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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Growing up in Philadelphia’s fertile music scene, Jaleel Shaw began playing alto at an early age, and soon would find himself playing alongside Shirley Scott, Grover Washington, Jr., John Blake and countless other of his city’s legendary artists.

Strong identity on the saxophone has served Shaw both in leader contexts, and as a longtime member of the Roy Haynes Quartet and Tom Harrell’s “Colors of a Dream.” But as an artist and a human being, the multi-instrumentalist and composer has gone through many changes. He recently spent some time reflecting on some of those changes—and their related longings—and conceived of a project inspired by the bare essentials of creative expression.

The world premiere of Images Project, Shaw’s Jazz Gallery Fellowship Commission, features Lage Lund, Lawrence Fields, Joe Martin and Kush Abadey, and seeks to recapture—or perhaps rouse—raw imagination in all its permutations.

The Jazz Galley: I like to ask artists who grew up in Philly for their personal interpretation of the Philly sound.

Jaleel Shaw: I’ve always felt like the Philly sound was a pretty open and diverse sound. When I came up on the Philly scene, I was around free artists like Byard Lancaster, hip hop groups like The Roots. I played in big bands; I played in mariachi bands. There was a huge organ presence there with Shirley Scott and Trudy Pitts. There was a soul R&B scene there, too. So there were so many different styles going on at the same time that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is.

That’s the thing that I loved about Philly; it was kind of a mix of so many different things, and all the musicians knew each other. All the musicians played together. There was no division amongst the styles—at least, not for me. As a kid, I was playing with so many different groups and coming out of so many different groups that I never really thought of music not being open, or not allowing myself to be inspired by all the different music that was going on, from hip hop to free jazz to R&B—it was all there.

When I was coming up, there was a very conscious presence—black consciousness and African consciousness—a pride of history. So growing up in Philly, I learned the history of the music. And the history of the people was very important.

TJG: Awhile back I was talking with Dayna Stephens, who made the comment that growing up in the Bay Area, playing all kinds of music or “styles” of music was a requirement—to the point where he was shocked when he moved to New York because it was the first time he experienced some of those harsh divisions; did you have a similar experience when you arrived?

JS: Right. Yeah, I feel like New York is a huge city, and I guess I didn’t get to know all of the musicians like I did back home. In Philly, like I said, I basically knew all the musicians. I knew and played with Shirley Scott; I knew Grover Washington, Jr.; I knew John Blake—that’s how I met Johnathan Blake; I knew The Roots. Everything was just mixed. We were all, it seemed, on the same scene. We would go to each other’s shows, and you could call anyone, anytime to ask a question about the music. It wasn’t until I was older that I really realized how special it was to have had that coming up in Philly.

TJG: In past interviews, you’ve described certain sounds from Philly and also Chicago as “Afrocentric.” Can you talk a little bit about your own interpretation of that concept?

JS: Wow. Where’d you see that?

TJG: I think it was in your blindfold test from a couple years ago.

JS: Wow. Okay. Well, yeah. For one, I grew up in a diverse community, and my mom made sure I learned my history. Every time I go home to visit her, I’m always amazed at how many books she has about everything, but specifically about my culture. And I realized she really immersed me in that, and made sure I understood and embraced it. And in Philly there were many African American events going on, from art shows to dance to poetry. And my mom always took me to those events. There was also something called Odunde, which was the African American festival that we had every year.

TJG: They no longer have it?

JS: It’s still happening. That’s a great festival. There’s a great African American museum in Philly, and I felt like the community was very strong. And it was embracing; it was a community of people teaching the music and teaching the culture, and everyone was welcome to learn it.

I’m sure it’s happening in New York, but I just haven’t seen or experienced it as much. But that may also be due to my activities since moving to the area.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Immanuel Wilkins’ depth of sound has local roots. He began playing every Sunday at his family church in Philadelphia, admittedly long before he understood the significance of his hometown history. Today, the saxophone player and composer has stretched his artistry from Europe to Japan, and collaborated with bold, diverse voices including Jason Moran, Lalah Hathaway, Solange Knowles, Gerald Clayton and Bob Dylan, among many others.

In the spirit of collaboration and apprenticeship, The Jazz Gallery’s Mentorship Series has partnered Wilkins with prolific trumpet player and composer Jonathan Finlayson, who just released his latest record 3 Times Round (2018). And as Wilkins puts together his first album-length recording as a leader, he works to bring what he’s learned from past experiences into his current present, which happens to evolve with each new opportunity.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve had the chance to work with many established artists from a cross section of generations. How have these experiences influenced your self-perception within the lineage of the music?

Immanuel Wilkins: The beginning, for me, was when I was still in Philadelphia. Probably when I was around 15 years old, I started playing with the Sun Ra Arkestra, with Marshall Allen and a lot of those people. And I didn’t realize it then—it look me leaving Philadelphia to realize I was blessed to have a bunch of experiences with true masters of the music, at an age where I wasn’t really ready for it. So I [started] from there. Mickey Roker was also in Philadelphia at the time; he was around, Bootsie Barnes—there was all these people of the really old generation that kind of took me under their wing. And then also, I was doing the Kimmel Center program with Anthony Tidd. Steve Coleman would come down and do masterclasses from time to time with that program. That’s how I met Jonathan [Finlayson] and Marcus Gilmore and all the people in the M-Base crowd. That’s how I kind of got started checking out that music and getting into that stuff.

TJG: Now you’re in New York—you’re playing at the clubs, you’re billing yourself as the headliner. What has developed in terms of the way you see yourself as being a part of this legacy?

IW: I’m trying to think of the defining moment. I think at this point, I more concerned about playing good. I was talking to Kenny Washington today, and he was talking about how he was talking to Dizzy. He asked Dizzy, “Man, how’d you change music like this? What were you and Bird thinking?” and Dizzy was just like, “Man, we were just trying to play good—we were just trying to play.” That spoke to me. I guess my place in the lineage is just trying to continue the line. I’m trying to play good. And if that happens to change things, then good. That means maybe I stumbled upon something worth exploring. But if not, that’s fine, too. I’m trying to play good.

TJG: I’ve talked about the “Philly sound” with people like Johnathan Blake—as something that’s laid back while having that alive, very forward momentum. What’s your interpretation of the Philly sound, and how would you say it has influenced your playing and your approach to music? Or is it something that’s more essential and you can’t really define it?

IW: Okay, the Philly sound. I remember, for me at least, growing up in Philly, we were all trying to sound like Trane. I think John Coltrane has the biggest influence on the Philly sound, at least when I was younger. We would go to jam sessions and cats would call these long modal tunes, and we’d stretch out for like 20 minutes on one chord—as opposed to here. Cats are calling tunes with chords—like, actual changes. I think there are benefits for both. One thing I’ve learned from Philly is that there’s a certain depth that all the musicians who come out of Philadelphia play with: Jaleel (Shaw), Justin Faulkner, Johnathan Blake, Orrin—any of these people. There’s a certain depth to their playing that’s something almost only Philly people recognize. And secretly, I realized it once I got to New York. When I first got here, I was like, “Man, I’m not having any experiences like I was back home.” And I realized that depth is very special to Philly. It’s a certain Philly thing. Honestly, I put it up there as one of the cities close to New Orleans. It’s up there with New Orleans in terms of [being] a serious jazz town that has a deep connection to the music, and a deep foundation for what happens after.

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Photo by The Cell Theatre, courtesy of the artist.

Sasha Berliner is eager to show her range. Her dynamic range; her emotional range; her multi-instrumental and interdisciplinary range—she’s ready, with mallet in hand and message in mind. The percussionist and composer is gaining career traction as a force on the vibraphone. But she’s more interested in the movement of the music than the trajectory of her individual career.

This weekend, the SF JAZZ Rising Female Instrumentalist and her band join the lineup at FutureFest, the Gallery’s weekend-length event that provides a headlining platform for emerging voices in ensemble settings. Ahead of the hit, Berliner talks technique, mixed media exploration and the unique dynamic range of her instrument.

The Jazz Gallery: You use the MalletKAT quite often. What freedom have you found exploring different textures in your music?

Sasha Berliner: I really just think of the MalletKAT as a new way to interpret the vibraphone and add another element to my group. I wouldn’t really say it’s anything particularly new—people have been using synths and stuff for ages. But it has a very cool visual appeal. It’s obviously similar to the vibraphone in a way that keyboard isn’t. It uses technique that I’m more familiar with. I do like that I can use both MIDI sounds and the internal Kurzweil sounds at the same time; it creates a unique hybrid sound that adds a cool texture to my band. I’m not playing the MalletKAT at FutureFest, but I do use it with my other groups.

I’d say in terms of textures, it’s more about exploring several percussion instruments and being a multi-instrumentalist, experimenting with instrumentation.

TJG: As a listener, I’m drawn to the resonance that you seem to achieve sometimes by doing very little—playing then leaving space. How do of the different instrumental textures you use inform the resonance that you achieve or even your perception of resonance, either literally as in harmonically or more abstractly?

SB: I think about harmony a lot. I guess if you want to talk about resonance, there are certain chord qualities and certain intervals that you can use based on the overtone series. But this is also based on a lot of what I studied with Stefon Harris. You can get very specific about harmony and, therefore, very specific about emotions. You can sort of paint your experiences or what you’re trying to convey a little more specifically and vividly. So, in that sense, just having a better sense and control of harmony gets you closer to resonating more with your audience. That’s definitely something I think about.

In a more abstract way, resonance can convey a lot about the human experience, all the facets that are incorporated within that. Harmony and interpretations of notes are extremely diverse, just like all of our human experiences. Using that to correspond with what you have to say, what chord choices you make, what messages you want to convey, creates for a powerful narrative within your music.

TJG: You have the artistic advantage of having the drums as your first instrument. How do you feel your experience playing drums has influenced some of your harmonic tendencies or melodic development on the vibraphone and when you compose?

SB: I actually feel like the more that I play vibraphone and learn vibraphone the more I seem to interpret it and communicate with it differently than the drums. A lot of musicians, across instruments, they often say, “I have the same voice on each instrument.” But I actually feel like that’s not true for me. I feel like a lot of that has to do with the harmonic aspect of vibraphone, and the melodic aspect. I would definitely say that playing drums has sparked more of a rhythmic interest, especially in terms of incorporating a lot of polyrhythms and different percussion instruments, and it helps me more easily convey the kinds of rhythms and feels to whoever the drummer in my band is going to be. But I would definitely say it’s a little more exploring rhythm in a general sense—things like odd meter, polyrhythms again, cross rhythms. Being a drummer definitely helps me understand those kinds of things more, and employ them successfully in my band. But I wouldn’t say that’s all attributed to the drums.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Artists hard-pressed to consider the vibraphone to be their first-call instrument nevertheless find Joel Ross to be a first-call instrumentalist. A typical work week might take Ross downtown on a Monday night, uptown on a Thursday night and leading his own group on Saturday and Sunday—and those are just the New York gigs.

At 23, the vibraphonist and composer has traveled the world, collaborating with some of the music’s most enduring and distinctive voices, from Herbie Hancock and Christian McBride to Gerald Clayton and Ambrose Akinmusire. In a rare moment of rest just after his hit with Marquis Hill’s Blacktet at the White Plains Jazz Fest—and right before his record date with Melissa Aldana’s quintet—Ross slowed his tempo to a walking pace long enough to discuss rhythmic interpretations, reactions versus reflections and what he learned—and unlearned—studying with Stefon Harris.

The Jazz Gallery: You have a deliberate way of articulating each sound while maintaining a fluidity in your lines and across all your ideas. Can you talk about how your touch, specifically, allows you to interpret the music the way you hear it—or the way you want to play it?

Joel Ross: When I was at the Brubeck Institute, I was studying with Stefon Harris, and he basically revamped—we had to deconstruct, then reconstruct—my entire technique. After working with him was when I started feeling better on the instrument. I used to get pain in my forearm or in the palm of my hands from not stretching before a gig or from using the wrong technique while playing. So once he helped me get that together, I felt like I could do more with the instrument.

With that newfound freedom, I was able to figure out what I wanted my sound to be. I very specifically want clarity. I want people to be able to hear every note. I’m very particular with how I approach rhythm, so most of my playing is very rhythmic-oriented, first and foremost, and I want the clarity of those rhythms with whatever harmony might be happening at the same time.

TJG: You began on the drum kit.

JR: I started playing drums with my brother. We were about 2 or 3 years old. I didn’t start playing mallet instruments or the vibraphone until I was about 10—in the fifth grade.

TJG: And how would you say your commitment to clarity of rhythmic intention and rhythmic articulation has influenced your clarity with what you want to articulate harmonically?

JR: I’ve only recently reached this feeling of how I relate to rhythm. But I’ve had this type of harmonic—well, I’ve always been a big theory fan. I’m not sure how much I actually know, but I’m very interested in theory. So I would learn, at least in high school, what harmony and scales relate to what chords, but I was never one to transcribe. I never transcribed in high school. Me and my brother, we were church musicians, so we’d just be using our ears. I would listen to records—Miles, Trane and Monk—and just kind of hear what they’re doing, hear the language, but I never transcribed it. So when I would go back to try to play something I heard—I was usually just trying to go from memory—I knew it wouldn’t be exactly what they played, but it would be inspired by [their sound] enough to my liking, and it would also include my own sound. So that was the harmonic concept I had for a long time. And then once I studied with Stefon, we also went over some harmonic stuff that helped get my ears together. So at that point, which was when I started figuring out more of my rhythmic thing, I was able to connect the harmony—from my ears getting stronger—to the rhythm I was hearing and wanting to play.

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Photo by Emra Islek, courtesy of the artist.

Charles Altura asks the big questions without saying a word. Coveted for his receptivity and strong presence by Chick Corea, Terence Blanchard, Tom Harrell and Ambrose Akinmusire—artists with whom he has enjoyed long, formative associations—the guitar player and composer evolves his own perceptions of music and context through dialogue.

When The Jazz Gallery awarded Altura the 2017-2018 Residency Commission, he relied on his tendency toward allowing music to emerge organically. What evolved was an idea for soundscaping with very specific voices in mind: Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Aaron Parks on piano, Joe Martin on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums. The resulting project, Portraits of Resonance, may be Altura’s first of many explorations tracing the influence harmony and texture have on the human experience of listening—and playing.

The Jazz Gallery: I recently had the chance to speak with Vijay Iyer about resonance as it relates to harmony and how he perceives harmony, regardless of instrumentation. Can you talk a little bit about your understanding of resonance and how it enters into your conception for this project?

Charles Altura: As I’ve been writing, I have realized that resonance was a kind of theme, hearing the music’s resonant qualities—thinking of it in that way, instead of standard harmony and melody combinations. So [Portraits of Resonance] relates to the process that has evolved while I’ve been working on the music, focusing more on the harmonic texture.

TJG: Had you chosen to follow the idea of resonance wherever the writing seemed to take you, or did you have in mind a specific kind of resonance?

CA: It is more of a specific resonance because I’ve had these musicians in mind the whole time as I’ve been writing the music. I think I’m familiar with some of the ways that we share viewing harmony, so that’s a major focus. It’s based more on texture and harmony and how that translates to emotional quality.

TJG: Evocative texture?

CA: Right.

TJG: You’ve been asked many times about your playing, so I thought I’d ask you about your space-leaving. And speaking of textures, you’ve played in so many different ensembles, often with piano. When did you begin to intuit how to fit into those contexts, and how would you describe your relationship with leaving space?

CA: It comes from [the fact] that I started on piano. I’ve always been fascinated by the combination of guitar and piano together—and actually trumpet, too. So a lot of the texture is just dealing with that combination. I tend to think of the guitar and the piano as extensions of each other when you have both in the same band. It’s always an interesting thing, the way people deal with guitar and piano together because they cover the same register.

TJG: I would imagine many listeners hearing you together with a piano player would hear this sort of effortless navigation. Is that intuiton something you’ve always had, or is it something you’ve developed?

CA: Yeah, I think it’s because my first instrument was piano and I still see the guitar from the perspective of being a piano player. I’ve written all of the music for [the commission] on piano. So then when I get to the guitar, I’m kind of seeing it as one instrument. Having that perspective helps me to have an idea of what space needs to be filled—or not filled.

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