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Photo by Rolf Freiberger

Writing in The New York Times on October 24th, 2009, Ben Ratliff took note of Stefon Harris‘ young new pianist, Sullivan Fortner, “a name unknown around New York, though maybe not for long.”

A native of New Orleans, Sullivan completed his undergraduate studies at Oberlin College, and subsequently moved to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music. Shortly thereafter, he found himself apprenticing in bands led by acclaimed bandleaders such as Harris and trumpeter Roy Hargrove (who has played an important role in The Jazz Gallery since it’s inception).

It wasn’t long after Ratliff’s article that we first presented Sullivan’s band; he appeared here twice in 2010. This Friday, Sullivan will take the stage at The Gallery to do something he’s never done before: perform solo piano.

Without further ado, Sullivan speaks:


Although your previous appearances at The Gallery have always featured larger groups, you’ll be performing solo on Friday (February 3rd). What is your relationship to performing solo, and what inspired you to choose this context?

Well, this is my first attempt at playing solo piano in public. All of the playing that I do – with the exception of practicing and piano lessons – is with bands, ranging from big bands to trios and occasionally duos. I decided to play solo mainly because I thought it could be a fun and enjoyable learning experience for me.

You’ll be performing both original music and music by other composers on Friday. Describe your approach to writing and arranging music for the solo piano setting.

One thing that will hopefully be cool about this show is that I will finally get to perform my tunes in their original context. Most, if not all, of my tunes were written at the piano, and were based on certain experiences in my life: the death of a family member or teacher, a break-up, or even a painting. In writing for/with the piano, I try to think of textures and colors that I can draw from the instrument, since the piano is such a colorful instrument.

The challenge of playing solo versions of other composers’ music will be to orchestrate these tunes in way so that the rhythm section won’t be missed. Another challenge will be playing in contrasting styles – stride, contrapuntally, or even chorally – and playing them in way that is interesting and fun. This creates both freedom and restrictions at the same time.

How does the physical interface of the piano – the idiosyncrasies of the instrument itself – inform your approach to composing for the instrument?

Larry Willis once told me that the piano is a very strange instrument because the odds are always 88 to 10. So, because I only have ten fingers, I have to approach it as an orchestral instrument, making each tune I play, whether it is a cover or an original, tell a story. Most importantly though, my job is to be as musical honest as I can, presenting something that hopefully everyone can enjoy.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about what we can expect on Friday?

It should be fun! I’m a bit nervous about it, but hopefully the anxiety will go away by show time.

And, I’ve been asked to do some singing. I think I may do some of that as well.


Photo by Bob Doran

This week at The Jazz Gallery, we will be featuring three young artists, all of whom happen to be pianists. We begin the run on Thursday with a performance from a trio led by Sam Harris.

Sam moved to New York in 2004 to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with the likes of Jason Moran, Garry Dial, and John Riley. He has also honed his skills on the bandstand, performing with seasoned artists (and Jazz Gallery veterans) such as Ambrose Akinmusire, Logan Richardson, Gretchen Parlato, and Linda Oh.

Sam writes, “It’s been a while since I’ve led a band at The Gallery and we’re excited to share some new music.”

Thursday’s performance, featuring Martin Nevin (bass) and Craig Weinrib (drums), will be Sam’s fourth time leading a band on our stage. Watch a video of Sam’s composition “Plateaus”, from a previous engagement here with Logan Richardson (alto), Martin Nevin (bass), and Greg Ritchie (drums).

Photo by Ben Wolf

When asked how the new year has been treating him so far, Justin Brown responds that he’s been focused on “feeling all of the good vibrations”.

This hasn’t stopped the drummer, who is among the most sought after artists of his generation, from staying on the grind. Since the beginning of the year, Justin has already been to France twice – first for performances with vocalist Gretchen Parlato, and then with pianist Tony Tixier – and has performed variously around the country with the likes of Chris Dingman, Gerald Clayton, and Gary Bartz. Somehow in the midst of this, he’s also found time to hang out with his family in the Bay Area and attend the NAMM convention in Anaheim, CA.

We’ve been featuring Justin’s bands at The Gallery with some degree of regularity since he first performed here as a leader just over a year ago. Justin has also appeared here as a sideman on innumerable occasions over the past several years. This week, we will be presenting Justin’s trio on Friday, as well as his quintet on Saturday.

Despite his busy schedule, Justin says he’s been really excited about this run of performances, explaining:

For some reason, The Gallery always keeps me inspired to write new stuff whenever I’m going to perform there, just because life experiences are always moving rapidly. It’s just always a cool place because, for one, the audience that comes there is always open to new music, and secondly, that’s what The Gallery supports.

I’m at a point now where, if I have these ideas musically and these things to say from the heart, then it needs to be out there. I’ve been shy lately about writing and letting people hear that, but if it’s given to you then it’s meant to be shared with the world. I feel like The Gallery is a place that’s always going to keep you fresh and allow you to be honest [as an artist]. Whenever a Gallery gig comes up, I try to take a few experiences from the past couple of months and connect something musically out of it.

Justin’s trio, which will perform on Friday, features the bassist Burniss Travis and the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the latter of whom Brown has performed with regularly since high school, including on Ambrose’s recent Blue Note Records debut, When The Heart Emerges Glistening. When asked about his choice of personnel, Justin mentioned that the decision stemmed from the outcome of a session involving all three musicians a couple of years ago. When the fourth artist was late, Ambrose, Burniss, and Justin decided to get started without him, and the results were memorable enough that they agreed to perform together live one day. Justin added:

I’m an eclectic person. [When] writing for [just] those two, you can somehow hear [imagine] all of the other instrumentation. I just wanted to write something that was still me but at the same time face the challenge of conveying my true self within that instrumentation. But [Ambrose and Burniss] are my friends, and personally we connect, so there’s going to be something organic about it.

Saturday night’s performance will feature Justin’s quintet, which also includes Burniss, as well as pianist Fabian Almazan, reedist Ben Wendel, and guitarist Matt Stevens. Justin claims that this formation was the original setting that he had imagined for his own band, and has performed in a similar context in previous engagements at The Gallery. They plan to pick up where they’ve left off, continuing to explore the boundaries of Justin’s original compositions.

For Justin, with the new year comes a reminder of the power and purpose of music:

Because of these times and all of this stuff going on, people are looking for an outlet and [are ready] to relate to [a broad musical perspective], instead of putting a stamp on it. With this generation and our laptops, we truly have that power. I’m just trying to be honest about that and trying not to be shy about it.

Basically, this music is all about love, really. It’s ultimately about inspiring one that they can be themselves. We each have a purpose, and I just want people to realize that purpose within themselves, and be uplifted through my experiences with the music.


Photo courtesy of All About Jazz

This Sunday, The Jazz Gallery hosts a performance by drummer Antonio Sanchez and his band, Migration. Antonio is one of the most in demand drummers in jazz, appearing with the likes of Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Kenny Werner, and many others.

We asked Antonio about the band he’ll be performing with on Sunday, the music they will be presenting, and the recording they plan to make immediately following the performance. Antonio speaks:

The band that will be featured on your January 29th performance includes Dave Binney (alto), Donny McCaslin (tenor), John Escreet (piano), Matt Brewer (bass), and Thana Alexa (voice). Tell us about how you went about selecting the personnel.

I’ve been a fan of Dave Binney’s music for a while. Both as a player and as a composer, Dave has a very unique voice, and I’m happy he’s available and willing to play in my band.

I’ve played with Donny McCaslin for quite a few years now in a bunch of different settings. I’ve played in his bands a lot over the years and recorded three of his albums. He’s played in my band on and off as well, and we’ve always had an amazing rapport. Another great aspect of this band is that Donny and Dave have played together quite a bit as well, so that will show in the overall chemistry of the group.

John Escreet was recommended to me by Dave. He’s an amazing musician that can play anything on the piano and he’s very daring onstage,so he can take the music to places that you don’t necessarily expect.

Matt has a great sound and he’s very reliable, consistent, and supportive. He can play any style and has great instincts,so it’s very easy to build stuff with him musically.

Dave, John and Matt were part of my band during a five-week European tour back in November, and the project evolved beautifully over twenty-two gigs, so I’m confident this recording is going to be great.

Thana Alexa is a great new talent that I’m sure will make her mark on the scene in the very near future. She has a beautiful voice and is a great composer and bandleader on her own right, so I like the fact that she’s a musician first and a vocalist second. I usually don’t use voice in my band, but I wrote this one tune where I kept hearing her voice used as a musical instrument (no lyrics), so I’m glad she’s doing it.

You mentioned that this band will be going into the studio to record your third album as a leader on the day following the performance. Can you tell us a little bit about the music that you’ll be performing/recording? How does it compare/contrast with the music on Migration and Live in New York?

Yes, we’ll be going into the studio right after this gig. The experience at The Gallery will help tremendously to see what to do in the studio and what not to do. Playing the music in front of people is a completely different ballgame,and it makes the repertoire mature way faster than if you just rehearse and go straight into the studio.

I’m really excited about this record because I feel it’s a breakthrough in my career as a composer. When I recorded Migration, I felt very shy as a writer, and the tunes were short and basically vehicles for improvisation. Live in New York was also mainly about group interplay. I wanted to see how far we could stretch some of the tunes previously recorded on Migration in a live setting and I was very happy with the results.
This new album will definitely place the emphasis on the writing. I feel a lot more comfortable with my compositional skills, and I’ve learned tons from playing amazing original music with all of the incredible musicians I’ve been lucky to play with for the last 20 years of my life. I’ve absorbed as much as possible from all the situations I’ve been in, and hopefully it will come out in my writing as my own voice.

The name of this album will be New Life because I really feel like I’m beginning a completely new stage of my career as a composer. I’m extremely excited to showcase all this new music at The Jazz Gallery, which is the perfect venue for this occasion.

Photos by Rafiq for Jazz Speaks

The New York Times provides a perceptive description of the music of Alan Hampton: “emotional and precise…love songs fascinated by craft, with acoustic guitars, deep changes of rhythm and key, and soft, spacious arrangements.” They also offer a succinct yet incisive summary of Becca Stevens‘ work: “impressively absorbing”.

We’ll be presenting the inaugural collaboration between Becca and Alan as part of our ongoing collaboration with Symphony Space, The Jazz Gallery Uptown, this Thursday, January 26th at 7:30pm.

Under 30? $15 tickets are still available! Get yours here.

Featuring Becca and Alan at Symphony Space was an idea that surfaced when Jazz Gallery Programming Director Rio Sakairi and Executive Director Debbie Steinglass met with Symphony Space Artistic Director Laura Kaminsky about possible collaborations. Rio speaks:

Often I have a hard time explaining the thought process behind my curatorial decisions. I have a sense of what will work and what won’t. When I put together a band for The Jazz Gallery’s Holiday Party last December, I called upon Miguel Zenon, Vijay Iyer, Fima Ephron, and Nate Smith. I knew that would work great, and that I would have an amazing time listening to them working it out, but they were skeptical. Afterwards, Vijay said to me, “I guess you know something I don’t.” Miguel was pleasantly surprised by how easily things came together and how much fun he had. The same principle and sort-of-a-thought-process apply here. I know that, although they have never collaborated before, Becca and Alan are a great match and I’ll enjoy their music immensely.

I dropped by Alan’s place in Windsor Terrace recently to snap some photos of these two rehearsing (above), and managed to capture some video footage of an in-progress arrangement of one of Alan’s songs:

The Jazz Gallery Uptown: Becca Stevens & Alan Hampton from Jazz Gallery on Vimeo.