A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Archive for

Jonathan Finlayson. Photo by Everett McCourt.

Jonathan Finlayson. Photo by Everett McCourt.

This weekend, June 26th and 27th, The Jazz Gallery presents the third of our 2014-2015 Residency Commission projects. While the first two by Chris Morrissey and Becca Stevens featured gorgeous songs that found new musical spaces between jazz and contemporary rock, our next commission by trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson goes in more abstract, but no less exciting direction.

Finlayson is an integral member of several of today’s most acclaimed experimental jazz ensembles, from Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, to Steve Lehman’s octet, to Mary Halvorson’s quintet. For his own commission, Finlayson has assembled a sextet of strong leaders in their own rights—saxophonists Brian Settles and Steve Lehman, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Craig Weinrib.

We caught up with Jonathan by phone during his residency earlier this spring for a heady conversation about the compositional process, creating spontaneity on the bandstand, and even the experience of elapsing time.

The Jazz Gallery: How did you get started on this project? Did you have a concept that organized everything, or did things develop more gradually?

Jonathan Finlayson: First, I had to figure out what I was going to write for. I had to line up some people and see who could play. So I decided to go with six people in total—three horns and three rhythm players. I personally really enjoy writing for three voices. In my current group, that means distributing the voices between me, the guitar, and the piano. The nice thing about the piano and guitar is that they’re not monophonic instruments, but the texture of blending the trumpet with them is always pretty particular. I don’t get to write for multiple horn voices that often, so I thought I’d give myself that opportunity this time. This size group—trumpet, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano, bass, and drums—preceded any writing.

TJG: All of the members of your group are bandleaders and composers in their own rights, and they all have very identifiable musical personalities. How has this impacted what you have written?

JF: Yeah—I’ve either seen these guys’ groups perform a lot, or have played in them, in the case of Steve Lehman.

Having played with every one of them before, I have an idea of their individually capable of and what direction they lean in aesthetically. So some of my ideas have been about wanting to create a framework for improvisation for one of them. Like, I can hear this guy right here doing this kind improvisation, or I can hear him play this kind of melody at this section, or maybe he’s doing something rhythmically in this area… I mean everyone is really different, but they’re all great improvisers.

I went to see Mark Helias not too long ago. He played “’Round Midnight” with Uri Caine, but he has this extension on the bass, and so he was able to walk down from B-flat to D-flat to C playing that song. It just had this sound! It reverberated through the club, and I was like oh man! I mean he already has this amazing sound on the bass, and then you don’t hear those low notes too frequently on an acoustic bass—you usually have to take it up to the A string or whatever. So that’s one thing I wanted to do—I wanted to access that range of the acoustic bass.

And then I play with Matt, I play with Brian, I play with Craig, and they’re all really great musicians. I don’t have to worry about putting anything too complicated in front of them, or too simple. They make anything sound hip.

TJG: You mentioned earlier that you like writing for three voices. Do you usually take a linear approach and write the lines first and then see what the harmonic implication is? Or do you like working with a harmonic outline and then thread the lines through that?

JF: I’ll start with a melodic figure most of the time. Generally the harmonic implications come later. But just having two notes already creates a harmonic implication, and I can either stick with that, or change it as I go by changing what lies beneath it. In that sense, I like to start kind of plain and then add the harmonies later. I don’t necessarily like to have a preset notion of how a particular tune is going to develop. And sometimes, some of what I end up doing doesn’t fall into a typical classification, harmonically speaking. I try not to limit myself in that way right out of the box. I like to keep it open and give it a name later.

But I will do both approaches on occasion. Sometimes I will have a progression and work backwards. It can be easier sometimes when you have that progression because the voices have to fall into a certain place. I guess I have some tendencies, but I don’t like to do just one thing.

TJG: It’s as if different musical ideas suggest different means of crafting.

JF: Sure, sure!

TJG: Now that we’ve discussed how you think about writing individual voices, how do you think about writing large-scale structures? How do you set up the improvisational frameworks that you mentioned earlier?

JF: I actually do a lot of that in rehearsal. I might take something in, and then after I hear everyone play it, the idea is live. I might be like, “You what would be great? If we could take these three bars or these six bars and then rework it on the spot.” I can’t always tell between playing on piano or working in Finale what it’s really going to sound like.

But other times, I do feel that there are clear-cut spaces for soloing. Like it might be, “I’m going to play on this, and then someone else will play,” and it’s very simple. Then other times, you discover things in the midst of playing. Those are the moments I usually like the best, because I’m not married to what I put on the page. It’s not as spontaneous as hearing everyone’s contribution and going, “Wow! Those six bars sound amazing,” or, “those two bars over here and these three over here would sound great together.” It’s totally different being there with the band and being involved in the music. For me, it’s better than being at home and making decisions in silence.


Kavita Shah. Photo by Julien Charpentier.

Kavita Shah. Photo by Julien Charpentier.

On her debut album Visions (Inner Circle Music), vocalist and composer Kavita Shah works with a surprising mix of musical ingredients. There’s a kora from West Africa, a tabla from India, an American jazz rhythm section—and they’re all playing well-known songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and MIA, as well as Shah’s own compositions. For a lesser artist, this kind of international eclecticism can feel forced, a kind of musical tourism. But for Shah, it’s completely natural, an organic outgrowth of her diverse experiences as a singer and musical scholar. Produced by fellow musical omnivore and guitarist Lionel Loueke, the album has received much critical acclaim in the last year, including a four-star review in Downbeat Magazine.

This Thursday, June 25th, Ms. Shah makes her Jazz Gallery debut with a top-notch quintet featuring, among others, Steve Wilson on saxophone. Shah was kind enough to answer some questions via email about her work both on and off the bandstand.

The Jazz Galery: You were born and raised right here in New York City. How did you interact with the city musically growing up?

Kavita Shah: Musically speaking, growing up in New York was very unique. It was the 90s, which was a golden age for hip-hop, so my radio dial was parked on Hot 97 (that hasn’t changed much, actually!). At home, my parents played everything from Frank Sinatra to The Beatles to Michael Jackson to Mukesh. Then from ages 10 to 18, I had the privilege of singing with the Young People’s Chorus of NYC. We had a rigorous tour schedule, traveling often and playing regularly at places like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. But perhaps most important for me was the early exposure to all kinds of music: we sang jazz, classical, pop, gospel, folk music in more than 15 languages, and commissioned worked by contemporary composers like Meredith Monk. I grew accustomed to having all these styles—from the esoteric to the popular—co-exist on an equal footing.

I also studied classical piano, so I would bring home my choir pieces to learn the inner voices and piano parts. This is how I first got into jazz; we sang “How High the Moon” and scatted to what I would later learn was Ornithology. I was obsessed! On my own, I started listening to Ella Fitzgerald and big band music, and the older I got, the more I wanted to explore standards. Patience Higgins, my former neighbor, played reeds with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, so when I decided eventually to pursue a career in music, I would go sit in with his band at the Lenox Lounge or (the old) Minton’s. The Harlem jazz scene was another big influence for me.

In terms of concerts, I used to go to Smalls back in high school. Back then, the cover was $10, and there was live music until 6am! I also started getting really into Afro-Cuban music and bossa nova, and being in New York, I got to experience that live. I must have been 16 or 17 when I saw João Gilberto at Carnegie Hall. I distinctly remember the feeling of community in that huge room, seeing how one person on stage with only his guitar could unite so many people in silence. I thought to myself: I want to do that!

TJG: You attended Harvard for your undergrad and studied Afro-Brazilian music and politics. How has your musicological research informed your work as a performer and composer?

KS: Personally, especially as a singer, I feel a very strong connection between music and language. Culture is the context that puts the two together; it makes music feel like something greater than mere notes on a page. My time in Salvador, Brazil had a particularly huge impact on me as an artist, because it was the first place where I witnessed this first hand. There, I worked closely with Malê Debalê, a bloco-afro (Carnival group) that served as a meeting ground for a marginalized community on the outskirts of the city. Through music, percussion, and dance, Malê drew from the rich legacy of Afro-Brazilian history, the US civil rights movement and African independence movements to disseminate positive messages about black consciousness. There was a great sense of pride that came out in the music.

Seeing how art and civil engagement and cultural identity could align like that gave me a deep sense of purpose as a musician. Studying other traditions and languages has been a means for me to grapple with my own identity as a member of a diaspora, and a continued source of inspiration in my own artistic endeavors. And it’s beautiful to be able to pass that on through my music; I love when audience members come up to me and say that they were taken on a journey, that they were touched by a particular story, or that they heard an instrument or a language they had never known of before.


Design courtesy of the artist.

Design courtesy of the artist.

Whether playing with Ambrose Akinmusire, Gerald Clayton, Thundercat, or Flying Lotus, drummer Justin Brown always makes his presence felt from behind the kit, his punchy kick and snare cutting through his shimmering cymbals and rumbling toms. Already established as a top-flight sideman in jazz and contemporary R&B alike, Brown has begun to step out as a leader with his band NYEUSI, a group that synthesizes his varied influences in an intoxicating way, filled with deep groove and improvisational risk-taking alike.

Brown and NYEUSI got The Jazz Gallery pumping at a show this past January, and we are pleased to have them back this Tuesday, June 23rd. The group, featuring dynamic duo Jason Lindner and James Francies on keyboards, Burniss Travis on bass, and Mark Shim on wind controller, will head into the studio next week to record their debut album. There’s little doubt this all-star group will shake the Gallery stage once again.  (more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Like Chris Morrissey’s Standard Candle project that kicked off The Jazz Gallery’s 2015 Residency Commission concerts last weekend, Becca Stevens’s commission project this weekend features a collection of brand new music for voices. Stevens’s album Perfect Animalreleased on Universal Music Classics this spring—has received heaps of critical acclaim from both the jazz world and beyond. But ever the adventurer, Stevens heads out in new and surprising directions on Regina, a collection of songs about queens of all kinds—the historical, the mythological, and the personal.

Featuring her ace working band augmented by a trio of classical musicians and singers Jo Lawry and Chris Turner, Regina is perhaps Becca Stevens’s most ambitious work to date. We caught up with Stevens by phone this week to discuss the inspiration for these songs, the expansive ensemble, and the challenges of writing on the road.

The Jazz Gallery: These songs that you’ve composed for the commission focus on different queens, including Queen Elizabeth I of England. How did you decide to write about these women?

Becca Stevens: I’m trying to remember what drew me originally to Queen Elizabeth. I think I read a quote or saw a video clip or something, and it sparked some curiosity. So I started watching different Queen Elizabeth movies on YouTube, just clips of them. I was really fascinated by all the conspiracy about why she never married—whether it was because she was so devoted to leading and didn’t want to be distracted, or there are some people that think that she had some sort of medical problem and was afraid that she couldn’t have kids. That would make sense in a way because her dad [Henry VIII] was a very angry man and killed her mother for not being able to have a son, so maybe she had some sort of fear about that. But I really liked the idea of it being out of her passion for leading. I thought that was a really beautiful idea and it was inspiring me at the time.

When I started writing, I started investigating the lives and the stories of other queens, which is not my normal process. I would say more often than not I write from my thoughts and experiences, through introspection. This was really helpful for me because it got me moving much quicker than usual. I started investigating all these people, like my aunt told me about this woman Elizabeth Woodville who was either the grandmother or great-grandmother by marriage of Queen Elizabeth. Her story was really fascinating—she was begging the king to return lands to her and he fell in love with her, and then they married in private. I was reading about Freddie Mercury, and so I wrote a song about him. And then I wrote some songs where I used the term more loosely—my grandmother has really been inspiring me lately. She’s a queen in my life so I wrote her a song.

TJG: How did you get from your original idea to actually getting lyrics out?

BS: In the case of Queen Elizabeth I, I was very intrigued by this unrequited, or at least unwedded, love that she had with Robert Dudley. Apparently he was the love of her life and she was the love of his, and she sort of strung him along, and he always thought he was right around the corner from marrying her. When I was reading about them, I was wondering if he was alive to the end, but he died three years before her. I found this letter that he wrote her on his deathbed basically, and it was the most beautiful letter. It didn’t confess his love to her in any grand way, but the way he spoke in this letter was so poignant and beautiful. Basically, he was saying that at the end of his life, all of his prayers are for her health and happiness. So that’s what I decided to write the song about for Queen Elizabeth. It’s sort of her response to the letter, and then there’s another verse that’s from his perspective that I’m going to have Chris Turner sing, so it’s sort of a duet between Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, but in a pop song format.

I had been turning around that song in my head for months. I started writing the chords and the melody months ago, and I knew that I wanted to write something about the end of her life, but I didn’t find that letter until a week and half ago, so that song just came together!

TJG: A lot of pop artists have used concept albums to take on new personas and new ways of writing, like say David Bowie with Ziggy Stardust and the Beatles with Sergeant Pepper. Did you feel yourself taking on a new persona as a writer and performer while working on these songs?

BS: Absolutely. Even though I’m taking on these other personas, I think it’s kind of like being a method actor. When it’s really working, it feels as though it’s me. In a way, it’s no different than writing from my own personal experience, because when I’m really embodying the character I’m investigating, it feels like they’re my experiences. It’s sort of like going into a trance of embodying that character. Also, I found that by going into these different people’s minds and different worlds, it’s brought out more than anything my Irish folk music roots. There’s a lot of Celtic stuff coming through in the melodies, which is interesting.

Another big thing is that this music has been more lyrically-driven than what I usually write. I really like to challenge myself and mix up my writing process, so I have written song every which way, but this body of music has been primarily rooted in lyric and the story.


Photo by Jati Lindsay, via

Photo by Jati Lindsay, via

Before heading out on a big international tour with saxophonist Branford Marsalis later this summer, bassist Eric Revis is going on a short tour of his own, stepping out as a leader with a brand new trio. Perhaps best known for his work with Mr. Marsalis, Revis’s own music covers wide aesthetic ground. In addition to working in the collaborative trio Tarbaby with pianist Orrin Evans and drummer Nasheet Waits, Revis has made a variety of recordings as a leader featuring adventurous peers like pianist Jason Moran, and saxophonists Ken Vandermark, Darius Jones, and Bill McHenry.

Revis teams up with two ideal collaborators in his new trio—pianist (and Gallery regular) Kris Davis and drummer Gerald Cleaver. With Revis’s forceful bass tone meeting Davis’s melodic flights of fancy and Cleaver’s sizzling flow around the kit, musical sparks are sure to fly. We are proud to present Revis and company for two nights of performances this week, giving you four chances to check out this group’s exciting and unpredictable music.