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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts from the Interviews Category

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Saxophonist JD Allen’s musical career seems to bring him such joy: He loves the exploration, growth, the hard work. Allen recently released an album of all ballads, titled Love Stone, featuring bassist Gregg August, drummer Rudy Royston, and guitarist Liberty Ellman. In a recent WBGO interview, Allen said that the all-ballads album was a real challenge: “I’ve listened to so many ballads. Whittled it down to nine tunes I thought I could play pretty on. Maybe it’s a love letter to myself. Maybe I’m the dearest, maybe I’m the pretty one.”

In a departure from his regular trio, Allen will be bringing bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Malick Koly to The Jazz Gallery for two sets for a group he’s calling his “young blood trio.” Once considered a Young Lion himself, Allen moved to New York from Detroit in the 1990s and immediately began working with an impressive cross-section of the jazz community, including notables such as George Cables, Betty Carter, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, and Butch Morris, and contemporaries like Orrin Evans, Gerald Cleaver, Eric Revis, Marcus Gilmore, Meshell Ndegéocello, and Duane Eubanks. We had a wonderful conversation via phone this week, covering his exploration of these ballads, as well as working with young musicians, and his hope to one day score a film.

JD Allen: Alright brother, shoot away.

The Jazz Gallery: Great, let’s jump right in. Congrats on the new album, I really like it, it sounds fantastic. Have you been pleased with its reception?

JDA: Yeah, I’m pleased. People have listened to it. But already, I’m on to the next one. I’m recording in January, and now my energy is going toward putting together the material for that. I only look at the reception for a little bit to see if I can get any insight into what I could have done better.

TJG: What does that insight look like, in terms of the latest album?

JDA: I had some changes as far as my mouthpiece, and some people commented on the sound, which is good. Initially, I was pretty afraid to release an all-ballads recording, because it felt so anti-now, everything is about fast pace. But I can’t honestly say I ran across any press that was negative. People commented on tone, and I was working on my sound just for this ballads recording, you know. Now, I’m planning on going in another direction. Hopefully I’ll be doing a recording with tenor saxophonist David Murray, so I’m working on the material for that.

TJG: Duo saxophone, or with band? Gregg and Rudy?

JDA: It’ll be two tenors, bass, and drums, without piano or guitar. I’m thinking of probably having Gregg and Rudy, but I might make a departure on this one. I don’t want the water to get too still. Plus they’re both pretty busy, so I want to give them the space to do what they have to do. I might make a departure just for this record.

TJG: A couple more questions about the last album. I think it’s beautiful, and very much of-the-times, to have an all-ballads album. Everyone needs a moment to slow down. Did you have any artists in mind who have done similar all-ballad albums?

JDA: Definitely. Of course. Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, John Coltrane. I considered Branford Marsalis’s record Eternal as a model of where I could go. I even tried taking it from a perspective as if Sonny Rollins had done a ballads recording, and was checking out a lot of his ballad stylings, and using that as a model also. The tenor saxophone has a rich tradition in ballad playing, so there was a lot to pull from.

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Photo by Zachary Maxwell Stertz via http://chrisdingman.com

Members of The Jazz Gallery community have recently been grieving the loss of Roy Hargrove, and grief, like so many facets of our musical lives, looks and sounds different for every person. Vibraphonist and composer Chris Dingman has also been contending with his own grief, in his own way. In the months before and since his father’s recent passing, vibraphonist and composer Chris Dingman developed a collection of improvised solo vibraphone pieces. The improvised music was meant to bring a meaningful experience to his father, who was in hospice at the time, and was also a means for Dingman to contend with his own grief. Today, using music in this way, in Dingman’s own words, makes “the purpose of it all seems stronger.”

This performance at the Gallery will represent Dingman’s first full-length solo vibraphone concert. Dingman is a regular on The Jazz Gallery stage, regularly performing with his own ensembles or in collaboration with Ambrose Akinmusire, Steve Lehman, Jen Shyu, Tyshawn Sorey, Ingrid Jensen, Fabian Almazan, and others. His most recent album, The Subliminal and the Sublime (2015) is a 62-minute continuous work blending layers of jazz, ambient electronica, and minimalism.

This week, Dingman is returning to New York from a tour with bassist Ike Sturm. When we spoke briefly on the phone, Dingman was somewhere in Ohio, en route back to the city. In our short conversation, Dingman discussed the backstory of this upcoming solo concert, and the circumstances that lead him to do take this leap into the unknown at The Jazz Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: Could tell me a bit about the context of your upcoming solo vibraphone show?

Chris Dingman: The primary influence in my decision to do the show was that, beginning late last spring and continuing through today, I recorded a bunch of solo improvisations. I actually recorded them for my dad, who at the time was in hospice care, and who passed away over the summer. I recorded all of the music for him, and we worked together on making it into a project that could be shared with the rest of the world. It was an intense time. I’m currently working on the production and mixing, which has been a long process, as I recorded around six hours of music. As I’ve been working, I’ve had a lot of time to consider what brings me to play solo vibes, and what playing vibes in general is about for me. When Rio approached me about doing something at the Gallery that would reflect where I am right now, I felt that doing a solo vibes show would be the best outlet to express where I’m coming from.

Simultaneously, I’ve still been playing with other people. I recently did this tour with Ike Sturm, which was great in terms of being an outlet for focusing on the kind of solo playing that I do. The instrumentation was bass, vibraphone, saxophone, and voice, so there’s a lot of space to play. Prior to that, I did an improv set at The Stone in October with Okkyung Lee and Sara Serpa. We improvised and had such a good time doing that. I love Okkyung and everything she does, she’s so inspiring to me, and is definitely another reason I’m drawn to playing solo.

TJG: You said you were working with your dad to get the music to where it could be “shared with the rest of the world.” What did the process look like?

CD: I performed and recorded all of the music for him at my parents’ house. I played and recorded it there so that he could listen to it. I did have a feeling that it was music that I would want to share with others, but at the time, it was really just for him. It was recorded in a basement, with no engineer, no studio. Because it’s such a large amount of music, I decided to mix it myself. Together with my dad, we named all the tracks together, because they were all improvisations. He named many of the tracks, and for others, we figured out together what they should be called.

It didn’t start out as an album or a bigger project, but everything you do to produce an album, we began to discuss together. We started talking about what it should be called, and who the music is for. In the past, my projects have been for everybody: I just make the music, and don’t really think about who or what the music is for. But in this case, the music was for him, and he wanted to share it with others who were experiencing what he was going through: The process of dying. So, this music is for people in hospice, people going through that transition. As I’ve played the music for others, people have thought of other contexts where it would be great, which I’m not opposed to either.

TJG: My instinct is to ask if you would consider playing this music for others who are in hospice, but that seems like it would be so difficult.

CD: That’s something I’d definitely consider. Going forward, once this project gets released, I will be doing exactly that, playing in person for people who are in hospice. It’s hard, but it’s really meaningful work. It’s so helpful to those who are going through that.

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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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From L to R: Tony Malaby, Michael Formanek, Kris Davis, Ches Smith. Photo by John Rogers.

Michael Formanek’s approach to jazz and the double bass has changed and evolved over the decades. The ‘70s saw Formanek on the road with Tony Williams and Joe Henderson, and the ‘80s featured engagements with Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Fred Hersch and Freddie Hubbard. By the ‘90s, Formanek had become a central figure in New York’s creative jazz scene. Today, Formanek’s many projects include Thumbscrew, a co-lead Brooklyn trio with Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara, as well as a steady quartet with Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Craig Taborn on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums, whose 2010 and 2012 albums earned five-star reviews in DownBeat.

Elusion Quartet, one of Formanek’s more recent projects, features the dynamic personnel of saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer/percussionist/vibraphonist Ches Smith. The Elusion Quartet will celebrate the release of their album Time Like This at their upcoming Jazz Gallery show. Published by Swiss label Intakt Records and recorded at Oktaven Audio by Ryan Streber, the album was a vehicle for exploring “a more direct connection to emotions” according to Formanek. We spoke with Formanek about how he and the band put this new music together.

The Jazz Gallery: I know you recorded the album in February, but October somehow feels like the perfect time to listen to it. It’s mesmerizing, ever-changing, expressive, it reflects the season somehow. What are your feelings, listening back now?

Michael Formanek: Well, those are all qualities that I feel all the time [laughs]. That music was recorded in the midst of a series of big personal life changes. We were in the process of leaving Baltimore where we’d lived for many years, moving north. I was deciding whether to leave my teaching position where I’d been for a long time, moving back into the playing and composing part of my life, which I was always doing, but was having to work it out with my teaching schedule. Ultimately, the timing of everything felt right. So these feelings are less seasonal and more about general life change, and I think the album reflects that, along with things happening in the world every day.

TJG: More on the ideas behind the album soon, but in listening, it sounds like there is a good bit of formal logic in terms of pacing and structure in improvised sections. What did the preparation look like for the project, in terms of talking through material with the group?

MF: The album features such a strong group of improvisers and composers, and at this point, it’s almost a given that the majority of the people I play with are going to recognize how musical elements in motion can move from one place to another. Rarely, I might say something, “Maybe this would be better if we moved between these things a little differently,” or “This doesn’t have to be quite so intense here,” just general notes while rehearsing. For me, the challenge in composing for improvisers is in the balance of providing the right amount of material, in the sense of composition and structure, without impeding the flow of what can simply happen. For me, in the case of Time Like This, I was trying to write a bit less than I usually do, to give more room for things to happen.

TJG: On one of the tracks, “Culture of None,” I love the duo bass and drum introduction, and the ensuing melodic lines that emerge so naturally. I was almost surprised when I heard you playing something close to a walking bassline, and Kris Davis playing a linear piano solo, something I don’t often hear. Do you remember some of your intentions going into the track?

MF: That track was a tricky one, because it basically started with that hand drum part. There are these rhythms and mixed meters, with nothing in even time, so for me, it was about looking for patterns and phrases. I started to assign pitches, which is where the bassline or bass melody came from. Once that evolved, I wrote the secondary part, the more melodic part. Only at a certain point later on did it become clear that there was an even 3/8 thing that moves through the whole form. That was a result, a realization, rather than a starting point. The organic part of that piece was that I was indulging these odd groupings of odd rhythms, conceiving of it as a drum part, but thinking more abstractly, it culminated in this even, swinging three feel. That evolved more during the improvisations. I didn’t say “We have to get to this feel,” and in fact, we did a few takes of this tune, where different things happened organically. We started with one idea, improvised, and naturally moved to another. I’m always happy when certain things evolve that didn’t necessarily unfold from their logical starting point.

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Photo by Una Stade, courtesy of the artist.

When singer and composer Arta Jēkabsone moved from Riga, Latvia to study at the New School, she described New York as “definitely a concrete jungle.” But the pace and environment have helped her focus and clarify her musical goals. As she said in a recent phone interview, “I’m thinking all the time.” Jēkabsone has lots of imagery to describe her relationship with sound, looking at music as a broad palette of colors, a spectrum of light and energy, a story we tell. In her music, you can hear warmth, gratitude, and compassion, as well as crystal-clear intention and focus. In 2016, Jēkabsone was awarded first prize in the Shure Jazz Voice Competition at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland, and shortly thereafter released her debut album, Light.

In addition to her duo project with singer Erik Leuthäuser, Arta has assembled a steady quintet of mostly New School students and recent graduates, including pianist Theo Walentiny, guitarist Lucas Kadish, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Connor Parks. Jēkabsone has brought her band, what she calls her “New York family” to Latvia and beyond, and will present a version of the band at The Jazz Gallery this week, with drummer Stephen Boegehold subbing for Parks.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making the time to chat, Arta! Where are you calling from?

Arta Jēkabsone: We arrived in Köln today–Erik Leuthäuser and I are on tour at the moment. We played a house concert in what is essentially an old factory called KunstWerk Köln. They have rehearsal spaces you can rent, we had a concert here, and we’re staying here too, because they have couches, a kitchen, a piano, everything. Erik is a vocalist as well, and we have what is basically a duo voice project. We recorded this year and last year, when the project started. We released our album on October 5th, so we’re here in Germany with our album, essentially doing a presentation tour. We’ve been traveling most of the time, taking trains, it’s amazing. By the end of this tour, we will have traveled all of Germany by train. I was in Berlin, then Dresden, today Köln, tomorrow Weimar, then Bremerhaven, Hamburg, and tomorrow back to Dresden, then I’m going to Mannheim for the Enjoy Jazz Festival. It’s been a really nice time.

TJG: You sound quite busy!

AJ: Yes, it has been busy. It’s been a concert every night, basically, ten or eleven shows total.

TJG: Have you felt the music grow and change as you’ve traveled?

AJ: Oh yes. This is an experimental duo—we have some established things already, from the album, but they’re already shifting because everything is open. The music is changing every single night, and we find different inspirations. We spend a lot of time together now, talking about life, which is reflected in the music. Every night on stage, we’re more connected, sharing more ideas, more in sync. The same things are happening for both of us simultaneously on stage, even though things aren’t completely talked out beforehand. It’s kind of cool.

TJG: The band you’re bringing to The Jazz Gallery—it’s similar to the band from your album Light, yes?

AJ: Yes, mainly everybody except for the drummer, Connor Parks, who will be replaced by Stephen Boegehold for this show. Stephen is playing the previous night at the Gallery with Nick Dunston too, so you’ll get to hear the same lovely people a few times.

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