This Tuesday, November 28th, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome drummer Kate Gentile and her quartet to our stage. Gentile has had a breakout 2017, appearing on Matt Mitchell’s acclaimed large ensemble record A Pouting Grimace (Pi Recordings) and releasing her own debut Mannequins (Skirl), which also received very positive notice from WBGO, PopMatters, and DownBeat.
At the Gallery on Tuesday, Gentile will convene her working quartet to present two sets of brand new music. We caught up with her to talk about her ever-shifting compositional process, the quartet’s rapport, and her philosophy of rhythm; excerpts of our conversation are below.
The Jazz Gallery: What was your musical education like?
Kate Gentile: Well, I had the jazz school experience. Eastman was pretty bebop-oriented—there’s always some kids there that are into some weird shit, but they’re usually in the minority, at least when I went. I think it’s good to have that experience because I don’t think most kids check out bebop on their own, so it’s good to go to school and have someone show you stuff you wouldn’t otherwise learn.
TJG: How do you feel about bebop?
KG: I love all that music. I feel like that music in its time is, in some ways, a lot like the music I’m interested in now. Bebop was a harmonically and rhythmically complex music—finding rhythms and harmonies, voice leading, phrases that felt good relative to the way people were playing before that. What I’m doing—what a lot of the musicians in the zone I’m thinking of are doing, it sounds so different from traditional jazz, but in many ways it’s not. The same idea is there—you’re playing music and you’re improvising through it, but in these cases instead of chord changes there are raw chunks of material. It’s almost more exacting than chord changes.
TJG: I almost feel like your music lends itself to more emotionality than bebop.
KG: A lot of the classic bebop recordings make me think of playing with different attitudes, whether it’s being clever and slick, and witty—that’s how Philly Joe Jones strikes me, for instance. With lots of players that come to mind, the whole range of emotions, including joy, is in there. It’s just more subtle than total rage or metal.
TJG: I definitely do hear some metal in your playing.
KG: Yeah, both Matt [Mitchell] and I spend hours listening to metal.
TJG: Which bands?
KG: I don’t know a lot of the metal bands that everyone knows. I just know some bands that I’ve found out about. Defeated Sanity, Malignancy, Incantation, Immolation, Deeds of Flesh are some…and Wormed and Cenotaph, which both have this insane vocal multphonics thing happening that I love.
TJG: What sort of compositional approach do you take and how do you title your tunes?
KG: A lot of the titles are aesthetically driven. Part of what’s enjoyable about writing for me is the whole range of possible approaches when composing. I don’t write with the same approach every time. Sometimes it starts with an idea about a form, or sometimes it might start with a rhythmic idea, or sometimes I might write a bunch of chords or a four-part harmony chorale. Sometimes it’s at a keyboard, sometimes it’s at a guitar, sometimes it’s away from any instruments. Sometimes it’s direct brain into Finale. For the opening track on the record I had a metronome on and I sang a rhythm against the metronome and then transcribed it, which made it totally different. Sometimes you know right away that something will really sound good. Sometimes you don’t, and it’s just a theoretical idea, and then you see if you can hear it.
TJG: Do you try to write what you hear?
KG: I don’t think you have to write what you hear—I find that limiting. I think melodicism and having a good rhythmic feel is important, and good voice leading is important—that’s kind of how you make all of these weird harmonies sound good and perceptible, but I think if you write only what you hear, you don’t get to all this other awesome shit. You can hear it later—you can teach yourself to hear more by writing this kind of stuff.
“Unreasonable Optimism” is an example of me sort of freestyling what I’m hearing and not worrying about it. I find that to be one of the safer ways of composing, actually—when you hear it you know what it’s going to sound like. There’s note doubling within piano chords in some of that tune, and I went back and thought, “There’s doubling. Should I change that?” And then I think “No, that’s what I want to hear.” I love how those harmonies work. It doesn’t have to follow these rules that you can get sucked into.
TJG: What sort of harmonic theories do you use in your writing?
KG: It’s different for every tune. In “Alchemy Melt with Tilt,” I had pitch collections first, but not totally invertible pitch collections. I was thinking of one or two notes in the bass—in the bottom of the pitch collection.
TJG: It sounds akin to set theory?
KG: Well, all of these theories are ways we’ve come to organize and talk about this stuff, but really we’re just manipulating material in the full spectrum of ways it can be manipulated and perceived. It’s interesting to hear a pitch collection when it’s loose, not a specific voicing, but with predefined bass note—it highlights the importance of high and low.
Again, it’s different for every tune. Some tunes have their own rules—in my head at least. Sometimes it’s a certain logic of deciding “these intervals are ‘yes'” and “these intervals are ‘no’”. Sometimes it’s intervals within a voicing, sometimes it’s a decided tonal center. Sometimes I’ll work out all of the harmonic stuff ahead of time and then figure out how to fit it with a melodic shape I’m hearing, and then make that shape voice lead through those harmonies.
TJG: It sounds like a lot of your music is written in unison voicing between Matt and Jeremy, and sometimes even you playing the head on the drums.
KG: Yeah, there’s already a lot of complexity and counterpoint, so clarity is important. Matt can play both parts. “Stars Covered in Clouds of Metal” is all rhythmic unison until the melody, then the melody is counterpoint, but the whole point is that we’re all playing this beat together. “Trapezoidal Nirvana” is really unison. And I put those tracks next to each other because they’re related in that way, and one sort of functions like a shorter, more electronic intro to the other one. But really only the first two tracks on the album are in that kind of unison. Maybe they give a false impression of the entire album.
TJG: Can we listen to “Trapezoidal Nirvana?”
KG: Yeah, that one is very decidedly unison. It’s sort of deliberately long-winded, like thoroughly exhausting a train of thought. And the unison makes it very focused.
TJG: What’s going on in this middle part?
KG: This is open improv. We’re playing in the moment, whatever felt like the right amount of playing the tune versus listening, instigating, reacting—just after this tightly controlled thing, kind of ‘letting loose’.
TJG: This portion almost makes me picture tearing down a building. Do you imagine concepts while you’re playing?
KG: Yeah, I think through all kinds of abstract things when improvising, or sometimes just not thinking at all. In the next section I love the idea of this bassline coming out of a mess of stuff and not just jumping into the next section.
TJG: Is that transition planned?
KG: Not really, but we know when someone reintroduces the melody not to all just jump back to it immediately, to build it up instead. We did have to limit the improvisations to some degree—I wanted everything to fit on one record!
TJG: Jeremy has such a rich low tone on clarinet. Do you decide when he plays clarinet or tenor?
KG: For the Mannequins stuff, mostly I did. If Jeremy suggests something or feels strongly one way or the other I always consider it. Sometimes the choice just depends on range—the music can be too high for saxophone. But I also wanted to expand the musical palette from just standard jazz quartet. I also have vibes, and Matt just got his Prophet-6 and added some laptop stuff after recording.
TJG: It’s interesting considering the attitude of the music that you have such a chamber-like setup. Would you ever consider playing with an electric guitar?
KG: I love guitar, and I would totally have a guitar player in this band if it wasn’t for Matt. But for the actual material, Matt really just gets where I’m coming from and can play it all so easily. A lot of my voicings don’t fit on guitar. For our new music, we just played at The Silent Barn with a guitar on two tunes, and Dustin Carlson did a great job adapting the voicings. But to play all the music and fit it on guitar is so impractical. Piano can play both parts, so it can glue everything together. If you listen to any of the tunes where there’s a bassline and Matt is playing the bassline and the harmony, there’s a clarity in hearing how the parts fit together and hearing them as separate parts that you can’t get otherwise. Matt’s a pretty aggressive pianist too—he plays louder than any other pianist I’ve ever played with, so now whenever I play with other pianists I feel like I have to play really quietly but it’s actually just “normal” I guess. Matt just gets so much sound, and I just take that for granted. But there’s also room in this music for him to play Prophet, which can act almost like a distorted guitar in its sound. It has so many sound options and Matt really crafts the sounds so well.
TJG: Where does the “Trapezoid” part of the title come from?
KG: We have a sort of half-joking rule in Snark Horse where if you take one of the 1-bar tunes and write a longer tune from it, you have to keep the same title. Most of the titles are from before it was even a band, when we were just goofing around, so some of them are really silly. I think “Trapezoidal Nirvana” was one of those, and “Micronesia Parakeet” too.
I think both those phrases originally came from a spam mail poem. Do you ever get those spam mails where they’re just like 20 words and arranged like a poem, and don’t really mean anything?
TJG: No, I don’t get good spam.
KG: It’s not common—I’ve only gotten them like twice, but it’s a goldmine for words like that.
TJG: What is the thread that holds the album together?
KG: There is a thread, but it’s so abstract I’m not sure I can put it in words. There are so many approaches, and I try to be inclusive of all of them when playing and when writing. I try to challenge my own rules and play devil’s advocate. If you go through all of the different approaches, it becomes a really thorough way of filtering yourself. The more you put out there and the more you try, the closer you can get to distilling what you’re looking for. The album isn’t intended to be self-defining—it’s not supposed to be a representation of me, but it is music that I would want to hear as a listener.
TJG: Can we talk about “Wrack?” For me, I find it to be one of your more danceable tunes.
KG: So “Xenomorphic” is kind of the intro to “Wrack.” It’s all one take really.
TJG: There do seem to be moments where you will follow Matt or vice-versa and you’ll interject something different over the form polyrhythmically.
KG: Yeah, it’s not necessarily polyrhythmic—it’s just playing in a way that goes against what may be going on. It’s just jazz rhythms really, the kind of stuff that the second Miles Davis quintet did—like obscuring forms while keeping them.
TJG: In the last interview with Jazz Speaks you spoke about making polyrhythms feel natural, and practicing them to the point where they’re natural for you. How natural has polyrhythm become to you? Are you able to hear two melodies or hear in two rhythms before notating them?
KG: Sometimes, or sometimes I imagine these vague shapes that are in counterpoint with different types of harmonies. It’s not super pitch-specific in my brain, but close. It’s sort of a blurry thing. I think our brains are amazing. As humans, I think we underestimate what we’re capable of as far as having things fully assimilated. Sure, it’s harder with polyrhythms because they’re less common in western music aside from 2 against 3, but I do think the capacity is there for them to be just as normal as everything else. People talk about math music or math jazz and I’m starting to really hate those terms. Everything is math. The universe is math. Even the most organic things on the planet are all math if you break it down far enough. It’s part of the fabric of everything, so to make music that reflects the universe shouldn’t be a bad thing. Music that gets at more complex feelings or aesthetics requires more complicated material sometimes.
TJG: Why do you think music in 3 or 4 resonates so much in western culture?
KG: Well, for one, familiarity. Secondly, simple manipulations—doubling, for example—of the lowest numbers.
TJG: Do you think we as people like simple?
KG: Sure, I think that’s part of it. People say music in 4 is easier to dance to, but that’s just one kind of dance. Music in 4 never makes me want to dance, or if it does it’s very rare. Music that feels crazy, whether if it’s in an odd meter, or something different altogether, that’s the stuff that makes me want to move. I felt like a weirdo about that, but then Tyshawn Sorey posted on Facebook that he feels similarly, independent of anything I had said, so I’m not alone.
TJG: Do you think a long-form polyrhythm has a different effect on our perception than something you might just do within a bar?
KG: Yeah, I think about the effects of all possible rhythms. It’s an overwhelming, vast sea of options.
TJG: And you think it’s all danceable?
KG: Yeah, dancing is just movement, at least in my mind, and movement is infinite the same way sound is, so why not?
So much depends on the phrasing and the context. I think it’s important that when we’re talking about all this stuff, it’s conveyed that there’s this spectrum of all of these different rhythmic possibilities, and not that we’re just in 5, or 7, or playing polyrhythmic music. There’s insane music that’s in 4 but feels deceptive because of how the rhythms are combined with melodic and harmonic material, and where the accents are. People talk about polyrhythmic music, and many who haven’t heard my record think a certain thing when they see those words, and that’s not really what this music is.
I think so-called “intellectual” and “emotional music” are not these things that are inherently opposed. I find they come together more than they diverge. Regardless of whether you’re a musician or not, I think you can enjoy music like this. I think a lot of people have this feeling that they can’t enjoy listening to something unless they feel they understand it. It’s not like you’re missing anything. You’re hearing the same thing. It’s all right there. However you perceive it is how you perceive it, and that’s fine. There isn’t a secret club where you have to be privy to knowing how to count all these rhythms and knowing all of these intervals, you’re allowed to just enjoy it.