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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

A native of Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, vibraphonist Nikara Warren grew up surrounded by many universes of music. Jazz was imparted to her by her grandfather, pianist Kenny Barron. Music of the West Indies, like Trinidadian soca, shown to her by her father. Hip hop, dancehall, and trap all resounded in the streets of the neighborhood. Warren’s music fluidly navigates these many cultures and sound worlds now present in Black American music.

Sharp, funny, urgent and engaged with the past and present of American cultural politics, Nikara Warren comes to The Jazz Gallery for her first bandleader residency here, spanning April 4th, May 10th and June 25th. The program includes two nights paying homage to politically outspoken musical greats and one night of her flagship band, Black Wall Street. We caught up with Warren to talk about putting her spin on iconic music, as well as blending both new and old musical sensibilities.

The Jazz Gallery: This residency at the Jazz Gallery is entitled the Political Gangster Trilogy. The first night, you spotlight Curtis Mayfield, Charles Mingus, and Marvin Gaye. The last evening focuses on Nina Simone and Meshell Ndegeocello. On the second night, it’s the Black Wall Street project. Is it a collection of music or a collection of musicians?

Nikara Warren: You know, It started as a collection of music, that’s how it started, that’s what the folder of music was called, but it became a band name. [laughs] Which was not really the intention. I originally would say, Nikara Presents Black Wall Street but everyone kept calling the band Black Wall Street, and then, well, you can’t really help when that happens.

TJG: I couldn’t help but notice that have a very joyful manner of singing to yourself when you are soloing. What is your compositional process? Do you sing a lot to yourself and vamp and develop it in your head, or do you sit down at the piano with a piece of paper?

NW: I think there are a few ways. I am no stranger to the voice memo. I looked through a bunch of them last night, there are lots of 4 A.M.: me being, like, yo, this melody is dope, and afterwards I can work something out with it. A lot of times, I think I probably hear melodically first. Basslines too. I work a lot in Logic, so I’ll just throw something down. It doesn’t always come out when you want it to, though, which is difficult thing about writing on deadlines, which I’m doing right now.

TJG: Deadlines for yourself?

NW: No, this is deadlines for the show. This is all new music—all of the arrangements for the Trilogy we have not yet played at all. They actually haven’t even seen the music at all [laughs] so I’ll finish that off, and then we’re gonna rehearse. It’s going to be a brand new thing! But you know when you have that feeling, that you got this show and you gotta get it down. It can be difficult to write, because you don’t have that free ability but then there’s the beauty of it, which is that I work well under pressure. And I always am able to get more done when I have to do it for something important.

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Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of the artist.

The Erica Seguine/Shan Baker Jazz Orchestra has been around for just shy of a decade. For one of those years, the band had a monthly residency in New Jersey where they were able to workshop new compositions and develop an expansive network of big band personnel. In our recent phone call, we talked about how the sound of the band has evolved over the last eight years, and how the two bandleaders approach composing for a large ensemble.

Both Seguine and Baker contribute compositions to the band, while Sequine conducts and Baker performs. New York Daily Music notes Sequine’s “vivid, cinematic narratives, counterintuitive Gil Evans-like color contrasts,” and Baker’s “tectonically shifting sheets, atmospheric crescendos and long panoramic stretches.” The large ensemble will be camping out on The Jazz Gallery stage for an evening of new and old works, with eyes toward a late-summer recording date for the ESSBJO debut album.

The Jazz Gallery: Thank you both so much for taking a moment to chat! You mentioned you’re based out of New Jersey—do you do most of your rehearsing out there too?

Erica Seguine: We mostly rehearse in the city, actually. Most of the band lives in the city, though a few of us live in New Jersey as well. We’ll often rehearse at City College because one of our band members, Scott Reeves, teaches there. For this performance, we’re rehearsing at iBeam in Brooklyn.

TJG: Do you find that rehearsal spaces influence your perception of the band? As you’re making changes and interpreting the music, does space play a factor?

ES: Space is definitely one of the factors, though not the primary factor. When we bring in a piece for the first time, everyone’s naturally just reading the notes. On a first reading or first rehearsal, or even after the first couple of performances, it takes time to get into the subtleties, so often the result is that I’ll hear the music and think, “Oh my god, did I really write that?” I’ll find out later that it just needed more time to sink in with the band. That’s why I usually wait to change something until after I’ve had a couple of readings, unless something is totally not what I had in mind, or is technically impossible. Shan writes really dense harmony sometimes, and can take a few performances before things really gel. Rarely does it sound right on the first read-through.

TJG: There’s a big sight-reading culture in New York. People are busy, and play in so many bands. So, a lot music is heard on a first read. Do you think the sight-reading experience is integral? Would you prefer it to be different?

ES: Frankly, I would love to rehearse more, to have rehearsals where we comb through harmonies, chords, voicings. Once, we had the luxury to have a rehearsal where we could stop and go chord-by-chord to tune the band. That was amazing, but a rare luxury [laughs]. We happened to have already had a couple of rehearsals, plus we had performances that were close together, so we were able to use one rehearsal and say, for example, “Let’s take three notes within the ensemble, and slowly add the other instruments until the chord is built.”

TJG: Tuning with so many musicians is such a big part of the sound, it really defines the ensemble.

ES: It does! I remember something from Ray Wright’s “Inside the Score” book that analyzes music by Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer. There’s a line in there about how if the band is not totally in tune, the whole thing can just go out the window.

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From L to R: Sean Conly, Michael Sarin, Joe Fiedler, Steven Bernstein, and Jeff Lederer. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

Trombonist Joe Fiedler has released a number of acclaimed albums on his own imprint, Multiphonics Music. It’s an apt name due to Fiedler’s interest in multiphonics, an extended instrumental technique where one plays and sings at the same time. One might not associate timbral experimentation with music for children, but while Fiedler is an exploratory improviser by night, he writes and arranges music for the television show Sesame Street by day.

This February, Fiedler released a new album, Open Sesame, where his different musical lives collide. Fiedler assembled fifteen tunes from the Sesame Street archive—from instantly-recognizable classics to deep cuts—and put them through their paces. The result is a delightful romp, where imaginative arranging and gloves-off improvising reveal new shades of the Sesame Street material. Writing for PopMatters, jazz critic Will Layman notes, “the music here can be playful or even silly, but Fiedler has chosen songs that have good bones: hip melodies, interesting chord changes, or structures that allow the musicians to dig in and improvise with fire.”

This Friday, April 5, Fiedler and his Open Sesame band—saxophonist Jeff Lederer, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, bassist Sean Conly, and drummer Michael Sarin—come to The Jazz Gallery stage for two sets. We caught up with Fiedler by phone to talk about his arranging process and the musicians who’ve influenced his playful aesthetic.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been working on Sesame Street for a decade now. What made you want to bridge your musical worlds for this project now?

Joe Fiedler: The project really was born a few years ago. I hadn’t really thought about doing it at all. And to be honest, I kept the Sesame Street world and the jazz world separate for a while. But a few years ago, Ben Young—the great jazz historian and DJ on WKCR and he does educational programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center—Ben was starting a jazz series in the Hudson Valley. He knew I was from up here, and we got together, just shooting the breeze, talking about performance opportunities and what not. He likes my Big Sackbut project and he suggested that I do Sesame Street music with Big Sackbut. And he said that I could do workshops and things like that, and I was like, “That’s a really good idea!” I then just sat on it for a while and never thought more about it.

A couple of years later, I came back to it, but thought about doing it with my existing group, rather than Big Sackbut. At that point, I started poking around the archives at Sesame Street. There’s a huge library with all of the original lead sheets and I was amazed. So Ben put the seed in my head, and then I eventually came around to it. At that time, I was listening to a lot of Downtown jazz stuff from the ‘90s, like old Sex Mob stuff and the Jazz Passengers, and I thought I could do this fun, upbeat, not-so-serious project and use the Sesame tunes as a vehicle.

TJG: As you were going through the Sesame Street archives, how did you decide on what tunes to do for the project?

JF: Originally, I was going to a “Greatest Hits” or all most-recognizable music. But some of these songs are so iconic and have been done so many ways, that I thought it could be hard to make them my own. A good example of that is “Bein’ Green.” I always think of Ray Charles’s version, and there are so many amazing versions, so I was like, “I’m not even gonna touch that.” And then it’s such a beautiful tune, and I don’t want to make it goofy. So right off the bat, I knew I wanted to get at least a few of the most-known, like “The People in Your Neighborhood,” “Sing,” and “Rubber Duckie.”

After that, I found myself going onto YouTube and watching old Sesame Street clips. The second thing that caught my eye was the animation. I fell in love with these late-sixties, early-seventies animations that were all done by this company in California called Imagination, Inc. in San Francisco. There were really psychedelic with all of these jazzy tunes, like the pinball number count thing. The music was so not Sesame Street because all of the music was actually produced in house. So I ended up doing four or five songs from those animations.

At that point, all of the tunes were in major keys, because that’s Sesame Street. Then I felt I had to dig and find a couple of minor-key tunes. So we did “The Batty Bat” because it was in minor. Once I had about ten tunes for the project, it became about filling it out, and deciding what was missing.

TJG: Once you had your full set of tunes, how did you go about arranging them? The tunes are all clear, but beyond that, you made some really striking transformations.

JF: One of the bands that I’ve been drawn to over the years is Sex Mob. I love how Steven Bernstein is able to keep melodies the same and then change the groove behind it. On my end, it was more of an organic process. The very first arrangement I wrote was to “Somebody Come and Play,” which is another one of the more iconic songs. I was on a tour to Japan and was listening to some funky tunes on the flight over, and then thought I’d write a funky bass line and superimpose the melody over that. It was a bit by circumstance.

I knew that in general I wanted the whole project to be more groove-based, using rock and funkier elements. As I got further into arranging, I thought that I could push the ridiculousness up a notch. So with “Rubber Duckie,” I thought it would be a great place to juxtapose this fun-loving, little ditty with an aggressive, almost punk-rock thing. I think the juxtaposition of the sweetness and the familiarity with this very different style… there’s a lot of humor there. I think of the Jazz Passengers, and Carla Bley as composers/arrangers with a lot of humor. I really like going right up to the line of, “Man, you just ruined it.”

I also wanted to keep everything pretty short. It feels more like a pop record in some ways, with all the tunes about 3-4 minutes long. Part of my strategy with that was that once the joke is made, it’s made. We can’t beat it to death—let’s make a nice joke and get out.

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Clockwise from top left: Maria Grand, Baden Goyo, Carolina Mama, Zack O’Farrill, and Ben Tiberio. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This past January, the city of Havana, Cuba was hit by a devastating storm, featuring a tornado and pounding rain. Three residents died, hundreds were injured, and the city suffered significant damage. Since our early days, The Jazz Gallery has been a home for Cuban music and musicians, and so this Saturday, March 30, we are proud to host a concert benefitting the rebuilding efforts in Havana. The concert will feature a special, one-off quintet of saxophonist Maria Grand, pianist Baden Goyo, vocalist Carolina Mama, bassist Ben Tiberio, and drummer Zack O’Farrill. The group will be joined by surprise special guests in the second set. (more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Friday, March 29, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome saxophonist Tivon Pennicott back to our stage. For the evening, Pennicott has convened a quartet of regular collaborators, including trumpeter Philip Dizack, bassist Dean Torrey, and drummer Kenneth Salters. In an interview with Jazz Speaks earlier this year, Pennicott spoke about the new album he is working, where he channels a classic jazz sound from top to bottom:

First, I decided to do an album on tape, the purist way. My initial desire was to get that sound of the 50s and 60s, the way they recorded it, get into the spirit and process they went through. There’s still so much new music where people still pay tribute to those old classic sounds, whether it’s in the writing, recording, or using samples. I wanted to recreate that sound from the ground up because man, every time I hear the old stuff, there’s just nothing like it. Also, I fantasize about what it would be like to have lived in the 50s and 60s. What I would do, how would my music sound, how would I have interacted with those people? This album came out of all that thinking. We did it in Studio G in Williamsburg, where they have a really good tape machine and a big room, with everyone in one room, and did it the way they did it.

Before checking out Pennicott and company at the Gallery on Friday, take a listen to a recent performance with Pennicott’s long running Sound Quartet.

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