Info

A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Archive for

Photo by Scott Friedlander, courtesy of the artist.

Whether writing for his Claudia Quintet or Large Ensemble, drummer/composer John Hollenbeck creates expansive canvases out of small, sturdy ideas. Hollenbeck’s music is equal parts knotty and lyrical, held together with a playful and subversive sense of humor. Ahead of what was to be a North American tour with the Claudia Quintet, we at Jazz Speaks caught up with John by phone to talk about making music from those small ideas, whether melodic cells or “forbidden” words.

The Jazz Gallery: Recently, you’ve written this new batch of music based on words that were left out, or recommended left out, of CDC budget proposals. What drew you to these words, and to turning them into musical forms?

John Hollenbeck: At the time, I was thinking about writing some new music for the Claudia Quintet, and this report came out, which was really big news for a week. Because the initial headlines were sensationalized, it was dismissed as “fake news.” But after reading more even-handed reports, I discovered it was true that the omission of certain words was discussed by career government employees who were actually trying to help their colleagues get their proposals through congressional channels. I was so surprised that this particular collection of words was deemed so sensitive and thought, “wouldn’t it be terrible if those words went out of fashion because of this.” From my perspective, the possibility that someone wouldn’t fund a CDC program because they read the term “science-based” in a proposal document is crazy!

Every time I work on music, I’m using cells, or musical ideas, in different ways. In this case, each word became a title and then I tried have the musical material relate to the title in some way. For example, one of the pieces, “evidenced-based” also has a bit of a relationship to Thelonious Monk’s tune “Evidence,” at least rhythmically. It’s not the same rhythm, but it evokes that rhythm.

TJG: That sort of left jab, right hook thing, the listener not knowing when the next hit is going to land.

JH: Yeah. But a lot of the other pieces have a more fluid relationship to the words. The words were a little inspiration to get me going. The basic idea was to have pieces with those titles to keep those words alive.

TJG: I’d love to talk more about your process of translation from words to music. You’ve used text in your pieces before in different ways, like the recitations and settings of Kenneth Patchen poems from What is the Beautiful, or the Franklin Delano Roosevelt speech recording that you used on September. But in this case, with words acting more as inspiration than surface texture, how important is it for the meaning of the word to appear to the listener in the piece?

JH: Thinking about other music that I’ve written, I don’t think transmitting the meaning of the words is that important, because that meaning is super subjective anyway. Everyone has their own ideas of what words mean.  In this case, I think having the words as titles was a way to keep me on a certain track when making compositional decisions.

Certain words, like “entitlement,” are really complex in their meaning. So for me, that translated as a really long, rhythmically-abstract piece. It has a really solid groove to it, but you can hear it in two different tempos at the same time. Of course, someone could easily say, “That doesn’t sound like entitlement!”  The titles helped me put the compositions in a certain place, but they don’t define one particular listener experience.

TJG: I’m interested in how titles like these can be evocative of the music, and also provocative. Like if a listener hears this music without the title, they could interpret a very different meaning than if they knew the title going in. Do you think the title words provoke the listeners to experience the music in a certain way?

JH: It might, buy that was not my intention. Writing music inspired by these words was a very spontaneous decision. The words inspired me to write some new music.  At that moment, I was not thinking farther than their conception.

(more…)

Photo by Una Stade, courtesy of the artist.

Housebound in New York, singer and composer Arta Jēkabsone leans in to solitude. Alone in her apartment, her natural effervescence stills, but not entirely, and only for the moment. 

Like so many emerging artists, Jēkabsone searches for answers at a time when performances have halted, sessions have stopped and creative collaborations, typically a contact sport, have pivoted to socially-distant online exchanges. But her spirit remains buoyant. 

The Latvian-born artist has crafted a sound niche reflective of her journeys, both physical and emotional. Hope, wanderlust, and self-reflection emerge as raw materials for carefully sculpted compositions; her lyrics brim with intimacy.

From the quiet of her kitchen, Jēkabsone spoke with the Gallery about melodic tendencies, violin as a voice and her hope for the future of human connection. 

The Jazz Gallery: I recently spoke with singer and percussionist Melvis Santa about drawing inspiration from the natural world. You’re also known to tap that world for creative inspiration — particularly on your most recent studio release Light. Can you discuss how nature influences your compositional concepts and broader concepts for an album? 

Arta Jēkabsone: That’s a really huge part of me because, as you know, I’m from Latvia and Latvia is more or less a country that is super green—at least 60 percent is the woods. So I grew up in this really small town where I was surrounded by river and trees. I would go out into nature and listen to all the birds that are singing and the water that is doing his own noise—it’s a part of me—listening to what’s happening around me, listening to what’s inside of me and [finding ways to] make all these little sounds into a composition. It’s a very abstract way of how I hear music and how I feel things. And if you listen to my lyrics, there’s a lot of reference to nature, in the Light album and also my recent project that I did with string quartet and jazz quintet that was presented at The Jazz Gallery in May 2019. That concept was more how I feel—life situations happening around me—and also [bringing] the nature aspect into it. There’s a song called “Rain Song.” If I hear the rain pour down, I think about healing—how it washes away all your tough, emotional moments. 

TJG: You mentioned the string quartet. So much of your artistry comes from your identity as a violin player. In what ways does violin influence your choices and this unique sound you’ve cultivated as a vocalist?

AJ: When I was a kid, I played violin. And I always sang, but when I really started to study violin, I had really good teachers who would always ask me to listen to the music first and then try to [play] to kind of see what happens. So I did classical violin for 15 years, and then after, when I started focusing on singing, I understood how the violin has helped me to hear the music. It helped me to train my relative pitch. That has helped me, even with singing, tuning with people and other tiny details. I think that’s one of the biggest things violin has given me.

And also, the teachers always would tell me, “When you’re playing, think as though you’re singing.” So afterwards I started to realize, yeah, I think I’m singing the way I play violin and I’m playing the violin as if I’m singing. And you can see, with my music, I don’t view myself as a vocalist who wants to always do everything with lyric. I actually feel more connected doing stuff with instrumental lines. I would often ask somebody to double lines with me, like a guitar player or a saxophone player. I love that. That’s the approach that I really love. And I think that stems from violin. 

And doing a lot of violin ensembles and orchestras really taught me to understand that if I go out on stage, I wanna be part of the group, not an individual artist who wants to be the lead. I’ve been talking with a lot of musicians about that. Most of them say, “Yeah, when we’re on stage, we feel like we’re a part of what you’re trying to do. It’s not you alone. You’re kind of inviting us to be with you on this journey.” It’s like a conversation. Sometimes, the more people who join, the more interesting it can get, because you have these different opinions. You end up having this beautiful conversation with so many thoughts, but they’re all speaking about this one thing. 

(more…)

Jen Shyu performs Raging Waters, Red Sands at The Jazz Gallery in December 2009. Photo courtesy of the artist.

While The Jazz Gallery has postponed upcoming performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jazz Speaks will continue to share the music and stories of Gallery performers. Today, we present an interview with Jen Shyu, who was to present her longford piece Raging Waters, Red Sands this coming weekend. Originally a Jazz Gallery commission from 2009, the work showcases Shyu’s ability to bind together diverse artistic influences i through the use of cohesive narrative. Raging Waters builds upon an ancient Chinese story to explore notions of love, existence, and universal versus personal obligation. It also draws from the words of Brazillian poet Patrícia Magalhães and the performance spans five languages: Portuguese, Tetum, English, Taiwanese, and Mandarin. Check out our conversation about the work and how Shyu sees its continuing influence on her current process, as well as a recording of the work, below.

The Jazz Gallery: You seem like an artist who has typically looked forward when it comes to your work. Is there something particularly unique about Raging Waters, Red Sands to cause you to consider going back to revisit it?

Jen Shyu: Rio [Sakairi, The Gallery’s Artistic Director and the Director of Programming] asked me last year if I would be interested in re-imagining the work. The opportunity interested me because Raging Waters, Red Sands is a really special composition. Back in 2009, we presented it five times—the two nights at the Gallery, once at the Vision Festival, an additional time at McCarren Hall in Williamsburg [Brooklyn, NY], then one more time at Bar 269.  We also recorded it live at the Gallery, which was released on Bandcamp. But that was it. Then I started traveling a lot, first to China then to Indonesia, and became involved in a lot of other projects.

Raging Waters, Red Sands is a really important piece because it was one of the first times I fully integrated dramatic and narrative aspects into my work. Previously, with my band Jade Tongue, I had always written songs in a certain order and would try to create a narrative by fitting them together. This was one of the first times I had a set story then framed the songs to fit. It was also the first time I worked with a librettist. It featured a very specific libretto written by a Brazilian writer and friend Patrícia Magalhães.

The story was inspired by recent visitations to Taiwan and China. Taiwan was my place of fieldwork and inspiration for a while, from 2003, really through 2010. As for China, I went there just before Raging Waters, around 2008 or 2009. While I was in Taiwan, I studied indigenous music and folk music. I found a community of folk singers and Taiwanese yueqin, or in Taiwanese, “gwat kim” musicians and elders who were keeping this tradition alive. The tradition is called Hengchun folk song, which is named after a township in southern Taiwan. It is a very beautiful tradition and began with vocal songs they would sing in the fields. Later, musicians added instruments. The instruments probably migrated from China, but Tawainese musicians settled on their own yueqin, a two-stringed instrument with a longer neck than what you would find in China. It is also round like the moon, so sometimes they call it the “moon instrument.”

(more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Multi-disciplinary artist Melvis Santa regards the act of creating music with other people as compelling as the music itself. For the past couple years, the GRAMMY-nominated singer, dancer, percussionist and composer out of Cuba has led different iterations of her acclaimed collective Ashedí—meaning Invitation—across New York City’s vital scenes. This week, she returns to The Jazz Gallery as part of the Jazz Cubano series, in celebration of the venue’s 25th anniversary.

Allowing certain secular and spiritual elements to inform her music, Santa and her fellow artists explore new interpretations of rhythmic and melodic ideas from the Yoruba tradition and other styles that trace back to the same source. She discusses mysteries of the drum, the tonal characteristic of Yoruba language and the enduring legacy of the The Jazz Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: Talk to me, if you would, about the sacred connection between percussion and the voice or vocal expression.

Melvis Santa: The voice in the Afro-Cuban tradition is one of the main elements. It’s definitely sacred because of not only the voice, literally, of the singer but the voice that speaks through the instruments as a spirit, I would say. It’s really important in the religious context, and culturally as well because we inherited that from the African traditions. In oral tradition there is the “culture bearer,” who is someone who has knowledge—deep knowledge—and is the carrier of all those traditions. So either it is the storytellers, or the Babaaláwo, or high priestess Iyalosha, or a mother—all those are people who use their voice as a vessel for knowledge and for tradition.

And the sound, specifically in the Yoruba tradition because it’s a tonal language, is very important—tone makes all the differences. In my case, as a singer, I do want to keep having that other perspective to the voice—not only as someone that is just in front of a band expressing feeling spontaneously through the music, but also acknowledging certain responsibility with the legacy I come from. That’s how I see it. It’s a cultural responsibility. We’re transmitting not only sounds but I have a stance with my voice as a communicator. For example, in Lukumí ceremonies we have the akpwon, which is the singer who carries the knowledge to speak directly to the orishas. In order to be an akpwon, you must acquire that knowledge. So that’s my approach, as well.

TJG: We consider the oral tradition all the time when talking about Black American music.

MS: It all comes from Africa.

TJG: It’s illuminating to hear how it’s—almost literally—handed down in the Yoruba tradition.

MS: Yes.

TJG: Why is being a percussionist also important to you in connecting the literal, figurative—or spiritual—vocal tradition?

MS: The instruments are sacred as well, especially in percussion. They are homes for spirits that live inside the drum. It could be interpreted as the sound that you master or the people that work in developing the sound—and not only the sound but the language of the drum—their mission is to find that voice so they can understand and unveil the messages. So in order to have that level of perception, you really have to have a sophisticated sense of development. You have to put all of your senses toward that development. It’s a combination of knowledge, of tradition and of personal investment from inside and outside. The instruments also have their own voice, their own sound. It’s a communication between the instrument, the person that plays and the external elements—like nature, for example.

(more…)

Immanuel Wilkins & Logan Richardson. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Friday, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to host a special, intergenerational alto saxophone summit featuring Logan Richardson and Immanuel Wilkins. Both Gallery favorites, Richardson and Wilkins have honed their distinctive voices on the Gallery stage as both sidemen and leaders. To get an inkling of the fireworks that could ensure on the bandstand, check out the pair performing live shows in Washington D.C.—Wilkins at the Kennedy Center, and Richardson on NPR’s famed Tiny Desk.

(more…)