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From L to R: Jessica Jones, Kenny Wollesen, Tony Jones, and Stomu Takeishi. Photo courtesy of the artist.

As a saxophonist/composer/teacher/non-profit creator, Jessica Jones takes a holistic approach to music-making. All of the different hats she wears align in an open and positive musical expression. As a composer and improviser, Jones draws comfortably and equally from a wide range of sources, including mentors like Don Cherry and Joseph Jarman, as well as musics from the Caribbean and West Africa. This perspective is showcased on Jones’ newest record, Continuum (REVA), released this week. Featuring her longtime working band of Tony Jones on tenor saxophone, Stomu Takeishi on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums, the record showcases the continuum of the jazz tradition, both stylistically and educationally (Jones’s former student Ambrose Akinmusire guests).

Jones and her quartet will celebrate the release of Continuum this Friday, January 25, at The Jazz Gallery. We caught up with her by phone to discuss the history of the group, her approach to working with diverse musics and performers, and the work of her non-profit organization, Rare Earth Vibration Association.

The Jazz Gallery: This show Is celebrating the release of your new album, Continuum. What does the name mean?

Jessica Jones: It’s about the way that you learn jazz, as a continuum, from elders all the way down. One of my students who I had for six years, who just graduated from high school, he’s 17, he’s on the album. And Ambrose Akimusire is on it; he also used to study with me when he was young. So that’s kind of the thread going through it, the idea of the title.

TJG: How do you choose which guests to bring in, with how your band is structured?

JJ: Each case is an individual case. I wanted to feature this young student, because I think he’s really ready for that kind of opportunity, for being heard. And as far as the song with the singer, Ed Reed, he and I had some conversations, and I had taken some notes on the things he said, because he’s been through a lot and he’s really wise. And I wound up putting some of his ideas into a song, things he has talked to me about. So I wrote the lyrics based on things he’d said, and I’d never had anyone perform it vocally, only instrumentally. So I thought, why not see if he wants to do it. He sang the song, and that was geared specifically to him. The other song that has guests is, I was working at a music camp and someone was playing an instrument that he calls a kamale, a Malian instrument. He was in the room next to me, in the living situation, so I would hear him practicing. It sounded like the sonic area that Don Cherry used to play, when he played his ngoni. So I was really curious about the instrument, and wrote a song to go along with that and asked him to play on it. I asked Ambrose to play on it, because I was really hearing that trumpet sound, and he was in town, so it worked out that we could do that recording of that song together. Those were three individual situations where, compositionally, I was hearing that kind of direction, with these individuals.

TJG: What is your compositional process like? Were you thinking towards the scope of the album when you were writing pieces?

JJ: I was trying to document recent work, and looking across and seeing what united it, what the common ideas were. It’s really a cross range of styles on the album. Some funk, calypso, free stuff, blues, kind of a range, which I can’t really help.

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Album art courtesy of the artist.

In a recent review of bassist Martin Nevin’s album Tenderness is Silent, writer Raul da Gama had the following to say:

“Overflowing with heavy, yet enchanting lyrical invention, this music—that Mr Nevin also likens to a series of slow-moving visuals—compels the listener to also follow along with a keen sense of narrative…it feels as though one is on a hot-line to the composer’s original source of inspiration. And it is this sense of glowing expressive candour that makes this an album to die for.”

This Saturday, Nevin returns to The Jazz Gallery to perform music from the record, as well as new material. Nevin will be joined by saxophonist Kyle Wilson, Ari Chersky on guitar, Craig Weinrib on drums, and Christopher Hoffman on cello. We caught up with Nevin to talk about his compositional process and creative intentions. 

The Jazz Gallery: I hope you’re enjoying the weekend! You mentioned you are at home working on music—What does working on music look like for you?

Martin Nevin: We’re rehearsing tomorrow for the concert next week, so I’m trying to finish some new material and have it ready to play tomorrow. This is slightly different instrumentation than I’ve done before, so I’m trying to get the music to match the instruments that I have available.

TJG: I see you’ll have Christopher Hoffman on cello?

MN: Yeah. I love his playing. He’s so versatile. He can improvise so well, and can play bass lines, which you can hear on some of the stuff he’s done with Henry Threadgill. He can improvise with the bow, can play a melodic or supporting melodic voice… There are so many things he can do, which is a cool opportunity for me to play around with those different options.

TJG: He’s not on the album, Tenderness is Silent, is that right? Are you adapting the music to his presence, or will he mostly be on the new music?

MN: The show will be a mix of newer things and music from the album. I’m always trying to change the music to some degree. When we play, we try to do a different take on it, a different way of using the material. Having new people on different instruments helps with that: Suddenly, you can play the same piece of music with new color and sound quality. So yes, some of the music will be adapted from that material.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Growing up in the Bahamas, Giveton Gelin quickly learned his musical ABCs: always be communicating. Playing beside the pulpit or on the bandstand, the trumpet player and composer shares what’s on his mind and in his ears, leaving plenty of room for response. The unspoken language he’s developed as a bandleader allows him to stretch inside his other roles: guide, interpreter, and truth seeker.

Though still somewhat of a newcomer to the New York scene, Gelin already has collaborated with a range of distinctive voices that span generations, from Jon Batiste to Harold Mabern. This week’s performance reflects the connection he’s fostered with his quintet; the music itself, a tribute to the importance of fostering connections on and off the bandstand.

The Jazz Gallery: Your music seems to have a sophisticated degree of orchestration. Do you have any strategies for balancing written orchestration with spontaneous orchestration?

Giveton Gelin: Yes, if you look at some of the great leaders like Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, they all had a natural sense of leadership; they could orchestrate the band to do whatever they wanted them to do by having certain cues, by just doing things on the bandstand that all the other musicians would know: “This is what he meant by this, this is what he meant by that.” And they’re very subtle, but sometimes those are the key elements to really being able to lead a band. With jazz musicians, it’s all about being able to improvise and doing things on the bandstand. And of course, part of that is in the music and being able to follow the music—that’s part of orchestration. But I think, especially with my band, I do a lot of orchestration on the bandstand because I feel as though it’s definitely one of the elements that keeps the audience captivated. You never really know what’s coming—especially with this group.

TJG: What is it about this band that serves that kind of spontaneity?

GG: You have Micah Thomas on piano, Philip Norris on bass and Kyle Benford on drums. The rhythm section alone—there are so many directions it could take. Micah’s thing is he’s able to hear a lot and manipulate harmony. Actually, a lot of the time when I’m playing, I know I can lead him somewhere because I know he’ll be able to hear it. So I have a lot of leeway with Micah to be able to say, “Oh—let’s do this,” or “Let’s go here.” And Kyle is always listening intently—attentively—to everything I play. Philip Norris, he’s one of those solid rocks. He keeps everything together. It’s kind of amazing. Of course Immanuel Wilkins on alto sax—he’s the right hand. He’s the gunner. I know I can count on him, especially for being able to bring a certain level of energy. So when I’m on the stage with that group, I know all of that strength and how they operate, and I use that to lead.

TJG: Are you cueing them visually as well as musically?

GG: It’s both. It’s a lot of visual cues; it’s a lot of musical cues, as well. That’s one of the things I feel, especially now with the younger generation—that tradition of being able to cue the band where it’s not expected—is an old school way of doing it, calling tunes on the spot. I feel like that’s the sort of tradition that kind of accentuates what we’re doing.

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Design courtesy of the artist.

Snark Horse is a constantly evolving group lead by Kate Gentile and Matt Mitchell. The band revolves around a body of small compositions, the conceit being that every composition is one measure long. This iteration of Snark Horse includes Gentile on drums and Mitchell on piano, as well as bassist Kim Cass and trumpeter Davy Lazar. We reached out to them all: Kim’s bass had just been damaged the night before, and Kate and Matt were scrambling to deal with a leaking roof, but everyone managed to take a few minutes and talk via phone about this unusual project.

The Compositions

Matt Mitchell: The deal with Snark Horse is that all the pieces are one bar. It started from an exercise that Kate and I began doing about five years ago. Well, it wasn’t so much an exercise as “I haven’t written in a while, and rather than setting a huge goal of writing a big-bang epic, lets just write a bar of music a day, if nothing else.” So we started to do that, and I realized after twelve or thirteen days that “Well, all these bars are kind of cool just by themselves,” and rather than try to expand them, we decided to just deal with them as-is. It’s not that radical a concept: The history of jazz is filled with one-bar vamps. But they’re kind of weird vamps. Rhythmically, they’re unusual. Sometimes we put a lot of counterpoint in them. Sometimes we write three lines, because we know different instruments are going to play them. Now, we’ve each written over thirty of them.

Kate Gentile: These tiny little compositions are an opportunity to explore material that might be too much to deal with if it were a long composition. Because it’s only one bar, no matter how hard it is, it’s never too hard to learn. We might write something really weird, but since we’re usually looping the material in some way, you hear it so many times that it starts to sound normal. The audience, through the repetition, essentially goes through the process that a musician playing the composition would have to go through, hearing it over and over to internalize it.

Davy Lazar: Matt and Kate’s music has this insane amount of granular detail. It’s all evident in their larger-form pieces, but in these tiny looping bars, it’s still that same hyper-detailed approach. There’s tons of self-reference within each bar, which is insane. Miles Okazaki wrote this essay about endurance and pacing, where he talks about Matt’s music, and says something like “Underneath a microscope, Matt’s music reveals all sorts of hidden worlds.” It’s true. There are all these layers that you can follow, and each one has its own little universe of information. Kate’s music is the same way. Any thread you follow is going to have a ton of information and reasoning behind it.

Kim Cass: One of the things that fascinates me about this music is the way it looks. They’re one bar pieces but they’re super unified. They’re eye candy. Now that they have a book of them, some of them are on the same page, and I love just flipping through it all. It’s not just the material, it’s the way it’s notated. You can get really deep within the single bar, and it’s a really cool exercise making it look a certain way. Matt’s use of lettering and title is totally linked in with the music itself, the sound of the composition. The way he can manipulate that one bar and fit that information in is really quite compelling visually. And it sounds great too. I spend a lot of time on notation, and I write music by hand, but the way Kate and Matt do it, even though it’s generated on the computer, gets so much out of that aesthetic.

The Development of Snark Horse

Kate Gentile: This has actually been one of the easiest projects either of us has done. Because the bars are largely written so that all the parts can be played on piano, Matt and I can play all the material. Our original thought was that whoever we play with can learn or not learn the bars to the degree that they want. Theoretically, someone could play with us like they were playing a free improv gig, and it would be cool, because the material is already covered by us. But every person we’ve played with has wanted to learn the material really well. That’s made it easy. Even in a typical rehearsal with someone new, in twenty minutes they can play the bars right away. Mat Maneri came over and played the bar exactly in one repeat. He played every possible part perfectly once, and then improvised with it. It’d take like two minutes per bar. That’s usually how it is for anyone.

Matt Mitchell: It might seem precious, or willfully strange, but think of other pieces in jazz history that are essentially one bar. A Love Supreme–which I’m a bit reluctant to mention, because I’m not comparing myself to Coltrane–is basically one bar, at least that first part, with the intro. There are plenty of other things that are essentially a single repeated bar, sometimes with a melody. There’s precedent in the overall basic approach: The difference is the content, the innards. Some of these bars have a decent amount of information in them, especially bars that have three layers of counterpoint, that you can use that to shape an improvisation or group improvisation. We don’t dictate how people improvise, we just assume they’ll do something interesting.

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Design courtesy of the artist.

Kassa Overall doesn’t fear a creative challenge, and when he was given a seven-concert commission series at The Jazz Gallery, he came up with a project that would remix his identities as a drummer, rapper, composer, lyricist, and producer. During every show of the TIME CAPSULE residency, Overall will present a pianist and occasionally other instrumentalists as well, and every show will be recorded. The current plan is for Overall to use the recordings as sampling material for a final live production session.

The first TIME CAPSULE show featured pianist Jon Batiste, as well as bassist Ameen Saleem. Overall now continues the residency with Jason Moran. In our first conversation, Overall went deep, and in our second, he went deeper, focusing on how context and audience preparation can change the entire concert experience. Check out our second interview below, where Overall reflected on the successes of the Batiste show, and made some predictions about the upcoming show with Moran.

The Jazz Gallery: How was the first TIME CAPSULE show for you?

Kassa Overall: I couldn’t have asked for a better first show. It came together perfectly, in terms of what we prepared and what we left for spontaneity. I talked to some people after the show, some of the heads that go to all The Jazz Gallery shows, and a few of them said something along the lines of “It’s so great to see some outside stuff, some free stuff here.” I feel like they have lots of outside stuff at the Gallery, you know, but I think they were speaking to the particular approach we were bringing to it, which was very off-the-page, very spontaneous. We connected with the crowd in a different way.

TJG: How do you think people were able to connect with what they saw onstage?

KO: Even if you’re not a master listener, a musician, or don’t know the language of music, everybody knows body language. That’s the funny thing about music. You could bring somebody off the street who has never seen a live show, and there’s certain stuff they could tell you about the performance: Whether it’s good or bad, whether the musicians are communicating well, whether the piano player is enjoying himself. The basic human perceptions. At the first Gallery show, we were discovering the music on stage just like the people in the crowd were. There were moments where Jon would play something, I’d be surprised, then realize he was surprised, and the crowd could feel that something was happening between us in the moment.

We framed the performance in such a way that the audience understood what was about to happen. They knew that there was spontaneous composition happening, and that we were recording it. The show was connected to a bigger story, a bigger frame, if you will. It’s like the audience had an instruction booklet already [laughs]. The way they were listening, you could feel them thinking. There were moments when we’d be playing, maybe just a drum solo or a piano solo with sparse accompaniment, and you could feel certain heads in the crowd were like “Yo, that’ll be a dope sample.” The idea worked.

TJG: Put yourself back in that mental space of the show: Do you remember a specific moment where that feeling happened? Where you were doing something completely unexpected, and thought “This will be cool later”?

KO: Definitely. There was a moment when Ameen Saleem was taking a bass solo, and then he fell into this ostinato thing. It might even be a thing he has in his bag, you know what I mean. He was playing it, and I started rubbing my hands together, clapping a little. Jon started clapping, and we started doing this whole clap beat behind him. It was a breakbeat like something you’d find on one of those records from some live show back in the day. It sounded perfect. It felt good. It felt inspiring, like this could be the beginning of something.

TJG: Speaking of beginnings, this is a new project for you. We spent a lot of time talking about identity last time we spoke: What about this first TIME CAPSULE show felt like “This is me, Kassa, doing my thing,” and what felt like “This is a brand new chapter”?

KO: Every time I’ve done something a little bit abstract, it felt like I had to make the crowd get it. To turn back to the ‘instruction manual’ part, I felt like this was the first time where the audience was ready for what I was about to do. There was a backstory. They weren’t there to see someone play drums: They were there for the whole process. Press, story, and narrative can get a bad rap, and you can be great at something, but at the end of the day, you have to be able to communicate what it is that you’re doing. Otherwise, people will just take it as gibberish. I think this is the beginning of learning how to communicate my intentions in my own voice, in a way that makes people ready for it. I did a whole lot of different stuff at the Gallery, but it wasn’t a surprise to anyone. It all fit into the context of the story. That feels freeing, because when you’re bringing more to the table, it’s hard when people only recognize a piece of what you’re bringing. I want to show the whole picture. This feels like the beginning of being able to show the whole picture, and having people comprehend it. It’s about becoming a better communicator in my presentation of my art.

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