A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

Album art courtesy of Sunnyside Records.

When Lee Konitz makes music, folks stop and listen. This may be due to his deep connection to the repertoire, his constant search for new sound, his adoration and celebration of the tradition. It may also be because he just turned 92 years old.

How does someone like Konitz stay engaged in the music after a career of over seven decades? Over the years, Konitz has become a mentor for younger musicians, creating a community around him that approaches performance with intimacy, intricacy, and adventure. These musicians include Dan Tepfer, Florian Weber, George Schuller, and for the last two decades, saxophonist/composer/conductor Ohad Talmor. We’ve spoke with Talmor a number of times, about his composition and arranging.

For this latest project, Old Songs New (Sunnyside), Talmor and Konitz agreed on a collection of well-loved yet seldom recorded standards. Talmor’s arrangements were designed as a kind of playground for Konitz: Talmor describes them as “this prismatic object where Lee could decide to play with the arrangements, stick to the melodies, play on top, get abstract, lay out, it doesn’t matter, the music is made to work any way he wants.” The full ensemble including Konitz will be at The Jazz Gallery this Sunday, October 20, to celebrate the release of the work.

The Jazz Gallery: When it comes to you, we can always talk about almost anything musical, from film scoring and big band arranging to Hindustani music and electronic improvisation. Off the bat, where are you now, and what are you doing?

Ohad Talmor: I’m in Brazil, in São Paolo. There’s a creative big band down here that I’ve been associated with since the early 2000s, and one of the saxophone players specializes in playing modern arrangements of choro, a form of Brazilian music. I’m doing a few gigs with them as a saxophonist and improviser—I’m not a specialist, but during my first trips to Brazil, I hooked up with this big band called Soundscape, who commissioned me to write some big band material, as well as some music in the choro tradition. Since then, I’ve learned to play some on saxophone, and have listened to the repertoire: At this point, it’s very much a part of my musical fabric. Brazil is a country with such a rich heritage, and choro is just one of the things I’m dealing with here.

For this trip, I’m playing with Samuel Pompeo, a great saxophonist who has a quintet he’s been working with for a few years. Choro is a very set form, so he kind of rearranged and opened the tunes up, modernized them, and is using this phenomenal rhythm section of Brazilian guys, so I get my assed kicked just playing with them. It’s just beautiful. I’m just playing, too, I have zero responsibility with writing or conducting, so I don’t have do do anything but learn the music and play it. I love that [laughs].

TJG: Then you’re jumping right back to New York for the gig at the Gallery?

OT: Yes. Before that, I have a trio thing with Miles Okazaki and Dan Weiss. We have two days in the studio on Thursday and Friday, and we’ll bring that project to The Jazz Gallery on December 4th, because we’ll be touring Europe in December. It’s a whole new repertoire. That’s first. Then, Sunday, we’re playing at the Gallery with Lee Konitz.


Photo by Cornel Brad, courtesy of the artists.

One of the pleasures of speaking with musicians is that you can discover the connection between their speaking voices and their musical voices. This phenomenon emerged during a recent phone conversation with Lucian Ban and Alex Harding, after listening to their latest album, Dark Blue (Sunnyside). Harding, baritone saxophonist and Detroit native, speaks with deep, punctuated bursts of ideas and phrases. Lucian Ban, pianist from Transylvania, communicates with a flowing string of sentences and stories. The music they create together sounds much like their friendship itself.

Harding and Ban have been collaborating for nearly twenty years, releasing albums and touring along the way, often featuring other artists including Bob Stewart, JD Allen, and Sam Newsome. Both are deeply influenced by jazz, blues, and chamber music traditions, and their music deftly blurs the divide between improvisation and composition, a topic that became the center of our recent phone conversation.

The Jazz Gallery: I’d love to hear a little about how your collaboration started. You released your first album together in 2001, so you must now have been collaborating for almost twenty years.

Lucian Ban: Exactly, the new album is, in some ways, a celebration of us working together.

Alex Harding: Isn’t that interesting? We didn’t work it out that way, it just seems to be the way it happened.

TJG: Take me back two decades and talk a little about how you met, and what musically spoke to you about each other.

LB: Sure. I first saw Alex in 1996 when I visited New York. I went to hear The Sun Ra Arkestra, and it was so impressive, the musicians were coming out from the kitchen, from the hallway, Alex was playing baritone, it was fascinating, man. I always liked Sun Ra, but seeing them live was a new experience. I moved to New York to study at New School, and one of my roommates at the time said, “We gotta go listen to this amazing baritone player on the lower east side at a place called Pink Pony,” a venue that isn’t there anymore. I went there and heard the trio which featured Alex, which sounded killing. After the show, I talked to Alex, who was gracious enough to say “Yeah, let’s do something together.” We did a quintet gig, and then my first album in the US was a duet with Alex, called Somethin’ Holy (Cimp 2001). We’ve always had both musical and personal affinity for each other. Alex Harding was and is, in a way, my biggest connection to this music once I moved to New York. I value our collaboration deeply.

TJG: Alex, do you remember your first impression of Lucian?

AH: Yeah I do. I don’t remember meeting him at the Sun Ra gig, because as he said, we were playing and walking through the kitchen and the hallways. I remember meeting him at Pink Pony. I remember it fondly. Lucian’s enthusiasm, his desire to play with good cats… I did what I was taught to do: I passed it on, I helped out where I could. That’s what I did, and twenty years later, here we are.

TJG: On your records, you really sound like friends throughout the music. You’re there for each other, you’re respectful, you push each other a bit.

AH: Like an old married couple [laughs]!

LB: [Laughs] Like a successful marriage, let’s put it that way.

TJG: So what’s your friendship like when you’re not on tour? Do you talk, do you hang out?

AH: Yeah, absolutely. When I lived in New York, we’d go out, have meals, hang out. Always a good time, always fun, always good energy.

LB: Alex and I have toured Europe a lot, and we had a chance to get to Romania. He met my folks, you know. This is a very strong connection between us, Alex is one of my great friends.

AH: Absolutely, I feel the same.


From L to R: Gerald Cleaver, Dan Rieser, Jonathan Goldberger, Curtis Hasselbring, Chris Cheek, Chris Lightcap, Tony Malaby, and Craig Taborn. Photo courtesy of the artist.

For a working musician in New York, it’s common to play in multiple ensembles. It’s not too uncommon to be a bandleader for two or more groups. It’s rare, however, when a bandleader decides to take two freestanding bands and create a new project combining every member of both groups. That’s exactly what Chris Lightcap has done with SuperBigmouth, a combination of his longstanding groups Bigmouth and Superette. The mega-band features all eight members of the two bands, including keyboardist Craig Taborn, tenor saxophonists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek, guitarists Jonathan Goldberger and Curtis Hasselbring, and drummers Gerald Cleaver and Dan Rieser. The full lineup will hit the stage at The Jazz Gallery on October 3rd to celebrate the release of their upcoming album. We spoke with Lightcap on the phone about the logistics of leading a larger project, the musical opportunities afforded by overlapping instrumentation, and perhaps most importantly, all the details on his adorable new puppy.

The Jazz Gallery: How have you been? Is now a good time to chat?

Chris Lightcap: Yep, now is cool, let me just check something… We just got a puppy, so I just want to see if she’s doing okay [laughs]. Everything looks good.

TJG: Aw! What kind of puppy?

CL: They’re calling them Bernedoodles: She’s a Bernese Mountain Dog mixed with a Miniature Poodle. So, a mini Bernedoodle.

TJG: Wow. How’d you decide on that breed?

CL: There’s one in our building already. We met this dog, and he’s completely amazing. We got in touch with the same breeder that they used. We wanted to get a rescue dog, but any time you find a poodle mix at a shelter, it’s usually been spoken for–my wife’s allergic to dogs, so we needed some kind of poodle mix. We decided to bite the bullet and go for this breeder. Amazingly, two weeks later, our neighbors from across the street showed up with a puppy from the exact same litter: Our puppy’s sister. Our neighbors got the same idea when they met the other Bernedoodle in our building. So, our puppy has her sister living across the street from us, and her half-brother living downstairs.

TJG: You’ve got a whole block full of Bernedoodles.

CL: Yeah, it’s all Bernedoodles all the time now [laughs].

TJG: It’s not so common for a touring musician to get a pet.

CL: It was a stretch, for sure. But she seems to be pretty easy, as far as puppies go. We have a million great dog walkers in the neighborhood, and it’s a very dog-friendly neighborhood. I know several musicians around who have dogs, and they’ve given me a lot of great advice about how to tour when you have a dog, what to do when you get out of town, different boarding options. My wife and I have two older kids now, 10 and 14, who get themselves home from school and help out. It’s not as overwhelming as it might seem.


Photo credit William Geddes.

Saxophonist and composer Chet Doxas is nothing if not inquisitive. In each of his prior Jazz Speaks interviews, Doxas has stepped forward with engaging questions and observations about his craft and collaborators. In recent years, Doxas has concocted a brand-new trio alongside pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Thomas Morgan. The trio will perform new music by Doxas written for specifically for the occasion, in anticipation of a recording session for the trio’s debut album.

In an wide-ranging, back-and-forth conversation, Doxas and Gallery staff writer Noah Fishman discuss poetry, musical mentors, and the happy accidents of composition.

Chet Doxas: I’m on your website to refresh my memory of your work: I’m looking at your writing now, and am curious about your approach to poetry—I’ve also been starting to write poetry myself.

Noah Fishman: It’s funny you mention that, because poetry used to be a larger part of my life, but recently, I’ve only been writing poetically when I’m either starting a new composition, or if I’m writing down a dream. Do you sit down and say “I’m going to write a poem now,” and then a poem comes out? 

CD: I wrote my first poem at the beginning of the summer. So far, it’s getting me into a space that I’m trying to become more familiar with while improvising. This ties into the trio with Ethan and Thomas too, and the music I’ve been writing for us. I’m trying to write from the space where things reveal themselves, instead of–for lack of a better word–forcing things. Did you study music formally?

NF: Yes, in a number of different settings.

CD: I’m choosing my words carefully, because I want to avoid labels in my head, but do you ever find yourself wrestling with how you learned music?

NF: Great question. My upbringing is formal yet multifaceted. I’ve studied in a lot of traditional roots/folk music communities–Irish, Swedish, Old Time, Bluegrass, Appalachian, New England. I studied electronic music at a conservatory in Paris, I studied contemporary music at universities in the US, I studied jazz with teachers and mentors through various schools. They’re all “formal,” but they’re all so different. I find that I’m able to see musical things from different perspectives without having to leave the category of “music education.”

CD: That plays into a bigger character study about how people deal with their own education. It’s making me think back to something I’ve been working on myself, with the help of Ellery Eskelin. I’ve been making monthly visits up to his apartment, and recommending it strongly to people. He’s the closest thing I’ve had to one of those mystical mentors. You know those legendary piano teachers that people visit? Like Sophia Rosoff? The greatest piano players, jazz and classical, paid visits to her apartment, everyone from Brad Mehldau and Barry Harris to Jacob Sacks and Ethan Iverson. You face a lot of yourself in those lessons. A scale is never mentioned, nothing like that. With Ellery, we talk about the magic of music, and to be in the presence of that spirit reminds me of all these beautiful community-oriented musics you mentioned. Basically, I feel like dealing with your past, accepting yourself, and feeling good about your journey have everything to do with what you’re going to do next.

NF: It sounds like either now, or in the recent past, something about the way you think about music has frustrated you, and you’re looking to have your horizons widened.

CD: In a sense, I feel like I’ve been at a bit of an impasse. Last time we spoke, that was right when I discovered that paintings trigger a lot of music in me. At the time, I had been pretty hard on myself, practicing and never feeling great after I play, beating myself up. Why? Where does all that stuff come from? You don’t have to look far to realize that a lot of it comes from fear, ego, and unrealistic expectations.

NF: So you’re saying those expectations and fears have ties to “formal” music education?

CD: I won’t go that far. School can help you become enchanted by the ways in which music is one of the great gifts. I’m approaching it that way now, yet it’s taken me a long time to notice that aspect of music as much as I have in the past year. I’m absolutely enchanted by that reality. The music you mentioned has a community spirit, which is so beautiful: My wife grew up on the east coast of Canada, and to this day, you finish dinner and you go in the kitchen and you play and dance, like a ‘ceilidh’ in the Irish tradition. That’s still alive there. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the social aspect of that music that I think are lacking in formal education. Yet, at the same time, I don’t want to bad-mouth schools, because schools can truly open your mind to a lot of things.


Photos courtesy of the artists.

New projects, fresh ideas, and “first times” always have their challenges. For Harish Raghavan and Savannah Harris, their ongoing mentorship series has layers of newness. For their first show together at The Jazz Gallery, Raghavan mentioned that “not only was it my first time playing with Savannah, it was my first time with Morgan Guerin, my first time with Maria Grand, and my first time playing my own music with John Escreet, and Eden Ladin soon. Everything was new. There were no expectations. I don’t know what’s gonna happen next: That’s exciting.”

For background on the musicians and the mentorship series, we did a short piece introducing the mentorship here. Speaking on the phone with both Harris and Raghavan, we caught up after their Jazz Gallery show, and will chat with both of them once more at the end of their project.

The Jazz Gallery: Harish, was Savannah on your radar before you got paired together at The Jazz Gallery?

Harish Raghavan: Without a doubt. I met Savannah when she first moved to New York a few years ago. She grew up with some of my friends that I play with a lot, Ambrose Akinmusire and Justin Brown. They watched her grow up in Oakland, they’ve known her for a long time, so we had some familiarity. But I hadn’t heard her play until recently. I heard her with Aaron Parks, and she sounded great. Playing with her felt the same. Very talented.

TJG: Savannah, what were your first impressions of the gig at the Gallery?

Savannah Harris: It went well! I was definitely nervous, which was interesting for me. I always feel like I want to do well, but, I was nervous! The first set was cool. We were coming together and gelling. The second set was very powerful. It was tight. People we love came out and supported, it created a really nice environment.

TJG: Did your nerves change throughout the night?

SH: No! [Laughs] I can’t really say why. It wasn’t a fear of not being able to execute, though. For Harish, the execution of the music is really just at the base level for him. There’s a lot more to get into beyond just being able to play it. I was trying to get there. I had fear about getting there, and whether it would hit. It did hit, so I was very pleased after it was all said and done, and I think he did too.

TJG: What do you mean when you say that for Harish, there’s so much more than getting it right?

SH: Yesterday, we talked on the phone and had a little debrief, and shared a sense of what to do going forward. Harish said that the intention behind his music is that we are free of our traditional roles. Rather than “rhythm section being there to anchor, support, and accompany,” we actually are there as equivalent soloists. It makes the job of the rhythm section more complicated. In addition to being able to shape the music, support and accompany, you have to be so comfortable doing that that you’re able to engage as a soloist throughout the whole show. It takes it to the next level.

TJG: Harish, were catalyzing moments in your career where you started to push against the “traditional role” of the bassist?

HR: Never any particular moments, more like particular musicians. As bass players, we love the instrument, the pedagogy, the history, we love listening to everyone from Walter Page to Daryl Johns and everyone in between, you know. We’re always checking out what’s happening with the instrument. You start to understand the roles based on the history of the instrument and how different bass players were able to open up serious ideas of roles. We do have to understand what the significance of this instrument is, but it’s less about roles because often times, roles are bound by rules, and then things can become contrived. To be in the moment, you need to find the right kind of people, where understanding the foundation, history, and the role of their instruments is all secondary.