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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Rebecca Zola

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.

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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…)

Photo courtesy of http://godwinlouis.com

Photo courtesy of http://godwinlouis.com

Last year, for his 2014 Jazz Gallery commission project, saxophonist Godwin Louis composed a set of music inspired by the music of Haiti and its links to the origins of jazz. Since then, Louis’s musical pursuits have taken him even further afield to Europe and West Africa. A keen musical observer and inveterate composer, Louis has continued to grow as a musician, incorporating these new influences into his personal style.

This Saturday, Godwin Louis returns to The Jazz Gallery for the first time since his commission performance, presenting new compositions alongside some old favorites. We caught up with Louis last week to talk about his travels, his new band, and the preparations for his debut album.

The Jazz Gallery  I’d like to start with a pretty general question—what have you been up to musically lately? Have you been working on a new album?

Godwin Louis: I’ve been continuing the writing process. I enjoy writing a lot, so I’m always trying to keep up. I was fortunate enough that when I lived in New Orleans during my days in the Thelonious Monk Institute, I got to study with the great Roger Dickerson. He taught Terrence Blanchard, several of the men in the Marsalis clan, and so on. We spent two years studying counterpoint, and I remember he would always tell me, “Write! Write! Write every day, write drafts, put them away, bring them back later and finish it.” So I’ve been writing a lot.

Actually since my commission to premiere some work last year by The Jazz Gallery, I’ve spent a little bit of time in West Africa. I went to Benin, Senegal, and Ghana, and then spent a lot of time in Haiti trying to understand that connection between the two regions. I’m also trying to understand who I am, because as someone who is American-born of Haitian descent, I found that a lot of Haitians, slaves came from West Africa, so I wanted to see for myself.

In terms of performing, I’ve been touring a bit. I was fortunate to go to Europe with the great drummer Al Foster, so that was a wonderful lesson for me. We did a tribute to Art Blakey that was with Doug Weiss on bass, and Dave Bryant on piano. It was a little weird for me at times, as I’m a very rhythmic player, and I worked hard trying to understand his rhythmic falls. It was a great learning experience.

Also, I’ve been working on an album—my debut album actually. The work is based on the compositions that I wrote for my residency at the Gallery last year, plus some other works, I should be out soon—I’m just looking at whether a label will pick it up and things like that. I just have to mix and master it. I was gonna try to release it in July, but once again I have to figure some stuff out so hopefully it will be out in the fall. 

TJG: Do you have a name for the record yet?

GL: Yeah, it’s gonna be called Global, because of my global perspective on the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel and see a lot, and I think that the album features influences from where I’ve been. For example, I wrote this prayer that’s in different languages. I have my great friends Ilan Bar-Lavi and Shelly Tzarafi doing a Hebrew version of a prayer, then there’s a Korean verse. I have songs in Spanish, some stuff that include some Haitian influence, some African influence, some “ding ding-a-ling” straight ahead… That’s why I feel like it’s definitely a global album. It stems from all my influences, all my favorite composers—like Hermeto Pascoal, Haitian composers Ludovic Lamothe and Occide Jeanty, Angelique Kidjo who’s this African singer, and this great English composer Django Bates.

TJG: How specifically have these travels impacted your writing?

GL: It definitely has—not so much from the Benin side, in terms of authenticity—but I think it definitely has influence on the way I compose. I’ve noticed that there is a lot of similarity in terms of rhythm to Haiti, a lot of the 6/8 forms, but the difference is in Haiti and the Afro-Caribbean world, you still have a lot of duple-meter. I feel like over there at least from my experience was a lot of triple meter, 6/8, 3/4. But in Haiti and Cuba, the Afro-Caribbean world, I feel like you find a lot of mixing between the duple meter and the 6/8. I love that concept, and I’ve been trying to add odd meter to that. I feel like as an American from the American continent, we are mixed some way. I feel like I am a mix of all these different cultures, so I try to present that—with the jazz harmony, the Caribbean rhythm.

Of course the rhythmic components of jazz come from the Caribbean, and we don’t hear that stressed enough in jazz history or in school, but it’s absolutely taken from the Caribbean. The rhythmic component of jazz was conceived in New Orleans, but through the influences of Haiti and the Caribbean. So I’m trying to bring all those components together.

And whenever I travel to Benin or wherever I’m going, I try to make a conscious effort to digest what I’m hearing, and if it inspires a composition, sure, but if not, I don’t want it to be forced. Again, I always think of Roger Dickerson—write a draft, put it away, come back to it, well ok I hear this now, ok, and if I happen to hear influence from a place that I visited, sure, but I believe in the natural process.

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Photo by Jeremy Powell, courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Jeremy Powell, courtesy of the artist.

You never know where you’re going to find trumpeter Jonathan Powell on a given night in New York. He could be playing high-energy Latin music with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, or backing up big-name Hip-Hop artists like Slick Rick or Snoop Dogg. Or you might find him holding sway at the Blue Note late at night with nu Sangha, a group that distills Powell’s varied musical influences into a potent whole.

This Thursday, April 23rd, Powell and nu Sangha will perform two sets at The Jazz Gallery. Last year, the group recorded a new album backed by 200 supporters via Kickstarter. The result, Beacons of Light, will be coming out later this year. We caught up with Powell to talk about his concept for the album and the joys and challenges of leading a band in New York.

The Jazz Gallery: You were named the Best Latin Jazz Trumpeter by the blog Latin Jazz Corner in 2009. What first inspired you to explore Latin music?

Jonathan Powell: Growing up in Florida, there’s a large Hispanic community there, so we had quite a bit of Latin music on the radio, what they call ‘Tropical,’ for the broad term of music from the Caribbean. I used to hear a lot of salsa, and various other forms of Latin music, so that was my first exposure to it. I always enjoyed listening to those stations with my brother. When I finally moved to New York in 2001, I knew a few of my friends from Florida who had also moved, the Garcia-Herreros Brothers, Juan and Victor on drums and bass respectively. They were heavily into Latin music, coming from a Colombian background. They had acquired a gig with a salsa band in New Jersey that worked quite a bit at the time called ‘La Creacion,’ so right when I moved to New York I started playing with them. It just kind of happened out of being at the right place at the right time, but also having respect for the music and having listened to it a lot as a younger man. From there it kind of took a long time to develop, as far as the high notes and everything, and physically be able to play the stuff that’s required in that music.

TJG: And your brother Jeremy also plays with you in the city a lot right?

JP: Yeah he’s in my band too playing sax. He’s a phenomenal musician and composer in whatever style he decides to do.

TJG: You describe your upcoming album Beacons of Light as having compositions that are meditations on or tributes to great spiritual or revolutionary minds of our age. Who are some of these people who have inspired these compositions?

JP: So each tune has it’s subject or person of interest, and just going down the line, it’s Aung San Suu Kyi. She was a democracy advocate in Burma, her father was the prince or king I think, and there was a military overthrow, and her father was killed. She was placed under house arrest for 20 years. So she’s the first subject. Then there’s a Christian Mystic from Cyprus named Stylianos Atteshlis, and then the original Siddhartha Buddah. Then there’s Rumi, the great Sufi mystic and poet. There’s a doctor named Robert Lanza who’s done a lot of work on stem cell research, but he’s also come up with a theory called biocentrism, a theory on why life exists. After him, (I’m just going down the track list in my head), there’s Mahatma Ghandi, then Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and then the last one is Tenzin Gyatsou, the 14th (current) Dalai Lama.

TJG: How did you decide on this particular theme for the album?

JP: I’ve already been really interested in this kind of subject matter—people that seek to better themselves and their environment in positive ways, and do it in peaceful manner. I’ve always been reading about these kinds of people and trying to find my own place in that. I want to do something good with my life with whatever talent I have, and with the music that I produce, so it was just logical. When I came up with this idea, it was amazing because as soon as I started writing these tunes, it was so easy. These are people that inspire me so much, and in my mind there was a sound behind each person, and kind of the vibe of what they did and what they accomplished.

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INTRODUCING SPARKLER from Peter Apfelbaum on Vimeo.

As a high school senior in Berkeley, California in the late ’70s, multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum founded a big band called the Hieroglyphics Ensemble featuring some friends and classmates like pianist Benny Green, saxophonist Craig Handy, and trumpeter Steven Bernstein. Since then, Apfelbaum has been an inveterate explorer of the craggy landscapes between different musical styles, working with an eclectic group of musicians from trumpeter Don Cherry, to guitarist Trey Anastasio, to synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla.

While Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble is still going strong today, he has recently put together a new group—SPARKLER—a multi-generational ensemble that mixes adventuresome improvisation with danceable grooves and song-oriented material. SPARKLER will make their Jazz Gallery debut this Saturday, March 28th. We caught up with Apfelbaum to talk about the group’s origins and his poly-stylistic musical approach.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been working with SPARKLER since the Fall of 2012. Can you tell us a little more about how this group started, and how this particular group of people came together?

Peter Apfelbaum: Natalie is unofficially my goddaughter. She is the daughter of a really long time friend and collaborator, Jeff Cressman who plays trombone with Santana, and he is married to Sandy Cressman who is a singer and does a lot of Brazillian Jazz, and Natalie grew up with her younger sister who plays violin. So Natalie grew up in a really musical household and I’ve known her since she was born. By the time she was about twelve, you could hear that she was really developing a sense of phrasing on the trombone, and by the time she got to be in her mid-teens, she had become a really strong improviser and could also sing really well, and had had some actual training from her mom, so people used to joke that she could play like her dad and sing like her mom. She also dances and plays bass—she’s really multitalented. So when Natalie came out to Manhattan School of Music, she was already subbing with my big band, New York Hieroglyphics. Even when my regular trombonist Josh Roseman was able to do the gigs, we just kept her on and we had two trombones instead of one. I just kept thinking, I really want to do something with Natalie singing.

About three years ago I was thinking that I wanted to write lyrics more, and I kept having ideas that would come from random things, like even conversations overheard in an airport, or something like that. I wanted to steer away from writing a song in the conventional sense, part of it being because it was a little intimidating. I’ve always written music and lyrics have been a little bit more challenging for me. But I also was getting into groups like Cibo Matto, a more downtown group that got really big in the 90s, and they just got back together (they’re these two Japanese women who do kind of rap, and they’ll have songs about food and random stuff). So I started realizing that the subject matter could be actually really broad, and I could write lyrics that wouldn’t necessarily be a song. I could focus on a groove, which is kind of one thing that I’ve always done, and then have lyrics come in and out. So Natalie was important in that, and we started getting together.

And I thought I’d like to have two horn players that can play and sing, so I thought of Jill Ryan because I’d met her a few years before in Nevada when she was in high school, and I knew she could play really well. I’ve always liked the sound of alto sax and trombone together, and I decided I wanted to play more keyboards, so that I could focus on the bass line, because in this type of music that we’re doing which is more electronic and funk and kind of dubbed out stuff, the bass has to be really big, like bigger than it would be in a normal jazz group, so I wanted to be able to control that, so I’m doing keyboard bass, and then Natalie and Jill can sing and rap so I’m having fun with that.

TJG: Cool! So you’re saying you want to have a larger bass sound for dancing. Do you see the group playing in a more dance hall kind of setting?

PA: Definitely, I want to. The interesting thing about the group is that there’s a lot of ways we can go, but that’s the direction that a lot of the music that we’re doing is in because I realized I’ve been in clubs where something’s really strong but it’s musically not always super interesting, and I wanted to change that. I’ve always loved reggae because the bass is really big, it feels like you’re in a big cloud of bass, so I wanted to do something with a really strong rhythm.

In Hieroglyphics, there’s a lot of stuff with odd time signatures and even open time but with SPARKLER it’s pretty much always even time signatures, you know like 4/4, 6/8, or some permutation of those, because I want it to translate in a really universal way. But the other thing is, I get bored if all we do is grooves and lyrics and themes. To have a rich musical experience and express myself all the way there has to be some improvisation and some more subtle stuff too, so when we play The Jazz Gallery that’s gonna be a nice opportunity for us to get more into the more improvisational, subtle side of the band. When we first started doing festivals two years ago, it was great to see several hundred people dancing, or like shouting—I love that and that’s something we want to do more—but for this upcoming gig, it’s also gonna allow us to do some more of our nuanced stuff too.

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