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Photo by Amy Mills

For the occasion of her 2017 Residency Commission, the saxophonist, vocalist, and composer María Grand has expanded the quintet featured on her EP TetraWind, released earlier this year, and brought both dance and rap into the fold for Embracements. We caught up with her by phone to discuss the upcoming premiere and the creative inspirations in this latest work:

The Jazz Gallery: When The Jazz Gallery reached out to you about writing a commission, where did you start with the process?

María Grand: I actually had the idea of doing a project with a rapper before I heard about the Gallery commission. When Rio [Sakairi] told me I had the commission, it seemed like I could finally get a larger ensemble together, budget-wise, and I was interested in creating some kind of chamber work that also was working with a rapper.

That was my beginning idea, but I also had this idea about learning about what the feminine side of God means for different cultures and using that to create music, and also using that to create lyrics, which was all connected to the rapper. So I kind of had the whole project in my mind, and I was waiting for somebody to give the money for me to do it, so it all came at the right time.

TJG: Had you worked with the rapper Amani Fela previously?

MG: I met him at the Marc Cary Harlem session, and I had never worked with a rapper. What I liked about him was that he was interested in music as a whole: I remember showing him a drumbeat that was maybe in 5 or something, and he said, “Oh, cool—I know what this is.” It wasn’t like musical information was going to be an issue for him; it wasn’t like he was going to be intimidated by any kind of musical information I wrote for him, because he plays drums, too, and he plays some piano, so I felt that he would be flexible.

I should tell you the whole story of how I wrote the music: I went to Cuba and did a three-week sabbatical there, and I took five books with me that were all about different goddesses: Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, by Merlin Stone; The Goddesses’ Mirror, by David R. Kinsley; Images of Women in Antiquity, by Averil Cameron and Amélie Kuhrt; Women’s Roles in Ancient Civilization, by Bella Vivante; and Promiscuities, by Naomi Wolf.

I was trying to find parallels between goddesses and also the stories and the legends, and my experience or in general the female experience in this culture that I’m living in. So this is what I thought of when I was writing the music, and each song is  dedicated to a certain goddess or dedicated to characters that represented something similar in my mind. They may not be from the same culture, but they represent a certain aspect of life that was similar.

So I read all these books and then I wrote the music, and then when it came time to write for Imani, I had already written the music. What I did was, I learned the music that I had written by heart and then wrote these poems that were related to whatever symbolical or allegorical energy I was working with when I wrote the music. I used that to create a poem, and then I rapped the text over the music, but made it fit in specific ways. It was super specific, and once I was happy with that, I recorded it and I sent that to Imani. So it was basically like I was sending him a chart.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

With his fluid style and warmly-distorted sound, guitarist Gilad Hekselman is one of the most sought after musicians in New York today. He’s been tapped as a sideman by everyone from drummer Ari Hoenig to bassists Ben Williams and Esperanza Spalding to multi-reedist Anat Cohen. His solo work has received much critical acclaim, including 2015’s Homes (Jazz Village). He’s sought after by students as well, hoping to learn the secrets of his style—when searching his name on Google, two of the top suggested search terms are “Gilad Hekselman lessons” and “Gilad Hekselman gear.”

This weekend, Hekselman returns to The Jazz Gallery as part of our 2016 Residency Commission series to present new music for his band Zuperoctave. The quartet features some of Hekselman’s closest musical associates—saxophonist Ben Wendel, pianist Shai Maestro, and drummer Kush Abadey—and a lush, plugged-in sound. We caught up with Hekselman by phone to talk about his writing process for the commission, which included some false starts and questioning his musical intuition.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been all over the world in the past few months; where are you now, and where have you been recently?

Gilad Hekselman: I’ve been in New York for about a week—before that, I was touring in Japan and Korea. In Japan, I was a sideman with a saxophone player named Sadao Watanabe, and before that in Korea I did a little tour with my trio. It was my sixth time in Japan and my second time in Korea. I like it there, and would love to go there more.

TJG: Tell me about your commissioned project, Zuperoctave: It’s got Ben Wendel (saxophones), it’s got Shai Maestro (keys), it’s got Kush Abadey (drums). What’s the concept?

GH: The concept is more or less as usual; trying to write some good tunes, and have some good musicians play them. This is a little different because there’s no bass, and we’re going for a more electronic sound. A lot of the compositions are leaning towards that. We’re using some synths, Ben is using some effects, I’m going to use some effects, and Kush is playing some electronic drums.

TJG: When did you decide not to have a bass player?

GH: This project is called Zuperoctave, and I’ve been doing it for a few years with different personnel. That’s part of the idea of the band, to free up the bass a little bit. Sometimes I use a pedal and play bass, sometimes Shai does some bass sounds, or even Ben. Generally speaking, we like to have more flexibility, so we experiment with the bass.

TJG: So how do you write, regarding the low end, knowing that you’ll have that flexibility where anyone can play the bass in the band? Does it change your compositional approach?

GH: A lot of the songs are brand new work that I did for the commission. They have these musicians and instrumentation in mind. I try to imagine a group sound, rather than focusing too much on the bass, or the lack of it. I imagine what the instruments I have can do in that context. Each song is different, as far as the process goes. I find a melody, or some lyrics, a bassline, or something else that works for me—some of them are inspired by my musicians, or musical ideas that remind me of friends. For me, words aren’t really helpful in describing these kinds of musical relationships. You hear it and you know it, but it’s hard to verbalize.

TJG: So how did you begin working with The Jazz Gallery, and when did you get your commission?

GH: I think it all started with Nir Felder, actually. He was talking to Rio about how it would be great to do commission work with a guitar player. Nir, Rio and I worked on the application, then Rio got a grant for it, and that was it. This is my first commission. It’s been cool working to a deadline. The first thing I had in mind was a different project, which eventually fell through. It was originally more vocal music. I had this idea to do music for yoga sequences as well. I’d have a yoga practitioner do a sequence of poses on stage while we play. But that fell through too. Meanwhile, while looking at those ideas, I noticed that a lot of these ideas for Zuperoctave just appeared. I ignored it for a while, trying to work on the other ideas, but honestly feeling a little under-inspired. And then, I talked to my wife, and she asked me to think about whether I was swimming with or against the stream; that’s when I realized I should drop everything and follow the Zuperoctave project, since that’s where my heart was. So that’s what I did. Ever since then, I’ve been writing non-stop.

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Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Guitarist Mary Halvorson has gained attention for her dextrous improvisation, her unique, prickly sound sound, and her intricate compositions, which range from solo guitar music to works for bands of 8+. Code Girl, the new project she will debut at The Jazz Gallery as part of the 2016 Jazz Gallery Residency Commissions, features longtime bandmates Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums), as well as trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire and singer Amirtha Kidambi. We spoke with Halvorson this week about the project’s multifaceted inspirations and the new challenges she posed for herself in writing it.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re both a guitarist and a composer, and your sound on the guitar is particularly unique. How do you feel your composition affects your performance, and vice versa?

Mary Halvorson: I definitely think of the two things as related. The composing, for me, comes first when I’m thinking about this group, and then based on what I write, that sets up a mood or a tone for the improvisation. So I definitely think about them as related, but I try to leave the compositions open enough that the improvisation has room to grow, and so the composition won’t necessarily happen the same way every time.

TJG: How much does improvisation play a role in the compositional process for you?

MH: It plays a pretty big role. Usually when I start to compose, I start by just improvising on the guitar. So I’ll sit down on the guitar and start improvising until I come up with something which I think could be an idea, or a theme for a composition, and then I’ll start writing stuff down, and I’ll sort of develop an idea, but it always comes from an improvisational space for me. In the case of this group, which has lyrics, I had written the lyrics first, so I wrote the lyrics and then when I sat down to compose the music I would start improvising on guitar but also singing. So I’d be singing some of the lyrics and then develop the composition in that way.

TJG: So you were writing the lyrics also.

MH: Yes.

TJG: What was your thought process for composing for this band?

MH: It’s a pretty different project for me, and this is the first time I’ve written for a group with a singer, though I have had a couple groups in the past where I sung a little bit, and I’ve written a few lyrics in the past. But this is the first group where I have a dedicated singer, and I’m writing all the lyrics myself. So just because of that, it’s been a little bit of a different process. And like I described, I would write the lyrics first and then build the compositions around the lyrics, so the song structure around the vocal structure, if that makes sense.

TJG: Do you think of the voice as separate from a melodic instrument, in that case? Or is it just a melody line?

MH: I guess I think about it as both, because I’m definitely thinking about melody quite a bit. But then also because it’s expressing words, for me it does take on a different role and a different focus from the instruments. In a way I’m thinking, although deeper, highly improvisational lines, also thinking of them as songs, like you would have a folk song. So sort of combining those elements.

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Román Filiú at The Village Vanguard (via romanfiliu.com)

Román Filiú at the Village Vanguard (via romanfiliu.com)

This Friday and Saturday, July 18th and 19th, 2014, will conclude The Jazz Gallery’s 2013-2014 Residency Commissions series. These two nights will feature original music from Cuban-born saxophonist-composer Román Filiú and the septet that he convened for the occasion. Filiú assumes the final chapter in the series storyline—this year focused on saxophonists and reed players—outlined by Ben WendelGreg Ward, Ben van Gelder, and Godwin Louis earlier in the season.

Since 2011, Filiú has successfully embedded himself in the engine of New York’s contemporary jazz scene, firing with cylinders like Matt BrewerMarcus Gilmore, Dafnis Prieto, Adam Rogers, Yusnier SanchezDavid Virelles, and Craig Weinrib, among others. Prior to landing in New York, Filiú was based in Havana for eight years while heavily involved with Chucho Valdes‘s “Irakere” band and also in Madrid for six years, often working with David Murray and Doug Hammond. A frequenter of our stage and our blog, the saxophonist will call upon Ralph Alessi, Dayna Stephens, David Virelles, Matt Brewer, Craig Weinrib, and Yusnier Sanchez to present his new material. We caught up with him by phone this past week:

The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us a bit about what you’ve been working on in your residency?

Román Filiú: When The Jazz Gallery presented the opportunity to me, I wanted to do something that drew on inspiration from the music I grew up with—music that I heard in my hometown. As Santiago de Cuba was a very musical town, with traditions across conga, bolero, and sonCarnival music—I was inundated with it all of the time. Aside from my father being a musician, my brothers were violin players so I was trying to compete with them, trying to play violin music because I was the only one that played saxophone.

Aside from Cuban music, we were listening to a lot of classical, things like Bartók or Zoltán Kodály. I didn’t know anything about jazz; I wasn’t listening to it at the time. So it was an interesting mix of classical music, Carnival music, Cuban folkloric music, and popular music in Cuba that was on the radio. This residency was about considering this whole musical environment: how all of these styles converged in my head, opening up my mind to more advanced music and helping me find my own voice. I tried to reproduce these themes in the songs that I’ve been working on and frame them within the context of jazz improvisation.

I am grateful to The Jazz Gallery for the opportunity to make this music. I’m very fond of everyone else who has participated in this series, so it’s an honor.

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Photo via benvangelder.com

Photo via benvangelder.com

We’ve been in touch with saxophonist Ben van Gelder a number of times over the past year: he spoke with us for an extended interview in October when he appeared with his quartet, and again in March for a weekend residency that featured both a chordless quartet and his working quintet. Back yet again, Ben will be premiering new works as part of our 2013-14 Residency Commissions series, which were composed over the past month for a larger ensemble than his more recent quartet-quintet work. For those unfamiliar with Ben’s sonic profile, NPR bestowed this appraisal upon the Dutch-born altoist after the conclusion of the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition last fall:

His blowing was deliberate, methodical, slow-developing; he held notes for what felt like a bit longer than his peers and often landed flush on top of the beat. His tone felt a bit reedy on purpose…One gets the sense he was cultivating a “hip to be square” vibe — perhaps inspired by teacher Lee Konitz, another alto-sax original.

Here’s our conversation with Ben about his latest compositional pursuits, his strategies for overcoming writer’s block, and how the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has been an inspiration in more ways than one:

The Jazz Gallery: What have you been working on so far during your Residency?

Ben van Gelder: The only thing that was really clear for me before I started was the instrumentation: I wanted to write for a seven-piece band. I started checking out a lot of larger ensemble stuff and a lot of music that I’ve always wanted to check out but didn’t have the time or patience to. I’ve been doing that and really trying to conceptualize everything before I sit down at the piano and start writing. It’s been a pretty conscious process and not so intuitive, I would say.

The fact that I have this space where I can go and work on music on a regular basis really helps because, for me, writing is hard and takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. For me, it works best when I can keep working at it for a long time in a row; consistency really helps. Even when there are days where not a lot is happening, something will start to happen somewhere along the line.

TJG: Have you been checking out any music for ideas or inspiration for this residency? 

BVG: I’ve been listening to these Herbie Hancock records from the ’70s with his Mwandishi band: Sextant, Crossings, those records. I’ve been checking out a lot of that—the music won’t sound like that—but just to get ideas for instrumentation, orchestration, and some conceptual frameworks. I’ve also been listening to some classical music like Morton Feldman, which is sonically very interesting and very different from a lot of other music.

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