. Today, Formanek’s many projects include Thumbscrew, a co-lead Brooklyn trio with Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara, as well as a steady quartet with Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Craig Taborn on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums, whose 2010 and 2012 albums earned five-star reviews in DownBeat.

Elusion Quartet, one of Formanek’s more recent projects, features the dynamic personnel of saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer/percussionist/vibraphonist Ches Smith. The Elusion Quartet will celebrate the release of their album Time Like This at their upcoming Jazz Gallery show. Published by Swiss label Intakt Records and recorded at Oktaven Audio by Ryan Streber, the album was a vehicle for exploring “a more direct connection to emotions” according to Formanek. We spoke with Formanek about how he and the band put this new music together.

The Jazz Gallery: I know you recorded the album in February, but October somehow feels like the perfect time to listen to it. It’s mesmerizing, ever-changing, expressive, it reflects the season somehow. What are your feelings, listening back now?

Michael Formanek: Well, those are all qualities that I feel all the time [laughs]. That music was recorded in the midst of a series of big personal life changes. We were in the process of leaving Baltimore where we’d lived for many years, moving north. I was deciding whether to leave my teaching position where I’d been for a long time, moving back into the playing and composing part of my life, which I was always doing, but was having to work it out with my teaching schedule. Ultimately, the timing of everything felt right. So these feelings are less seasonal and more about general life change, and I think the album reflects that, along with things happening in the world every day.

TJG: More on the ideas behind the album soon, but in listening, it sounds like there is a good bit of formal logic in terms of pacing and structure in improvised sections. What did the preparation look like for the project, in terms of talking through material with the group?

MF: The album features such a strong group of improvisers and composers, and at this point, it’s almost a given that the majority of the people I play with are going to recognize how musical elements in motion can move from one place to another. Rarely, I might say something, “Maybe this would be better if we moved between these things a little differently,” or “This doesn’t have to be quite so intense here,” just general notes while rehearsing. For me, the challenge in composing for improvisers is in the balance of providing the right amount of material, in the sense of composition and structure, without impeding the flow of what can simply happen. For me, in the case of Time Like This, I was trying to write a bit less than I usually do, to give more room for things to happen.

TJG: On one of the tracks, “Culture of None,” I love the duo bass and drum introduction, and the ensuing melodic lines that emerge so naturally. I was almost surprised when I heard you playing something close to a walking bassline, and Kris Davis playing a linear piano solo, something I don’t often hear. Do you remember some of your intentions going into the track?

MF: That track was a tricky one, because it basically started with that hand drum part. There are these rhythms and mixed meters, with nothing in even time, so for me, it was about looking for patterns and phrases. I started to assign pitches, which is where the bassline or bass melody came from. Once that evolved, I wrote the secondary part, the more melodic part. Only at a certain point later on did it become clear that there was an even 3/8 thing that moves through the whole form. That was a result, a realization, rather than a starting point. The organic part of that piece was that I was indulging these odd groupings of odd rhythms, conceiving of it as a drum part, but thinking more abstractly, it culminated in this even, swinging three feel. That evolved more during the improvisations. I didn’t say “We have to get to this feel,” and in fact, we did a few takes of this tune, where different things happened organically. We started with one idea, improvised, and naturally moved to another. I’m always happy when certain things evolve that didn’t necessarily unfold from their logical starting point.

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Photo by Una Stade, courtesy of the artist.

When singer and composer Arta Jēkabsone moved from Riga, Latvia to study at the New School, she described New York as “definitely a concrete jungle.” But the pace and environment have helped her focus and clarify her musical goals. As she said in a recent phone interview, “I’m thinking all the time.” Jēkabsone has lots of imagery to describe her relationship with sound, looking at music as a broad palette of colors, a spectrum of light and energy, a story we tell. In her music, you can hear warmth, gratitude, and compassion, as well as crystal-clear intention and focus. In 2016, Jēkabsone was awarded first prize in the Shure Jazz Voice Competition at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland, and shortly thereafter released her debut album, Light.

In addition to her duo project with singer Erik Leuthäuser, Arta has assembled a steady quintet of mostly New School students and recent graduates, including pianist Theo Walentiny, guitarist Lucas Kadish, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Connor Parks. Jēkabsone has brought her band, what she calls her “New York family” to Latvia and beyond, and will present a version of the band at The Jazz Gallery this week, with drummer Stephen Boegehold subbing for Parks.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making the time to chat, Arta! Where are you calling from?

Arta Jēkabsone: We arrived in Köln today–Erik Leuthäuser and I are on tour at the moment. We played a house concert in what is essentially an old factory called KunstWerk Köln. They have rehearsal spaces you can rent, we had a concert here, and we’re staying here too, because they have couches, a kitchen, a piano, everything. Erik is a vocalist as well, and we have what is basically a duo voice project. We recorded this year and last year, when the project started. We released our album on October 5th, so we’re here in Germany with our album, essentially doing a presentation tour. We’ve been traveling most of the time, taking trains, it’s amazing. By the end of this tour, we will have traveled all of Germany by train. I was in Berlin, then Dresden, today Köln, tomorrow Weimar, then Bremerhaven, Hamburg, and tomorrow back to Dresden, then I’m going to Mannheim for the Enjoy Jazz Festival. It’s been a really nice time.

TJG: You sound quite busy!

AJ: Yes, it has been busy. It’s been a concert every night, basically, ten or eleven shows total.

TJG: Have you felt the music grow and change as you’ve traveled?

AJ: Oh yes. This is an experimental duo—we have some established things already, from the album, but they’re already shifting because everything is open. The music is changing every single night, and we find different inspirations. We spend a lot of time together now, talking about life, which is reflected in the music. Every night on stage, we’re more connected, sharing more ideas, more in sync. The same things are happening for both of us simultaneously on stage, even though things aren’t completely talked out beforehand. It’s kind of cool.

TJG: The band you’re bringing to The Jazz Gallery—it’s similar to the band from your album Light, yes?

AJ: Yes, mainly everybody except for the drummer, Connor Parks, who will be replaced by Stephen Boegehold for this show. Stephen is playing the previous night at the Gallery with Nick Dunston too, so you’ll get to hear the same lovely people a few times.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

As a bassist, composer, and improviser, Nick Dunston shows up on the bandstand with decisive vocabulary, positivity, and a readiness for mystery. In speaking with him about his bandmates, Dunston doesn’t hold back with wonder and respect, peppering his observations with exclamations of “he’s amazing” or “I don’t know how she does it.” Citing a lesson he learned from Tyshawn Sorey, Dunston says that when working as a composer with improvising musicians, “The idea is to allow yourself to have your mind blown by them.

Dunston will be bringing his new project, Nick Dunston’s Atlantic Extraction, to The Jazz Gallery stage. Combining carefully crafted compositions on a foundation of personal and musical trust, the ensemble features the somewhat unconventional configuration of  Nick Dunston on bass and voice, Louna Dekker-Vargas on flutes, Ledah Finck on violin and viola, Tal Yahalom on guitar, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. Check out our interview below; we went deep on Dunston’s approach to the craft, and his thoughts on leading an ensemble with feet firmly planted in the worlds of improvisation and composition.

The Jazz Gallery: I’m calling you from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Tyshawn Sorey is in residence for the week. You’ve played with Tyshawn a number of times; have they been formative experiences?

Nick Dunston: Playing and working with Tyshawn has dramatically influenced the way I think about music, not just in terms of composing, but in leading a band as well. He takes a hard-working and diligent approach to the composition process, but retains this mindset of like, “I have these improvisers in my band for a reason, and it would be something of a waste if I just had them try to fulfill this vision I have, instead of actively writing music that allows them to grow within it.” The idea is to allow yourself to have your mind blown by them. I’ve picked that up from Tyshawn, as well as some technical musical ideas too, the importance Tyshawn places on form.

TJG: How do Tyshawn’s ideas about bandleading manifest themselves, in terms of how you speak to your ensemble and the choices you make about personnel?

ND: This is my first band where I’m not a co-leader, and where it’s an ongoing project that I envision having a long future. Something I’m striving for, inspired and prompted by Tyshawn, is that two of the players, Ledah Finck and Louna Dekker-Vargas, don’t have backgrounds in jazz the way that Tal, Stephen and I do. A few years ago, it would never have occurred to me to hire people from a non-jazz background or a background dissimilar from mine. Being blown away by what they bring to the group has not only influenced me as an improviser: It has challenged me as a composer, to write for improvisers who come from a different idiom than I do. It has opened my mind in ways I wouldn’t have imagined.

TJG: That brings us nicely to the band itself, in terms of how this specific quintet came together.

ND: Right. Last spring, I wanted to start a project. I didn’t have particular sounds in my head; first and foremost, I wanted musicians I felt drawn to as people. I started to wonder who would work well together, personality-wise. I wanted a fixed band that I could grow and develop with over a long period of time, so I also picked musicians I could see committing to a long-term project.

I met Stephen almost two years ago. I’d heard about him from musicians my age who had recently moved from Detroit. We played together for the first time at a session: I don’t exactly know what happened, but for some reason, he wasn’t able to bring cymbals or hi-hats. I obviously noticed when he showed up without them, but once we started playing, it never registered in my head. He made so much music on the drums alone, it didn’t feel like anything was missing. I was lost in a trance. There’s a lot I love about his playing, but his sense of orchestration in particular is literally unbelievable at times.

I’ve known Tal the longest, because we started at the New School together. I’ve always had great admiration for him and his musicianship, but we’ve only started playing recently through this project, and now we play in other contexts as well. A lot of people tend to describe Tal as a guitarist who can play anything on his instrument, which is true, but I try to focus on his quirks. He has a vibrant, strong, particular personality that comes through in his playing, and makes him a special, unique musician, on top of his ability to eat up any kind of music.

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