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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

At the last installation of the TIME CAPSULE residency, Kassa Overall and Sullivan Fortner traveled to outer space. With Fortner on B3 organ, Rhodes, and piano, the two musicians charter a path to a completely improvised world of sparkling rhythms and melodies. In Overall’s words, “After the first set, I felt like we had just finished getting a spa treatment.”

In our fifth interview, Overall told us about a few more of his current projects, how they feed into and result from the ongoing TIME CAPSULE residency, and the upcoming show with Kris Davis and Stephan Crump.

The Jazz Gallery: You mentioned that you’re in the middle of doing some remixes?

Kassa Overall: Man, it’s exciting. I’ve had some recent opportunities to give guest DJ mixes to different radio stations. The first one was for KMHD, the main jazz radio station in Portland, and the one I’m working on now is for BBC 6, which has Gilles Peterson, new music, jazz, quasi-jazz vibes, everything. KMHD hit me up about doing an interview to promote a show in Portland, and they said I could also do a guest DJ mix. So I started taking recordings by some of my favorite jazz friends, chopping up their songs, and adding a little production to the tracks. I took a Jon Batiste song from his piano and voice album, chopped it up, and added drums. I did it to a Vijay Iyer song, a Charles Tolliver song, an Esperanza song. It was like, “If this were my album, this is what I would have done.” You know?

TJG: Like you were being a producer, in a way?

KO: Yeah. It’s remixing, but a little more creative. Somewhere between sampling and remixing. When we make something, we often think about defining it first, then making it from that context. If you say “I’m gonna make a remix,” and you start making a remix, you assume all these positions, you assume what it is to remix something. You might limit how much you add original content. When sampling songs, people often just sample four to eight seconds. When you think about it, you realize these definitions break up the creative process. So when I started to really dig in, I got excited. I was having a bit of writer’s block, and wasn’t really getting excited about anything creative. Then I started working on these remixes, and I got that excited feeling. I worked for three days, and at the end of it, I knew I had something good. KMHD played it on the radio and loved it. Now I’m working on a thirty-minute version for BBC 6. I’m currently chopping up one of my favorite songs from Makaya McCraven’s new album Universal Beings.

TJG: This isn’t so different from what you’re doing with TIME CAPSULE.

KO: Exactly. It’s all related experimentation with the idea of finished-work-as-source-material. It’s a big circle. This song, I realized, has the same chord changes as the Nas and Lauryn Hill song “If I Ruled The World” from 1996. Once I figured that out, boom, I started chopping that up, and now I’m in this big rabbit hole.

TJG: You think this is connecting some neurons around what you’re about to do with the residency?

KO: Yeah. Honestly, it’s all the same kind of experimentation. In every project, you lean more heavily on one aspect or another. But they say there’s nothing new under the sun. The key is letting go of that mental inhibitor that says “Nah, I can’t do that,” or “That’s too sacred.” From time to time I think about the Campbell’s Soup Cans that Andy Warhol did. I’m sure it was the early version of trolling, in a sense, but half the people were like, “Oh my god, amazing, it’s Campbell’s Soup!” And then the other half were like “I can’t believe you like this guy.” Anyone could have that thought, but to take the time to do it in its best possible way. It takes a certain amount of courage.

TJG: You had a nice writeup in DownBeat last week. You’ve just been talking about how there’s nothing new under the sun, and that came up in the DownBeat piece as well, especially as it relates to ‘the jazz community.’ You’re in the prime of your career, you’re doing amazing stuff, yet when you talk to people, you still have to say “Yeah, this is jazz too, I’m pushing it forward.” Does it surprise you to find that this conversation about your work takes up so much of your time?

KO: I’m not surprised. But I’m starting to get bored. Speaking of samplers, I’m starting to feel like a broken record. I’m just trying to make some art, and to make it in whatever way feels right. We all have hangups about our creative processes. It is what it is. We all have great stuff in us, but we also have little voices in our heads that make us second-guess our ideas. When I start going to war with those voices, I’m going to war with everyone’s voices: We spend so much time trying to make something everyone likes, but whatever you make can’t rise above the noise if it is homogenous with the norm.

There’s so much content out there that’s a “perfect version” of whatever you’re looking for. For free. On YouTube. And on top of that, there’s this polarizing nature where people don’t care about your stuff unless it’s provocative. We’re super judgmental, especially in 2019. It’s almost like everyone on the internet is watching [laughs]. People will say, “Did you hear how so-and-so reacted to so-and-so who was speaking about so-and-so?” YouTube videos are literally like that, and we all watch them, comment on them. Damn, bro, it takes courage to be up there and think out loud. It’s easy to sit down with an idea, perfect your idea, try to build something no one can break into pieces, and then share it. But to stand up and be real in real time, that’s becoming really hard, because there are so many eyes on us the whole time. I practice thinking out loud these days, and if people connect with it, they might say “Well, that was definitely just him.”

TJG: I like that as a way of thinking about improvising, and about connecting with truth. With this new album, you must feel like you don’t have to verbally prove yourself so much anymore. People can ask you what you’re about artistically, and instead of saying “I’m this, this, and this,” you can just say, “Check out the album. Listen.”

KO: That’s the first step for sure. I didn’t realize how big of a step it is, but it definitely changes things when you have something to point to. You come across different people and different opportunities all the time, and if you don’t have something to point to that represents you in some kind of cohesive way, it’s hard. It’s hard to be like, “Watch my YouTube video from 2014, then look at this drum solo, read this poem, mix it all together, and that’s me” [laughs].

TJG: You have to take that extra step and mix it together for them. And for you, of course. I know you didn’t just do it for the fans [laughs].

KO: Of course. I definitely did it for me first. After the Aaron Parks show, I was like, “Man, I’m working with some really powerful musicians. They don’t need anything.” My preparation for Sullivan’s show was just to practice every day. We got up there and improvised for two sets: It felt so good. After the first set, I felt like we had just finished getting a spa treatment. It was so relaxing. The crowd dug it too. We’re trying to figure out how we can tour around the world doing this. If that could become the project, that would be a nice little period of life.

TJG: You think that’s about marketing, then? What’s the key to making that happen?

KO: It’d be easy to put out a project of just that, an hour of Kassa and Sullivan improvising together, and tour it. We’re not going to recreate the sounds from that album, we’ll get up and improvise every night, but that would be easy to put together, you know? I think people would really dig it. People are thirsty for that thinking-out-loud energy.

TJG: I hope that comes together! I’d love to check that out.

KO: Yeah, we’re gonna try to get it happening. He played B3 organ, Rhodes, and piano at The Gallery.

TJG: You must be looking forward to sampling it.

KO: I already am. I’m getting into it.

TJG: I want to ask about Kris Davis. Have you done some playing with Kris before?

KO: Very little. We played a gig with Peter Evans in Brooklyn last year, and I played with her for the Geri Allen tribute at Harvard. Kris is insane, man. She’s dope. Stephan Crump is going to be on bass, and they have a trio with Eric McPherson, so I know they already have chemistry. We had a rehearsal about a week ago. I wanted to try something different, so for the first half of the rehearsal, she played Rhodes, Stephan played bass, and I had a mic where I ran my vocals through my laptop, running through a plugin that set my voice to a chromatic pitch collection. Because it’s chromatic, even though it can sound processed or auto-tuned, you can also still take it out. We did a bunch of spontaneous improvisations, and in the rehearsal, it definitely went out. They were into it, and said, “Do that while playing drums!” So for the second half of the rehearsal, I was doing vocals, improvisational stuff, and playing drums at the same time. That’s gonna be the concept. I recorded the rehearsal and I want to chop that up too [laughs]. It was instantly a nice, and a much different texture than the prior gigs.

TJG: This sounds cool. Super different from the previous shows.

KO: I’m trying to break away. As we’re getting toward the final few shows, I’m trying to get some textures that are different, so I have more stuff to work with.

TJG: Are you starting to get a vibe from the Gallery space and audience itself, as you return with these different bands throughout the residency?

KO: The vibe for each gig has been totally different. Each of these musicians has their own special flavor, and they attract their own crowds. But there are a lot of people who have been at all the shows. A girl at the last show came up and introduced herself, I said “Nice to meet you, thanks for coming,” and she was like “I’ve been to every one!” But you know, the vibe has been different on every gig, because the shows are really about the pianists, and they have their own draw.

TJG: This continues to be exciting. I appreciate you taking a little time every month to get me up to speed about your residency.

KO: It’s good for me too, processing my thoughts. Also, one more thing to throw in there: I’m working on a new record. I’m trying to cut it down to ten tracks, and I have too many already. I’ll just tell you that much for now: We’ll talk more about it next time.

Kassa Overall continues his TIME CAPSULE residency at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 25, 2019. Mr. Overall, on drums, will be joined by Kris Davis on piano and Stephan Crump on bass. 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.