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Posts from the Interviews Category

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With multiple degrees in jazz and improvisation, and a wide range of skills and interests, Utsav Lal has found a relatively unexplored niche as a pianist within the world of Indian Classical music. Having studied with legendary Indian Classical teachers including Wasifuddin Dagar and Sharat Srivastava, the result is a young pianist with a meditative, patient, powerful approach to the piano. This Wednesday, Lal will perform two sets of music at The Jazz Gallery: the first set a traditional exploration of a single raga followed by one or more compositions, and the second set a presentation of compositions featuring tabla. We spoke at length with Lal about his move to New York and approach to learning Indian Classical Music on the piano.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making the time to chat. Where are you living now?

Utsav Lal: I’ve been living in Bushwick for a little over a year now. It’s been great. New York is like a third round of school, in a way. It’s been amazing to arrive and meet so many people. I’d met a lot of people living in New York while I was living in Boston and studying at NEC, and Boston was great, but things felt somewhat detached from actually making music or seeing how it all fit together.

TJG: How does being a musician in New York feel more connected to the reality of what music is about for you?

UL: There’s a lot more to bounce things off. At school, at least in Boston, it’s mostly students. In school, you’re working hard and interacting with your peers, which was great at NEC because we all come from such different places. But it’s a small school. I moved to New York, and now I’m meeting people from completely different backgrounds, people who didn’t go to conservatory, people who have been working musicians for forty years and have a completely different kind of education and energy. I’m learning so much about different styles of music, and there are so many ways to get different kinds of feedback, perspectives, opinions. There are people I play with who have been hopping trains since they ran away from home at a young age. I’m living with a guy who has been teaching me these amazing country songs. I’m getting all of these new perspectives, and have been seeing how people react to my perspective too. Plus, it’s a great community. People really travel across the city to see each other. 

TJG: In this new environment, what have you been noticing about your piano playing?

UL: I play Indian Classical Music on the piano, an instrument that isn’t really suited for the genre. Many of the most special things about that genre of music can’t really be done on the piano. During my jazz undergrad and my classical piano training, I listened to very genre-specific pianists, like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Wynton Kelly, and the equivalent classical figures. So, the biggest change for me lately has been finding pianists who aren’t so easy to put in a box based on how and what they do, pianists who are in tune with their upbringing and life experiences.

One pianist I’m particularly interested in is Emahoy Tsegué Maryam. She learned classical piano when she was young, had to flee Ethiopia and had to live in all these different places. She spent years in a monastery, not much contact with anything else, and plays beautiful improvised adaptations of folk music as well as her own compositions. She has a completely different way of pedaling, phrasing, composing, improvising. Music is her life. 

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Bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh has been thinking a lot about perception, choices, and life cycles. In a recent phone conversation, we spoke with Oh about her reading and research surrounding some of life’s big paradoxes, and how she has been using these thoughts to fuel a new set of compositions. The work–titled The Glass Hours–will have its Chamber Music America premiere at The Jazz Gallery this weekend, featuring vocalist Sara Serpa, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, pianist Fabian Almazan, drummer Obed Calvaire, and Linda Oh on bass.

Oh’s most recent release, Aventurine (Biophilia 2019) was an ambitious double quartet with string quartet and choir. Colorful and dense, flowing and crisp, Aventurine is a lush and cohesive work. Oh is a member of the We Have Voice Collective, and was succinctly described as a “musician with intention” by Music and Literature. She has been a longtime friend of The Jazz Gallery, has performed with Joe Lovano, Steve Wilson, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Kenny Barron, Geri Allen, Fabian Almazan, and Terri Lyne Carrington, and is currently the bassist with guitarist Pat Metheny. Read on for our full conversation below.

The Jazz Gallery: Nice to catch up with you. Are you in New York at the moment?

Linda May Han Oh: I’m actually up in Tarrytown with Fabian Almazan. We’re both doing work at the Rockefeller Kykuit Estate, where they have a space for artists to work. We’ve spent the last couple of days here.

TJG: Sounds like a lovely way to get out of the city

LO: Exactly. I’ve been working on some of this new music.

TJG: Tell me a little more about the Chamber Music America premiere you’re working on.

LO: The lineup is Sara Serpa on vocals, Melissa Aldana on saxophone, Fabian Almazan on piano and electronics, and Obed Calvaire on drums. They’re all great musicians, and I’m excited to work with them on this new music. Most of these new pieces are based on abstract themes of life and time, linear versus cyclical, looking at the push-and-pull in our perceptions between old and new, and how it all plays out in the choices we make. As I’ve been writing, I’ve been exploring these concepts through different compositions and forms.

TJG: Before we get into the specifics, how did you decide to do a project along the lines of  space, time, life cycles?

LO: I’ve thought a lot about these themes, and my current work is based on a few different related things I’ve been checking out. Some of the music touches on stories and myths, partially derived from Joseph Campbell and his writing, including “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” I’ve been looking at how myths can parallel the trials and tribulations we have in our own lives, our expectations, our goals, et cetera. Some of these thoughts are based on stuff I’ve been reading, some are based on more general questions regarding the value of life. I’ve been reading and doing online coursework via Coursera relating to International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: I’m working on educating myself in my own values, exploring these questions and paradoxes.

I feel incredibly privileged that I don’t have to fight in a war at the moment, to go into battle. How interesting it is that we value life and the lives of others, and yet, there are paradoxes within the realm of international humanitarian law: We see guidelines in place to limit the amount of hurt and death that is happening, and yet, war is still war. It’s amazing how certain questions, like the ones in the back of my mind regarding the value of life, can feel so separate when we’re not living within the realm of war. It’s paradoxical that we value our lives and the lives of those around us, and yet you look at the military, the state of health care, gun reform… There are separations that make you question things.

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Photo by Jati Lindsey.

Joel Ross is a man of few idle moments. While touring his acclaimed debut record KingMaker (Blue Note, 2019) with members of Good Vibes, he’s been working out new music with them live on the bandstand. Returning from a week-long run in Asia, the vibraphonist-composer barely can process his jet lag before he hits at Seeds in Brooklyn. 

This weekend, he brings his good and mildly exhausted vibes to The Jazz Gallery for two evenings of original music from his recent release as well as compositions he’s looking toward recording next year. Ross spoke with the Gallery about different cueing personas, gleaning methods from colleagues, the concept of acclimation and why he’ll never stop dancing. 

The Jazz Gallery: So the last time we spoke, we actually talked about speaking—our individual speech patterns and how yours informs your playing. Now that you’ve been exploring that concept for some time, what are some other ideas that approach has sparked for you? 

Joel Ross: It relates much more now to the group interaction. I’m still extremely focused on the dynamic of the group as one entity but also as five different people becoming one entity. If we’re speaking, we’re all communicating with each other. So what I’ve been trying to get to with the group is making sure we understand what we’re doing is a conversation. A soloist might have the mic, per se, but a tune is talking about the same topic. The rhythm section might be the mediators keeping the conversation going. The soloist or improvisationalist at the time might have the mic about this particular topic and then we might pass it along. It’s all still an ongoing conversation. I don’t even like to think of it as soloing anymore because even if one of us is soloing, there are still probably two or three more players playing as well. No one’s really solo; it’s just a different form of accompanying. 

TJG: Do you think this more literal internalizing of what it means to be having a conversation has allowed you, intellectually, more invitation and and ensured a bit less imposition, particularly as a leader, when you play? 

JR: I’ve never really thought of it as me being up front. When people lead bands, they can be like, “This is my band and this is what I’m gonna do,” and I’ve never looked at it that way. 

TJG: So that hasn’t ever been an issue for you. 

JR: I wouldn’t say so. 

TJG: In terms of the band dynamic—well, in a past interview, I think it was with Nate Chinen, you cited Miles’ second Quintet as having had an influence on you as a band leader, specifically on your wordless cueing style. 

JR: Ah. Mmhm. 

TJG: So this question relates to that concept a little. In addition to leading your own project, recently you’ve been playing with folks like Makaya McCraven, Marquis Hill, Brandee Younger. Have you become hyper aware of the different cuing styles among these different leaders, and has working in these varied contexts had another influence on the way you cue, and interact with your own bandmates? 

JR: Oh yeah. Without a doubt. I’m really in touch with the way Makaya leads, and just what we do. A lot of the music that he does is is improvised and then realized in composition. There’s no sheet music. I learn everything by ear. I gotta remember. If I’m not as comfortable in a situation, I’ll play less just to gather the surroundings of the situation, but Makaya wants the opposite. He always wants me to play more—just jump in there and get acclimated.

The way he cues—ah, it’s cliched to say in the moment because that’s the title of his record—but it all tends to make sense. In a very musical aspect, we’re building a vibe for the song, starting off from somewhere, playing the melody a bunch of times. This past tour we did, the first couple of dates were quartet with Jeff Parker and Luke Stewart on bass, and we were just improvising the whole set. I loved those gigs the most. I feel like I’m better at it now than when I first started doing that with them. The cues—he wouldn’t have to cue as much, now that everybody has played with him a bunch and we understand, “Alright let’s set something up. Okay this new vibe, does it need a solo? Is it getting stagnant?” Things would naturally happen. 

In a band like Marquis’, we know the forms, he’ll pick the tunes. We don’t know what tunes might play. He might start with a tune, but after that he’ll just go into a tune. I love that. I’ve definitely picked that up from him. He’s tries to make that list, it’s usually a very in-the-moment thing. I’ve definitely picked that up from him. I usually try to pick the song we’re gonna start with and the song we’ll end with. Usually, at this point, if I start with a song and then don’t say anything, then they know what we’re going into. Or, I’ll start to play the next song in the song that we’re already playing. 

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Pianist and composer Lex Korten is making swift, thoughtful strides through the New York jazz community. As he strings together work as a sideman with increasing visibility and demand, The Jazz Gallery continues to be a venue for him to explore his voice as a leader. For two sets this Thursday, Korten will bring Gallery regulars Jasper Dütz (woodwinds) and Kalia Vandever (trombone) to the stage, as well as bassist Adam Olszewski and drummer Evan Hyde. Jazz Speaks writer Noah Fishman met Korten at The Kennedy Center’s Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program, and the two recently caught up via phone to talk about Korten’s last few months.

The Jazz Gallery: How have you been this fall? I haven’t seen you since The Kennedy Center this summer.

Lex Korten: It’s been a wild ride. Since The Kennedy Center, I’ve had some really important experiences as a sideman: I’ve been contacted by people I have looked up to for a long time. The fact that they’ve shown a desire to work with me and want to have my voice in their band has been a welcome theme over the last couple of months…I’ve been really grateful to have played for the first time with Jaleel Shaw and Ari Hoenig’s group, in addition to my work with Tyshawn Sorey. Of course, this is not to exclude musicians of my own generation; I’ve also been working with quite a handful of really great players my age.

TJG: Do you feel like it’s about time that you’ve gotten yourself on these musicians’ radars, since these are the people you’d have hoped to be playing with at this point? Or are you still pinching yourself, saying “This doesn’t feel real” to be playing with Jaleel Shaw and other greats?

LK: Good question. When I moved to New York, coming from school in Michigan, I felt like my biggest inhibition was going to be whether or not I would be accepted by peers in my own generation. I was concerned people wouldn’t understand where I’m coming from, my teachers, my choice to have gone to jazz school in the Midwest. But when I moved back to New York, that was the first thing that was proved so wrong. I feel like I was immediately embraced by all these people who were happy to have a fresh voice, someone who wasn’t part of the “New York City jazz school” thing.

So when I got over that initial fear of rejection from my own peers, which was such a wonderful thing and I continue to be grateful for it, I realized that there seems to be a big wall between older musicians and musicians of our generation. It gradually became a point of frustration as I tried to figure out how this barrier might get jumped over. It felt like, for a long time, everything I was doing was successful to a point–which was that I was able to establish a reputation for myself among my age group–but that would be it.

All of this is to say, I have been waiting for this for a long time, and I’m grateful for it. I’ve been listening to these people for so many years, and can’t believe that out of the pianists they might know, they want to play with me. I can’t believe they’ve chosen to play with me. In some cases, before a performance, I certainly get inside my head, and start asking myself whether I’m worthy of these opportunities. Thankfully, it’s never become crippling, because I always come back to the thought: Do I trust Jaleel Shaw and his musical instincts? Of course I do. He’s the one who heard something in my playing and decided that I was the right one for this group. All I have to do is be myself, and nothing else. In a previous stage of my life, if I were on stage with Jaleel Shaw at Smalls, I’d be thinking throughout the set, “Am I doing enough of this, of that?” Now, I can just say, “I need to be myself, because that’s why he called me.”

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John Escreet is a versatile musical omnivore, moving fluidly between different facets of the jazz community. The pianist’s Learn To Live features Nicholas Payton, Greg Osby, Matt Brewer, Eric Harland and Justin Brown, while his Trio features John Hébert and Tyshawn Sorey. No matter the setting, Escreet can be found exploring different types of improvisation, groove, structure, and form.

More recently, Escreet has been busily touring and traveling with drummer Antonio Sanchez, which was what he was doing when we caught up with him for a quick phone interview. We spoke about his upcoming gig at The Jazz Gallery, for which Escreet invited guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Damion Reid for an open-ended evening of composed music and improvisation/exploration.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to hear what you’re planning with Ben and Damion. I know you’ve played with both of them, but have you played together as a trio?

John Escreet: No, we haven’t played together as a trio. Honesty, I haven’t got that much planned at the moment: Right now, I’m thinking of keeping it trio, doing some electronics, maybe bringing a couple of synths. Damion has played a lot of my music before, but Ben and I have hardly played together, maybe once. We’ve been trying to play together for a while. It’ll be fun, and I’m excited to be playing with them both.

TJG: What is it about Ben’s playing that pulls you in his direction?

JE: It’s unique, very improvised and open. He’s an all-around strong musician and very creative guy. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. Damion was the first person I called for the gig. I felt like trying a new combination, something unfamiliar: Damion and I were throwing ideas back and forth, and he mentioned that he and Ben had also been trying to play together for a while. I hit Ben up, he was into it, and that was that. I like the fact that I’m leaving it open, in terms of what can happen on the gig, you know. It’s all loose, and I know if I just let those guys do their thing, it’ll probably be good.

TJG: Who’s music will you be playing?

JE: A couple of tunes of mine, which I’m about to send out this evening. Damion knows them already, but Ben hasn’t played them yet. I have some other things in mind. Some of this stuff is through-composed, specific lines and things, but the improvisation is also loose, so the music can be both at the same time.

TJG: The piano/drums hookup is a crucial one; how do you tend to interact with Damion?

JE: I find it very easy to play with him. He latches onto whatever the essence of the composition is, ingests it in some way. Strong ideas, lots of interaction, lots of fun.

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