A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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Photo by Esther Cidoncha:

You may not have heard Román Filiú’s name yet, but you shouldn’t be surprised to hear it frequently soon. Although the saxophonist moved to New York a few short months ago, he’s spent years working closely with several leading lights of improvised music: Chucho Valdes, Paquito D’Rivera, David Murray, and Doug Hammond, among others.

Román was born and raised in Cuba. He comes from a musical family, and has been “surrounded by music since [he] was born”:

My father is a musician and teacher – he plays piano and teaches music theory – and all of my brothers and sister are musicians, so it was natural [for me] to go to music school.

I started on piano. Then, because I had asthma, the doctor recommended that I take up the saxophone. I kept up with playing both for about two years, but it was too hard for me! So I had to decide between the two, and the easy choice was the saxophone (smiling).

Although resources were abundant for his classical studies, Román had to look elsewhere to learn about improvisation:

In Cuba, we had Russian teachers, so nobody taught us about improvisation. We just got to improvisation through…In my case, my grandfather used to hang out with us. He wasn’t a musician, just a funny guy who bought himself some instruments. He had a trumpet, and he’d say to us, “okay, let’s play!”, so we would play with him in the back yard for fun.

My grandfather was the one that introduced me to jazz music. Every night, he would play for me a radio station from Miami that opposed the Cuban government. They had a program, which I can’t remember the name of, but I do remember that it starts with John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”, which was the theme song. Because my grandfather also opposed the Cuban government, this was the radio station he liked. So every Saturday night he would tell me, “Come on, Román!”, and we would listen together.

Román may have honed his spontaneous composition skills outside of the classroom, but the school’s infrastructure helped foster lifelong relationships with excellent musicians, some of which he still plays with today:

The good thing about the system in Cuba was that the music school was a boarding school, so all of the musicians are like family. I’ve known Aruan [Ortiz] since I was like eight years old, all my life. David [Virelles] is younger – I met him later – but David’s mother was a teacher in my school. We spent a lot of hours practicing and playing, discovering music together.

School also afforded Román an opportunity to dive into the European classical tradition:

I wanted to improve my technique and I like a lot of the classical saxophone repertoire. I love Jacques Ibert, I love Claude Pascal. There are also composers who wrote only one or two pieces for saxophone: Henri Tomasi, Paul Hindemith. I found that harmony reminded me of jazz. The piano parts of the songs were very modern for that time. The chords were very adventurous; they had the influence of jazz, and Ravel and Debussy too.

After completing his studies, Román moved to Havana to begin his career as a professional musician. He was based there for eight years, recording frequently and traveling internationally with a variety of projects. After working steadily for four years as a member of a salsa band, Román began playing with Chucho Valdes’ “Irakere” band, a renowned group whose roster included such luminaries as Paquito D’Rivera.

After eight years in Havana, Román packed his bags and headed for Spain. His time in the country was “a beautiful experience”, and he began to play with several musicians across Europe and abroad. One of them was David Murray:

I met David back in Cuba because he came to record a project with a big band. We talked a little bit, and he took me on tour, and then asked me to conduct his string record. I had a demo with a string orchestra that I had made, because I wanted to try it. I took some popular Cuban songs – Boleros, romantic songs – and arranged them for a string orchestra. I showed the demo to David, because he wanted to help me [find support to record it]. When he heard it, he asked me to conduct his orchestra for a recording. So we made the record, and then we kept in touch, and I’ve been playing with him in a lot of his projects.

During his time in Spain, Román also began working regularly with Doug Hammond, who he met through saxophonist Steve Coleman:

When I was living in Cuba, I used to hang a lot with Steve, because he used to come [to town]. We used to spend all day until midnight talking and playing. It was very important for me. He helped me to understand a lot of things.

So I met Doug through Steve, and we played a lot in Europe and made two records. One of them, called Rose/Sister, was some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever played, not because of my contribution but because of Doug’s writing. It was a live recording from a tour we did with Kirk Lightsey on piano, Jean Toussaint on tenor, Dwight Adams on trumpet, Wendell Harrison on clarinet…it was very fun. I got to meet all of these older musicians and listen to their stories.

We also have done a lot of other projects. We did a quartet, we did a trio. One of the last things we did was with two cellos, piano, and flute; that was really challenging, and beautiful too.

Spain, like Havana, was a fruitful experience for Román, but he always kept an eye on New York. Even when he was living in Havana, he would often think about moving here:

There were a few times where I was here on tour, and I would think to myself, “maybe I should just say here this time.” But, for some reason, I would always get on the plane and come home. But, every time that happened, when the plane was landing in Havana, I’d think to myself, “Oh no! Why didn’t you stay?!”

Román finally moved to New York on September 25th, 2011. Although he’s only been here a short time, he’s quickly becoming a part of the city’s vibrant music scene, and enjoying all that life here has to offer:

These four months have been like a whole lifetime for me. I always knew that this city has something with regards to music that no other city has. I’m practicing, I feel inspired. You can go to a lot of shows and hear a lot of people, and whether you like it or not, everybody has a sound! Everybody. And then you talk to people, and you find that they have the same hunger for music [as you do], and that they are open to share knowledge and to learn and to teach. That’s something that I really appreciate.

On Thursday, The Jazz Gallery will present Román and his quartet. The lineup will include the pianist David Virelles, the bassist John Hebert, and the drummer Marcus Gilmore. They plan to perform several pieces that Román recorded two years ago at Bennett Studios (he plans to release those sessions soon on Dafnis Prieto‘s label Dafnison Music), as well as a few newer compositions.

To get an idea of what you can expect to hear on Thursday, stream “Dark Room” below:

From the cover of "The Eleventh Hour" (Sunnyside)

Drummer Johnathan Blake seldom has a moment to spare. His longstanding tenure in the bands of Tom Harrell, David Sanchez, Russell Malone and Kenny Barron – not to mention sideman work with dozens of others – makes his time a limited and highly sought-after commodity.

Yet Johnathan has made it a priority to carve out time to lead his own ensemble, and to develop it into an ensemble “with a sound“. We’ve presented Johnathan’s own projects over a dozen times dating back to 2004, and watched him cultivate his vision closely and carefully with his collaborators.

On Tuesday night, Johnathan will celebrate the release of his debut album, The Eleventh Hour (Sunnyside), at The Gallery. He’ll be joined by his longtime associates (and Jazz Gallery veterans) Jaleel Shaw, Mark Turner, Gerald Clayton, and Matt Penman.

We’re providing a sneak peek at the album in anticipation of the event. Stream “Freefall” below:

“Freefall” was named after a miscommunication during a performance: Johnathan announced that the band was about to play “a new tune”, but an audience member thought he said “Newton”. She explained later that the association with Sir Isaac Newton had caused her to interpret the song as a “free fall.”

Want more? Check out Johnathan’s recent interview on WBGO’s The Checkout, or just buy your tickets now.

Photo courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. Filter by Rollip.

Last summer, we came to you to help us fund The Woodshed at The Jazz Gallery, a new initiative to offer musicians the use of our space at no charge for rehearsal, research, and development. With your help, we raised over $20,000 in just 31 days via Kickstarter.

Executive Director Deborah Steinglass explains, “The Woodshed is a natural extension of the Gallery’s mission and organizational culture. Offering artists a rehearsal space at the venue they have come to know as ‘home’ helps builds a sense of community and also acts to support that community.” We launched the program in early January. Since then, approximately fifty artists have enrolled in the program, and over eighty hours of rehearsal time have been made available. “Over the past few weeks a multitude of artists have been here working – each with vastly different projects; large and small ensembles”, Deborah notes. “As a staff member it’s a treat to hear their work progress during the rehearsal process. And knowing we are really helping them out is a source of personal pride and satisfaction.”

If you have performed at The Gallery (either as a leader or as a sideperson), you can enroll in the program here.

TheWall Street Journal profiled the initiative in an article recently, which includes a few wonderful quotes from the artists benefiting from the program.

Here are a few testimonials from artists who have been taking advantage of the program:

Doug Wamble:

Rio and the Jazz Gallery have been giving musicians a space to work on their music for many years now. It’s a place where artists can play to a receptive audience, develop new work, and improve on their craft. The Woodshed is an expansion of that, giving musicians a place to rehearse in a welcoming space that is free of charge. We need more people with vision like this in our city right now. Here’s to the start of something good!

Pedro Giraudo:

I’m very thankful for The Jazz Gallery’s support. Leading a large ensemble in NYC in the twenty-first century is not easy. Knowing that I don’t have to worry about spending a lot of money, or about compromising the quality or location of the rehearsal space, is a true blessing. Many thanks!

Nir Felder:

I’m so proud of the folks at The Jazz Gallery for being the first in New York City to institute something all clubs should get hip to – providing their musicians with the opportunity to workshop new music in a performance environment.  Rehearsing at the Gallery gives you something you’d have difficulty recreating in a rehearsal studio – the warmth of a real performance space. It creates an environment where the musicians feel better, the music grows stronger, and the relationship between musician and club (and audience) takes on a new, relaxed symbiosis.  We’re all in it together and it feels great to see an organization prove that by their deeds.

Photo from the cover of "Frame" (Sunnyside Records)

Reedist Ben Wendel has a new recording to share with you. This Friday and Saturday, we will be celebrating the release of Frame (Sunnyside), Ben’s sophomore release, with performances at The Jazz Gallery.

The music on Frame was written during and just after Ben’s move to New York from his native (west) coast. Sunnyside Records notes that the album ” traces the emotional arc of that period — the bittersweet tang of leaving the familiar co-existing with the tense expectancy of new experience”, adding, “…ultimately what the album amounts to is a framing of the self — a self-portrait by an artist who’s come to define his own singular voice.”

We’ve been watching Ben develop that voice for quite some time – he first appeared at The Gallery with the collectively-led outfit Kneebody in 2004, and first played here under his own name in 2009. Frame features several of Ben’s longtime collaborators: Kneebody bandmates Adam Benjamin and Nate Wood anchor the group, which also includes other Jazz Gallery regulars such as Gerald Clayton, Tigran Hamasyan, Nir Felder, and Ben Street.

Stream “Chorale”, one of the album’s nine new pieces, below. If you’re hungry for more, you can find another exclusive track on Ben’s Facebook page.


UPDATE: Ben’s new album will be spotlighted on WBGO’s The Checkout tonight at 6:30 p.m. Also featured will be Jonathan Blake, who’s CD release concert will be held next Tuesday at The Gallery.

Photo courtesy of

2011 was a strong year for pianist Kris Davis. Her work was featured on two head-turning releases on Clean FeedAeriol Piano, her own solo album, and Novela, the eponymous release by a band led by Tony Malaby for which she also did the arrangements (they performed here recently). Aeriol Piano received several year-end accolades. Ben Ratliff of The New York Times listed the release as one of the Best Albums of 2011, and also profiled Kris in “New Pilots at The Keyboard“, an article about four jazz pianists on the rise.

We took note of Kris’ work last year in performances by Paradoxical Frog (the trio she co-leads with the saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tyshawn Sorey) and Novela, and we look forward to her first performance under her own name at The Gallery on Thursday.

Below, Kris shares and discusses examples of the work of some of her favorite pianists, composers, and improvisers. Kris speaks:


Patterns in a Chromatic Field – Morton Feldman

This is one of my favorite pieces of all time. The way the piano and cello interact as a harmonic and melodic unit is the reason I come back to this piece again and again. Because each cell is repetitive within itself, you really have a chance to get inside the sonority of the instruments and the way they interact- sometimes as a unit, sometimes as separate entities. Rhythmically, some of the sections seem to be rooted in two different pulses, which is an effect that I have tried to use in my own compositions and when improvising.

Berio Sequenza IV for Piano

I first discovered Berio a couple years ago while studying with composer Jonathan Pieslak. Berio wrote solo pieces for various instruments and, although I’m partial to the piano sequenza for obvious reasons, I also love the oboe and viola sequenzas. In this piano piece, Berio creates various tiers of harmony and density that seem to overlap, unveiling themselves in sudden bursts and spaces. Dynamics, the attack of the notes, and the sostenuto pedal all help to create these effects. There are so many levels going on. When I listen to this piece, I am constantly trying to figure out how the sound is created, but at the same time, I am completely centered in the sound.

Benoit Delbecq – Circles and Calligrams

I think Benoit is one of the most unique pianists and composers of our generation. The way he orchestrates piano preparations to emphasize or obscure polyrhythms, his touch at the piano, and the effect he creates combining these elements is definitely something to experience if you haven’t already.

Rytis Mazulis – Sybilla

Rytis is a Lithuanian composer. I first heard his piece ‘Clavier of Pure Reason’ which seems to be influenced by Nancarrow (who I’m a big fan of) and minimalism. Both these pieces begin with an initial cell, which become increasingly dense and dissonant through each passing cycle.

Paradoxical Frog

Paradoxical Frog is a collective trio I have been a part of since 2009. Ingrid and Tyshawn have both been so influential and our work as a trio has significantly impacted the way I think about improvisation and composition. This is a clip from a concert we played at the Moers Festival in 2010.

David Murray

I just saw this clip a few days ago and it blew me away. David is there, playing with the rhythm section, but also playing in his own time over the tune. He’s floating, but not to the point that it’s completely free – he’s still within the framework of the song.

Cecil Taylor

Cecil plays with such energy – it’s so inspiring! I love this clip.

Gyorgy Ligeti – Continuum

Ligeti’s music has had a HUGE influence on me as a pianist and composer. I was initially drawn to his music because, within the first few moments of listening, you know what the concept behind the entire piece is. Most of these ‘root’ ideas are concise; it could be a short pattern, a texture that reveals itself as a rhythmic idea or pulse, or it could be based on a specific technique that is explored throughout the instrument. The complexity lies in the development of that idea.