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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Jeff "Tain" Watts

Photo courtesy of the artist.

With his fiercely polyrhythmic playing, Jeff “Tain” Watts has made an indelible impact on the sound of contemporary jazz drumming. While perhaps best known for his association with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Watts is also an accomplished composer and bandleader, with several albums to his name, including 2009’s Grammy-winning Watts (Dark Key Music).

This week, Watts convenes an intergenerational trio featuring longtime collaborator Paul Bollenback on guitar and James Francies on piano. We caught up with Watts at his home in Pennsylvania to talk about his life in Covid and his many new compositions.

The Jazz Gallery: What music will you be playing?

Jeff Watts: The music for the show—some music from a few different things. Some music that I’ve already recorded. Of course, like a lot of artists during this pandemic, a lot of unrecorded material, new stuff. You know, you have a lot of free time to compose! I’ve been working on a couple different projects. One is a suite of music that was funded by a Guggenheim fellowship almost three years ago. I proposed to them that I was going to do a musical tribute to the play cycle of August Wilson, who’s from my neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Originally it was about him, but then the more I studied August Wilson and his work, the more I wanted to be less derivative of anything. So as of now, this suite is a broader thing, about Pittsburgh and things indigenous to Pittsburgh, and I’m calling it “Suite to Pittsburgh”. There’ll be a few things from that.

I’ve been writing things about the pandemic itself—a song called “Sanctuary” that’s about being safe. I did something for The Jazz Gallery earlier in the pandemic, where they asked me what I was working on. I had a commission from the University of Michigan, right around the same time the riots were happening around the country, so I have a piece dedicated to George Floyd and how that moved things to a certain point where people felt the need to be responsible for the climate of the country. So I think we’ll premiere that piece. It’s called “Big Floyd and Tipping Point.” That should be very interesting; it has some spoken word, and it should be very evocative of jazz and Mingus and hip hop and a little bit of the vibe of the group the Last Poets.

What else did I write during this thing? Something about the virus—it was an excuse for me to write something in 19/8. I should be premiering a piece originally for the suite, but in the midst of it we lost Ellis Marsalis, so I wrote an elegy that’s dedicated to him.

And then I just wrote something last week. I was watching a documentary about Don Cherry, from 1978, that was done by some Swedish folks. And in the midst of his interview, he’s talking, and he’s like, “Yes, you know America has certain priorities, there’s emphasis on the media, trendy things,” basically saying the climate of America was stunting the “spontanewity” of an artist—and I just thought that word “spontanewity” was cool, so I wrote a new song.

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Marcus Gilmore

Photo courtesy of the artist.

For the past decade, drummer and composer Marcus Gilmore has been refining his expression alongside the likes of Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, Zakir Hussain and Vijay Iyer. An artist of multi-directional expansion, he approaches the drum set from within a lineage of percussionists and composers who have treasured its harmonic and melodic as much as its rhythmic depth. From this vantage point, Gilmore summons new leader and solo projects, recently integrating electronics into his live performances. 

In June, he told The Jazz Gallery’s Rob Shepherd how his electronic setup has had an influence on his composing and performing. “I never have a shortage of musical ideas but that doesn’t always readily translate to reality,” said Gilmore. “This particular set up and machinery make it possible for me to do a lot of the things that I had imagined for a while. Once it became an accessible instrument to use, I kind of jumped right on it. At some point, I realized that these different elements could sometimes make it sound like I was playing with a much larger group than just myself. So I became really curious about how to emphasize this aspect in my solo performances.” 

This week at the Gallery, don’t miss Gilmore stretch out with a trio featuring pianist David Virelles and bassist Burniss Earl Travis. (more…)

Photo by Harrison Weinstein, courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, September 24, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome saxophonist Melissa Aldana and her quartet to our stage for a livestream performance. Back in April, just a few weeks after live performances were shut down across the world, we caught up with Aldana to see how she was dealing with the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic. She spoke about practicing long tones, picking out J.S. Bach pieces on piano, and writing new material for an upcoming album.

As livestreams and outdoor performances have started in earnest, Aldana has gotten back out there, playing at Smalls in New York, the Arts Center at Duck Creek in the Hamptons (below), and even joining pianist Dan Tepfer for some live quarantine improvisations.

For this performance at the Gallery, Aldana will be joined by pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Pablo Menares, and drummer Kush Abadey—a tight working quartet that sounds like it hasn’t skipped a beat.

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From L to R: Eric McPherson, Kris Davis, and Stephan Crump. Photo courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, September 17, The Jazz Gallery continues its Fall Livestream Concerts Series with a performance by the Borderlands Trio. A collaborative effort from bassist Stephan Crump, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Eric McPherson, Borderlands Trio’s improvisations feature pointedly unstable textures alongside earthy groove. Before tuning in to the group’s fresh, spontaneous compositions on Thursday evening, check out the prickly and patient improvisation “Flockwork” from their debut album, below:
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Billy Hart

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Many know Billy Hart—Jabali—for his resonant contributions to Herbie Hancock’s sextet during the Mwandishi years. Others know him for his storied associations with Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, or his early experience performing alongside Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Patti LaBelle. 

But the new assembly of artists—“the new guard,” to use his words—knows the DC-born drummer, composer and band leader as a towering figure with a sound that continues to evolve the music. He acts as a mentor, showing up for multigenerational protégés; an elder, eagerly inviting younger artists to play next to his fire; and a master of the moment, whose Vanguard sets are known to entrance front rows, back tables, service staff, and management alike.

This week, he shares The Jazz Gallery stage with long-running quartet-mates Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson and Ben Street. From his home in Montclair, New Jersey, he spoke with the Gallery for nearly two hours, beginning many thoughtful responses with the same question: “Well…do you want to hear the whole story?” 

The Jazz Gallery: So many artists in New York, and I imagine elsewhere, consider you a mentor. I’d love to hear about one of your first mentors, Shirley Horn—what playing in her band taught you about the music and about leading a band. 

Billy Hart: I still play the drums the way she taught me. Every night. How much time have you got?

On first experiences in jazz

I’m from Washington, D.C. My grandmother lived in an apartment across the hall from the best jazz saxophone player in town, at that time. And I would have had no way of knowing that—or even caring because I wasn’t interested in the music on that level, at that time—but my grandmother was late coming home from work. This guy’s wife didn’t like the fact that there was somebody loitering in the hall, so she came out to see what I was doing. When I told her I was waiting for my grandmother, she said, “Well you can’t wait here. You can come in my apartment.” Then her husband came home from work, this guy Roger “Buck” Hill. He was the great tenor saxophone player in town. I had my drumsticks in my back pocket, and he said, “Oh, you’re a drummer.” And he gave me two Charlie Parker records; one was Bird with Strings, “Just Friends”—on the other side was “If I Should Lose You,” and the other one was “Au Privave” and “Star Eyes.” They were two 78 records [laughs]. This is how long ago that was.

So I went home and put the records on. Before that, my favorite music was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. And what’s interesting about that for me, is when I finally got the chance to hang out with Tony Williams, he felt the same way. His favorite group was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. So anyway, I heard this music. And for some reason, it grabbed me. I can’t even say why because most of my friends were listening to vocal pop music. So I started listening to the records and I ended up putting together a piecemeal drum set, and started playing with the records. Over a period of a couple of years, I guess I got better at it. That’s when I somehow discovered that this music could be heard on the radio—and on the radio they would advertise live performances. So I decided to go to some of these live performances. I didn’t really tell my parents, so that was a problem—because I wasn’t allowed out that late at night. And I was staying out so late, but I still had to get up and go to school in the morning.

Getting Started on the D.C. Scene

So I got to the point where I started asking people to let me sit in. And nobody would let me sit in. They thought it was a joke. They thought it was funny that this little kid was asking to play. And they would say, “Well you can’t sit in now, but maybe we’ll let you sit in in the last set.” But the last set in those days was really, really late. The gigs didn’t even start until 10, so the last set might be 3 o’clock in the morning. I’d have to go on home and deal with my parents, and then go to school. And they still wouldn’t let me play. They wouldn’t let me sit in. So I ended up calling this saxophone player back, and I said, “Man, I been trying to play and they won’t let me play.” So he said, “Well I’ve got this Saturday afternoon gig. You can come down and play with me.” And I know he didn’t really wanna do it. He hadn’t heard me play. He just remembered giving me the records, and that had been two or three years before. He just was being nice. So he let me sit in.

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