Posts by Rebecca Zola

Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Percussionist, composer, and improviser Rajna Swaminathan is a trailblazer in the fields of South Indian traditional music and beyond. Not only is Swaminathan one of only a few female mrudangam players in the world, she has expanded her art to encompass diverse forms of improvisation. Over the past several years, Swaminathan has been exploring this netherworld between musical styles with her group RAJAS, which features a rotating cast of top New York improvisers. This week, Swaminathan and RAJAS will make their debut at The Jazz Gallery, performing two sets of music. We caught up with her last week to hear about how she thinks about combining different musical traditions and the complex gender politics of her varied musical communities.

The Jazz Gallery: You have performed in classical South Indian concerts, with different jazz musicians, and with dance and theatre companies.  How does your foundational background in South Indian Carnatic music affect the way you approach working with dance groups, and jazz and other creative improvisational settings?

Rajna Swaminathan: The dance company that I work with is called Ragamala, and they are a South Indian dance company.  There is a branch of carnatic music that is used to accompany Bharatanatyam which is the South Indian dance style. So in that case it’s pretty much seamless, it is using the vocabulary that is traditionally used, but they also do a lot of collaborative projects with different genres of music.  So for those productions, it involves some more creative thinking, using a foundation in Carnatic music. And depending on who’s the collaborator—like, we’ve worked with Taiko drummers before, there was one project with Rudresh Mahanthappa, so that was jazz, and the most recent one was with Amir ElSaffar composing, so he brought some stuff from the Maqam tradition. So it just involves months of trying to figure out musically what’s going to work.  Also, dancers have a very specific relationship with my instrument, mrudangam, with the specific footwork in South Indian dance, so we have to try to work the music for that to match up and also to be musically somewhat seamless.

As far as the jazz scene, I’ve been a little more intensely involved over the past few years, since about 2011 I would say. I started working with Steve Coleman, so he was the first person to get me thinking outside of my perspective. There’s a kind of fusion that happens when people are just playing what they would normally play in their traditions, almost like autopilot, tracking against each other, but he was against that approach. He was like, you really have to learn how to think polyrhythmically if you’re going to be playing with jazz musicians. And there are some related concepts in South Indian music, but it involves some work and rewiring and it’s mostly been work on listening, and being able to hear.

South Indian music is so linear.  There’s usually a singer, mrudangam player, and violinist, and you’re usually expected to match each other and mirror each other almost phrase for phrase, anticipating what the other person is going to do. So the emphasis isn’t really on this polyphonic sound at all. For me to even get into the jazz scene, I had to be able to hear multiple things going on that are complementary to each other, but not in one stream of musical thought. So it required some work, directly working with Steve, and some other folks on the scene, like Vijay Iyer. At first I was just curious about this music, and I spent my undergrad studying anthropology, so I got some research funding to actually spend a Summer in New York and do field work. During that summer I got together with several drummers and musicians all in this creative music scene, went out to listen to a lot of music—a lot at the Jazz Gallery actually—just to get this music in my body, because I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of jazz, and I was very interested in learning more and being a part of the scene.

It’s really become like a home for me. I still do traditional Carnatic music gigs every once and a while, I travel to India and do that, and I’m obviously involved with the dance company, but this has been another way for me to feel at home in music, in the creative music scene. Of course, not everyone is looking for a mrudangam player, so at first it was hard to find work, and find situations where people were willing to spend the time and really write parts that made sense for me, or had the time to work on it, how would you fit a mrudangam into this context. So in 2013 I started this band, with the idea that I would write my own music, and I would try to curate my own group so that I could experiment with how I would carve out a space for myself in the creative music scene, like how would I structure things. It was just a way of running through different ideas and working with musicians that I really resonated with, and try to learn in the process. This ensemble that I have now has been three years of working with different configurations and learning the whole time, how to come from the foundation that I started with, and bring it into this completely different scene, with different sensibilities and aesthetics.

TJG: Can you talk a little bit about how you approach composition with your group RAJAS, which is a very cross-cultural improvisation based group?

RS: So basically every time there has been a slightly different instrumentation, but this particular group, we’ve been playing together for the past year or so, and I find that it’s been a really solid group of people, and compositionally it ends up reflecting who’s in the band. I compose these sort of frameworks, more or less, melodic, and to some extent harmonic and rhythmic frameworks, and it’s not so much a traditional jazz composition to play through everything and have these set solo sections, but the whole thing is like this world that you can enter, and everyone is expected to collectively improvise. It’s highly textural and involves a lot of rehearsal and finding those spaces that work best for different instruments and different people. And as I’ve been doing more shows with the group, it influences how I write, and how I direct them, and get directed by them. And I’ve worked in the past with folks like Amir ElSaffar, and Miles and Stephan, who are in this group, and they’re  all senior musicians that have a lot of experience not only in their field, but also collaborating outside their field. Miles actually has a lot of experience with South Indian rhythms, so that’s a great anchoring force in the group. I’ve been learning a lot in terms of not just composing but also curating improvisation within the group, which I think is where the focus is really at in my band.


Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo courtesy of the artist

While bassist Linda Oh has been a longtime regular at The Jazz Gallery, her recent musical pursuits have brought her farther afield. She’s recently been touring with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and next month will begin touring with guitarist Pat Metheny, the latest in a line of illustrious bassists (including Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, and Larry Grenadier) to go toe-to-toe with the great guitarist.

Last month, Oh went into the studio with a quartet of longtime collaborators including saxophonist Ben Wendel to record her next record. This Thursday, Oh will bring a similar quartet to The Jazz Gallery to perform some of this new music, as well as material from her previous record, Sun Pictures. We caught up with Linda this past week to talk about her preparations for the Metheny tour and the new musical areas she is exploring on her upcoming record.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve started playing in a new group with Pat Metheny. What’s exciting and challenging about playing with this group?

Linda Oh: We haven’t played a gig yet, but we’ve done two rehearsals. I’ve played a little bit with Pat and a little bit with Antonio Sanchez. The pianist is based in the UK, so a few weeks ago was the first time we played as a group, and yeah, it’s an invigorating experience to be playing with musicians of a higher level, also musicians who I have been listening to like Pat and Antonio. We haven’t played actually in any setting besides this, so that’s always an invigorating challenge to be put in a setting with any new musician. But honestly I do that quite often anyway. It’s great to be playing this music, some of the repertoire I’ve been listening to for a long, long time on some older records of Pat’s, but it’s definitely exciting for me to be playing with those musicians.

TJG: You mentioned that you play with a lot of different musicians and group configurations. What do you think drives you to create all the different musical groups that you’ve been a part of as a leader?

LO: There are lots of things that inspire me—there are the individual musicians themselves who I want to play with, so if I want to play with them and I want to hear them in a specific setting, then leading a band is a great way to be able to have that opportunity. And the other thing is just working on my own music and writing style, as it sits with these individual voices and musicians. And also in improving my own compositional style, it’s also a good challenge to experiment with different instrumentations, different individuals and their different strengths and weaknesses and capabilities.

TJG: One musician that you’ve been developing a musical relationship with for a few years now is Ben Wendel, who you’ll be playing with at the Jazz Gallery. I was wondering if you could share how you guys started playing together, and what your musical relationship has been like and how it’s grown over the past years since you’ve been playing.

LO: I guess one of the first times that I played with Ben was at a session and I can’t remember which session it was, but we’ve done many sessions over the years with various groups, just playing for fun in Brooklyn, up in Harlem. Plus Ben is on my third record Sun Pictures. We’ve also played in Justin Brown’s group once together, we’ve played with the La Boeuf brothers, other groups like that. There’s a group called Lage, which I believe debuted at The Jazz Gallery, which was kind of a collective thing with me, Ben, Julian, Aaron Parks, and Rodney Green. Ben’s an incredible musician and reader, and he’s a leader in many ways when he plays, and it’s really refreshing to play with him in different settings, and obviously I’ve heard him a lot with the band Kneebody. He’s not only a great saxophonist, but he’s also a great producer. He has a very organized mentality, he’s very good at getting things done, and he’s a very proactive person in general. It’s very inspiring to be around.


Photo by Phil Knot.

Photo by Phil Knot.

2015 has been a big year for vocalist Sachal Vasandani—he released his fourth album as a leader featuring all original compositions, Slow Motion Miracles, on Sony’s Okeh imprint and followed that release with extensive touring around the world. Back home in New York this month, Sachal has been focusing on a different project, celebrating the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra. Earlier this month, Sachal performed this material at the Jazz Standard with a big band. But this Tuesday, December 22nd, he returns to The Jazz Gallery to perform more intimate versions of Sinatra’s classic repertoire, featuring an ace young trio of James Francies on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums.

We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Sachal by phone to hear about how he made his deftly-orchestrated new album, and how performing his own material live informs his approach to singing old standards.

The Jazz Gallery: Your latest album, Slow Motion Miracles (Okeh), is an amalgam of musical styles, including indie-hip-hop, pop, electronica, Afro-beat, and jazz. Could you talk a little bit about what inspired you to move into this new musical sound, a bit of a departure from a typical jazz record?

Sachal Vasandani: Sure, the inspiration just kind of came from allowing myself to lead with my pen. If I lead with my songwriting, then some different styles flow out, and they are a reflection of the styles that you mentioned, and more, you know? They are held together by melodies and lyrics that have a certain resonance at this time for me, so making a record that is led by that process is going to be a little bit different than one that is led by only my singing or only my interpreting other people’s music.

TJG: Do you want to share about your composition process? Do you have a specific way you go about writing your music? What does that look like for you?

SV: When I compose, I try to respond to inspiration from a few different sources.  One is melodies that stick in my head, and come from nowhere, really, they just stay with me.  Another is chords—chord progressions that I play that move in a certain way that just happen when I play the piano. Another is rhythm—they speak, they come into my head, that I want to respond to; and then another is lyric, different lyrical themes or ideas, often times just phrases or little words that stick in my head, or I repeat to myself, and I have a hard time getting away from them, although sometimes I want to, and so they come out in song. So I try to be ready for all those by kind of having the sheet music and a voice memo, and my logic on my computer and my piano handy, some combination of those handy so that I can flesh out ideas, and then the song is hatched you could say.  Then I start a long editing process, and I take the best of all those songs, which is a lot, and then I cut stuff out, and maybe add a few little things here there everywhere, and those end up being the songs that end up on the record.

TJG: You’ve been touring internationally a lot lately. What has the experience of touring been like for you? What’s something that you may have learned from touring?

SV: It’s just been a lot of fun, and it’s been diverse in terms of not just the places you’ve mentioned, but the opportunities, you know? I experienced a lot of those places for the first time this year. I had never been to, for example, Brazil, Finland, or Korea before, so that was new and fun. I think what’s really nice is just sharing music with people and seeing people respond, especially when I sing my new songs, or seeing people listen, and I have to say it’s a pretty great feeling, it’s pretty simple.

TJG: Do you have a fun/funny story from the tour you could share?

SV: Well just a recent experience is I did a gig at Mezzrow in New York, with Taylor Eigsti the pianist, and he’s played my music for a really, really long time, and he always finds new tempos and new harmonic elements to introduce to my songs, so I was really happy, I was almost laughing—I mean I didn’t because I had to sing, I mean it’s not so much funny like ha-ha, it’s funny like, this man is amazing and he’s been in my group now for a few years and he’s always finding new ways to attack music that I’ve written.  So there’s a song that I wrote from my first album, and Taylor plays it as a solo piece, and I said to the audience after, you know you got a guy building a mansion out of a composition that was basically built like a tin shack. So that’s how he played the song. It’s pretty awesome.


Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo courtesy of the artist

For drummer and composer Guilhem Flouzat, creating the music for his new album Portraits (Coming out October 10th on Sunnyside) was a multidisciplinary process. Flouzat created personal portraits of many people who have inspired his musical journey through image, word, and song. Each composition on the album is not only dedicated to a different friend and musician, but also utilizes those musician’s favored styles and invites them to perform on each work. In addition, the accompanying album booklet features Flouzat’s own writings about his subjects and photographs specially designed to bring out the musical personality of each subject. We caught with Flouzat recently to talk about the process of making Portraits, and his musical origins.

The Jazz Gallery: You just finished a successful indiegogo campaign for your new album. Can you tell us a bit about some of the challenges and highlights of running a crowd-funding campaign, and why you decided you wanted to do it?

Guilhem Flouzat: First of all, the reason I decided to do it is that in this day and age it’s very hard to find any kind of label that will fund a recording. So I was either going to have to use my savings, or put money on the side which is difficult in New York, so I decided to do the crowd-funding campaign. It was a little counter-intuitive, because I’m not a great fan of self-promotion, so one of the challenges was putting myself out there, asking people for money, and having to consider that your project is good enough to ask money for. But it turned out to be very rewarding because it turned into an interpersonal thing. It was a way to reach out to people and get back in touch with people that I hadn’t seen in years, and I realized that in a way having to explain to people what your project is about helps you figure out what the project actually is about. It was a great experience—it still is:  I’m still in touch with all the donors, and I write a regular newsletter now.

TJG: What inspired you to write in portrait form?

GF: As a composer, I tend to draw inspiration from other composers, and other people in general. And so, friendships mean a lot to me. My friends are my moral compasses in life. It’s thanks to them that I know who I am, and the same goes musically. I know who I am as a musician thanks to the musicians that I play with and I really trust, so it made perfect sense for me to start writing about these people that inspire me. At first it came naturally, and after a while it became a challenge to go all the way, and form a whole gallery of portraits like the first ones I wrote. But it was over the course of two years I think that I wrote all of them.

TJG: Could you name a couple of the composers that inspire you to write and be a musician?

GF: I grew up in Paris, and my grandmother was a classical pianist, so I grew up listening to a lot of classical French composers, especially Debussy, Ravel, and Poulenc. I think deep down this deep sense of melody and these slightly modal but still tonal harmonies in Ravel are my core language, what moves me the most. So there’s that, but then there’s all the composers, all the people who have been working on the album like Ben Wendel and Lauren Coq, who are very careful composers and have a great sense for shaping compositions and telling a story with them, so it was also great to write for people who were composers themselves, because I could use their material and approach.

TJG: How did this specific group of people come together? Especially this instrumentation of having 2+ saxophones, flute, and a vocalist?

GF: The whole thing is that it’s really not based on any kind of orchestrational needs or considerations. I basically just wanted these people, not as instruments, as much as people/persons/artists, and I wanted all of them to be on the album, and so I found a way. It didn’t necessarily make sense—some of the tracks you have two tenors and one alto. If I just had to write the tune I would probably not use the same, but it had to be these people because they have been with me along the journey since the start.

TJG: Did you meet these people while you were studying at Manhattan School of Music?

GF: I wasn’t studying composition at MSM—I was a drum set major—but I took composition classes. One of the great things about MSM is you can also go in the classical department, and these are people that I met in the first years that I was there, and with whom I clicked, and who are extremely close friends. And then Ben, I met because I admired him, and so I came up to him, and he recorded my first album, like five years ago now. And Laurent was the person who recommended me to go to New York when I was twenty two. He was one of my first mentors. So the one person that’s not been in my life for more than six years is Becca Stevens, and it’s also because songwriting hasn’t been in my life for that long. This is the first time I’m attempting to write songs with lyrics, and I found that she had the exact kind of stylistic flexibility, and she’s an amazing interpreter and artist overall. To say that she didn’t disappoint me is a big understatement.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Victor Gould has become a staple sideman for many, and he’s also becoming a staple here at the Jazz Gallery. Gould is making his second appearance as a leader of his own trio this Saturday, August 15th, and we are excited to see what he has prepared for us in between his nonstop global touring with the likes of Wallace Roney, Etienne Charles, Sean Jones, and others. Victor could be described as an old soul—his comfort and mastery with his instrument defies his young age, and that is probably why musicians such as Donald Harrison and Ralph Peterson have taken him under their wings and included him in their musical ventures.

This Saturday, Victor will be joined by Ben Williams on bass, and John Davis on drums, two other musicians whose experiences belie their ages. We look forward to hearing some new compositions and arrangements by Victor and this youthful, energetic trio.  (more…)