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Clockwise, from top left: Chris Dingman, Bryan Copeland, Fabian Almazan, Joe Nero, an aardvark, and Jesse Lewis. Photos by Dominick Nero.

Over two albums and a decade of live performances, bassist Bryan Copeland’s band Bryan and the Aardvarks have honed a unique and personal brand of instrumental music, memorably dubbed “pastoral shred” by Rolling Stone Magazine’s Hank Shteamer. This Sunday, May 26, Bryan and the Aardvarks return to The Jazz Gallery alongside special guest drummer Kenny Wollesen to celebrate their tenth anniversary as a band and premiere a new suite of compositions commissioned by the NPR program StoryCorps. We caught up with Bryan Copeland by phone to talk about the band’s history and how he approaches writing direct, confessional music without lyrics.

The Jazz Gallery: Since this concert is celebrating ten years of the Aardvarks, I’d love to talk a bit about the band’s history. What made you want to start the band in the first place?

Bryan Copeland: We actually started in 2006, which is when I moved to New York. Joe Nero—our usual drummer—and Fabian Almazan were going to school together at the Manhattan School of Music. The only person I knew in town was this bari saxophone player who was going to school there named Jacob Rodriguez. So when I got to town, I called Jacob, and he hooked up a session with Joe & Fabian. They had a collective going on—it was a septet I think—and everybody just brought in tunes. We would play gigs, we played in Philly a lot, actually. So I started writing some songs for the group. The first song I wrote was “Sunshine Through the Clouds,” which ended up on the Aardvarks’ first record. So I brought that tune in, and it didn’t really work for the big group. We had all of these horn players, and it wasn’t really a horn player tune. It’s this kind of folky tune. At the gigs, we would play that tune as a trio.

So we did that for quite a while, and then I started writing more music. Then this good friend of mine Barry Bliss—he’s a wonderful singer-songwriter—contacted me. He had a residency at the Sidewalk Café—which is no longer the Sidewalk Café. He emailed me and said, “Do you want to play this gig on a bill with my band?” I was like, “Yeah, sure,” and he was like, “What’s your band name?” Bryan and the Aardvarks just popped in my head. I don’t really know how it came. I guess a lot of those bands were singer-songwriter projects and they all had band names, so I didn’t want to be “The Bryan Copeland Jazz Trio” or something like that. So that was our first gig as the Aardvarks.

TJG: How did you expand out from the trio configuration?

BC: At about the time of our first gig, vibraphonist Chris Dingman moved to New York. He had just gotten out of the Thelonious Monk Institute. Fabian set up a session with Chris and I remember being blown away by Chris. He was just a monster. I was kind of intimidated by his playing! He was so good that I was getting nervous at the session! I then talked to Fabian and asked if he thought Chris would be a good addition to the Aardvarks and he was really into it. So we ended up playing that Sidewalk Café gig as a quartet.

It was a good venue for us because the music we were playing had this pop music influence, and that heavy folk element. The audience was really receptive to the music there. Everybody was raving about the group, and that was really encouraging for us. We ended up playing there quite a bit. They ended up trying to do these “jazz nights” to accommodate us, but they ended up kind of being a disaster, because that wasn’t really their audience. People didn’t come out, and I was like, “I’d rather just keep playing with the singer-songwriters.”

We added Jesse Lewis after Chris couldn’t make a gig. Jesse was one of the first people that I met in New York, so I asked him to sub for Chris. It went really well, and then Chris came back, and I was like, “I miss having Jesse, too.” He added a lot to the music and so became a regular. That was maybe a year after our first gig.

One of our first major gigs with this configuration was at the old Jazz Gallery. It was a big goal of mine to play there since I moved to New York. I remember seeing some really heavy groups there, like Brian Blade’s group—I used to go see them all the time before he left New York. I saw some really life-changing shows there, so it was really great to get to play there myself.

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Clockwise from top left: Mark Turner, Joe Martin, Kevin Hays, & Nasheet Waits. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bassist, composer, and bandleader Joe Martin has been a fixture of the New York jazz community for over two decades, whether collaborating with the likes of Chris Potter, Gilad Hekselman, Anat Cohen, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, or leading his own ensemble of Mark Turner, Kevin Hays, and Nasheet Waits. Martin’s third and newest release is Étoilée. According to the liner notes, “Martin, himself a product of a musical upbringing, lives with his Parisian-born wife in Brooklyn where they have been raising their young Franco-American family of two sons and a young girl, whose middle name Étoile inspired the name of the recording… Joe Martin takes the powerful spirit instilled by his nuclear family to fuel the passion of four longstanding musical peers on his emotionally enriching release, Étoilée.” We spoke about family, distractions, and keeping things fresh in the studio.

The Jazz Gallery: Congratulations on the release of the new record! In your liner notes, I love that you cite your family as an inspiration and motivation for the record. Many musicians have families, but usually discuss their families in the context of being one of their many responsibilities, and not necessarily as a creative sources of inspiration. 

Joe Martin: Yeah. Of course, it’s a deeply personal thing, and is more the result of observation and reflection about where I was when I was writing this music. I’ve been entrenched in family life for quite a number of years. It’s not that having children changes who you are, exactly, but it certainly adds another layer to life, takes you out of your head. Especially as a musical artist, you’re always thinking about yourself and your music. It’s a beautiful thing, and has certainly lead many great musicians to creating great music, but when you have family, you’re aware that you’re responsible for other people, and their energy affects you. It brings awareness and acceptance. So, to say that my family directly inspired every song on the record wouldn’t be completely accurate. But in looking for titles and thinking about what’s been happening in my life, family is definitely a big part of who I am these days, and I wanted to acknowledge that with the album.

TJG: So when you’re listening back to the record, even though it’s not necessarily a programmatic record describing your family, when you listen back to certain things, do you hear your life reflected in your music in that way?

JM: I don’t know if I would say it’s that direct. It was largely when I was searching for titles. For example, I came up with the title “Malida” from my wife and two sons’ names–I didn’t have a daughter at that time. There was a certain intensity and energy about that song that captured a bit of their spirit and energy. But when I listen to music, I’m just thinking about the music and the other musicians, the atmosphere that’s being created, and where we arrive in these different songs. That’s the most compelling thing for me.

There’s my writing of the music and what it means to me, but then you have the other three musicians on the record playing. They all have their own stuff going on in their lives, and however they come to the music, they’re not necessarily thinking about my family when they’re playing those songs [laughs]. Unless you’re doing a completely solo project, there’s always going to be this other energy in the music. That’s what I like. It’s the essence of getting together and playing with great musicians and having a band, seeing where you arrive in the music, how you get inside it. The spirit of my family’s energy is certainly a part of me, and is certainly an inspiration in coming up with themes for the record, but when I play music, I’m usually just thinking about the music.

TJG: I hear you, absolutely. I’m not suggesting there needs to be anything beyond that.

JM: Sure, sure. It’s a good question!

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

At Kassa Overall’s most recent performance from his TIME CAPSULE residency, he ventured into unknown territory with pianist Kris Davis, bassist Stephan Crump, and an assortment of electronics and vocal processing gear. Stepping even further into the void, Kassa will be joined for his next performance by the inimitable Craig Taborn on piano, rhodes, and electronics. While Taborn and Overall share an affinity for exploring electronic sounds and styles, the two have no prior history of playing together. In Overall’s words, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen… I’m excited to take the journey” Read more below, starting with how Overall starts his day.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks again for making time to chat about your ongoing residency. Do your days tend get started pretty early?

Kassa Overall: It depends. I try to sleep in as long as possible, and usually try to keep all my plans to the afternoon, keeping mornings open for my most strenuous mental work and my own creative endeavors. If I’ve done my morning routine and done something important to me, like working on new music, then whatever I have to do for the rest of the day, at least I got a little bit of the heavy lifting out of the way.

TJG: So what did you have on the creative table this morning?

KO: Well, that whole previous explanation is a theory [laughs]. Today, I actually woke up really early, and I went to the practice space and practiced drums at around 7:30 A.M., so the whole thing is a little different. I just finished my morning routine, and now I’m trying to finish one of these TIME CAPSULE joints. I’m taking these recordings and making original pieces out of them. There’s a part where Sullivan Fortner goes to the organ during our first duo set, and we play a kind of improvised ballad. I chopped it up, sped it up, and made a whole piece out of it. It’s almost really good, but it still has some rough edges in terms of the arrangement and direction. It has the ingredients of something special, but it’s not done yet. I have to make some decisions.

TJG: What form is it in right now? Lead sheet? Demo?

KO: I’m making a recorded piece of art in Ableton. It’s not so much a demo, but a piece of recorded work, a new sound recording, which I’ll probably release as an official song, then find a way to play it live.

TJG: Speaking of live, how was your Blue Note show with Paul Wilson and BIGYUKI?

KO: You know? It was another step in the right direction. That was my first attempt at playing the album material live in a “correct” way. It’s a lot harder than other performances because you’re trying to recreate something that lives on the album. It’s always an internal debate as to how similar it should be to the album, and how creative we should get. This time, we went extreme with recreating the album. I automated vocal delay stuff, we had all sorts of stuff being triggered from laptops. In order for that performance to work, it had to ping pong between precision and open creativity. The Blue Note show lacked some of that open creativity. From playing these TIME CAPSULE shows at The Jazz Gallery, I’ve tapped into a new kind of spontaneous composition, and have to rely on a new type of performance approach. For the live album set, it still has to have that oceanic-waves-crashing-spontaneity, and then fall into something precise. We’re working on it.

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

This Tuesday, May 21, saxophonist Kevin Sun returns to The Jazz Gallery to present a new, hour-long work called The Middle of Tensions. Written for his working trio of bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor alongside pianist Dana Saul, the work explores the links between musical and emotional tension, working with dense, dissonant chords and unsettling polyrhythms.

We caught up with Kevin by phone to talk about the work and his writing process, just after he returned from 10 days of performances with his trio in Beijing, China.

The Jazz Gallery: How was Beijing?

Kevin Sun: It was fun! It was also tiring. For me, it’s not such a big deal because I go back every few months or so. Obviously for Walter and Matt it was different—it was their first time in Asia—but I think they took to it very well. We got lucky in that the weather was beautiful: It was in the 80s during the daytime, and clear skies in the 60s in the evening, with no rain. It’s sort of like being in California.

Traveling around was really comfortable. We took the subway a lot, which I think it was good for them to see more of the city and just understand how the public transit works. The rest of the time we took cabs, which are much cheaper than here. The gigs were great—we played a lot, maybe 10 sets of music, which is more than we’ve played in the past year-and-a-half. It was really interesting just to play the same songs night after night and see where we went with them. New ideas came to the surface gradually through the process. Some were obvious things like transitioning between songs without a break, naturally figuring out how to pace a set, getting the music in a certain flow. We had a really great time and I thought the audiences were into the music. Hopefully, we’ll go back again.

TJG: In some ways, it feels like that’s a lot of effort to get over there, but that ability to play night in, night out is such a rarity over here that it feels worth the travel.

KS: I’ve mentioned it to other people, but I remember complaining to Mark Turner at the Vanguard about how it’s so hard to book gigs in New York, but when booking in China, I can just text the club owner and they’ll give me a date immediately. But he said that’s just the case for everyone in New York, which was obvious, and that’s also why a lot of people go overseas. Sometimes it really is to make money, like with big festivals, but other times it’s just a way to get experience on the bandstand, to set up a string of gigs in different places. Putting together that many shows in China was so smooth that I can imagine myself going back more often with other bands.

TJG: You got this good place with the trio and now they’re part of this Middle of Tensions project. How do you think the continuity that you’ve developed with the trio is going to come out on this new music, and how do you think about incorporating Dana into the mix now?

KS: This was my master plan all along—to get the trio really warmed up, getting ready to tackle this even more challenging piece. We’ve played the piece with Dana before and the guys all have really deep long-standing connections. Matt and Dana live together, and so they hear each other and see each other all the time. They grew up in the same town and were the first people they knew who were into playing improvised music and jazz. They’ve been playing longer than I’ve been playing with Walter and Matt combined!

In terms of writing this piece, I really focused on the trio these past few years to really strip down to the essentials: bass voice, percussive voice, treble voice. Composing with a piano or another chordal instrument, I feel like there are so many possibilities. In the trio, I originally felt really constricted. I couldn’t really write chord symbols; I just had to write a bass voice and a treble voice. Those constraints were interesting in terms of learning to express more extended harmonies, or certain textural effects. One of the things about a piano or guitar trio is that’s all you need to have a full orchestra. I can only play one note at a time, or at the most a couple and it’s not quite the same, so having someone who can really unleash tons of pitch information and create lots of color is beautiful. Dana is one of the people I know who’s the best at that. He just generates this kaleidoscope of color and texture. That’s his magic power. I don’t know how to describe it—he really has his own thing at the piano which I love, and I feel like it complements the different aspects that Walter and Matt also brings the table.

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From L to R: David Frazier Jr., Keith Witty, and Christophe Panzani. Photo courtesy of the artist.

THIEFS is an ongoing and evolving brainchild of bassist Keith Witty and saxophonist Christophe Panzani, with drummer David Frazier Jr. as well as a rotating cast of additional improvisers and vocalists. The electro-acoustic ensemble transcends idiom and merges musical approaches in startling ways, as on their latest record, GRAFT. This performance at The Jazz Gallery will be THIEFS’ only New York City performance in 2019. Over the course of the evening, the trio of Witty, Panzani, and Frazier plan to take old and new compositions and blast them wide open.

In prior interviews with WBGO and Bandcamp Daily, Witty spoke thoroughly about the specific inspirations and processes behind the music. In our recent phone call, we took a different angle, and spoke about the challenges of having a transatlantic band, preparing new music on a tight schedule, and the creative growth of a logistically complex project.

Keith Witty: The fundamental challenge of our group is finding a way to exist, survive, and create. Getting gigs is one thing, but booking gigs that get us onto the same continent is more tricky. A gig at a small club in Boston might be wonderful, but it’s not going to get Christophe over the ocean. Same for a small club in Paris, or any city really. We have to bring everything we have to the table to try to figure out how to play. That’s detrimental in many ways, but it’s a benefit in that it makes us focus on what we want to do. We don’t have time to be frivolous. That has helped us hone our ideas and put an extra layer of thought into our conceptual movement as well. It has driven discussions about what we are trying to do, how we might hone it, how we can make it happen, and how we might change and grow. A lot of times, we’re sending each other things transatlantically, and for the gig in New York, we’ve set aside a rehearsal day for new material, which is a challenge, because we have a lot of current material to brush up on as well. We always have to find a way to make it work.

TJG: Having new material seems vital in a band like yours. In the WBGO interview, you discussed how you view jazz as music that’s alive, of the present, authentic to the group. Having new music must feel critical, even though it’s hard to get it together when you’re not living together.

KW: It does. I produce a lot of records these days, and there’s something vital and beautiful about the process of bringing compositions to their live iteration glory, to full fruition. In so many cases these days, people are recording and sculpting music in the studio that they haven’t pressed on the stage, pushed around, tugged and pulled at for months before it takes shape. In some ways, even though our last record came out over a year ago, we’re still figuring out how we best want to play some of the music. We’re stretching some of it out, so we’re figuring out what the improvisational approach is. There’s a lot of creativity, newness, freshness to that. We’ve added maybe three compositions to the repertoire since then that will make their way onto the next record. We’re trying to make sure that when we get together, there’s some opportunity to play through something new, even if it’s a sketch, just to keep the creative wheels turning.

TJG: When and where were your most recent shows?

KW: Our last shows were in Europe. We played a festival in Switzerland, NoVa JaZz. It was a small festival in a small town, but had such a great lineup. Ambrose Akinmusire, Shai Maestro, BIGYUKI, it was wonderful to be in the company of such artists who I feel approach music in a similar way, completely void of traditional parameters. There may be loose guidelines of what jazz might mean to each person, but everyone who the festival programmed, it felt like to me, was making the exact music they wanted to make, straight out of their heads and their hearts. It’s nice when programmers get what you’re trying to do, and put you with people who don’t necessarily sound like you, but are approaching music-making from a similar standpoint.

On that run we also did a masterclass and concert in Grenoble, France. That was the first concert we’ve done as a trio, as we’re going to do at the Gallery, no vocals, just instrumental explorations of the material. The room was packed with students. It felt great.

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