Posts by Stephanie Jones

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For someone who plays such a small instrument, Gregoire Maret makes music that covers a vast territory. It ranges from groove-based to polyrhythmic to vocal-centric, and what drives the harmonica player and prolific composer to create a body of work characteristically ungoverned by genre, comes down to feeling. “It all starts with the heartbeat,” he says.

“When you talk about the pulse and the drumbeat, you talk about the heartbeat. Then when you start talking about any other instrument, it’s basically a voice. I get back to those really, really essential elements [when I’m composing], and then I’ll go with what feels really true and honest to me.”

As a young musician growing up in Switzerland, Maret surrounded himself with as much live and recorded music as he could, eventually earning acceptance to the Conservatoire Supérieur de Musique de Genève. After graduating, he traveled to New York to study at the New School, where he began spending quite a bit of his free time with pianist and keyboardist Federico González Peña, who introduced him to the music of composers like Ivan Lins and Milton Nascimento. Through these sessions, Maret found himself instantly attracted to what he considers a music that satisfies the duality of his artistic expression.

“I’ve always been attracted to music that felt both simple and sophisticated at the same time. So, with a seemingly quite simple melody, you can have, underneath, a lot of complexity and a lot of elements that can feed the soul. A great example of that is Brazilian music; it’s a huge influence for the way I write music—Brazilian music and Brazilian composers, because I think they mix that really, really well. They sing incredibly simple melodies and, underneath it, if you really listen to the chords and the harmony, it’s quite sophisticated. And then, with a groove that is so beautiful—I don’t have the words to express it. It’s so embracing. Everybody wants to dance. That’s the thing about Brazilian music that really influenced me a lot is the fact that it’s so embracing—it’s so welcoming. You go in a stadium and everybody’s singing the melody—and it doesn’t matter if nobody can sing! It’s just this whole community in which we all embrace each other and are here together. It’s a beautiful thing.”

After he began spending time in Brazil, playing, Maret fell even more deeply in love with the music. He studied baião and other rhythms of the north and visited coffee houses and bars in Rio, retracing the hang culture of Jobim and other architects of bossa nova. Touched by the inclusive nature of Brazil’s musical tradition, Maret draws certain parallels between its cross section of cultural influences and that of American music—remaining inspired by both.

“When you talk about Brazilian music, you have different cultures that mix, from the Indians to the Black slaves to the Europeans—it’s all mixed, and it created what we know now as Brazilian music, which is an amazing art form. And then here in the U.S., it’s completely different but it’s also those mixes that created, really, what is the American music art form. And when you talk about jazz, you talk about R&B, you talk about anything—it’s really those mixes that made it so special.” (more…)

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Listeners would be hard pressed to find a sound that hasn’t already reverberated in Morgan Guerin’s mind’s ear. The saxophonist, composer and multi-instrumentalist from New Orleans has a habit of transforming the flap of a pigeon’s wing or the departure of a C train into seeds for songs.

After releasing two records as a leader—and working with such distinct voices as Nicholas Payton, Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington and Ellis Marsalis— Guerin has developed a sort of mantra: “Everything in life can be placed in a musical context.”

“I like the idea of having sounds more so than specific instruments,” he says. “I’m always down to create a sound. That’s why I’m so into analogue synthesizers and inanimate objects that create a sound that I can take back to my studio and completely alter, whether it’s [using] outboard effects or reamping.”

Using his own microKORG or the Prophet 6 he regularly borrows from a friend, Guerin busies himself manipulating soundwaves, seeking first to find something that he hasn’t heard before. And while he turns inward now and then when writing new music, his greatest source of inspiration for composing tends to be the sounds themselves.

“Some stuff comes from emotions, but some stuff comes strictly from having no emotions and letting whatever sound I’m messing with just take the wheel. There are some cases where I’d just be so deep in a vibe. A lot of people would be like, ‘I wrote this thinking about this or feeling this or this,’ and sometimes it can happen that way for me, sometimes it can’t. Most of the time, it can’t. I’m such an in-the-moment person and I can’t be like, ‘Oh this emotion that I felt last month inspired me to write this.’”

One exercise that does help Guerin bring emotional depth to his compositions in a deliberate way is the practice of lyric writing, a relatively new endeavor for him.

“Once I can strengthen that trait, maybe I can start tying emotions to my songs. I’m not saying emotions don’t exist in the songs that don’t have lyrics, but maybe I would write something with emotions in mind.”

As is the story with many artists, inspiration strikes Guerin without warning. Because he hears music in the context of his daily routines, he finds a multitude of ways to transform what he’s hearing into a composition.

“I could be walking down the street and I’ll hear something and record it on my phone and then come back to it later on the piano. I write a lot of songs on bass first, and I think I write the least amount of songs on saxophone. [The bass] is the most recent instrument I’ve dug into. And as I’m getting to know the instrument, all these ideas are coming—ideas that I wouldn’t have had, had I been writing on my sax or on the piano. So it’s kind of like, I’m figuring out the instrument in writing songs. It’s just fun to explore the instrument and write songs within the process of exploring the instrument, which goes back to [being] in the moment.” (more…)

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At one time or another, those closest to Becca Stevens may have witnessed her hop up and leave the room in the middle of a conversation, to steal a moment with her guitar across the hall. When she’s in the midst of composing new music, the singer and multi-instrumentalist allows inspiration to follow her wherever she goes—even when the moment’s not entirely convenient.

“I’m a very intuitive and in-the-moment creator,” she says. “Even if I’m painting or writing a story or something, I really work on my toes and I come up with ideas as I go—I sort of figure out where things need to go when I’m standing in the middle of them. So, I’ll make a choice and start to go in that direction, and then making that choice and going in that direction is what reveals the next step.”

Allowing what she considers the natural momentum of creation to help develop her ideas into stories and compositions, Stevens views the practice of revising as an optional part of the process.

“I do revise, sometimes. It definitely does depend on the piece. There have been times when I’ve written a hundred versions of a song and then gone back to the first version. But that would be more rare. I tend to be committed to that forward motion and to the process of making decisions and sticking with them, and then working with those instincts. I find that if I trust the instincts that feel good, it tends to be the right decision.”

A prolific artist, Stevens has released four records under her band’s name and collaborated with a diverse cross-section of musicians throughout her career, from Snarky Puppy to Esperanza Spalding to David Crosby. When writing, she commits to herself and to her own vision of what’s honest and inspiring, rejecting the idea of writing what she anticipates the listener might want to hear.

“I think it’s really important to write the music—and this is not just to musicians, this is to any artist—to create the art that moves you—the stuff that sparks your inspiration and gives you the urge to come back to the canvas or come back to the guitar. That’s, I think, the most important thing because I’m the one that’s going to have to play it over and over again, and if it’s inspiring me, then I’m going to be inspired when I share it. And I think that inspiration when you’re sharing a song is just as important as accessibility or the impression that it makes on people, musically. And also, as a result of that approach, oftentimes my music evolves, and I think that’s a good thing. If you’re following your inspiration, then you’re staying open.” (more…)

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In 1998, Fabian Almazan fell and injured his right wrist. He was 14. For weeks after his surgery, the young right-handed pianist was in full recovery mode, and couldn’t play the way he was used to playing. But what could have been a long and debilitating recovery period turned out to be an artistic awakening.

Not wanting his student to lose inspiration—or practice hours—Almazan’s piano teacher recommended he check out Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. But the album Almazan wound up purchasing included more than the left hand concerto and, after playing the record in its entirety, he found himself digging into the G-Major Piano Concerto and a number of suites Ravel composed for piano, then orchestrated—an experience that set Almazan on the path toward exploring orchestral concepts in his own music.

“It made an instant impression on me,” he says. “It kind of opened up my mind. And in terms of how it’s affected me as a pianist, I really try to be more aware of my left hand, as well as inner voices, in general.”

Years after his wrist mended, Almazan continued working through arrangements of original music, paying what he considered close attention to voice leading and other fundamentals of orchestral arranging. But a commission by The Jazz Gallery would transform his relationship to orchestration, once again. “When I was commissioned a couple years ago, I decided to write a song for a choir,” he says.

“As musicians, we study voice leading all the time, but we kind of forget where that comes from. It’s literally ‘voice leading.’ So, writing for the choir was ear-opening, I would say, because there’s a lot of—not rules, but music theory that you try to apply as a composer, but when you actually do it for a choir, it really hits home. You have an immediate impression of why there are certain things—that in the Baroque era they used to do, and they still do—that really click when you have a choir singing what you wrote. It’s the human voice. You really can tell when something’s working, and when it’s not.”

At a point in his career when he had a strong working concept of each instrument’s strengths and limitations, Almazan found arranging for the choir to broaden his understanding of how to develop those strengths and limitations in a way that serves the arc of the composition. (more…)

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A 75-year-old Dr. Lonnie Smith cups his hands behind the B3 organ, while a young drummer from New Orleans readies his brushes for the count off. Between the two of them, drummer/composer Johnathan Blake revels in the intensity passing from one generation to the next.

Having appeared on more than 50 recordings, playing with a range of musical icons from Kenny Barron to Roy Hargrove, Blake lives for those moments when he can bring together jazz’s living legacy with its future.

This past week at The Jazz Standard proved momentous for Blake’s tenure with Smith and guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, marking the release of All in My Mind (Blue Note, 2018)—the band’s first ever trio recording. “It was really nice to finally have an album with both of us on it,” says Blake.

“Even though the record prior to this one, Evolution, has us on it, it’s kind of a larger ensemble; it actually features horns and piano—it didn’t really showcase the trio. So this one is actually geared towards the trio, and there’s a couple special guests: a young New Orleans drummer named Joe Dyson and Alicia Olatuja. It was a lot of fun to get back to some of that music this past week.”

Working with an artist like Dyson, Blake finds himself assuming a role that appeals to his love for the music’s lineage: the mentor. During his time playing with Dyson on Smith’s record, and later for his mentoring series at The Jazz Gallery, Blake had the chance to observe a young talent move through some significant changes in a very short while. “I hadn’t had that much experience in doing two drums, so I was a little skeptical at first about how that was going to sound,” says Blake.

“But as soon as we played, it was beautiful because it was like—no ego. We were just really trying to make music together. After that experience, I was like, ‘Man, I really want more of that.’ So, when I was asked to put together this mentoring series, he was the first person I came to. I really wanted to see how he would approach playing some of my music. (more…)