Phalanx Trio consists of Matt Mitchell on piano, Kate Gentile on drums, and Kim Cass on bass. The trio is the rhythm section for Mitchell’s band Phalanx Ambassadors, the same musicians appear in Mitchell and Gentile’s project Snark Horse, and Mitchell and Gentile can often be found playing Cass’s music. All of this is to say, these musicians are no strangers to each other, and have immersed themselves in a new, open, and collaborative body of composition. Rhythmically complex, rigorously structured, and wildly exploratory, Phalanx Trio represents a dynamic and mercurial collective of rigorously rehearsed ideas. We spoke with all three members of the trio about the material they’ll be bringing to The Jazz Gallery this Saturday evening, their rehearsal practices, and their mutual fascination and affection for polyrhythms.
Kate Gentile: We’re excited to be playing two sets back-to-back. We love the music we’re playing. There’s a lot of written material, a lot of ink on the page. It’s fun to play compositions; we love improvising, but we also experiment with keeping it concise, while still going crazy places. We’re playing a few tunes from Matt’s last project, ‘A Pouting Grimace.’ On the record it’s a totally different instrumentation, with a large ensemble of eleven musicians, which included me and Kim [Cass]. In the original piece on the record, all of the improvisation is fixed in length. At The Gallery we’ll break things apart and go different directions. We vamp, we improvise, we play the ink.
Matt Mitchell: I didn’t want to repeat material from set to set. If you stay for both sets, you’ll hear two distinct sets of music. Most of this material is still brand new, even to the avid-listening general populous, but for myself and the trio, I wanted to expand. I have a lot of music that doesn’t get played as much. This show I’m excited for, because there’s stuff that hasn’t been played a huge amount live. One of the tunes we’re playing is actually just a piano trio on the record, a bizarre head, so we’re taking that and making it its own free-standing piece on Saturday. There’s another piece called Brim, and that’s a piece where everything stems from a piano part I’m playing. Basically, it’s nineteen variations on the same short piano phrase. I’m using that as a chance to move through and play freely over each of the variations, hang out in each of the zones for a while. With this trio, it’s a chance to play the music I want to play, to keep the music going, and to give me ideas to bring to larger groups.
Kim Cass: It’s this kind of anti-gravity underwater vibe. It’s what I would want to hear as an audience member. You often can’t find the beat if you don’t know where it is, which means it has to be super accurate. That’s the thing about playing really hard music. It has to be stress-free, and we’re finally getting there. We’re all interested in the same thing, which is really practicing rhythm a lot, to the point where it’s natural, if not easy. We know this material in a way where we don’t have to be freaked out to play it. If we threw this in front of someone, the results would be messy, even stressful, but the goal that we’ve had in mind is to get to a zen kind of place with it.
KG: We don’t spend that much time shedding things together, per se. We talk a lot, about how we approach polyrhythms, composing, improvising. Over years, we’ve gotten a sense of how each others’ brains work. When we’re improvising together, we almost know how the other person might be approaching the written material and the improvised sections. With a lot of this music, I almost have to practice every bar on its own. It’s gnarly, rhythmically and harmonically wild. There’s one piece that’s in 5/4, but Matt plays in 9 against it the whole time, while the rhythm section has additional polyrhythms under it. There’s a place where we alternate playing 7 and 6 against 5, but there are concurrent figures in both 5 and 9. On another piece, we’re taking the first half of it and improvising on it, almost as if it’s a form, but there aren’t chord changes, and the improv happens throughout in a less formal way.
MM: We’ve only been playing for a couple of years, but it was solid after a couple rehearsals. You kind of know when you find your people. In New York it’s tough to get together people without expecting a gig on the horizon. Just working on stuff for the love of it. So, that’s what we do. We rehearse and work on stuff whether or not we have something coming up. It allows us to be more ambitious, in a way. I don’t have to tailor my composing to a situation where I know we’ll have one rehearsal. I like simple music, but I want to write what I write, and allow the music to dictate how it should be worked on, and that’s easier when you work with people all the time. It’s not an earth-shattering concept, but it is the backbone of this trio. The Phalanx Trio is the rhythm section for a group of mine, Phalanx Ambassadors, which includes Satoshi Takeishi on percussion, Patricia Brennan on vibes and marimba, and Miles Okazaki on guitar. It’s pretty definitively the most complicated music I’ve ever written, ever. We did a gig at The Stone last year, and it’s very likely the next group I’ll take into the studio to record. We rehearsed for probably for six to eight months in advance of the gig at The Stone. Through that process, I rehearsed a lot with Kim and Kate. Kim is unreal—I was in my hotel room at the Detroit Jazz Festival when I heard his EP online, and I kind of freaked out about it.
KC: I pretty much practice all day at work: I’m a gardener as my day job. From Maine to California to New York, I’ve always been a gardener while being a musician. I’ve got these little drumsticks in my pocket and I practice rhythms with those. I write music on my breaks, and pretty much every day I bring my bass with me so I can go rehearse after work. Kate and Matt work together all the time, they practice a lot, and the three of us get together so often. They’re constantly writing, and their music sounds so different. They both maintain such a unique compositional voice. Matt’s been writing the longest out of any of us, but we’re all able to maintain our voices.
KG: The three of us are really into polyrhythms, and we have a lot of sessions where we’re all shedding polyrhythms together, systematically practicing, talking about subdivisions. There’s a tune where we all play 13 against 3, for example, so we’ve practiced that a lot. Really, we’ve worked through every permutation up to 11. Kim writes a lot of music that uses polyrhythms and irrational meters. He’s constantly shedding this stuff too. If we’re trying to play it with someone who doesn’t practice polyrhythms, people often round it off or approximate it. A lot of the time, it can sound accurate, but it’s special to find a player who’s thorough about the process. Kim’s probably the most picky of the three of us, when it comes to the accuracy of the polyrhythms, with a clean and polished sound. If we record something and listen back, there might be a little imperfection, even as subtle as “the rhythm is breathing a bit here,” but Kim will hear it. The difference between a polyrhythm and another rhythm can be so subtle.
KC: I’d been in California for a while, where I started writing more. I came up with a method of practicing rhythms. When I came back to New York, I found that Matt had been doing almost the same thing but reverse-engineering the process. I’d written a tune in 6:7, for example, and he’d been writing in 7:6, so we’d be thinking about the same relationships, but feeling the opposite sides of things. Things really took off once we combined our approaches, inspiring a collection of new ideas. Polyrhythms are so pure. Like drops of water hitting the ground. The noises you hear during the day often have a polyrhythmic quality to them. They’re naturally occurring organic rhythms. Having two things going in harmony, two tempos at once, it’s beautiful.
Phalanx Trio plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, May 20th, 2017. The group features Matt Mitchell on piano, Kim Cass on bass, and Kate Gentile on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members). Purchase tickets here.