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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tiny Tree is a fiercely improvisational quartet led by bassist Steve Williams. The group balances delicate soundscapes with freewheeling compositions to explore, among other things, the emotional-affective capabilities of rhythmic intricacy. The group features Steve Williams on bass, Noah Becker on woodwinds, Lesley Mok on drums, and Juho Valjakka on piano, stepping in for the group’s usual pianist, Theo Walentiny. We talked with Williams about the backstory behind his compositions, and his excitement for stepping into the unknown with his bandmates.

The Jazz Gallery: How did this ‘Tiny Tree’ quartet come together?

Steve Williams: Noah and I met at the New School my second semester there. We played in school ensembles and had classes together, but didn’t become close until about two summers ago. We were in Canada together, where we really bonded and have been close since then. I met Lesley at Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl show at The Jazz Standard. Nick Dunston introduced me to her. I saw her play with Nick and Noah at The Owl Music Parlor. She has this sensitive fierceness on the drums, this focused intensity. I walked up to her after the gig and said “We need to play.” That, along with pianist Theo Walentiny, is the current iteration of this group Tiny Tree. Theo is out of town right now, doing a three-month residency in China, so I had to try to find a different pianist. That’s where Juho comes in. We met last summer in Estonia, we were both there for the IASJ, and were in an ensemble together. We instantly connected, musically and personally. He’s a special pianist, not afraid to take chances. We really bonded over that week, and it so happened that he would be in New York around this time, so I asked if he could extend his stay just to do this gig.

TJG: It’s great that it could work out for you to play together on this gig.

SW: Yeah, I’m excited. This music really leaves improvisatory space open for people who are willing to take chances. They are all very capable of doing that, and I’ve really enjoyed what everyone has to add to the music.

TJG: Tell me a little about the songbook.

SW: Right now, everything is written by me. First, I wanted to challenge myself as a writer and improviser. That’s not necessarily groundbreaking, because that’s what everyone’s writing is. But I really wanted to explore the ‘affect’ of rhythm. Every composition in this book starts out with a rhythmic idea, as opposed to a harmonic idea. I’m trying to explore the emotions behind rhythms, to transfer ideas that might be challenging or theoretically dense, and translate them to something rhythmic, then move forward with the rest of the material. That was my personal challenge in each of these pieces.

TJG: Can you give me an example of how one of your pieces starts with a rhythmic idea?

SW: There’s a piece we’ll be playing called “Pants On Fire.” The title is based off a thing that Frantz Fanon discusses in the book Black Skin, White Masks, something he refers to as the “Infernal Circle.” Fanon has been an influential writer for me, especially in terms of how I see myself as a white person in relation to any marginalized community. He has opened my eyes a lot. Every time I read this particular chapter, describing the lived experience of the black man in this book, I’m nearly drawn to tears. The way he speaks from his own experience is so emotional. He calls this interpolation of his own skin color from other people the “infernal circle,” and that’s where the title “Pants On Fire” comes from.

I wondered, how could I take his idea of a fiery anger that has deep, deep sadness because of a situation you have no control over; what rhythmically might keep that same sentiment going? I absolutely could never capture that feeling, but I gave myself this task–I don’t necessarily have the rhythmic wherewithal to do a complete translation–as a starting point. So it’s almost a rhythmic pedal, a two-and-four thing, while the melody takes a motif and moves it around within different subdivisions that feels like it circles around you. The rhythm section plays a few polyrhythms in response to that motif which, for me, gives the effect of an angry response to a situation that is constantly occurring. There’s a lot of repetition with that idea before it breaks into this super eerie open improvisation. I only wrote one chord in a bar, and then I have some text instructions for improvisations. It goes into this groove that we play for a while, before going back into this trudging version of this same cyclical thing from the beginning of the composition, but about half as fast, reiterating this circular feeling of unbeatable frustration.

TJG: That’s some heavy stuff.

SW: I try to keep it light [laughs].

TJG: You’ve clearly infused your musical material with personal and anthropological meaning. Do you talk to your bandmates about this, or does it start an end with the composition process?

SW: I’m down to explain things to people, but it can get wordy. Everyone in the band knows I’m getting my masters in anthropology, which is a big influence for me. We spend a lot of rehearsal time talking about, not concepts necessarily, but these things that life is filled with. I’ve had personal conversations with everyone in the band that go really deep into this stuff. Everyone in the group is well-read, and we’re all tuned in to these ideas. Everyone’s comfortable talking about these things. But I haven’t gone into some of the specifics in terms of where the pieces are coming from, because I don’t want to impose my personal sentiments on the compositions: Anything they can give to the written material from their own emotions is equally, if not more, valuable to how a piece is played overall. I try to abstain from specific explanations about the meaning of each composition.

TJG: You spoke a little bit about improvisation already, but as a composer, how have you built a book that, at the same time as addressing these really heavy lines of inquiry, also celebrates the joy of improvisation?

SW: The easiest answer to that is actually pretty silly: I just get bored. That’s the fact of the matter. Bass players are often ascribed the role of only holding it down. Which I’m more than happy to do! I love walking bass lines, I love playing a funk groove. But if it’s my music, I’m not going go write that. I love to explore things with people, especially people whom I trust and love, so I don’t want to be bored playing music with them. I’ve just assumed that as an improviser, other people get bored too. I try to write stuff that can endlessly be fucked with. Nothing that I write is stringent or concrete. It’s all malleable. I’m down for anyone to be a free agent, to even try to ruin a piece. That’s exciting. You can do anything you want. There are times where I’ll dictate, “Let’s play this part as-is before we explore more,” but I’m always looking for new was to conquer the same material.

TJG: It’s cool to have bandmates who are on that same mission with you. Have you all played together with Juho?

SW: Not yet, but we have played a similar set of music as Tiny Trees. I wrote it all starting in September, and mid-December we did a concert at Williamsburg Music Center. We hadn’t yet played the set all the way down. We had spent all of our time rehearsing the technical aspects of the material, and never getting to really explore any of it. On the bandstand, that was the first time we got to have fun with it. Everyone completely blew me away. I was in ecstasy. It was probably fifty minutes of music, and we didn’t stop. I had planned out a set, and said “let’s just play and have fun between songs.” I think I said something like “If you think you’re about to mess something up really badly, just start messing it up on purpose.” We had a lot of fun, and everyone got to bring their improvisational voice to the music. I was blown away. I’m really excited to do it again.

TJG: We’re thrilled that The Jazz Gallery gets to be that place where you do it again.

SW: Absolutely. I love playing at The Jazz Gallery so much. I’ve spent so much of my time since I was nineteen seeing shows, working, playing at the Gallery, all of it. I was there earlier today.

Tiny Tree plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, February 21, 2019. The group features Steve Williams on bass, Noah Becker on woodwinds, Juho Valjakka on piano, and Lesley Mok on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.