Photo courtesy of the artist.
On June 21st, New York City-born pianist Lex Korten will premiere a new body of original work with a hard-hitting young quartet. This will be his first outing at The Jazz Gallery: According to Korten, The Jazz Gallery is “a special venue I’ve turned to for inspiration ever since I attended as a starry-eyed high school sophomore. This is the debut of my first project as leader in a very long time with a formidable new generation of songs written almost entirely in 2018.” The quartet features saxophonist/drummer Morgan Guerin, vibraphonist Joel Ross and bassist Benjamin Tiberio who, in various configurations, have been Korten’s bandmates for over two years.
During our conversation in anticipation of the show, Korten brought two ideas to the forefront. The first was that this show represented an opportunity for Korten to write new music that would inspire and challenge his bandmates. The second was that Korten partially conceived of these songs as “tributes to the actions of others,” where the music forms a loose narrative about the importance of agency, observation, and activism. Read on for more about the inspiration and impetus behind Korten’s new music.
The Jazz Gallery: You must be getting excited for the upcoming show at the Gallery.
Lex Korten: It’s crazy, the way it happened. At the end of 2017, I set a goal for myself to bring a new project to The Jazz Gallery as a leader in 2018. I’d had writer’s block for a long time: When I was at University of Michigan, I was a factory, spitting out tunes all the time. I brought a really nice body of work with me to New York, and have been playing it for the last year and a half. But it had been a long time since I had anything new. So I used the idea of playing at The Jazz Gallery as an impetus, since it’s one of the places I love which supports experimentation and creativity. Of course, a lot has gone into the music in other senses, but in the sense of having a deadline and a goal, The Jazz Gallery got me moving again. One thing lead to another, and here I am.
TJG: What was it about the idea of The Jazz Gallery that could help you clear that block?
LK: It was a mix of things. I grew up in New York City, and when I was in high school, I went to The Jazz Gallery’s old location on a semi-regular basis. At that time of my life, I had no sense of whether or not I was going to become a jazz musician. Everyone I saw at The Jazz Gallery was someone I was infatuated with musically, who I put on a very high pedestal, which I still do. So when I moved back to New York after school, and was starting to play out with some of my peers, I realized that the Gallery was a major bridge between generations of musicians. It provides a very natural incline from being a young artist who’s trying to find their voice, and the more established musicians in creative music, Jazz, black music, who are willing to use The Jazz Gallery stage to showcase new ideas.
TJG: So when you began doing the work of assembling this project, what came first? The group, the musical ideas, the message, the narrative?
LK: When I first played with the group which is going to be on this show, I had about half of this music written. At that time, I’d put together a session with no specific expectations, and it was before I’d been offered this date at the Gallery. I got these guys together because I’m close with all of them, and I wanted to see what my music sounded like with them. There was an incredible mix of intuition and commitment. As far as intuition, the music was coming so naturally to them: They were listening and making musical decisions while still reading new material. In terms of commitment, this music isn’t easy, and though naturally it didn’t sound right the first time we read it, they were on the ground and ready to workshop this music.
After that point, I was like, “I can’t believe how well that went. That’s the band I want to use.” The date at the Gallery was extended to me, so then I did a weird thing: I actually said, “Look, I played this music with the band during the session, and they killed it. I know what sort of music they’re going to make sound good. Now, instead of writing for them, I’m going to write against them, because I trust them so much, and I want to see what comes out of that.” Sometimes, it’s easy to write within this idiom when you’re dead-set on the language that’s going to be used. So I challenge myself to write differently than I normally do, and to challenge these guys to play in a different way than they’re used to playing.