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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts from the Interviews Category

Photo courtesy of the artist.

A native of Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, vibraphonist Nikara Warren grew up surrounded by many universes of music. Jazz was imparted to her by her grandfather, pianist Kenny Barron. Music of the West Indies, like Trinidadian soca, shown to her by her father. Hip hop, dancehall, and trap all resounded in the streets of the neighborhood. Warren’s music fluidly navigates these many cultures and sound worlds now present in Black American music.

Sharp, funny, urgent and engaged with the past and present of American cultural politics, Nikara Warren comes to The Jazz Gallery for her first bandleader residency here, spanning April 4th, May 10th and June 25th. The program includes two nights paying homage to politically outspoken musical greats and one night of her flagship band, Black Wall Street. We caught up with Warren to talk about putting her spin on iconic music, as well as blending both new and old musical sensibilities.

The Jazz Gallery: This residency at the Jazz Gallery is entitled the Political Gangster Trilogy. The first night, you spotlight Curtis Mayfield, Charles Mingus, and Marvin Gaye. The last evening focuses on Nina Simone and Meshell Ndegeocello. On the second night, it’s the Black Wall Street project. Is it a collection of music or a collection of musicians?

Nikara Warren: You know, It started as a collection of music, that’s how it started, that’s what the folder of music was called, but it became a band name. [laughs] Which was not really the intention. I originally would say, Nikara Presents Black Wall Street but everyone kept calling the band Black Wall Street, and then, well, you can’t really help when that happens.

TJG: I couldn’t help but notice that have a very joyful manner of singing to yourself when you are soloing. What is your compositional process? Do you sing a lot to yourself and vamp and develop it in your head, or do you sit down at the piano with a piece of paper?

NW: I think there are a few ways. I am no stranger to the voice memo. I looked through a bunch of them last night, there are lots of 4 A.M.: me being, like, yo, this melody is dope, and afterwards I can work something out with it. A lot of times, I think I probably hear melodically first. Basslines too. I work a lot in Logic, so I’ll just throw something down. It doesn’t always come out when you want it to, though, which is difficult thing about writing on deadlines, which I’m doing right now.

TJG: Deadlines for yourself?

NW: No, this is deadlines for the show. This is all new music—all of the arrangements for the Trilogy we have not yet played at all. They actually haven’t even seen the music at all [laughs] so I’ll finish that off, and then we’re gonna rehearse. It’s going to be a brand new thing! But you know when you have that feeling, that you got this show and you gotta get it down. It can be difficult to write, because you don’t have that free ability but then there’s the beauty of it, which is that I work well under pressure. And I always am able to get more done when I have to do it for something important.

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Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of the artist.

The Erica Seguine/Shan Baker Jazz Orchestra has been around for just shy of a decade. For one of those years, the band had a monthly residency in New Jersey where they were able to workshop new compositions and develop an expansive network of big band personnel. In our recent phone call, we talked about how the sound of the band has evolved over the last eight years, and how the two bandleaders approach composing for a large ensemble.

Both Seguine and Baker contribute compositions to the band, while Sequine conducts and Baker performs. New York Daily Music notes Sequine’s “vivid, cinematic narratives, counterintuitive Gil Evans-like color contrasts,” and Baker’s “tectonically shifting sheets, atmospheric crescendos and long panoramic stretches.” The large ensemble will be camping out on The Jazz Gallery stage for an evening of new and old works, with eyes toward a late-summer recording date for the ESSBJO debut album.

The Jazz Gallery: Thank you both so much for taking a moment to chat! You mentioned you’re based out of New Jersey—do you do most of your rehearsing out there too?

Erica Seguine: We mostly rehearse in the city, actually. Most of the band lives in the city, though a few of us live in New Jersey as well. We’ll often rehearse at City College because one of our band members, Scott Reeves, teaches there. For this performance, we’re rehearsing at iBeam in Brooklyn.

TJG: Do you find that rehearsal spaces influence your perception of the band? As you’re making changes and interpreting the music, does space play a factor?

ES: Space is definitely one of the factors, though not the primary factor. When we bring in a piece for the first time, everyone’s naturally just reading the notes. On a first reading or first rehearsal, or even after the first couple of performances, it takes time to get into the subtleties, so often the result is that I’ll hear the music and think, “Oh my god, did I really write that?” I’ll find out later that it just needed more time to sink in with the band. That’s why I usually wait to change something until after I’ve had a couple of readings, unless something is totally not what I had in mind, or is technically impossible. Shan writes really dense harmony sometimes, and can take a few performances before things really gel. Rarely does it sound right on the first read-through.

TJG: There’s a big sight-reading culture in New York. People are busy, and play in so many bands. So, a lot music is heard on a first read. Do you think the sight-reading experience is integral? Would you prefer it to be different?

ES: Frankly, I would love to rehearse more, to have rehearsals where we comb through harmonies, chords, voicings. Once, we had the luxury to have a rehearsal where we could stop and go chord-by-chord to tune the band. That was amazing, but a rare luxury [laughs]. We happened to have already had a couple of rehearsals, plus we had performances that were close together, so we were able to use one rehearsal and say, for example, “Let’s take three notes within the ensemble, and slowly add the other instruments until the chord is built.”

TJG: Tuning with so many musicians is such a big part of the sound, it really defines the ensemble.

ES: It does! I remember something from Ray Wright’s “Inside the Score” book that analyzes music by Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer. There’s a line in there about how if the band is not totally in tune, the whole thing can just go out the window.

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From L to R: Sean Conly, Michael Sarin, Joe Fiedler, Steven Bernstein, and Jeff Lederer. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

Trombonist Joe Fiedler has released a number of acclaimed albums on his own imprint, Multiphonics Music. It’s an apt name due to Fiedler’s interest in multiphonics, an extended instrumental technique where one plays and sings at the same time. One might not associate timbral experimentation with music for children, but while Fiedler is an exploratory improviser by night, he writes and arranges music for the television show Sesame Street by day.

This February, Fiedler released a new album, Open Sesame, where his different musical lives collide. Fiedler assembled fifteen tunes from the Sesame Street archive—from instantly-recognizable classics to deep cuts—and put them through their paces. The result is a delightful romp, where imaginative arranging and gloves-off improvising reveal new shades of the Sesame Street material. Writing for PopMatters, jazz critic Will Layman notes, “the music here can be playful or even silly, but Fiedler has chosen songs that have good bones: hip melodies, interesting chord changes, or structures that allow the musicians to dig in and improvise with fire.”

This Friday, April 5, Fiedler and his Open Sesame band—saxophonist Jeff Lederer, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, bassist Sean Conly, and drummer Michael Sarin—come to The Jazz Gallery stage for two sets. We caught up with Fiedler by phone to talk about his arranging process and the musicians who’ve influenced his playful aesthetic.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been working on Sesame Street for a decade now. What made you want to bridge your musical worlds for this project now?

Joe Fiedler: The project really was born a few years ago. I hadn’t really thought about doing it at all. And to be honest, I kept the Sesame Street world and the jazz world separate for a while. But a few years ago, Ben Young—the great jazz historian and DJ on WKCR and he does educational programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center—Ben was starting a jazz series in the Hudson Valley. He knew I was from up here, and we got together, just shooting the breeze, talking about performance opportunities and what not. He likes my Big Sackbut project and he suggested that I do Sesame Street music with Big Sackbut. And he said that I could do workshops and things like that, and I was like, “That’s a really good idea!” I then just sat on it for a while and never thought more about it.

A couple of years later, I came back to it, but thought about doing it with my existing group, rather than Big Sackbut. At that point, I started poking around the archives at Sesame Street. There’s a huge library with all of the original lead sheets and I was amazed. So Ben put the seed in my head, and then I eventually came around to it. At that time, I was listening to a lot of Downtown jazz stuff from the ‘90s, like old Sex Mob stuff and the Jazz Passengers, and I thought I could do this fun, upbeat, not-so-serious project and use the Sesame tunes as a vehicle.

TJG: As you were going through the Sesame Street archives, how did you decide on what tunes to do for the project?

JF: Originally, I was going to a “Greatest Hits” or all most-recognizable music. But some of these songs are so iconic and have been done so many ways, that I thought it could be hard to make them my own. A good example of that is “Bein’ Green.” I always think of Ray Charles’s version, and there are so many amazing versions, so I was like, “I’m not even gonna touch that.” And then it’s such a beautiful tune, and I don’t want to make it goofy. So right off the bat, I knew I wanted to get at least a few of the most-known, like “The People in Your Neighborhood,” “Sing,” and “Rubber Duckie.”

After that, I found myself going onto YouTube and watching old Sesame Street clips. The second thing that caught my eye was the animation. I fell in love with these late-sixties, early-seventies animations that were all done by this company in California called Imagination, Inc. in San Francisco. There were really psychedelic with all of these jazzy tunes, like the pinball number count thing. The music was so not Sesame Street because all of the music was actually produced in house. So I ended up doing four or five songs from those animations.

At that point, all of the tunes were in major keys, because that’s Sesame Street. Then I felt I had to dig and find a couple of minor-key tunes. So we did “The Batty Bat” because it was in minor. Once I had about ten tunes for the project, it became about filling it out, and deciding what was missing.

TJG: Once you had your full set of tunes, how did you go about arranging them? The tunes are all clear, but beyond that, you made some really striking transformations.

JF: One of the bands that I’ve been drawn to over the years is Sex Mob. I love how Steven Bernstein is able to keep melodies the same and then change the groove behind it. On my end, it was more of an organic process. The very first arrangement I wrote was to “Somebody Come and Play,” which is another one of the more iconic songs. I was on a tour to Japan and was listening to some funky tunes on the flight over, and then thought I’d write a funky bass line and superimpose the melody over that. It was a bit by circumstance.

I knew that in general I wanted the whole project to be more groove-based, using rock and funkier elements. As I got further into arranging, I thought that I could push the ridiculousness up a notch. So with “Rubber Duckie,” I thought it would be a great place to juxtapose this fun-loving, little ditty with an aggressive, almost punk-rock thing. I think the juxtaposition of the sweetness and the familiarity with this very different style… there’s a lot of humor there. I think of the Jazz Passengers, and Carla Bley as composers/arrangers with a lot of humor. I really like going right up to the line of, “Man, you just ruined it.”

I also wanted to keep everything pretty short. It feels more like a pop record in some ways, with all the tunes about 3-4 minutes long. Part of my strategy with that was that once the joke is made, it’s made. We can’t beat it to death—let’s make a nice joke and get out.

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Design courtesy of the artist.

We’ve just passed the equinox, spring is on its way, and Kassa Overall is four shows deep into his TIME CAPSULE residency at The Jazz Gallery. The last gig, featuring Aaron Parks and Rashaan Carter, was a quiet Valentine’s Day affair. The next show will feature Sullivan Fortner, a dynamic and introspective artist who, now in his early thirties, is widely praised as one of today’s top jazz pianists. In our latest interview with Overall, we talked about French existentialist writers, the tribulations of being an independent artist, and the quiet brilliance of Sullivan Fortner (pun intended—read on to see why).

The Jazz Gallery: Hey Kassa. What’s the latest with the new album?

Kassa Overall: Yo. The album is still lit. Right now I’m a super independent artist, so I’m working on booking shows. There are a bunch of little pockets of energy all over, but you still have to thaw them up to reach them, so to speak. For example, I’m performing in Seattle at the Capital Hill Block Party on July 20th, so we booked a show on July 19th at Jack London Revue in Portland too. I reached out to the jazz radio station in Portland to try to get some promotion going: Turns out, they love the record, they’ve been playing it on air, and they were excited when I hit them up. As an independent artist, I would never have known that. That show didn’t come to me, the radio station didn’t come to me. It’s all in that classic phrase, “the squeaky hinge gets the oil.” There are opportunities out there where I have to do a certain amount of creating. That’s the grind right now.

TJG: Would you prefer to have more people on your team, or does doing it yourself give you more freedom to build the career you envision?

KO: I would love to have more people on my team. I have a small team of people who are close to me, who care about me. It’s hard to find people, in a way. On one hand, there are people who would love to be part of what I’m doing. In order to get them to be helpful, they have to know how to do all this stuff, and I have to know how to manage them. I make music, I’m an artist, and now I’m slowly becoming a business owner due to circumstance. I’m learning how to communicate with people in order to get stuff done.

On the other hand, there are the established booking agents, managers, publicists. Anybody worth working with needs you to be on a certain level so they can book you. It’s a catch-22. So yes, I have people I work with, but I’m trying to raise myself up to the point where I become somebody who established managers or agents want to work with. They can love the art, but they don’t need to listen to the album, they don’t care. It comes down to “Last time you played Chicago, how many people showed up? How many people will show up now?” I’m slowly learning that you need to spend time doing the thing you have passion for, in order to make the machine work the best. I need to be working on music, and spending time working on other stuff can take away from my artistic thing. I’m working the angles, but I’m grateful for where I’m at, and am trying to do the best artistic work with what I have.

TJG: You have a lot to be proud of. You’re doing the hustle, the art is great. Props!

KO: I appreciate it, man.

TJG: How was the last TIME CAPSULE show with Aaron Parks and Rashaan Carter?

KO: It was good. We played a little quieter, more intimate. It was Valentine’s Day [laughs]. It ended up giving us a good kind of vibe. I even want to play quieter on the next gig. It was so intimate, everybody in the room got to feel it, we got high together.

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Photo by Lynne Harty, courtesy of the artist.

Grammy-nominated vocalist and contemporary composer Theo Bleckmann is bringing a new quartet to The Jazz Gallery for a full evening of songs. The program includes compositions from four corners of the musical map, creating a cross-generational, multimodal backdrop over which Bleckmann and his band will freely explore. The band includes pianist Mike King, bassist Chris Tordini, and drummer Ulysses Owens. Read on for Bleckmann’s thoughts on the new band and his approach to programming a concert of old and new music.

The Jazz Gallery: To start, I must say that I love the band that you’ve put together for this show, with Mike King, Chris Tordini and Ulysses Owens.

Theo Bleckmann: I do too. Have you heard Mike King play?

TJG: Not in person, but I’ve heard recordings.

TB: He’s amazing. He can play edgy and hard, but he also has a lyrical side that is just completely mesmerizing. I realized how amazing he was when we did a soundcheck, and he started playing “Skylark.” I joined him, and it just worked beautifully. Skylark was just a random tune, yet he played it so sensitively, so spaciously, with such beautiful voicings. It had so much emotion and space. He gets a sound out of the piano. That sealed the deal.

TJG: Do you have the words to describe how it felt?

TB: It felt like we didn’t have to talk about anything. It was just clear how the music should go. When you find someone you really like to play with, you don’t have to talk all that much about what needs to happen. You both take each other to a place that feels right.

TJG: Are there specific ways that you feel Mike adapts to your voice?

TB: Mike is his own person. He has his own viewpoint when playing. He plays lyrically, very hard and aggressively, which I really like. It’s not just one personality or one sound. His playing is as deep as a real person. Sometimes it’s mad, sometimes it’s sweet. It’s not just one color. I appreciate that.

TJG: What starts to happen when you get Chris and Ulysses into the mix?

TB: We’ll see! I’ve been playing with Ulysses for three years now, I just love his playing: His drumming makes me smile. As soon as he starts to play, my heart opens up. It’s this magical feeling that I can’t name. I’ve played with Chris many times as well. The first time was in John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet when Chris was subbing for Drew Gress. I hired Chris for my last ECM record, Elegy. He has a beautiful sound, he has all the makings of a musician I like to work with, and he’s also extremely nice [laughs]. He’s open to not having to solo on every other song, and the same is true for Mike and Ulysses. The musicians I like to work with are interested in the shape of things, not necessarily on being ‘important soloists.’ They’re interested in creating something together.

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