A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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Saxophonist, bassoonist, and composer Ben Wendel has been a familiar face at The Jazz Gallery for some time now. It’s fitting, then, that he’ll be inaugurating this year’s new season of Residency Commissions, which will be focusing on the music of contemporary reed players (and in the case of Ben, both single and double reeds). In addition to working on his newest compositional projects at The Jazz Gallery, Ben will be performing on our stage with pianist and polymath Dan Tepfer tomorrow and Saturday. We spoke with Ben by phone to ask him how his Residency, which began two weeks ago and will continue into February, has been going thus far and what fans and listeners will have to look forward to in the coming year.

The Jazz Gallery: Are there particular goals or musical ideas you want to achieve during your residency?

Ben Wendel: My goal is to write a few things: I’m going to write, hopefully, a series of twelve duos that will be with me and various other instrumentalists—lots of different instrumentalists like saxophone with drums, saxophone and guitar, saxophone and piano, maybe even bassoon and guitar or bass. It’s kind of loosely inspired by a series of piano pieces that Tchaikovsky wrote; he did a series of twelve piano pieces, one for each month, and I fell in love with those pieces last year and decided I’d try and write a piece for each month next year. The different people who are going to play with me are close friends and/or musicians that I’m very fond of and respect a lot, and a lot of the time the pieces will be written with their aesthetic in mind.

I’ll be recording my next solo album in the spring so I’m going to be writing material for that too. Those are completely separate projects and just that alone—twelve pieces and roughly something like a third of an album’s worth of music that still needs to be written—is plenty to try to handle in a month’s time. (more…)

Photo by John Guillemin

Photo by John Guillemin

Alongside saxophonist Ben Wendel, pianist Dan Tepfer will be joining us this weekend to present four sets of music integrating a woodwind quartet and smartphones that, in his words, is motivated by the question, “Does this really allow us to do something that we couldn’t possibly do any other way?” We caught up with Dan by phone to ask him about the creative possibilities of duo playing and the music he’ll be performing this weekend, which will involve computer software that Dan himself wrote.

The Jazz Gallery: How’d you and Ben start playing together?

Dan Tepfer: The way we started playing together was that Ben moved to town and we happened to have a common friend who put together a session with both him and me. What’s funny is that before that session, our moms turned out have a common friend who lives in Vienna, and she’d sent Facebook messages to both of saying, “You should look up the son of my friend, who’s a jazz musician,” and we both had the same reaction: “Oh, whatever.” We played together and had a great time and then realized we had that connection; it was just during the session that we were like, “Oh, aren’t you that guy…?” (more…)

Photo by Vincent Soyez

Photo by Vincent Soyez

Small Constructions, a 2013 release from saxophonist Ben Wendel and pianist Dan Tepfer, isn’t your typical duo album. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times for its “restless invention,” Small Constructions was carefully constructed through a series of overdubs. Wendel, who is also known for his work with the hard-hitting jazz-rock collective Kneebody, plays three kinds of saxes and a bassoon on the record, while Tepfer, versed in keyboard language from Monk to the Goldberg Variations, intertwines layers of piano, Fender Rhodes, and melodica.

In a live setting, the duo have fewer tools at their immediate disposal. But for Wendel and Tepfer, two voices are all that is necessary. As seen in this video from WBGO, they can take any tune, like Lennie Tristano’s “Line Up,” and put a unique spin on it, full of unexpected detours and influenced by pop and classical as much as jazz.

Both Wendel and Tepfer grew up on classical music, which Wendel believes contributes to their connection: “We have a shared aesthetic sensibility from this,” he says, “extending from our choice of tunes to the way we improvise together, finishing each other’s sentences. I guess you could say that we’re kindred musical spirits.”

Ben Wendel and Dan Tepfer with Woodwind Quartet and Smartphones perform at The Jazz Gallery this Friday and Saturday, December 20th and 21st. The performance will feature Ben Wendel on saxophone, Dan Tepfer on piano, Joshua Rubin on clarinet, Gareth Flowers on trumpet, and Rebekah Heller and Adrian Morejon on bassoon. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here

Photo by Michael Weintrob

Photo by Michael Weintrob

Compared to most instruments we associate with jazz, the clarinet is awfully small. Its case isn’t much larger than a typical handbag; there are no loping curves or tangles of tubing. But in the hands of a talented player, the rather diminutive instrument can slip into musical cracks that a burly tenor sax cannot—the cracks that separate jazz from other styles.

Clarinetist Mike McGinnis is one of those players who can slip through those cracks and come upon new subterranean styles that no one has yet discovered. Through his work with groups like The Four Bags and DDYGG, McGinnis has created a style where collective improvisation and delicate composition not only coexist but also feed off each other to create music that is greater than the sum of its parts. On his most recent album Road*Trip (RKM Music), McGinnis reaches back toward a genre-bending, clarinet-playing forebear, Bill Smith. On the record, McGinnis not only performs Smith’s “Concerto for Clarinet and Combo” (first recorded by drummer Shelly Manne’s group with the composer in 1957), but also a new original composition “Road Trip” that takes the techniques pioneered by Smith into the 21st century. We caught up with Mike by phone this week to talk about the particular challenges of Smith’s work and how playing the clarinet can help someone cut through the noise of today’s jazz world and find a personal voice.

The Jazz Gallery: The first piece on your new record is called “Concerto for Clarinet and Combo” by the composer Bill Smith. He’s not exactly a jazz household name, so can you tell us a bit about who he is? 

Mike McGinnis: Bill Smith is an 86-year-old clarinetist and composer. He was born in California and studied clarinet at Juilliard before being burned out by New York. He was studying classical clarinet during the day, then during the evening he had this steady gig at the club Kelly’s Stables. He’d be doing late night gigs until 3 or 4 in the morning and would have to get to school at 9 a.m., so he burned out and then also heard that the composer Darius Milhaud was teaching at Mills College. He went to Mills and that’s where he hooked up with Dave Brubeck, and got into this group of Milhaud’s students that were jazz guys but wanted to enhance their compositions.

In addition to being a trained composer—he went to Europe and studied at different times—he was this great clarinetist who was this great innovator in regards to extended techniques and harmonics. He would put different things in the clarinet, attach different things to it, play the clarinet into computers, play with tape loops…

He’s written a lot of music that solo clarinetists play, and pieces with computer, and he wrote this great five-movement orchestral piece that’s completely atonal with an improvising clarinet soloist. He’s still playing and he’s still composing and he’s widely regarded in classical clarinet and new music circles as a major guy. (more…)

Photo by Emily Beaver

Photo by Emily Beaver

Over the course of his four albums as a leader, alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius has staked a claim to his own brand of post-bop, one that is both light on its feet and unabashedly tuneful. His quicksilver tone cuts through even the densest clatter of a Kendrick Scott or Jeff Ballard, and Cornelius navigates treacherous harmonies as if on a pleasure cruise.

However, his newest project has led him into new, uncharted waters. As the recipient of a 2012 New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Foundation, Cornelius composed a suite of music called While You Are Still Young, inspired by the beloved children’s poetry of A.A. Milne (Cornelius is a young father of two, and the title references Milne’s When We Were Very Young, a 1924 collection). We caught up with Cornelius by phone this week to talk about the inspiration behind his new work.

The Jazz Gallery: Your new project is inspired by the children’s poetry of A.A. Milne, specifically his collection When We Were Very Young. What was your experience with this work growing up?

Patrick Cornelius: When my daughter was born—she was my first child—my grandmother gave me the book [When We Were Very Young] as a gift, because she read those poems to my mother when my mother was a baby, and my mother read them to me. It was a family tradition, as I’m sure it is for many families, to read these particular poems. I don’t remember my mother reading them to me, but when my daughter was born we read them a lot, and I still read them to her every once in a while—she’s about four years old now.

There’s something about them that appealed to me. They’re so whimsical and carefree in nature and their characters are very strong. I always thought they’d lend themselves well to not a musical treatment, because I’m not setting the poems. I always thought I could write some interesting stuff inspired by them.