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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

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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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Growing up in Philadelphia’s fertile music scene, Jaleel Shaw began playing alto at an early age, and soon would find himself playing alongside Shirley Scott, Grover Washington, Jr., John Blake and countless other of his city’s legendary artists.

Strong identity on the saxophone has served Shaw both in leader contexts, and as a longtime member of the Roy Haynes Quartet and Tom Harrell’s “Colors of a Dream.” But as an artist and a human being, the multi-instrumentalist and composer has gone through many changes. He recently spent some time reflecting on some of those changes—and their related longings—and conceived of a project inspired by the bare essentials of creative expression.

The world premiere of Images Project, Shaw’s Jazz Gallery Fellowship Commission, features Lage Lund, Lawrence Fields, Joe Martin and Kush Abadey, and seeks to recapture—or perhaps rouse—raw imagination in all its permutations.

The Jazz Galley: I like to ask artists who grew up in Philly for their personal interpretation of the Philly sound.

Jaleel Shaw: I’ve always felt like the Philly sound was a pretty open and diverse sound. When I came up on the Philly scene, I was around free artists like Byard Lancaster, hip hop groups like The Roots. I played in big bands; I played in mariachi bands. There was a huge organ presence there with Shirley Scott and Trudy Pitts. There was a soul R&B scene there, too. So there were so many different styles going on at the same time that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is.

That’s the thing that I loved about Philly; it was kind of a mix of so many different things, and all the musicians knew each other. All the musicians played together. There was no division amongst the styles—at least, not for me. As a kid, I was playing with so many different groups and coming out of so many different groups that I never really thought of music not being open, or not allowing myself to be inspired by all the different music that was going on, from hip hop to free jazz to R&B—it was all there.

When I was coming up, there was a very conscious presence—black consciousness and African consciousness—a pride of history. So growing up in Philly, I learned the history of the music. And the history of the people was very important.

TJG: Awhile back I was talking with Dayna Stephens, who made the comment that growing up in the Bay Area, playing all kinds of music or “styles” of music was a requirement—to the point where he was shocked when he moved to New York because it was the first time he experienced some of those harsh divisions; did you have a similar experience when you arrived?

JS: Right. Yeah, I feel like New York is a huge city, and I guess I didn’t get to know all of the musicians like I did back home. In Philly, like I said, I basically knew all the musicians. I knew and played with Shirley Scott; I knew Grover Washington, Jr.; I knew John Blake—that’s how I met Johnathan Blake; I knew The Roots. Everything was just mixed. We were all, it seemed, on the same scene. We would go to each other’s shows, and you could call anyone, anytime to ask a question about the music. It wasn’t until I was older that I really realized how special it was to have had that coming up in Philly.

TJG: In past interviews, you’ve described certain sounds from Philly and also Chicago as “Afrocentric.” Can you talk a little bit about your own interpretation of that concept?

JS: Wow. Where’d you see that?

TJG: I think it was in your blindfold test from a couple years ago.

JS: Wow. Okay. Well, yeah. For one, I grew up in a diverse community, and my mom made sure I learned my history. Every time I go home to visit her, I’m always amazed at how many books she has about everything, but specifically about my culture. And I realized she really immersed me in that, and made sure I understood and embraced it. And in Philly there were many African American events going on, from art shows to dance to poetry. And my mom always took me to those events. There was also something called Odunde, which was the African American festival that we had every year.

TJG: They no longer have it?

JS: It’s still happening. That’s a great festival. There’s a great African American museum in Philly, and I felt like the community was very strong. And it was embracing; it was a community of people teaching the music and teaching the culture, and everyone was welcome to learn it.

I’m sure it’s happening in New York, but I just haven’t seen or experienced it as much. But that may also be due to my activities since moving to the area.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Immanuel Wilkins’ depth of sound has local roots. He began playing every Sunday at his family church in Philadelphia, admittedly long before he understood the significance of his hometown history. Today, the saxophone player and composer has stretched his artistry from Europe to Japan, and collaborated with bold, diverse voices including Jason Moran, Lalah Hathaway, Solange Knowles, Gerald Clayton and Bob Dylan, among many others.

In the spirit of collaboration and apprenticeship, The Jazz Gallery’s Mentorship Series has partnered Wilkins with prolific trumpet player and composer Jonathan Finlayson, who just released his latest record 3 Times Round (2018). And as Wilkins puts together his first album-length recording as a leader, he works to bring what he’s learned from past experiences into his current present, which happens to evolve with each new opportunity.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve had the chance to work with many established artists from a cross section of generations. How have these experiences influenced your self-perception within the lineage of the music?

Immanuel Wilkins: The beginning, for me, was when I was still in Philadelphia. Probably when I was around 15 years old, I started playing with the Sun Ra Arkestra, with Marshall Allen and a lot of those people. And I didn’t realize it then—it look me leaving Philadelphia to realize I was blessed to have a bunch of experiences with true masters of the music, at an age where I wasn’t really ready for it. So I [started] from there. Mickey Roker was also in Philadelphia at the time; he was around, Bootsie Barnes—there was all these people of the really old generation that kind of took me under their wing. And then also, I was doing the Kimmel Center program with Anthony Tidd. Steve Coleman would come down and do masterclasses from time to time with that program. That’s how I met Jonathan [Finlayson] and Marcus Gilmore and all the people in the M-Base crowd. That’s how I kind of got started checking out that music and getting into that stuff.

TJG: Now you’re in New York—you’re playing at the clubs, you’re billing yourself as the headliner. What has developed in terms of the way you see yourself as being a part of this legacy?

IW: I’m trying to think of the defining moment. I think at this point, I more concerned about playing good. I was talking to Kenny Washington today, and he was talking about how he was talking to Dizzy. He asked Dizzy, “Man, how’d you change music like this? What were you and Bird thinking?” and Dizzy was just like, “Man, we were just trying to play good—we were just trying to play.” That spoke to me. I guess my place in the lineage is just trying to continue the line. I’m trying to play good. And if that happens to change things, then good. That means maybe I stumbled upon something worth exploring. But if not, that’s fine, too. I’m trying to play good.

TJG: I’ve talked about the “Philly sound” with people like Johnathan Blake—as something that’s laid back while having that alive, very forward momentum. What’s your interpretation of the Philly sound, and how would you say it has influenced your playing and your approach to music? Or is it something that’s more essential and you can’t really define it?

IW: Okay, the Philly sound. I remember, for me at least, growing up in Philly, we were all trying to sound like Trane. I think John Coltrane has the biggest influence on the Philly sound, at least when I was younger. We would go to jam sessions and cats would call these long modal tunes, and we’d stretch out for like 20 minutes on one chord—as opposed to here. Cats are calling tunes with chords—like, actual changes. I think there are benefits for both. One thing I’ve learned from Philly is that there’s a certain depth that all the musicians who come out of Philadelphia play with: Jaleel (Shaw), Justin Faulkner, Johnathan Blake, Orrin—any of these people. There’s a certain depth to their playing that’s something almost only Philly people recognize. And secretly, I realized it once I got to New York. When I first got here, I was like, “Man, I’m not having any experiences like I was back home.” And I realized that depth is very special to Philly. It’s a certain Philly thing. Honestly, I put it up there as one of the cities close to New Orleans. It’s up there with New Orleans in terms of [being] a serious jazz town that has a deep connection to the music, and a deep foundation for what happens after.

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Photo by The Cell Theatre, courtesy of the artist.

Sasha Berliner is eager to show her range. Her dynamic range; her emotional range; her multi-instrumental and interdisciplinary range—she’s ready, with mallet in hand and message in mind. The percussionist and composer is gaining career traction as a force on the vibraphone. But she’s more interested in the movement of the music than the trajectory of her individual career.

This weekend, the SF JAZZ Rising Female Instrumentalist and her band join the lineup at FutureFest, the Gallery’s weekend-length event that provides a headlining platform for emerging voices in ensemble settings. Ahead of the hit, Berliner talks technique, mixed media exploration and the unique dynamic range of her instrument.

The Jazz Gallery: You use the MalletKAT quite often. What freedom have you found exploring different textures in your music?

Sasha Berliner: I really just think of the MalletKAT as a new way to interpret the vibraphone and add another element to my group. I wouldn’t really say it’s anything particularly new—people have been using synths and stuff for ages. But it has a very cool visual appeal. It’s obviously similar to the vibraphone in a way that keyboard isn’t. It uses technique that I’m more familiar with. I do like that I can use both MIDI sounds and the internal Kurzweil sounds at the same time; it creates a unique hybrid sound that adds a cool texture to my band. I’m not playing the MalletKAT at FutureFest, but I do use it with my other groups.

I’d say in terms of textures, it’s more about exploring several percussion instruments and being a multi-instrumentalist, experimenting with instrumentation.

TJG: As a listener, I’m drawn to the resonance that you seem to achieve sometimes by doing very little—playing then leaving space. How do of the different instrumental textures you use inform the resonance that you achieve or even your perception of resonance, either literally as in harmonically or more abstractly?

SB: I think about harmony a lot. I guess if you want to talk about resonance, there are certain chord qualities and certain intervals that you can use based on the overtone series. But this is also based on a lot of what I studied with Stefon Harris. You can get very specific about harmony and, therefore, very specific about emotions. You can sort of paint your experiences or what you’re trying to convey a little more specifically and vividly. So, in that sense, just having a better sense and control of harmony gets you closer to resonating more with your audience. That’s definitely something I think about.

In a more abstract way, resonance can convey a lot about the human experience, all the facets that are incorporated within that. Harmony and interpretations of notes are extremely diverse, just like all of our human experiences. Using that to correspond with what you have to say, what chord choices you make, what messages you want to convey, creates for a powerful narrative within your music.

TJG: You have the artistic advantage of having the drums as your first instrument. How do you feel your experience playing drums has influenced some of your harmonic tendencies or melodic development on the vibraphone and when you compose?

SB: I actually feel like the more that I play vibraphone and learn vibraphone the more I seem to interpret it and communicate with it differently than the drums. A lot of musicians, across instruments, they often say, “I have the same voice on each instrument.” But I actually feel like that’s not true for me. I feel like a lot of that has to do with the harmonic aspect of vibraphone, and the melodic aspect. I would definitely say that playing drums has sparked more of a rhythmic interest, especially in terms of incorporating a lot of polyrhythms and different percussion instruments, and it helps me more easily convey the kinds of rhythms and feels to whoever the drummer in my band is going to be. But I would definitely say it’s a little more exploring rhythm in a general sense—things like odd meter, polyrhythms again, cross rhythms. Being a drummer definitely helps me understand those kinds of things more, and employ them successfully in my band. But I wouldn’t say that’s all attributed to the drums.

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