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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Since she was a small child, Saraswathi Ranganathan has been focused on opening her ears to new sounds, and encouraging those around her to do the same. Raised in Southern India amid a family of musicians who play in the Carnatic tradition, the artist-composer cradled her first veena at age 6. By 11, she was performing concerts with her other siblings—including her younger brother, mridangam master Ganapathi Ranganathan.

For the past 15 years, Ranganathan has lived, worked, played, and composed as a world renowned veena artiste from her home base in Chicago. In between teaching master classes on raga-based music—and raga-inspired collaborative expressions—at DePaul and University of Chicago, she has managed to release four records as a leader with more in the works.

To Brooklyn Raga Massive’s Out of the Woods festival, Ranganathan brings with her a legacy of firsts. She is the first Indian woman and veena artiste to win a Chicago Music Award in its 35-year history, the first veena artiste to perform as an orchestra member of Disney’s Jungle Book production and the first veena artiste to receive a $10,000 grant from the Logan Foundation in Chicago. She attributes her path-carving success to the inclusive energy in her music and in her life. Her goal? Bring artists and listeners together as one community united in music and understanding.

The Jazz Gallery: The Gallery was founded on ideals of creative expression and individualism but also on community. Can you talk about your interpretation of “one-stage one-music one-community” as it relates to your artistic narrative?

Saraswathi Ranganathan: When I think about the intent behind my work, it’s to bring a diverse community together. The way I do this is, I take the veena, and mingle raga-based music with other genres of music, like Spanish music or Maqam music and then a little bit of blues music. What I do is take all these acoustic instruments and present it to an audience. So then we get a cross-cultural listener versus someone who, for example, only wants to listen to raga-based music. If I were to collaborate with a cross-genre, then I might have more people—a wider base, a wider cross-cultural audience. My goal is to showcase all these different genres to different types of people under the same platform.

You see a lot of conflicts that are happening these days, and a lot of that is happening because of hate. A lot of the time, hate arises out of fear. And the fear is because of a lack of awareness—a fear of the unknown. So my goal has been, because of my own personal experiences in life, to make people aware of what is different out there so that, at the very least, even if they’re not able to embrace the differences, they’re able to appreciate what’s different. And then they’re aware: “Hey, this is different, but it’s not really harmful.” And then, at best, they embrace it. They say, “Hey, this looks different—the music looks different, the way they’re dressing looks different,” [but they embrace it]. I share some of the language, some of the culture, some anecdotes and some things about the instrument. I try to showcase many acoustic instruments from around the world. So there’s a lot of exchange that happens, and community outreach is part of that.

So to cut it short, my intent is: less hate, less fear, greater awareness—so that we all can live as one family.

TJG: Is this your first show at the Gallery?

SR: Yeah, it’s my first show in New York.

TJG: Ah, you totally buried the lede for our readers.

SR: I’m so excited.

TJG: You’ve been drawn to a number of musical styles and cultures throughout the years, and obviously you’ve worked very deeply through them. You’ve just mentioned some of them—Flamenco, the blues, Middle Eastern music, etcetera. I know how this openness has influenced your approach to your artist mission, but I’m curious to know how embracing these different styles of music has informed your technical approach to the instrument?

SR: Yeah, that’s a great question. I like that. Essentially I was trained in traditional Carnatic music. That music encompasses a lot of emotive expression on the instrument. So we place a lot of emphasis on how a raga is interpreted. The meaning of a raga is emotion and expression. So that’s the basis of Indian classical music, especially Carnatic music and Southern Indian style. So, and I do this at schools as well, I play something and I ask them how they feel about it. And then I tell them that the raga, you can interpret it in so many different ways, and the children always come up with so many cool words to interpret the ragas. The main essence is more melodic and that’s how it becomes universal.

In terms of the actual technique from other genres of music—for example, the chords—I have learned to do a few things [on the veena] that sound like the blues scale using a fingering technique that uses a little bit of modification. So I know a little bit of jazz and a little bit of the Spanish style, but I’m not an expert.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

In 2009, Shai Maestro traveled to New York to play music with like-minded artists. But the Israeli-born pianist-composer soon discovered how much he enjoyed the spontaneity and inspiration that only comes from playing with artists who think and feel and sound “different.” Such scenarios have included his long association with drummer-composer Ari Hoenig, and a recent trio performance that featured none other than saxophonist Joshua Redman as a special guest.

Maestro is currently touring The Dream Thief (2018, ECM), his fifth recording as a leader. In between rehearsals for respective duo gigs with Joel Ross and Chris Potter and sorting through compositions for a forthcoming and soon-to-be-announced orchestra project, he set aside a few moments to reflect on bandstand humanity, global communication and the inevitable post-recording process of decompression.

The Jazz Gallery: Your website bio discusses your “differentiated touch.” I find this to be a fascinating description of your playing, and I’m curious to know how you might approach the instrument differently depending on the emotional context of the moment, or even that day.

Shai Maestro: I always make the comparison to language—spoken language. You learn the alphabet, you learn the words and you learn how to make sentences, paragraphs, chapters—books, if you want. But you use the basic building blocks to express something different every time you speak—sometimes you’re angry, sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re sad. It’s the same with music, with two exceptions; one is how much you allow yourself to get out of the scripted narrative that you might have, and two is the essence of music being abstract so you can make up words on the spot—you’re not just dealing with a given set of words; you create new ones all the time, based on tradition of course, but you can also get out of it and create your own ways of expression. Everything you can apply to language, you can apply to music. It’s a pretty simple idea, but sometimes I find it can be harder to apply in music. It has to do a lot with just letting things happen.

TJG: Letting things happen and the idea of a natural progression is an important and deeply personal aspect of your expression. We’re skipping ahead a little, but do you want to talk about the trio behind The Dream Thief and how the three of you allow the music to happen in that natural way as opposed to forcing it to be?

SM: When I teach new music to my band members, I try to get as clear as I can with the vision of how I imagine it to be. When you’re the composer, you have to have strong vision otherwise you can’t create. We don’t use charts; it’s all by heart. So if we have a drum part, then we’ll all know the drum part; if there’s a bass part, we’ll all know the bass part. So we all know the music from every angle. The next instruction is, “Forget everything I just told you.” That comes from the trust. They know my vision. They know what the song is about. And now, we can just play. What that means is we can start from different tempos all the way to [playing in] different keys, changing a chord from major to minor, displacing stuff, repeating sections, not playing the melody at all—just playing the structure itself, playing the melody but no harmony. Whatever tools you might want to use in the moment are valid if it comes from an authentic and honest place.

And what we try to do is strengthen the radar—the honesty radar—to be able to identify what is real and what is not, because if something is real but it means omitting an “important” part of the song, by all means, go ahead and do it. Don’t play that part. If we get to the bridge and we never play another song, I’m completely fine with that, if it’s honest for us. That comes from trust. It comes from trust, knowledge and ability. And then you can just play.

When I came to New York, I studied with Sam Yael. He said that when you practice, to balance between the child and the parent. The child is the creative voice. It’s kind of the spontaneous and chaotic voice, “Oh let’s go here—now let’s go here!” And the parent is the disciplined voice: “Okay, eat your vegetables,” or “We’re practicing scales now.” And that’s how you create balance at the practice session. You are both the parent and the child. But, when you go to play a concert, you never bring the parents with you. You always take the kids. That means you have to trust that what you’ve learned and what you’ve worked hard on became second nature for you now, and you can just be you. That’s what jazz can offer us, I think—to just be ourselves.

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Design courtesy of Pi Recordings.

For many composers, inspiration can come from where they never considered looking—until they did. Brooklyn-based saxophonist, flute player, composer and band leader Anna Webber pulls and interprets inspiration from curious places—including microtonal sounds on YouTube.

As a composer and multi-instrumentalist, Webber busies herself juggling multiple solo-led and co-led projects at once. Her forthcoming release, Clockwise (Pi Recordings, 2019), represents her fifth as a solo leader, and combines her appetite for research with her artistic tendency toward individualism and exploration.

The Jazz Galley: You have such a strong voice as a composer. You seem to create new sounds from existing instruments and existing combinations of instruments that feel, texturally, very meaty. Where does instrumentation fit within your identity as a composer?

Anna Webber: That’s a really good question, and it definitely does. Kind of early on in my composition development, I decided I didn’t want to use the instruments always in the traditional way. Kryptonite to me compositionally is having the saxophone always be the melodic instrument and the bass always be the bass instrument. It’s like there’s these roles that are super easy to relegate instruments to—and obviously there’s a lot of music that I really love that does that, but I try to avoid it as a writer.

TJG: Strong word, relegate.

AW: I think it’s true, and I think a lot of people just do it without thinking about it: “Yeah, well I have this melody and this instrument.” And my whole thing has always just been to not have the instruments in their traditional roles. When I’m writing a specific piece, I make lists of all the different combinatorial possibilities of orchestration—solos, trios, duos—and then try to use all of those. So I think just being hyperaware of orchestration is something that drives me.

TJG: Did you study traditional orchestration?

AW: No, never. Compositionally, I wouldn’t say I’m self-taught, but my composition background is a little scrappy. I did performance degrees in my undergrad and master’s, and then I did a one-year master’s program in Berlin where I studied with John Hollenbeck. So I had already been writing a lot of music and John really helped me; he’s someone that I consider a mentor as well as a friend and colleague at this point.

I think that the way jazz is taught, from a composition standpoint to performers in school, is relatively scrappy anyway. There’s not a lot of going through traditional orchestration, aside from, “Here’s how you orchestrate saxes for a saxophone soli in a big band.” Whenever I write for an instrument that I’m not familiar with, I read a lot about that instrument and try to figure out exactly how it sounds, how it works, what the good registers are, how hard it is to do certain things on the instrument. And I think all of that stuff contributes to the orchestrational techniques that I end up using.

Stemming from the [philosophy that] I don’t want to have instruments in their traditional roles—or if I do, it’s not like that’s the role they’re in for the whole piece—the thing that I’ve come to a little bit more recently is trying to use sound and timbre as organizing forces that are as important as harmony, rhythm, melody in my music. So when I’m beginning a piece, [I try] to think about timbre first and use that in the pre-compositional way that I would use any of those other elements.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Growing up in the Bahamas, Giveton Gelin quickly learned his musical ABCs: always be communicating. Playing beside the pulpit or on the bandstand, the trumpet player and composer shares what’s on his mind and in his ears, leaving plenty of room for response. The unspoken language he’s developed as a bandleader allows him to stretch inside his other roles: guide, interpreter, and truth seeker.

Though still somewhat of a newcomer to the New York scene, Gelin already has collaborated with a range of distinctive voices that span generations, from Jon Batiste to Harold Mabern. This week’s performance reflects the connection he’s fostered with his quintet; the music itself, a tribute to the importance of fostering connections on and off the bandstand.

The Jazz Gallery: Your music seems to have a sophisticated degree of orchestration. Do you have any strategies for balancing written orchestration with spontaneous orchestration?

Giveton Gelin: Yes, if you look at some of the great leaders like Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, they all had a natural sense of leadership; they could orchestrate the band to do whatever they wanted them to do by having certain cues, by just doing things on the bandstand that all the other musicians would know: “This is what he meant by this, this is what he meant by that.” And they’re very subtle, but sometimes those are the key elements to really being able to lead a band. With jazz musicians, it’s all about being able to improvise and doing things on the bandstand. And of course, part of that is in the music and being able to follow the music—that’s part of orchestration. But I think, especially with my band, I do a lot of orchestration on the bandstand because I feel as though it’s definitely one of the elements that keeps the audience captivated. You never really know what’s coming—especially with this group.

TJG: What is it about this band that serves that kind of spontaneity?

GG: You have Micah Thomas on piano, Philip Norris on bass and Kyle Benford on drums. The rhythm section alone—there are so many directions it could take. Micah’s thing is he’s able to hear a lot and manipulate harmony. Actually, a lot of the time when I’m playing, I know I can lead him somewhere because I know he’ll be able to hear it. So I have a lot of leeway with Micah to be able to say, “Oh—let’s do this,” or “Let’s go here.” And Kyle is always listening intently—attentively—to everything I play. Philip Norris, he’s one of those solid rocks. He keeps everything together. It’s kind of amazing. Of course Immanuel Wilkins on alto sax—he’s the right hand. He’s the gunner. I know I can count on him, especially for being able to bring a certain level of energy. So when I’m on the stage with that group, I know all of that strength and how they operate, and I use that to lead.

TJG: Are you cueing them visually as well as musically?

GG: It’s both. It’s a lot of visual cues; it’s a lot of musical cues, as well. That’s one of the things I feel, especially now with the younger generation—that tradition of being able to cue the band where it’s not expected—is an old school way of doing it, calling tunes on the spot. I feel like that’s the sort of tradition that kind of accentuates what we’re doing.

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Art by Edgar Garcia

The Jazz Gallery co-founder Roy Hargrove passed away on November 2, 2018, and the physical world let go of a beautiful and mysterious being. Deeply focused on advancing the spirit of the music, the beloved trumpet player, composer and community mentor dedicated his life to fostering connections, often inadvertently, and playing the prettiest notes.

This Tuesday, January 8, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Jazz Gallery and the New York jazz community at large will be remembering Roy’s pivotal and enduring contributions with a musical celebration at 7:00 P.M. Below, artists touched by Roy’s creativity and presence share their thoughts on the artist’s melodies, mentoring style, and generosity.

Tough Love: Gerald Clayton Speaks

Usually when I talk about Roy, I talk about how it was the first time I was around somebody who was about the music 24/7. He really treated it as more than just a job. He dedicated all of his spiritual energy to it. We would show up at a hotel somewhere, and he would run to the piano and start playing a tune. And then if you weren’t looking over his shoulder and recording, you’d be in trouble the next day on the gig because that’s the tunes he would call on the gig. You’d be SOL. In that vein, he expected the sidemen to be equally quick—to be able to soak up any musical information as quickly as he does—as he did—which was freakishly fast. One time through, Roy pretty much had it.

And if Roy ever learned a tune at any point in his life, it was in his ears forever. He would never forget it. He’d be showing me a tune, and I’d need to hear it a second time; by the third time, he would get frustrated: “Man, you supposed to know it by now!” So three years of that, you get used to having to learn songs that quickly to keep up with the pace. He was from the old school mentality where you would get vibed if you were out of line. That definitely stuck with me. I don’t vibe the young’uns as hard as I got vibed, and sometimes I think I should.

Part of what we all loved about him so much, whether you’re a musician or a listener, is that he gave of himself to the situation, to the music, to the audience. He wasn’t selfish with what he was playing. He was always playing something that just felt and sounded—good. He always chose the prettiest notes. There was a bullseye quality to it; it was like an unwavering thing. You never heard him not sound that way. And that’s kind of unbelievable. I certainly can’t do that; I know very few people who have that kind of consistency in being able to stay connected to the target. And more than from a musical place, an emotional spiritual intention behind the note—he never missed. It was every single night. And it didn’t matter what stage he was on, who he was playing with, he just always nailed it. It was unreal.

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