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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Perhaps more than any other force, curiosity fuels Tomeka Reid’s prolific artistry. The New York-based cellist-composer left Maryland-D.C. area for Chicago when she was a young student with the intention of disrupting her familiar comfort zones and collaborating with people she’d never met. 

 She’s released more than a dozen records as a leader and co-leader, performed with masters and emerging legends from Anthony Braxton to flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell, and recently recorded as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago for the aggregation’s 2019 release We Are on the Edge (Pi Recordings). 

Her performance at The Jazz Gallery this week celebrates Reid’s forthcoming collaborative release with drummer and producer Filippo Monico, The Mouser (Relative Pitch, 2019), with sets featuring her quartet and a duo with drummer Tomas Fujiwara.

The Jazz Gallery: There’s a distinct, intimate voice-like quality to your playing. Is that quality something you’ve developed over time, or has that always been a natural part of your expression? 

Tomeka Reid: I do think about that. Even the pieces that I write, the compositions, come as a result of me singing the melodies. So I guess it does lend itself to [the voice], and I’m flattered that you’d actually say that. As a string player, you’re trying to get the jazz language into your playing, and it’s like you’re trying to replicate horns, but you’re just not a horn player. There are certain things that are easier on those instruments and certain things that cellos can do, like double stops—those types of things are to play on string instruments. So I try to definitely incorporate all of my training—along with musicians that I’m influenced by—into my playing. 

TJG: You’ve lived in three powerhouse hubs for musical development; you were born in D.C. and raised close by in Maryland, then later you moved to Chicago as a student and now you’re here in New York. Have you noticed each of these very vibrant, very different musical environments having a distinct influence on your sound? 

 TR: I would say Chicago probably had the biggest one. When I was in Maryland-D.C. area, I wasn’t really improvising a whole bunch; I was just kind of dabbling in it. And I didn’t leave campus much, so I wasn’t participating in whatever was happening in D.C. at the time. I feel like most of my influence definitely comes from my musical life in Chicago. Coming out here, I had a band that already lived out here so I connected with them. Through various projects, I’ve connected with more New York-based musicians. But I’ve only been here about three years, so I think I’m still very much bringing my Chicago sound or voice here. 

 TJG: I read that you were a bit of a timid improviser when you began playing out in Chicago, getting involved in those sessions. Has becoming comfortable as an improviser informed your composing tendencies? 

TR: I would say it has. I think playing in a wide variety of ensembles has. I was shy about certain things, so I would write forms that I didn’t feel comfortable [playing] over, so I could write a melody over that and learn how to feel comfortable in that form. So yeah, [becoming comfortable improvising] has impacted my compositions. I use GarageBand to compose all the time. I would often record myself and play that back and write down little snippets of ideas that I liked from what I was playing.

 TJG: Do you feel as though you have more freedom in the way that you compose now? 

 TR: I do. Again, I think part of the timidity was probably because I was a shy person, but also because everyone around me seemed like they had such a clear idea of what they were doing—or they were just more familiar with the aesthetic or with the genre. The jazz that I heard prior to coming to Chicago was more straight ahead. You know, everyone knows Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder and all this hard bop or bebop type of stuff. And in Chicago, I mean they were using everything, but there was more of an emphasis on creating your own voice and composing and playing more free. And so that part was like, “Whoa. What do I—how do I do that?” because I just wasn’t exposed to it. And now I’ve had numerous opportunities to play in those contexts, so I feel more comfortable in them. I still find it challenging, and that’s probably why I keep doing it because you’re always trying to make a musical happening. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You’re always learning something from the form, and I really appreciate that. 

 TJG: You mentioned that quoting in a Chicago club is like—the kiss of death. And you can’t go into a New York club without hearing 50 million people quoting a Monk tune or something. Not every club—you’re not going to hear people at the Gallery quoting Jerome Kern, but downtown, you hear it all night long. So that seems like a striking difference between the two cities. 

 TR: Oh yeah. For me, it didn’t matter so much because I play the cello, not saxophone—meaning no one was exactly expecting me to quote too many things. But if you heard it, some people would then intentionally crash the song. I’d be thinking like, “Damn. Okay.” So that didn’t help my shyness, of course. I was like, “Okay, I don’t wanna do that,” (laughs). 

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Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of the artist.

The ability to be vulnerable in performance is a vital trait for singer-composer Emma Frank. With the release of her third album Ocean Av (Susan Records, 2018), Frank draws listeners in to the depth of her intention. Within each song, the New England native shares not only her thoughts but the often messy process that leads from one thought to another.

Only months after recording Ocean Av, Frank found herself back in the studio, settling into her forthcoming release Come Back (Justin Time, 2019) that features Aaron Parks, Franky Rousseau, Tommy Crane and Zack Lober. This Tuesday, April 16, at The Jazz Gallery, Frank and Parks, along with Rousseau, Desmond White and Daniel Dor, premiere new music from Come Back including the album’s newly-released single “I Thought.”

The Jazz Gallery: Your compositions sound and feel as though they’re very thoughtfully arranged. In terms of your process, are you typically composing at the piano or with a guitar, and does that process vary depending on the project?

Emma Frank: The instrument I write on is piano, if I’m sitting at an instrument. Sometimes I am. I guess, ideally, a song will come out kind of in one piece—not necessarily the full song itself, but just like I’m writing lyrics and chords and melody kind of at the same time. And that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, especially if I’m challenging myself to write with a musical idea that’s challenging to me, I might hone in on that before I set words to it. Or I’ll be a little bit looser with what those words are, maybe depend more on sounds to guide my lyrical process. And then there’s a lot of writing that just happens walking around.

TJG: Do you document that writing on your phone?

EF: Totally. A hundred percent.

TJG: During those instances when you feel you have to deal with the music ahead of the lyrics, do you ever find yourself revising the music based on what lyrics you come up with?

EF: Interesting question. I guess I was kind of unclear. I can’t even think of a single situation where I’ve written an entire piece and then set lyrics to it. So it’s more like 16 bars of something and I’m like, “That’s a cool idea. And here are some words to go with it. Okay. What’s next?” Really, if I don’t know what the lyrics are about, I don’t know what the piece of music is about. And I wish that I—I’m so in awe of composers that are telling fully-fledged stories musically, and have that vision all set out. And if there aren’t lyrics, it’s very rare that I do.  

TJG: We’re talking about compositions that go to some very haunting and, to me, very unexpected places harmonically and rhythmically, and it almost feels as though you’re working out certain internal struggles – human struggles – in your music.

EF: (Laughs)

TJG: Is that somewhat relevant an interpretation of your expression?

EF: Totally. It’s so spot on that it’s actually a little embarrassing to hear. The things that we set out to do and the things that we now want to do are often different. I think that I developed a bit of a philosophy for how I wanted to write music, at least in a certain period. And I don’t know if it’s the same now. But it was that listening to odd meters, listening to music that had a lot of rhythmic variation, was a way for me to learn to feel new things. I had to move with it because I didn’t always know how to count it. I had to learn how to feel it. And there were a handful of records that were just so powerful and therapeutic to me because they were introducing me to musical ideas that I had to feel and integrate physically and, at the same times, were presenting lyrics that were really deep and beautiful and powerful. I’m thinking about Becca Stevens’ album Weightless, and I just spent a lot of time, in my room, you know – modern dancing to that album (laughs), and really learning a lot from it, spiritually.

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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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