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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by J.R. Jensen, courtesy of the artist.

In Shawn Lovato’s words, “We live in a creative golden age of music.” Artists today have so much at their fingertips, and this wealth of inspiration has lead to remarkably multifaceted careers. Lovato himself embodies this reality through his own winding path as a working composer and bandleader: He is an integral member of the contemporary ensemble Hotel Elefant, co-leader of the group Open Tabs, and his ‘flagship’ ensemble is Cycles of Animation, an improvising quintet drawing inspiration from free jazz, hip hop, punk, and chamber music.

Cycles of Animation released their inaugural album on Skirl Records in October 2017. The group, consisting of Lovato on bass, Oscar Noriega on alto saxophone, Brad Shepik on guitar, Santiago Leibson on piano, and Chris Carroll on drums, will visit The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, May 30. Lovato just became a father, which was the introductory topic of our recent phone conversation. 

Shawn Lovato: We just had a kid a couple of months ago. It’s an exciting time! He’ll be eleven weeks old tomorrow. Man, every day is different. Having a new person with us, watching him, smiling, recognizing him, his eyesight is getting better… Watching a human grow is pretty intense.

The Jazz Gallery: That’s so cool. Anything new today?

SL: You know those baskets that hang fruit? We have a small place here in Brooklyn, and we have a hanging basket between the living room and the kitchen. I was making a smoothie, and when I grabbed some bananas I moved it. It started rocking back and forth on its chain. I looked at him, and he was just staring at it. It’s about five feet from him: The fact that he was focused on it, watching it move, that was a cool ‘first.’

TJG: [Laughs] Then did it start to mesmerize you as well?

SL: Yeah man. I had a moment yesterday. We were talking, you know, the two of us, I was making sounds, he was laughing, totally into me, trying to figure me out. It was one of those moments where I realized, “Wow, this is it, my whole being is centered around this child” [laughs]. It’s amazing, scary, wonderful.

TJG: You must be playing some music around the house for him.

SL: My wife’s been making fun of me because I haven’t played any concert music, no classical music yet, but yes. We were listening to California by Mr. Bungle the other day [laughs]. We have a record player, and I have Blues And The Abstract Truth on vinyl, one of my favorite records, so he hears that a lot. Of course, I just play for him too. I put on a solo concert for him the other day. If I play for him, he gets quiet [laughs]. I think he just likes to be engaged. I play music at him, improvise or play melodies to him, he’s into it. He’s not the greatest audience, but at least he’s there [laughs].

TJG: Most audiences don’t necessarily register that they’re being played at, so that’s quite enlightened of him.

SL: Exactly [laughs]. It depends on the venue. I spent a lot of my twenties growing up playing restaurant gigs, club dates, weddings. Sometimes it was like, I could play nothing, just stand there playing air bass. I don’t think anyone would notice or care. That’s a toxic environment. I’m glad I don’t do those gigs anymore. I like playing standards and tunes, but I prefer to play for an engaged audience.

TJG: With this band that you’re bringing to The Jazz Gallery, do you play out a lot as this group?

SL: I try to play with the band every three or four months. Running a band is expensive, so we have to be smart with how often we play. Spreading it out keeps the band working too. The Gallery gig is our sixth or seventh gig together. We recorded with Loren Stillman in 2016 or 2017, then Loren moved to the Midwest, and is now moving to Germany. After Loren moved, I moved on to work with Oscar, another great alto player. Keeping it going, keeping the band working regularly, is the goal.

TJG: Do you consider the gigs every three or four months to be regular because it’s the same crew of musicians?

SL: I think three or four months is pretty regular, yes. I have several other groups I work with and co-lead, but you could call this band my ‘flagship group.’ This is my take on quintet music, building on that format. Any more frequently than three or four months apart, it becomes a matter of resources, and I don’t have the resources to pay everybody to play everybody to play that often. Also, I’m trying to get people to come out to hear the band. When I play, people from the community come to hear me, friends, family, people in the scene: You can’t ask people to come hear you all the time. It’s important to have an audience at your shows. I think every three or four months is a good balance in terms of keeping a regular thing going.

TJG: This is probably helpful to hear, especially for young musicians who are trying to put their own bands together, yet don’t necessarily understand the financial obligations of a band. If you got a huge magical grant for the general operating costs of your band, what would be covered? What would you be able to do?

SL: One thing is paying the band what they’re worth. Right now, we’re squeezing each other, doing each other favors all the time. We’re just getting by. But it would be nice to be able to pay everybody a good amount, where it feels like rehearsals are covered, people are happy, comfortable, they want to work on the music.

Then there are other opportunities, like booking agents you can get involved with. Documenting the work, getting into a recording studio, distribution, all of the other stuff that goes along with that. If you have a band that you feel strongly about, you should try to put out a record. That takes money, unless you get hooked up with a label that has some funding, which is rare.

Getting an agent helps get you press. It’s all tedious stuff. But if you can outsource it, it frees up time where you can focus on your music more. The weird thing about working on your own projects is that practicing your own music is usually the last thing hat happens, because you’re taking care of all the other scheduling, editing, outreach, logistics. Of course, nobody pays you to practice. But working as a sideman, even if it’s for a friend’s project, you always feel better when you’re compensated, and you can give yourself to the music more.

TJG: How did the first record come together with Skirl Records?

SL: I just contacted Chris [Speed]. Skirl is a DIY label oriented to the Brooklyn community. I reached out to him, and Brad followed up on my behalf. Chris was into it. We worked with the fantastic artists Karlssonwilker (Jan Wilker of Germany and Hjalti Karlsson) throughout the release. They do the art for the majority of Skirl’s releases, which streamlines the aesthetic of their catalog. But it is like a self-release alongside a broader community of artists, giving yourself a place in the community. 

TJG: What I’ve heard of the album is super fun. It’s energetic, pointillistic, fluid. Are those your words in the album blurb describing the music as “a combination of jazz, chamber music, and punk rock”? That sonically sums it all up nicely.

SL: Those are my words. I wrote that blurb, which took me some time to figure out. It was in retrospect, too. I wrote all the music, recorded it, had it mixed, mastered, and released. I stepped away for a while. Then one day, I put the record on, maybe I was having a beer and showing it to a friend, and realized, “Holy shit, I’m hearing all my influences from high school, from Wu-Tang Clan to Rancid.” It felt straight, raw, as well as lush and romantic. I play with a contemporary ensemble called Hotel Elefant, which also has an influence on how I play, and of course, jazz, improvising with the different languages of swing, modal, bebop, cutting your teeth, understanding your approach. It all comes together. I think this is an exciting time to be living in New York and hearing music. Everything is so expanded. As bitter as we can be about things like Spotify, I think we live in a creative golden age of music. There’s so much good stuff happening.

TJG: Your music is quite rhythmic. The phrases are so tightly curated and composed. How do you work through that material when you’re writing it?

SL: I tend to write what I hear. Again, a lot of stuff comes from what I was raised hearing, especially phrasing in hip hop. What’s out there now, checking out the music of people like Matt Mitchell and trying to grasp that and get a handle on it, looking at it, learning it… I’m not doing anything near what he’s doing, but he has such an exploratory approach to rhythm. So I do try to ask myself a lot of what-if questions while composing. Again, it’s not as in-depth as where some folks are getting nowadays, but I try to use some of those techniques.

Lastly, as an improviser, I want to write how I improvise. If I’m noodling between working on some music for something else, I always have my phone next to me. If I discover something and record it, I can go back to it later. It happens a lot when I’m sleeping. I’ll often wake up at 5 A.M., hear something in my head, and will try to jot it down or sing it. So, the music becomes a combination of what I’m listening to, what I’m striving for, and my own approach to how I hear and feel rhythm.

TJG: In terms of the rhythm section, how do you think about that in your band?

SL: With Brad Shepik, the guitar player, he comps here and there, but I never tell him to. The first time we played, at our first rehearsal together, he said “Oh yeah, Shawn, I worked out voicings for these chords,” and I was like, “You don’t have to do that! You’re playing the melody!” It’s a traditional quintet format, so Brad is more of a horn voice than a rhythm section instrument, though he definitely comps. When I think of the ‘rhythm section,’ I think of Santi and Chris.

TJG: So what kind of energy do they tend to set as a band?

SL: Chris is an old friend of mine. We’ve been playing together for a long time. His playing is energetic. It’s chops-heavy and tight. Getting back to what I was talking about the punk rock and hip hop influences, he has what I guess you could call the ‘gospel chops’ thing going on. He’s super creative, has an encyclopedic knowledge of lots of music, he plays tabla and has studied Indian Classical music, he’s a ball of energy, a force, and pushes the music forward. He’s like a goalie too. When things get off the rails, he brings it in quickly. His playing has that kind of power, and can get people on track. That’s a special trait for a rhythm section player to have.

Santi is an instigator. He’s a fearless, creative improviser. Because my music is so composed and rhythmic, we get to a point where it’s like, Okay. Stop. Free. Open it up. Everyone improvises, and the only material to work from is whatever was just happening. There’s no framework. A good amount of my music is just that, and Santi will serve up a whole plateful of ideas. Talk about encyclopedic… He’s great at playing tunes, dealing with harmony, playing free. He’s got a lot going. He just played at Carnegie Hall, and I’ve heard from classical pianists that he can play Bach quite well too. He’s got a lot of tools at his disposal. These guys bring their vast experience to the table. It keeps me on my toes.

Shawn Lovato’s Cycles of Animation plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, May 30, 2019. The group features Mr. Lovato on bass, Oscar Noriega on alto saxophone, Brad Shepik on guitar, Santiago Leibson on piano, and Chris Caroll on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.