A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Miguel Mengal, via

Photo by Miguel Mengal, via

Saxophonist Alex LoRe received high praise for his debut album, Dream House (Inner Circle Music), which was released in April of this year. All About Jazz wrote, “Dream House is full of tasteful, intelligent music that’s also warm and swinging. The album has moments of pure beauty, belying a depth of experience and thoughtfulness.” Ben Ratliff of The New York Times noted, “LoRe is making the connections among about 70 years’ worth of contemplative, articulate and light-toned players, people who can find the emotional node of a ballad where modesty turns nearly to shame, and also locate a single, fine, well-placed note through abstraction or understatement.”

On the album, LoRe displays a measured and mature attention to melody. His technique, which is considerable, always services a greater melodic arc. There are few grand gestures and virtually no superfluous “runs”—rare for any jazz musician, especially remarkable for one so young. Dream House presents a consistent aesthetic, similar to the work of Jimmy Giuffre and Paul Motian’s tamer bands (and like those artists, LoRe knows how to get a variety of sounds and textures out of a trio.) Yes, it’s dreamy, but at the same time it’s earthy, reminding us of the mysteries of common objects. LoRe knows where his dream house is, and we’re excited to see what he does with the place.

LoRe is playing at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, October 30th, 2014, with his quartet, featuring Dan Tepfer on piano, Martin Nevin on bass, and Colin Stranahan on bass. We got a chance to talk to LoRe last week about his music, his influences, and his mentors.

The Jazz Gallery: You studied with George Garzone and he plays with you on “Amnesia,” the first track of your album. This is unusual in a way because, for many jazz musicians, a début album is a chance to establish an identity independent of their teachers and the conservatories.

Alex LoRe: George and I have a very close relationship. He took me under his wing at NEC [The New England Conservatory of Music] when I was studying with him. He has this kind of relationship with a lot of his students. His family’s from southern Italy and my father’s from Sicily, so there are a lot of similarities between the two. I think that’s part of the reason we bonded so well. I studied with him at Manhattan School of Music as well, during my first year there for graduate studies. We’ve just had this relationship and we’ve played a lot.

That song on the record, I felt it was a good song to open with and I didn’t feel like I had anything to hide. Actually, it was really funny. The first song is a contrafact [on “I Remember You”]. I don’t think George realized that until the recording date. I gave him the charts to practice and he was heckling me for making him practice these lines. So then we’re in the studio and we’re about to record a take and I was like, “George, you want to blow over this?” He said, “No, no, no, you got it.” And I said, “George, it’s just ‘I Remember You.’” He’s like, “Seriously?”

TJG: He quotes it on the record.

AL: Yeah. The look he gave me when I told him that: it’s like, finally the light bulb went off.

TJG: “Amnesia” sounds like it could have been an early ’50s Warne Marsh tune.

AL: Thanks. Warne and Lee Konitz are a huge influence on me. When I was at NEC I wrote a few of those contrafacts and I tried to get into that spirit as much as possible. Sure, a lot of the vocabulary is different for that stuff, but it’s more about the actual energy those guys brought to those compositions. I tried to tap into that. Another funny story: Lee came to NEC when I was there and did a master class, and I showed him that contrafact. He just looked at it and I played it for him and he was like, “Yeah, it sounds like a classical étude.”

TJG: You study with Lee now. How did you get connected with him?

AL: I had connected with him when I was at MSM. One of the bass professors at MSM, Harvie S, an older guy who’s been on the scene for a while, knows Lee. I used to go up to Harvey’s place with a drummer friend and we’d play trio a lot. We recorded something and Harvey said, “I want to go bring this to Lee and see what he thinks.” We went over to Lee’s apartment one evening and Harvey brought the CD. We were hanging out in his living room and Harvey said, “We recorded this stuff. I want to play it for you.” And Lee was kind of silent for a while and he said, “I think there’s a Yankee game on right now.” So he takes the CD, puts it down, and we go into his bedroom, because that’s where his TV is, and he turns on the Yankee game, and we’re just hanging in Lee’s bedroom watching the game on silent and talking.

I re-met him a few weeks ago at Birdland. Lee was in the audience and I thought, “I don’t want to bother hi;, he’s probably not interested.” He was 86 years old (he’s 87 now—his birthday was a few weeks ago). I thought, “Come on, I have to talk to him.” I went up to him and re-introduced myself. I said, “I took lessons with you.” And he said, “What year was that?” “2012.” And he said, “I don’t remember anything before 2013.” He’s an amazing part of history who’s still with us today. It’s incredible I get to interact with him. He’s so energetic still. He just wants to play.

TJG: What do you work on with him?

AL: He talks about strengthening that connection between what we really hear and what we put out on our horns. He’ll make me sing for eight bars over a song and make me play for eight bars. It’s all about the character of what you’re playing—if it matches what you’re singing. There’s no barrier between the two for him. It’s amazing. He’ll sing and then play, and it’s literally the same thing.

When he first asked me to do that, I sang something and tried to play exactly what I was singing. And he said, “That’s very literal of you.” But that’s not what he meant at all. He meant, again, the character: what you hear, that you can play in the same spirit. And it’s hard. We trade over “All the Things You Are” and he’ll be like, “It’s still pretty abstract, your singing. It’s getting better but…” You can always do something more simplistically, really slow yourself down.   

TJG: Did you meet Dan Tepfer through Lee?

AL: No, I knew Dan through a couple of friends: a trumpet player named John Raymond and a few other guys on the scene. My friend Angela Davis is another saxophone player; she just recorded an album with Dan. I really like Dan’s playing. He’s very thoughtful. It helps that he has classical background. He pulls a lot of different influences into his playing that aren’t so prevalent in other players, and I appreciate that. 

TJG: Are your influences similar in terms of non-jazz sources?

AL: Yeah, I think so. There’s so much music that we as, however you want to say it, artists or musicians, can pull from. Jazz, I feel, can become very insular: just listening to, you know, Louis, or just listening to Miles. Sure, there are some great musicians who do that. I just feel like there’s so much more that we could pull from.

I particularly love listening to, for example, Brahms and Ravel and Stravinsky and Schoenberg. If you just think about what they’re doing and you look at their scores—I try to do a lot of score studying—and orchestration-wise, how they deal with developing themes and motifs and melodies … There’s just so much information that we could put into our own compositions, into our own playing.

Why don’t we? It takes a lot of work, it’s overwhelming sometimes, but it’s an endless reservoir of information that we can pull from. I try not to limit myself.

TJG: You’re playing with a quartet on the 30th. Are you playing some of the tunes from Dream House?

AL: We’ll probably be doing some songs from there. And I’ve been writing some new stuff. We started off as a trio. What we were just talking about, about studying and taking all those things—I’ve been trying to write some new music that incorporates some of those elements.

TJG: How do you go about arranging trio tunes that are pretty tightly composed for a quartet?

AL: I think there’s a lot of space to cross certain things over. The bass is always playing pretty specific parts during melodies, but that can be doubled on piano in the left hand or left to just trio. I guess breaking down the ensemble. Sure, we have a quartet but not everybody has to be playing at the same time. Changing the texture: just saxophone and bass or just trio.

I’m trying to think of all these different combinations I can do to keep the composition engaging and have forward motion. We’ll try some things out. At the same time I like things to have a kind of flow. I like to be as hands-off as possible. I like my musicians to really do their thing.

TJG: Which ultimately comes down to a matter of trust.

AL: Right, and I think that’s one of the deepest connections you can have, is trust. I guess there are two different schools of how people go about performing. Look at someone like Coltrane who was preaching, like, “This is my thing,” and everyone came up to that. Or there’s the more group collective idea that it’s not just about me, but it’s about us as a whole. I’m the leader. Whatever my role is in this ensemble, I have to play that role, but I’m not the focal point of this whole thing.

TJG: What have you been listening to recently?

A lot of Ravel. I just love his Shéhérazade. His orchestration is incredible. This Stravinsky piece called Ode. It’s for a chamber wind ensemble but there are some strings in there. Very interesting harmonies, but then he’ll bring back these romantic gestures. It’s a short piece, about 11 minutes. Also, Dave Liebman gave me this bootleg of Coltrane in 1965, recorded live at the Half Note. I know there are a bunch of those circulating. It’s from a radio broadcast. I only have two tracks, “I Want to Talk About You” and “Body and Soul.”

The recording of “I Want to Talk About You” is pretty amazing. It’s one of the only recordings in which Trane doesn’t take a cadenza at the end. He plays the melody, the announcer is still talking when he plays the melody, then Trane ducks out and McCoy plays for eight or nine minutes, then Trane comes in and the energy keeps escalating. In that first chorus he’s playing one motif and he takes it through the entire first chorus, taking it and developing it. It’s unbelievable how he deals with it with the harmony and continues it. That’s been in my ear a lot recently.

Alex LoRe Quartet performs this Thursday, October 30th, 2014 at The Jazz Gallery. The performance will feature LoRe on alto saxophone, Dan Tepfer on piano, Martin Nevin on bass, and Colin Stranahan on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m., and tickets are $15.00 for the first set ($10.00 for Members) and $10.00 for the second set (for everyone). Purchase tickets here.