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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

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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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Guitarist Lage Lund’s interest in the writings of Kurt Vonnegut then comes as no great shock to fans of both artists’ individualities. Complexities and paradoxes of the human condition abound in both Lund’s and Vonnegut’s works. Finding ways for his own artistry to interpret and coexist with Vonnegut’s became the focus of Lund’s Jazz Gallery Fellowship Commission project, aptly titled “Rebuild the Rubble.”

The Jazz Gallery: Would you talk a little bit about what sparked the idea for using Vonnegut’s works in the first place, and how you came to conceive of “Rebuild the Rubble?”

Lage Lund: The idea is that so much of the fabric of our society seems to have torn, or has turned out to be in worse shape than we perhaps realized. That constant barrage of abuse our senses are subjected to—emanating from this one orange asshole—can lead to paralysis and inertia.

In a larger perspective, so many things seem not good, pretty bad or terrible. So I think the need is to look to your immediate surroundings—the beauty of the people in your life—and draw strength from that. Otherwise, rebuilding the rubble just seems insurmountable. Kurt Vonnegut’s writing describes all of this so precisely and beautifully and, to me, he also represents a moral authority and voice of reason that is so sorely needed.

TJG: Had this concept to draw inspiration from Vonnegut’s works—and vibe—been brewing for a while?

LL: Initially, I had a series of sketches that I thought to develop into a coherent piece while doing the residency at the [Marcel] Breuer House, but in the end, I really wanted something to start from scratch, and as soon as I had these specific musicians in mind, it made the writing much faster and easier.

TJG: In my non-expert opinion, Vonnegut seems to have this pervasive sarcastic sense of humor in his works that’s generally tinged with tenderness and love, and I could draw many similarities in your music. Had you considered any other similarities while you were incorporating Vonnegut’s works into your own creative narrative?

LL: In my non-expert opinion that’s exactly right, and precisely why I’m drawn to his writing. I pretty much read everything he wrote while in college, but I recently got a book of letters he wrote, and in one of them there is a poem he wrote about his two young daughters. As a father of young daughters, it really resonated with me, and for the first time ever I started toying with the idea of writing music with words.

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Photos courtesy of the artists.

For the past few months, emerging alto saxophonist and composer Immanuel Wilkins has been busy pinning down a studio date for his debut recording, while working alongside his mentor—trumpet player, composer and consummate band leader Jonathan Finlayson—who recently released his third album 3 Times Round (Pi Recordings, 2018).

Throughout their careers, Wilkins and Finlayson have collaborated with the Count Basie Orchestra, Gerald Clayton, Lalah Hathaway, Solange Knowles and Bob Dylan, and Steve Coleman, Mary Halvorson, Steve Lehman, Dafnis Prieto and Vijay Iyer, respectively.

From individual places of pause in Philadelphia, Pennsylvia and Heilbronn, Germany, the two artists let slip a few moments from their nonstop schedules to talk musical progression, career development and why the Gallery’s mentorship series is so much more than taking an underage saxophone player out for drinks at the Hog’s Head Tavern in Harlem—not that anyone has.

The Jazz Gallery: Jonathan, I know you pull daily inspiration from all kinds of artistic mediums, including painting and sculpture, films and literature. Can you talk about any specific ways in which this artistic saturation in the way you live day to day influences your composing and playing?

Jonathan Finlayson: I don’t know—I think it’s kind of the life I set up for myself, and the way I’ve viewed myself living it. There are components I look for, for inspiration overall, on a monthly basis—not even monthly, maybe weekly—that kind of inform the things that I do in some way. I can’t say how concretely [those things inform my work]. I also listen to a lot of music, as well. So I wouldn’t say that’s the information I use to compose or play, but I do feel that it is, for myself, important to check these things out and see how people are doing things in other mediums—who are doing it well.

TJG: Do you ever see any ideas your exploring in your own work reflected in other people’s works within different mediums? Ever draw any kind of parallels like that?

JF: Nothing concrete. That is to say, there’s nothing direct like, “He made a straight line; I’m going to make a straight line.” But abstractly, and figuratively? Sure, all the time. We’re all human beings. So if someone does something well in one area, odds are if you do something well in another area, there’s going to be some kind of hookup at some point. It doesn’t have to be action for action, but those things are there whether it’s sports or arts—visual, the written word.

TJG: As a listener, I hear a lot lyricism in both of your playing, and Jonathan, sometimes detect a feeling of defiance in yours.

JF: I take issue with the word “defiance,” but the best answer I can give you is that I’m just being myself.

TJG: There are artists out there who are born trailblazers, and I’d venture to say you’re one of those artists.

Immanuel Wilkins: I think why you sound defiant is because you do a similar thing—and I think this also speaks to the lyricism—the way you phrase, a lot of the time, conceptually is out a bebop tradition of playing good phrase after good phrase, kind of like how Bird doesn’t develop one thing over a solo; he plays great phrases—chunks—after others. And I think that can sometimes come across as radically different from what some people are doing on the scene these days.

JF: You can correct me if I’m wrong, Immanuel, but I think it was Ben Webster that snatched the horn from Charlie Parker and told him it’s not supposed to be played like that.

IW: Oh wow (laughs)

JF: Not equating myself with Charlie Parker, but in terms of the concept of defiance.

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