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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

The James Carney sextet at the Rubin Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Oscar Noriega.

The James Carney sextet at the Rubin Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Oscar Noriega.

Perhaps you’ve had the pleasure of hearing an iteration of The James Carney Group perform around town. It could be that you’ve been at one of the nearly five hundred shows he’s programmed through his Konceptions concert series. Maybe Carney has come to your home, studio, or venue to repair and tune your piano. However your paths may have crossed, you’ll know that James Carney is one of New York’s most productive and captivating pianists.

Originally from Syracuse, Carney lived in Los Angeles where he attended CalArts and started a family. Carney was busy while in LA, winning grants and accolades from the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Composers competition and the California Arts Council Fellowship, to name a few. He released three records as a leader, always finding resourceful and innovative ways to enlist in-demand musicians and produce his own albums. After returning to New York in 2004, Carney won back-to-back awards from Chamber Music of America in 2008 and 2009, and released two more albums, the much-praised Ways & Means (Songlines 1580) and Green-Wood (Songlines 1566). There are more awards, albums, and collaborations as well: For a remarkably detailed interview with Carney, take a glance at his 2007 interview with Songlines.

On December 21st, James Carney will play with his newest ensemble, including Ravi Coltrane (saxophone), Stephanie Richards (trumpet), Oscar Noriega (woodwinds), Dezron Douglas (bass), and Tom Rainey (drums). We caught up with Carney to discuss the birth of his newest ensemble, the joys of being a piano technician, and his latest ‘improvisation-and-transcription’ way of composing.

TJG: Later this month you’ll be playing at The Jazz Gallery with the latest incarnation of your band. What will you be playing?

JC: As we speak I’m writing it now; I’ve got four compositions that are partly written on the computer, and a few more elsewhere, probably six tunes total. This project is a reprise of this first recording that we did in February. What I’m also doing this time is writing intentionally simpler music, just so we can get into it quickly. The worst thing is to kill the mood by having something be so complicated and hard to get into that it distracts from the overall approach and goal. I’m trying to learn from the first experience with this group, as well as drawing on my experience with mid-sized ensembles. I’ve done a few records with four or five horns, and having the three horns is nice because that fourth voice can take a lot of time to orchestrate correctly. I like to give everybody challenges and feature everyone at different times, you don’t want one person to get all the nice parts. I always go back to what a teacher told me a long time ago, which is that “Even if you feel like you’re not writing at the moment, you’re always assimilating ideas, and at some point it’s going to come out. You can’t help yourself.” With that attitude, it makes the process a lot easier, more fun, and less filled with pressure.

TJG: What does your writing process look like these days?

JC: As a compositional tool, I’ve been keeping my Zoom H6 next to me. I always write things at the piano, and don’t really put it into Finale or write it down until I’ve worked through it on the instrument. Usually by the time I put it in the computer, there’s twenty or thirty bars of music. What I’ve realized is that with the Zoom, you can take your improvising and directly use it as material for composing. I’ve said this to students before. When I sit down to compose, I think like an improviser. That’s what we do when we compose, we improvise until we find something we like a lot. If we can come up with something that’s memorable, that’s the composition. But it’s impossible to remember everything you play, so having the recorder and going back to listen to pure improvisation is great. My composition process involves a lot of transcribing, editing, and not getting in the way of things. Before using the recorder, it took a lot more time to write. I can write six compositions now in less than a month, and I used to be a lot slower. It’s been helpful.

I like having something where the harmony is implied by the lines, whether melodic line or bass line. I like to work in a more linear sense instead of banging out chords. Thinking that way allows a rhythmic counterpoint to happen, where things can go over the bar. It’s good to have the vertical harmonic foundation, but if I think about the interaction of melodic lines over the bass, I feel like I can make more interesting music. We’ve done this both on stage and in the studio—I think about the sequence of tunes as if we’re recording while I’m writing. It’s almost like writing a suite of music, a complete album. I’ve done it on the last couple of records and it seems to do pretty well. It helps me figure out the pacing, and I can make changes in the process accordingly. Writing for these guys is really gratifying, they’re all amazing readers and can play anything. It’s nice to come in with something clear, simple, a little challenging, and being able to get out of their way and let them bring to it what they will.

TJG: Now that I understand your process a bit better, take me through one of the tunes that you’ll be bringing to the Gallery this week.

JC: One of these tunes—I can imagine it being the first tune on the album when we record it, so it’ll likely be the first tune at The Jazz Gallery as well—has about thirty bars of through-composed material. After a little under a minute, instead of continuing on—and there’s a lot of composition left—the rhythm section does something simple, and we play open over it for minutes. We go back and start a solo form, and then introduce a melody and some changes that haven’t been heard before. That’s an example of me not wanting to give everything away all at once, writing something and having it go on for minutes at a time. It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s fun to switch back and forth between pure improvisation and written material, and a good challenge to find that balance. That seems to be a goal for most writers, blurring that line.

TJG: What’s the interplay on stage like between Ravi, Stephanie, and Oscar?

JC: It’s fantastic. We’ve done three or four gigs now, like Winter Jazz Fest and The Jazz Gallery. I think Stephanie and Oscar were a little bit apprehensive at first, just because they didn’t know Ravi and how he’d approach the group dynamic. But I couldn’t ask for a better dynamic. Nobody was really sure what it would be like to play with Ravi, because he’s such a superstar. As it turns out, he’s an amazingly sensitive ensemble player, which may surprise a lot of people. It doesn’t surprise me, though. Amazing ears, restrained, going for the good of the whole. Ravi is completely unselfish, putting the music first at all times. They have a great rapport together. What we’ll be doing at the Gallery, there are many areas of this music where we don’t have a road map. There are times when we have written music, and there are times when we’re jumping off a cliff. Somehow, we find a way to fly and land. It’s the most exciting thing about it. Ravi’s been phenomenal in that role. Nobody does the wrong thing at the wrong time. I couldn’t ask for a better band to write for.

TJG: Did you debut this particular ensemble at The Rubin Museum last fall?

JC: Yes indeed. It was another thing where a deadline pushed me to get it done. I feel really familiar with these players now. They’re all capable of making incredible sounds on their instruments, that as a composer I’m not even thinking about. Just from a timbre standpoint, there’s a lot of richness in the band that’s a lot of fun to listen to in the recordings as well. I’d played with everybody before in different permutations. This was the first time that Dezron [Douglas] and Tom [Rainey] had played before, and this was the first time that Ravi [Coltrane] had played with Stephanie [Richards] and Oscar [Noriega]. These guys are amazing instrumentalists, and there’s really nobody better at their instruments than Dezron and Tom. They’d be on the ‘Top Five’ list for most New York drummers and bass players, for sure.

TJG: I was listening to “Onondaga” on Ways & Means, which was commissioned by Chamber Music of America. I was paying particular attention to the string parts that I hear in the background. How did you approach the form of the project?

JC: The strings that you’re hearing are probably synth-based. The album was a sort of continuation of a film score. I had done a live film score where we accompanied a silent film from the 20s. Tom Rainey was on the project as well. Even with four horns, I wanted to have synthesizer on that project. It’s great as a keyboard player to have something with sustain, with glue, with long pedal tones happening like pads. If the acoustic piano has any limitations, it’s that it doesn’t have indefinite sustain. So I used synthesizers to have more texture, along with the horns. With this new band, I’ve mostly been only using acoustic piano. The timbres of these instruments is interesting. I love having one brass, one woodwind, one saxophone. Trumpet, soprano, bass clarinet. It’s a perfect combination.

TJG: Speaking of timbre and the piano, you’re a piano tuner and technician, yes?

JC: Yes, I’m a piano technician. It’s been keeping me in New York [laughs]. Not only do I do tuning and re-voicing, I do rebuilding at a very high level. I oversee the rebuilding of the action, the regulation of the voicing. I’ve done a couple of pianos at some high-end places. I took a year and rebuilt the piano at The Bunker Studio. I did quite a bit of work on the piano at The Samurai Hotel, which is where we did our first record in February (which is mixed now, so it’s time to start shopping that around—we’re going back there for the next album, it has such a comfortable feel). So yes, I do a lot of piano work, and I’m completely independent, which is great. At one point, I worked for the Bösendorfer dealer part-time for almost four years. It’s an interesting way of making money, and keeps me in the city to do exactly what I want to be doing. Being motivated and inspired to write for great musicians. I tune pianos for so many jazz musicians, and it’s been a nice way to interact with the community. I’ve been tuning pianos since 1994, after graduating from CalArts, but I only started doing it professionally eight or nine years ago.

TJG: Has having piano tuning as a parallel profession changed your approach and touch on the instrument in any way? 

JC: It has, it really has. People ask me, “Can you enjoy a piano that’s not in good shape while you’re playing?” The answer is yes. I can diagnose what’s going on with a piano in a couple of seconds, and since I know what’s wrong, I know how to adjust my playing for it. There’s a huge advantage in that I understand mechanically what’s going on, so if there is an issue, often I can get around it without it getting in the way of what I want to do. It’s nice to have that skill, because it can be very frustrating for a pianist. It’s a complicated instrument and not many people know much about it except for technicians. It takes a long time to learn. Just the nomenclature of learning all the parts. It’s not quite medical school, but it’s definitely tricky and takes a while.

TJG: Tell me a little more about the Konceptions Music Series. It’s been going on for years, and you recently just did your 452nd show. How’d you get the opportunity to start it, and who are you looking for when you curate performances?

JC: The series started quite by chance. There used to be a place on 5th Ave and 20th called The Koze Lounge. I was walking by in the afternoon, looked in, and saw the owner setting things up. I went inside and asked if they ever had live music. He asked if I was a musician, he asked what I did, and essentially offered me the opportunity to do a series on the spot. It was literally that simple. On maybe the third or fourth show, Nate Chinen came out to review Jerome Sabbagh’s new project with Ted Poor, Ben Monder, and Joe Martin. He gave them a really nice review, and I thought, “Wow, this is amazing.” I had just moved from LA, and I remember thinking that this was the kind of thing that could only happen in New York. Here everything was; great players, small intimate room, and a journalist who showed up and wrote a review.

After moving to Bar 4 for a little while, the series went on hiatus. Then, the owner of Korzo, an Eastern European restaurant, approached me about starting up the jazz series. We arranged getting an acoustic piano for the space, as well as drums and a bass amp, and we’ve been going there for five or six years. I book myself on it once a month, and it’s a great way to have a steady gig months in advance. But I also love hearing other players. Live music has more power in many ways than recordings. I do all the curating, and I can’t possibly book all the people I want to book, because we’re just doing one night a week, but we do have two bands. It’s become a really nice hang on Tuesday nights. Ravi’s often there if he’s not on tour. It’s a great chance for people to try adventurous music. It’s an avant-garde oriented series, though I’ve been leaning toward a more traditional sound over the last year, but it’s certainly more geared towards the experimental. It’s rare to find a restaurant venue that will support something like this; It’s been phenomenal, very much thanks to the owners.

TJG: It must be a great way to build community in Brooklyn.

JC: Yeah, especially since everyone lives here now. I don’t really know many musicians living in Manhattan anymore, or if they are, it’s Washington Heights or Inwood, even the Upper East Side, cheaper places. The scene seems to have shifted to Brooklyn quite a bit. But we’ve still got The Jazz Gallery, the Jazz Standard, the Village Vanguard, those are the main places. We have to have something else to give people a chance to get their music out there.

TJG: I had a question about “It’s Always Cold When You’re Leaving.” It’s a beautiful tune, and the pacing, the way it unfolds on Green-wood, is amazing. I was wondering if you could walk me through the history of that tune.

JC: I wrote that tune over a long period of time. I started it when I still lived in California. I remember coming up with the ending first. I wrote it all out of sequence. There are a lot of sections, and it’s a tricky tune for everyone, for the horns especially. With tunes like that in mind, I tried to write simpler music after that for Ways & Means, just to make things easier for all of us. With that tune, it has a lot of country and Appalachian music in it. It has a lot of things in it that I loved hearing in Upstate New York on the radio when I was growing up. Where I’m from is really farmland. Upstate New York is the second largest dairy producer after, like, Wisconsin. I heard a lot of country and bluegrass on the radio, especially because my older sisters loved playing that stuff. I tried to make the piano sound like a banjo with that tune.

TJG: We’re thrilled to hear you at The Gallery—anything else you’d like to add about the show?

JC: Excited about it! It’s great to be writing for the same band, and hoping we get as big and enthusiastic a crowd as last time. I look at this band on paper, and people see us and say, “Wow, this is an amazing band.” It’s fun to have brought them together in a couple of different ways. We’ve all played together in smaller configurations, but never all together before this project. I was running one day in Prospect Park, and that’s when the idea came to me. This was probably fifteen months ago. The full personnel, the whole lineup, came to me at once. I trust my instincts. Your instincts will be good to you if you let them be good to you. You never know how it’s gonna go, and I think it’s going well.

The James Carney Sextet plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, December 21st, 2016. The group features Mr. Carney on piano, Ravi Coltrane on saxophones, Stephanie Richards on trumpet, Oscar Noriega on woodwinds, Dezron Douglas on bass, and Tom Rainey on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.