Info

A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts from the Interviews Category

Restless in the city that never sleeps, Mary Halvorson spends her waking hours with her music. The guitarist-composer flew back to Brooklyn in the middle of a European tour, after the pandemic reduced her dates from eight to four—and then to none. 

Quarantined with her guitar, she explores new possibilities and reinterprets elements from past projects. This past week, we at Jazz Speaks caught up with Halvorson for a virtual discussion on composition ruts and revisions, mysteries of the instrument, and what’s next for Code Girl. 

The Jazz Gallery: In past interviews you’ve spoken about sound density in terms of instrumentation and just sheer number of instrumentalists. What are some of the more recent ways you’ve challenged yourself to maintain this sort of Halvorson agility and intense clarity of sound and intention inside that denseness?

Mary Halvorson: I’m glad you hear it like that [laughs]. It’s always a challenge when writing for a larger group—and even when you’re improvising with people—to ensure it doesn’t have to be everybody all the time. If I’m writing for a group, I’m definitely aware of having different colors pop out, and having moments of density but not having it feel like it’s constant—in other words, being able to leave space, or have different orchestral possibilities pop out.

For me, it’s also based around the specific people I’m writing for and their instruments. I very rarely write a composition that’s an open instrumentation composition that can be transferred to different groups; I pretty much always write very instrumentation-specific compositions. For example, if I’m writing for my octet which has a pedal steel guitar, four horns and guitar, bass and drums, I’ll be thinking about all those colors and trying to have it make sense and have different voices and sub-sections of the band come through in different moments, as a contrast and release from the density of the full band.

TJG: Did it take you some trial and error to maintain that balance of inhaling and exhaling and pacing with specific configurations?

MH: It’s always trial and error. I think it does take some work, particularly when you just get started with a new group. You’re kind of excited about all the colors and all the voices, so it’s probably easy to over-compose. But what I often do with compositions is, write them, then take a step back, then come back to them with a fresh brain [laughs] maybe on a different day. And sometimes, it’s during those moments when you’ll see the big picture more clearly: “Oh this is way too much,” or “Maybe if I get rid of some things in this one section,” or “Maybe this other thing needs to be made longer.” I do a lot of revisions. I write very quickly but then I go back and revise. So I think kind of the best way for me to see the big picture is to take some time away from a piece of music and then come back to it.  

TJG: That must be hard to do when you’re really excited about a project. 

MH: Yeah. But also I think of the time away from actual composing as part of the composing process, too.

(more…)

Photo by Harrison Weinstein, courtesy of the artist.

From conservatory students to seasoned road veterans, everyone across the jazz community is grappling with the same questions right now: How to maintain our mental health, how to keep writing and practicing, how to take care of ourselves and our families, how to make up lost income, how to stay safe and sane. Last week, we spoke about these issues with saxophonist and composer Melissa Aldana. As a core member of The Jazz Gallery community, Aldana had wonderful thoughts on how to develop a routine amidst this crisis, as well as fond memories of the Gallery looking ahead to the ongoing 25th Anniversary celebration.

The Jazz Gallery: Hi Melissa. How are you doing?

Melissa Aldana: I’m in New York. Right now, it feels like everything is so fragile… It’s hard to accept everything that’s happening. But somehow… [laughs] I’ve been able to do about five, six hours of practicing a day. My purpose right now is to take care of myself, practice, and stay calm and positive. Everyone is having those same feelings.

TJG: Did you lose a huge amount of work?

MA: Yeah, I did, I lost a lot of work. But I was able to finish out a tour. The hard thing is to stay calm, positive, and try to make the best of this situation. Of course, I’m sad that I can’t play with people right now. I need to do an online concert, or something, but right now I’m working on getting through the quarantine.

TJG: What have you been practicing?

MA: I’ve been working a lot on sound, which I’ve done for years. I do a good hour of long tones, a good hour of time feel, some other various techniques focusing on control. I’ve been working on Bach on piano too, an hour and a half every day. I’m trying to compose a little bit, been transcribing solos, working on claves, standards in all keys, whatever I can do to keep my head busy right now [laughs].

TJG: I like how you start your day with control—it’s really important to practice being in control during this out-of-control time.

MA: Oh yes. To me, that’s the most important. A big part of my practicing can be boring, in a sense. A bit obsessive. But years and experience have proven that if I’m consistent like that, if I am aware of how I practice, I start moving forward. I know that it really works for my sound and helps get things together.

TJG: What have been some important resources for you during this time? People, apps, websites, walks… What’s keeping you held together?

MA: I’m walking a lot, exercising quite a lot, a good hour and a half every day. I’ve been constantly doing yoga, trying to meditate, though it’s really hard. Long walks. I have an elliptical at home. I’m slowly getting it together… I’ve been walking, I’ve been giving myself homework, things to learn, like Bach on piano. Doing basic things, reading books, taking advantage of the time.

At the same time, I’m telling myself that there’s no reason to push myself so hard. Why not learn just how to be? That’s something a lot of us don’t do, just be. We don’t have to be working all the time, running around, writing music. What about just being yourself? It’s been an interesting week, and it’s going to be an interesting couple of months of personal growth.

(more…)

Photo by Scott Friedlander, courtesy of the artist.

Whether writing for his Claudia Quintet or Large Ensemble, drummer/composer John Hollenbeck creates expansive canvases out of small, sturdy ideas. Hollenbeck’s music is equal parts knotty and lyrical, held together with a playful and subversive sense of humor. Ahead of what was to be a North American tour with the Claudia Quintet, we at Jazz Speaks caught up with John by phone to talk about making music from those small ideas, whether melodic cells or “forbidden” words.

The Jazz Gallery: Recently, you’ve written this new batch of music based on words that were left out, or recommended left out, of CDC budget proposals. What drew you to these words, and to turning them into musical forms?

John Hollenbeck: At the time, I was thinking about writing some new music for the Claudia Quintet, and this report came out, which was really big news for a week. Because the initial headlines were sensationalized, it was dismissed as “fake news.” But after reading more even-handed reports, I discovered it was true that the omission of certain words was discussed by career government employees who were actually trying to help their colleagues get their proposals through congressional channels. I was so surprised that this particular collection of words was deemed so sensitive and thought, “wouldn’t it be terrible if those words went out of fashion because of this.” From my perspective, the possibility that someone wouldn’t fund a CDC program because they read the term “science-based” in a proposal document is crazy!

Every time I work on music, I’m using cells, or musical ideas, in different ways. In this case, each word became a title and then I tried have the musical material relate to the title in some way. For example, one of the pieces, “evidenced-based” also has a bit of a relationship to Thelonious Monk’s tune “Evidence,” at least rhythmically. It’s not the same rhythm, but it evokes that rhythm.

TJG: That sort of left jab, right hook thing, the listener not knowing when the next hit is going to land.

JH: Yeah. But a lot of the other pieces have a more fluid relationship to the words. The words were a little inspiration to get me going. The basic idea was to have pieces with those titles to keep those words alive.

TJG: I’d love to talk more about your process of translation from words to music. You’ve used text in your pieces before in different ways, like the recitations and settings of Kenneth Patchen poems from What is the Beautiful, or the Franklin Delano Roosevelt speech recording that you used on September. But in this case, with words acting more as inspiration than surface texture, how important is it for the meaning of the word to appear to the listener in the piece?

JH: Thinking about other music that I’ve written, I don’t think transmitting the meaning of the words is that important, because that meaning is super subjective anyway. Everyone has their own ideas of what words mean.  In this case, I think having the words as titles was a way to keep me on a certain track when making compositional decisions.

Certain words, like “entitlement,” are really complex in their meaning. So for me, that translated as a really long, rhythmically-abstract piece. It has a really solid groove to it, but you can hear it in two different tempos at the same time. Of course, someone could easily say, “That doesn’t sound like entitlement!”  The titles helped me put the compositions in a certain place, but they don’t define one particular listener experience.

TJG: I’m interested in how titles like these can be evocative of the music, and also provocative. Like if a listener hears this music without the title, they could interpret a very different meaning than if they knew the title going in. Do you think the title words provoke the listeners to experience the music in a certain way?

JH: It might, buy that was not my intention. Writing music inspired by these words was a very spontaneous decision. The words inspired me to write some new music.  At that moment, I was not thinking farther than their conception.

(more…)

Photo by Una Stade, courtesy of the artist.

Housebound in New York, singer and composer Arta Jēkabsone leans in to solitude. Alone in her apartment, her natural effervescence stills, but not entirely, and only for the moment. 

Like so many emerging artists, Jēkabsone searches for answers at a time when performances have halted, sessions have stopped and creative collaborations, typically a contact sport, have pivoted to socially-distant online exchanges. But her spirit remains buoyant. 

The Latvian-born artist has crafted a sound niche reflective of her journeys, both physical and emotional. Hope, wanderlust, and self-reflection emerge as raw materials for carefully sculpted compositions; her lyrics brim with intimacy.

From the quiet of her kitchen, Jēkabsone spoke with the Gallery about melodic tendencies, violin as a voice and her hope for the future of human connection. 

The Jazz Gallery: I recently spoke with singer and percussionist Melvis Santa about drawing inspiration from the natural world. You’re also known to tap that world for creative inspiration — particularly on your most recent studio release Light. Can you discuss how nature influences your compositional concepts and broader concepts for an album? 

Arta Jēkabsone: That’s a really huge part of me because, as you know, I’m from Latvia and Latvia is more or less a country that is super green—at least 60 percent is the woods. So I grew up in this really small town where I was surrounded by river and trees. I would go out into nature and listen to all the birds that are singing and the water that is doing his own noise—it’s a part of me—listening to what’s happening around me, listening to what’s inside of me and [finding ways to] make all these little sounds into a composition. It’s a very abstract way of how I hear music and how I feel things. And if you listen to my lyrics, there’s a lot of reference to nature, in the Light album and also my recent project that I did with string quartet and jazz quintet that was presented at The Jazz Gallery in May 2019. That concept was more how I feel—life situations happening around me—and also [bringing] the nature aspect into it. There’s a song called “Rain Song.” If I hear the rain pour down, I think about healing—how it washes away all your tough, emotional moments. 

TJG: You mentioned the string quartet. So much of your artistry comes from your identity as a violin player. In what ways does violin influence your choices and this unique sound you’ve cultivated as a vocalist?

AJ: When I was a kid, I played violin. And I always sang, but when I really started to study violin, I had really good teachers who would always ask me to listen to the music first and then try to [play] to kind of see what happens. So I did classical violin for 15 years, and then after, when I started focusing on singing, I understood how the violin has helped me to hear the music. It helped me to train my relative pitch. That has helped me, even with singing, tuning with people and other tiny details. I think that’s one of the biggest things violin has given me.

And also, the teachers always would tell me, “When you’re playing, think as though you’re singing.” So afterwards I started to realize, yeah, I think I’m singing the way I play violin and I’m playing the violin as if I’m singing. And you can see, with my music, I don’t view myself as a vocalist who wants to always do everything with lyric. I actually feel more connected doing stuff with instrumental lines. I would often ask somebody to double lines with me, like a guitar player or a saxophone player. I love that. That’s the approach that I really love. And I think that stems from violin. 

And doing a lot of violin ensembles and orchestras really taught me to understand that if I go out on stage, I wanna be part of the group, not an individual artist who wants to be the lead. I’ve been talking with a lot of musicians about that. Most of them say, “Yeah, when we’re on stage, we feel like we’re a part of what you’re trying to do. It’s not you alone. You’re kind of inviting us to be with you on this journey.” It’s like a conversation. Sometimes, the more people who join, the more interesting it can get, because you have these different opinions. You end up having this beautiful conversation with so many thoughts, but they’re all speaking about this one thing. 

(more…)

Jen Shyu performs Raging Waters, Red Sands at The Jazz Gallery in December 2009. Photo courtesy of the artist.

While The Jazz Gallery has postponed upcoming performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jazz Speaks will continue to share the music and stories of Gallery performers. Today, we present an interview with Jen Shyu, who was to present her longford piece Raging Waters, Red Sands this coming weekend. Originally a Jazz Gallery commission from 2009, the work showcases Shyu’s ability to bind together diverse artistic influences i through the use of cohesive narrative. Raging Waters builds upon an ancient Chinese story to explore notions of love, existence, and universal versus personal obligation. It also draws from the words of Brazillian poet Patrícia Magalhães and the performance spans five languages: Portuguese, Tetum, English, Taiwanese, and Mandarin. Check out our conversation about the work and how Shyu sees its continuing influence on her current process, as well as a recording of the work, below.

The Jazz Gallery: You seem like an artist who has typically looked forward when it comes to your work. Is there something particularly unique about Raging Waters, Red Sands to cause you to consider going back to revisit it?

Jen Shyu: Rio [Sakairi, The Gallery’s Artistic Director and the Director of Programming] asked me last year if I would be interested in re-imagining the work. The opportunity interested me because Raging Waters, Red Sands is a really special composition. Back in 2009, we presented it five times—the two nights at the Gallery, once at the Vision Festival, an additional time at McCarren Hall in Williamsburg [Brooklyn, NY], then one more time at Bar 269.  We also recorded it live at the Gallery, which was released on Bandcamp. But that was it. Then I started traveling a lot, first to China then to Indonesia, and became involved in a lot of other projects.

Raging Waters, Red Sands is a really important piece because it was one of the first times I fully integrated dramatic and narrative aspects into my work. Previously, with my band Jade Tongue, I had always written songs in a certain order and would try to create a narrative by fitting them together. This was one of the first times I had a set story then framed the songs to fit. It was also the first time I worked with a librettist. It featured a very specific libretto written by a Brazilian writer and friend Patrícia Magalhães.

The story was inspired by recent visitations to Taiwan and China. Taiwan was my place of fieldwork and inspiration for a while, from 2003, really through 2010. As for China, I went there just before Raging Waters, around 2008 or 2009. While I was in Taiwan, I studied indigenous music and folk music. I found a community of folk singers and Taiwanese yueqin, or in Taiwanese, “gwat kim” musicians and elders who were keeping this tradition alive. The tradition is called Hengchun folk song, which is named after a township in southern Taiwan. It is a very beautiful tradition and began with vocal songs they would sing in the fields. Later, musicians added instruments. The instruments probably migrated from China, but Tawainese musicians settled on their own yueqin, a two-stringed instrument with a longer neck than what you would find in China. It is also round like the moon, so sometimes they call it the “moon instrument.”

(more…)