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Kris Davis

Photo by Caroline Mardok, courtesy of the artist.

If the New York improv scene is an ecosystem, then pianist Kris Davis can be well-described as a spider. First, there’s the spidery way she moves along the keyboard, with agile slides giving way to delicately-wound harmonies. Second, there’s the particular web of collaborators she has spun, connecting players across styles and practices like Terri Lynne Carrington, Craig Taborn, and Julian Lage.

This Friday and Saturday, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome Davis back to our stage with one of her many groups, Capricorn Climber. Featuring Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, Mat Maneri on viola, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Tom Rainey on drums, the band released a self-titled album back in 2013.

To get a sense of the kind of improvisational mischief that can arise with this group, check out Davis and Laubrock performing live on the Gallery stage as part of the 2020 Skopje Jazz Festival, below.

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Peter Evans

Photo courtesy of the artist.

When COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic in March 2020, trumpeter Peter Evans was in Lisbon, Portugal. He was supposed to be heading back to the US for a tour in support of his new record featuring the band Being and Becoming. With those dates cancelled, Evans remained in Lisbon, and began an unscripted year of new projects and big life changes.

This Thursday, June 24, Evans will return to The Jazz Gallery with Being and Becoming, belatedly celebrating the release of the group’s self-title debut album.
Not resting on their laurels, Evans and company will present a whole new set of music, freshly-commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble. We caught up with Peter to talk about the year’s impact on his writing and playing—a story of improvisation on and off the bandstand.

The Jazz Gallery: I saw Wynton Marsalis’s first live gig since COVID a few weeks back. At one point, he joked about how he was talking more in between the songs because he needed to give his lips more rest! And then Jacob Garchik has joked that 2021 is going to be the “year of the clam.” So I was curious—how are your lips physically? Have you found yourself really needing to build back up into live performances?

Peter Evans: I know that everyone’s had different experiences during COVID—I don’t want to take anything away from that. My personal experience in terms of music and playing has been positive. Minus the financial problem of not being able to do what I normally do to make a living and having to fill those gaps in, I’ve enjoyed this. This isn’t my first gig in a year—I’ve been lucky that I’ve had almost symmetrically-placed opportunities to present my music in public since last July.

I was living in Lisbon, Portugal when this all started to go down. It was cool because I was touring a lot in Europe and I was able to use that as a base. When everything shut down in March, I was supposed to come to the States and that didn’t happen. It took me a couple of days to adjust, but then I was like, “Alright. I want to write a piccolo-flute piece that’s been on my mind for months now, so I’m going to sit down and do it.”

TJG: Did you find yourself practicing in a different way because there wasn’t a deadline for a specific show or piece?

PE: I was able to practice the way I really want to practice, which is more of an open-ended, investigative mining of material. It’s rare that I get like a prolonged amount of time to actually do that. 

When it comes to writing, I don’t mind having a deadline. In January, I did a show at Roulette with my other band with Mazz Swift, Levy Lorenzo, and Ron Stabinsky. All of that stuff is really elaborate. When I get asked to do something, I take it pretty seriously. I write a lot of music, like maybe 80, 90 minutes’ worth of stuff and we rehearse and we fine tune it as best as we can under the time constraints. 

In April, I had an opportunity through the International Contemporary Ensemble to do a thing with Being and Becoming, and so that was the same thing with writing new material. At first, I thought I’d write five, six little ditties and we’ll just blow through them and it’ll be really simple. That didn’t feel honest or responsible to myself (or the band) in the end; I ended up writing a whole bunch of new music, mainly two multi-movement suites. One is inspired by the Islamic prayer tradition of Salah, the 5-times a day prayer cycle, and the other is inspired by the European Medieval scholastic tradition of the Quadrivium, and that piece is dedicated to McCoy Tyner.  

We filmed and recorded all that and it’s going to be a video stream. It’s weird because we’re in this period right now where there’s COVID-type gigs happening and then live gigs happening all at once, which I think is interesting. After this Jazz Gallery gig, five days later there’s the broadcast of this other Being and Becoming project we did for ICEensemble.

TJG: I was curious whether you’d have a new book for the band, or if you’d go back to the material on the record, since that came out last April and you didn’t have the opportunity to do the supporting tour.

With the kind of exploratory practicing you were able to do last year, did that inform the material you’ve written more recently? In a previous interview you talked about how your writing for solo and ensemble performance were converging. Did that continue with your focus on individual practice this year?

PE: Yeah, I think things have changed since that interview in the last few years or so. Now what I do is write away from the trumpet—I try to write away from instruments entirely. The kinds of materials and methods of manipulation that I practice are the things that I’m trying to ingest and hardwire into my system as a trumpet player, as an improviser. However, they are all essentially compositional devices. You don’t really need to have a trumpet in hand to access those.

I still feel like things are still converging in a nice way, but it’s not forced anymore. I think it’s happening in a way that when you’re doing any kind of creative work, you let the stuff come out of you without judging it without analyzing it, and see the ideas through, and trust that all the practice and the hard work that you’ve done to prepare yourself for that moment will aid you in coming up with something decent. I’m trying to sit in that space. It’s not easy but I don’t think it necessarily should be. 

The other day, I finished a piece for a chamber music and composition workshop in New Hampshire where I’m going to play and teach. I’m presenting some pieces and I was sitting there the other night, looking at this stuff, thinking, “What the hell is this?”  I think it works—all I can do is go into the rehearsal and feel that at least the nuts and bolts work. The musicians are close friends of mine and they’re all great musicians. So while I feel like we can make it happen, there’s still a lot of nail biting. It’s just letting things happen more than making them happen. It’s a continuous process of trying to shed the layers of the onion and get to something that feels true.

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Fujiwara-Halvorson-Bynum

L to R: Tomas Fujiwara, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Mary Halvorson. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Throughout his career, drummer Tomas Fujiwara has not shied away from taking risks. This adventurousness has made him an ideal collaborator with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Meshell Ndegeocello, and John Zorn. He has also found a strong circle of colleagues, always ready for trips into soundscapes unknown. Among them are guitarist Mary Halvorson and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, both of whom have appeared with Fujiwara in several projects over the past two decades. The three are now touring as a trio, and will take the stage at The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, June 19. We caught up with Fujiwara to discuss how the pandemic has shaped his art, this new trio, and the importance of playing before live audiences again.

The Jazz Gallery: How do you feel the pandemic has impacted you creatively? 

Tomas Fujiwara: Well, it certainly gave me many more opportunities to think, observe, and reflect. It has also provided me a lot of time to practice and compose. Most other musicians I’ve spoken to have used the year to focus on new compositional projects, to study the music of another composer, or to add another instrument to their repertoire. I’ve done those things as well. In particular, the pandemic allowed me to practice the vibraphone more than I ever have before, which has been nice. I’ve played on the instrument before, but this year has given me the opportunity to dive deeper.

TJG:  What are your plans with the vibraphone? Are you just experimenting or do you have a specific project in mind? 

TF: Both.

I’ve been studying the instrument more and getting more comfortable with expressing myself creatively on it. But I’ve also been working towards a specific project. Mary [Halvorson], Michael [Formanek], and I will be recording a new Thumbscrew album later this summer. On it, I will be playing a significant amount of vibraphone.  So the three of us have been composing a lot of music for the instrument as part of that project.

I have also found that playing the vibraphone has been a great compositional tool for me. Playing the instrument has opened up my composing in new ways.

TJG: How so?  

TF: I think in some ways the vibraphone is an ideal instrument for me to use for composition because it allows me to use a lot of the techniques that I use on the drum set. I can readily draw upon my background in stick and mallet techniques, which gives a certain comfort during the process.

But there’s also something about the instrument’s resonance that speaks to me in terms of hearing harmonies. I feel like it gives me an incredibly clear expression of my harmonic ideas. It helps me more directly take my thoughts and then translate them to written music. It also helps that visually the vibraphone is like a keyboard. It allows you to literally see all of the notes, from high to low, and give ideas for melodic shapes.

So, I feel like the vibraphone is the best of all of those worlds, and composing on it feels incredibly comfortable.

TJG: Speaking of your compositions, how do you feel working with Anthony Braxton has influenced your approach to writing music? 

TF: I would say the biggest thing I have taken from him is to just go for things and take risks. Don’t question your creativity or ideas before you’ve gone forward and put them out there. If you have an idea, just run with it. Maybe you edit or condense it later but don’t stop yourself before you’ve even started. Go for big ideas; for those that you might initially think too ambitious or crazy or that don’t think will fit within a certain category or box. Questioning how you will pull something off can keep you from expressing your full creativity.

I feel like Anthony is a perfect model of someone that just constantly goes forward with full conviction and force. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned from my times around him. Of course, all of his compositions are part of this incredibly creative mind. They’re great to listen to, play, study and analyze. But, to me, the big takeaway is to consistently go forward and take chances. Put yourself out there and not question or second guess yourself. I always say he’s one of the most inspiring people to be around, even if you’re not playing music. Even just being in the same room with him, he has this incredible energy that I find amazingly inspiring.

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Angelica Sanchez

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Whether playing duo with the likes of Wadada Leo Smith, or convening a group of her adventurous peers, pianist Angelica Sanchez seeks the unscripted. Over the course of six albums as a leader, Sanchez has cultivated a distinct pianism both patient and playful. This week, Sanchez returns to The Jazz Gallery with a new book of music written especially for her bandmates, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Billy Hart. We caught up with Angelica to talk about this new group and getting into the improvisational mindset.

The Jazz Gallery: You recently did a presentation on improvisation at Columbia University colloquium. I know a lot of people there who are interested in improvisation outside of music as much as in it, so I was curious what you talked about.

Angelica Sanchez: That talk came out of years of experimentation and learning from elders, figuring out different ways of approaching improvisation. I learned on the bandstand, the old way. Initially, I grew up learning bebop and learning the tradition of reactive responses. Some people say it’s like having a conversation, and that’s usually where I start when I’m teaching a beginner. The first thing you have to do stop listening to yourself and learn to speak with someone else on the stage with you.

And then as the years went by, I started improvising in a different way. I found my people here in New York and started experimenting with different textures at the same time. It was about developing a language within a band. I had always thought of a musical language as something solitary, that you did on your own. So finding my people was the first step in finding a new approach to improvisation.

From there, I thought a lot about what it means to improvise. You spend all this time alone in the practice room, making sure you can play your instrument well, so when you go to the bandstand, you can be free. All the things you work on in the practice room, I like to call them grips—sounds that we like. I would bring those grips to the bandstand, and so I didn’t consider that to be improvising—it was stuff that I had thought about already. I really liked the idea of not knowing. You have to have the courage to not care what you sound like when you’re improvising. True improvisation is being in the moment and seeing where it takes you. So I found people to do that with, and find ways of expanding that idea. Later, I started using composition, and that made it even more interesting for me—I’m still working on it.

This is how I started thinking about what it means to improvise, and how to explain it to people—the difference between reactive improvisation and the other kind where there are two paths, but you’re still playing together and there are still some common bonds between players. I might be playing something that’s the complete antithesis of what someone else is playing, and it will work from how we’re listening to each other. So that’s where the talk came from.

TJG: I definitely learned that same kind of reactive approach to improvisation, really emphasizing call and response between the soloist and rhythm section. But then I could find myself in a situation where everyone is waiting for someone else to make a choice and it all goes on autopilot. How do you think about instigation in an improvised situation? Do you think about throwing musical curveballs to get another player to interact in a new way?

AS: I don’t necessarily think of throwing curveballs in the mix, trying to play the opposite of what I just heard. Now, I can do this very quickly, but it’s a meditative state that you get into. I mentioned this in the lecture, too. It sounds a little corny, but I’m trying to live in the place that people call the zone. When I was first getting into playing this music, it would take me like twenty minutes to get into that mindset, get connected to it. I wasn’t used to that kind of focus, that meditation of music.

I practiced martial arts for a while, I did Tai chi for a few years, and from that I learned about my lack of concentration. From doing this, now when I sit down to play, I’m already there. When I’m in this space, I can be listening on a micro level and a macro level all at the same time. But then I’m not really thinking about what I’m going to do.

Early on, I would anticipate what someone would do, rather than just see what happens. Now, I just go to the edge of the cliff and jump. I’m not standing there to look at the landscape before jumping. On the way down, you don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s how I explain it to students. And when I say jump, they go “no!” It’s definitely scary at first, particularly when you’re teaching somebody new how to do that. And sometimes a student will say, “I don’t want to step on your toes.” And I’ll say, “Try to step on them and see what happens.” It’s about having the courage to sound bad, or to not listen to themselves.

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Dezron Douglas

Photo courtesy of the artist.

It’s a truism that jazz is a music defined by the spontaneous interactions between performer and listener. So during the COVID-19 pandemic, jazz musicians have used every last bit of guile to keep the music flowing over wires and screens. One of the earliest and most memorable COVID jazz events were the performances by harpist Brandee Younger and bassist Dezron Douglas, streamed from their East Harlem apartment:

They eventually gathered their favorite tracks—a mix of originals as well as pieces by Pharaoh Sanders, Kate Bush, and others—into an album, Force Majeure.
Outside the home, Douglas has stayed active doing livestreams at Smalls and Bar Bayeux, working with elder statesmen like Cyrus Chestnut and Victor Lewis, as well as his home-base quartet. This Thursday, Douglas will play live and in person at The Jazz Gallery with this quartet, joined by saxophonist Emilio Modeste, pianist George Burton, and drummer Joe Dyson (the show will be livestreamed as well). Before coming out to the Gallery to be a part of the spontaneous music-making, check out the quartet’s performance of “Atalaya,” below.

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