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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

In the fast-paced, session-oriented world of New York jazz, it’s treat to have top-tier players collide for special one-off projects, leaving lively performances and energetic records in their wake. One such combination is Blake/Oh/Potter, also known as BOP Trio, consisting of Johnathan Blake (drums), Linda Oh (bass), and Chris Potter (tenor saxophone).

Aside from giving a memorable performance at The Jazz Gallery, the trio was launched by (and helped facilitate the launch of) Giant Step Arts, a non-for-profit organization founded by Jimmy and Dena Katz to support independent artists. Giant Step Arts supported the trio over two nights of live recording at the Gallery last winter. They aided the production of a forthcoming trio album, and are facilitating the upcoming trio show at The Gallery as well. We spoke with Johnathan Blake and Chris Potter about the trio, and we’ll let them tell the story.

The Jazz Gallery: Johnathan, tell me about the origins of BOP Trio.

Johnathan Blake: In 2015, Chris and I did trio tours with both Larry Grenadier and Scott Colley. Chris’s harmonic sense is so advanced that sometimes you don’t need a piano or any chordal instrument. He outlines the chords so well, and in a chordless situation, it gives him a lot more freedom than having a guitarist or pianist. Those tour experiences were on my mind when the first Jazz Gallery date came about. Chris was available, and I thought Linda would be a great fit—I’ve loved Linda’s playing for years now—and she was down to do it. Linda had never played with Chris at that time, so it was nice to bring them together. They were fans of each other, but putting them together on stage was really special. We figured out that our last names’ initials spell BOP, so we played the gig at The Gallery as BOP Trio, and it was a success.

TJG: Chris, what are your thoughts on playing in a chordless trio?

Chris Potter: It’s a format I always enjoy. More of the harmonic spectrum is open, and every instrument is clearer. Of course, it also means that I can imply things with my melodic content. The counterpoint between the saxophone and bass is all that outlines the harmony. I can choose to make what is normally a minor chord a major chord without any sort of clash with an accompanist.

Johnathan and I first started playing together, as I recall, with the Mingus big band in the 90s. It was a regular gig for a while, and we went on the road a bit. That’s when I first got to know him. Johnathan, I mean, he just has so much swing, it’s deep down in his DNA. It always feels good. And if it feels good, you can do anything. That’s what I love about his playing, among other things. He swings. Hard.

TJG: Between that swing and that confidence and the counterpoint hookup with Linda, it leaves you so much latitude as a soloist. What stood out for you about the last time you played together?

CP: I just remember that it was fun. I have a long history with Johnathan, a bit less with Linda. She arrived on the scene a bit later. I had been running into her on the road, but we’d never played until Johnathan put us all together. That was the introduction. I knew of her work and was a fan, but that was the first time we played as a trio. She’s very strong, which is crucial in that trio setting. You need someone who can lay it down and show where the harmony is. Someone who can make careful choices to outline things, because there’s nobody else to show it. She definitely does that. But she also does it with her own approach to music, with a real fluency and virtuosity on bass. I’m looking forward to working with her more.

TJG: So Johnathan, what was the occasion for you to organize another BOP Trio show?

JB: In January of this year, Jimmy Katz started a new venture called Giant Step Arts, a non-for-profit company supporting independent artists. Jimmy was at the first BOP Trio show we played: He liked the chemistry, and he asked me to put the trio together again to record. Even though I have a couple of albums out under my own name, he felt like he wanted to showcase this as a drummer-lead band. With the first show, I had everyone bring in some tunes, as well as standards, and made it a collaborative effort. When Jimmy approached us about playing again, he said “I want you to shine as a leader.” So we did two nights at the Gallery, recording live both nights. I brought in most of the music, and Chris and Linda brought some tunes as well. Now, we’re looking at a July release. I’m really happy with it, and we can’t wait to get this project out to everybody. I’d be curious to get Chris’s take on the recording, actually. It’s interesting with Chris, since he can’t hear out of one of his ears. He’s always hearing in mono, so to speak.

TJG: Chris—your thoughts on the mixes from the BOP Trio recording session?

CP: When I listened for the first time, I just thought, “Yeah, sounds great! That’s what we sounded like!” [laughs]. I should try to listen with a more critical ear, but my first reaction was, “Great, sounds like us.”

TJG: Is it true that you can only hear out of one ear?

CP: Exactly. When I was in my mid-20s, I got this thing called Meniere’s Disease, an imbalance of fluids in the inner ear. I was getting dizzy spells and my hearing in my left ear was going up and down for a year or two, it was rough. It settled into an equilibrium where I don’t hear, but I don’t get dizzy either. Sometimes I feel funny because I have one ear that I’m balancing with, as well as hearing with, which is especially challenging when I have a cold. But it’s been a part of life now for the better part of twenty years. It can be useful. If the drummer sets up on my left side, they can bash all they want to [laughs].

TJG: Is it nice to play trio then, a context where there’s less auditory information?

CP: Eh, I think it’d be the same with one or both ears. I had many years where I could hear in stereo. It’s more about the sonic context, the trio in general, where there’s not as much taking up space, which leaves more room for each of us to make choices.

TJG: So how did Giant Step Arts facilitate the recording session and the upcoming concert?

JB: Basically, the first concert was their launching of the company. The funding for these recordings and concerts all comes from private donors and patrons of the arts. Jimmy and his wife Dena approach people to fund these projects, and I was the first person they wanted to launch the company with. (They’re doing another recording the week after we play this time around. Jason Palmer was asked to put together a band with Mark Turner and Ben Williams. It was the same process, where Jimmy an Dena approached donors who were willing to donate for this cause.) For this particular gig coming up on June 8th, Jimmy basically wanted to showcase us again. They’re doing promotion for the gig too. I’m thinking of having a special guest come and play as well, so we’ll see what happens.

TJG: I’d love to hear about what you’ll be playing. What are your tunes like, and what do you think about the way Chris and Linda are going to approach them?

JB: The majority of the material is going to be from the upcoming record. When we recorded the music, it was basically new to them. I brought some tunes that they hadn’t really seen, and I just wanted to see what these great musicians are going to do with the music. To hear how they interpreted them and played them went beyond my wildest dreams.

Now, especially that he’s gone, I always try to include a song of my father’s. I included a tune of his, “Blue Heart,” that had never been recorded and released. I basically only heard him play it once. I transcribed it and brought it in, and I was really curious to see how they interpreted it. It was beautiful. The second night at the Gallery, Chris really got inside the melody. We all know what a great soloist he is, but to actually hear him get into that melody, he really sang on it.

I’d like to incorporate another tune of Linda’s, plus another older tune called “Clues” from my first record, which is based off of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” I don’t think I’ve played that with them, so I want to see how they interpret it. I think I want to play more standards on this particular set too. You don’t get to hear Chris or Linda play that many standards, and it’ll be nice to hear that. I’m really looking forward to getting on stage with these great musicians again. It’s been over half a year since we played together.

Giant Steps Arts presents BOP Trio at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, June 8, 2018. The group features Johnathan Blake on drums, Linda Oh on bass, and Chris Potter on saxophone. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.