A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Artists hard-pressed to consider the vibraphone to be their first-call instrument nevertheless find Joel Ross to be a first-call instrumentalist. A typical work week might take Ross downtown on a Monday night, uptown on a Thursday night and leading his own group on Saturday and Sunday—and those are just the New York gigs.

At 23, the vibraphonist and composer has traveled the world, collaborating with some of the music’s most enduring and distinctive voices, from Herbie Hancock and Christian McBride to Gerald Clayton and Ambrose Akinmusire. In a rare moment of rest just after his hit with Marquis Hill’s Blacktet at the White Plains Jazz Fest—and right before his record date with Melissa Aldana’s quintet—Ross slowed his tempo to a walking pace long enough to discuss rhythmic interpretations, reactions versus reflections and what he learned—and unlearned—studying with Stefon Harris.

The Jazz Gallery: You have a deliberate way of articulating each sound while maintaining a fluidity in your lines and across all your ideas. Can you talk about how your touch, specifically, allows you to interpret the music the way you hear it—or the way you want to play it?

Joel Ross: When I was at the Brubeck Institute, I was studying with Stefon Harris, and he basically revamped—we had to deconstruct, then reconstruct—my entire technique. After working with him was when I started feeling better on the instrument. I used to get pain in my forearm or in the palm of my hands from not stretching before a gig or from using the wrong technique while playing. So once he helped me get that together, I felt like I could do more with the instrument.

With that newfound freedom, I was able to figure out what I wanted my sound to be. I very specifically want clarity. I want people to be able to hear every note. I’m very particular with how I approach rhythm, so most of my playing is very rhythmic-oriented, first and foremost, and I want the clarity of those rhythms with whatever harmony might be happening at the same time.

TJG: You began on the drum kit.

JR: I started playing drums with my brother. We were about 2 or 3 years old. I didn’t start playing mallet instruments or the vibraphone until I was about 10—in the fifth grade.

TJG: And how would you say your commitment to clarity of rhythmic intention and rhythmic articulation has influenced your clarity with what you want to articulate harmonically?

JR: I’ve only recently reached this feeling of how I relate to rhythm. But I’ve had this type of harmonic—well, I’ve always been a big theory fan. I’m not sure how much I actually know, but I’m very interested in theory. So I would learn, at least in high school, what harmony and scales relate to what chords, but I was never one to transcribe. I never transcribed in high school. Me and my brother, we were church musicians, so we’d just be using our ears. I would listen to records—Miles, Trane and Monk—and just kind of hear what they’re doing, hear the language, but I never transcribed it. So when I would go back to try to play something I heard—I was usually just trying to go from memory—I knew it wouldn’t be exactly what they played, but it would be inspired by [their sound] enough to my liking, and it would also include my own sound. So that was the harmonic concept I had for a long time. And then once I studied with Stefon, we also went over some harmonic stuff that helped get my ears together. So at that point, which was when I started figuring out more of my rhythmic thing, I was able to connect the harmony—from my ears getting stronger—to the rhythm I was hearing and wanting to play.


Photo by Emra Islek, courtesy of the artist.

Charles Altura asks the big questions without saying a word. Coveted for his receptivity and strong presence by Chick Corea, Terence Blanchard, Tom Harrell and Ambrose Akinmusire—artists with whom he has enjoyed long, formative associations—the guitar player and composer evolves his own perceptions of music and context through dialogue.

When The Jazz Gallery awarded Altura the 2017-2018 Residency Commission, he relied on his tendency toward allowing music to emerge organically. What evolved was an idea for soundscaping with very specific voices in mind: Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Aaron Parks on piano, Joe Martin on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums. The resulting project, Portraits of Resonance, may be Altura’s first of many explorations tracing the influence harmony and texture have on the human experience of listening—and playing.

The Jazz Gallery: I recently had the chance to speak with Vijay Iyer about resonance as it relates to harmony and how he perceives harmony, regardless of instrumentation. Can you talk a little bit about your understanding of resonance and how it enters into your conception for this project?

Charles Altura: As I’ve been writing, I have realized that resonance was a kind of theme, hearing the music’s resonant qualities—thinking of it in that way, instead of standard harmony and melody combinations. So [Portraits of Resonance] relates to the process that has evolved while I’ve been working on the music, focusing more on the harmonic texture.

TJG: Had you chosen to follow the idea of resonance wherever the writing seemed to take you, or did you have in mind a specific kind of resonance?

CA: It is more of a specific resonance because I’ve had these musicians in mind the whole time as I’ve been writing the music. I think I’m familiar with some of the ways that we share viewing harmony, so that’s a major focus. It’s based more on texture and harmony and how that translates to emotional quality.

TJG: Evocative texture?

CA: Right.

TJG: You’ve been asked many times about your playing, so I thought I’d ask you about your space-leaving. And speaking of textures, you’ve played in so many different ensembles, often with piano. When did you begin to intuit how to fit into those contexts, and how would you describe your relationship with leaving space?

CA: It comes from [the fact] that I started on piano. I’ve always been fascinated by the combination of guitar and piano together—and actually trumpet, too. So a lot of the texture is just dealing with that combination. I tend to think of the guitar and the piano as extensions of each other when you have both in the same band. It’s always an interesting thing, the way people deal with guitar and piano together because they cover the same register.

TJG: I would imagine many listeners hearing you together with a piano player would hear this sort of effortless navigation. Is that intuiton something you’ve always had, or is it something you’ve developed?

CA: Yeah, I think it’s because my first instrument was piano and I still see the guitar from the perspective of being a piano player. I’ve written all of the music for [the commission] on piano. So then when I get to the guitar, I’m kind of seeing it as one instrument. Having that perspective helps me to have an idea of what space needs to be filled—or not filled.


Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of the artist.

Visual composer. Mixed media composer. Saxophone player and composer. Critics might have a tricky time clarifying and defining Matana Roberts’ title and contributions because her artistry defiantly evolves. Mingling worlds and visions has been the thrust of her aesthetic since before she can remember.

The Chicago-raised artist’s acclaimed Coin Coin album series—of which chapters One, Two and Three have been released by Constellation in 2011, 2013 and 2015, respectively—explores nuances of memory, history, lineage, expressive instrumentation and “sound quilting.” But this week at The Jazz Gallery, Roberts promises an unscripted performance of saxophone expression both in solo context and in collaboration with drummer Gerald Cleaver. She asks only that Gallery listeners bring with them to each set an “openness and a willingness to journey.”

The Jazz Gallery: A lot of artists are directly (and indirectly) challenging peers and listeners to suspend their perception of genre, categories and labels. Do you think this trend is poised to change the way people perceive sound and music?

Matana Roberts: I think we are living in a time where strict classification is no longer possible as we become better global citizens and constantly sample other cultural values. As an African American artist, I am often having to grapple with the box of just my birthright, and fight to remind people that what they see is not all there is. So for me, in creativity I feel similarly. Art life is not linear; it’s hills, valleys, deadends and odd openings in some of the strangest places. Life can’t be boiled down to just being a “thing.” It’s many things, as is the creative life, in my humble opinion.

TJG: What prompted you to begin creating graphic or visual scores, and how would you describe your relationship with that practice?

MR: Lots of different things, partly because I’ve never been able to understand sound in the kind of tied up, bow-on-the-box way that musicians are taught to inhabit in order to be “professional.” I have a learning disorder and, for a long time, did not understand that the ability to “see sound” as well as “hear sound” was a gift. I always thought it showcased that something was wrong with me. I now know better. Also I have good friends who are great musicians, incredible improvisers—but in the old way of being “ear players.” They couldn’t read music but they could interpret everything else with an incredible accuracy. I wanted to know what my music might sound like if I mixed the traditional aspects of Western music with the old traditional aspects of just music on a global scale that, in some corners of the world, are still practiced—the idea of inhabiting sound, sitting [within] sound. And there’s a really interesting tradition with graphic score making, and I have been lucky to be exposed to musicians who explore visual language. I’m thinking about Anthony Braxton, Pauline Oilveros, John Cage—just to name a few.

TJG: Can you discuss some of your recent mixed media projects, and why it’s important for you to bring sound into other artistic mediums?

MR: My last mixed media performance was at the Park Avenue Armory Veterans room, for snare sextet: saxophone, samplers, mini synths, auxiliary percussion, voices and moving image. I often use historical data to build a lot of my work, and so I used the history of that room to create the piece. I also went to West Africa—Ghana—for research on another project, but also to learn a few different craft techniques with local artisans, and I used those methods to create the scores—a combination base of glass, cotton, wax. The history of that room leans a lot on “craft” taken from many different cultures, and so I decided I wanted to reflect that in the piece.

I also had an exhibition at the Fridman Gallery called “Jump at The Sun,” recently, that was an installation that showcased segments of a single mixed media score while a long-form sound composition/“quilt” ran in the background, and there were mini speakers behind each score that would trigger upon a person stepping in front of it playing a different segment of the sound quilt. Before that I wrote a piece for a 30-person mixed chorus in Berlin, which I used a visual digital score to build. I’m currently creating a mixed media piece for string quartet. I’m getting more and more commissions to create mixed media pieces for other people, so I am exploring that also now.


From L to R: Kassa Overall, Evan Flory-Barnes, Vijay Iyer, and Ravi Coltrane. Photos courtesy of the artists.

A video circulating Instagram depicts trumpet player and composer Theo Croker quoting the words of his colleague Kassa Overall in an effort to describe their mutual approach to music: “Forget everything you ever played on this song.”

Overall meditates inside ambiguity. Over the years, he has approached making music from many vantage points: behind the drum kit, behind the mic, behind the audio mixer, and behind the hand-scribbled journal entry. Perhaps these different perspectives inspire him to remain open; perhaps his openness inspires the pursuit of different perspectives.

This weekend at The Jazz Gallery, Overall brings together Persistence of Memory, a new quartet that features Evan Flory-Barnes on bass, Ravi Coltrane on saxophone and Vijay Iyer on piano—artists who walk unique paths but share a common goal: finding connections through spontaneity, creativity, and trust.

Persistence of Memory promises an evening of spontaneous composition with very little—if any—traditional preparation ahead of the set. To approach a live performance with no expectations, no written music and no rehearsals, the players rely on their own instincts and an ability to honor each other’s instincts.

One of those instincts is Overall’s tendency to build a vibe and allow an energy to drive the direction of the music, an instinct that offers Flory-Barnes open-ended space for his lines to resonate. Though the two artists have a long collaborative association, their musical connection has intensified in recent years.

“I’ve always been attuned to what [Kassa’s] been doing since he’s been away from Seattle,” says Flory-Barnes who grew up with Kassa in the same zip code. “It’s always felt natural when we’ve played together in passing over the last 12 years, but within the last two and a half, it’s started to amplify. There’s that core of home, and then there’s this resonance of our own unique musical paths and spiritual paths. It’s a nice convergence of timing – being home and being out in the world at the same time.”

“It reminds me of when you’re in middle school,” says Overall, reflecting on his association with Flory-Barnes, “and everybody signs up for one thing—say it’s chess club or something. And then light dawns, things change and people move around. And then you come back and there’s only three people left, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re still doing the thing?’ ‘Yeah, I’m still doing the thing from way back then.’ ‘Me, too, still trying to do it.’ So at that point, we have similar visions and it’s like, ‘Yo bro, how been? Where you headed?’ ‘I’m headed the same place you headed.’ ‘Well I got gas money, let’s go.’”

Both Overall and Flory-Barnes embrace what some describe as the challenge of being authentic, as artists and as humans. Kassa uses his Tuesday Revive session in the West Village as a platform for experimentation and self-discovery. He invites new players into his performance on a weekly basis—that have included, among others, Ben Williams, James Francies and China Moses—as he bounces new lyrics, compositions and digital mediums off the audience and the other players. Flory-Barnes’ recent undertaking “On Loving the Muse and Family” reflects his own vulnerabilities through different mediums such as variety show sketches and monologues in addition to original orchestral compositions and a choir. (more…)

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Destined for a life lived prolifically, Jason Palmer grew up in High Point, North Carolina, two houses away from where John Coltrane spent his childhood. From a hometown legacy, the trumpet player/composer gleaned inspiration for his own creativity and output.

Palmer came to Boston in 1997 to study at New England Conservatory,  and now teaches down the street at Berklee College of Music. This weekend, Palmer brings his chordless quartet to New York for a live recording of brand new music and previously unrecorded compositions. We caught up with Jason to discuss his work ethic, a moment with Wayne Shorter he’s never forgotten, and the case for leaving space.

The Jazz Gallery: I can barely keep track of how many records you’ve put out as a leader. What’s the current total?

Jason Palmer: I’ve kind of lost track over the years. I have one coming out this month, and I had one come out last month. I did a double live disc at Wally’s, so I think it’s eight. I got two in the can.

TJG: Your rate of releasing album-length material is rigorous. Over the years, you’ve released many inspired recordings including your interpretations of Minnie Riperton’s music and more recently Janelle Monáe’s. Has that degree of output always come naturally to you? Do you ever struggle with the pressure of releasing new music, particularly in the age of streaming?

JP: The whole streaming thing hasn’t really bothered me as much as I think it should. I try not to worry too much; I try to focus more on putting work out there to hopefully inspire people. I don’t necessarily think of it as a revenue generating endeavor as much as other projects that I do—teaching and composing and commissions.

So yes, it’s been easy for me because I’ve written a lot of material I haven’t had a chance to record and put out. I probably have a waiting list of about 100 tunes that I want to eventually record and put out there. And it’s a great opportunity to do it next week [at the Gallery], which is going to be a mix of old tunes I’ve written but haven’t recorded, and I recently composed a set of original music that we’re going to do, as well. I think we’re going to have enough to do a double disc. If all goes well, we’ll have enough takes between the four sets on Friday and Saturday.

TJG: Because you don’t put that revenue-driven pressure on yourself to put out these records, I wonder if that helps the process remain natural for you, year to year.

JP: Yes, and I’m lucky because I’ve been working with Steeplechase for six or seven, maybe eight albums. I have one in the can for them now; we did the music of Anita Baker. I recorded that back in December. And my agreement with them is that I can release one record every year. This year I happened to be able to put out two. So they offer me that commercial platform, and I’m sure if I didn’t have them, I would do it independently, which is what I’m going to do with the new record that’s going to be live at the Gallery.