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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Graphic by Mia Nazzaro

On Thursday, November 7, 2019, alto saxophonist and EWIer Alfredo Colon returns to The Jazz Gallery for a debut presentation and live recording of Lookalike, a trio featuring Colon alongside bassist Steve Williams and drummer Henry Mermer. In recent years, Colon has been turning heads playing in the post-vaporwave collective Secret Mall and leading his own projects, most recently Big Head, a quartet with pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Connor Parks. We caught up with Colon by phone to discuss his new trio and its inspirations.

The Jazz Gallery: What have you been up to since your last performance at the Gallery back in June? 

Alfredo Colon: I’ve just been trying to write as much music as possible lately. I’m a person who has a ton of ideas and in the past didn’t commit to them, so my thing this year has been—I’ve been having a lot of moments when I’m like, “This will be cool”—so I’ve been trying to get the ball rolling with whatever that may be and committing to it. 

TJG: When did you, Steve, and Henry first play together?

AC: Probably early this year, around May. We just got together and played free at New School. 

I always like when I get together and improvise with people, then listen back to the recording and it sounds like something written. There’s intention to everything, everyone’s present; it’s not sqounking about, just making noise. I ended up writing some material that fit the vibe. Steve and Henry brought some compositions, and it’s become its own thing now. 

TJG: That reminds me of a thing I heard Steve Lehman say about composing, which was that he sometimes found inspiration from listening back to recordings and expanding from particular improvised moments. Are there songs that you wrote with a similar approach? 

AC: Yeah, there’s quite a few of them. The thing is, these guys always get me to play something that I otherwise wouldn’t: Steve is a master of rhythm, so he’s always got something that can either throw me off or push me in a direction I’ve never gone in before. Henry’s kind of a mysterious player, so the way the two play forces me to play stuff I usually don’t. 

There’s a song that’s the opener of the set, which is from a moment I played with them. Some of the lines I played were very me, but not me, I guess. I transcribed them and they became the melody for one of the tunes in the tunes you’ll hear on the 7th. 

TJG: It’s an interesting situation as a bandleader because you can decide what level of comfort or familiarity want in terms of the rhythm section, like if you deliberately want a configuration that will push you more or challenge you.

AC: Yeah, there are situations where you’ll be put in that, like with people you’ve never played with before. It’s terrifying, and you grasp for what you can and hope for the best. When you’re a bandleader, you get to control how much of that there is. You get to pick and choose who you play with, obviously. 

I get the best of both worlds in this band: Steve is probably the person I hang out with and see the most aside from my roommates and my girlfriend, but he knows what I’m capable of—sometimes more than I do, you know? And he’ll push me. We play like we’re finishing each other’s sentences sometimes, and it’s really a magical thing. I’m lucky to have that.

Henry is the person I’ve been playing with the most more recently, so there’s still that freshness when they both play together. It catches me off guard, but I have that trust with both. I’ll go to space with them, but I always have that safety blanket—that these guys got me no matter what—and I can play recklessly and just go for it while knowing that I’ll come back eventually.

TJG: Would you describe yourself as a person who likes to rehearse a lot, or no?

AC: Yeah, I do like to rehearse a lot. There are bands like Secret Mall I’m in where a lot of it is stuff that needs to be tight for it to sound good. You can only do that by getting together and playing it over and over again with the same people. 

With this band, it’s more like, let’s play it differently every time, so you can only do that a certain amount of times back to back before it gets stale. With these guys, it always becomes this new things and builds and builds into something. Even when we play a standard, they provide that same feeling. 

TJG: Having led and co-led a number of bands in recent years, what sorts of things have you learned about band leading say with Secret Mall then Big Head? Anything that informed the approach putting together and rehearsing this band? Things that worked better or not as well, things you’re still curious to try?

AC: Personally, I think as a bandleader, it’s kind of an excuse to hang out with people. We know we’re going to play regardless; we’re going to hang, but there’s a context to the hang. 

In the case of Secret Mall, it’s people I love so much and they’re my best friends who happen to play music. In other cases like Big Head, that band was people I really liked hanging out with, but who I don’t get to see too often. 

This new thing is like a mix of the two, where half of the band is people I don’t get to play with all the time, and the other half is someone I see almost every day. For me, I know there’s a lot of cats that always try to do the “Always hire the best cats you can, you’re in New York, you might as well.” I like that too, but there’s something special about getting together with your best buds. 

TJG: The saxophone trio has a distinct history set apart from the classic sax quartet and two-horn/three-rhythm quintet formats. Is that something you’re conscious of when composing for the ensemble?

AC: Yes. I’ve noticed a lot of my peers and younger people, when they get their first gig at the Gallery, there’s the, “Here’s my quartet,” very safe thing that people do—tried and true, it’s going to work and sound great. For the second thing, “Here’s my octet” or “Here’s my big band,” and they’re usually really good, but I tend to leave with this feeling of, “Man, I didn’t hear the cat that’s leading this thing that much.” 

I don’t know, I like hearing as much of everyone as possible, and that’s probably why I don’t like big band that much [laughs]. But in a trio, there’s nowhere to hide. You’re out in the open, and feel like I’ve enjoyed my favorite players in this setting where they have to play as much as possible. 

For this trio, I was listening to a lot of Happy Apple, which is big in my rotation; Mike Lewis is probably in my top five favorite saxophone players of all time. Specifically, there’s one live recording of Ornette with Charlie Haden and his son Denardo; everything in that recording is beautiful. Of course, there’s also Lee Konitz, Motion—that trio’s amazing. Sonny Rollins on Way Out West

I think trio is one of the places where everyone sounds like they get to do what they really want to do. There’s some Sonny Rollins playing a country song, or the Happy Apple guys doing what they do best, just rock out. I wanted to do a little bit of that myself. The Fly trio has also been a huge inspiration as well; I was literally talking to Steve about it minutes before you called.

TJG: I remember reading an interview with Melissa Aldana where she’s asked why she decided on trio as her primary ensemble vehicle, and her answer was to the effect of she wanted to just get better, and that was the context that would push her the most to grow.

AC: Yeah, that’s definitely it for me too. Again, playing with cats that push me, having nowhere to hide—that’s kind of the main point of this.  

TJG: How about Jason Rigby’s trio with Cameron Brown and Gerald Cleaver?

AC: Yeah, of course. He was my teacher for three and a half years, and they used to play at Cornelia Street all the time. I wanted to have a sound as big as Rigby’s, and I still do. I’d show up as early as possible and sit right in front of Rigby. 

It’s funny because Rigby, he’s really blunt all the time; he’ll say out loud how he’s feeling. The first time I went, I remember there was a moment when he mumbled to himself. He seemed pissed off that day, and he said, “Man, my music sounds terrible today.” And he turned to the band and said, “Y’all just want to play?” and they nodded in agreement and they improvised, and it sounded better than music I could ever write. 

That’s kind of my goal, to have a unit like that.  

TJG: On the tracks from your April gig, I hear this kind of overflowing, overspilling quality in the improvisations that reminds me of fiery, energy-type music of the 60s. 

AC: Yeah, that was the vibe I’m going for. I don’t think I’m a really good composer [laughs]. I’m a much better composer than player I’d say; honestly I considered playing free with them for two sets. A lot of those tunes are “Here’s the context, and you make it up.” I like music like that. 

Also speaking of trios I didn’t mention earlier, there’s Andrew D’Angelo’s trio. There’s one called “25 Hits,” and they just play 25 hits and they go for it. Or “Gay Disco,” it’s a super short form they play a couple times, then they just go for it. I really like stuff like that. It’s like a short story: There’s a short statement, you’re presented with that, and you fit with the vibe for a while. 

TJG: Matt Brewer’s trio with Mark Shim?

AC: I’m a huge fan of that stuff. I took a lesson with Mark a while back and it was super eye-opening. He’s one of those cats that will tell you straight up, “You either pull your weight or you get out.” That’s an attitude has been a huge inspiration for me. 

Also, being in front of his sound is like the most inspiring thing you could ever experience as a saxophone player. I’ve heard entire saxophone sections sound quieter than him. He’s one of those players that always does it for me.

TJG: Anyone else in particular come to mind?

AC: Jackie McLean is one of those guys who’s always been a huge, huge inspiration. Recently I’ve been checking out this record Dr. Jackle, which I was put on to by Matt Lavelle. That record is like the scariest record ever; I think nothing’s in tune. The piano is out, the bass sounds super muddy, and the whole record’s out of focused in terms of how it’s recorded, but the energy is crazy. They go to outer space.

There’s one track, “Melody for Melonae,” it’s super spooky and the piano solo is this wild hodgepodge. I think they got lost and they go free for a while, and Jackie brings it back in with this attitude, like Jackie’s saying “Fuck you—I’m going to play me and that’s it.” 

Also, a ton of Dolphy lately, especially Far Cry and the Mal Waldron’s The Quest. Dolphy plays some crazy alto solos and also some soprano clarinet. That one also has the same thing as the Big Head vibe where they play short heads, like eight bar heads, and they go for it. Also I’ve been checking out a lot of Henry Threadgill like Makin’ a Move. 

One of my first teachers, JT Lewis, was in actually that band. He used to mentor me when I was at York College. A lot of the people from the jazz program are on the scene right now doing a lot great things. Shout out to Austin Williamson and Isaiah Barr from Onyx Collective, and Malik McLaurine—you can always catch him at Smalls late night, a great bass player.

TJG: I’m sorry to ask this, but what’s your current alto set-up?

AC: I’m kind of back and forth. I’m playing on the Greg Osby P Mauriat. It’s a funky horn: When you’re playing it, it feels like an old Conn. It’s got that back pressure kind of thing, and you can put a lot of air through it and it doesn’t give up. I feel like with a lot of modern Selmers or Yamahas there’s a limit, but with this you can keep going. It’s like an old American horn, but with the action of a modern Mark VI style horn. 

As for mouthpieces, I was on a Syos, like a Meyer 6 but with a rollover baffle. If you angle your air a certain way you can really fuck up your sound, which is what I wanted, but I went back to Meyer and I could do that suddenly, but also get a very clear, in-tune, precise sound when I wanted to. It’s the same Meyer 6 I’ve had since I was 12. 

And LaVoz reeds, the hardest one; I think it just says “Hard.” Those reeds and the Syos ring, the 3-D printed ligature. I don’t do anything fancy to the reeds or anything, just put them on and play. 

TJG: What are you excited about next?

AC: Recently, a friend had a whole day to whatever she wanted at an art gallery space, so she asked me to play a solo EWI set. That was terrifying because I’ve never played solo before. Talk about nowhere to hide! Using Ableton, I took all the songs that I’ve never finished but that had a vibe to themselves, and I made segments where I could trigger them with Ableton, leaving open spaces where I could do whatever I wanted to, seguing from a snippet of a song to the next. 

In New York, the reality is there’s not a lot of money in places, so sometimes it makes more sense to do a solo thing than bring in a whole band. It would also make sense to travel with a solo show, although traveling by yourself is kind of lonely. It’s something I’m looking into and building, trying to get an hour, hour and a half set together.

I’ve also written a bunch of new stuff for Secret Mall. We have some covers of things, eventually we might do a video shoot. I also got new Big Head charts ready to go and play whenever. 

So a ton of writing and new EWI stuff for the tl;dr. 

TJG: Anything else you want to say before we wrap up?

AC: A big shoutout to Henry, the drummer on this gig. It’s his very first time playing at the Gallery and he’s pretty new to the city, so I want to urge people to check him out. He has a super unique vibe; I would compare it to the feeling playing with Tom Rainey, where there’s a big hurricane around you, but Henry’s less of a fiery vibe and more of a spooky, watery, mysterious kind of sound. 

He’s already making big moves. He recently did something with Mary Halvorson, and he’s like the perfect guy for that kind of music. I think everyone should take note of that name, because he’s definitely going to be doing a lot of great things soon. 

Alfredo Colon and Look-Alike play The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 7, 2019. The group features Mr. Colon on alto saxophone, Steve Williams on bass, and Henry Mermer on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved table seating ($10 for Members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.