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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Kassa Overall’s six-month residency continues strong into its third installation with an upcoming show featuring pianist Aaron Parks. Not only does Overall bring two prior performances (with Jon Batiste and Jason Moran) to this next show, he is also celebrating the release of a new album. Go Get Ice Cream and Listen To Jazz has already received praise from various outlets such as The New York Times, and features the likes of Theo Croker, Carmen Lundy, Mike King, Carlos Overall, Judi Jackson and the late Roy Hargrove. In our recent conversation with Kassa Overall, we talked all about the new album, and how it relates to the ongoing TIME CAPSULE residency at the Gallery. 

The Jazz Gallery: What brings you from Brooklyn to Toronto?

Kassa Overall: I’m seeing an art installation by an artist named Nep Sidhu, he does the art outfits for people like Erykah Badu and Shibazz Palaces, he’s a real non-commercial type cat, and this is his first big showing, so I’m up here checking that out. My girl is a writer and she’s covering it: I like going to these things, checking out the scene, meeting people, getting ideas, that kind of vibe.

TJG: Since we last spoke, you released a new album. It’s so hip! I can’t believe you didn’t mention it last time we talked.

KO: Thanks man. I guess I compartmentalize things a bit. I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned it either [laughs]. I played drums on everything, and I did the production on everything. The album also relates to TIME CAPSULE in that the sound of the acoustic piano is a strong centerpiece. Mike King is on “The Sky Diver,” Sullivan Fortner is on a few tracks, Julius Rodriguez is on a few tracks. It’s similar to the hip-hop approach to making an album, in that rather than one fixed personnel, I did a track here, a track there. We did the piano recording for Sullivan’s parts in his living room, you get the idea.

TJG: And who else was involved?

KO: Stephan Crump is on a track on bass, Daryl Johns is on a track, Anthony Weir is on flute. I can’t really remember everybody off the top, but credits will be out soon. I haven’t put them up yet, I was rushing to the deadline with the album, and the fact that it got out in time was amazing. I’m still working on things. I should have vinyl soon too.

TJG: It’s probably hard to have perspective on the album since you’re so deep in it, especially since you were doing your own production, in which case you’re staring at samples and waveforms and you’re so close up. We’ve been talking about your perception of your identity, how it’s grown and changed, and how sometimes people don’t really “get you” right away. This album feels like everything you’ve been talking about, right on one, easy-to-understand place. Does this feel like your most cohesive thing yet?

KO: I would say this is my most cohesive statement. In a sense, that was the goal, the idea in action. A lot of songs don’t have vocals but still have raps. Some feature the drums, but not necessarily as a “drum solo.” When I set the release date, I had finished about six songs, and I had a couple more ideas. Once I realized what I had, as far as the track listing, I edited certain songs to make them fit the concept more. I added a drum and organ track, some interludes in a few songs, so it could move from a beat with raps to a free jazz sound, back into the beat, it’s all intentional. This album also sets the landscape for me to do more stuff. Now I feel like I can do the next thing, and people understand what I’m doing.

TJG: Tell me about how the album ties into The Jazz Gallery residency. Both involve the drums/piano relationship, both involve sampling, both are happening at the same time in your life. What’s the cross-talk?

KO: I feel like the TIME CAPSULE series was created, in a sense, to set up the story of what I’m doing. The album takes the same approach. It was made with the knowledge that people may not initially understand my approach. Now that it’s out, people can understand the approach. With TIME CAPSULE, the music is happening before I’ve started cutting up samples. Just by hearing the shows, you’re prepped, you have an idea of the intention. The TIME CAPSULE shows are more “This is what I’m gonna do, come watch me, and I’ll present it,” and the album has less of an explanation, but you can still understand the idea behind it.

TJG: How was it on stage with Jason Moran?

KO: Man, it was great. It was really great. A few close friends said it was the best performance they’d heard me put on before. That was a high compliment. I’ve done a lot of performances in my life, and it wasn’t like we had been rehearsing over and over and over. We stuck to the idea of sketches and left space to find new things. I think it had everything to do with the people involved. Jason, Evan Flory-Barnes on bass, and myself, we’re all very creative, spontaneous people, and there was so much that happened on stage that surprised me. It gave the listener a really unique experience.

TJG: Continuing on with Aaron Parks, how did you guys start playing together, and how’d you rope him into the project?

KO: I’ve known Aaron since sixth grade [laughs]. Yeah, it’s funny. There are all types of relationships that get formed all over the years. Aaron and I were playing in an after-school band program together. He walked in one day, hopped on the piano, and everybody in the room was like “What the hell was that,” you know [laughs]. We’ve been trying to get together for years. I DJ and rap in Terri Lyne Carrington’s new project with him.

TJG: I just checked out a video from that project, because I just interviewed Morgan Guerin, who plays in her band as well.

KO: Oh yeah, yeah yeah yeah. He’s dope. Anyway, Aaron’s on that, so we’ve been hanging a lot. We’ve also been trying to find a reason to do something together. I have tracks with Aaron on them that didn’t end up on this album, but I have more songs that are in the works. We talked about doing a whole project at some point together. He’s just a good friend and a special player.

TJG: What are you looking forward to, based on how it all shook out with Jon Batiste? And what are you excited about, in terms of being on stage with Aaron at the Gallery?

KO: Over the shows with Jon and Jason, we’ve developed a concept. Originally, I was going to have a sax player on the gig with Aaron, but I think the idea is stronger to keep it drums and piano with a bass accompanist, staying with a consistent concept. Now, at this point, we have certain things that will be on every gig. We have, you know, sections where it’ll be piano by itself, drums by itself. We played “Unconditional Love” by Geri Allen on both gigs, so I want to play that song on every gig, and figure out a way to piece the different performances into some kind of collage–I’m really excited to work on that.

The thing that’ll be different about Aaron is Aaron. We’ve already gotten together. He brought a few original ideas in, and I recorded him playing some stuff in his living room on his Steinway. I decided to start messing with the idea of presenting what I’m going to do in post-production/demo format. I recorded some of Aaron’s ideas, and have started figuring out what I can do with him before we even record the Jazz Gallery stuff. Also, the show’s going to be on Valentine’s Day, so we’ll come with that other level of sensitivity.

TJG: Speaking of Valentine’s Day, you mentioned your girlfriend is a writer?

KO: Yeah she is. Her name is Lauren Du Graf, she’s a freelancer right now. She got her PhD in comparative literature, and has done a lot of academic writing on existentialism, French film, this whole other world of awesome stuff that’s influencing me in a great way. For the last year or so, she’s been doing a lot of writing about music and art in a more journalistic fashion. She just got her first thing in The New Yorker a week ago, she’s been in The New York Times, Oxford American, she’s really going in. Talking to her, observing her work, has really helped the way I think about the art creation process. Talking to people like you, who are writing about what I’m doing, is helping a lot too. I’m realizing that yeah, you can make something that’s cool, but where it’s placed in the narrative of the bigger picture is so important for people’s ability to attach themselves to it. I used to think people would write about music to try to sell a project, and it would have some kind of negative aspect to it. Now, I’m realizing that part of writing music, and writing about music, is answering the why question, and connecting the work to everything and everyone else, to other humans who aren’t necessarily musicians.

Kassa Overall continues his TIME CAPSULE residency at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, February 14, 2019. Mr. Overall, on drums, will be joined by Aaron Parks on piano. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.