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Photo by Jonas Tarm.

Photo by Jonas Tarm.

At Harvard there are two jazz bands: the Sunday band, which is essentially the JV squad, and the Monday band, the varsity team led by the preeminent saxophonist Don Braden. In freshman year I started as the Sunday band benchwarmer pianist, before slowly and proudly making my way up to Monday band. When I got to the Monday band, I met saxophonist Kevin Sun. Sun was a joint NEC-Harvard student and he blew the rest of us away, in torrents, swells, and squawks on his tenor saxophone. He could make the whole ensemble sound better with the slightest of tweaks: while prepping for a Herbie Hancock tribute show, he detuned and bent notes on his sax to sound eerily like the beer bottles on “Watermelon Man.” Even Braden could only shake his head and laugh.

Two years later, Sun is now an active player in New York and has released an acclaimed album with the collaborative group Great on Paper. This week, Sun released a new record with another collaborative group, Earprint, which includes a few of Sun’s longtime collaborators from Boston: Tree Palmedo on trumpet, Simon Willsón on bass, and Dor Herskovits on drums. I caught up with Sun this week to talk about his time playing jazz in China, having a day job, his songwriting process, and how he soaks up information from teachers and older musicians over the years, including Miguel Zenón, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

The Jazz Gallery: How did this group form?

Kevin Sun: The band was sort of a workshop/lab type project for me: I wanted an outlet to write a lot of music. I was studying with Miguel Zenón. We had done a lot of transcribing up that point, working on a lot of fundamentals. Basically, he was pushing me to do more composition, and being as specific as possible when notating—especially writing bass and drum parts. He would show me examples of his own writing where all the parts were specified.

TJG: How did Miguel influence your approach to music?

KS: I think he really changed a lot about my playing and my outlook on music. At the time, my sophomore spring, I was pretty dark about things. I remember feeling like there was so much information, but I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do with all of it. I was kind of losing sight of what drew me to music in the first place.

He assigned me a Sonny Rollins solo, “Come Gone” from Way out West, and I didn’t get very far—I was really busy at the time. Basically we couldn’t progress at all so I felt, ‘Wow, he’s not going to let me slide.’ So I started working on it seriously, and saw how much work it was to not just transcribe a solo but memorize it note for note. Memorize, play along note for note with the record, convincingly in the style of Sonny, and faithfully reproduce the nuances.

Even after I had put in the effort to memorize it, it still took a few weeks to get to the point where he was satisfied about the way I was phrasing the lines, articulating notes, putting accents. Even the energy of it. I was trying to get the feel of really powerful ‘Sonny Rollins blowing keys off the saxophone’ vibe. I thought I was doing it, but he was like, “no it’s not there yet. Come back next week and try again.” It was pretty frustrating. At the end of the semester he was like, “Okay, that’s good. We can get started on this next thing.”

TJG: Did you really feel like you really got into Sonny’s head?

KS: Absolutely. I don’t think I had gotten into anybody’s head that thoroughly. From there, I really committed to it. I saw a lot of progress from myself, playing-wise. I started listening, becoming more attuned to things, rhythmically, especially playing with other people. That made music a lot more fun, because it more inter-relational.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

It can often be illuminating to discover an artist’s ancillary modes of expression. For saxophonist Ben van Gelder, it’s photography. His images, which can be found at, reveal a fascination with layers, broad geometries, and deep contrasts between bold colors and shapes.

In many ways, his photography serves as a percipient introduction to his newest album. Among Verticals was the product of a commission through The Jazz Gallery’s residency program. During daily composition sessions at the venue, van Gelder would often go to museums; on one such day, he discovered František Kupka’s Madame Kupka Dans Les Verticales (1911). “The painting and its title also made me consider the verticals, concrete and abstract, that comprise the city of New York,” van Gelder wrote in the album’s press release. “There are recurring harmonic, melodic and rhythmic devices used throughout the music that are meant to articulate these verticals… Among Verticals is an ode to New York in many ways. It is a reflection of a decade spent in a city with unparalleled diversity and stimulus.”

Inspired by stark imagery, a visual clash of figurative and abstract, van Gelder composed and refined a collection of music celebrating New York’s own social and physical geometries. To get the job done, he enlisted his quintet plus a few extras, including the likes of Philip Dizack on trumpet, Kyle Wilson on saxophone, Peter Schlamb on vibraphone, Sam Harris on piano, Rick Rosato on bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums.

The full ensemble will take flight at The Jazz Gallery this week. After that, van Gelder’s quintet crosses the Atlantic for a busy schedule in Norway, The Netherlands, France, Belgium, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Already a well-established figure in New York’s jazz scene, Dutch saxophonist Ben van Gelder brings undeniable clarity and aesthetic level-headedness to the art of composition and improvisation. Join us at The Jazz Gallery as we celebrate the conclusion of van Gelder’s residency and the release of his long-anticipated album. (more…)

Photo via Wikimedia commons.

Photo via Wikimedia commons.

We previously spoke with composer and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock several times: about her 2015 Residency Commission Series premiere concerts, again in the summer of 2014 when the band returned under the name “Nor’easter,” and we when she released her Ubatuba record in 2015. She will return to the Jazz Gallery this Friday, October 21, with her band Anti-House 4, which also includes Mary Halvorson on guitar,  Kris Davis on piano, and Tom Rainey on drums. We caught up with Ingrid by phone; here are excerpts from that conversation.

Ingrid Laubrock: We’re driving through Oregon, through some severe weather, but it turned out to not be so severe after all [laughs], so we can talk now!

The Jazz Gallery: Oh, good! The group you’re playing with is Anti-House 4, your usual band minus the bass. Why did you pick that iteration for this concert?

IL: Last year when I was doing my big Jazz Gallery commission, I wrote a bunch of trio music for one of the days. Since that music has not been played by anyone since, and since the bassist couldn’t make the gig, I decided to resurrect the trio and perform with something else, by adding Tom Rainey.

We’ll be playing the compositions that I wrote for the Jazz Gallery commission last year, which will be new to us, because we haven’t actually played i, in this band. And what I will also do is add a couple of pieces from the full Anti-House repertoire.

TJG: You’ve been with this band for quite a while. How has the music changed as you’ve gotten to know the musicians better?

IL: I think once you know people’s voices, you kind of write differently, you tend to have them in mind when you compose. I kind of write for them, where there will be a sound and a feel, and make sure I write room to explore together, basically.

TJG: How do you feel that your compositions change with different instrumentations and different bands, since you have some very chordal bands and some that are horn-heavy?

IL: Yes. I think it’s a number of different things. I sometimes write pieces that are off instrumentation, they’re not really geared towards any particular orchestration. They tend to be more changable, so I’m experimenting with that. For other groups, for example my Ubatuba, which is saxophone, brass, and drums, I wrote all the material on my saxophone or in my head. When I write for groups like Anti-House I often compose at the piano. That changes a little bit how all the music turns out, I think. But even having chordal instruments in my groups—like in Anti-House I now have two chordal instruments—I don’t tend to use it in a heavily kind of vertical way, I think much more horizontal, using lines rather than stacks of chords.

TJG: So do you often start with melodies?

IL: I often take really varying approaches with different pieces. Sometimes I hear a melody and in that case I will write a melody. Other times I will just pick around a lot of material to choose from and play around with cells, or intervals. And then there’s other times where I have a big sonic structure in my head, and I will try and write down the shapes of where this music needs to go to, rather than melodies or chords.

TJG: How do you build improvisation into that?

IL: Improvisation’s always very open. Occasionally I’ll have a vamp, but even if I have vamps, I tend to make them quite long, so they don’t really feel that much like vamps. Most of the improvisation is open so the musicians who play with me can explore in different ways every time we play it. Other times, I prescribe the combinations of musicians that improvise. A few times, I write in cells of the notes that I want to hear at that point, but most of the time I leave improvisation up to the musicians.


Album art courtesy of Inner Circle Music.

Album art courtesy of Inner Circle Music.

Several years ago, we spoke with Alex LoRe around the time of his first release, Dream House (Inner Circle Music, 2014). In the years since, Alex has been busy. As the subject of a seven-episode web series about the lives of musicians in New York City, LoRe can be seen running across town to teach, record, and play, all while working in real estate and holding together a sustainable existence. Today, LoRe celebrates the release of his second album on Inner Circle, More Figs and Blue Things. Glenn Zaleski (piano), Desmond White (bass), and Colin Stranahan (drums) round out the record. LoRe continues to explore a fine balance between improvisation and composition, striving for a strong and direct narrative arc for the listener to follow. We caught up with LoRe via phone about the release of More Figs and Blue Things, while digging a little deeper about his mentors, influences, and love of Thai cuisine.

The Jazz Gallery: In a prior interview with us, you discussed the relationship you forged with George Garzone. Since moving to New York, who has most influenced your musical outlook?

Alex LoRe: I got to study with some great teachers when I was at the Manhattan School of Music. George was one of them, as he was there for a short period of time. I also got to connect with people like Steve Wilson and John Riley, among others. In the composition world, I took a course with Mark Stambaugh. People can get down on the whole ‘school scene,’ but it’s what you make of it. You seek out the people who offer what you’re looking for, and you can turn it into a positive experience. Additionally, I’ve been able to study with Lee Konitz for some time now. It’s been remarkable. We talk, we’ll play duo, and do a combination of singing and playing. One of his main ideas about music is that you shouldn’t really be doing anything superfluous. It’s about making sure you’re really playing what you’re hearing. If you sing over a standard for eight bars, and then you play for eight bars, how similar can they sound? How true are you being to your ear? I think it’s enlightening and humbling. Coming from a school environment where you’re given tons of information to regurgitate, one can lose sight of truly making music. Things like that can help bring it back and keep it in perspective.

TJG: Do you ever push against Konitz and his particular approach? After all, if we’re trying to get as close as we can to the voice and the musical ear, we could get rid of the instruments altogether and just sing.

AL: Haha, that’s true. But I find merit and logic in what Konitz says, so I haven’t pushed back on that in particular. We’ve definitely had our back-and-forths about music, though. He likes certain things and I like certain things. It’s nice to have an engaging conversation where we don’t have to see eye to eye.

TJG: Tell me a little about your musical upbringing—what were some of your formative sounds and influential figures, before NEC and MSM?

AL: I transferred to NEC after two years at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. I got to study with one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had, Bunky Green. He’s one of the warmest human beings and is an incredible musician. He opened my ears to all sorts of different harmonic and musical possibilities. I credit him for the musical path I’ve gone down, even though aesthetically we went different ways once I found about Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. I started to shape my sound in a way that I thought was more fitting to the way I heard music. Bunky was a monumental figure in my life for those first years of school. At the time he was in his mid seventies, and he would be running around the music building playing pranks on people. So much fun to be around, and a great influence to absorb. He’d say, “No matter what, try to find the beauty in everything that you do.” Whether music or life in general, having that helps puts things in perspective when the going gets tough or you’re feeling lost.


Photo by Cisza Nie Istnieje.

Photo by Cisza Nie Istnieje.

Pianist & keyboardist John Escreet is wonderfully hard to pin down. Escreet’s two most recent albums, Sound, Space and Structures (Sunnyside) and the forthcoming The Unknown – Live in Concert, feature a group of musicians usually associated with the experimental edge of jazz and improvised music, including the English avant-sax master Evan Parker. Yet he’s also recorded a live-in-the-studio post-bop date for Criss-Cross Records, and a blazing, fusion-heavy set for David Binney’s Mythology Records. For his last performance at The Jazz Gallery just over a year ago, Escreet presented music by pianist John Taylor, one of Escreet’s teachers at The Royal Academy of Music in London. Though the concepts of Escreet’s projects seem wide-ranging on the surface, they are always executed with his trademark sensibility; his personal voice always comes through.

This Saturday, Escreet returns to The Jazz Gallery with a plugged-in band. Escreet himself will be playing Rhodes piano and a Prophet Synth and Matt Brewer will be playing electric bass. Saxophonist Will Vinson and drummer Eric Harland round out the potent and funky outfit. One can only imagine the kind of energy this group will bring to the Gallery’s stage. (more…)