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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Tom Csatari

Photo courtesy of Miles Okazaki.

Guitarist Miles Okazaki, is coming off the release of an extremely ambitious Thelonious Monk solo guitar album which includes all 70 of the composer’s works (the first of its kind). The six-album opus, aptly entitled Work (the title of one of Monk’s trickier tunes), has been sending a wave throughout the jazz community, including a lengthy feature e in The New York Times.

Okazaki has been an extremely active member of the jazz community in New York and worldwide for the last 20 years. At the Jazz Gallery in particular, has presented his own groups alongside working as a member of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, Jonathon Finlayson’s Sicilian Defense, as well as with Patrick Cornelius, Mary Halvorson, and others—forging a wise and soulful sound, always pushing the concepts of jazz rhythm and composition in new directions.

We spoke to Miles over the phone—amidst a very busy day of rehearsing and other work—to discuss his Monk album and his approach to the upcoming show this Friday at the Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: Congrats on your recent Monk album Work, which we are excited to celebrate at the Gallery this coming Friday. What did your day look like today, in terms of “Work”?

Miles Okazaki: Thanks! Yeah, been busy: travel yesterday; took the two kids to school early this morning; rehearsal in 45 minutes, so packing it in today; gig tomorrow and then another gig!

TJG: Your Monk solo guitar project is made up of 6 albums. How do you plan on presenting that at the Gallery with drummer Damien Reid?

MO: Yeah, it’s 6 albums or 70 tracks total. we’re gonna play Monk compositions, now— I’ll tell you, there are no arrangements on the album really, it’s just improvisations pretty much, certain approaches in form. It may be totally different, but the main thing is that the approach to the Monk music on the album is rhythmically based, so I figured with drums it might emphasize that. Damion is someone I’ve played with for a long time and we have a certain way of playing duo so I thought that would be cool for the Gallery

TJG: How did you first discover Monk’s music and what were your first impressions?

MO: I didn’t see Monk live, so it was through records… records in my house, in particular, one where he’s playing “‘Round Midnight”—a long version where he’s working it out—he’s sort of practicing—it was on some sort of compilation… and then there was the record Misterioso, the one at the Five Spot with Johnny Griffin. I really like the live records and what he was doing rhythmically—the rhythmic things were the things that grabbed me.  I didn’t understand the harmonics at that point— at twelve or thirteen years old—but I could get into the rhythm and the phrasing and things like that, even tunes like “Straight No Chaser” where the phrase is moving around on the beat and things like that. I just loved that feeling of being confused [laughs].

TJG: How do you adapt Monk’s music for the guitar? Is that hard?

MO: If you wanna play anybody’s music, you have to play it on your instrument, so if I play Bach I play on guitar even though he didn’t write it on guitar or Coltrane I play guitar so I didn’t have any choice to adapt for guitar. I’ve been playing Monk’s music for a long time, for thirty years or so, one of the reasons why—his voicings and language—works well on the guitar is that it’s quite open in terms of voicings and things like that. Even complex harmonic compositions like “Crepescule with Nellie” and things like that which are very specific with voicings—you can get most of them on the guitar because of the way he plays. It’s quite different from someone like Herbie Hancock or Bill Evans or someone where the voicings are very close. Guitar players are in general attracted to Monk’s music in terms of playing it accurately for that reason. A lot of the songs had technical challenges with a lot of choices, because you only have one hand!

TJG: What was your practice and process for getting all the music together? How did you get them under your fingers? Was there a regimen or a timeline?

MO: Just one step at a time; one tune at a time, and finish a tune and go to the list and go to the one I wanted to do next and do the harder ones first, as well as the ones I didn’t know, and  just practice, practice, and if I didn’t know it, I had to memorize it. I had to go listen to the recording and figure it out, you know, and figure out a way to play it in a way that seemed to be as accurate as I could be, and then figure out a way to practice it until it became something that wasn’t just copying, until it had some kind of meaning or feeling, and then, you know, somehow, make it different from all the other ones that have already been recorded which became more and more difficult as I recorded more and more stuff, so I was like now what, i can’t do another thing in this technical approach. so the technical challenge was really extreme—probably the most extreme technical challenge I’ve put for myself on the guitar. I don’t really usually do that, I’m usually more about being in an ensemble and having all the parts go together, you know, which is not—technically—that intense, it’s more about how you’re hearing and more about musicianship on the level of interaction, I have to imagine the group! (laughs)

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Album art courtesy of Verve Records.

Pianist Dan Tepfer (age 36) and saxophonist Lee Konitz (age 90) forge a unique, timeless and enrapturing musical partnership which has been documented on multiple releases over the past ten years. Their most recent, Decade, out now on Verve/Decca Records France, celebrates their improvisational connection performing and recording as a duo (it has been almost ten years since the release of their album Duos With Lee on Sunnyside Records). We spoke with both musicians about their creative process; the creation and release of this album; and about towing the line between lush free-improvisation and songbook reinvention.

The Jazz Gallery: Lee, I feel that there is an almost universal, romantic quality to your playing which is featured well on this stripped down duo recording; somehow you resist grandiosity while remaining interesting—can you speak about that description at all, and about what we might expect at the release show at the Gallery?

Lee Konitz: Let’s talk after the show, so you can use your Imagination, but thank you, that’s a good description, I guess. Thanks!

TJG: Dan, you’ve been playing with Lee for 10 years now, and you play a little bit of saxophone yourself (on your duo album with Ben Wednel). What can you say about Lee’s saxophone playing, and it’s impact on you as a musician, and on this duo’s aesthetic?

Dan Tepfer: Um (laughs) well, he’s one of the all time great saxophone players. He’s one of the people who’s really carved a path for a certain way of playing jazz saxophone. Back in the day he was really the main alternative to Charlie Parker, in terms of bringing something different to the table on the alto. One thing that draws me to Lee Konitz is his total commitment to making music in the moment. I’ve witnessed this over and over on the stage. He’s just never phoning it in. He’s always asking himself, what is happening right now and what is the most musical, best decision i can make for the music right now. That sounds simple, but it’s something that you have to constantly renew, and he’s 90 and still renewing it.

TJG: Lee, you’ve performed and recorded in a duo context many times, on many different albums (Martial Solal; Jim Hall; Elvin Jones; Joe Henderson; Gil Evans; Hal Galper; Jimmy Raney; Matt Wilson; many others). As a guitarist, I’m really interested in what your duos with Billy Bauer were like, and how they were constructed.

LK: Well if I can remember back 45 years or so…! Billy had some sort of idea or theme and I added something and we put it together for that piece, or something. And yes, I think that music does relate.

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Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, and Joel Harrison at a previous Alternative Guitar Summit. Photo by Scott Friedlander.

The guitarist and composer Joel Harrison has been producing, organizing and playing in the Alternative Guitar Summit since 2010. He also founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Lifeforce Arts Inc., in 2013 to commission works, stage performances and further music education (including a guitar summer camp, starting in 2017) related to the summit’s mission to share and celebrate experimental guitar approaches. This weekend marks the final day of this year’s festival and The Jazz Gallery is pleased to host two special events celebrating the full breadth of guitar playing today—an evening performance of first-time guitar duos, as well as a rare afternoon workshop with the legendary Bill Frisell.

We caught up with Joel to talk about the history of the summit, and what to listen for in these first-time duo performances.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been doing quite a few of these concerts, with a bunch of diverse guitarists, at all sorts of different venues (ShapeShifter Lab, (le) Poisson Rouge, National Sawdust, IBeam, and many others)—is it always in the summer?

Joel Harrison: This is our 8th year, and it’s a pretty wide-open concept focused on creating new creative spaces for guitarists who are doing something new and/or unique. It’s not always in the summer, but it’s usually three nights in a row (a mini-festival), and this year we are doing what we’re calling the “Bill Frisell Invitational” concert at LPR where he picked the band plus four guest guitarists and has sort of free reign to explore and open up this year. There’s also a Jazz-Rock-Funk Throwdown at Nublu with some of the best guitarists on the planet paying tribute to 70s-era fusion guitar; and last but not least these two events at The Jazz Gallery.

TJG: Can you speak about the idea of guitar duos, which have been a staple at many of the AGS concerts, including the one this Saturday night?

JH: Yeah I’ve always been a fan of guitar duos, and I’ve been trying to pair older players with younger ones, and the average age difference at this Jazz Gallery concert is actually somewhere around 25 years! I often try and steer the duos toward one jazz song and one free improvisation.

TJG: Can you tell us a little bit about each duo?

JH: Rez Abbasi & Jeff Miles
Rez has put out many great records which are interesting and complex, often incorporating Pakistani music. Jeff is a young player who has great technique and studied with Ben Monder.

Peter Bernstein & Gilad Hekselman
Peter is a legendary master of the jazz guitar tradition. Gilad loves Peter’s playing, learned a lot from him, and has a modern sound also steeped in the tradition; both are lyrical players and I’m excited to hear them play in this context.

Joe Morris & Matteo Liberatore
Joe is a leading voice in a more avant-garde tradition on the guitar and Elliot Sharp told me about Matteo—he’s a guitarist who’s been influenced by Joe Morris.

Joel Harrison & Anthony Pirog
When we play it’s freaky; we have the same thoughts at the same time. We’re both from DC and are way into that Danny Gatton guitar stuff… We’re both into a lot of other stuff too and our duet will reflect this eclectic language.

TJG: What are your thoughts on “the state of jazz guitar” today? Any new players that are inspiring you?

JH: I would say jazz guitar is in a fine state. There are a lot of young, talented players, more every day. Many of them seem to come from higher educational institutions than ever. Some get good very young, partly because of access to tremendous resources. I ask young people all the time who their favorite players are. Often they mention Julian Lage.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bassist Martin Nevin has been a stalwart of The Jazz Gallery community for nearly a decade, performing as a sideman with the likes of Sam Harris, Greg Osby, The Le Bouef Brothers and Adam Larson, to name a few. While his bass playing is highly regarded, Nevin has also established himself as a composer of note. His writing has an inviting elegance and raw complexity, complemented by a cinematic scope. 

This Wednesday, May 9, Nevin and his quintet will come to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of Nevin’s debut album as a leader, Tenderness is Silent (you can check out a video of one track—”Sculpting in Time”—below).

We caught up with Nevin to talk about his multifaceted thinking on musical structure and the deep relationships with his bandmates.

The Jazz Gallery: What was the goal of this new album?

Martin Nevin: I want to share these compositions with the listener with the hope that he or she will be moved in some way. People don’t need to worry about whether they understand the music on a technical level, or to try to decode some kind of hidden meaning behind each piece. The music is born from a wide range of thoughts and experiences, some of which I think people will find mirrored in the ups and downs of their own lives. The album is an environment, a place for people to just listen and accept whatever thoughts and emotions come up for them.

TJG: Can you talk about the album title?

Tenderness is Silent is a poem by Anna Akhmatova which refers to the inadequacy of words in expressing the most important and deepest of all feelings. When love is present it is unmistakable, inexpressible, and silent. The music occupies that silence.

TJG: How did you pick the players on your new album, and did you keep them in mind while composing the music?

MN: The foundation for the group is Craig Weinrib (drums) and Sam Harris (piano). We’ve played as a trio under Sam’s name for about 8 years and we’ve spent countless hours working on and discussing music together. Making music with them feels like home for me. Their playing elevates and moves me. In terms of my music, Craig has a wonderful way of seeing the big picture, of understanding the essence of a composition and using the drums to guide the band with a sense of the overall narrative. I mostly write music at the piano, so the piano parts tend to be pretty dense. Sam has the rare ability to absorb a complex piece of music and very quickly make it sound like he wrote it himself. Like Craig, he finds the emotional core of a piece of music and creates something personal and poignant with it.

In terms of horn players, I’m really interested in working with musicians who see themselves as members of an ensemble and who are concerned primarily with how they can contribute to the overall sound of the band. (A solo is just one orchestration option, one possible texture.). Roman Filiú is one of the finest composers I know of and sees and performs my music with a composer’s sensibility. His playing is elegant yet deeply soulful; it can be reserved and it can be wild and sometimes it makes me want to put down my bass and dance. Kyle has a gorgeous sound and amazing ears. He establishes a deep connection to the rhythm section by intensely listening and tuning into what’s happening around him, leading him to improvise in a really pure way. The music on the album was written and arranged specifically for these four extraordinary musicians. For this concert we’ll also be joined by Pawan Benjamin on bansuri (wood flute). His playing is powerful—he can make you feel calm and contemplative with just a couple of notes. He plays music with deep concentration and a sense of purpose.

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Photo by Desmond White, courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, April 12, at The Jazz Gallery, drummer-composer Jochen Rueckert debuts his latest quartet, a group with which he has recently released an album—Charm Offensive (Pirouet)His original music is hard to categorize, and yet firmly rooted in the jazz tradition, maintaining both a high level of group interplay and classic swing. We caught up with Rueckert over email to talk about his nearly 20-year career in New York as a sideman playing with the likes of Sam Yahel, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner, and even a single gig with Pat Metheny at Jazz Baltica, in 2003.

The Jazz Gallery: How did you meet Mark Turner and what role does he play in your current group?

Jochen Rueckert: I met Mark at a restaurant gig he was playing in Soho, where I sat in, around 1996. He plays the role of tenor saxophone player and booking-mail-click-bait in my band.

TJG: What do you think of “the state of jazz” in NYC today?

JR: It’s fine, like it kind of always has been.

TJG: What do you think of hipsters in Brooklyn?

JR: Fuck those guys and their beards. Thankfully I rarely [have to] go to Brooklyn. Wear some socks already.

TJR: Can you speak about your early upbringing and relationship with the drums?

JR: Well, I grew up in Germany, my older brother plays the piano and my dad could be found lying on the carpet blasting Bach in the living room on the weekends. I don’t quite remember how I came to the drums—I was very little and can’t remember all that much from back then, but there was never any other job or instrument considered, really.  My first (paid) gig was, of course, playing with my brother somewhere, as a teenager. Early influences were mostly mid 60’s Miles Davis quintet, some of the Marsalis brothers’ music and other acoustic jazz-renaissance-type early 90’s music.

TJG: You’ve worked with a lot accomplished guitarists, like Mike Moreno for this show.

JR: Well, Mike and Lage Lund have been “passing the pick”  in this band, and Mike is on the last record. Lage was originally scheduled but has a very important doctor’s appointment that day he forgot about. (He is still figuring that whole ” calendar thing.” He told me that in Denmark where he’s from, the government usually provides a personal assistant to all jazz musician, that takes care of scheduling, nutrition and the like).

TJG: Do you like doom metal?

JR: No. It bores me and has no emotional value for me. I listen to other types of metal, something sometimes described as “grindcore” and “mathcore” because it’s interesting; and more melodic stuff like the Deftones.

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