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Photo by Lydia Polzer

Photo by Lydia Polzer

This weekend, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock will cap off The Jazz Gallery’s 2015 Commission series with a new set of her trademark adventurous music. Like this year’s other commissionees, Laubrock will have the opportunity to present and explore this music over the course of two nights. However, in an unusual turn, Laubrock will present her compositions as performed by contrasting groups on each night—a fleet-footed, highly-reactive trio on Friday, and a hairier, bass-heavy quintet on Saturday.

While Laubrock is perhaps best known for her winding, long-form compositions with groups like Anti-House and Paradoxical Frog, the saxophonist took a different approach to her Gallery commission, trying to condense her ideas into more of a lead sheet form. We caught up with Ms. Laubrock by phone this week to talk about the conceptual underpinnings of her new piece, as well as her approach to balancing improvisational freedom and formal structure.

The Jazz Gallery: The first group you’re presenting on Friday includes pianist Kris Davis and guitarist Mary Halvorson, two people whom you have worked with a lot before. Is this the first time that you’re playing with them in this exact configuration though?

Ingrid Laubrock: We’ve done two improvised gigs over the past couple of years. One was a part of Kris Davis’s Stone residency and we did another one at the Cornelia Street Cafe. We enjoyed it a lot. We basically improvised the whole gig, but it felt like it had a really great flow. I think we called it “Death Rattle” then, but it wasn’t really a working group. They’re both part of my group Anti-House of course, and since the improvised sets worked so well, I thought it would be great to write for them.

TJG: What have you been exploring in the pieces for this group? Are you pitting the more percussive sounds of the piano and guitar against your saxophones? Or are you seeing what you and Kris and Mary will do to looser, more open material?

IL: It’s definitely a little bit of both. Usually I try to find a balance between writing preconceived things and giving improvisers space. I’m very conscious of giving people enough freedom to have fun with it, but I’m also trying to orchestrate, especially with the particular instrumental combinations of the two groups.

The music for this commission is a little bit different than what I usually write, because I usually think a lot about who exactly will be playing the music and trying to write specifically for them. My original idea for this project was to write something a little bit more gestural that can be interpreted in different ways by both groups.

That has changed over the course of writing the piece, though. I figured out that some things would not work with both groups, so I left out a couple of pieces. There are a one or two pieces that will be played by one of the groups and not the other. The bulk of material is the same for both groups, but rearranged and reconfigured.

TJG: Since the pieces have changed quite a bit over the writing process, has that been a result of collaborative efforts and rehearsing thus far?

IL: Well not really so far. All the rehearsing will take place over this week. I’ve sent some stuff back and forth for the musicians to look at and comment on, just to see if it will work, or if it’s all playable on the instruments. I haven’t actually heard it yet with everyone playing!

This was an interesting project for me because I was writing really intensely over the last few months. It made it sort of like a job—I would spend four, five hours a day writing. I wrote as much as I could without thinking of the instrumentation or who exactly would be playing. I didn’t try to limit my imagination in any way, and tried to stick with ideas and not throw them out right away. It was a really good and intense process.

TJG: By writing so regularly and intensely, did you find yourself taking a more systematic approach in your compositions than you do normally?

IL: Well I tried to balance things out between working systematically and working more intuitively. I thought of a narrative for the whole set of pieces, rather than just thinking, “Here’s a piece. Here’s a piece. Here’s a piece,” that sort of thing. And within those pieces there are some that are more like collages, and others that are more gestural where the players can take material and manipulate it with more freedom. And then there are other pieces that are more strictly notated and linear. I tried to juxtapose these different ideas so there’s a narrative scope over the course of the whole hour.

TJG: What made you want to explore this unified set of music in the context of two very different groups?

IL: I think it was when I was asked to do the commission, I was throwing ideas around and my husband Tom Rainey—he’s always laughing when I bring new music in. He always asks, “Why don’t you write any ditties?” So I took that and thought about writing things that could fit on a lead sheet. It ended up not really being that, but that was the original idea. I was going to call it “Ditties and Dittos.” It was a kind of joke.

So after I had that idea, I thought, “Why don’t I do these pieces with different groups?” Having played with Anthony Braxton over the past few years, he always brings in pieces, whether orchestra pieces, or opera, or a quartet piece, and we’ll play it with an absolutely different instrumentation. It always sounds completely fascinating, and the pieces never sound the same because of it.

In my case, I was thinking a lot about range and register—what would happen if we take this whole range out? Like something high up on the piano won’t be there in the other version of the piece. I was definitely playing around with the idea of when is a piece still a piece?


Photo by Zane Smith, courtesy of the artist

Photo by Zane Smith, courtesy of the artist

In his previous interview with Jazz Speaks, pianist and composer Gabriel Zucker spoke at length on his personal conflicts between composed and improvised music. His philosophies stemmed from his ensemble The Delegation, a large-scale long-form group dedicated to exploring the lines where spontaneity meets notes on the page.

This Thursday at The Jazz Gallery, Zucker will be co-leading a trio (plus special guests) consisting of drummer Dre Hocevar and cellist Lester St Louis. The fare of the evening will be freedom and exploration over two open-form sets. In a recent phone interview, Zucker outlined some of his current feelings on improvisation and composition, and spoke about his musical relationship with Hocevar and St. Louis.


TJG: Could you tell us a little bit about what we’re going to hear with this group?

GZ: We’re doing an open-form free improvisation with a couple of different bands. It’s actually the first time we’re going to have all of those people on stage together. The three of us, Lester, Dre and I, do a lot of free improvisation together in different configurations. We do a lot of talking and thinking about what that means. So we thought it would be interesting to get that on stage with some other improvisers that we all admire, and see what happens.

TJG: So it’s the three of you at the core, and you’ll be tagging different people in as the set goes on?

GZ: Exactly. We’ll be joined by Tony Malaby]on the first set, and Tony, Chris Pitsiokos, and Henry Fraser on the second set.

TJG: And it’ll be free from top to bottom?

GZ: As far as I know. It’s possible someone might come in with a bit of a structure, but most likely we’ll just sit down and play.

TJG: Taking a step back, how did you start working with Dre and Lester?

GZ: Well, we’re sort of a group of friends first and a group of collaborators second. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t know. Dre and I play together in a trio with saxophone player Bryan Qu, so we’ve worked together a lot, in primarily improvised music. And then, Lester and Dre play together in Dre’s piano trio, Lester and I know each other from the venue Spectrum, where I play a lot, so we’ve done some improvisation together there. And then, we’ve played lots of different sessions together, in many different configurations, and we do a lot of talking about improvisation and about music in general, so we’ve shared a lot of ideas that way.

TJG: So in terms of the genesis of this project, as you were saying, what is it about Dre and Lester’s playing that really pulled you toward them?

GZ: You know, I don’t do that much just free improvisation with people, because things can get kind of unstructured, messy, uninteresting. I’ve found that with both of these guys, that’s not really a risk, just because they’re both so in tune to what’s going on. We have a lot of shared background and experience, and we can create something on the spot that I see as avoiding some of the common pitfalls of open-form improvisation. I think about things very compositionally, including large-scale free improvisation, and I think it’s something I actually really pull off with those guys. Sometimes, you get together a free band, and it devolves into everyone doing their own thing, spins off into nowhere. We’re really able to create coherent statements together. So when I’m looking to do any kind of improvisatory gig, that’s my number one criterion: Making sure I’m playing with people that sensitive and that in tune with what’s going on, in terms of making musical statements and not just flashy textures.

TJG: Dre’s mission statement seems to be that of a self-professed risk-taker. How do you tune your ears and your approach when you’re on stage with him?

GZ: He’s definitely a risk-taker, I’d agree with that. The thing about being onstage with Dre is that he does not hesitate to throw you for a loop in the slightest. When we first started playing I thought that would only happen in rehearsal, and it turns out that no, it’s something that happens on stage too. He takes risks on a macro-level, in terms of what he’s trying to do as a musician in general, and then on a micro-level at the individual gig, which keeps things pretty interesting. We’re obviously still able to react to  each other. We’ve been playing together for over a year, which is tighter free improvisatory interaction than I’ve had with a lot of other musicians. So, you know, I know to expect the unexpected in that collaboration.

TJG: I interviewed Ted Poor a couple of months ago, and he spoke about a similar process. When you’re improvising and listening, the process is very reactive. When your hands are there on the instrument, yet you’re listening outwards and reacting to things outside of your personal sphere, how do you stay rooted in the mechanics of playing music?

GZ: There are as many different images of how you go about this as there are improvisers. The one that started clicking for me is that you’re not listening to others and yourself; you want your ears to be in the middle of the group. It’s not like I’m listening to Dre and Lester, and then I play things. I’m listening to what ‘that trio’ or quartet or sextet is playing, and trying to contribute things that’ll take it into a better direction. In terms of facility, it’s a matter of having been playing piano for eighteen years. I think we all start to hit the point where that’s not a limitation. Any musician will tell you that the technical aspect is not on your mind, and that’s as true for composers as it is for improvisers.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, the pianist Luis Perdomo will arrive at the Jazz Gallery on the heels of his latest album, Twenty-Two (Hot Tone). The album finds Perdomo straddling two worlds: his early life in Venezuela, where he stayed until he was 22 years old, and his life as a musician in New York, which now numbers 22 years. In particular, the album draws from the two years before and after his move, and the excitement, trepidation, and cultural exchange of that period.

Twenty-Two features Perdomo’s trio, which he called the Controlling Ear Unit, with his wife Mimi Jones on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. E.J. Strickland will replace Royston for this Jazz Gallery gig. In preparation, familiarize yourself wiith Perdomo’s excellent, varied work over the years:

You can hear Perdomo’s dissonant flourishes on Hans Glawischnig’s furious album “Panorama,” from 2008.

Perdomo was a founding member of Miguel Zenon’s Quartet. He appeared at The Gallery with Zenon in 2009.

He’s been playing with Ravi Coltrane’s forward-thinking ensembles for a decade. Here he is on “Spirit Fiction” (2013), along with Strickland.

He brought drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Drew Gress together for his 2012 album “Universal Mind.” Writing in the New York Times, Nate Chinen wrote, “it exudes such strong, uncluttered conviction that it feels like a forward leap.”


Questlove (L) and James Francies (R). Photo courtesy of James Francies.

Questlove (L) and James Francies (R). Photo courtesy of James Francies.

Just last week, James Francies was working on a film score with Questlove of the Roots when Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon walked in on them, leading to this priceless photo-op. Building on his experience in The Jazz Gallery’s mentorship program this past winter, Francies has really established himself as an in-demand collaborator in jazz and beyond. In addition to working with the Roots and Raekwon from the Wu Tang Clan, Francies has been touring with vibraphonist Stefon Harris and will be accompanying singer Jose James at the Newport Jazz Festival next month.

This Friday, Francies will return to the Gallery with his own working band, Kinetic. With so much different music floating through his head right now—Hip-Hop, post-bop, film music—it will be fascinating to see what curious combinations come out when he improvises with his talented bandmates.  (more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

The musicians who come and play at the Jazz Gallery are constantly gigging—but most aren’t in the middle of a tour with Lauryn Hill. It takes a special musician like pianist Ray Angry to hop between these worlds, both acting as an elite sideman for the greatest names of hip-hop and R&B while also pursuing individual jazz projects. Ray has recently appeared on records by The Roots, John Legend, Esperanza Spalding, and Miguel, to name a few, and brings a trio of Marcus Gilmore on drums and Burniss Travis on bass to The Gallery on Thursday, July 23rd. We caught up with him by phone while on tour with Ms. Hill in Europe.

The Jazz Gallery: Does it require a real mental shift to toggle between jazz and other worlds?

Raymond Angry: Not necessarily, because I’m always writing, even if I’m out here on the road, with Lauryn Hill or the Roots. While I’m doing all these different genres, I’ve been writing these little motifs. When I get back, I’m always in the studio, always working, always writing.

TJG: What musicians or records were particularly formative in your jazz training?

RA: When I get to college, Howard, I was at first a classical major. I had never I had played jazz in high school—it wasn’t something that caught my interest. When I got to college and heard Wynton Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, it was like, oh my god. I was just in awe of those people.

I was 18 and I used to walk from my college dorm to Blues Alley. [It’s roughly 3 miles, walking across the heart of Washington D.C.] I did this for a whole week. My friends and I, we wanted to hear these guys play. They would let us sit on the stairs and listen to the music. Later, they let us sit in for a couple songs. We were so eager to play.

I started getting hip to Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn Jr., Erroll Garner. Geri Allen was my piano teacher. One of my mentors was Mulgrew Miller. During my classical lessons, I would start improvising on a Chopin, and my teacher would freak out.

TJG: What did you learn from Mulgrew?

RA: When I was graduating college, I was so afraid to move to New York. I remember sitting on my college campus and him saying to me, “you could be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond.” I moved, and I tell you, it’s the best thing I ever did.

I played my first ever duo gig with Mulgrew, at the Jazz Gallery. That gig [in 2002] with Mulgrew was epic. He gave me a whooping, but he didn’t beat me up too bad. He was very gracious. And you’re always gonna learn something from Mulgrew. Not just on the piano, just about life. I miss the tutelage.

TJG: How was the adjustment to New York otherwise?

RA: I learned a lot about synthesizers and programming sides. And I was exposed to so many different people. My first keyboard gig was with Meshell Ndegeocello. She basically handed me the manual to a Oberheim OB-8 and said, “read this, learn how to use the keyboard, rehearsal’s tomorrow.”

TJG: It feels like we’re in a real moment of hip hop and jazz fusing together, from the Roots to D’Angelo to Kendrick Lamar. What’s brought about this fusion?

RA: The thing is, because of the Internet, everyone is becoming more open-minded…Someone is gonna come in and say, “Let me put this hip hop groove on ‘What is This Thing Called Love.'” There has to be a melding and molding of the music.

For me, music has always been something for the people. Jazz used to be the hip hop of its day. It was jungle music. Now you have the same thing happening. Sometimes before, you missed the groove, the swing, the pocket. Now you have all these cats, listening to Herbie, listening to J Dilla. You have a Thundercat, and you have a Glasper. You have Kendrick. A rapper who loves jazz. I think that’s beautiful.

TJG: Are you challenged by your work with the Roots?

RA: Absolutely. The cool thing about them is I get to learn 30 songs in one day. I’m learning so much music and am exposed to so many different styles. It’s not just me jamming. It’s top-level creativity. I’m learning programming, arranging stuff for strings, producing.

TJG: What can we expect from this trio gig?

RA: Some originals and some standards and some new standards. Me doing my trio, I don’t wanna say it’s a homecoming, because I never left jazz. Everything I do is based off jazz, being creative, exploring harmonically. But The Gallery is like home to me.