A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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Photo by Alex Chaloff.

Photo by Alex Chaloff.

Bassist Matt Brewer can really settle in to The Jazz Gallery this weekend. Before Brewer joins an all-star group lead by keyboardist John Escreet on Saturday evening, he will present two sets of varied music on our stage on Friday evening. Joined by longtime collaborators Damion Reid on drums and Mark Shim on saxophone & EWI, Brewer will present his musical ideas in solo, duo, and trio configurations. To get a sense of what Brewer can do in these contexts, check out the audio and video below.

Solo – Nardis

Nardis from Matt Brewer on Myspace.

Recorded for a radio show several years ago, Brewer’s take on this standard showcases his both his effortless technique and lyricism. He makes instrument spanning runs, yet always keeps the tune in the foreground, swooping into notes like a vocalist and phrasing with a sense of breath that’s hard to achieve on a percussive instrument.

Duo – March, with Ben Wendel

This stunning duet with multi-reedist Ben Wendel from Wendel’s “Seasons” project is a beautiful evocation of March. The instrumentation creates a wintry starkness, while Brewer’s buoyant groove points toward the blooming of spring.

Trio – Pure Imagination, with Steve Lehman and Damion Reid

Brewer teamed up with Damion Reid to form a powerhouse rhythm team for saxophonist Steve Lehman’s 2012 album, Dialect Fluorescent (Pi Recordings). Check out how their athletic propulsion creates a very different feeling of wonder from the wistful classic “Pure Imagination.” (more…)

Photo by Antonio Porcar, courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Antonio Porcar, courtesy of the artist.

Even after spending over a decade in New York, pianist and composer Mara Rosenbloom still holds fast to her Midwestern roots. Her 2013 record, Songs From The Ground (Fresh Sound) drew from her experiences growing up in Madison, Wisconsin. This Friday, October 14th, Rosenbloom will release a followup on Fresh Sound with more music evocative of the midwest, Prairie Burn. Featuring bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor, Prairie Burn features a continuous set of original compositions that blur the line between composition and free improvisation. This Thursday, Rosenbloom and her trio will convene at The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of this album with two sets of music. We caught up with Rosenbloom by phone last week to hear about the music on the record is a vehicle for her own personal growth.

TJG: I find that your playing has a particular kind of dexterity that reflects some kind of classical training. What’s your background as a pianist?

MR: I started taking piano lessons when I was five—your standard lesson books. I don’t consider that classical music, rather than middle-C, square one stuff. Eventually I did take a more classical route, because that was the only route that I knew of, and where my teachers led me.

TJG: You’re from Madison, Wisconsin, so was there not much of a jazz scene there?

MR: Well there’s a decent jazz scene. I’d say compared to other cities of its size, it’s not bad. It’s small, but there are some good players there, and some have been in New York for a time. Some stay, and some return, wiser. Johannes Wallmann is now the director of Jazz Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison and I originally met him in New York when he was teaching at NYU.

So I studied classical music up through high school to the point of doing local concerto competitions. I guess I was decent to a certain extent, I was memorizing long pieces. But I knew that I didn’t really fit there while I was playing it, and it caused a lot of anxiety for me, especially when delving into these long Beethoven pieces. I felt like that this was not me.

I would actually say that a lot of the technical dexterity that you’re hearing has a lot more to do with jazz technique than anything I learned from classical music. The big takeaway that I assume I got from classical music is that I internalized a lot of melody and a lot of forms and harmonies and structures just through the playing of that music. I know that has laid a foundation for my sense of how music fits together.

TJG: What caused you to make the jump into playing jazz and improvised music during high school?

MR: The more I learned about jazz, the more I was drawn to it. It became about finding people that knew about it, finding people who were willing to teach me, finding records. My first real turning point memory about this was in eighth grade, hearing Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.” I had an eighth grade teacher who was a huge jazz fan. He would do “This Day in History” at the beginning of class and when it was a jazz musician’s birthday, he would play a record and talk about it a little bit. That record was really a turning point for me, partially because it was piano, and it called out to me—that was the stuff I wanted to be doing. It was an immediate response. There were a lot of things about it. The simplicity—which I don’t mean easy or trivial—but the relationship between its simplicity and its complexity. There’s so much personality, that really struck me. The humor.

When I heard that track, I went up to my teacher and was like, “I want to learn this,” and thought that I would just get the sheet music. I didn’t even know that it was improvised music. At the time, my teacher was like, “I can’t teach you that, you need to find someone else.” So eventually I found a local teacher who showed me some basic stuff, like gave me a lead sheet and wrote out some chord voicings. Just a couple of bits. But I was able to get into my high school’s jazz band and it was a good learning experience, having to count off a tune and try to play from chord symbols, which I had never done before. I was lucky to meet other musicians in high school who knew way more than I did and were down to play. We took some little gigs around town. One friend who played guitar was always checking out new records and passing them on.

TJG: All of your records really showcase your compositional voice. When did you begin to explore that side of your musicianship?

MR: I always improvised, as far back as I remember. I didn’t think about it much at the time—I felt I was just playing around—but in a way, I was beginning to build my own language. It definitely wasn’t in the context of a jazz language, which I didn’t know anything about.

It was later in high school, when my music teacher Steve Morgan really started to get on me about starting to write some stuff down. My senior year, I had a free study period where I basically had the music room to myself and so I would meet with him. It also came from college auditions. I auditioned as a composer major, so I had to submit written work. My first three pieces were basically written for my application.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

A sonic architect on the alto saxophone, Caleb Curtis builds melodic and methodical structures that are compelling and immediately recognizable. Hailed as a “monster saxophonist” by DownBeat, Curtis puts forth what All About Jazz calls an “urgent and wailing” tone that commands the attention of the room. Curtis was raised in Michigan and trained at William Patterson University, and for nearly a decade has been a regular at sessions across New York. He can frequently be heard with pianist Orrin Evans, as well as in a number of big bands around town. His most personal project is his collaborative quartet “Walking Distance,” rounded out by Kenny Pexton on tenor, Adam Coté on bass, and Shawn Baltazor on drums. Walking Distance began as a project at the Catskill Jazz Factory, and in the four years since, the group has congealed into a concentrated and focused improvisational collective. We met up with Curtis at his home in Brooklyn to talk about his approach to composition, the power of group rehearsals, and the challenges of life in New York.

The Jazz Gallery: Your lines soar and weave together in such a natural way. Who are some of the biggest influences on your playing?

Caleb Curtis: I’ve spent a lot of time studying Gary Bartz. His ability to make melodies out of diatonic information is striking. He’s not an altered-scale big-time melodicist: He’s really good at setting up tensions and following through on resolutions. He’s like Bird, but almost less angular, with a bit of Coltrane in there too. He’ll play two of the same thing, and then a response, as a way of setting up expectation and delivering on it. Kind of like in a blues, but more generally throughout his playing. So Gary Bartz is up there. Similarly, I love Ornette for his way of dealing with repetition in melodic fragments. There’s this great trumpet player, John McNeil, who teaches at New England Conservatory and runs a session at Sir D’s in Park Slope. John said something to me that I really like, which I’m sure he’s said to a lot of people: “In any moment while playing, you should be thinking about what the music demands, rather than what your agenda is.” Often, it’s about being conscious of what you’ve recently played, which allows for and helps build a continuous narrative rather than a series of unrelated surprises.

TJG: Can you get into a flow when you’re thinking along those lines? How can you practice soloing with that level of consciousness?

CC: I try to leave more space and allow a thought to form before I play it. Orrin does that really well, and has helped me discover that whether I hit or miss an idea, it’s good to reach for it. I like to practice really slow–eighth notes at fifty or forty–to really be deliberate about every choice. McNeal also talks about ‘limiting your choices’ so you can actually make them. You go to the supermarket and see fifty cereals, but if you limit yourself to a certain shelf or brand… You know what I’m saying. Musically, I work on exercises where nearly everything is predetermined except for where I start a phrase. Maybe I add one note or take one away. By limiting my choices I get a certain control over them, instead of being overwhelmed by them. On stage, the number of things I could do at a given time feels endless. I practice letting go in order to be able to play anything.

TJG: How much of that approach involves taking information from what’s happening on stage, especially as a member of a collaborative ensemble?

CC: A musician can take any rhythmic, melodic, or textural nugget and spin a whole solo out of it. Sometimes before I start improvising I get a little scared, you know? But then I get up and play two notes and the whole thing begins to unspool. The fear evaporates. Years ago, I’d jump into a solo with an initial idea. I’d close my eyes and say “Okay, I’m going to play this thing and then develop it.” But that forces an agenda on the rest of the band. I’ve learned so much from playing with musicians who are interested in having a musical dialogue.

TJG: Was this relaxed and open musical mindset something you picked up while studying?

CC: I’m sure I heard it at school, but I don’t think I got it until I was in New York. At William Patterson, we had an ensemble that played Ornette Coleman and Dewey Redman tunes. I actually found some recordings of those rehearsals the other day. They’re funny, especially when I hear myself speak. When I talk, the things I say and the questions I ask reveal my inability to sit back and be patient. After a tune, I’d be the first one to say something. Mulgrew Miller was the coach of the ensemble: I’d say, “What did you think, Mulgrew! How was that different from last week’s rehearsal?” He didn’t say much, and I wanted him to talk. But I wasn’t relaxed, and was trying to lead a discussion where a lot of it could probably have been unsaid. I relaxed once I got to the city and saw that that kind of energy doesn’t bring comfort or creativity. Orrin Evans and David Gibson have shown me a lot of that by example.

TJG: Tell me a little about your group, Walking Distance.

CC: Walking Distance is a collaborative quartet that I started in 2012 at a workshop run by Aaron Diehl called the Catskill Jazz Factory. It’s myself on alto, as well as Kenny Pexton on tenor, Adam Coté on bass, and Shawn Baltazor on drums. We went upstate for five days of rehearsals, then played a concert. It was a sudden opportunity to play with people I could trust. Today, we’ve gotten to a place where everyone knows the music so well that we don’t have to count off tunes. We can start playing without even talking. We all own the music. It’s not a problem if any of us come in halfway through a tune and change the direction. We’re all into that – we shift and make these sudden changes. (more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

This weekend, October 7th and 8th, pianist Aaron Parks celebrates his birthday at The Jazz Gallery with Greg Tuohey on guitar, Jordan Brooks on bass, and Tommy Crane on drums. The Jazz Gallery is quite an appropriate venue for the celebration—Parks can be found on the Gallery’s stage so frequently that he’s practically a part of the venue’s architecture. Here on the Jazz Speaks blog, we’ve profiled, interviewed, and celebrated Parks in a number of different forms over the years, including his involvement in our mentorship series,

his approach to learning and collaboration,

his albums Arborescence (ECM) and Invisible Cinema (Blue Note),

and several other of his projects.

The latest release featuring Aaron Parks arrived earlier this year in the form of Groovements (Stunt Records 2016), a trio record with Danish bassist Thomas Fonnesbæk and drummer Karsten Bagge. The record delivers a warm and articulate trio sound with a familiar feel, tackling an unconventional setlist with charts by Carl Nielsen, Bruce Springsteen, and Arthur Schwartz. Groovements was recorded nearly two years ago while Parks was an artist in residence in Denmark. Since the album’s release, Parks has been busy as a sideman while continuing to tour with his collective “Little Big,” whose personnel fluctuates, but has recently included the likes of Greg Tuohey on guitar, Immanuel Wilkins on saxophone, Spencer Murphy on bass, and Kush Abadey on drums. Shows with Parks as a leader, however, have been infrequent throughout this past spring and summer. (more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, October 6th, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome another new, young talent to our stage for this first time—pianist and drummer Julius Rodriguez. A native of White Plains, NY, and a student in Juilliard’s jazz program, Rodriguez is one of those rare rhythm section doublers, calling to mind Jack DeJohnette. While Rodriguez spent this past summer touring with the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra and backing up singer Macy Gray at the City Winery on drums, he’ll be playing piano at the Gallery this week along with a cadre of talented peers.

Before coming to see Rodriguez and company in person, check out his debut record as a leader, produced by longtime trumpeter and arranger Don Sickler, and featuring several of Rodriguez’s original compositions.