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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

This weekend, The Jazz Gallery is proud to present the first FutureFest. Curated with Abdulrahman “Rocky”Amer and the band Secret Mall, FutureFest features a diverse slate of emerging New York bands, showcasing the current generation’s full range of improvisational practices. On each night, the Gallery will present three groups—Tiny Gun, Ba Akhu, and Blake Opper’s Questionable Solution—on Friday, and Adam O’Farrill/Gabe Schneider, Secret Mall, and the Sasha Berliner Quartet on Saturday.

Over the course of the week, Jazz Speaks will have interviews with some of the artists and curators of FutureFest, and today we have a conversation with saxophonist Blake Opper. Opper is a native of Houston, Texas and an alumnus of the city’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (“where all the famous people went,” reads Opper’s deadpan bio). He graduated from the New School this past spring and already has his hands full with a number of different musical projects. We spoke with Oppler about the formation of his so-called “logistical dumpster fire” of Questionable Solution, and his synthesis of myriad influences, from the music of Stephen Sondheim to the comedy of Chris Gethard.

The Jazz Gallery: The band is called “Questionable Solution.” What is the problem and what is the solution you’re proposing?

Blake Opper: I think the problem is the functionality of the instrumentation—mainly our having two pianos. Having an 8-person band in New York is hard, but not impossible. But having two pianos is a bit extreme. So that’s where the name came from. And the solution is people hiring me (laughs). Yeah, I’m still not quite sure what the solution is yet.

TJG: Why did you create this problem?

BO: It started pretty arbitrarily. I had a class with Dave Douglas at the New School, and in that ensemble we happened to have a room with two grand pianos. One of the pieces that I wrote for that class turned out light years better than anything I had written before, almost to the point where I wasn’t sure I could duplicate it. But then, another year went on and I thought, what if I try to write with that instrumentation again since that one time went so well? So I worked out another arrangement and it also turned out to be light years ahead of anything I had written before. So then I thought, maybe there is something to this instrumentation that allows me to write better somehow.

TJG: Why do you think that instrumentation resonates with you?

BO: I really like the sound of the bottom of the piano, but I don’t like the jazz trope of having bass and piano doubling a bass line. It’s overdone at this point. But I also need the rest of the piano available, and with a piano player devoted exclusively to bass, a second player becomes necessary. I also just like the challenge of it. Compositionally, I like to start with a challenge. A lot of the stuff I write starts with “What if this happened? How would that work?”

TJG: Are these ideas usually functional, like unique instrumentation, or abstract?

BO: They can be instrument-specific or they can be music-specific. I had an idea for a group that would have two electric basses, two tenors, drums, and then separately a guitar player. They would never play at the same time—it would be the band, and then solo guitar. I think that would be really dumb, and that excited me. A lot of my decision-making boils down to, “That sounds dumb, let me see if I can pull that off.” And when I say “dumb,” I don’t mean it in a pejorative way. If I think something will be really dumb or absurd, I feel like it’s a good place to start, because it’s probably an original idea—either no one has thought of it yet, or if they have, they still probably wouldn’t do it.

TJG: Is there guiding principle or sonic vision that ties your writing for Questionable Solution together? I notice a lot of what you might call ambient, or “soundscapey” techniques being used in a lot of your compositions. Is that a result of the instruments being used, or does that just capture your inclinations as a composer?

BO: I think both. Generally, I like an ambient sound to be present, but one thing I really like about the instrumentation is that because I don’t have a bass player, there are a lot of jazz tropes that I can’t fall into. For example, I can’t just have the bass player walk. I also think having two pianos specifically lends itself to a moody, repetitive, soundscape-y environment.

TJG: To achieve your sound, do you assign fixed roles for each instrument section? I feel like I hear a lot of mellow, labyrinth-like repeating melodies from the horns, while the piano bass line and drums are moving independently at a faster pace.

BO: The general delineation that ends up happening—and I want to break this pattern a little bit, is the vocalist and horns have a job, and separately, the two pianos and drums have a job. So it becomes rhythm section and horns with a vocalist. The horns usually carry the melody, and the two pianos and drums are the palette that that sits on top of.

One of the pieces we did which I think turned out well is “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell,” which is a Flaming Lips song. The two versions are very different. Shout-out to the Flaming Lips. I love your records.

So in that piece the vocalist sings, the horns have chords that support that, the piano plays the bass function—that’s all rubato—and the drums add texture, along with synth sounds that go over it all.

TJG:  There seems to be a good amount of humor in a lot of your music. You feature a lot of untraditional instruments and objects like spoons and slide whistles. Synth almost seems conventional compared to those choices. Why did you choose to use synth sounds for this piece?

BO: A lot of the music I listen to is electronically produced; I think that’s the case for most people these days, unless you’re a real stickler about it. And since synth is such an ingrained part of my listening, it seems like as normal a tool for me as a tenor saxophone for example, especially when covering a song that uses a lot of synth to begin with.

TJG: Do your other musical and aesthetic choices follow the same organic pattern? To add some context, you’re 22, you have a full beard, and in the videos I’ve seen of you, you appear to be wearing a houndstooth jacket. Your music has a certain seriousness to it, but then there’s also comedic element. Are you deliberately trying to create these moods?

BO: It’s definitely a cognizant effort. I know the type of response a slide whistle will elicit. I do comedy about 10 hours a week, and it’s really important to me. When I was writing “[North Carolina and Lavish] Spoons,” I remember writing a very serious horn chorale, and I just felt like I wasn’t representing a big aspect of my life and a key piece of my development. Some of my most important influences have been the stand-up comedy albums that I’ve listened to. So, when I was writing “Spoons” in particular, I was like, “If music’s like a version of yourself, or part of your truth, a big part of my truth or my life is comedy, and why wouldn’t that be represented in the music that I make?”

I think a lot of what I write can be summed up as input to output. I listen to a lot of synth music, so writing synth stuff is a very easy option for me because it’s already in my brain. For the slide whistle, it’s a similar process. I think that sound is funny in general, but specifically, it’s a result of my watching lot of the Chris Gethard show. This was a late-night public access show that nobody really knew about, but the show’s band would use kazoos and slide whistles, and seeing the band and musical guests do that type of thing opened up these kinds of sounds as options that I can use.

TJG: Can you talk more about your comedy background and how it’s affected your musical choices? Has it given you more confidence in carrying through some of your more outlandish ideas?

BO: I take improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and I also do indie improv gigs. It’s a lot like jazz, but you get to connect with your audience in different ways. It’s not like, “Listen to how deep I am.” It’s more like, “I’m going to make a dick joke and you’re all going to love it,” and it feels great.

As for confidence, at the first show I saw at UCB, the group lifted one of their teammates up and threw him over a wall while they chanted, “No chairs in the library,” and it was hilarious. A bunch of grown adults agreed to do that. After seeing that and other ridiculous acts at UCB, it let me know that there is something to that—in doing something dumb if you do it hard enough. So yes, I think the confidence to use kazoos or a slide whistle in a song does in part come from having seen people do dumber stuff, and seeing it pay off artistically. For me, that changed my life. Seeing it work, watching people do stupid shit in a super committed way got me to start doing stupid shit in a super committed way. Maybe that will have meaning for people in a similar way that it did for me, or at least be interesting.

TJG: Who are you writing for? A specific audience? Yourself?

BO: I think I’m just writing for myself. I do like when people get to hear my music. Stravinsky said that he likes the process of writing a piece more than finishing it. So for him, watching it being performed is less satisfying than creating it. When I first heard that I didn’t agree. But the more I write now, the more I agree with what he said, even though it does feel great to finish a piece. Sondheim referred to composition as fun, but agonizing fun, and I get that a lot. These days you’re just sitting there with a computer program for hours—sometimes just correcting markings.

TJG: How difficult do you find it to communicate your specific compositional vision to your bandmates?

BO: Over time it’s become easier it is to do through words and also just writing it out. We’ve been playing “Ego Tripping” for like a year now, and the first version of that chart and the current one look so different. In New York City, no one wants to do more than two rehearsals for anything without getting paid, so the faster I can get them to see something and just do it right, the better the show is going to be every time.

TJG: There’s one piece I wanted to talk about specifically: “Private Museum.” How did you communicate the drum part to the drummer? It seems like it’s very free and open for interpretation.

BO: A lot of trial by error. I think the first version of that chart looked pretty bad. It wasn’t played how I thought it would be played. But seeing how the musicians reacted to it helped me understand how to direct them. Originally I gave the drummer verbal instructions for what would happen every 8 bars or so. In the middle of the piece there’s this crossfade between the two pianos, and one takes over with a faster bassline. So I told the drummer, “Here you’re with the first pianist. Play simply. And when it crossfades, begin to gesture with the other piano, but don’t go all the way yet.” Eventually it becomes just drums and the second piano. Every iteration of that chart gets more clear because people tell me what’s helpful to them.

TJG: I also listened to your solo guitar version of that tune—it sounds like the two don’t have very much in common. Is that because of compositional evolution or the result of a new medium?

BO: I think mainly a new medium because it was originally for solo guitar. The person who played it, Tal Yahalom, is great—I knew I could just give him a vague instruction and he could improvise something wonderful. So that’s kind of medium-specific. Whereas when I have a group of eight people, I don’t want to just say, “Please play free for 6 minutes,” because that’s not very compositionally interesting. So I had to figure out how to capture the same arc in a way that’s written out.

TJG: What is the arc of that piece? What makes “Private Museum” itself?

BO: I think the piano line and drum relation is pretty specific. Also my part, which is just playing weird sounds, and the trombone part which is pretty similar are juxtaposed against the other tenor and trumpet which have written out counterpoint melodies. The whole piece is supposed to have the effect of fading in and out.

TJG: That piece, more than your others, comes across as angry to me. Is that the intended emotion?

BO: That isn’t not the emotion. I don’t think I intended for it to specifically be “angry.” The title of that piece, “Private Museum,” is a reference to a time in high school where my friends and I climbed up to the rooftop of a museum after hours. So when I wrote it for solo guitar, it was intended to evoke that specific moment, so I can see it as a feeling of teenage angst. But creating that mood specifically wasn’t really intentional. There’s a band that I really like called Sylvan Esso, and in an interview they talk about how when they’re making music they have an idea starting out, but their goal is to try to figure out what’s good and interesting about that idea, and try to develop it as much as possible. So they remain loyal to that idea without deviating—that’s what I tried to do in “Private Museum.” Take one idea and try to find out what about it was interesting, and then extend the idea out.

TJG: We already discussed how comedy seems to be a pretty resonant theme in most of your pieces. Are the other emotions one might feel when listening to your music complementary to the comedy, part of the comedy, distinct from the comedy? Private Museum comes across as angry, but I wonder if the intent is for the listener to laugh about the anger they are experiencing.

BO: That’s interesting, and I’m not sure if there’s one answer. I think it’s a mix—it’s certainly complementary. I don’t think I’m alone in this—I can be a very intense and serious, melodramatic person, but I can also be funny, and enjoy humor. And I think having a sense of humor about your own melodramas is a healthy thing. But that doesn’t mean you don’t feel it. You feel it, but you might be able to acknowledge that it’s inflated. So I think it’s all of those things that you said. All of these emotions coexist within me, and they each have their shining moment. None of them exist without the others existing. All all of my pieces are reflective of that.

TJG: How do you think your eclectic writing for Questionable Solution ties into the theme of modern music and FutureFest?

BO: It’s not like we created it, but I think combining styles of music is a theme for many people in my generation of musicians. I don’t think that’s exclusive to just New York or jazz musicians. I think there is to some degree less loyalty to a tradition. People are more inclined to mix traditions around.

This is sort of a weird way to come at your question, but I’ve been thinking lately about whether I would describe myself as a jazz musician. I don’t really listen to or practice too much jazz-specific stuff at this point, even though I studied it for a really long time. There’s a broad tradition of art that I like and that I’ve checked out, and I’m more subservient to that than to jazz and jazz history. I had mentioned the Gethard show. That show really meant a lot to me and I watched it a lot, and I think I’d be more inclined to do something based on that than something based on a Charles Mingus record for example.

I think the music for Questionable Solution reflects that. I’ve been listening to a lot of Stephen Sondheim lately, and he’s changed the way I think about composition. So for the Gallery show, I’ve arranged a Sondheim piece, and we’re going to do that. It’s the shit that I like and that I check out all the time—I’m trying to make music for those things as opposed to a specific genre.

TJG: How do you imagine the future of music?

BO: I was talking about World War II recently with my dad. One of the things I realized talking to him was that a lot of the decisions that were made feel like they were inevitable now, and I along with most people accept that. But the truth is that those were just people in the moment making decisions based on the information they had. They didn’t necessarily know what the consequences were going to be.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in the context of musical traditions. Someone like John Coltrane is such a huge influence these days, but when he was alive, he was just doing stuff that he was interested in.

So the future to me is people pursuing their interests and making decisions based upon them. There are a lot of people out there who love and celebrate older musical traditions, like bebop or ‘90s Jazz and seek to repeat those traditions. But the future to me is when someone recognizes, “I am a person in 2018. How do I make music with the context of history, but true to my own interests and experiences?”

TJG: Blake, thank you for your time and we look forward to having you at the Jazz Gallery.

BO: Thank you. Great talking to you.

Blake Opper’s Questionable Solution plays FutureFest atThe Jazz Gallery on Friday, September 28, 2018. The group features Mr. Opper on tenor saxophone, Gaya Feldheim Schorr on vocals, Davy Lazar on trumpet, Will Brown on tenor saxophone, Kalun Leung on trombone, Mike Sheelar on piano, Micha Gilad on keyboards, and Ben Silashi on drums. One set at 10 P.M., preceded by Tiny Gun at 7:00 P.M. and Ba Akhu at 8:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for the evening. Purchase tickets here.