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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of Dave Robaire

Photo courtesy of Dave Robaire

This Thursday, June 19th, 2014, we host the NYC CD release party for a new collective voice on the scene: Holophonor. Wait! Slow down—what did you say? Holo-what? Fans of Matt Groening and David X. Cohen need not be confused here, but for those of you not well-versed in the story arc of Futurama, you can read more about the name’s context here:

The Holophonor is a musical instrument in the 31st century and a kind of combination between an oboe and a holographic projector. The music played triggers the projector to show matching holographic pictures. 

The name aside, there is nothing cartoonish about this band; they’re as real as it gets. The group merges the 2014 graduates of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music into a dynamic septet that features original music from each member of the group, as well as works written collectively. With origins across the U.S. and South America, these seven musicians have been studying with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter for the last two years, rehearsing frequently and performing in Israel, Japan, Sweden, and Turkey, in addition to renowned houses here in the U.S. like the D.C. Kennedy Center.

And individually these artists have played with names like: Aretha FranklinWynton MarsalisRubén BladesJonathan BatisteJohn EllisReggie WorkmanAmbrose AkinmusireDave LiebmanGreg Osby, and Danilo Perez.

But wait? What are their names? We’ll list them out for you, but it’s best you meet them yourself by watching their EPK below. Their bassist, Dave Robaire, was nice enough to hop on a call this past month and share some more insight about their project. Check out the interview below as well.

Holophonor is: Josh Johnson on alto saxophone, Mike Cottone on trumpet, Eric Miller on trombone, Diego Urbano on vibraphone, Miro Sprague on piano, Dave Robaire on bass, and Jonathan Pinson on drums.

EPK:

The Jazz Gallery: The name “Holophonor” refers to a fictitious instrument from the 31st century in the animated science fiction sitcom Futurama. According to the EPK, you guys were able to whittle it down from about 50 names or so. How did you decide on the name?

Dave Robaire: [laughs] Futurama definitely had something to do with the inspiration, but actually none of us knew what the hell it was at first. We were kind of going back and forth on a bunch of titles, and Holophonor came up as a joke at first. As we started to get closer to needing a name, it began to grow on me a little more. It doesn’t have anything to do with the record. I thought having a reference to a cartoon show was a little funny—not what I would have expected to do from the onset. However, the word has kind of grown on everybody in the group and we’re really happy that it stuck. But, I mean, [laughs] nobody knows what the hell we’re talking about when we say it.

Interestingly, Diego brought to our attention the ancient Greek etymology: ὅλος or hólos, which means “whole.” In this respect, Holophonor implies an “all-encompassing sound” as well. So it has actually taken on a bit of a second meaning, which is fitting despite the fact that it wasn’t our original intention.

TJG: You definitely achieve a “spacey” sound on tunes like “Personal Sloth.” The name Holophonor aside, is sci-fi a theme that you seek to embed in your sound or compositions?

DR: Those sounds aren’t related specifically to the name. What you’re referring to in “Personal Sloth” is actually Diego leveraging a Kaoss Pad. On his set of vibes, which he’ll bring to the Gallery, he’s built pickups into each of the vibraphone bars. He doesn’t use the resonator tubes on the bottom of the vibes so they’re totally portable. He’s got such great sounding pickups on there; he built and constructed the rig himself. It’s completely portable, but it sounds completely acoustic. Where the vibraphone is traditionally treated as a strictly acoustic instrument, this setup offers him the ability to plug into all sorts of pedals and loops—all sorts of crazy stuff.

Aside from using things like the Fender Rhodes for recording, the band is acoustic for the most part. We play a tune all the time where I play electric bass and, though we recorded it, it didn’t end up making the record. Besides that we don’t really utilize electronics too often; it usually stems from Diego’s vibraphone experiments. I would say that the sci-fi influence actually came from spending time with Wayne Shorter over the last two years. He came in and spent a lot of time with the group—much more than he did with past Monk Institute groups. It’s funny because his style of “teaching,” which really isn’t teaching at all, has a lot more to do with turning us on to really wacky sci-fi movies.

We had a projector screen in the Monk Room and he would bring in DVDs for us to all watch together. He’d comment on the music and storyline while we were watching. Some films we checked out were: Upside Down, Steven Spielberg’s Taken (which was very cool), Jason X (which was terrible), and Arabian Nights. This process was informative in that it allowed us to really understand his stream of consciousness, how he develops his compositions, where he’s coming from, and what he was influenced by. A lot of his inspiration is drawn from these crazy science fiction realms, which in turn has now had an influence on us.

TJG: Let’s discuss the album. You recorded it at Ocean Studios in Burbank, CA. Who produced the record? Why did you choose to work with that producer?

DR: We produced the whole record ourselves. We toyed around with the idea of using a producer and were going to ask Billy Childs to do it because we’ve all gotten really tight with him over the last two years, but in the end it kind of came down to this being an experiment between the seven of us. I think six out of the seven of us have put out records of our own. We really felt that, no matter how great a producer would be to have in the sessions, we wanted to see how well we could combine our efforts in creating a like-minded approach and then exploit that feature of the group. It came out great. We’re very happy with the record.

We recorded something like 13 songs in two days with multiple takes where we often would have more than one good take. It kind of proved that we could accommodate our goals without a producer. Alex Chaloff, who has worked with groups like Mehliana and who actually did some work for Ben Wendel at The Jazz Gallery, does superb live video and audio work. Alex filmed our EPK and the video content for “Personal Sloth.”

I’ve always known him as a live engineer but he’s gotten so tight with the band over the last couple years that we really consider him to be an eighth member of the group. We had him film the entire thing in the studio. He had an assistant engineer but was really manning the show himself for the most part. It couldn’t have turned out better because we don’t really need to tell Alex anything; he is super intuitive. He really is like another member of the group.

TJG: Ocean Studios has catered to many renowned artists over the years, particularly with respect to rock and pop genres—did that factor into your decision to record there?

DR: Yeah, there are a ton of artists that have used that space, but I would have never known it existed had it not been for Alex Chaloff. He had recorded at a lot of studios in Los Angeles and was always interested in doing work at Ocean Studios simply because of the large room. It wasn’t until we were discussing studio prospects with him that he insisted we find a really great live room. He found the studio for us. After he mentioned it, I started doing a bit more research on the studio and realized that the reason that I’d never heard of it was because people generally don’t go there for jazz. It’s kind of a drag because it’s a hidden gem. The piano they have there is ridiculous: they have a really large Yamaha that records well, holds its tuning beautifully, and sounds unbelievable.

People generally think they have to go into these studios where everything is super isolated, especially in Los Angeles. Often, I find that the sounds of jazz recordings that can come out of LA are pretty wack. There’s this very carpeted, dry, isolated, and fake reverb sound; we wanted to do anything but that. Ocean Studios was perfect in this respect. I see why it works so well for rock because a lot of these guys are looking for that big drum sound where they can put the drums right in the middle of the room. It’s a great, great space. But all credit must go to Alex—it was his suggestion.

TJG: On the EPK, you guys mentioned that the album would showcase originals or arrangements in addition to a collective effort, “Source of the Force.” “Personal Sloth” was also written as a group. Can you give us some insight as to how the group collectively composes?

DR: You know, it’s a definite challenge and we haven’t done it enough; we plan to do it more often. The collective efforts were actually an idea from Dick Oatts. He had come by to work with us a number of times, heard our original compositions individually, and said, “You know, I think it’s really time that you guys try to write together. Why don’t you separate into two groups? We’ll have one theme and Group A can work on melody while Group B works on harmony. Let’s just see what happens.” In both cases, it took a lot of massaging to bring the two ideas together, but it somehow worked!

With “Personal Sloth,” it started with that kind of vamp that you hear the rhythm section playing at the beginning. The melody group knew about the vamp and the horn players started writing this wacky melody that kind of flows in and out of the chords on top of the vamp. When you establish a harmony that clearly, you can kind of fit whatever melody you want on top of it. We also wrote the chords for the solo section, which we decided was going to be separate from the groove.

With “Source of the Force,” we took a really different approach. Our pianist, Miro, came up with that original ostinato right at the top of the tune. From there, it kind of developed into all of us really working together on that one—really hearing harmony and melody at the same time. We even tried writing lyrics to that one. We have two sets of lyrics for “Source of the Force” that I don’t think we’ll ever use, but it was really good practice to try that as an experiment, i.e., make it as “lyrical” as possible. So the approaches that we applied to those two songs were actually very different.

TJG: Which of your original compositions have you selected for the album?

DR: My contribution is a tune I wrote called, “Gardenia”; it’s actually a piece that I’ve been working on for a while. It was originally written for strings but took a lot of different turns to finally land where it ended up. It was also originally called “Strayhorn” because the inspiration was drawn from my favorite jazz composer: Billy Strayhorn. I wanted to get away from that title as to not imply a direct reference.

The two songs that had the heaviest influence on the tune were “The Single Petal of a Rose” and A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing.” The more I thought about it, I kind of centered on the floral theme across both titles. “Gardenia” is actually my wife’s favorite flower, and I think the term nicely pays homage to Strayhorn without being so direct. The arrangements of the tune really came together once the guys started playing it and paying attention to how I was voicing things. Prior to this record, it was really just a quartet tune.

TJG: This septet has been rehearsing together for the last two years at a very high volume—five days a week, give or take—an experience that many musicians, particularly in jazz or related genres, often don’t have. How has it been working together so often?

DR: As the Monk Institute has to handpick seven individuals to come together, I think we’re lucky in that we all completely got along from day one. There has never been any discord amongst the group. The nature of choosing seven strangers to be in a group together for two years is challenging, and sometimes personalities don’t always mesh. We got really lucky in that, as different as everybody is, there is always an understanding of and respect for where everybody is coming from. This dynamic has made the rehearsals pleasant and smooth.

Part of our coursework there revolved around a rotation of artist residencies. We had artists come in for three to five days at a time to hang with us and rehearse with us. I’d say we spent at least three to five hours a day with them, three to five days a week. With every resident artist, we were usually cracking jokes with them by the end of day one. I think that says a lot about the group. Our rehearsals became really efficient and there was always a great vibe in the room.

You know, these artists come in not knowing what to expect and may have experienced past Monk groups that didn’t get along so well. We’ve actually kept in really close touch with a lot of them. In fact, many of them will be at the Gallery show: faces like Dick Oatts, Stefon Harris, Robin Eubanksguys that live in and around New York that have worked with us in the past. That shared consciousness among us is incredible and because of that our rehearsals are just so efficient. We get a lot done.

Holophonor will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, June 19th, 2014. This performance features Josh Johnson on alto saxophone, Mike Cottone on trumpet, Eric Miller on trombone, Diego Urbano on vibraphone, Miro Sprague on piano, Dave Robaire on bass, and Jonathan Pinson on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. First set is $15 general admission and $10 for Members. Second set is $10 general admission and $5 for Members. Purchase tickets here.