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Posts by Stephanie Jones

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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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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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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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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…)