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Photo courtesy of the artist.

With multiple degrees in jazz and improvisation, and a wide range of skills and interests, Utsav Lal has found a relatively unexplored niche as a pianist within the world of Indian Classical music. Having studied with legendary Indian Classical teachers including Wasifuddin Dagar and Sharat Srivastava, the result is a young pianist with a meditative, patient, powerful approach to the piano. This Wednesday, Lal will perform two sets of music at The Jazz Gallery: the first set a traditional exploration of a single raga followed by one or more compositions, and the second set a presentation of compositions featuring tabla. We spoke at length with Lal about his move to New York and approach to learning Indian Classical Music on the piano.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making the time to chat. Where are you living now?

Utsav Lal: I’ve been living in Bushwick for a little over a year now. It’s been great. New York is like a third round of school, in a way. It’s been amazing to arrive and meet so many people. I’d met a lot of people living in New York while I was living in Boston and studying at NEC, and Boston was great, but things felt somewhat detached from actually making music or seeing how it all fit together.

TJG: How does being a musician in New York feel more connected to the reality of what music is about for you?

UL: There’s a lot more to bounce things off. At school, at least in Boston, it’s mostly students. In school, you’re working hard and interacting with your peers, which was great at NEC because we all come from such different places. But it’s a small school. I moved to New York, and now I’m meeting people from completely different backgrounds, people who didn’t go to conservatory, people who have been working musicians for forty years and have a completely different kind of education and energy. I’m learning so much about different styles of music, and there are so many ways to get different kinds of feedback, perspectives, opinions. There are people I play with who have been hopping trains since they ran away from home at a young age. I’m living with a guy who has been teaching me these amazing country songs. I’m getting all of these new perspectives, and have been seeing how people react to my perspective too. Plus, it’s a great community. People really travel across the city to see each other. 

TJG: In this new environment, what have you been noticing about your piano playing?

UL: I play Indian Classical Music on the piano, an instrument that isn’t really suited for the genre. Many of the most special things about that genre of music can’t really be done on the piano. During my jazz undergrad and my classical piano training, I listened to very genre-specific pianists, like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Wynton Kelly, and the equivalent classical figures. So, the biggest change for me lately has been finding pianists who aren’t so easy to put in a box based on how and what they do, pianists who are in tune with their upbringing and life experiences.

One pianist I’m particularly interested in is Emahoy Tsegué Maryam. She learned classical piano when she was young, had to flee Ethiopia and had to live in all these different places. She spent years in a monastery, not much contact with anything else, and plays beautiful improvised adaptations of folk music as well as her own compositions. She has a completely different way of pedaling, phrasing, composing, improvising. Music is her life. 


Photo by Jimmy Katz, courtesy of the artist.

This week at The Jazz Gallery has turned into a mini-residency for guitarist Mike Moreno. After joining the Kendrick Scott/Kanoa Mendenhall Mentoring Series band on Thursday and vocalist Sachal Vasandani on Friday, Moreno returns on Saturday evening for two sets with a new quartet. Featuring pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Nate Smith, the quartet has a decidedly electric tilt and will perform new Moreno compositions.

Before coming out to hear this brand new material, take a listen to Moreno performing one of his longtime favorite compositions—Wayne Shorter’s “The Big Push”—at the Blue Whale in Los Angeles last month.


Photo by Jati Lindsay, courtesy of the artist.

This Friday, December 6, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome vocalist Sachal Vasandani back to our stage for a special, one-off evening of song with pianist Vijay Iyer and guitarist Mike Moreno. An immensely versatile vocalist, Vasandani is as comfortable performing classic repertoire with a lusch backing (check out his Nat King Cole project here) as he is mixing it up in stripped down settings, like this performance of Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections,” below:

With adventurous collaborators like Iyer and Moreno in the mix, who knows what sparks will fly at the Gallery on Friday. (more…)

Kendrick Scott & Kanoa Mendenhall. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, The Jazz Gallery continues the sixth edition of its Mentoring Series with two sets of performances by mentor-drummer Kendrick Scott and mentee-bassist Kanoa Mendenhall. Having cut his teeth as a longtime member of trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s groups, Kendrick Scott now has a reputation as a bandleader to match his acclaimed drumming. This past April, Scott released A Wall Becomes A Bridge on Blue Note Records, where Scott’s strong social conscience is channeled through a suite of original compositions, including “Mocean,” below.

Mendenhall is a recent graduate of Columbia University, but has already become a favorite collaborator of musicians ranging from saxophonist Maria Grand to vibraphonists Joel Ross and Sasha Berliner. She even has the seal of approval from bassist Christian McBride, as she’s held down the bottom for his big band. Before hearing Mendenhall perform alongside Scott, pianist Taylor Eigsti, and guitarist Mike Moreno at the Gallery this week, check out her performance with Maria Grand at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola this past summer, below.


L to R: Dan Weiss, Ohad Talmor, Miles Okazaki. Photo courtesy of the artist.

When we at Jazz Speaks have sat down to speak with saxophonist and composer Ohad Talmor, our conversations tend to focus on his expansive sonic palettes. We’ve spoken about counterpoint in the work of Györgi Ligeti and A Tribe Called Quest, building fantastical soundscapes in Ableton, and turning well-worn standards into experimental playgrounds. However, for his performance at The Jazz Gallery this week, Talmor isn’t working with a lush, large ensemble, but a stripped-down trio featuring guitarist Miles Okazaki and drummer Dan Weiss.

Okazaki and Weiss have been friends of Talmor’s for over two decades. Talmor calls them “great ‘rhythmicians’ and positive influences on me.” A mark of Weiss’s influence is Talmor’s interest in Hindustani music. In an interview with Jazz Speaks, Talmor spoke of his ongoing practice on the Hindustani bansuri flute:

That’s simply an ongoing practice. I humbly sit, go through daily exercises, and integrate myself into the traditional material. I’m fortunate because Dan Weiss is my neighbor, so I get to work with him sometimes. It’s ever-present in my life. I listen to a lot of the music, and I play it daily. It’s part of my routine, and if I get a good half an hour in, I’m happy.

This fall, Talmor went into the studio with Okazaki and Weiss to record a new album of material inspired by Hindustani tabla repertoire. At the Gallery this Wednesday, the trio will play music from this forthcoming album before heading out on a European tour. (more…)