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Posts from the Interviews Category

Photo by Jessica Carlton-Thomas, courtesy of the artist.

Alongside being an educated and thoughtful young saxophonist, Kevin Sun approaches composition with clarity and discipline. In our interviews with Sun, our conversations have revolved around the intricacies of his processes, the development of his practices and patterns, and the specific points where he surrenders himself to the creative process.

Sun’s trio, consisting of bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor, has been making waves along the east coast following the release of his album, Trio—according to Giovanni Russonello the New York Times, “This may be the first you’ve heard of Mr. Sun, a tenor saxophonist, but that will soon change.”

Kevin Sun’s upcoming show at The Gallery will feature a new hour-long work for quintet. The work, in the words of Sun, “explores stillness, space, and texture inspired by meditation and self-reflection.” His new quintet features Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Dana Saul on piano, Simon Willson on bass, and Dayeon Seok on drums.

The Jazz Gallery: “The Rigors of Love”—What’s it all about?

Kevin Sun: Good question! I’m still figuring it out. With this project on May 23rd, I knew that I wanted to write a longer piece of music, and I wanted to use a larger ensemble. This is the largest ensemble I’ve written for: Five people doesn’t seem like that many, but going from three to five is a big jump. Especially writing for piano, which is kind of daunting—there’s a lot of information that you can give a pianist. But I don’t have that much to say about the title, though I’ve been thinking about it.

TJG: How did the title come to you?

KS: It kind of came out of nowhere, which happens often. I always have phrases, ideas, things I’ve read in my head. Sometimes I’ll be on a walk and will jot something down. I’ve found that I often have a better time writing music if I start with an interesting title. Words, phrases, or poetry can give me some abstract idea or feeling to work with.

TJG: Since you began with the title as a means of inspiration, where did you go from there?

KS: I’ve been wrestling with the practice and discipline of trying to compose more music in general. It’s something I love, but it’s hard. I’ve found that the more I commit myself to working through all the details, the more satisfied I am with the process, and I don’t give up and go for the first thing that pops into my head. When I first began writing, I would reach for what I already knew, what I thought might be a good melody, some pretty chords and accompaniment to go with it. But I got bored really fast, it all started sounding the same, and I wasn’t enjoying it. I stopped writing for a while, then a few years back I began trying some new approaches, to put a system in place or develop a system as I go.

Sometimes it can be time consuming because you have to work through information, sit with raw material, and think about how to put the elements together. That’s where the rigor comes in, I guess. It can be frustrating because you’re sitting there for twenty, thirty minutes with a piece of paper in front of you. You’re thinking through things, scribbling ideas down, and it doesn’t work. You abandon things that seem weaker because you’re going for the idea that seems strongest. It’s almost like a staring contest. You want to make the next move, and it’s testing your patience and willpower to think through your ideas.

This is something I got from taking composition lessons with John Hollenbeck. A large part of his approach is considering options as deeply as possible before taking action. I began to understand after a few lessons that we might never get to writing a piece, because his demands on really considering all possible options and making a strong decision was the whole point of the process. When composing this way, you might not even get to writing notes of music for a long time, it’s more about the process of trying to figure out the best possible choices.

That brings us back to the title. I don’t know if this is the most rigorous piece I’ve ever written, but I definitely spent a long time just sitting there, contemplating my options, writing things.

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Photo by Aljosa Videtic, courtesy of the artist.

Saxophonist and composer Jure Pukl is no stranger to The Jazz Gallery, and has been a guest on this blog many times. As we spoke this week, our conversation began to focus on the concept of risk. Many young musicians aspire to take musical risks, and teachers often encourage it, but rarely is the concept dissected and explored. Over the course of our conversation, Pukl laid out his thoughts and ideas on the subject of risks on stage and in the studio. One of those risks is revisiting Pukl’s older material with a new attitude. In Pukl’s words, “Whether it’s making something new or changing something old, it’s the same thing we’re pushing for: To take something that’s been done already, and do it in a different way.”

Pukl’s upcoming show is titled “Abstract Sound Pictures” and will be a kind of re-exploration of material from two previous albums, Abstract Society and Life Sound Pictures. Jure Pukl will play tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet, alongside Joel Ross on vibes, Charles Altura on guitar, Matt Brewer on bass, and Damión Reid on drums. We discussed the choice of revisiting his older material, his band’s sound, and (of course) taking risks.

The Jazz Gallery: I hear you’ve basically been on tour through the winter and spring. Is it shaping up to be a long summer for you as well?

Jure Pukl: It’s always something, but things aren’t too crazy right now. I’m working on bass clarinet and flute, and I’m playing alto in Melissa Aldana’s Sextet for her commission at The Jazz Gallery.

TJG: You’ll be playing bass clarinet and flute on your upcoming show too, right?

JP: That’s my plan. I mean, with bass clarinet, it’s always technical problems, something is always broken, or you don’t feel good about your sound, and then it’s like “Okay, maybe not today” [laughs]. I’ll definitely be bringing them, plus soprano and tenor.

TJG: It’ll be great to hear you on these other instruments—I think of you primarily as a tenor player.

JP: I actually started with clarinet. I’m not a huge fan of Bb clarinet, but with bass clarinet, I’m a big fan of the sound and textures you can get out of that horn. I’ve been playing on and off for years but never felt great about it, so recently have really been working at it. I love so many bass clarinet players, obviously Eric Dolphy, and Henry Threadgill on flute, which I’ve been working on as well.

TJG: Tell me a bit about the upcoming show.

JP: I’m calling this show Abstract Sound Pictures. The music we’re going to perform is going to be a fusion of my music, between the Life Sound Pictures and Abstract Society albums. I’m recomposing and arranging the older tunes and slicing them into smaller sections, throwing out sections, adding new parts, making changes. It will be those two records combined, with additions of music I’ve been writing lately. It’s all my music, different periods of my life mixed up together. I’m arriving at a point where I can play my older tunes with a different attitude. I use different improvising tools.

You can change something a little rhythmically, and becomes a new tune. I see this a lot with Wayne Shorter. I love Wayne Shorter. If anybody, I would want to be Wayne Shorter [laughs]. With his quartet, they play some of his older music, but the way they approach it and play is so fresh and new. Composing always has different stages, but a strong composition can always be played and revisited. When I write, I rarely think “This is a trio tune” or “This is for quintet” or “This is for a certain person.” I try to just write, and leave space for musicians to add their own thing.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

When a 13-year-old American kid uprooted and moved with her nuclear family to Croatia, she felt shocked and suffocated. But at 31, Thana Alexa can’t imagine a life lived any differently. Finding in her cultural duality the “full version of [her] identity,” the singer, composer and arranger invites a range of life experiences and musical encounters to inform her work.

Alexa debuts as a leader at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, May 17, performing a live preview of her forthcoming record ONA that explores another realm of her identity: strength in femininity. In her interview with The Jazz Gallery, Alexa discusses the origin of her effects pedal, combining American and Balkan musical influences, and the afflicted paradigm of the contemporary artist.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re known to explore percussive elements of music in your arrangements and compositions and also in your improvising. When you’re writing, do you tend to feel these thematic patterns and rhythmic pads as you’re writing, or do they develop later in the process?

Thana Alexa: Every song is completely different. It kind of comes to me in a different form. Sometimes there is a very percussive element of it; sometimes it’s all harmonic and then the percussive element comes later. It’s really a case-by-case basis. I do think that since I was a kid who grew up in the States, I’m very influenced by traditional American music, which is jazz. But then having also this Eastern European part of me, there’s an element of Balkan music which has a lot of odd time signatures and minor sounding tonalities and things like that. So I think there’s a really interesting mix of the two identities that affect me personally and then, musically, they just come out naturally.

TJG: Well let’s talk about harmony, specifically for this upcoming record. But before we go in, what’s the release date for ONA?

TA: There’s not a specific release date yet; it’s going to be early 2019. We went into the studio in January of this year, and I was hoping to release it by the summer, but then I wound up going on tour for basically all of February, March and April, and there was just no way to get it finished for the summer. And I didn’t want to release it in the fall, because releasing something in the fourth quarter of the year, if you’re not a super famous artist, is not the best thing to do. So I decided to wait and really put all my time and effort into the post-production of this project. Just like my first record, there are going to be a lot of songs that have very in-depth post-production, lots of voices, lots of percussion, lots of electronic sounds—[the latter of] which is actually very different from my first record. This is going to be a much more electronic sounding record. And then there are going to be a lot of “bare bones” songs, as well, just stripped down, acoustic.

I wanted to give myself time to really find out what this record is all about. You know, I have the story behind it, but musically, even though we recorded everything, it’s still steering me in all these really interesting directions as I edit and as I do all the post-production. It’s been kind of—I don’t know if cathartic is the right word—it’s just been a very interesting, liberating experience to work on this project so far.

It started out as me writing songs about things that I was experiencing throughout the [2016] election process, and feeling kind of left aside as a woman—seeing all the things that were happening in our political situation, not only in the States, but around the world. And then I realized a lot of the things I was writing had this common theme about women. And it wasn’t about me writing and complaining; it was really about this introspective look at being a woman and expressing musically what being a woman means to me. And I realized, through the music, I was kind of giving light to how I discovered the wild woman spirit within me, and how I’ve become comfortable with her. And it’s not a very easy thing to do, for any woman to be comfortable with who they are and how they. I think that’s a daily struggle. We’re all trying to be who we are as individuals, but as women, we’re all trying to be who we are and still fit into society. So I just started seeing all these really interesting things come up in the music, and then that led me to the project.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Dezron Douglas is wide awake. He just touched down from a double tour that began with pianist/composer Amina Figarova and ended with trumpeter/composer/singer Jennifer Hartswick, but he’s not tired. In fact, he’s ready for the next hit.

Seven years old when his father first handed him a bass and told him to play, Douglas began gigging professionally at age 12. Now a 30-something sophisticate of the music with five records as a leader/co-leader to his name, the bass player and composer has a clear vision of what’s ahead—a vision lit up with color and heavy with vibration. Douglas and his working band, Black Lion, will grace The Jazz Gallery stage this Saturday, May 12, for two sets. We caught up with Douglas for a wide-ranging conversation about his love of reggae, the shifting roles of a bassist, and the mentorship of Jackie McLean.

The Jazz Gallery: One of the reasons people seem to love playing with you is your harmonic sensibility. You have a way of moving back and forth between responding to what’s happening harmonically and introducing concepts to the conversation. Can you talk about your relationship to harmony and maybe its origins?

Dezron Douglas: Well, specifically with regards to [that question], I was trained by the masters of this music to be able to influence the music, but, at the same time, play the bass. So, over the years, I’ve worked on it and I’ve listened to some of my heroes, like Richard Davis, Charles Mingus, Larry Ridley, Reggie Workman—and the bass players I’m talking about, these aren’t [the only bass players] I listen to, these are just for specifically what you’re talking about, which I call having the key to the big room. My mentor, my teacher, my sensei was Jackie McLean. He used to always talk about music that’s inside of the music. So when you see a sheet of paper, that’s your foundation, but you want to find the music that’s beyond what you see. So there’s ways that you can do that. You can do it rhythmically; you can do it harmonically. And you have to find ways to add to the music, not subtract from it. It’s not about adding a pile of notes or subtracting a pile of notes. It’s more about giving the music what it needs to push it forward and to bring it other places.

And harmony is just another color, and rhythm is just another vibration. So if you can use both of those, you can get to the level of guys like Richard Davis and Cecil McBee and Mingus and Reggie Workman and Larry Ridley—guys that were playing bass during the hard bop era. For me, that’s a period in this music—this African American classical music we call jazz—that’s pretty brilliant. There were some great composers, great musicians who were killing that. Musicians like Freddie Waits, Andrew Hill, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Kenny Barron were playing, and giving the music what it needed. Alan Dawson, Booker Ervin, Pharaoh Sanders. Even John Coltrane was making hard bop records during that time. It’s just a period in the music that I really fell in love with.

Wayne Shorter—contextually, his compositions are wide open, but he has so much form and structure that was considered to be some kind of hard bop, in that idiom. So, from a bass player point of view, if you can convey all that, and sort of affect the music, it brings you to another level. A perfect example is Ron Carter. That’s the pinnacle. You can’t really get higher. When you’re playing with Ron and Buster [Williams], you’re almost in their world, and you have to go where they’re bringing you, trusting that they’re going to bring you into serene places in the music.

TJG: If we could jump back for a moment to your closest mentor, what is the greatest piece of advice you received from Jackie McLean?

DD: I’ll tell you a story. There’s a list of maybe 100-plus things that Jackie said to me, during that time that I was around him, that have been profound, and they always show up at some point. I still hear him every day. But I think it was maybe my sophomore year in college, and Jackie and Dollie McLean had an organization and building and a school in Hartford called the Artists Collective. They would do these concerts where Jackie would honor his peers, and he would always get a student group to open up for them, usually an advanced ensemble. My freshman year, I started out in Jackie’s advanced ensemble, and we opened up for McCoy Tyner, Toots Thielemans, the Heath Brothers. And then, at the end of my sophomore year, Jackie honored Ron Carter.

Instead of having a group play an opening song for Ron, Jackie calls me up and asks me to play a solo piece for Ron. First of all, I felt like this was the setup of the century because I was far from being ready to play an open bass solo for the great Ron Carter. But I got something worked out—it took me three or four months—and Jackie says, “Okay, I want you to come perform it for me and Dollie. I want to listen to it.” So I showed up at the Collective and it wound up being just me and Jackie in this big room. I walked in, and he said, ‘Okay pull your bass out.’ Of course I’m sweating; I’d never been so nervous in my life, which changed when I eventually had to do this for Ron. But anyway, back to the preview. So I played it, and Jackie said, “Play it again.” So I played it again. He would [always] try to appreciate what you were doing, but if it wasn’t happening, he would get this look on his face that just looked like he couldn’t see, like he was squinting. It was this weird look, and you just knew that you were taking a dump on the stage—or it just wasn’t happening. So after the second time, I kept getting that look, and I just stood there and I was wounded. So then Jackie said, “Dezron, whatever you’re working on, just play, man. I just want you to play.”

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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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