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Photo courtesy of the artist.

For one night this weekend, The Jazz Gallery will become home to the evanescent Phantom Station, a modular and exploratory trio assembled by guitarist Brandon Ross. Phantom Station, in this iteration, will consist of drummer JT Lewis and pianist David Virelles. Lewis is a fellow member of Harriet Tubman, Ross’s often-described ‘avant power trio’ which recently released a new album, Araminta.

Over the years, Ross has collaborated with a voracious array of experimental musicians, including Henry Threadgill, The Lounge Lizards, Me’Shell N’degeocello, and Wadada Leo Smith. Beyond his releases with Harriet Tubman and his duo work with Stomu Takeishi, Ross’s Costume was released on the Japanese label Intoxicate Records to rave reviews, and Ross’s compositions can be found in the scores to various films and commissioned works. We caught up with Ross to discuss his musical upbringing in the city, his approach to improvisation, and the life of the author Chester Himes.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been on the scene for a long time. Where would you point a new listener to help orient them to your sound?

Brandon Ross: I would probably bookend the approaches I do, starting with For Living Lovers, my acoustic duo with Stomu Takeishi. We did an album of that music in 2014 on Sunnyside Records. Next, I’d send new listeners to Make A Move with Henry Threadgill back in ’96. Then, to one of my Japanese CDs, Costume or Puppet. Then, of course, anything by Harriet Tubman.

TJG: You’re involved with a large number of projects and collaborators, but it’s not a disparate collection of gestures or statements—it’s a reflection of a singular approach. Do you find yourself referring back to former projects for guidance? How do you keep your integrity while moving forward?

BR: I’ve been talking about this a lot lately. I’ve always gone back to something Ornette Coleman told me the first time I met him in the early 80s: “Always be musically yourself.” In the process of acquiring skills and knowledge, it’s easy to become enamored by things we appreciate. They may have something to do with who we are, or they ultimately may not. With most of my mentors—Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, Wadada Leo Smith—the focus was always on coming to something they were asking you to do as innovators and composers. Coming to something in your own way, finding your own path. Not playing in a style. That early mentoring and musical experience keeps me high, so to speak.

TJG: Young musicians keep pouring into the city. Do you still see that system of mentorship alive around you?

BR: I don’t see it in the same way. I don’t say that critically, it was just another time. When I came to New York, you could get gigs with people who were professionals, they had ideas, concepts, they were working, you could get a direct connection and play somewhere. These days, it’s more about the academy. People are referencing artifacts in recordings. Some people still teach, but it’s largely a new and different process of arriving at what the music’s all about.

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From L to R: Greg Tuohey, Jerome Sabbagh. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Back in 1995, saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh and guitarist Greg Tuohey were recent international transplants in New York City—Sabbagh from Paris, France, Tuohey, from Auckland, New Zealand. They both threw themselves into the city’s vibrant scene, playing with talented peers like Mark Turner, Ben Monder, Ari Hoenig, and many more. Along with bassist Matt Penman and drummer Darren Becket (international transplants themselves), Sabbagh and Tuohey formed the collaborative group Flipside, releasing an acclaimed eponymous album on Naxos in 1998.

After the release of that album, however, the pair went their separate ways musically, while remaining close personally. Sabbagh went on to record a string of highly regarded solo albums and played with drummer Paul Motian and the legendary drummer’s final Village Vanguard shows. Tuohey mostly left the New York jazz world, working as a session and touring guitarist for rock groups, including indie singer-songwriter Joe Pug. In 2010, Tuohey returned to improvised music and released his debut album as a leader, First, in 2013. Tuohey and Sabbagh have now reconnected musically to form a quartet that showcases their own original compositions.

This Friday, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome the Sabbagh/Tuohey group to our stage for two sets. Check their effortlessly-swinging and unapologetically-catchy tune “Vintage,” performed live at Smalls, below.

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Kevin Sun Trio at The Jazz Gallery, March 2017 Poster

Logo graphic by Diane Zhou  //  Design by Kevin Sun

“The trouble with most musicians today is that they are copycats. Of course you have to start out playing like someone else. You have a model, or a teacher, and you learn all that he can show you. But then you start playing for yourself. Show them that you’re an individual. And I can count those who are doing that today on the fingers of one hand.” 

— Lester Young interviewed in 1949 by Pat Harris (DownBeat)


 

I certainly still feel like a copycat these days, but I feel all right with that for the time being. I don’t believe in music or art ex nihilo—especially in improvised, centrally interrelational musical settings such as this trio and other bands that I’ve had the privilege of contributing to since moving to New York in the fall of 2015. As a composer, the strategy that’s been most fruitful for me up to now is to generate something new from something old.

For a few years now, I’ve been enamored with composing compact forms—cyclical rhythmic and melodic material that can be specific and complex, but also brief and conceptually straightforward enough to be written on the back of a napkin or communicated verbally. Most of the music for this trio was composed last spring with this in mind: short, distinct forms to be internalized in a group setting. I wanted us to challenge ourselves and explore these distinct musical environments while discovering what we can construct together in real time.

Bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor (and, on occasion, bassist Dan Pappalardo) have been my unwavering partners in transfiguring my notated ideas into living sound. Like me, both Walter and Matt live conveniently nearby in Brooklyn, and we’ve had the chance to grow together into this music for some time. This weekend, we’ll be documenting the music you’ll be hearing at The Jazz Gallery at Wellspring Sound outside of Boston (where I also recorded my last project, Earprint). The forecast suggests a late 2017 or early 2018 release on Endectomorph Music; stay tuned.

 


 

As I mentioned, I like writing and abstracting from pre-existing material. Much of the music you’ll hear us play on Thursday will have been inspired by particular songs or fragments, so I’ve compiled a playlist below of a few of the songs that I referenced or cannibalized in some way for my own compositions. They’re all paired with my own songs, which won’t mean much if you haven’t heard them yet, obviously, but hopefully you’ll hear what I’m talking about on Thursday. We hope you’ll join us.

“Thunder”

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Wednesday, March 15th, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis and his band Walking Distance back to our stage. With his bracing tone and incisive lines, Curtis is a favored sideman in high-energy groups where he can cut through the mix, whether the Fat Cat Big Band, or groups led by pianist Orrin Evans, like in the video below.

Walking Distance is Curtis’s home base group—an improvisational collective of likeminded peers including tenor saxophonist Kenny Pexton, bassist Adam Coté, and drummer Shawn Baltazor. In an interview with Jazz Speaks from this past October, Curtis described how the group came together:

Walking Distance is a collaborative quartet that I started in 2012 at a workshop run by Aaron Diehl called the Catskill Jazz Factory. It’s myself on alto, as well as Kenny Pexton on tenor, Adam Coté on bass, and Shawn Baltazor on drums. We went upstate for five days of rehearsals, then played a concert. It was a sudden opportunity to play with people I could trust. Today, we’ve gotten to a place where everyone knows the music so well that we don’t have to count off tunes. We can start playing without even talking. We all own the music. It’s not a problem if any of us come in halfway through a tune and change the direction. We’re all into that—we shift and make these sudden changes.

Recently, this tight-knit quartet has begun to experiment with bringing the piano into their sound world. This summer, the group will go on a short tour with Orrin Evans holding the piano chair, and this week, they have invited Kevin Hays to add his distinct personality to the mix. Don’t miss this great young band push their sound out in new directions. (more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

It seems that just about every young guitarist on the planet wants to figure out how Charles Altura does what he does. When you type Altura’s name into a Google search, the first four auto-completes include “Charles Altura gear,” “Charles Altura pedalboard,” and “Charles Altura lesson.” His effortless lines feel like they’re slipping through harmonic wormholes, while his distinctive sound combines a jazz guitar’s traditional warmth with just the right amount of distortion to cut through a hard-driving rhythm section, like in this performance with Terrence Blanchard’s E-Collective.

This weekend is an ideal opportunity to find out more about the exciting mysteries of Altura’s guitar work, as he brings a top-notch quartet to The Jazz Gallery for four sets of music over two nights. Featuring Eden Ladin on piano, Rick Rosato on bass, and Marcus Gilmore (Friday) and Kendrick Scott (Saturday) on drums, Altura’s quartet will surely throw down the gauntlet on some blistering original tunes. (more…)