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Posts by Stephanie Jones

Photo via www.jasonpalmermusic.com

Destined for a life lived prolifically, Jason Palmer grew up in High Point, North Carolina, two houses away from where John Coltrane spent his childhood. From a hometown legacy, the trumpet player/composer gleaned inspiration for his own creativity and output.

Palmer came to Boston in 1997 to study at New England Conservatory,  and now teaches down the street at Berklee College of Music. This weekend, Palmer brings his chordless quartet to New York for a live recording of brand new music and previously unrecorded compositions. We caught up with Jason to discuss his work ethic, a moment with Wayne Shorter he’s never forgotten, and the case for leaving space.

The Jazz Gallery: I can barely keep track of how many records you’ve put out as a leader. What’s the current total?

Jason Palmer: I’ve kind of lost track over the years. I have one coming out this month, and I had one come out last month. I did a double live disc at Wally’s, so I think it’s eight. I got two in the can.

TJG: Your rate of releasing album-length material is rigorous. Over the years, you’ve released many inspired recordings including your interpretations of Minnie Riperton’s music and more recently Janelle Monáe’s. Has that degree of output always come naturally to you? Do you ever struggle with the pressure of releasing new music, particularly in the age of streaming?

JP: The whole streaming thing hasn’t really bothered me as much as I think it should. I try not to worry too much; I try to focus more on putting work out there to hopefully inspire people. I don’t necessarily think of it as a revenue generating endeavor as much as other projects that I do—teaching and composing and commissions.

So yes, it’s been easy for me because I’ve written a lot of material I haven’t had a chance to record and put out. I probably have a waiting list of about 100 tunes that I want to eventually record and put out there. And it’s a great opportunity to do it next week [at the Gallery], which is going to be a mix of old tunes I’ve written but haven’t recorded, and I recently composed a set of original music that we’re going to do, as well. I think we’re going to have enough to do a double disc. If all goes well, we’ll have enough takes between the four sets on Friday and Saturday.

TJG: Because you don’t put that revenue-driven pressure on yourself to put out these records, I wonder if that helps the process remain natural for you, year to year.

JP: Yes, and I’m lucky because I’ve been working with Steeplechase for six or seven, maybe eight albums. I have one in the can for them now; we did the music of Anita Baker. I recorded that back in December. And my agreement with them is that I can release one record every year. This year I happened to be able to put out two. So they offer me that commercial platform, and I’m sure if I didn’t have them, I would do it independently, which is what I’m going to do with the new record that’s going to be live at the Gallery.

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Design by Cecile McLorin Salvant, courtesy of the artist.

Anyone who follows Melissa Aldana’s career might recognize generations of influences deep within her playing. Still, the tenor player and composer has managed to merge these contrasting lineages into a distinctive voice. After four records as a leader, myriad awards and recognitions and countless hikes up the steps of “the old” Jazz Gallery with her horn slung across her back, Melissa returns to the first venue that gave her a platform for experimentation when she came to New York from Santiago, Chile nearly a decade ago.

This Friday and Saturday, Melissa premieres Visions for Frida Kahlo, her 2018 commission project for The Jazz Gallery. In her interview, she celebrates the new generation of experimenters, reveals the words that changed the way she views the gig, and discusses her relationship with Frida Kahlo and interdisciplinary art forms.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re known for embracing a range of sound, including some very challenging music. One way you’ve shared how you shed harmony on an unknown tune is through finding common notes in a progression, and I would imagine the entire tune. When you approach practicing an original composition, do you use the same strategy you use when you’re learning an unknown tune or someone else’s music?

Melissa Aldana: Yes, for me it’s always the same process. Either for a standard or an original tune—my original or somebody else’s—I usually approach it as a transcription. When I transcribe, I learn a solo by heart. It’s kind of the same process where I would just try to memorize the melody, then try to memorize the harmony. When you’re more comfortable with it, you can really ‘get started’ instead of thinking about chord changes. So that is why every time I play with somebody else or with my own band, I always try to do everything by heart, because it’s easier for me to express.

TJG: So when you come to the gig having everything memorized, you’re saying it gives you a bit more freedom to make a statement?

MA: Yes. For example, this weekend I was playing with Sullivan Fortner at the Jazz Standard and with him—or with any gig—I just always memorize it, because when I’m not thinking about it, it’s easier for me to try and say something.

TJG: Speaking of live tendencies, when you first came to New York, you had a number of live experiences just trying to get out on the scene and find your voice. Can you talk a little bit about how you got your butt kicked on the bandstand and at sessions, and why getting your butt kicked matters?

MA: Yes, I got it kicked most of time. When I first moved to New York, I used to go to Smalls a lot. I would go to jam sessions a lot. It wasn’t just that I was getting my butt kicked, but I was dealing with my own insecurities. And also, when you’re doing jam sessions, the situation is never ideal. Usually for me it’s one of the most uncomfortable situations, so it really teaches you to be firm with what you want to say, and try to be more about, ‘What can we do so the music sounds more together?’ and less about just going and playing a solo. So my first few years I did go a lot to jam sessions to break the ice and [lose] the fear to just play and be comfortable with the situation.

And I always try to surround myself with people who play much better than me, so that way I can get my ass kicked. Part of why I came to New York was to get better – so I think that getting your ass kicked is a very important part of being in New York. Coming from South America, or places like where I came from, you don’t get these kinds of experiences. New York pushes you to be better. And it’s not just getting your ass kicked, it’s also going to great concerts, playing sessions with great people – younger people, older people – it’s more about the experience.

TJG: And I guess for the first time, really, you’re not the youngest generation, and now you’re calling players from the new ‘generation,’ so that must be a new experience for you, too.

MA: I know, I feel old! I’ve always been the youngest—always. And now I can see these young kids, for example Immanuel Wilkins, who play so great, and they’re so talented and so mature, but at such a young age that it’s actually really inspiring and encouraging. I haven’t seen a generation of so many really strong musicians since I moved here. In three years, they’re going to be on another planet. It’s really cool to see it happen.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

When a 13-year-old American kid uprooted and moved with her nuclear family to Croatia, she felt shocked and suffocated. But at 31, Thana Alexa can’t imagine a life lived any differently. Finding in her cultural duality the “full version of [her] identity,” the singer, composer and arranger invites a range of life experiences and musical encounters to inform her work.

Alexa debuts as a leader at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, May 17, performing a live preview of her forthcoming record ONA that explores another realm of her identity: strength in femininity. In her interview with The Jazz Gallery, Alexa discusses the origin of her effects pedal, combining American and Balkan musical influences, and the afflicted paradigm of the contemporary artist.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re known to explore percussive elements of music in your arrangements and compositions and also in your improvising. When you’re writing, do you tend to feel these thematic patterns and rhythmic pads as you’re writing, or do they develop later in the process?

Thana Alexa: Every song is completely different. It kind of comes to me in a different form. Sometimes there is a very percussive element of it; sometimes it’s all harmonic and then the percussive element comes later. It’s really a case-by-case basis. I do think that since I was a kid who grew up in the States, I’m very influenced by traditional American music, which is jazz. But then having also this Eastern European part of me, there’s an element of Balkan music which has a lot of odd time signatures and minor sounding tonalities and things like that. So I think there’s a really interesting mix of the two identities that affect me personally and then, musically, they just come out naturally.

TJG: Well let’s talk about harmony, specifically for this upcoming record. But before we go in, what’s the release date for ONA?

TA: There’s not a specific release date yet; it’s going to be early 2019. We went into the studio in January of this year, and I was hoping to release it by the summer, but then I wound up going on tour for basically all of February, March and April, and there was just no way to get it finished for the summer. And I didn’t want to release it in the fall, because releasing something in the fourth quarter of the year, if you’re not a super famous artist, is not the best thing to do. So I decided to wait and really put all my time and effort into the post-production of this project. Just like my first record, there are going to be a lot of songs that have very in-depth post-production, lots of voices, lots of percussion, lots of electronic sounds—[the latter of] which is actually very different from my first record. This is going to be a much more electronic sounding record. And then there are going to be a lot of “bare bones” songs, as well, just stripped down, acoustic.

I wanted to give myself time to really find out what this record is all about. You know, I have the story behind it, but musically, even though we recorded everything, it’s still steering me in all these really interesting directions as I edit and as I do all the post-production. It’s been kind of—I don’t know if cathartic is the right word—it’s just been a very interesting, liberating experience to work on this project so far.

It started out as me writing songs about things that I was experiencing throughout the [2016] election process, and feeling kind of left aside as a woman—seeing all the things that were happening in our political situation, not only in the States, but around the world. And then I realized a lot of the things I was writing had this common theme about women. And it wasn’t about me writing and complaining; it was really about this introspective look at being a woman and expressing musically what being a woman means to me. And I realized, through the music, I was kind of giving light to how I discovered the wild woman spirit within me, and how I’ve become comfortable with her. And it’s not a very easy thing to do, for any woman to be comfortable with who they are and how they. I think that’s a daily struggle. We’re all trying to be who we are as individuals, but as women, we’re all trying to be who we are and still fit into society. So I just started seeing all these really interesting things come up in the music, and then that led me to the project.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Dezron Douglas is wide awake. He just touched down from a double tour that began with pianist/composer Amina Figarova and ended with trumpeter/composer/singer Jennifer Hartswick, but he’s not tired. In fact, he’s ready for the next hit.

Seven years old when his father first handed him a bass and told him to play, Douglas began gigging professionally at age 12. Now a 30-something sophisticate of the music with five records as a leader/co-leader to his name, the bass player and composer has a clear vision of what’s ahead—a vision lit up with color and heavy with vibration. Douglas and his working band, Black Lion, will grace The Jazz Gallery stage this Saturday, May 12, for two sets. We caught up with Douglas for a wide-ranging conversation about his love of reggae, the shifting roles of a bassist, and the mentorship of Jackie McLean.

The Jazz Gallery: One of the reasons people seem to love playing with you is your harmonic sensibility. You have a way of moving back and forth between responding to what’s happening harmonically and introducing concepts to the conversation. Can you talk about your relationship to harmony and maybe its origins?

Dezron Douglas: Well, specifically with regards to [that question], I was trained by the masters of this music to be able to influence the music, but, at the same time, play the bass. So, over the years, I’ve worked on it and I’ve listened to some of my heroes, like Richard Davis, Charles Mingus, Larry Ridley, Reggie Workman—and the bass players I’m talking about, these aren’t [the only bass players] I listen to, these are just for specifically what you’re talking about, which I call having the key to the big room. My mentor, my teacher, my sensei was Jackie McLean. He used to always talk about music that’s inside of the music. So when you see a sheet of paper, that’s your foundation, but you want to find the music that’s beyond what you see. So there’s ways that you can do that. You can do it rhythmically; you can do it harmonically. And you have to find ways to add to the music, not subtract from it. It’s not about adding a pile of notes or subtracting a pile of notes. It’s more about giving the music what it needs to push it forward and to bring it other places.

And harmony is just another color, and rhythm is just another vibration. So if you can use both of those, you can get to the level of guys like Richard Davis and Cecil McBee and Mingus and Reggie Workman and Larry Ridley—guys that were playing bass during the hard bop era. For me, that’s a period in this music—this African American classical music we call jazz—that’s pretty brilliant. There were some great composers, great musicians who were killing that. Musicians like Freddie Waits, Andrew Hill, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Kenny Barron were playing, and giving the music what it needed. Alan Dawson, Booker Ervin, Pharaoh Sanders. Even John Coltrane was making hard bop records during that time. It’s just a period in the music that I really fell in love with.

Wayne Shorter—contextually, his compositions are wide open, but he has so much form and structure that was considered to be some kind of hard bop, in that idiom. So, from a bass player point of view, if you can convey all that, and sort of affect the music, it brings you to another level. A perfect example is Ron Carter. That’s the pinnacle. You can’t really get higher. When you’re playing with Ron and Buster [Williams], you’re almost in their world, and you have to go where they’re bringing you, trusting that they’re going to bring you into serene places in the music.

TJG: If we could jump back for a moment to your closest mentor, what is the greatest piece of advice you received from Jackie McLean?

DD: I’ll tell you a story. There’s a list of maybe 100-plus things that Jackie said to me, during that time that I was around him, that have been profound, and they always show up at some point. I still hear him every day. But I think it was maybe my sophomore year in college, and Jackie and Dollie McLean had an organization and building and a school in Hartford called the Artists Collective. They would do these concerts where Jackie would honor his peers, and he would always get a student group to open up for them, usually an advanced ensemble. My freshman year, I started out in Jackie’s advanced ensemble, and we opened up for McCoy Tyner, Toots Thielemans, the Heath Brothers. And then, at the end of my sophomore year, Jackie honored Ron Carter.

Instead of having a group play an opening song for Ron, Jackie calls me up and asks me to play a solo piece for Ron. First of all, I felt like this was the setup of the century because I was far from being ready to play an open bass solo for the great Ron Carter. But I got something worked out—it took me three or four months—and Jackie says, “Okay, I want you to come perform it for me and Dollie. I want to listen to it.” So I showed up at the Collective and it wound up being just me and Jackie in this big room. I walked in, and he said, ‘Okay pull your bass out.’ Of course I’m sweating; I’d never been so nervous in my life, which changed when I eventually had to do this for Ron. But anyway, back to the preview. So I played it, and Jackie said, “Play it again.” So I played it again. He would [always] try to appreciate what you were doing, but if it wasn’t happening, he would get this look on his face that just looked like he couldn’t see, like he was squinting. It was this weird look, and you just knew that you were taking a dump on the stage—or it just wasn’t happening. So after the second time, I kept getting that look, and I just stood there and I was wounded. So then Jackie said, “Dezron, whatever you’re working on, just play, man. I just want you to play.”

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

An artist as curious as Marta Sánchez is always seeking to evolve her sound. After releasing four records as a leader and multiple others as a collaborator, the Madrid-born pianist and composer has challenged herself to pursue a new writing frontier, one that incorporates the works of other artists within her own compositions.

A project several years in the making, Room Tales represents a creative exercise in layering textures and mingling art forms, using poetic texts to complete Sánchez’s sound world. She began composing the music for Room Tales before releasing her most recent record Danza Imposible in October of 2017, keeping both projects—that feature different ensembles—separate from one another as she worked through compositions for each. We caught up with Sánchez to discuss her approach to working with texts, and how the work has evolved throughout the writing process.

The Jazz Gallery: Would you identify the poets and poetic works you’ve chosen for this project?

Marta Sánchez: I’m not sure about the whole repertoire that we are going to play [at the Gallery], but we have poems from Maya Angelou, Charles Bukowski, Gioconda Belli, Silvia Plath, George Craddock, Rabindranath Tagore and Idea Vilariño.

TJG: What sparked your desire to include poetic texts in your music, and also when did you conceive of this project?

MS: I started composing for voice maybe a few years ago. I had a sextet, which was more or less the same [as my quintet] but with vibraphone. We did a few gigs with that; I wrote some lyrics and I used also other lyrics, and was interested in working more with voices. [But I found] with the sextet it was a little too hard—with vibraphone and everything, it makes everything harder and more expensive. Then also, with the whole political scene, these times we’re living in and the women’s movement, I was interested in using texts of women poets. But in the end, I found other poems by men that were significant for me, and I decided that I wasn’t going to be exclusive with gender. So I guess I was interested in doing something with voice, and I found taking texts of poems that were important for me was the way to do it, because the texts were going to be way more powerful than lyrics [I would write because] I’m not a poet.

TJG: It sounds like there was a real transformation in your conception as you started going through these poems.

MS: Exactly. I think I started writing some lyrics—I mean this project didn’t come suddenly; it was an evolution. I also wanted to record with a singer from Spain, Lara Bello; we wanted to do songs based on poems of female Spanish poets, and we recorded a few songs. From then, it was a kind of evolution I’ve been doing here and there. I also wrote music and did one gig with another formation, a quartet with two voices, so it has been something progressive.

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