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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Since the release of his album Estrella de Mar in 2014, saxophonist Mario Castro has been deeply interested in augmenting the sound of his working quintet with a string quartet. He has presented this project multiple times at The Jazz Gallery and has recently been releasing new videos of his project on YouTube. Check his live performance of “Tidal” at The Jazz Gallery below.

This Friday, April 29th, Castro returns to the Gallery to showcase the next step in his project’s evolution. Castro will be joined by special guest vocalist Ziarra, and as you’ll see in our interview with him, Castro has some other sonic surprises in store as well.

TJG: Could you tell me a little bit about the project you’re bringing to The Jazz Gallery?

MC: Sure. Basically, we’re bringing my quintet, with string quartet, so there’s nine of us. We (the quintet) have been playing together since the college years at Berklee. I started writing music for string quartet to accompany the quintet, and we recorded an album called Estrella de Mar. Now we’re releasing new live music videos from our last concert at The Jazz Gallery. But the different  thing about this upcoming gig is that we’ll have special guests, including vocalist Ziarra. We’ll be playing some of her music and some of her adaptations of my songs. So it should be fun.

TJG: How did you decide to have her on the show?

MC: I collaborate with her a lot, and we’ve been writing a lot of music together. Recently, we did a trip to LA and I said “Hey, let’s do one of your songs.” So I quickly wrote a string arrangement to one of her songs called “Song With No Name.” Basically, the sound of her voice with the whole string quartet and entire group is a sound I want to explore. Vocals in general are such a powerful outlet for musical expression.

TJG: Yes, they say that bowed stringed instruments, specifically the violin, get closest to the expressiveness of the human voice. How did you meet your string players? Did they go to Berklee as well?

MC: Some of them did. I met the cellist, Brian Sanders, through a recommendation from a friend. The violist, Allyson Clare, I heard playing at the Union Square subway stop. I thought she had beautiful tone, so I introduced myself and got her number. Leonor Falcón I met at a gig in Queens. I’m not sure where I met Tomoko [Omura]. But the whole ensemble is great. Great people, great musicians.

TJG: How does it look when you’re writing string arrangements for them? Do you write charts for quintet or sextet, then embellish them with strings? Are there ways that you strive to integrate the ensemble more?

MC: I basically learned how to do it myself. I took one class in string writing, and didn’t really like the course. Anyway, when I’m writing, I try to find what I think sounds the best. Or what would take the music to the next level. That’s my constant research in music. When I’m searching through music, when I’m listening in order to get ideas, that’s what I’m looking for. There are certain things in music that are power-ups or special powers that accelerate to the next level. It collectively feels like it works, do you know what I mean? For example, we’re going to play a song from Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. If you listen to the arrangement, try to focus on the strings, and listen how the string arrangement takes the melody to another level. It’s not like the strings are the main voice, but the accompaniment really takes the melody to the next level. I take notes of things I want to do. For example, I want to do something where the strings are mysterious. Or, I want to do something where the bass and drums are doing a rhythmic vamp, but the saxophone is an arpeggiated beautiful melody, and the strings are more like block chords. That’s how I write. It’s very much putting different things together, in search of specific sounds that mean something to me.


Photo by Ethen Aardvark, from wikimedia commons

Photo by Ethen Aardvark, from wikimedia commons

As you’re posthumously nerding out this week in internet reconnaissance, looking for the shreddiest of Prince, a good place to start might be the “Small Club” bootleg—a legendary artifact among fans for documenting his live chops in high quality soundboard audio. While Prince was noted for his mastery as a multi-instrumentalist, he definitely shines through as a guitarist on this tape.

You might also take a moment to consider some stellar collaborations between other notable contemporary guitarists and the saxophonist-composer Dayna Stephens who, in preparation for his performance this Saturday with trumpeter Philip Dizack, was kind enough to sit down and share his thoughts on the recently fallen pop idol among other things.

Here is Dayna laying down some EWI thoughts on “Cosmic Patience” in 360 Virtual Reality with Gilad Hekselman on a roof in Brooklyn.

Here he is with Julian Lage, on “On The Trail” – Live at Berklee:

 The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell me more about this project with Philip—is it a continuation of the music you presented on your last date at the Gallery?

Dayna Stephens: Philip and I have been writing music together for the past year and we’ve accumulated quite a bit of tunes. This will be a bit different from our last performance at the Gallery—there will be a couple of tunes we wrote together but this is a unique project for trumpet, trombone and tenor as a front line—basically the Messengers’ normal instrumentation. The music is very different than the Messengers, [laughs] but I’ve always liked that instrumentation. It’s also the instrumentation on John Coltrane’s Blue Train which is one of my favorite records of all time. All together, we’ll be playing selections from the last 15 years of my music.

TJG: How did that relationship with Philip come about? How has it unfolded since?

DS: We had the idea of just talking about music and hanging out. Then in the moment, we decided we should try to write a tune together. That tune was called “Repeating History,” the first of six or seven tunes we’ve done. Since that first meeting the process has been easy but it took some effort to find an effective approach to writing efficiently as neither of us had cowritten music with other folks that much. We experimented with a few different ways of writing. On the last three songs, we kind of settled on one person taking the melody, which is usually Phil, writing the bass motion together, and then usually I’ll take it and add the harmony to what those two different notes are implying. The results are some very unique sounding songs that I think neither of us would have come up with on our own. So I really enjoy it.

TJG: Tell me more about the Messengers’ influence on you. What did you listen to?

DS: It’s been a minute since I’ve checked that out. I’m actually not listening to it right now because I don’t want to mimic anything but Caravan comes to mind.

I think the function of that band, in the history of jazz music is really important because it showcased a lot of the younger players that maybe weren’t as established, players that weren’t household names when they were in that band. Blakey was usually the oldest guy in the band and in our configuration, although Nick Vayenas is actually a year older than me, its a similar case for me because I’ve put together some younger players. Maybe folks that know my music haven’t heard these guys yet.

TJG: Is there any sort of etiquette in the community around showcasing younger players?

DS: Not necessarily, in general people tend to play with people they click with on a personal level also, not just a musical level. I tend not to care as much about the personal side of it. I mean if I have a strong conflict with someone I would care, but my main focus is: what is it going to sound like, what is it going to feel like when we count off the tunes.


Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo courtesy of the artist

While bassist Linda Oh has been a longtime regular at The Jazz Gallery, her recent musical pursuits have brought her farther afield. She’s recently been touring with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and next month will begin touring with guitarist Pat Metheny, the latest in a line of illustrious bassists (including Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, and Larry Grenadier) to go toe-to-toe with the great guitarist.

Last month, Oh went into the studio with a quartet of longtime collaborators including saxophonist Ben Wendel to record her next record. This Thursday, Oh will bring a similar quartet to The Jazz Gallery to perform some of this new music, as well as material from her previous record, Sun Pictures. We caught up with Linda this past week to talk about her preparations for the Metheny tour and the new musical areas she is exploring on her upcoming record.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve started playing in a new group with Pat Metheny. What’s exciting and challenging about playing with this group?

Linda Oh: We haven’t played a gig yet, but we’ve done two rehearsals. I’ve played a little bit with Pat and a little bit with Antonio Sanchez. The pianist is based in the UK, so a few weeks ago was the first time we played as a group, and yeah, it’s an invigorating experience to be playing with musicians of a higher level, also musicians who I have been listening to like Pat and Antonio. We haven’t played actually in any setting besides this, so that’s always an invigorating challenge to be put in a setting with any new musician. But honestly I do that quite often anyway. It’s great to be playing this music, some of the repertoire I’ve been listening to for a long, long time on some older records of Pat’s, but it’s definitely exciting for me to be playing with those musicians.

TJG: You mentioned that you play with a lot of different musicians and group configurations. What do you think drives you to create all the different musical groups that you’ve been a part of as a leader?

LO: There are lots of things that inspire me—there are the individual musicians themselves who I want to play with, so if I want to play with them and I want to hear them in a specific setting, then leading a band is a great way to be able to have that opportunity. And the other thing is just working on my own music and writing style, as it sits with these individual voices and musicians. And also in improving my own compositional style, it’s also a good challenge to experiment with different instrumentations, different individuals and their different strengths and weaknesses and capabilities.

TJG: One musician that you’ve been developing a musical relationship with for a few years now is Ben Wendel, who you’ll be playing with at the Jazz Gallery. I was wondering if you could share how you guys started playing together, and what your musical relationship has been like and how it’s grown over the past years since you’ve been playing.

LO: I guess one of the first times that I played with Ben was at a session and I can’t remember which session it was, but we’ve done many sessions over the years with various groups, just playing for fun in Brooklyn, up in Harlem. Plus Ben is on my third record Sun Pictures. We’ve also played in Justin Brown’s group once together, we’ve played with the La Boeuf brothers, other groups like that. There’s a group called Lage, which I believe debuted at The Jazz Gallery, which was kind of a collective thing with me, Ben, Julian, Aaron Parks, and Rodney Green. Ben’s an incredible musician and reader, and he’s a leader in many ways when he plays, and it’s really refreshing to play with him in different settings, and obviously I’ve heard him a lot with the band Kneebody. He’s not only a great saxophonist, but he’s also a great producer. He has a very organized mentality, he’s very good at getting things done, and he’s a very proactive person in general. It’s very inspiring to be around.


Photo by James Francies

Photo by James Francies

Pianist Aaron Parks is a bit of a throwback to an earlier era of jazz musician who came of age on the bandstand. At age 19, Parks was touring and recording with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, as well as playing with top young musicians in New York like Lionel Loueke, Christian Scott, Walter Smith III, and many others. Now with albums released on Blue Note, ECM, and Nonesuch (as a member of the supergroup James Farm) under his belt, Parks is an established leader and a pianist whose influence is widely felt throughout the world jazz scene.

As a participant in The Jazz Gallery’s ongoing Mentorship Series, Parks now has the opportunity to pass the lessons learned on the bandstand onto a new generation of talented musicians—in this case, vibraphonist Joel Ross. This week, Parks and Ross will be performing twice in New York. On Tuesday, they will play one set at SEEDS in Brooklyn, and on Thursday, they will play two sets at the Gallery. We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Aaron this weekend, ostensibly to talk about working with Joel, but ended up engaged in a deep and discursive conversation about the nature of learning music, particularly at a time where influences can come from all sides of the globe.

The Jazz Gallery: How you would describe your overall approach to planning these concerts with Joel?

Aaron Parks: I’ve definitely been very excited about it. There are so many different ways that it could have been done. But one of the best ways that I was mentored was just playing music by my contemporaries and some of the people who inspired me, and just being in a bunch of different bands and learning their own music. What I wanted to do was to bring Joel into that world and play music by some of my friends—like Lionel Loueke, Ambrose Akinmusire, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dayna Stephens, Mike Moreno, John Ellis. I wanted to explore these tunes and improvisational frameworks that have been very important to me with Joel.

At the same time, I really wanted to pick tunes that were song-songs rather than really involved compositions, stuff that we could really sink our teeth into and get to know one another with. This has worked out really well in the end because we ended up not being able to get any of the same rhythm section players for multiple gigs. This has ended up being one of the highlights of the experience, since we’re playing these tunes with a bunch of different vibes coming from the bass and drums.

TJG: This approach seems to be more about the process of making small group jazz rather than creating a polished product.

AP: Absolutely. I’ve really been more interested in that than in the actual music itself. It’s more about the attitude you have and the connection you feel with the other musicians, and then how that spills over into what the music feels like and what the audience experiences as well.

Sometimes I find myself writing stuff with very specific things in mind, but for this program I didn’t want to go in that direction. I wanted to bring in songs where Joel and I get to be ourselves, and then find each other within these different circumstances.

TJG: Why have you been drawn to playing tunes by your peers, rather than say songbook standards, which are also open enough to foster that kind of communication you speak of?

AP: I love that too and it’s an equally valid approach. For me, the tunes of my peers are standards. They’re songs that have taught me a lot about harmony and songwriting, and there’s a certain shared language in them, especially the ones that I learned during my first couple of years in New York. Beyond having Joel learn these songs, I’m also excited to go back and look at them again. I don’t usually get a chance to play with the people that wrote them, and when I do, we’re usually doing new music.

TJG: You spoke earlier about that fact that every gig has a different drums and bass pair. How do you think Joel will respond to these different situations?

AP: We just had our first gig, and that was with Dezron Douglas on bass and Eric Harland on drums. The next one is going to be Ben Williams on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums, which will be really fun and very different as well. Then on the 21st it’s Thomas Morgan on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, which is only two days later and still radically different from the first two.

Joel is a special player. He’s already at a point as a player where he’s ready to adapt to many different situations. He doesn’t have that paint-by-numbers or cookie-cutter approach at all. He’s someone that I want to play with regardless of this mentorship program, but this gives me the opportunity to do it in a fun, structured way. He’s already adapting to everything, regardless of what’s happening or who’s playing in the rhythm section, and following his own inner muse as well.

I feel that in this current generation of players, like 18 to 23-year-olds, there’s something very interesting coming out of it. They’ve grown up in this age where music is all available. They have even less of concept of genre distinction than people my age had. For example, when the record I did back in 2008—Invisible Cinema—came out, people were like, “Ooo! He’s mixing different genres!” Even eight years ago, that was kind of a story. Everything is doing that now. That’s just what is happening. For a lot of these younger guys, music is music, and they’re able to make connections between seemingly disparate things.

I was having a conversation with Rio Sakairi [The Jazz Gallery’s artistic director] the other day, and although there’s nothing new in music per se, in the same way, the materials that are used to build skyscrapers and computer chips were all here on planet earth from the beginning. We just figured out new ways to combine them that made certain technological things possible. So in that way, I think some of these younger guys are combining old materials in ways that we haven’t heard before.


Photo by Rafiq for Jazz Speaks

Photo by Rafiq for Jazz Speaks

Bassist Matt Brewer has had quite the busy past several weeks. He’s been to Boston, Cincinnati, Puerto Rico, and Rio de Janeiro with drummer Antonio Sanchez’s group Migration. He’s played sets at the newly-opened Met Breuer museum with Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman, then traveled with Lehman back up to Boston to play at the Creative Music Convergences festival at Harvard. And this was all while holding down gigs across New York from the 55 Bar to the Cornelia Street Cafe to Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It seems that Brewer is the definition of an in-demand bassist.

Brewer is not only a top-call sideman, but an accomplished bandleader as well. He released his first album Mythology (CrissCross) in 2014 and has a second on the way. Brewer was also one of The Jazz Gallery’s residency commission awardees in 2012, composing new music for sextet. Brewer return to The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, April 16th, with a high-octane, plugged-in quintet. Do stop by the Gallery to check out Brewer and company before he’s off to the next gig. (more…)