A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Jessica Carlton, courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday, May 21, saxophonist Kevin Sun returns to The Jazz Gallery to present a new, hour-long work called The Middle of Tensions. Written for his working trio of bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor alongside pianist Dana Saul, the work explores the links between musical and emotional tension, working with dense, dissonant chords and unsettling polyrhythms.

We caught up with Kevin by phone to talk about the work and his writing process, just after he returned from 10 days of performances with his trio in Beijing, China.

The Jazz Gallery: How was Beijing?

Kevin Sun: It was fun! It was also tiring. For me, it’s not such a big deal because I go back every few months or so. Obviously for Walter and Matt it was different—it was their first time in Asia—but I think they took to it very well. We got lucky in that the weather was beautiful: It was in the 80s during the daytime, and clear skies in the 60s in the evening, with no rain. It’s sort of like being in California.

Traveling around was really comfortable. We took the subway a lot, which I think it was good for them to see more of the city and just understand how the public transit works. The rest of the time we took cabs, which are much cheaper than here. The gigs were great—we played a lot, maybe 10 sets of music, which is more than we’ve played in the past year-and-a-half. It was really interesting just to play the same songs night after night and see where we went with them. New ideas came to the surface gradually through the process. Some were obvious things like transitioning between songs without a break, naturally figuring out how to pace a set, getting the music in a certain flow. We had a really great time and I thought the audiences were into the music. Hopefully, we’ll go back again.

TJG: In some ways, it feels like that’s a lot of effort to get over there, but that ability to play night in, night out is such a rarity over here that it feels worth the travel.

KS: I’ve mentioned it to other people, but I remember complaining to Mark Turner at the Vanguard about how it’s so hard to book gigs in New York, but when booking in China, I can just text the club owner and they’ll give me a date immediately. But he said that’s just the case for everyone in New York, which was obvious, and that’s also why a lot of people go overseas. Sometimes it really is to make money, like with big festivals, but other times it’s just a way to get experience on the bandstand, to set up a string of gigs in different places. Putting together that many shows in China was so smooth that I can imagine myself going back more often with other bands.

TJG: You got this good place with the trio and now they’re part of this Middle of Tensions project. How do you think the continuity that you’ve developed with the trio is going to come out on this new music, and how do you think about incorporating Dana into the mix now?

KS: This was my master plan all along—to get the trio really warmed up, getting ready to tackle this even more challenging piece. We’ve played the piece with Dana before and the guys all have really deep long-standing connections. Matt and Dana live together, and so they hear each other and see each other all the time. They grew up in the same town and were the first people they knew who were into playing improvised music and jazz. They’ve been playing longer than I’ve been playing with Walter and Matt combined!

In terms of writing this piece, I really focused on the trio these past few years to really strip down to the essentials: bass voice, percussive voice, treble voice. Composing with a piano or another chordal instrument, I feel like there are so many possibilities. In the trio, I originally felt really constricted. I couldn’t really write chord symbols; I just had to write a bass voice and a treble voice. Those constraints were interesting in terms of learning to express more extended harmonies, or certain textural effects. One of the things about a piano or guitar trio is that’s all you need to have a full orchestra. I can only play one note at a time, or at the most a couple and it’s not quite the same, so having someone who can really unleash tons of pitch information and create lots of color is beautiful. Dana is one of the people I know who’s the best at that. He just generates this kaleidoscope of color and texture. That’s his magic power. I don’t know how to describe it—he really has his own thing at the piano which I love, and I feel like it complements the different aspects that Walter and Matt also brings the table.

TJG: How has focusing on writing trio music impacted your compositional process?

KS: I purposefully stopped writing at an instrument for the past couple of years, and I just wrote straight sketching out on paper. I’ll check it sometimes, but even if it sounds weird at the piano, I usually like to keep it because it was something I would have never written otherwise. It’s kind of fun to do that, when you’re forced to make that idea expressive, or find expression through different means. I’m now in a headspace where I’m not as scared to touch the piano. I don’t think the piano is going to ruin my compositions. I feel like now I can work comfortably use the piano to help me refine the colors and the sound that I’m going for.

Another thing about this music is that I try to be pretty specific in terms of writing out the actual chords. Dana and I had this other quintet thing with different bass and drums and also trumpet [ed. note: The Rigors of Love, with Adam O’Farrill, Simón Willson, and Dayeon Seok, which premiered at the Gallery in May 2018], but for that I didn’t write any piano part. When we recorded it in February, Dana actually composed his own piano part! I think he felt this way through the piece and he tried to make it more fixed, or have a more fixed reference point.

It’s for the same with this piece—there’s a lot more definition than just writing chord symbols. I really wanted to make it extremely dense in terms of the harmony and in terms of rhythm, but also I know I don’t want Dana to just be like a computer and read it. Dana might re-voice something across registers, or if there’s something like a big, 10-note chord, he’ll find a better way to voice it, or do something more to his taste, or leave things out. I love that. It keeps it dynamic and makes sure the piece is always something that we are collectively exploring and creating in real time.

TJG: How does having this detailed, specific approach to part-writing impact the way you as a group improvise collectively? How do you think about extrapolating out from that kind of material, rather than chord symbols?

KS: That’s something I really struggled with in high school and college—creating different spaces for improvising. I really love playing over changes. That’s what I started with, and I’m still studying it, but there’s something about how far can you take having this pre-established sequence of chords. I originally thought at that time that the goal was to add lots of substitutions in order make it more interesting, but then you find yourself at a dead-end point. If you only think about that being the most interesting thing that you can do, the music loses meaning. One thing I’ve been interested in lately is to try to understand and get inside the tonal logic of music, thinking in the same broad principles about tension and release, creating a space that the listener can relate to and feel emotion.

TJG: I’d like to talk a bit more about this relationship between musical tension, in a technical sense, and this emotional tension. What are the musical vectors of this emotional tension that you’re talking about?

KS: This is a really simplistic way of thinking about it, but a lot of it is having different streams, two different things happen at the same time, like different tempos. There are these polyrhythms where you’re aligned, and then you go away for a while, and then you intersect again, and it’s hard to tell if there’s a dominant pulse. On the harmonic side, there are these dense chords and it sounds like it’s going to resolve, but then doesn’t really resolve, or it does resolve, but the resolution isn’t totally satisfying because there’s a lot of other stuff going on in there. It’s unrelenting.

There’s something about that unrelenting quality in life, especially living in New York. It just doesn’t give up, doesn’t lighten up. I feel that Walter and Dana and Matt, I don’t want to say everyone is neurotic, but it’s very true everyone has certain things that they’re fixated on, and everyone has their own opinion about how to express time and how to relate to one another. In some ways, the piece of music is just a chance for us to get together and see what we can make of it. I think naturally they are moments of tension when you’re going for something with a lot of risk involved. It’s cool if everyone on the same page, but sometimes I feel that maybe I should hold it down more, or maybe I should let loose on purpose.

I try to not give too much direction. I know that Dana and Matt have practiced the piece a lot together because they live together, but I know they had tense moments just rehearsing, like a part where it starts with a 9 over 4 polyrhythm and then switches to 7 over 5, or something like that. It can be hard to figure out how one speeds up or slows down.

Although I value accuracy and musical execution, honestly, at the end of the day, that’s not the most important aspect of the music to me. No one’s ever going to see the sheet music, I hope, except for these musicians; for the listener, I hope it’ll never be about what subdivision this is. It will be more about having this feeling of unsettledness that is purposeful. I don’t want to be doing these complex rhythmic things just to show that we can execute them. The point is not the formal elements as much about how can you get to these emotions in a personal way.

TJG: This discussion of process and expression in regards to rhythm are bringing Olivier Messiaen to mind. Are you into his music?

KS: I love Messiaen, especially his organ music.

TJG: He’s probably best known for his particular approach to harmony & color, but he’s also interested in particular rhythmic processes and dividing time. He was asked in an interview about how it important it was for listeners to know what exactly was going on rhythmically, and he basically said no—that if the listener receives some kind of shock, or emotional reaction to it, that’s all that matters.

KS: I remember looking at some of his scores with a friend, just really nerding out. We were listening with recordings, and we could tell the performer wasn’t playing the rhythms exactly right, though they were trying very hard and had clearly prepared immensely for the performance. It was probably impossible except for a machine. That kind of writing is a tricky thing because on one side, it’s really exciting to work on, but then in terms of band morale, if you ask the band to play something really hard but then say it’s OK if it’s not exactly right, why are you making us practice so much? We want to get as close as we can without killing ourselves.

Another thing that I found is that if you write something that’s a little bit out of reach, there’s this really interesting space where the execution is not perfect, but there’s this friction and humanity to it. It feels like making the beat so wide that it stretches beyond what you think a beat can do. It’s not about perfect metronomic time, but having time contract and dilate, like there’s a rushing force and a slowing-down force, and they’re counterbalancing one other.

On the last night on tour in Beijing, we were playing this song that has a bass line at the beginning—an ostinato that has a regular rhythm. But when Walter started playing it, it was sort of rubato and sort of in time, but it was definitely not completely right. It was amazing because they was such feeling to it. It was so raw, I think it encapsulated how we felt because we were just so exhausted playing a lot and trying to eat as much good food as possible and staying out and hanging with musicians.

TJG: In some ways, I feel that humans’ musical timekeeping mechanisms are more flexible than the grid suggested by western music notation. My teacher in undergrad was a fiddle player and did a lot with this Norwegian folk dance music that has three beats to a bar, and each beat is a different length, but there’s no common subdivision. It’s just a long beat, a medium beat, and a short beat, but you can dance to it and it has such a strong groove. Sometimes, polyrhythms may look really complex on the page in terms of these nested grids, but I feel that we can teach our bodies to feel them intuitively.

KS: I feel that notation is just a tool, just a means of quickly suggesting to musicians what the piece sounds like. If I could teach a band entirely by ear, that would be amazing, but I only have so much time. I know these guys are good readers, so we can quickly start getting beyond that point where we’re just reading and can begin to listen to what’s happening and respond to that listen. That’s the most exciting for me in a quartet context. I’m really glad when I can take a step back and just listen to the rest of the band, and get lost in the sea of mysterious rhythm happening all around.

Kevin Sun presents The Middle of Tensions at The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. The group features Mr. Sun on tenor saxophone, Dana Saul on piano, Walter Stinson on bass, and Matt Honor 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.