A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Aljosa Videtic, courtesy of the artist.

Saxophonist and composer Jure Pukl is no stranger to The Jazz Gallery, and has been a guest on this blog many times. As we spoke this week, our conversation began to focus on the concept of risk. Many young musicians aspire to take musical risks, and teachers often encourage it, but rarely is the concept dissected and explored. Over the course of our conversation, Pukl laid out his thoughts and ideas on the subject of risks on stage and in the studio. One of those risks is revisiting Pukl’s older material with a new attitude. In Pukl’s words, “Whether it’s making something new or changing something old, it’s the same thing we’re pushing for: To take something that’s been done already, and do it in a different way.”

Pukl’s upcoming show is titled “Abstract Sound Pictures” and will be a kind of re-exploration of material from two previous albums, Abstract Society and Life Sound Pictures. Jure Pukl will play tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet, alongside Joel Ross on vibes, Charles Altura on guitar, Matt Brewer on bass, and Damión Reid on drums. We discussed the choice of revisiting his older material, his band’s sound, and (of course) taking risks.

The Jazz Gallery: I hear you’ve basically been on tour through the winter and spring. Is it shaping up to be a long summer for you as well?

Jure Pukl: It’s always something, but things aren’t too crazy right now. I’m working on bass clarinet and flute, and I’m playing alto in Melissa Aldana’s Sextet for her commission at The Jazz Gallery.

TJG: You’ll be playing bass clarinet and flute on your upcoming show too, right?

JP: That’s my plan. I mean, with bass clarinet, it’s always technical problems, something is always broken, or you don’t feel good about your sound, and then it’s like “Okay, maybe not today” [laughs]. I’ll definitely be bringing them, plus soprano and tenor.

TJG: It’ll be great to hear you on these other instruments—I think of you primarily as a tenor player.

JP: I actually started with clarinet. I’m not a huge fan of Bb clarinet, but with bass clarinet, I’m a big fan of the sound and textures you can get out of that horn. I’ve been playing on and off for years but never felt great about it, so recently have really been working at it. I love so many bass clarinet players, obviously Eric Dolphy, and Henry Threadgill on flute, which I’ve been working on as well.

TJG: Tell me a bit about the upcoming show.

JP: I’m calling this show Abstract Sound Pictures. The music we’re going to perform is going to be a fusion of my music, between the Life Sound Pictures and Abstract Society albums. I’m recomposing and arranging the older tunes and slicing them into smaller sections, throwing out sections, adding new parts, making changes. It will be those two records combined, with additions of music I’ve been writing lately. It’s all my music, different periods of my life mixed up together. I’m arriving at a point where I can play my older tunes with a different attitude. I use different improvising tools.

You can change something a little rhythmically, and becomes a new tune. I see this a lot with Wayne Shorter. I love Wayne Shorter. If anybody, I would want to be Wayne Shorter [laughs]. With his quartet, they play some of his older music, but the way they approach it and play is so fresh and new. Composing always has different stages, but a strong composition can always be played and revisited. When I write, I rarely think “This is a trio tune” or “This is for quintet” or “This is for a certain person.” I try to just write, and leave space for musicians to add their own thing.

TJG: It’s an interesting decision to revisit the older material rather than explore the newer music, especially since you’ve released a few albums since Life Sound Pictures and Abstract Society. Many musicians I see are trying to push themselves to create new material, and are sometimes reluctant to look backwards. What gave you this idea?

JP: As I’ve been looking through my compositions, things I’ve written, I’ve pulled up old compositions that I always like to play. Again, think about Wayne Shorter’s work, where he takes older tunes and explores them again. There’s nothing wrong with it. Why always have to write new music? I mean, if you have it, great. But you get new ideas with old music. I’ve done a lot of sideman gigs: With sideman work, you learn new things from the people you play with. Playing with Nasheet Waits, for example, he inspired new ideas in me about my older compositions. I began to think, “How would Nasheet sound on these compositions? He’s a different player, he’ll add something new.” It inspired me to think, “I can always come back to older material and approach it with a different attitude, tempo, or harmony.” Sometimes you don’t really have to change anything, just approach it with a different attitude. I’m still writing, of course, but my preparation for this upcoming gig is in making my older music different. Making two tunes into one long suite. Taking something I spent a long time on already, and spend that time again, but figure out something new. In the end, whether it’s making something new or changing something old, it’s the same thing we’re pushing for: To take something that’s been done already, and do it in a different way.

TJG: In your description of the music, you say it’s “daring.” When I hear “daring,” I hear “risky,” that something’s at stake.

JP: Yeah. I like risky music. If anything, I’m all about risking. You have to know how and when to risk, and with which players to risk, because with certain players hear music differently. You can always try and explore, but you can’t go for it if the players aren’t right. They need to get when you’re getting into something, searching for something. You’re on the same path. Wherever the music takes us, we go there, we do it. That’s why I say, when I do my originals bands, these are players who have the courage to do anything. I know if I bring four bars of written material, those four bars can be a whole symphony. A trip, a compositional journey. We can flip those bars around and make them sound so many different ways.

TJG: So what is the risk, exactly? What if those four bars don’t work?

JP: Well, if we play those four bars for a while, we can turn them around and start stretching them, making them longer, opening the harmony. The risk is that there was an initial direction that was suggested with those four bars about where we might go. The player could say he’s going out of those bars into his own harmonic trip, almost go free. Taking a composition with a steady rhythmic pulse and breaking it into not sounding steady at all, playing segments, I feel that’s risky. I don’t want to sound like a burning, killing saxophone player all the time: I want to sound like I’m exploring, like I’m going for something, even if that means sometimes things don’t work, things don’t come out as you expect, they don’t go in the direction you were pushing it or wanted to take it. The music is not on the paper, but is influenced by what’s on the paper. That, for me, is risky.

TJG: When you listen back to Life Sound Pictures and Abstract Society, do you hear yourself taking risks back then?

JP: I always try, but after a while, when I hear my older music, I say, “If I did it again, I would do it completely different nowadays.” I hope we took some risks, I always go for that in music. Abstract Society was a very risky record. Some of the parts are really written out, but they have a lot of space inside of them. Life Sound Pictures was more compositionally structured already, so we didn’t improvise on those harmonic circles as much, but we still tried to take risks inside of that box.

TJG: In my last interview with Kevin Sun, we spoke a lot about risk-taking, especially while recording. One reason Kevin really admires Lester Young is that he says you can hear Young taking risks on his recordings. So let’s say you want to try something in the studio, but aren’t sure how it’ll sound. Maybe you haven’t practiced it, or don’t know how to lead the band through the idea. Is that a risk?

JP: This goes along with what I was describing with Life Sound Pictures. If you’re trying to take a risk, even within the restricted area of a composition, I still believe you can still go for it. The way you navigate inside that box can still be risky. For me, taking risks is not always about going out and making your own thing, making some big unexpected transformation. I think it’s risky to establish a group sound, improvise in the same manner, and improvise like a school of fish in the sea, moving back and forth. To get the band moving together, you have to risk to a certain point. You have to risk the things you might play for the purpose of the group sound. I see risking in different aspects.

TJG: It’s interesting to hear you describe risks so specifically. I imagine many young musicians want to take more risks but don’t necessarily know what that might mean.

JP: Yeah. That’s why I say, for me, it means a few different things. Riskiness can be an open form, or taking a certain structure then opening it up, or getting inspired from a structure and then opening it up into a newer, broader thing, maybe returning the structure. Or, having only structure, trying to be creative and risking only within that structure, so that the players move with the same mission. As I said, fish don’t always move in the same direction, but they outline the bigger shape. Some turn left a little early, some turn left afterwards, it’s all this one moving shape.

TJG: Before I let you go, I want to ask about your group, a very interesting lineup with Charles Altura on guitar and Joel Ross on vibes.

JP: That’s the band that came to mind when I was thinking about what I wanted to play at the Gallery. Damion Reid and I go back to before Abstract Society. I always feel rhythmically pushed by Damion, and we have a great hookup. Same with Matt Brewer. We’ve been playing on and off and I hire with him when I can, and we did a record a year ago with a Croatian pianist Matije Dedić, Hybrid. Matt and Damión play together in a couple of groups, such as Steve Lehman’s trio, and a lot of the Abstract Society music was inspired by Steve Lehman and Vijay Iyer.

I’ve been playing with Charles Altura and Joel Ross a lot lately, and I feel that they can really bring something new to my music. Charles plays these beautiful, heavenly melodic lines. Joel is a crazy talented musician who can execute whatever, his energy is amazing. With Damion and Matt, I hear these big, kind of dark, deep sounds in the rhythm section. With Charles and Joel, I think light and open, kind of sunny, both because of the players and their instruments, vibraphone and guitar. The combination is this light open sound plus this darker, heavier sound, and I wanted to explore both. It’ll be interesting when I play flute, for example. Or bass clarinet, with the rhythm section. Or soprano, tenor, and everything in between. Or imagine flute, vibraphone, and guitar…

Jure Pukl Sound Pictures plays The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. The group features Mr. Pukl on woodwinds, Charles Altura on guitar, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Matt Brewer on bass, and Damion Reid on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.