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Posts by Tamar Sella

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Roopa Mahedevan is an in-demand Carnatic vocalist on the New York music scene, as well as around the U.S. and India. She sings regularly with a variety of Bharathanatyam dance productions and artists, and is herself a trained Bharathanatyam dancer. Roopa is the artistic director of the Navatman Music Collective, an Indian Classical Vocal ensemble, founded in 2014 by Sahi Sambamoorthy. The Collective released its first album, An Untimely Joy, in 2016.  Roopa is a core member of Brooklyn Raga Massive, who are joining her in hosting two sets at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, July 21st, as part of their “Raga Roots” series. For her Jazz Gallery debut Roopa will be joined by Anjna Swaminathan on violin and Abhinav Seetharaman on mridangam.

Roopa has a full-time job in public health policy, and wields degrees in biology and cognitive science. We caught up with her at a Midtown Manhattan coffee shop, in between her day job and her evening rehearsal, and chatted about the various projects she’s involved in, and about the challenges and opportunities that arise when playing Carnatic music in shifting settings.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you start by setting the stage for this upcoming show at the Gallery?

Roopa Mahadevan: It’s going to be pretty much a traditional Carnatic concert. I’ll be singing Carnatic vocal music. On the violin is Anjna Swaminathan. And on the mridangam, or double-headed percussion, is Abhinav Seetharaman. Carnatic musicians often don’t rehearse ahead of time, or make decisions collaboratively before they get on stage. Often the “main artist”—in this case it’s a vocal concert, so the vocalist becomes the main artist—will have a sense of what they want to do, but they may not necessarily tell the accompanists ahead of time. Because if you are a professional Carnatic artist, you’ve already spent years and years learning the technique and repertoire, so even if you don’t know a specific song, if you know the raga, or the scale, and the tala, or the rhythmic structure, you should be able to just go with it.

It’s interesting because it’s an hour-long set, which is short for Carnatic concerts. If you want to do full justice to all of the options that are available in a Carnatic concert, you could do a two-and-a-half-hour, three-hour concert. So it’s actually kind of an interesting challenge, to do this kind of music, in a setting like The Jazz Gallery, because—how do I include all of the elements I want to include in an hour? But I also think that all of us want to go deeper into the pieces that we do. There is sort of a trend in Carnatic music to amass as much as you can and then kind of vomit it all out, and I actually think there’s a lot of value in being patient with how you treat a particular piece. So this [shorter set] will help me actually, to do that.

The other interesting thing about this gig is that there are two sets. And that’s really weird for us. You don’t do two sets! So I have to decide—am I doing two different sets, or the same set twice? That’s what happens, though, when you do this music in a different kind of cultural context, these issues come up. And I would also just add that my generation of Carnatic musicians, and those of us that are not so tied to all the cultural constraints of performing it in India, for example, we share our set ahead of time. Because we want everyone to be at their best. So this idea of surprising the violinist—“hey you didn’t know I was going to do that!”—it doesn’t mean much. I’d rather us all be able to enjoy everything when we’re on stage. Knowing that the other musicians are happy and confident gives me confidence. It feels like we’re in it together as a team.

TJG: Have the three of you played together as a group before?

RM: Anjna and I have played together many times. Abhinav is very busy—he’s as student at Columbia—it’s hard to track him down. The last time we all played together actually was for my group, Navatman Music Collective. I composed a tillana, a little rhythmic piece. We had Abhinav, Anjna, and then a Portuguese guitarist, Pedro Henriques da Silva.

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Camila Meza is a singer, guitar player, and composer from Santiago, Chile, based in Brooklyn, NY. Not long ago she released her album Traces (Sunnyside, 2016), which features Shai Maestro on piano and keys, Matt Penman on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums. Her upcoming project, Ambar, with the Nectar Orchestra, is getting ready to record next month and wrapping up a kickstarter campaign (check it out: http://kck.st/2pOTdP1). The group includes Camila Meza (voice, guitar), Noam Wiesenberg (bass, string arrangements), Eden Ladin (keys), Keita Ogawa (percussion), and a string quartet with Tomoko Omura (violin), Fung Chern Hwei (violin), Benjamin von Gutzeit (viola), and Adam Fisher (cello). They will have their last performance before heading to the studio at The Jazz Gallery on May 30.

We had a nice long chat in Camila’s Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood coffee shop, where every few minutes someone stopped by to give her a hug and tell the camera what a great person she is. You can find out more about the Nectar Orchestra in this JG original video, and read on further below to learn about Camila’s family, early music experiences, and compositional process.

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Jen Shyu is a fixture in the jazz and improvised music scenes, and dexterously wears the ever-multiplying hats of multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, dancer, and scholar. She has been prolific in creating and releasing her own solo and group work with her band Jade Tongue, as well as singing and playing on projects led by other musicians—Steve Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and John Hébert, to name a few. Jen is a Fulbright Scholar, and has done extensive research throughout the world, and Indonesia in particular. Read our 2014 Jazz Speaks interview with Jen to discover more about her exploration of a number of Asian musical traditions through fieldwork.

At The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, January 21st, Jen will present her latest project, Song of Silver Geese. Song of Silver Geese, composed by Jen and co-directed with Satoshi Haga, is a full-length multilingual ritual music drama, influenced by music and folklore, and sometimes Jen’s own fieldwork, in Korea, Taiwan, Timor, and Java. Commissioned by Chamber Music America, it was premiered at Roulette in March of last year, and performed in a number of different configurations since then. This Saturday at the Gallery, Jen and her cohort will perform Song of Silver Geese in its entirety. On top of Jade Tongue (Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Thomas Morgan on bass, Dan Weiss on drums, and Anna Webber on flutes), there will be a string quartet (Christopher Hoffman on cello, Mat Maneri on viola, Erica Dicker and Jen on violins), dancer-improviser Satoshi Haga, and Jen herself singing, dancing, and playing piano, gayageum, and Taiwanese moon lute. All proceeds from the performance will go to the ACLU in solidarity with women who will be marching earlier that day.

We caught up with Jen on the phone to talk about this performance and what it means to be having it on the same day as nationwide protests in response to the President-Elect’s inauguration. Our conversation very quickly plunged into the depths of Jen’s expansive creative and activist world—her future premiere of a solo piece based on distillations from Song of Silver Geese at National Sawdust on June 29th, 2017; the history of the circuitous and complex relationship between dance and music in her work; the tough choices she was faced with as a young artist; her involvement in community building and activism through creativity and improvisation, particularly in this moment in the nation’s political landscape; and the power of encouragement to offer creativity to the world.

The Jazz Gallery: What has your experience been with dancing?

Jen Shyu: Well, I was in ballet school from age six to high school. I want to say fourteen or fifteen is when I had to stop because I was focusing on piano at that time. When I got to college I started taking modern. At Stanford, I had this amazing teacher named Robert Moses who still teaches there and has his own company. Amazing. He’s one of my favorite dancers ever. And then I learned some tap as well. But the great thing from Stanford was that I took this contact improv class. And, even in childhood, my first experience with improvising was through dance. I would just choreograph, make these dances in my room, when no one was looking. And I didn’t do that musically at all. I wasn’t improvising at all musically, which is a very funny thing. Even when I was at home alone, I was really scared of improvising with music. Because at that time I was training so hard on a classical path. I even studied opera later with a great teacher Jennifer Lane at Stanford, even though singing was just fun for me, starting out. My parents weren’t pushing me into the career at all, but my studies with these teachers were very serious, so it felt like I was training to be a concert pianist. Ballet was always there because I loved it and I didn’t want to quit. Even though my piano teacher said, “You have to focus!”

TJG: And you didn’t feel the pressures from the dance side?

JS: Well, my piano teacher—he was a fantastic, I’m still in touch with him, I just saw him in Champaign in November—his name is Roger Shields. He’s a master teacher. He was just amazing. And he was telling me, “You can’t be a jack of all trades, you have to focus.” And I remember having the crisis—I think it was in high school—because I wanted to be in this musical, but I had to prepare for this piano competition. And I just remember being in the family room, crying, because my parents were saying, “Maybe you have to choose.” They weren’t pressuring me so much as knowing that logistically, it was impossible to be in two places at once, and they were the ones driving me everywhere, so they were thinking about it more than I was. And I was crying, “Nooo, I don’t want to choose.” It was hilarious! I mean looking back at this young age, having a crisis. Hilarious. But I remember crying, sobbing, and it was a really traumatic moment.

TJG: And what did you choose?

JS: I didn’t do the musical. I ended up focusing on piano. And it was for a competition. And I made the finals. Which was a big deal. Because when I was little I got sixth place or something. But then when I was older, this was fourteen or something, and I made the finals, I felt that was a big deal even though I didn’t get any further, because these other kids were crazy. All they did was practice, they didn’t do anything else. They didn’t go to school. It was an international competition. And so to get to the finals for me was a big honor. I did not practice an inch of what those kids practiced.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Alicia Olatuja is a singer and composer whose diverse musical work reaches far and wide.
Recently, she has worked on drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.’s Songs of Freedom, and pianist Billy Child’s Grammy-winning Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro (Sony, 2014). Her first solo album, Timeless, was released on World Tune Records in 2014. She appeared on the national stage when singing a solo with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at President Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

At The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, Olatuja will present for the first time songs from her new project, Transform, featuring David Rosenthal (guitar), Juan Pastor (percussion), and Keith Witty (bass). We caught up with Olatuja by phone, who was busy in between moving house and preparing for the new project. We spoke about topics of transformation and vulnerability on the personal, musical, and political level. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us about the ensemble for this gig?

Alicia Olatuja: Well, it’s actually going to be a stripped down sound. What we normally have with my shows could be from five to eight people in the band. So we’re going to strip it down to a trio, quartet type of thing, and it’s all acoustic instruments. We’ll have guitar by David Rosenthal, cajon by Juan Pastor, and then on upright bass, for a few of the tunes, we’ll have Keith Witty. I’ve played with all three of them in different configurations. But this is the first time all four of us will be playing together in this group. We’re going to be debuting some new tunes as well, from my upcoming project, so it’s really exciting for several reasons.

TJG: What’s the new project?

AO: It’s called Transform. All the tunes, and the thematic material is about transformation—the vulnerability of it, the tragedy of not growing and changing, the fear of moving on, and also the freedom and joy of transformation.

TJG: What was the motivation to do something with the more stripped down ensemble?

AO: Well, I feel like the music is still in the process of being molded and shaped into what I want it to be, and so I feel like starting a little bit more bare and then building onto it might make the music have a different process of development. With my other album, I recorded all the tunes first, and then released the album, and then toured it. The growth and the transition the music has made since then is crazy! There are many different ways and processes you can use to create music and reveal it to your audience. So I thought I would start from small and build outward, unlike last time which was more like “here it all is!” in its codified form. Because it’s stripped down, we’ll hear the real core of it, which is important for me to hear. It’s about finding out, “what are these songs trying to say? How are they impacting the audience and the listener?” But without bells and whistles and all that.

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Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist

Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist

Pianist and composer Kris Davis is a strong and unique presence on the New York jazz scene, and her projects have run the gamut from solo piano to large ensembles with organ and a clarinet quartet. You can check out the archives of Jazz Speaks to see more about her work with this particular venue over the years.

Davis’s latest album Duopoly, the first release on her own label, Pyroclastic Records, is a series of duets with musicians including Bill Frisell, Craig Taiborn, and Marcus Gilmore. Just a few days ago, Duopoly made it on The New York Times’ Best Albums of 2016 list. On Friday and Saturday this weekend, Kris will be playing at the Jazz Gallery with Eric McPherson (drums) and Stephan Crump (bass). We caught up with Kris on the phone, and talked about the ever-changing concept of the jazz piano trio and what happens when a prepared piano is added to the mix.

The Jazz Gallery: In discussing Duopoly, you mentioned that you organized the order to allow for these “phantom duets” to rise, between any two neighboring duo partners. Sometime with your work with prepared piano, it feels like the core identity of the piano is being amplified. I was wondering if that idea, of a sort of “phantom piano”, resonated with you, when you’re doing solo work?

Kris Davis: I don’t know if the “phantom” relationship is really there. Nice try, though!

TJG: Thanks! It’ll stay there for me. I am wondering what you would respond to that.

KD: I mean, yeah, it’s like having access to a secondary instrument, a percussive instrument. A piano is percussive anyway, but just having the preparations there makes it a sort of matching texture to the drums and allows it to interweave in between what’s going on with the drums. For me, especially with this group that we’re playing with on the weekend, that’s something that I’m interested in exploring more. Sometimes prepared piano gets lost, especially with drums, so it’s really nice that Eric is so sensitive about that, and it’s easy to try and explore actual pulse and the relationship between the two instruments with him. That’s why I’m excited to play with this group. It’s sort of a unique situation, especially as a piano trio.

TJG: How would you describe the uniqueness of this trio as opposed to other trios you’ve played with in the past?

KD: Well, we’re improvising. That in and if itself is not anything new, but we’re not playing compositions, or we’ll make them up on the spot. In the past when I’ve used piano preparation with other groups, I use it more as a textural effect. In this group it’s more about the actual interplay of rhythm between the prepared piano and percussion that’s going on, and also with Stephan, who plays more groove-based vamps and pulses. So this group is much more rooted in one pulse, whereas other groups that I play with, there are sort of multiple levels of things going on. Here, with the preparations, the piano creates a textural, rhythmic background. And then outside of that it can also be used as a soloist, as something that creates texture, and also like a singing voice. These are some of the images that come to mind, and that’s how I approach playing. The piano is more of an orchestral instrument for me than the traditional jazz piano approach – comping in the left hand and soloing in the right.

TJG: If the function of the piano changes in a setting like a trio, which is so set in our imagination, how do the other two band members work out within that dynamic?

KD: Usually, or in the jazz piano tradition, the piano is sort of the lead role and the bass and the drums are accompanying. That’s not necessarily true for this group. We’re equal voices. The piano can be behind everything, and the drums and bass can be at the forefront. And they do that often, maybe more so than what people are used to. The preparation of the piano sort of holds that back, and allows the piano to be underneath what’s going on with the bass and the drums. So they really take a leading role along with the piano, and sometimes more than the piano.

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