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Photo by Emra Islek, design by Nerissa Campbell

Photo by Emra Islek, design by Nerissa Campbell

Every Sunday, the man leaves roses for his dead lover. One spring afternoon, an ethereal voice lures him downward, into the crypt…

THE ICE SIREN, a jazz opera composed by John Ellis with libretto by Andy Bragen, had its premiere performances on The Jazz Gallery’s stage, back in late May, 2009, as part of our Large Ensemble Commissions Series. Now, over six years later, this haunting tale of a lover’s journey into a frozen world beneath a crypt returns to our stage as part of The Jazz Gallery’s 20th Anniversary Concert Series. The work, the second of three large-scale collaborations between Ellis and Bragen, has never been commercially recorded or released, so don’t miss your chance to hear this work performed live by a cast made up of almost entirely original members of the Dreamscapes Ensemble, including the vocal leads Gretchen Parlato and Miles Griffith.

We caught up with Ellis by phone to hear his thoughts upon revisiting this ambitious work, and to get more of a sense of what’s in store for those who dare to descend into the world of THE ICE SIREN.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you talk about the plot of Ice Siren and how you approached composing music for a more plot-driven narrative scenario?

John Ellis: This was the second collaboration I did with my playwright friend Andy Bragen, which grew out of the first one, which we called “Dreamscapes.” We were thinking about the relationship between words and music in the most general sense and how we could investigate that.

For “Dreamscapes,” I had him write 12-line dream scenarios, kind of like poems, and each was meant to be as a dream might be. I created an instrumentation that was meant to be cinematic and have a lot of emotional, compositional, and orchestral possibilities, and that included a string quartet, percussion, tuba, vibes, and marimba. That project was more like, “Here are the words, and then here is the music,” so the audience hears the words and then hears the music, and the music is supposed to conjure up a dream-like feeling.

It was a really cool process and I learned a lot; I don’t think it was totally successful from an execution standpoint, but from a conceptual standpoint it was good. So, from that, we said, “What if we take one dream and try to create an hour-long narrative story?” We decided to focus on nightmares.

Andy did a lot of research. He was up at night watching scary films, reading scary books, and we gravitated toward this combination of frightening and humorous, sort of inspired by Tim Burton and various people that deal with that idea: a little bit cartoonish, but still scary. The most natural next phase of words and music interacting was to make songs. We were writing independently, but he had the text first and I would try to write music to the words, which was a little counterintuitive. It was fun to do it that way; I think we discovered through MOBRO that, as a process, if you put words to music, it seems to work a little bit better.


Available on Pi Records on February 26, 2016

Available on Pi Records on February 26, 2016

When we last spoke to drummer, tablaist, and composer Dan Weiss, he was celebrating the release of Fourteen, his first large ensemble release, for Pi Recordings, back in the spring of 2014. Weiss returns this weekend to celebrate the release of a sequel of sorts, which arguably matches or even surpasses the ambitious scope of the first.

Sixteen: Drummers Suite, which drops on February 26, 2016 on Pi Records, pays tribute to six legendary jazz drummers: Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Clark, and Ed Blackwell. But, in paying tribute to these masters, Weiss honors their forward-thinking legacies by imaginatively expanding upon favorite selections from their personal languages, constructing compositions that feature stark solo and duos juxtaposed with meticulously plotted ensemble passages.

We caught up with Weiss by phone, who brought us up to speed on the source material for the recordings and illuminated some of his compositional approaches to crafting this remarkable collection of music:

Track One: “The Drummers Meet”

The first track is intertwining of all six drummers, pieced in the form of a north Indian rhythmic composition called chakradhar. I took pieces of each of their phrases, and wrote chakradhar around those phrases (chakradhar is a kind of tabla composition).

What I did for the other tracks was I chose drums, either eight or sixteen measures, which are the basis of the melodic material, the rhythmic material, and the harmonic material, too.

Track Two: “Elvin”

[This project] started with an Elvin comping thing that I liked behind Trane. I put pitches to that, and from there, I was experimenting with modes—not your Phrygian, Locrian, or Dorian, but kind of hybrid scales, because Trane was obviously into all that. What I wanted to do for that piece was juxtapose the Elvin line with the different homemade modes. Basically the piano line in that is the modal thing I’m talking about, and those specific big phrases, but they cycle; there’s a thing that works for how they cycle.

All the other stuff—all the horns and the voice—are basically derived from the piano line and are different orchestrations coming out of that, so those things are the main focus. And that’s how I started with the pieces: I was listening to Elvin, and then I decided, “You know what? I’m going to make a suite, and I’m going to take some drum language of these guys that I like and that I think can work.”


GREAT ON PAPER by Great On Paper (Endectomorph Music, 2016) – Robin Baytas, Kevin Sun, Isaac Wilson, Simón Willson

(l-r): Robin Baytas, Kevin Sun, Isaac Wilson, Simón Willson // Design by Diane Zhou)

The Jazz Gallery has a very special weekend ahead, celebrating not one, but two exciting album releases. This Thursday, the Gallery is proud to present the young collective Great On Paper as they celebrate the release of their debut album, eponymously titled and to be released on Endectomorph Music.

Great On Paper is made up of Kevin Sun on saxophones, Isaac Wilson on piano, Simon Willson on bass, and Robin Baytas on drums. The group first convened while the members were studying at New England Conservatory and completed their first tour this past summer, featuring a stop at The Jazz Gallery. Their music is quite varied, moving from knotty originals to a stately and colorful chorale by the classical composer Olivier Messiaen. Pianist Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus has written incisive liner notes, putting this music in its contemporary context. Before coming to the Gallery to check out this exciting young band in person, you should stream their debut record below—a Jazz Speaks exclusive!

Great On Paper performs at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, February 11th, 2016. The group features Kevin Sun on saxophones, Isaac Wilson on piano, Simon Willson on bass, and Robin Baytas on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.

The Keio Light Music Society Big Band. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Keio Light Music Society Big Band. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, February 6th, The Jazz Gallery is thrilled to welcome the Keio University Light Music Society Big Band all the way from Tokyo, Japan. Founded in 1946, the group has become the most prominent and decorated university jazz group in Japan, and can count renowned clarinetist Eiji Kitamura and drummer Akira Jimbo among its alumni. Their repertoire runs the gamut from classic swing material to contemporary charts by the likes of Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely, and Darcy James Argue (check out their version of Argue’s “Transit” below).

In addition to playing a diverse repertoire, the group has forged collaborative relationships with some of New York’s top composers, commissioning work by Ryan Keberle, Remy LeBouef, and David Binney, among others. This month, the band has to come to New York for a series of collaborative concerts. At The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, the group will be joined by tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin for the second set.  Don’t miss what will sure to be a night of diverse music played by a bright, young band. (more…)

Peter Apfelbaum & SPARKLER. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Peter Apfelbaum & Sparkler. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Friday, February 5th, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome Peter Apfelbaum’s Sparkler back to our stage. This multi-generational group featuring sprightly improvisation within potent, danceable tunes made its Gallery debut last March. In an interview with Jazz Speaks, Apfelbaum described the origin of this project:

About three years ago I was thinking that I wanted to write lyrics more, and I kept having ideas that would come from random things, like even conversations overheard in an airport, or something like that. I wanted to steer away from writing a song in the conventional sense, part of it being because it was a little intimidating. I’ve always written music and lyrics have been a little bit more challenging for me. But I also was getting into groups like Cibo Matto, a more downtown group that got really big in the 90s, and they just got back together (they’re these two Japanese women who do kind of rap, and they’ll have songs about food and random stuff). So I started realizing that the subject matter could be actually really broad, and I could write lyrics that wouldn’t necessarily be a song. I could focus on a groove, which is kind of one thing that I’ve always done, and then have lyrics come in and out.

You can check the rest of the wide-ranging interview here. In the meantime, take a listen to their track “I Colored It In For You” and get ready for some deep grooves this Friday at The Jazz Gallery.