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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Spencer Ostrander, courtesy of the artist.

Over the last six months, Kassa Overall composed, improvised, and took musical risks at The Jazz Gallery alongside six deeply contrasting pianists. Each session was meticulously recorded, generating raw material for Overall to sample, recompose, and produce. Now, Overall (plus some surprise guests) will return to The Jazz Gallery for two final nights showcasing the results of the long-form experiment. The Jazz Gallery will effectively become a live production studio, and audience members will witness a new kind of re-contextualization, improvisation, and listening experience.

Jazz Speaks writer Noah Fishman interviewed Kassa Overall every month for half a year, following Overall’s creative process and growth. It’s our pleasure to present their final conversation, serving as both a retrospective and a nod to the future.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to start by asking you to briefly describe your big-picture lessons from each show.

Kassa Overall: With Jon Batiste, I had no idea where we were headed. It was a great adventure. Afterwards, I felt confident about the whole series. I realized that I had high-level musicians, and it wasn’t so much about over-preparing, but rather creating a space for everybody. If I did that, then they could shine. The first show gave me that perspective.

Jason Moran’s set had the most earthly intensity of all the shows. Between him and bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, there was a lot of power on stage. After that one, I remember thinking, “I’m playing with some heavy-hitters, and I gotta make sure my drum chops are on the right level.”

With Aaron Parks, we leaned in with the Valentine’s Day energy. With that one, I realized the importance of setting a tone for each show. After that show, there were still some remnants of the Jason Moran thought. So I decided to practice every day for thirty days.

With Sullivan Fortner’s set, I was beginning to understand that as well as having these great musicians, I had to prepare myself, and put myself in the right space. I though, “Let me just prepare on my own.” I gave Sullivan a piano, B3, and Rhodes, and I practiced every day. Then we just improvised. That was the first set where I decided to improvise the whole set: For the rest of the shows, it was all improvisational.

With Kris Davis, again, the thought was, “How can I set the stage?” With this one, I decided to incorporate my vocals and effects. That one was one of the most intense shows. Ever. Especially the first set. A new thing opened up. It was faith-affirming in the idea of spontaneity.

This all lead me to Craig Taborn. We couldn’t get into the Gallery to rehearse, so we decided to just walk around the city and talk. That was our rehearsal. Again, it was assurance that there’s something to spontaneity, to preparing in a way that’s not typically considered preparing. It was another amazing experience. I was shocked at how we arrived at a concept without really discussing it. We just talked about what we love about music. Through that, we created an identity.

This whole experience has brought me to a realization. It’s great to prepare music, but there are many ways of preparing: Don’t use preparation as a creative crutch. Don’t use preparation as a way of saying, “I can’t improvise, so I’m going to perfectly orchestrate all of this stuff. It’ll sound like I’m improvising, but what I’m really doing is a magic trick, a circus act.” Now, I’m really trying to accept that that’s what people like. There’s a time to cut the edges off the crust. There are times to make things more correct. But don’t sacrifice the magic of spontaneity.

TJG: We’ve talked on the phone every month for half a year. A huge amount has happened: You’ve done this whole residency, collaborating with six different pianists and some bassists too. You released an album. You’ve toured. You lead a band at The Blue Note. Can you go back through the last few months and tell me about something that you could not have anticipated?

KO: Honestly, the whole thing, from then until now, I had no idea. The whole time. I still feel like that. I’ve never had any idea. All I did was my best. I didn’t know how the album was gonna sound before I was sending it in for mastering. Every moment along the way has been laced with uncertainty.

One thing that I couldn’t have anticipated was the stress. I thought I would get used to it, but I really didn’t. I always get nervous before I play, and I thought I’d eventually stop getting nervous. The reality is, you never stop getting nervous. I just started being able to handle the stress.

There’s a term, ‘eustress’ that’s on the opposite pole of distress. Stress that makes you healthier, somehow. Stress that builds you into a better kind of character. I’ve developed an ability to handle stress, and a willingness to create more of that good stress. But I didn’t realize that it was going to feel as crazy as it feels. You know those obstacle courses like American Gladiator? I’m doing this, I’m doing that, bop bop bop. I finish something, and it’s like, “Okay, now make a flyer for the next gig.” Okay, done! “Now send this to so-and-so.” Ah, okay! As soon as one thing finishes and I’m about to chill, there’s a whole other thing, because I’m pushing myself.

I didn’t realize it was going to be so intense, becoming a bandleader, trying to do so much different work. It’s stressful. It doesn’t discourage me, and I don’t say it to discourage anyone. But I’m definitely going to have to figure out how to work in three works in a foreign country sometime soon. Do some yoga. Chill.

TJG: In our first interview, you mentioned how this residency partially came from your frustration about how to market yourself, how to explain what you do. You said people know you’re a good drummer, but “this residency is me saying ‘I can do this other stuff, if you give me a chance.” Tell me a little about what this residency has changed for you, and what’s stayed the same. What are you holding onto, what are you welcoming in?

KO: That’s an interesting question. My perspective changed. When I first came into the residency, my idea was drums versus electronic production, drums versus writing songs. What has changed is that I realized that bifurcation is not so cut-and-dry. Meaning: I can utilize other skills without necessarily having to be on the mic or use electronics. I can utilize my producer brain or my bandleader brain while playing duo, drums and piano. For example, with Sullivan, I didn’t use any electronics, and I didn’t rap. But I still brought a different side of Sullivan to the listeners, just by creating a concept, discussing what we were going for, and playing drums.

By doing this series, I’ve learned that there are many ways to access the producer brain. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m stuck on the drums, I feel inhibited.” There are ways to think outside the box while being on the drums. Maybe it’s about your approach to the drum set. Maybe you’re thinking about different duties and jobs from behind the drums. Or maybe you’re thinking more like a sound designer. Not so much, “Okay, as a drummer, it’s my job to keep time,” but rather, “Oh man, this floor tom with Stephan Crump playing with the bow creates something new.” Things have opened up for me in a lot of ways, but not necessarily in the ways that I expected.

TJG: Does the question of how to market yourself still seem relevant, or are you having a whole new conversation with yourself?

KO: It’s still relevant, but it’s a lot more optimistic. The more I experiment, the more I realize that I’m interested in a certain type of intelligence that’s useful for musical and non-musical ideas. Keep going. Do the thing you don’t see anyone doing. Do the thing that you think would be cool. Do it. Keep trying. Developing trust in your ability to think differently, and seeing it as an asset. I feel a lot more confident in my intuition, my latent ability to try things out. Where I fit in is not so important to me right now. I have a different way of looking at stuff, and people like it. I don’t have to prove that I’m good at anything. I just have to keep making the things I like to make, and keep finding people who are interested. There’s a huge world of people, and there’s no lack of people who are interested in new things. I have to keep creating what I create, keep developing, and keep finding audiences.

Now, if I want to be the best drummer, or the best bebop drummer, if I want to be like that, that’s a whole different thing. That’s a different type of hard work. But I’m more interested in developing in the directions that I naturally feel inclined to develop. I’m more interested in doing the work that I fall into when I’m in a flow state. The work that you can do for hours, the work where you can forget about time: I want to find more ways where that work is the job that I have to do.

This series has been a great step in that direction. I used to sit around and make beats all the time. I used to chop up samples. This residency allowed me to do that as an actual, tangible job. I’m sitting and listening to all these recordings, listening for cool loops and samples, like I’ve always done for fun. Same with my album: It was the album I enjoyed making. I wasn’t making it for a label who wanted a certain thing. I just allowed myself to make what I wanted to make. That, in itself, is a huge success. Whatever comes beyond that is extra credit.

TJG: Do you have a sense of how you’ll be able to keep hold of that energy, now that the structure of the residency is ending?

KO: It’s about being ahead of yourself. You gotta be busy. You gotta be booked up. I already have too many songs for my next record. I have a lot of work to get to the finish line. I gotta think creatively about what I want to do, and find ways to do it. There are certain things that are outside the box in terms of commercial appeal.

With this Jazz Gallery residency, even though it had some cool names attached to it, I was pushing the content into more of an avant-garde space. The experimentation became about mixing avant-garde ideas with hip-hop, rap, and production. It’s not the most marketable-commercial-appeal-type thing. I also like making tracks that people can live their lives to in a more social setting. For me, it’s gonna be important to apply for grants, collaborate with different groups and organizations, so that I can do some of my left-of-center kind of work, and not put the pressure of its survival on the commercial element. If I had a big budget, and time to create whatever I wanted, it would be pretty outside the box. I want to allow that to happen.

The Jazz Gallery presents the conclusion of Kassa Overall’s TIME CAPSULE residency on Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22, 2019. Mr. Overall will be joined by visual artist Nate Lewis and special guests. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.