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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts from the Interviews Category

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Though he only just graduated from Manhattan School of Music last spring, Adam O’Farrill is a longtime member of The Jazz Gallery family, and more generally, the jazz community in New York. He was one of the recipients of the 2016-2017 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission, and performs here regularly with dozens of bands as a leader and sideman. His most recent album is titled El Maquech (Biophilia), and has received glowing reviews.

For this project, titled “Bird Blown Out of Latitude,” O’Farrill assembled a large band, and began composing and rehearsing well in advance, something that O’Farrill says is new for him. The new music stems from the search for identity that comes with the feeling of displacement. In O’Farrill’s words, “This music represents the distillation of feeling dislocated—physically, mentally, maybe spiritually. To travel and lose sense of place, that’s what this music reflects.”

The Jazz Gallery: How are things going, Adam? I’m sure you’ve been busy.

Adam O’Farrill: Things are good. I’m leading a horn sectional for the Gallery gig later today, and I have a gig tonight with a singer named Eliana Glass at Cornelia Street Cafe. It’s been a hectic few days: On Wednesday afternoon, I got called for a last-minute gig in Miami for Thursday. They bought us tickets to Miami the next morning, and we played this corporate cocktail event for Adidas and David Beckham. I got back yesterday morning, and things have been busy since then, but it’s all good stuff.

TJG: I was recently reading an old interview with you in this blog, where Rafiq Bhatia asked you about the physical demands of the trumpet. Your response at the time was that you felt some mental fatigue, but mostly, “When I’m done playing a gig, I usually just wanna play another!” Is that still true, now that you’re out of school and are doing all this traveling?

AO: I would be lying if I told you things hadn’t changed in that regard. It’s a combination of few things. I don’t have the highest physical tolerance or immune system, and I easily get sick if I don’t get enough sleep, or if I’m not giving myself time to breathe and relax. It’s been like that my whole life. Since mid-August, I’ve been traveling every week or two. So when I’m home, I’m home. I feel bad because I want to get out more, integrate myself more into the scene, and sometimes I feel like I know I’m neglecting things or people. But, especially since I’m trying to compose as well, it’s easy to the hermit thing. Also, I’ve begun to form musical relationships, with different people and bands, where I don’t really want to give anything less than my full effort. That’s something we should all have built into our mindsets to begin with, but it took certain relationships and learning from certain bandleaders to come to that conclusion. When I play gigs that I really care about, I’ll realize just how much I put into it when I finish playing, physically and mentally. Sometimes it’s hard to even hang after that.

TJG: Do you see a way to work around this feeling, or are these the sacrifices you learn you have to make as you pursue a career in music?

AO: That’s exactly it. It’s a matter of knowing the sacrifices that you’re making. It’s funny, sometimes you even feel like you’re doing the right thing when you’re sacrificing something, but that’s a weird feeling, because that act of sacrifice seems like it’s often viewed in a negative light. I think when you learn how to be able to do that, it’s good. You need to be able to make tough choices, and to accept that there are difficult consequences to whatever choices you make. That’s hard.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Accomplished mridangam artist and composer Rajna Swaminathan is bringing a brand-new project to The Jazz Gallery, consisting of Gallery regulars including saxophonist María Grand, bassist Linda May Han Oh, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and vocalist Imani Uzuri. The project, Mangal, represents an aesthetic change of pace for Swaminathan, as she described in our lengthy interview below. The music, by design, treats time and rhythm with a looser approach, and focuses on the potential for interaction and overlapping textures between pairs and trios of musicians.

Swaminathan performs frequently with Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, and Amir ElSaffar, and leads the ensemble RAJAS, an explorative project that brings together musicians from Indian classical and jazz idioms. She frequently teaches workshops on South Indian rhythm, most notably at the Banff International Workshop and PASIC. In addition to her performance career, Swaminathan is currently pursuing a PhD at Harvard University, and is writing a dissertation bridging the ideas of Carnatic music in the South Asian diaspora, the role of the arts in community activism, and cross-cultural improvisation. In her words, she’s hoping “to find more points of contact between those two worlds” of academic study and performance practice.

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

Rajna Swaminathan: I’m in Wyoming near the Montana border, at an artist residency called Ucross. I’ve been here for about a month already, and will be here for a couple more days. I’ve been working on new music, a lot of which will be played at The Jazz Gallery, and have more generally been composing for my dissertation project, writing the dissertation, and thinking about different configurations of musicians. A lot of the music I’ve written here is for the configuration of the upcoming show at the Gallery next week, and from there, ideally, it’ll evolve to suit other ensembles.

TJG: Has it been a good residency? Sometimes it’s hard to write music for a group when you’re isolated.

RS: It is hard in isolation, and on top of that, I haven’t played with this particular group and in this specific configuration before. I’ve played a lot with María, but I haven’t played my music with any of the other folks. It’s going to be interesting to start rehearsing next week. It’s an experiment, so it’ll be cool.

TJG: How did this experiment come to life?

RS: It’s funny, the idea began as a text between me, María, and a vocalist named Ganavya. We were talking about doing a performance where we read poetry and create some music around it. Ganavya wasn’t available for this Jazz Gallery date, so I ended up finding other people and, as things go, the idea became something else. The group got bigger, and I thought, “I’ll write some new music for this group,” and it’ll be more of an open thing, though we may incorporate poetry if people feel moved to do so. So far, the plan is to play my new compositions, which are different from what I usually do, in that they’re more loose. Usually my writing features a gridded, polyrhythmic framework. There’s a little of that in this music, but my idea is to create a more interpretive situation. There are a lot of great sensibilities in these musicians, so I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out.

TJG: What underlying form do you anticipate these interpretive experiments taking? If someone were to come to the show, and wanted to be hip to what you’ll be doing onstage, what might they listen for?

RS: At this point, I’m not sure if there will be one specific thing they should listen for. Some people who have heard my music before may be surprised by how little driving rhythm there is, and how my playing will probably end up becoming more textural. I’ll be singing as well, so that’s different and equally experimental. The loose time is where you’ll here something more experimental happening.

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Speaking with saxophonist and composer Remy Le Boeuf always feels like a masterclass. As he talks about his work, he naturally brings in performance ideas, composition techniques, observations on the likes of Bartók, Copland, and Mingus, and lots of praise for his musical peers. Though already a busy performer and educator in New York, Le Boeuf has recently started a new professional chapter as a big band composer and arranger. Through an unlikely series of personal connections, Le Boeuf received his first big band commission in 2015, and since then, has had arrangements and compositions premiered throughout the world, including by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Remy Le Boeuf’s large-ensemble writing has recently coalesced in his “Assembly of Shadows” Orchestra. The upcoming concert at The Jazz Gallery will feature the premiere of the piece by the same name, “Assembly of Shadows,” made possible by a grant from the American Composers Forum with funds provided by the Jerome Foundation. Continue reading below for some insights into Le Boeuf’s process as a saxophonist and big band composer.

The Jazz Gallery: So how did the big band thing start for you?

Remy Le Boeuf: I started writing for big band when I was eighteen, but I began to take it more seriously in 2015 when I got commissioned by Keio University in Japan to write them a piece for a big band competition.

TJG: How did the commission come about if you weren’t writing big band music at the time?

RLB: My friend Franky Rousseau, an excellent big band composer, introduced me to a guy named Jun Umegaki at a party. Jun had been a fan of my music, and worked with this Japanese big band, Keio Light Music Society, comprised of students from Keio University. They have been supportive of a lot of young New York composers, and had worked with Franky, as well as Miho Hazama, Michael Thomas, and plenty more. Keio commissioned me to write a piece that summer for an upcoming competition, and I got to work with the band via email. They would rehearse and send me recordings, and I’d send back notes and make adjustments to the piece. I became more familiar with large-ensemble textures, and learned more about how to write for the instrumentation and for those specific players. They were so motivated to play my music, and I was excited to be working with them. It was contagious. They performed the piece I wrote, “Strata,” at the Yamano Big Band Competition, and won for the first time in decades. It was a huge high for all of them, and it was so exciting for me to be writing music I loved for such enthusiastic musicians.

I had so much fun writing for Keio that I wanted to write more for big band. I applied for other commission opportunities with the recording I got from Keio, and one of those opportunities was the Jerome Fund, awarded by the American Composers Forum through the generosity of the Jerome Foundation. I proposed writing a piece called “Assembly of Shadows,” and I was awarded the commission. I began writing that in 2016, and now, this fall, I’m finishing it. I’m excited to premiere it at The Jazz Gallery, and the ensemble shares the name of the piece, “Assembly of Shadows.”

TJG: So this is the beginning of an exciting new project. You have an ambitious timeline for the next year, and you are in the middle of a fundraising campaign for your first large-ensemble album.  Can you tell me about your vision for this project?

RLB: After we premiere “Assembly of Shadows” at The Jazz Gallery next week, I’m going to start planning the recording, which will likely take place in Spring 2019. By that time, I hope to have raised enough money through my fundraising efforts and applications to various organizations to record, and I hope to release the album in Fall 2019 at the earliest. It takes a lot of resources to make a large ensemble album, including paying everyone appropriately for their full days in the studio, renting the space, tuning the piano, getting hard drives, and hourly rates for engineering, mixing, and mastering. But I have all of this music that I’m really excited about, and I’m ready to share it with the world, so I’m doing everything I can to make it happen. In addition to that, I have a sextet album coming out in April, so I’ve got a lot going on this year.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Guitarist Lage Lund’s interest in the writings of Kurt Vonnegut then comes as no great shock to fans of both artists’ individualities. Complexities and paradoxes of the human condition abound in both Lund’s and Vonnegut’s works. Finding ways for his own artistry to interpret and coexist with Vonnegut’s became the focus of Lund’s Jazz Gallery Fellowship Commission project, aptly titled “Rebuild the Rubble.”

The Jazz Gallery: Would you talk a little bit about what sparked the idea for using Vonnegut’s works in the first place, and how you came to conceive of “Rebuild the Rubble?”

Lage Lund: The idea is that so much of the fabric of our society seems to have torn, or has turned out to be in worse shape than we perhaps realized. That constant barrage of abuse our senses are subjected to—emanating from this one orange asshole—can lead to paralysis and inertia.

In a larger perspective, so many things seem not good, pretty bad or terrible. So I think the need is to look to your immediate surroundings—the beauty of the people in your life—and draw strength from that. Otherwise, rebuilding the rubble just seems insurmountable. Kurt Vonnegut’s writing describes all of this so precisely and beautifully and, to me, he also represents a moral authority and voice of reason that is so sorely needed.

TJG: Had this concept to draw inspiration from Vonnegut’s works—and vibe—been brewing for a while?

LL: Initially, I had a series of sketches that I thought to develop into a coherent piece while doing the residency at the [Marcel] Breuer House, but in the end, I really wanted something to start from scratch, and as soon as I had these specific musicians in mind, it made the writing much faster and easier.

TJG: In my non-expert opinion, Vonnegut seems to have this pervasive sarcastic sense of humor in his works that’s generally tinged with tenderness and love, and I could draw many similarities in your music. Had you considered any other similarities while you were incorporating Vonnegut’s works into your own creative narrative?

LL: In my non-expert opinion that’s exactly right, and precisely why I’m drawn to his writing. I pretty much read everything he wrote while in college, but I recently got a book of letters he wrote, and in one of them there is a poem he wrote about his two young daughters. As a father of young daughters, it really resonated with me, and for the first time ever I started toying with the idea of writing music with words.

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Photos courtesy of the artists.

For the past few months, emerging alto saxophonist and composer Immanuel Wilkins has been busy pinning down a studio date for his debut recording, while working alongside his mentor—trumpet player, composer and consummate band leader Jonathan Finlayson—who recently released his third album 3 Times Round (Pi Recordings, 2018).

Throughout their careers, Wilkins and Finlayson have collaborated with the Count Basie Orchestra, Gerald Clayton, Lalah Hathaway, Solange Knowles and Bob Dylan, and Steve Coleman, Mary Halvorson, Steve Lehman, Dafnis Prieto and Vijay Iyer, respectively.

From individual places of pause in Philadelphia, Pennsylvia and Heilbronn, Germany, the two artists let slip a few moments from their nonstop schedules to talk musical progression, career development and why the Gallery’s mentorship series is so much more than taking an underage saxophone player out for drinks at the Hog’s Head Tavern in Harlem—not that anyone has.

The Jazz Gallery: Jonathan, I know you pull daily inspiration from all kinds of artistic mediums, including painting and sculpture, films and literature. Can you talk about any specific ways in which this artistic saturation in the way you live day to day influences your composing and playing?

Jonathan Finlayson: I don’t know—I think it’s kind of the life I set up for myself, and the way I’ve viewed myself living it. There are components I look for, for inspiration overall, on a monthly basis—not even monthly, maybe weekly—that kind of inform the things that I do in some way. I can’t say how concretely [those things inform my work]. I also listen to a lot of music, as well. So I wouldn’t say that’s the information I use to compose or play, but I do feel that it is, for myself, important to check these things out and see how people are doing things in other mediums—who are doing it well.

TJG: Do you ever see any ideas your exploring in your own work reflected in other people’s works within different mediums? Ever draw any kind of parallels like that?

JF: Nothing concrete. That is to say, there’s nothing direct like, “He made a straight line; I’m going to make a straight line.” But abstractly, and figuratively? Sure, all the time. We’re all human beings. So if someone does something well in one area, odds are if you do something well in another area, there’s going to be some kind of hookup at some point. It doesn’t have to be action for action, but those things are there whether it’s sports or arts—visual, the written word.

TJG: As a listener, I hear a lot lyricism in both of your playing, and Jonathan, sometimes detect a feeling of defiance in yours.

JF: I take issue with the word “defiance,” but the best answer I can give you is that I’m just being myself.

TJG: There are artists out there who are born trailblazers, and I’d venture to say you’re one of those artists.

Immanuel Wilkins: I think why you sound defiant is because you do a similar thing—and I think this also speaks to the lyricism—the way you phrase, a lot of the time, conceptually is out a bebop tradition of playing good phrase after good phrase, kind of like how Bird doesn’t develop one thing over a solo; he plays great phrases—chunks—after others. And I think that can sometimes come across as radically different from what some people are doing on the scene these days.

JF: You can correct me if I’m wrong, Immanuel, but I think it was Ben Webster that snatched the horn from Charlie Parker and told him it’s not supposed to be played like that.

IW: Oh wow (laughs)

JF: Not equating myself with Charlie Parker, but in terms of the concept of defiance.

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