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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr, courtesy of the artist.

An alumnus of the Berklee College of Music, drummer & composer Lesley Mok has built a conspicuous presence in New York’s community of young experimental improvisers. She’s a regular performer on Bushwick Public House’s Improvised Music Series, playing with peers like saxophonist Noah Becker and her collaborative trio Thworp.

Though Mok has appeared at The Jazz Gallery in bands led by Jasper Dutz and Nick Dunston, this Thursday, July 18, Mok makes her Gallery debut as a leader. For this performance, Mok convenes her working band The Living Collection, a sextet featuring saxophonists David Leon and Yuma Uesaka, trombonist Kalun Leung, pianist Sonya Belaya, and bassist Steve Williams. Jazz Speaks caught up with Mok by phone to talk about her music for the band, which explores both dense polyphony and stark contrast.

The Jazz Gallery: When did The Living Collection get started?

Lesley Mok: I started writing music for the band in August of last year, but we didn’t really get together as a group until December. I was curious about a lot of different compositional techniques, and I was listening to a lot of new music, so I had a particular sextet sound and a particular aesthetic in mind. When a gig opportunity came up in December, things took off.

Since then, we’ve done three gigs and each gig has been all new music, so it’s felt like three first gigs. The show at The Jazz Gallery will be a chance for us to revisit most of the things that I’ve written in the past six months, and a few new things. I’m excited to have the chance to play things a second time, let them sit and develop.

TJG: What are the some of the compositional methods and techniques that you’ve explored in your work for the band? Are there any particular composers whose work you’re responding to?

LM: There are a few composers who’ve influenced my writing. One is Henry Threadgill, particularly his band Zooid. It’s highly polyphonic music—each voice is its own independent melody but it’s still democratic and balanced. Another is Anthony Braxton. It’s not so much about his graphic scores or systems of notation, but more about the breadth of his music and how diverse it can be. His scores range from really broad to really specific, but I feel that they always bring out the strengths of each band member.

So the writing started as a response to these specific composers, but the more I experiment with the group, the more it’s becoming about the personalities in the band. Everyone has such a unique musical background, so part of the development is hearing what works with everyone’s natural tendencies, and writing in a way that enhances those tendencies. Sometimes, I can get to more clarity by writing less, which challenges my tendency to write a lot. I’ll have a specific idea or sound in mind, but what ends up becoming the composition is something entirely different. Learning to write for strong improvisers is a constant negotiation between what I envision for the band and how they might interpret my ideas. This newest batch of compositions is much more open. Some of the pieces are based on a single idea, like a set of intervals, or a rhythmic cell, or a gestural direction. The music is still really diverse, but it’s definitely becoming more open overall. 

TJG: How much is this openness about letting the band members do their individual thing versus finding simpler ways to get the band to sound the way you want?

LM: I’ve learned with a lot of pieces that the sound I’m hearing can manifest itself within multiple aesthetics. When I listen to the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Sun Ra, it seems that its cacophony comes its band members simultaneously improvising in their own worlds, or playing in unison, but not directly responding to each other. I can’t really notate that, and for that kind of multiplicity, western notation isn’t that valuable. 

For me, the compositional process also continues during the rehearsal process. Communicating certain things, or not communicating them, can really shape the composition. In my first pieces for the group, I would notate the start of an improvisation, like suggest a rhythm to begin with and allow them to take off from there. Now, I tend to give those directions through text, which helps me to communicate an idea more clearly while allowing the players to be themselves.

TJG: You’ve mentioned polyphony a couple of times, like in the music of Henry Threadgill and Sun Ra. What draws you to that kind of richly-layered texture?

LM:I like having different-sounding instruments play together in unison, and also the randomness of individuals improvising together as if they were in separate rooms. I try to find a balance between these two dynamics in my music. I feel that improvisers tend to work on this continuum, so I try to write in a way that frames this interaction. And while polyphony might suggest a maximalist aesthetic, I appreciate minimalism as well. I like a diversity of musical practices, and putting them in contrast to each other. Some of the pieces are monophonic and kind of stark, while others don’t have that kind of intense, singular focus. I’m interested in exploring a range of sounds.

TJG: In addition to polyphony, what draws you to the kind of juxtaposition of contrasting sounds that you speak of?

LM: I saw this documentary on Netflix the other day. It was about Jim Carey preparing to play Andy Kaufman in the movie “Man on the Moon.” He talks a bit about method acting. Naturally, Carey strikes me as a sincere, introverted person, but Andy Kaufman is extremely neurotic, and bipolar at times. Kaufman’s range of personalities—lots of different behaviors and thoughts in a single person—is really interesting to me. On one side, I appreciate honesty and sincerity in music, but I can also appreciate facetiousness and nonsense. I feel that my interest in juxtaposition comes from wanting to find meaning in lots of different things. 

TJG: I like Anthony Braxton’s term for this kind of thinking, which he calls “composite reality.” I feel that in western art music, there’s this emphasis on internal unity, but for Braxton, unity is a given, which allows for a piece of music to encompass highly contrasting ideas and methods.

LM: I think that expands beyond music. Rappers might have different aliases, and actors might be so drawn to a character that they become them while preparing for the role. It’s really interesting to think about what’s imaginary, what’s real, and what’s valid. I want to create musical worlds that pose those kinds of questions.  

TJG: I have one last question—definitely for the drum set up nerds out there. I was checking out some videos of the group and noticed that you like to add a set of bongos to the right-hand side of your kit. So, why the bongos and why over there?

LM: That’s funny. It changes every time I play. Sometimes I add bongos, sometimes I use these Korean bells. I played a show at the Gallery in February where I had the bongos on the right and the bells on the left. I really like thinking of the drum set as a melodic instrument, and how I can expand their range through other percussion instruments. I like to tune my drums really high. That influence comes from Jack DeJohnnette’s sound—there are recognizable pitches, and the bass drum acts like a third tom. The bongos add so much color while conveying the sound of their material. The skin is usually made of calf or cowhide. It’s a very physical element. 

TJG: That’s interesting because I feel that the drum set was originally a heterogenous instrument that combined percussion instruments from different cultures, and it became homogenized through manufacturing.

LM: Right. In a personal way, making choices about my set up and incorporating non-Western percussion instruments helps me place my work in a larger historical context. I feel more connected to a drum circle tradition. This is related to what we were talking about earlier in terms of compositional process—every voice is independent, and there’s this wide range of color and dynamics, yet it’s all happening together. I try to embody this in how I play the drums and how I write for the group. As a western listener, I think it’s important to study where the instruments came from and how they were used. Knowing how the instruments work in a folkloric context can only enhance our understanding of how the modern drum set came to be. And then when it comes time to play, I can forget all that and just make music. It’s freeing, in a way. 

The Living Collection plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, July 18, 2019. The group is led by drummer Lesley Mok and features David Leon on alto saxophone & flute, Yuma Uesaka on tenor sax & clarinet, Kalun Leung on trombone, Sonya Belaya on piano, and Steve Williams on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($15 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.