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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tonight, FutureFest kicks off at The Jazz Gallery with a set by the “mad-sad noise rock band” Tiny Gun. Featuring Kathryn-Agatha Lee on voice & guitar, Michael Beckett on synths, Jesse Bielenberg on bass, and Zane West on drums. The group’s raw and searing music reflects both their eclectic tastes and jazz training, striking a balance between formal complexity and emotional directness. We sat down for a conversation with Lee and Beckett, talking about the group’s development, writing process, and sonic palette.

The Jazz Gallery: Tiny Gun has been performing for a few years now. How old is the band and what is the project about?

Kathryn-Agatha Lee: We’ve been an official band for about 3 years but we were all friends and colleagues who met at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Our record coming out on October 26th is called Crazy, I Can Be, and it sort of dives into a toxic relationship throughout stages of denial—trying fit a form, self-hatred and rage. [laughs] That writing process was sort of a way for me to lean into being called some coded words like ‘crazy, sensitive, demanding, or damaged’ and have it be this radical reclaiming of agency that gets taken away from you when you’re being belittled. Like, maybe I’m not ‘sensitive,’ maybe you’re just an asshole?

TJG: The band is described as a “mad-sad noise rock band.” Did you listen to lots of heavy music growing up and what are the things that draw you to it?

KL: I listened to a lot of metal and shreddy guitar music growing up! I came around to it when I was a teenager as sort of the next extension that tacked onto my emo music phase. I think I liked it because I was always so fucking angry. Now I still love heavy music mostly because I find music with lots of sections and strange forms to be really interesting, which is something that definitely finds its way into my songwriting.

Michael Beckett: Tiny Gun really started to become Tiny Gun when we embraced the music we grew up with. Going back to heavy/emo music that bares its heart on its sleeve gave us a place to be emotional and messy from. It allowed in a part of ourselves that wasn’t finding a way out through other music.

TJG: Which of those bands have stuck with you? Where is your taste and interest going these days?

KL: I still love Fall of Troy, Animals as Leaders, Periphery, Veil of Maya, and also, I love really fucking sad songs. These days I’m really into Palm, Tera Melos, Great Time, Tricot, Buke and Gase, Deerhoof, Andy Shauf, altopalo, Covet, Gregory and the Hawk…


Photo by The Cell Theatre, courtesy of the artist.

Sasha Berliner is eager to show her range. Her dynamic range; her emotional range; her multi-instrumental and interdisciplinary range—she’s ready, with mallet in hand and message in mind. The percussionist and composer is gaining career traction as a force on the vibraphone. But she’s more interested in the movement of the music than the trajectory of her individual career.

This weekend, the SF JAZZ Rising Female Instrumentalist and her band join the lineup at FutureFest, the Gallery’s weekend-length event that provides a headlining platform for emerging voices in ensemble settings. Ahead of the hit, Berliner talks technique, mixed media exploration and the unique dynamic range of her instrument.

The Jazz Gallery: You use the MalletKAT quite often. What freedom have you found exploring different textures in your music?

Sasha Berliner: I really just think of the MalletKAT as a new way to interpret the vibraphone and add another element to my group. I wouldn’t really say it’s anything particularly new—people have been using synths and stuff for ages. But it has a very cool visual appeal. It’s obviously similar to the vibraphone in a way that keyboard isn’t. It uses technique that I’m more familiar with. I do like that I can use both MIDI sounds and the internal Kurzweil sounds at the same time; it creates a unique hybrid sound that adds a cool texture to my band. I’m not playing the MalletKAT at FutureFest, but I do use it with my other groups.

I’d say in terms of textures, it’s more about exploring several percussion instruments and being a multi-instrumentalist, experimenting with instrumentation.

TJG: As a listener, I’m drawn to the resonance that you seem to achieve sometimes by doing very little—playing then leaving space. How do of the different instrumental textures you use inform the resonance that you achieve or even your perception of resonance, either literally as in harmonically or more abstractly?

SB: I think about harmony a lot. I guess if you want to talk about resonance, there are certain chord qualities and certain intervals that you can use based on the overtone series. But this is also based on a lot of what I studied with Stefon Harris. You can get very specific about harmony and, therefore, very specific about emotions. You can sort of paint your experiences or what you’re trying to convey a little more specifically and vividly. So, in that sense, just having a better sense and control of harmony gets you closer to resonating more with your audience. That’s definitely something I think about.

In a more abstract way, resonance can convey a lot about the human experience, all the facets that are incorporated within that. Harmony and interpretations of notes are extremely diverse, just like all of our human experiences. Using that to correspond with what you have to say, what chord choices you make, what messages you want to convey, creates for a powerful narrative within your music.

TJG: You have the artistic advantage of having the drums as your first instrument. How do you feel your experience playing drums has influenced some of your harmonic tendencies or melodic development on the vibraphone and when you compose?

SB: I actually feel like the more that I play vibraphone and learn vibraphone the more I seem to interpret it and communicate with it differently than the drums. A lot of musicians, across instruments, they often say, “I have the same voice on each instrument.” But I actually feel like that’s not true for me. I feel like a lot of that has to do with the harmonic aspect of vibraphone, and the melodic aspect. I would definitely say that playing drums has sparked more of a rhythmic interest, especially in terms of incorporating a lot of polyrhythms and different percussion instruments, and it helps me more easily convey the kinds of rhythms and feels to whoever the drummer in my band is going to be. But I would definitely say it’s a little more exploring rhythm in a general sense—things like odd meter, polyrhythms again, cross rhythms. Being a drummer definitely helps me understand those kinds of things more, and employ them successfully in my band. But I wouldn’t say that’s all attributed to the drums.


With FutureFest coming to The Jazz Gallery this weekend, we at Jazz Speaks are continuing our series of conversations with some of the festival’s featured artists. Today, we have a conversation with festival curators Alfredo Colon & Edward Gavitt on the band Secret Mall, and Abdulrahman Amer of Ba Akhu, discussing the origins and motivations behind the festival.

The Jazz Gallery: Tell me about the genesis of this festival.

Alfredo Colon: I think it started with us trying to set up a double bill with our friends and then we were like, “Yo, we should actually get a third band!”. And then we were like, “Yo, what if we get more bands?” And at some point Ed was just like, “We might as well just make a festival at this point.”

Edward Gavitt: The thing is, Secret Mall as a band, first of all, is just a band based in excess. We like to do excessive things. Nothing illegal or nothing bad. Like, just…

Abdulrahman Amer: [interrupting] Yeah, you can’t do that.

EG: Yeah, yeah. You can’t do that.

AC: [laughs]

EG: So when the idea came of doing a double bill, let’s get it as far as we can. Let’s get away with as much as we can get away with. [laughs] Basically. So we all came to the idea of a festival, a couple bills, a bunch of bands. Although at this point, the final version of this festival came through as a bunch of bands that have played here [at the Jazz Gallery] and some that haven’t, we really wanted to bring forward people that haven’t had an opportunity to play here, whether it based on the curation or based on just they haven’t even thought about thinking to play here. A couple of people that we asked couldn’t do it, and a couple people ended up just not feeling right for the bands we had already confirmed. We tried to curate a certain vibe as well, you know what I mean?

Sasha [Berliner Quartet], Rocky’s band [BA AKHU], us, and Adam [O’Farrill and Gabe Schneider] have all played here. But Blake [Opper’s Questionable Solution] and Tiny Gun haven’t played here yet. We hope to bring more groups in the future and see if we can keep this going.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This weekend, The Jazz Gallery is proud to present the first FutureFest. Curated with Abdulrahman “Rocky”Amer and the band Secret Mall, FutureFest features a diverse slate of emerging New York bands, showcasing the current generation’s full range of improvisational practices. On each night, the Gallery will present three groups—Tiny Gun, Ba Akhu, and Blake Opper’s Questionable Solution—on Friday, and Adam O’Farrill/Gabe Schneider, Secret Mall, and the Sasha Berliner Quartet on Saturday.

Over the course of the week, Jazz Speaks will have interviews with some of the artists and curators of FutureFest, and today we have a conversation with saxophonist Blake Opper. Opper is a native of Houston, Texas and an alumnus of the city’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (“where all the famous people went,” reads Opper’s deadpan bio). He graduated from the New School this past spring and already has his hands full with a number of different musical projects. We spoke with Oppler about the formation of his so-called “logistical dumpster fire” of Questionable Solution, and his synthesis of myriad influences, from the music of Stephen Sondheim to the comedy of Chris Gethard.

The Jazz Gallery: The band is called “Questionable Solution.” What is the problem and what is the solution you’re proposing?

Blake Opper: I think the problem is the functionality of the instrumentation—mainly our having two pianos. Having an 8-person band in New York is hard, but not impossible. But having two pianos is a bit extreme. So that’s where the name came from. And the solution is people hiring me (laughs). Yeah, I’m still not quite sure what the solution is yet.

TJG: Why did you create this problem?

BO: It started pretty arbitrarily. I had a class with Dave Douglas at the New School, and in that ensemble we happened to have a room with two grand pianos. One of the pieces that I wrote for that class turned out light years better than anything I had written before, almost to the point where I wasn’t sure I could duplicate it. But then, another year went on and I thought, what if I try to write with that instrumentation again since that one time went so well? So I worked out another arrangement and it also turned out to be light years ahead of anything I had written before. So then I thought, maybe there is something to this instrumentation that allows me to write better somehow.

TJG: Why do you think that instrumentation resonates with you?

BO: I really like the sound of the bottom of the piano, but I don’t like the jazz trope of having bass and piano doubling a bass line. It’s overdone at this point. But I also need the rest of the piano available, and with a piano player devoted exclusively to bass, a second player becomes necessary. I also just like the challenge of it. Compositionally, I like to start with a challenge. A lot of the stuff I write starts with “What if this happened? How would that work?”

TJG: Are these ideas usually functional, like unique instrumentation, or abstract?

BO: They can be instrument-specific or they can be music-specific. I had an idea for a group that would have two electric basses, two tenors, drums, and then separately a guitar player. They would never play at the same time—it would be the band, and then solo guitar. I think that would be really dumb, and that excited me. A lot of my decision-making boils down to, “That sounds dumb, let me see if I can pull that off.” And when I say “dumb,” I don’t mean it in a pejorative way. If I think something will be really dumb or absurd, I feel like it’s a good place to start, because it’s probably an original idea—either no one has thought of it yet, or if they have, they still probably wouldn’t do it.

TJG: Is there guiding principle or sonic vision that ties your writing for Questionable Solution together? I notice a lot of what you might call ambient, or “soundscapey” techniques being used in a lot of your compositions. Is that a result of the instruments being used, or does that just capture your inclinations as a composer?

BO: I think both. Generally, I like an ambient sound to be present, but one thing I really like about the instrumentation is that because I don’t have a bass player, there are a lot of jazz tropes that I can’t fall into. For example, I can’t just have the bass player walk. I also think having two pianos specifically lends itself to a moody, repetitive, soundscape-y environment.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Kweku Sumbry is a drummer, percussionist, and composer from Washington, D.C. with deep roots in the world of West African drumming. Sumbry comes from a family of musicians and knows his craft from the ground up: He literally builds his own djembe drums. That solid foundation, combined with practice and commitment, have made Sumbry an in-demand drummer in New York, even while pursuing a degree from The School of Jazz at The New School.

Though not a stranger to The Jazz Gallery’s stage, this upcoming show represents Sumbry’s debut as a leader, with a band featuring Lex Korten on piano, Agyei Keita on percussion, Paul “Papa Bear” Johnson on bass, and Lucas Kadish on guitar. In a quick phone conversation, Sumbry gave us the rundown on where he comes from, where he is now, and where he’s going.

The Jazz Gallery: Tell us a bit about your own music. We’ve heard you at the Gallery with Immanuel Wilkins, and know you play djembe in West African drumming traditions: How does that come together in what you’ll be bringing to the Gallery?

Kewku Sumbry: Musically, I’m coming from a folkloric tradition where we’re literally playing for people who are dancing. So with my own music, I’m always thinking of dance. We’re going to play a lot of my music, which brings together many of my favorite styles and sounds. Think Fela Kuti meets Steve Coleman meets Mamady Keita meets Mahiri Fadjimba Keita meets John Coltrane meets James Brown. My cousin Agyei Keita will be joining us on percussion, which is special because we’ve been playing together forever. We’ll have Lex Korten on piano–he’s a homey, and I love his playing. The same with Lucas Kadish, he and I have been playing together for a long time too. The whole band is drums and percussion, bass, piano, drums, and a few special surprise guests, including some singers. You’ll have to come to the Gallery to find out more.

TJG: What does The Jazz Gallery mean to you?

KS: The Jazz Gallery is a special place for me. It feels like home. Even though D.C. is close, and I have a lot of family in New York, I’m homesick all the time. When I first moved to New York, I was going to the Gallery like every week. People are there for you. Rio is so nurturing, she’s always sending me things to read. Everyone is caring and thoughtful. This will be my first show as a leader there, and I couldn’t be more excited.

TJG: What did you like about growing up in D.C. as a musician?

KS: It was amazing. I come from a huge musical family, so I’ve been playing music all my life. Many of my family members are drummers, so I started drumming at one or two years old, and had my first professional gig at four. I went to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and studied with some amazing teachers, including Davey Yarborough and Francis Thompson. I didn’t start playing drum set until I was around fifteen. I’m left-handed, but I play on a right-handed kit. It’s always been about putting the work in: While my friends would be out at recess or chilling after school, I’d be in the shed, just working things out. My cousin played drum set, and I was always amazed by his coordination, but I didn’t really get into drum set until I heard the Monk Competition. Because of the Duke Ellington school’s link to the Monk Competition, we got free tickets to hear the drum competition in 2012, and that really changed things for me. I heard Justin Brown, Jamison Ross, Colin Stranahan, Kyle Poole, and many more. I had always played djembe and other percussion before then, but after that, I really got interested in playing drum set.