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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Rafiq for Jazz Speaks

Todd Neufeld has been keeping busy: he’s been working on a duo recording with pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, a new recording with drummer Richie Barshay‘s band, and has performed recently in bands led by bassist Thomas Morgan, multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey, and reedist Matt Steckler, among others.

On Thursday, we will present Todd’s trio, which will mark the guitarist’s first appearance as a leader at The Jazz Gallery. “I’m really excited to play at The Gallery”, says Todd, noting the breadth of contexts in which he has appeared here in the past. These include various configurations with multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey, a trio with pianist Masabumi Kikuchi and bassist Thomas Morgan, and a two night run with pianist Aaron Parks, among others. Todd first performed here with the veteran saxophonist Lee Konitz: “[Lee has] been a hero [of mine] since I was 16 or 17. Just getting to work with one of these really strong figures, who is, what, 84 now I think? And he’s still searching with every note, and it’s a very specific region he’s working with.”

For Todd, working with Konitz was part of a history of interpreting standards:

I’ve worked on that quite a bit over a number of years and it’s very important to me. I’ve done that a lot with Thomas [Morgan] actually; we used to do these restaurant gigs all the time just to work on learning these songs. [We were] doing something that is taught in the schools and everyone kind of goes through, sometimes begrudgingly. But for us it’s a very personal thing, and we do it to this day together. So working with Lee was a pretty amazing part of that.

Todd is also involved in a longstanding collaboration with another one of his lifelong inspirations, the pianist Masabumi Kikuchi (who is affectionately referred to as “Poo” by his collaborators). And, as it turns out, this relationship also has roots in an experience at The Jazz Gallery:

I was going to see Tyshawn’s That/Not CD release concert at The Gallery and I was in the stairwell waiting to get into the second set, and the [concertgoers from the] first set were walking out, and Poo walked by me. And I stopped him, and said, “Hey Poo, I’m Todd, Thomas’ friend”, and he replied, “Oh yeah!” And he said, “Could you get my number from Thomas?” And then he wrote Thomas that night, and apparently he said, “Yeah, I need that guitar player’s number…there’s something in his eyes!” (laughing). Which is so Poo. But then, through Thomas, we hung out a bunch of times, and eventually we played.

Without getting to into it, just going to his place after so many years of being inspired by his music, and seeing the way that he lives, and since [then] getting to know him much better…just to know that there’s an artist out there that’s working in that way that you dream about as a kid is really inspiring.

Todd’s performance on Thursday is part of a shift in the mind of the artist. For the past several years, Todd has dedicated himself to learning through performing as a sideperson in other leader’s groups. However, he recently began to feel that the next thing he needs to learn will come from “putting [himself] forward, and asking those questions that come from being a leader.”

In selecting the personnel for his own ensemble, Todd mentions that he “tends to be drawn to really personal formations”, citing his extensive history with each of his bandmates:

I’m really close with both of them. With Tyshawn, there’s just such inspiration…in terms of, obviously, his skills, but then [he’s also] so searching, and pushing so much. And with Thomas, by the same token: we met when we were 18, actually, and we started playing together a few years after that. But he’s another guy that, at every turn, gives me so much spur to go forward, to challenge myself. That’s what it’s all about – those moments and those people.

Todd also illuminated aspects of his approach in composing the music for Thursday’s performance:

I always hear an infinity of notes, and the interesting thing for me as I’ve been trying to compose pieces for this date, is that, improvisationally I have a solution for that artistic decision. And that [solution] is just getting myself into a space where I trust me ears and my intuition, because in that way, I can believe in my decision. If I’m not thinking, but I’m seeing the shapes of the music, I trust that I have pretty good ears to be able to find the shape that works. But with composition, it’s different, because the time is stretched out…But I’m working with these pieces now and trying to find the balance between improvisation and [composition].

One thing I am conscious of in a set that will probably be heavily improvised is for it to have certain textures and shapes. Improvisations can have a certain energy, and a certain wave, and perhaps an ambiguity too, which is sometimes a strength. And so, in some ways, I am looking to have the compositions represent some touchstones of clarity within a set that might have a different energy through these improvisations. So I’m thinking that if I can do that for the listeners, maybe it’s going to be a way to keep them in the music and give a certain shape to the set.

I’ll be doing a couple of pieces of my own, and I’ll probably be incorporating one or two pieces by other people. Some much older songs that Thomas and I worked on might find their way into the set, because we’re often trying to find a way for these myriad influences to come through. Which is what our generation faces – there’s just so much information. And personally, well, I lived in Brazil for a minute, so I’m very interested in Brazilian music. Recently I’ve been starting a small study of African music, and there’s also classical music, North Indian rhythms and approaches to melody, [which I encountered] through working with Dan [Weiss]. And it’s never gone away for me, all of this music tradition – “jazz” tradition, whatever you want to call it – that I can’t seem to escape.

Todd’s attraction to the music began at a very young age; when he was thirteen, a local guitar teacher gave him a recording of Charlie Christian. “I was sitting in my room listening for hours and hours in my room to that music, and I feel so fortunate to connect to it in a way that doesn’t make any sense.” However, his relationship to the music also transcends his instrument:

With all of the respect I have for the instrument and what people have tried to bring out through it, I’m not really hearing much guitar. I’m hearing piano, I’m hearing strings, a lot of voice, and I’m also hearing films. Kiarostami, this Iranian director, is a major influence for me, Richard Pryor is a big influence on my music, Carl Dreyer, another filmmaker, and I guess I’ve been very involved in the process of trying to imitate things you will never be able to imitate. And to me that seems like a very healthy process, and maybe that makes my approach to guitar something I can be a little bit proud of – it gives it a certain breath, a certain air to it.

Even as he prepares for the Thursday’s concert, Todd confirms that he won’t be able to give us an idea of what the music will sound like until he hears it himself. “It’s like my life now…I just wake up in the morning and see which direction to go in.”