A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Álvaro Felgueroso

Fellow bassist Ben Allison says of Alexis Cuadrado, “Alexis Cuadrado is a bassist/composer/band leader after my own heart… He’s going for something personal, accessing folk music of his native country and continuing to add to and expand the definition of the word ‘jazz’. I’m a fan.”

Alexis was born and raised in the autonomous Catalanonia region of Spain, and moved to the States to pursue a Master’s degree at Queens College after studying with the legendary concert bassist François Rabbath in Paris. Since he arrived in New York, the bassist has been sought after as a sideperson by leading artists including Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, Perico Sambeat, Mark Turner, Angelique Kidjo, and many others.

Yet, as NPR puts it, “listen to Cuadrado’s compositions and you’ll find every reason to take him seriously.” Alexis has received two grants from Chamber Music America to develop new works – the first was for his fourth and most recent album, Noneto Ibérico (Brooklyn Jazz Underground), and the second is for a new project featuring the vocalist Claudia Acuña and the saxophonist Miguel Zenón entitled “A Lorca Soundscape.” The latter project features scores designed to accompany poems from Poeta en Nueva York by Federico García Lorca, and was premiered in March. Alexis is one of the co-founders of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground, an outfit consisting of ten bandleader-composers on a mission “to promote originality and create awareness of innovative jazz artists in Brooklyn.” He also co-owns (and records for) their label, Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records.

We are very happy to feature Alexis in our 2012 Jazz Gallery Residency Commissions series, “Leading From the Bass.” This Friday and Saturday, Alexis will present the work he has been developing through his residency, Jazz Miniatures: New Works For Double Quartet. Below, the bassist-composer answers our questions about Jazz Miniatures, his choice of personnel, his experiences at The Gallery, and what has been inspiring him lately. Alexis Cuadrado speaks:



Tell us about your piece, Jazz Miniatures for Double Quartet.

The Jazz Miniatures are a collection of apparently disparate pieces in which I use a string quartet and a jazz quartet together. The jazz quartet is a bit of an unusual one, formed by two woodwind players that double on several instruments (saxes, clarinets, flute and bassoon), percussion (rather than drum set) and bass. So, on one hand, there’s the chamber element of the strings, and, on the other hand, we have a pretty loose jazz quartet. I was very curious to see how improvisatory freedom and chamber music could intersect, and this has been a good opportunity to explore that direction. I had been wanting to write for a string quartet for some time now – I’ve never done it before – so when the Gallery commissioned me to write a piece, I thought it would be a great opportunity to finally write for strings. Also, in the last few years, I’ve explored a mixture of flamenco, jazz and new music, but always within the context of “jazz” orchestration. In this case, I’m definitely veering towards the chamber sound, but with a lot of improvisation involved.

The idea of writing pieces that are not obviously related came from listening to The Beatles’ White album with my kids. I love how The Beatles put together a collection of almost random songs (Piggies, Helter Skelter, Revolution 1&9, Julia, Martha My Dear, etc… ) Each song is so unrelated to the others, yet, as a collection it all makes some sort of strange sense. So, in a way, that effect is what I was going for.

The composing process has been intense and fun. I started by devouring string quartet sheet music and recordings, all the way from Mozart and Beethoven, through Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Shostakovich and Stravinsky to Glass and Reich, and I just drafted whatever ideas came to mind. Little by little a few ideas solidified and become short pieces, like 16 bars or so… Then some became longer pieces; some just a melody, others were suddenly heavily arranged. I started with more than 20 pieces but only kept 8 at the end; it was almost a natural selection process. For me it’s been important to let the music dictate where it was going rather than me trying to be in control all the time. If something resonated a week after I drafted it, I’d develop it and so on… so I tried a sort of “non-prejudiced-clean slate” approach, and let things sort of happen on their own.

Describe your relationships to / prior history with the personnel and your reasons for selecting each of them for this performance.

I deliberately chose to collaborate with musicians who I haven’t played with much, or ever… At the same time I’m always looking to have musicians with strong individual voices in my projects – people with experience as bandleaders who can really enrich my initial vision. The choice of the string quartet was easy and obvious, since I’ve known Jody Redhage, the cellist, for quite a few years, and she’s done everything from pop gigs to jazz to new music and classical. I wanted to have string players that can be open-minded and improvise, but at the same time deliver a strong chamber sound as a unit when needed… so Jody recommended Sara Caswell (Violin I) and Lois Martin (Viola). The 3 of them were touring with Esperanza Spalding last year and have functioned as a unit. Antonia Nelson (violin II) is also a great addition to that team. We did a reading of some of the material a few days ago and they sounded wonderful, so I was happy to verify that my instinct pointed me in the right direction.

Then, for the “jazz” quartet I wanted to have two strong voices on sax who could double on as many woodwinds as possible. I’ve played a few times with Jason Rigby and loved his unique approach to soloing. Jason also has played some of my big band music lately and sounded fantastic on all of the doubles, so I’m excited to have him in this project. Ben Wendel is someone I’ve been listening to a lot in the last few years, and we’ve played a bit here and there. He was an obvious choice because, besides having such a strong voice as an improviser, he also plays the bassoon like nobody else. Satoshi [Takeishi] is someone I’ve seen play many times for over 20 years or so, even before I was in NY, so he’s been a drummer I’ve always wanted to play with. Last January, I heard him play his percussion set and I was blown away, so it was a no-brainer to ask him to do this. Luckily, all these musicians have been available and super devoted to the project; I’m just ecstatic to be able to collaborate with them!

You’ve had a key to The Gallery during your residency. What have been the greatest advantages associated with having access to our space? Describe the impact this has had on the work you’ve been developing, and on your general productivity.

It’s such a privilege to have a space like The Gallery available! I’ve mostly used it to workshop the pieces with the musicians, and having a professionally equipped room at my disposal is an amazing luxury! Also, The Gallery is a place with such a vibe, it’s just inspiring to be at the space. I’m sad that the current location will have to go, for that matter one of the pieces that I wrote for this project is called “290 Hudson” and I hope it captures some of the vibe that I’m talking about. Having said that, though, renovation is good, and in this case it may just be a great thing for the organization to move on to a space that brings some new energy. I certainly hope so!

Do you have any recommendations for our audience? Anything you’ve been listening to, looking at, eating, drinking, or otherwise drawing inspiration from?

Sure, let’s see…

Food: A Ramen joint on E5th between A&B called Minca. Simple and sublime.

Drink: I’m addicted to home-brewed Sencha green tea and Pellegrino Limonata (I have both next to me at the moment).

Music: I am checking out things that help me get ideas for the projects that I’m working on at the moment… All the aforementioned string quartet music has been extremely inspiring to me. Also I’ve been writing a lot of new Big Band music, so I’ve been listening to Darcy James Argue, Maria Schneider, Mike Holober, Jim McNeely, and the Vanguard band. I also saw Paco De Lucia for the first time a couple months ago and it was amazing. Besides this, Guillermo Klein‘s new record is awesome, and the band at the Vanguard just a couple weeks ago was something else. Finally, all the sidewomen/men collaborating in my project are producing amazing music worth checking out. And the White Album, always!