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Posts from the Interviews Category

Matt Mitchell (L) and Tim Berne (R). Photo courtesy of the artists.

Saxophonist and composer Tim Berne’s presence looms large over the New York improv scene, and it’s not just because he stands well over six feet tall. As a leader, Berne has over 50 albums to his name, and is a constant presence on critics’ annual best-of lists. For the past decade or so, Berne has developed a deep rapport with pianist Matt Mitchell, whether in Berne’s band Snakeoil, a duo format, or with Mitchell performing solo versions of Berne’s compositions.

This weekend, Berne and Mitchell return to The Jazz Gallery in a new trio configuration with a pair of acclaimed young drummers—Kate Gentile on Friday evening and Justin Faulkner on Saturday. We caught up with Berne by phone to talk about his expectations for the new group, his band-leading philosophy, and his gradual embrace of the piano in his music.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re bringing a new trio to the Gallery this week with piano & drums. Do you feel that the group is an extension of your duo work with pianist Matt Mitchell, or is it its own new thing?

Tim Berne: As long as I’m playing with someone I know, there’s going to be some history. Matt and I have been developing this chemistry for ten years or so. But other than that, it’s definitely a new thing. The approach with drums is always going to be quite a bit different. But I’m not that smart—I don’t have a concept for how one group evolves from another. I like to set things up and see what happens.

TJG: With drums in the mix, what do you expect to be different? Do you feel that drums are stabilizing force or destabilizing force?

TB: Hopefully it will be a destabilizing force! It’s another person. I don’t see the drums as playing a role, it’s just another instrument. Sonically, it’s going to be different. But I feel more like it’s guiding a conversation. Like you’re sitting around, having coffee with someone. You have a nice thing going and all of a sudden, someone else sits down, and you have to accommodate them. Even if they don’t say anything, the dynamic will be different just because they’re there. It’s not about instruments playing roles for me—it’s not like we now have a rhythm section in the band. It’s more like we have a person in the conversation with a different dynamic range, a different kind of texture, and a different point of view.

TJG: In terms of different points of view, how do you know Kate and Justin, and how do you imagine their personalities interacting with you and Matt?

TB: I’ve played with Kate. I met her at a workshop where I was teaching. We played together then and we’ve played a couple of gigs together since then. I met Justin through Branford Marsalis. I went to hear Branford play at The Jazz Standard and we were hanging out afterward. I was talking to Justin and I got a good vibe from him. I really don’t know his playing outside of Branford’s group, and in a way, I don’t want to know. He’s a nice guy and expressed an interest in my music, and I dug what he was doing with Branford. It’s fun to try something different—it’s sort of like a blind date in a way.

Sometimes I have to wake myself up. It’s almost too easy to play with the people that I usually play with. I need to challenge myself to see if the music works in other situations, mostly so I don’t get lazy.

TJG: That’s definitely getting back to the destabilizing influence you’re looking for.

TB: Yeah [laughs]. Most people want to be stabilized, and I want to be destabilized. Sometimes I get to a point with my music where I know it’s going to work and I have to do something to mess it up. Like with my band Snakeoil, sometimes I’ll add a person, just to keep us on our toes and give us something else to react to. I can’t always do that with the writing itself. Recently we recorded with Marc Ducret and that really threw a nice wrench into things. We were playing music that we had worked on for a couple of years, and then brought in Marc for one rehearsal before the recording. It’s completely different than anything we’ve ever done. It’s not contrived—it’s the way the band operates.

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Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr, courtesy of the artist.

An alumnus of the Berklee College of Music, drummer & composer Lesley Mok has built a conspicuous presence in New York’s community of young experimental improvisers. She’s a regular performer on Bushwick Public House’s Improvised Music Series, playing with peers like saxophonist Noah Becker and her collaborative trio Thworp.

Though Mok has appeared at The Jazz Gallery in bands led by Jasper Dutz and Nick Dunston, this Thursday, July 18, Mok makes her Gallery debut as a leader. For this performance, Mok convenes her working band The Living Collection, a sextet featuring saxophonists David Leon and Yuma Uesaka, trombonist Kalun Leung, pianist Sonya Belaya, and bassist Steve Williams. Jazz Speaks caught up with Mok by phone to talk about her music for the band, which explores both dense polyphony and stark contrast.

The Jazz Gallery: When did The Living Collection get started?

Lesley Mok: I started writing music for the band in August of last year, but we didn’t really get together as a group until December. I was curious about a lot of different compositional techniques, and I was listening to a lot of new music, so I had a particular sextet sound and a particular aesthetic in mind. When a gig opportunity came up in December, things took off.

Since then, we’ve done three gigs and each gig has been all new music, so it’s felt like three first gigs. The show at The Jazz Gallery will be a chance for us to revisit most of the things that I’ve written in the past six months, and a few new things. I’m excited to have the chance to play things a second time, let them sit and develop.

TJG: What are the some of the compositional methods and techniques that you’ve explored in your work for the band? Are there any particular composers whose work you’re responding to?

LM: There are a few composers who’ve influenced my writing. One is Henry Threadgill, particularly his band Zooid. It’s highly polyphonic music—each voice is its own independent melody but it’s still democratic and balanced. Another is Anthony Braxton. It’s not so much about his graphic scores or systems of notation, but more about the breadth of his music and how diverse it can be. His scores range from really broad to really specific, but I feel that they always bring out the strengths of each band member.

So the writing started as a response to these specific composers, but the more I experiment with the group, the more it’s becoming about the personalities in the band. Everyone has such a unique musical background, so part of the development is hearing what works with everyone’s natural tendencies, and writing in a way that enhances those tendencies. Sometimes, I can get to more clarity by writing less, which challenges my tendency to write a lot. I’ll have a specific idea or sound in mind, but what ends up becoming the composition is something entirely different. Learning to write for strong improvisers is a constant negotiation between what I envision for the band and how they might interpret my ideas. This newest batch of compositions is much more open. Some of the pieces are based on a single idea, like a set of intervals, or a rhythmic cell, or a gestural direction. The music is still really diverse, but it’s definitely becoming more open overall. 

TJG: How much is this openness about letting the band members do their individual thing versus finding simpler ways to get the band to sound the way you want?

LM: I’ve learned with a lot of pieces that the sound I’m hearing can manifest itself within multiple aesthetics. When I listen to the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Sun Ra, it seems that its cacophony comes its band members simultaneously improvising in their own worlds, or playing in unison, but not directly responding to each other. I can’t really notate that, and for that kind of multiplicity, western notation isn’t that valuable. 

For me, the compositional process also continues during the rehearsal process. Communicating certain things, or not communicating them, can really shape the composition. In my first pieces for the group, I would notate the start of an improvisation, like suggest a rhythm to begin with and allow them to take off from there. Now, I tend to give those directions through text, which helps me to communicate an idea more clearly while allowing the players to be themselves.

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Photo by Rachel Thalia Fisher, courtesy of the artist.

Camila Meza engages listeners by sharing her unique experiences and personal longings. Hers are stories of movement, both journeys and emergences.

On the heels of her studio release Ámbar (Sony Masterworks), the Chilean-born singer, guitarist and composer returns to the bandstand to perform Portal, her 2019 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission. While composing the project, Meza chose to explore new music in an instrumental context unfamiliar to her, in part, so she could inhabit one of Portal’s essential themes: the struggle to seek and find solutions to hard questions.

Ahead of her performance, Meza spoke with the Jazz Speaks about joys and challenges of creating possibilities, her connection to vocal harmony, and the enduring aesthetic of “layering” in her work.

The Jazz Gallery: In terms of instrumentation, this project is a departure from your work with the Nectar Orchestra.

Camila Meza: I’d say so. Although in its quantity, it’s similar. It’s a lot of people.

TJG: And you’ve been playing with and composing for Nectar over the past three years—or longer than that?

CM: Well [the Nectar] project started maybe around six years ago but, in the middle, I was taking care of Traces. There was some sort of hiatus for that album, so the last three years have been totally dedicated to Ámbar.

TJG: In what ways do you feel your compositions have expanded—or maybe your compositional style has expanded—as a result of spending so much time with the orchestra?

CM: Having the possibility to experiment with a larger group of people, a wider instrumentation, it really, intuitively gives you so many more options in terms of arranging and landscaping the songs and compositions. It puts you in a position of having to pay a lot of attention to detail and ask yourself “How am I going to use all of these sounds in a cohesive way so that I take advantage of them and also use them in a way that serves the music?”

TJG: Did you ever find those possibilities overwhelming, or did you always sort of find them to be intriguing?

CM: Both. It definitely enhances your creativity. You suddenly have more colors to play with, which sounds enticing, but you’re also in front of another problem to solve. You have to pay attention so you’re able to use these colors without overusing them only because you have them in front of you. That’s the challenge.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Vibraphonist-composer Nikara Warren combines a broad lineage of music with the very personal and diverse artistry she grew up embracing in her native Brooklyn, creating new music that confronts injustice and celebrates humanity.

While her debut recording Black Wall Street awaits release, Warren invites the Black Wall Street band back to The Jazz Gallery stage for the final performance of her Political Gangster Trilogy, which offers original interpretations of music from Nina Simone and Me’Shell Ndegeocello. In her interview with Jazz Speaks, Warren discusses similarities and differences in political inquiries through music, the atmospheres she creates for listeners, and the universal need—and love—for the process.

The Jazz Gallery: You have a connection to the human voice—this performance in more of a literal way, many of the horn parts for Black Wall Street to have kind of a choral quality, and you sing through your instrument—listeners can hear you sing while you play, and you’ve been known to grab the mic yourself in different contexts. In what ways has the decision to become politically gangster with your artistry given you a stronger connection to the human voice?

Nikara Warren: Well politics, that’s what it’s all about—people speaking their truths—which is also what music is all about. I’m not really someone who enjoys talking about politics; if I’m hanging out, it’s not on the list of things I want to chat about. But, because of the state of the country and the world, I feel like I guess I have to be. And I don’t always know that my words can really do it. But [the state we’re in] has forced me to find ways to make statements, musically, that were directly related to my political stance, which I guess is kind of difficult – being able to say things with no words, because I don’t always have them.

TJG: I’d like to read you a quotation from the one-sheet for Me’Shell’s Ventriloquism.

NW: Okay.

TJG: “In times so extreme and overwhelming, when there is no known expression for the feeling, no satisfactory direction for art or action, then [artists] might take refuge in a process, a ritual, something familiar, the shape and sound of which recall another time altogether, so that they can weather the present long enough to call it the past.”

NW: Yeah that’s the blues. That’s the premise of the blues, where all this music started.

TJG: How does that sentiment resonate with your choices as an artist?

NW: The beauty of music is that it can move you. It can move you, and it can change the place that you’re in mentally. And I think a lot of the reason artists make art is to reflect the times emotionally, or what’s going on. So there are times for artists when things are difficult, you might want to cling on to, or submerge yourself in a process that maybe feels like home. For a lot of artists, that’s just creating—being creative. Because, if you do that, you can kind of weather the storm. You can get through it. Thank you for reading that.

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Photo by Spencer Ostrander, courtesy of the artist.

Over the last six months, Kassa Overall composed, improvised, and took musical risks at The Jazz Gallery alongside six deeply contrasting pianists. Each session was meticulously recorded, generating raw material for Overall to sample, recompose, and produce. Now, Overall (plus some surprise guests) will return to The Jazz Gallery for two final nights showcasing the results of the long-form experiment. The Jazz Gallery will effectively become a live production studio, and audience members will witness a new kind of re-contextualization, improvisation, and listening experience.

Jazz Speaks writer Noah Fishman interviewed Kassa Overall every month for half a year, following Overall’s creative process and growth. It’s our pleasure to present their final conversation, serving as both a retrospective and a nod to the future.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to start by asking you to briefly describe your big-picture lessons from each show.

Kassa Overall: With Jon Batiste, I had no idea where we were headed. It was a great adventure. Afterwards, I felt confident about the whole series. I realized that I had high-level musicians, and it wasn’t so much about over-preparing, but rather creating a space for everybody. If I did that, then they could shine. The first show gave me that perspective.

Jason Moran’s set had the most earthly intensity of all the shows. Between him and bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, there was a lot of power on stage. After that one, I remember thinking, “I’m playing with some heavy-hitters, and I gotta make sure my drum chops are on the right level.”

With Aaron Parks, we leaned in with the Valentine’s Day energy. With that one, I realized the importance of setting a tone for each show. After that show, there were still some remnants of the Jason Moran thought. So I decided to practice every day for thirty days.

With Sullivan Fortner’s set, I was beginning to understand that as well as having these great musicians, I had to prepare myself, and put myself in the right space. I though, “Let me just prepare on my own.” I gave Sullivan a piano, B3, and Rhodes, and I practiced every day. Then we just improvised. That was the first set where I decided to improvise the whole set: For the rest of the shows, it was all improvisational.

With Kris Davis, again, the thought was, “How can I set the stage?” With this one, I decided to incorporate my vocals and effects. That one was one of the most intense shows. Ever. Especially the first set. A new thing opened up. It was faith-affirming in the idea of spontaneity.

This all lead me to Craig Taborn. We couldn’t get into the Gallery to rehearse, so we decided to just walk around the city and talk. That was our rehearsal. Again, it was assurance that there’s something to spontaneity, to preparing in a way that’s not typically considered preparing. It was another amazing experience. I was shocked at how we arrived at a concept without really discussing it. We just talked about what we love about music. Through that, we created an identity.

This whole experience has brought me to a realization. It’s great to prepare music, but there are many ways of preparing: Don’t use preparation as a creative crutch. Don’t use preparation as a way of saying, “I can’t improvise, so I’m going to perfectly orchestrate all of this stuff. It’ll sound like I’m improvising, but what I’m really doing is a magic trick, a circus act.” Now, I’m really trying to accept that that’s what people like. There’s a time to cut the edges off the crust. There are times to make things more correct. But don’t sacrifice the magic of spontaneity.

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