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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

Photo by Rachel Thalia Fisher, courtesy of the artist.

Camila Meza engages listeners by sharing her unique experiences and personal longings. Hers are stories of movement, both journeys and emergences.

On the heels of her studio release Ámbar (Sony Masterworks), the Chilean-born singer, guitarist and composer returns to the bandstand to perform Portal, her 2019 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission. While composing the project, Meza chose to explore new music in an instrumental context unfamiliar to her, in part, so she could inhabit one of Portal’s essential themes: the struggle to seek and find solutions to hard questions.

Ahead of her performance, Meza spoke with the Jazz Speaks about joys and challenges of creating possibilities, her connection to vocal harmony, and the enduring aesthetic of “layering” in her work.

The Jazz Gallery: In terms of instrumentation, this project is a departure from your work with the Nectar Orchestra.

Camila Meza: I’d say so. Although in its quantity, it’s similar. It’s a lot of people.

TJG: And you’ve been playing with and composing for Nectar over the past three years—or longer than that?

CM: Well [the Nectar] project started maybe around six years ago but, in the middle, I was taking care of Traces. There was some sort of hiatus for that album, so the last three years have been totally dedicated to Ámbar.

TJG: In what ways do you feel your compositions have expanded—or maybe your compositional style has expanded—as a result of spending so much time with the orchestra?

CM: Having the possibility to experiment with a larger group of people, a wider instrumentation, it really, intuitively gives you so many more options in terms of arranging and landscaping the songs and compositions. It puts you in a position of having to pay a lot of attention to detail and ask yourself “How am I going to use all of these sounds in a cohesive way so that I take advantage of them and also use them in a way that serves the music?”

TJG: Did you ever find those possibilities overwhelming, or did you always sort of find them to be intriguing?

CM: Both. It definitely enhances your creativity. You suddenly have more colors to play with, which sounds enticing, but you’re also in front of another problem to solve. You have to pay attention so you’re able to use these colors without overusing them only because you have them in front of you. That’s the challenge.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Vibraphonist-composer Nikara Warren combines a broad lineage of music with the very personal and diverse artistry she grew up embracing in her native Brooklyn, creating new music that confronts injustice and celebrates humanity.

While her debut recording Black Wall Street awaits release, Warren invites the Black Wall Street band back to The Jazz Gallery stage for the final performance of her Political Gangster Trilogy, which offers original interpretations of music from Nina Simone and Me’Shell Ndegeocello. In her interview with Jazz Speaks, Warren discusses similarities and differences in political inquiries through music, the atmospheres she creates for listeners, and the universal need—and love—for the process.

The Jazz Gallery: You have a connection to the human voice—this performance in more of a literal way, many of the horn parts for Black Wall Street to have kind of a choral quality, and you sing through your instrument—listeners can hear you sing while you play, and you’ve been known to grab the mic yourself in different contexts. In what ways has the decision to become politically gangster with your artistry given you a stronger connection to the human voice?

Nikara Warren: Well politics, that’s what it’s all about—people speaking their truths—which is also what music is all about. I’m not really someone who enjoys talking about politics; if I’m hanging out, it’s not on the list of things I want to chat about. But, because of the state of the country and the world, I feel like I guess I have to be. And I don’t always know that my words can really do it. But [the state we’re in] has forced me to find ways to make statements, musically, that were directly related to my political stance, which I guess is kind of difficult – being able to say things with no words, because I don’t always have them.

TJG: I’d like to read you a quotation from the one-sheet for Me’Shell’s Ventriloquism.

NW: Okay.

TJG: “In times so extreme and overwhelming, when there is no known expression for the feeling, no satisfactory direction for art or action, then [artists] might take refuge in a process, a ritual, something familiar, the shape and sound of which recall another time altogether, so that they can weather the present long enough to call it the past.”

NW: Yeah that’s the blues. That’s the premise of the blues, where all this music started.

TJG: How does that sentiment resonate with your choices as an artist?

NW: The beauty of music is that it can move you. It can move you, and it can change the place that you’re in mentally. And I think a lot of the reason artists make art is to reflect the times emotionally, or what’s going on. So there are times for artists when things are difficult, you might want to cling on to, or submerge yourself in a process that maybe feels like home. For a lot of artists, that’s just creating—being creative. Because, if you do that, you can kind of weather the storm. You can get through it. Thank you for reading that.

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Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Raga Massive.

Part of mandolin master Snehasish Mozumder’s mission—and that of artist-based collective Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM)—is to create opportunities for artistic exchanges and cultural communication through engagement with Indian classical music. This engagement has deep roots in jazz and Western popular music, through the work of artists including John and Alice Coltrane, The Beatles and, of course, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Within his own project, Sound of Mandolin, Mozumder interprets his lineage through the lens of cultural curiosity and inclusion, playing Indian classical music and composing “raga-inspired” music. He has released 28 recordings as a leader, constantly seeking new situations for collaboration. Along with other members of BRM’s ensembles, Mozumder has re-envisioned the music of McLaughlin, Mahavishnu and Shakti to reflect his own expression and the movements of the moment in 2019. This McLaughlin-inspired project will play The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday, June 19.

Before the hit, we spoke with Mozumder and BRM artist and band leader/drummer Vin Scialla. Each offered thoughts on finding new paths through the music, the challenges and triumphs of spontaneity and collaboration and the mysterious power of “the drone.”

The Jazz Gallery: Snehasish—You began playing tabla at age 4. What prompted the switch to studying mandolin, which I understand is not considered traditional to Hindustani Indian classical music?

Snehasish Mozumder: [Mandolin] is Italian originally. I am from a musical family; I’m the third generation doing music. My grandfather started a style of teaching the young kids—first, tabla when you’re 4. He used to play violin and mandolin—not like me, but some songs, some initial phrases of ragas. So when I was 4, I asked for the tabla; then when I was 9 or 10, mandolin, for some initial idea of the melodic instruction. Then, when I was 16, I switched over to a traditional Indian classical instrument—I switched over to sitar.

TJG: So you continued studying mandolin while studying sitar?

SM: Exactly, because I loved the tone of the mandolin, and I noticed that what I had heard on other Indian instruments, I played that sound on the mandolin. We had a big family, so many different rooms. In one room, my father Himangshu Mozumder, very famous guitar player, he used to play light classical and modern songs also, and [in another room] my uncle was playing sitar and another uncle was playing sarod—so from that childhood, I tried to adapt that type of North Indian classical style on mandolin. That was the very start of [my artistry]. And then there was a lot of struggle.

TJG: In what ways do you feel that your first instrument being percussive offered you certain advantages as you pursued mastering other instruments?

SM: It’s like playing a new instrument in an authentic society. It’s very hard. At the initial stage, I [encountered] many problems. But, slowly, I have come out from that. My first big achievement was in 1997, my debut album Mandolin Dreams. Then I got a little bit of international notoriety in 2001, when I had my first Europe tour—Europe and Britain, both. My last concert was at London at Bharitiya Vidya Bhavan; it’s a pretty famous hall for Indian classical music. Fortunately, at this concert, Pandit Ravi Shankar ji came to listen to my music, and he liked it. Then, in 2002, he invited me to Royal Albert Hall as a soloist at the [George Harrison Memorial Concert] “Concert for George.” And now I’m getting recognition from all over the world, and in India, but I’m really grateful to American audiences because they’re always liking a new style, especially mandolin. While I am playing Indian classical style on mandolin, all the mandolin players are sitting in the front row – that’s really, very inspiring.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Perhaps more than any other force, curiosity fuels Tomeka Reid’s prolific artistry. The New York-based cellist-composer left Maryland-D.C. area for Chicago when she was a young student with the intention of disrupting her familiar comfort zones and collaborating with people she’d never met. 

 She’s released more than a dozen records as a leader and co-leader, performed with masters and emerging legends from Anthony Braxton to flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell, and recently recorded as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago for the aggregation’s 2019 release We Are on the Edge (Pi Recordings). 

Her performance at The Jazz Gallery this week celebrates Reid’s forthcoming collaborative release with drummer and producer Filippo Monico, The Mouser (Relative Pitch, 2019), with sets featuring her quartet and a duo with drummer Tomas Fujiwara.

The Jazz Gallery: There’s a distinct, intimate voice-like quality to your playing. Is that quality something you’ve developed over time, or has that always been a natural part of your expression? 

Tomeka Reid: I do think about that. Even the pieces that I write, the compositions, come as a result of me singing the melodies. So I guess it does lend itself to [the voice], and I’m flattered that you’d actually say that. As a string player, you’re trying to get the jazz language into your playing, and it’s like you’re trying to replicate horns, but you’re just not a horn player. There are certain things that are easier on those instruments and certain things that cellos can do, like double stops—those types of things are to play on string instruments. So I try to definitely incorporate all of my training—along with musicians that I’m influenced by—into my playing. 

TJG: You’ve lived in three powerhouse hubs for musical development; you were born in D.C. and raised close by in Maryland, then later you moved to Chicago as a student and now you’re here in New York. Have you noticed each of these very vibrant, very different musical environments having a distinct influence on your sound? 

 TR: I would say Chicago probably had the biggest one. When I was in Maryland-D.C. area, I wasn’t really improvising a whole bunch; I was just kind of dabbling in it. And I didn’t leave campus much, so I wasn’t participating in whatever was happening in D.C. at the time. I feel like most of my influence definitely comes from my musical life in Chicago. Coming out here, I had a band that already lived out here so I connected with them. Through various projects, I’ve connected with more New York-based musicians. But I’ve only been here about three years, so I think I’m still very much bringing my Chicago sound or voice here. 

 TJG: I read that you were a bit of a timid improviser when you began playing out in Chicago, getting involved in those sessions. Has becoming comfortable as an improviser informed your composing tendencies? 

TR: I would say it has. I think playing in a wide variety of ensembles has. I was shy about certain things, so I would write forms that I didn’t feel comfortable [playing] over, so I could write a melody over that and learn how to feel comfortable in that form. So yeah, [becoming comfortable improvising] has impacted my compositions. I use GarageBand to compose all the time. I would often record myself and play that back and write down little snippets of ideas that I liked from what I was playing.

 TJG: Do you feel as though you have more freedom in the way that you compose now? 

 TR: I do. Again, I think part of the timidity was probably because I was a shy person, but also because everyone around me seemed like they had such a clear idea of what they were doing—or they were just more familiar with the aesthetic or with the genre. The jazz that I heard prior to coming to Chicago was more straight ahead. You know, everyone knows Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder and all this hard bop or bebop type of stuff. And in Chicago, I mean they were using everything, but there was more of an emphasis on creating your own voice and composing and playing more free. And so that part was like, “Whoa. What do I—how do I do that?” because I just wasn’t exposed to it. And now I’ve had numerous opportunities to play in those contexts, so I feel more comfortable in them. I still find it challenging, and that’s probably why I keep doing it because you’re always trying to make a musical happening. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You’re always learning something from the form, and I really appreciate that. 

 TJG: You mentioned that quoting in a Chicago club is like—the kiss of death. And you can’t go into a New York club without hearing 50 million people quoting a Monk tune or something. Not every club—you’re not going to hear people at the Gallery quoting Jerome Kern, but downtown, you hear it all night long. So that seems like a striking difference between the two cities. 

 TR: Oh yeah. For me, it didn’t matter so much because I play the cello, not saxophone—meaning no one was exactly expecting me to quote too many things. But if you heard it, some people would then intentionally crash the song. I’d be thinking like, “Damn. Okay.” So that didn’t help my shyness, of course. I was like, “Okay, I don’t wanna do that,” (laughs). 

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Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of the artist.

The ability to be vulnerable in performance is a vital trait for singer-composer Emma Frank. With the release of her third album Ocean Av (Susan Records, 2018), Frank draws listeners in to the depth of her intention. Within each song, the New England native shares not only her thoughts but the often messy process that leads from one thought to another.

Only months after recording Ocean Av, Frank found herself back in the studio, settling into her forthcoming release Come Back (Justin Time, 2019) that features Aaron Parks, Franky Rousseau, Tommy Crane and Zack Lober. This Tuesday, April 16, at The Jazz Gallery, Frank and Parks, along with Rousseau, Desmond White and Daniel Dor, premiere new music from Come Back including the album’s newly-released single “I Thought.”

The Jazz Gallery: Your compositions sound and feel as though they’re very thoughtfully arranged. In terms of your process, are you typically composing at the piano or with a guitar, and does that process vary depending on the project?

Emma Frank: The instrument I write on is piano, if I’m sitting at an instrument. Sometimes I am. I guess, ideally, a song will come out kind of in one piece—not necessarily the full song itself, but just like I’m writing lyrics and chords and melody kind of at the same time. And that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, especially if I’m challenging myself to write with a musical idea that’s challenging to me, I might hone in on that before I set words to it. Or I’ll be a little bit looser with what those words are, maybe depend more on sounds to guide my lyrical process. And then there’s a lot of writing that just happens walking around.

TJG: Do you document that writing on your phone?

EF: Totally. A hundred percent.

TJG: During those instances when you feel you have to deal with the music ahead of the lyrics, do you ever find yourself revising the music based on what lyrics you come up with?

EF: Interesting question. I guess I was kind of unclear. I can’t even think of a single situation where I’ve written an entire piece and then set lyrics to it. So it’s more like 16 bars of something and I’m like, “That’s a cool idea. And here are some words to go with it. Okay. What’s next?” Really, if I don’t know what the lyrics are about, I don’t know what the piece of music is about. And I wish that I—I’m so in awe of composers that are telling fully-fledged stories musically, and have that vision all set out. And if there aren’t lyrics, it’s very rare that I do.  

TJG: We’re talking about compositions that go to some very haunting and, to me, very unexpected places harmonically and rhythmically, and it almost feels as though you’re working out certain internal struggles – human struggles – in your music.

EF: (Laughs)

TJG: Is that somewhat relevant an interpretation of your expression?

EF: Totally. It’s so spot on that it’s actually a little embarrassing to hear. The things that we set out to do and the things that we now want to do are often different. I think that I developed a bit of a philosophy for how I wanted to write music, at least in a certain period. And I don’t know if it’s the same now. But it was that listening to odd meters, listening to music that had a lot of rhythmic variation, was a way for me to learn to feel new things. I had to move with it because I didn’t always know how to count it. I had to learn how to feel it. And there were a handful of records that were just so powerful and therapeutic to me because they were introducing me to musical ideas that I had to feel and integrate physically and, at the same times, were presenting lyrics that were really deep and beautiful and powerful. I’m thinking about Becca Stevens’ album Weightless, and I just spent a lot of time, in my room, you know – modern dancing to that album (laughs), and really learning a lot from it, spiritually.

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