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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts from the Interviews Category

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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Photo courtesy of the artist.

In the spirit of Midwestern-bred bands like Happy Apple and The Bad Plus, bassist Chris Morrissey has cultivated a musical language that merges an expressive directness from rock with a penchant for formal experimentation and fierce improvisation. For the past few years, Morrissey’s main outlet as a composer and bandleader has been the group Standard Candle, featuring guitarist Gray McMurray, drummer Josh Dion, and a rotating saxophone chair of Mike Lewis and Nick Videen. Building off material written for a Jazz Gallery Residency Commission in 2015, Morrissey released the album Laughing and Laughing last year.

This Thursday, June 20, Morrissey will convene a new group at the Gallery, featuring trumpeter Philip Dizack, pianist Jon Cowherd, guitarist Ryan Ferreira, and drummer Dan Rieser. We caught up with Morrissey by phone to talk about his plans for the group and reimagining old songs in new ways.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re bringing a new band to the Gallery this week. Do you have a new book of music as well?

Chris Morrissey: I’m doing a lot of the same music that came out of my Gallery commission from a few years ago, but with different personnel. There are some newer pieces that were written with a similar identity to the commission music. I’ve added a pianist to the band, and I’ve changed the melody instrument from saxophone to trumpet. I feel that the last couple of years have been me taking stock of my catalog and choosing the music that I still wanted to play in this new setting. I wanted to pick songs that were still true to me, still current to me, and try them in this new environment.

TJG: When you did the original commission project, you spoke about wanting to activate the rock side of your music more explicitly. Now that you’re going back through your compositions—which include stuff for more jazz-oriented instrumentations, too—are you finding aesthetic points of contact between different pieces that you haven’t seen before?

CM: They all share DNA, so song selection had more to do with what songs I liked the most and would work in a quintet. I wanted to see the catalog with fresh eyes, and get clearer and simpler with how and when I present it.

I’ve also wanted to become much more flexible with how I present this music. I took this year and got somewhat-skilled in the music notation software program Sibelilus. I wanted to make  clear documents of the music so that I’m not only tethered to the people who have the music memorized. It’s a little bit of a concession, because a working band is the dream. And as a Minnesotan, coming out of the school of Happy Apple, where dense music was always memorized, and personnel was not malleable. The reality in New York is different. I feel that the NYC scene rewards people who are good readers.

Ultimately, I took on this chart-writing as a means to clarify how I want the music played. Also, I can now book shows with a larger community of musicians that don’t have to take a month to memorize a ton of music, which is what Josh and Grey and Mike and I did for Standard Candle.

TJG: I’m interested in how you’re working with these two different songwriting traditions. On the one hand, there’s this band songwriting tradition where material is worked on in a group and transmitted aurally. On the other, there’s the more commercial—like Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building—tradition where a single songwriter writes down a song that could be performed potentially by many different artists. How does the music change when it gets translated from one method to another?

CM: The arrangements for some of the older things were fleshed out as a band with Grey McMurray and Josh Dion and Mike Lewis, and later, Nick Videen. They brought that music to life. The arrangements, and how they deepened with those particular players, made their way into the notated arrangements. It still bears the marks of that band, for sure. Now, just because there are different personalities in the band, it takes on a new shape.

While I’ve talked about wanting to write music that I can just plug different people into, I want to make clear that this show isn’t some kind of reading session. We have rehearsed a lot over the last few months, and chart-editing is like my new full time job. So there hasn’t been less effort in the cultivation. But presenting the musicians with a chart is a way to define what I want and what I hear and hope to present it clearly enough that they aren’t bogged down by a nebulous conceptual description from a rehearsal. In the last few rehearsals, I feel like I’ve gotten to a new place, the place where I wanted to present these songs.

For all of the strengths of a free, kind of socialist band, there are some weaknesses. It’s nice to see the other side of that and go into a rehearsal with a clear sense of what I want the music to sound like and have that backed up in the chart. I still get to surround myself with some of my best friends in the music community and see what they bring to the music.

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Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Raga Massive.

Part of mandolin master Snehasish Mozumder’s mission—and that of artist-based collective Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM)—is to create opportunities for artistic exchanges and cultural communication through engagement with Indian classical music. This engagement has deep roots in jazz and Western popular music, through the work of artists including John and Alice Coltrane, The Beatles and, of course, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Within his own project, Sound of Mandolin, Mozumder interprets his lineage through the lens of cultural curiosity and inclusion, playing Indian classical music and composing “raga-inspired” music. He has released 28 recordings as a leader, constantly seeking new situations for collaboration. Along with other members of BRM’s ensembles, Mozumder has re-envisioned the music of McLaughlin, Mahavishnu and Shakti to reflect his own expression and the movements of the moment in 2019. This McLaughlin-inspired project will play The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday, June 19.

Before the hit, we spoke with Mozumder and BRM artist and band leader/drummer Vin Scialla. Each offered thoughts on finding new paths through the music, the challenges and triumphs of spontaneity and collaboration and the mysterious power of “the drone.”

The Jazz Gallery: Snehasish—You began playing tabla at age 4. What prompted the switch to studying mandolin, which I understand is not considered traditional to Hindustani Indian classical music?

Snehasish Mozumder: [Mandolin] is Italian originally. I am from a musical family; I’m the third generation doing music. My grandfather started a style of teaching the young kids—first, tabla when you’re 4. He used to play violin and mandolin—not like me, but some songs, some initial phrases of ragas. So when I was 4, I asked for the tabla; then when I was 9 or 10, mandolin, for some initial idea of the melodic instruction. Then, when I was 16, I switched over to a traditional Indian classical instrument—I switched over to sitar.

TJG: So you continued studying mandolin while studying sitar?

SM: Exactly, because I loved the tone of the mandolin, and I noticed that what I had heard on other Indian instruments, I played that sound on the mandolin. We had a big family, so many different rooms. In one room, my father Himangshu Mozumder, very famous guitar player, he used to play light classical and modern songs also, and [in another room] my uncle was playing sitar and another uncle was playing sarod—so from that childhood, I tried to adapt that type of North Indian classical style on mandolin. That was the very start of [my artistry]. And then there was a lot of struggle.

TJG: In what ways do you feel that your first instrument being percussive offered you certain advantages as you pursued mastering other instruments?

SM: It’s like playing a new instrument in an authentic society. It’s very hard. At the initial stage, I [encountered] many problems. But, slowly, I have come out from that. My first big achievement was in 1997, my debut album Mandolin Dreams. Then I got a little bit of international notoriety in 2001, when I had my first Europe tour—Europe and Britain, both. My last concert was at London at Bharitiya Vidya Bhavan; it’s a pretty famous hall for Indian classical music. Fortunately, at this concert, Pandit Ravi Shankar ji came to listen to my music, and he liked it. Then, in 2002, he invited me to Royal Albert Hall as a soloist at the [George Harrison Memorial Concert] “Concert for George.” And now I’m getting recognition from all over the world, and in India, but I’m really grateful to American audiences because they’re always liking a new style, especially mandolin. While I am playing Indian classical style on mandolin, all the mandolin players are sitting in the front row – that’s really, very inspiring.

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Photo by Russ Rowland, courtesy of the artist.

When he was a child, saxophonist Michaël Attias had what one could categorize as an auditory hallucination while in bed with a fever. “Suddenly, I started hearing all of these different kinds of music happening all at once,” Attias remembers. “It was an amazing feeling, like all boundaries had dissolved and the walls of the room had melted.” Inspired by this experience, Attias has cultivated a practice of polyphonic multiplicity in his work as a saxophonist and composer.

At The Jazz Gallery this Tuesday, June 11, Attias will convene his nine-piece ensemble, composed of similarly-adventurous improvisers drawn from his community of improvisers. Attias’s work contains nine musical “moments,” merging distinctly-notated sections with guided improvisations. We caught up with Attias by phone to talk about these compositions’ evolution, listening to dense music, and drawing inspiration from the work of Anthony Braxton and Paul Motian.

The Jazz Gallery: I’d like to start with a bit of a superficial question—why did you want to put together a group of this size after focusing on 3 and 4-person groups more recently?

Michaël Attias: One of my first groups in New York was a sextet, and I had an eleven-piece group that played at The Stone a few years ago. I’ve written for big band, and I’ve written an orchestra piece for Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Orchestra a little while back. I’ve always dreamed of working with larger groups.

For this group, nine is a special number—three times three. The core of the group is the trio Renku, which has been around since 2003 with John Hébert and Satoshi Takeishi. Over the years, we’ve expanded, plus one or plus two. We did a recording with Tony Malaby and Russ Lossing about ten years ago. So that’s the core—the trio triangulated, a triple Renku.

TJG: Strikingly, the group also has a lot of pairs in it. What’s the significance of that for you?

MA: It has two strings—bass and cello—two brass, two reeds, two percussion, and one piano. The piano kind of offsets the paired energies. Polyphony, multiplicity, many things going on at once—that extreme of the music has always attracted me. As a child I had a formative experience that you could categorize as an auditory hallucination. I was six or seven years old in bed with a fever. Suddenly, I started hearing all of these different kinds of music happening all at once. It was an amazing feeling, like all boundaries had dissolved and the walls of the room had melted. I’ve heard music in dreams like that, too. When I later heard music by Mahler and Ives—big orchestra pieces, multilayered music, sometimes with really contradictory things happening—it was like hearing the music that I had imagined. It connected me to that fever dream.

TJG: I’ll say that I’m personally drawn to this multiplicity, but I think for some listeners, it can be hard to parse multiple, contradictory streams of music. When you’re listening to this kind of richly-layered music, whether it’s by Ives or Anthony Braxton, what’s your mindset? How do you put yourself in a space to take in that kind of music?

MA: One thing that’s really important is balance. Like if there’s too much at one point, there should also be not enough at another point. I’m also really drawn to music where almost nothing happens. I like the experience of listening to a single line, with moment-by-moment attention.

But in terms of listening to music with a lot of activity, I read once that trance happens when you can focus on five things at the same time. When following four things, there’s still a guiding self-consciousness, aware of itself and aware of the four things happening. But when the fifth layer gets added, it’s as if that self vanishes and becomes pure attention.

You were talking about Braxton’s music—that’s also a formative example for me, playing in his orchestra. I got to play duo with him, in a quartet. The orchestra music, was truly a kind of trance music (this was before the period of what he called Ghost Trance music). People might describe his music as being really brainy or intellectual—and that dimension is obviously there—but what I think he was looking for is a complete immersion, and breaking down the divides between the rational mind and irrational mind, intuition, being able to negotiate challenging notation, improvise while counting, improvise without counting, improvise with shapes, improvise with specific pitches or specific directions. Sometimes those different activities are counted and repeated. Some of them are not counted and constantly evolving. Some can be more textural, some can be more melodic It was about navigating all of these binaries and erasing them until you become a field of activity and awareness. There’s a sense of ritual about it.

When I’m listening to polyphonic music, the question for me is whether you’re willing to lose yourself. I remember seeing Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time at a festival in Spain and it was a wall of sound. It was so loud and dense and intense. And then I closed my eyes and it was like the wall receded and I could hear things happening in multiple layers at the same time. It was really amazing. The wall can be a little bit prohibitive and push you away, but then you break through it and something opens up. I love that experience. I feel that all of the players in this band are comfortable with this experience and are available to navigate it.

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