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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

On June 21st, New York City-born pianist Lex Korten will premiere a new body of original work with a hard-hitting young quartet. This will be his first outing at The Jazz Gallery: According to Korten, The Jazz Gallery is “a special venue I’ve turned to for inspiration ever since I attended as a starry-eyed high school sophomore. This is the debut of my first project as leader in a very long time with a formidable new generation of songs written almost entirely in 2018.” The quartet features saxophonist/drummer Morgan Guerin, vibraphonist Joel Ross and bassist Benjamin Tiberio who, in various configurations, have been Korten’s bandmates for over two years.

During our conversation in anticipation of the show, Korten brought two ideas to the forefront. The first was that this show represented an opportunity for Korten to write new music that would inspire and challenge his bandmates. The second was that Korten partially conceived of these songs as “tributes to the actions of others,” where the music forms a loose narrative about the importance of agency, observation, and activism. Read on for more about the inspiration and impetus behind Korten’s new music.

The Jazz Gallery: You must be getting excited for the upcoming show at the Gallery.

Lex Korten: It’s crazy, the way it happened. At the end of 2017, I set a goal for myself to bring a new project to The Jazz Gallery as a leader in 2018. I’d had writer’s block for a long time: When I was at University of Michigan, I was a factory, spitting out tunes all the time. I brought a really nice body of work with me to New York, and have been playing it for the last year and a half. But it had been a long time since I had anything new. So I used the idea of playing at The Jazz Gallery as an impetus, since it’s one of the places I love which supports experimentation and creativity. Of course, a lot has gone into the music in other senses, but in the sense of having a deadline and a goal, The Jazz Gallery got me moving again. One thing lead to another, and here I am.

TJG: What was it about the idea of The Jazz Gallery that could help you clear that block?

LK: It was a mix of things. I grew up in New York City, and when I was in high school, I went to The Jazz Gallery’s old location on a semi-regular basis. At that time of my life, I had no sense of whether or not I was going to become a jazz musician. Everyone I saw at The Jazz Gallery was someone I was infatuated with musically, who I put on a very high pedestal, which I still do. So when I moved back to New York after school, and was starting to play out with some of my peers, I realized that the Gallery was a major bridge between generations of musicians. It provides a very natural incline from being a young artist who’s trying to find their voice, and the more established musicians in creative music, Jazz, black music, who are willing to use The Jazz Gallery stage to showcase new ideas.

TJG: So when you began doing the work of assembling this project, what came first? The group, the musical ideas, the message, the narrative?

LK: When I first played with the group which is going to be on this show, I had about half of this music written. At that time, I’d put together a session with no specific expectations, and it was before I’d been offered this date at the Gallery. I got these guys together because I’m close with all of them, and I wanted to see what my music sounded like with them. There was an incredible mix of intuition and commitment. As far as intuition, the music was coming so naturally to them: They were listening and making musical decisions while still reading new material. In terms of commitment, this music isn’t easy, and though naturally it didn’t sound right the first time we read it, they were on the ground and ready to workshop this music.

After that point, I was like, “I can’t believe how well that went. That’s the band I want to use.” The date at the Gallery was extended to me, so then I did a weird thing: I actually said, “Look, I played this music with the band during the session, and they killed it. I know what sort of music they’re going to make sound good. Now, instead of writing for them, I’m going to write against them, because I trust them so much, and I want to see what comes out of that.” Sometimes, it’s easy to write within this idiom when you’re dead-set on the language that’s going to be used. So I challenge myself to write differently than I normally do, and to challenge these guys to play in a different way than they’re used to playing.

TJG: That’s a big goal. I wonder if there’s a way for you to talk about how you went about writing music with that mindset, without specifically talking about people’s strengths and weaknesses.

LK: Exactly, I don’t want to put anyone in a box. The fact of the matter is that they’re all immense listeners and have a raw musical talent that allows them to interpret anything. It’s not that I expect them to be uncomfortable or not sound good. Rather, there’s a certain grid that represents the music we often play, and I want to break out of that grid, in rhythmic and harmonic senses. I want to get away from chord changes, get away from time. None of these are innovations, especially at The Jazz Gallery: It’s more that I wanted to go against the grain of what people would expect of this band. These are all musicians who have played at The Jazz Gallery many times, and I want to get something out of them that they haven’t played on that stage before.

TJG: So tell me a little about the music.

LK: The set I’ve put together for this show includes a series of songs that aren’t in any particular order, though there are a few that form a suite. Each is a standalone story, almost a vignette. I don’t want to make it seem like each of these songs came together around a unified concept. They’re all separate pieces that I think will really work when we mix them together.

As I mentioned in the concert’s description, some pieces are more personal reflections of experiences. They range for emotional statements to reflections on the routine of daily life. Other songs reach dynamic extremes. I have a few that are more exploratory. They take their time. One of the songs I wrote more recently is called “The Time In Between.” I wrote it over the course of about a month, and tried hard to break some of my own compositional constraints. It has many different sections, but it moves slowly and mysteriously between them. There are parts where it breaks free of time, and some points with a lot of through-composed notes with no structure or chord changes between them. While I was writing that song, there was a theme on my mind having to do with the ways we change, in a slow, every-day sense, by the time we spend alone. I’m really happy with that piece.

TJG: Can you tell me a bit more about the music, focusing especially on your description of the “Actions of Others” theme behind the music?

LK: Over the last two years, there have been many moments when I’ve wanted to express things about activist figures in American society today. But I’ve been careful to try to find an appropriate way to reflect that desire in my music which doesn’t claim any of their attention, or detract from what they’ve done and try to apply it to myself. There’s a suite of music that I wrote in response to many recent incidents in which the rights of Americans have been grossly infringed upon by law enforcement. As part of what I said before, I prefer not to name anyone in my song titles. One song of mine was previously named after a person I greatly admired, and I decided I needed to change that song’s name, because the implication of my having any ownership of that person’s actions was ridiculous. I’m trying to find different ways to express admiration.

TJG: You don’t have to name anyone right now—I’m sure your music will certainly speak for itself, and if you speak about the music, you’ll be saying a lot.

LK: Right. On a musical level, all of this music promotes interplay in the band. It’s not a hard feature for any instrument. I wanted to showcase the compositions themselves, as well as the chemistry between these musicians. These songs involve bouncing off of each other, passing the torch around. The most I can say right now is that we touch on all the extremes of energy levels in this music: There are a lot of different colors involved, and I really believe this music will provide the audience with a lot of information to stimulate their senses, their emotions. It’s all new music that no one’s heard before, and I’m happy to leave that mysterious until the moment in becomes unveiled.

The Lex Korten Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, June 21, 2018. The group features Mr. Korten on piano, Ben Tiberio on bass, Joel Ross on vibes, and Morgan Guerin 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.