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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by David Austin

Alfredo Colon

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Whether you’re talking about the person or the band, the music you’ll hear inside Alfredo Colón’s Big Head is filled with a wry and subversive humor. This Saturday, August 7, Colón returns to The Jazz Gallery with his home-base group, presenting a mix of new material and old favorites. We caught up with Colón to talk about the ambiguities of musical emotion and his pandemic deep dive into the music of Ornette Coleman.

The Jazz Gallery: I know you wanted to discuss how your band has evolved. Is your head bigger now?

Alfredo Colón: It’s literally the same size, but I do think it’s gotten a little smaller in terms of big-headedness.

TJG: I see, so you’re losing your big-headedness figuratively. But not literally—you still have a nice large head.

AC: I’m saving up for the cosmetic surgery.

TJG: That’s great. So how has the band changed?

AC: Well, it originally started off with Nick Dunston on bass before he moved to Berlin. We would always greet each other with “hey big head,” which, you know, is a joke. That evolved to “big head, big sound,” and over time the name kind of became a character in my head that I would write about.

So Big Head, he’s a little full of himself. He means what he says and he says what he means. Overall, at the end of the day I think he’s a pretty good dude. His character is maybe an over-exaggeration of a lot of my qualities.

TJG: So what started Big Head’s musical journey?

AC: Well, for a while, any gig I played that offered me some creative freedom was on EWI. And I was like, “Man, I’m a saxophone player. I work on this instrument more than anything else. I should let people know that I play saxophone.” So I really booked the gig just to be like, “Hey, everyone, I play the saxophone.” There’s no electronics. It’s just saxophone-dot-com all day.

I didn’t really have much more of a vision for the band than that. The music kind-of just came together. I wrote in such a way where the music was so open ended that the sound would be dictated by however the cats sounded in the moment.

That was the first gig that I had ever played with Jacob [Sacks], with the exception of my graduation recital. And it was my first time ever playing with Connor [Parks]; we didn’t even rehearse for that first gig—we just sat down and played. There was a vibe present immediately.

So initially it was pretty open music—a lot of the melodies would be six, eight bars, and then we’d make it up from there. Jacob, Connor, Nick, and Steve all play in a really compositional way, so I felt like I didn’t really need to write an ending to a lot of the songs. We’d perform them and they would sound completely different every time, but they always felt like complete pieces. But over time a sonic identity became present so I could finally write in a way that wasn’t so open ended and catered more to the abilities of the musicians in the band.

TJG: What are some of the major influences on the Big Head sound?

AC: A lot of the melodic stuff and the sound I’m going for comes from my heroes, predominantly Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Bunky Green. Attitude-wise, it comes from influences that aren’t along the jazz idiom. Someone like Lil Uzi would be an influence in terms of like attitude—his music is overwhelming in a way. I was listening to him the other day, and I was like, “man, you can hear the blues in Lil Uzi.” I was so fixated on it.

TJG: I’m not sure too many people would pick up on that aesthetic.

AC: I mean, when you go to school, they tell you the blues is 12 bars, there’s the I, IV, and V chords and then you’d have your Bird blues or jazz blues. And they get so into the harmony of what a lot of the cats play that they overlook a lot of the sentiment, meaning, delivery and attitude.

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Noah Becker

Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr, courtesy of the artist.

Multi-reedist Noah Becker is filled with deep curiosity. When we at Jazz Speaks sat down with Noah to talk about his upcoming Jazz Gallery show and new record, our conservation flowed from mathematics to a painting by Paul Klee to devotional traditions of Yemenite Judaism. Becker mines this curiosity in his compositions, crafting music that is at turns rough-hewn and delicate.

On Saturday, July 10, Becker will make his Gallery debut as a leader with his band Underthought, featuring Alex Levine on guitar, Tyrone Allen on bass, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. Becker and company will be celebrating the release of their first record, The Hollow Count, which you can check out below. While you may come for the music on this stirring debut, stay for the wide-ranging conversation beyond.

The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell me about your upcoming record release?

Noah Becker: The name of the record is The Hollow Count, and it’ll be out July 7th on Bandcamp. I may do physical discs at the end of 2021, but not for now. I put out my first record, Retumbra, this past December as a co-leader with Steve Williams and Jonah Udall, only playing clarinet in that band, but this will be my first record as a solo leader (playing alto and clarinet both). The process has been really meaningful to me, and I’m grateful to everyone involved for their enormous contributions—Stephen, Tyrone and Alex for giving so much to the music, Edward Gavitt for recording and mixing, Zekkereya El-magharbel for the artwork, Griffin Brown for the liner notes, Arielle Toub and Alex Hunter for the video work…I’m proud of the final result, and I’m glad to be playing this music some more with Underthought at the Gallery.

TJG: How did the pandemic affect the timing of the release?

NB: Underthought recorded in February 2020 just before the pandemic. Actually, I recorded the Underthought and Retumbra records in two days back-to-back. I decided to release Retumbra first, and then staggered the release of The Hollow Count later.

TJG: Can you tell me what a Hollow Count is? What are we counting? And why is it hollow?

NB: Yeah, that is a curious title. I had been thinking to myself that what is countable, or what is perceivable in the world—there’s so much more to things and to people than what we see immediately. I think everyone knows this on some level, but people can really become reliant on their initial perceptions, or the perceptions that they’ve codified or internalized over time, or those that feel native to them. The simplest way for me of summarizing that idea of what’s immediately perceived, is counting.

TJG: Just to be clear, when you say counting, you’re not specifically referring to counting the beat, right?

NB: Counting in that way is something that all musicians do, like it or not, admit it or not—but no, I don’t mean that kind of counting outright. There are so many ways that numbers manifest in music—counting, and also in the construction of compositions and the construction of improvisations. They find a voice, they find a life. They’re not a dead thing. I mean, music of all places is such a wonderful place where numbers find some of their highest or most transcendent significance—or lowest, really, most rooted in the earth.

I actually initially went to school for engineering—

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Photo by Rori Palazzo, courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, February 20, The Jazz Gallery welcomes saxophonist Nicola Caminiti to our stage for his Gallery debut. A native of Sicily, Caminiti came to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music and graduated last spring. Inspired by Jazz Gallery favorites like Walter Smith and Will Vinson, Caminiti sports a style that’s rhythmically-dextrous and harmonically-lush. We caught up with Caminiti to talk about growing up with jazz in Sicily and finding himself in the New York jazz community.

The Jazz Gallery: What were you doing in Italy before you came to New York?

Nicola Caminiti: I was born and raised in Sicily, so I spent most of my life there growing up, playing, and listening to music. I started playing saxophone when I was 8. I’ve been listening to jazz forever though. It’s funny—I was exposed only to jazz until I was about 4 or 5 years old, so I thought that was what everyone listens to until I got to elementary school where I realized no one even knew what jazz was.

TJG: Are your parents musicians?

NC: My father used to play guitar, but he’s moreso just a really big fan of jazz. I tell people that he knows more about jazz than I do even though I’ve been playing it for a while now. He got hip to all of the modern stuff before I did. Around 2008 through 2010 I was in my early Kenny Garrett stage and he was already showing me recordings of Jonathan Kreisberg, Will Vinson, Gary Versace, Mark Ferber. He found them all on Youtube, which has really opened up a lot of music to the world.

When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but 2 or 3 years later that was my favorite stuff to listen to. My dad always seemed to be a step ahead of me.

TJG: Would you say that there is an Italian musical tradition to grasp onto? How did you become a jazz musician specifically?

NC: Well, classical Italian music is opera, and there are also regional traditional musics that sometimes incorporate pop elements. In Sicily, there is the Tarantella and Neapolitan music, which I love. There are also Neapolitan musicians who have crossed over with jazz musicians—for example, one of my favorite singers is Pino Daniele, who is a guitar player and singer. He even played with Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Santana…it was kind of pop music, but not consumerist pop: meaningful pop.

Italian traditional music isn’t really that prevalent in every day life though. I feel like this type of tradition is stronger in countries like Cuba, for example. I have a lot of Cuban friends and friends from Latin America in general, and they tell me that music is being played on the street. It’s there. You can feel it. Even in Washington Heights where I live, you can feel it to some degree. It may be far from the Afro-Latin heritage, but you can still kind of get that feel. In Sicily, you don’t get that. You get pop, and usually it’s American.

But really, the reason jazz has always felt natural to me is because I was listening to it day and night with my dad.

TJG: And you starting touring around Italy before you came to Manhattan School of Music, correct?

NC: Yes, I started going outside of Sicily around 2013 when I was 18, and I need to thank a good friend of mine—a killing guitar player from Vicenza, Italy, Joe Clemente, who took me outside of my comfort zone. He brought me north, playing with musicians from the area, and that was the first time I toured and played some gigs outside Sicily

TJG: What was your jazz education like up to that point?

NC: My academic education was mostly in classical music—that’s what I studied when I was 12. But regarding jazz, I was always around the Sicilian jazz scene, and between 2008 and 2014 I felt like the scene was really strong. There was a good 25 or 30 of us who would get together during the summer for workshops and work on material together.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This month marks the grand finale of The Jazz Gallery 2018-19 Residency Commission projects. On June 28 and 29, vocalist/guitarist Camila Meza will present her new work, entitled Portal, while on June 21 and 22, drummer Kassa Overall will conclude his ongoing Time Capsule project with a concert featuring visual artist Nate Lewis and a slew of special guests. The festivities start this weekend with two evenings of performances by a new trio led by pianist Shai Maestro, featuring trumpeter Philip Dizack and vibraphonist Joel Ross. We sat down with Maestro to talk about the excitement and challenges of writing for this chamber-like instrumentation, and communicating a view of modern life through an abstract medium.

The Jazz Gallery: So how to you treat an event like this? Is this an opportunity? A challenge? A chance to step out of bounds a little bit?

Shai Maestro: Exactly, that’s what it is. Rio Sakairi asked that I do something that I wouldn’t do otherwise. You get funds from The Jazz Gallery through different foundations and that just allows you to sit at home and compose without needing to constantly work. It allows you to explore, experiment, and yeah, step out of bounds even further.

TJG: Will the bigger experimentation be in the instrumentation you’ll be using or in the lack thereof?

SM: I chose to write for Joel Ross and Phil Dizack. It’s going to be a trio—trumpet, vibraphone, and piano. Usually I write for solo piano or trio, but I saw this as an opportunity to experiment with the instruments and moreso than the instruments themselves, with the guys I chose to play with. Both of them are incredibly open-minded and capable musicians that will do a lot with written material and will do a lot with the space you leave for them. I’ve written many songs or melodies with them in mind.

TJG: Before this project started?

SM: No, it had originally started as a duo with Joel, but I thought Phil would be a complimentary sound. It really made sense to me.

TJG: You’ve played with Joel as a duo before, right?

SM: Yeah, it was great. We played tunes mainly. There were a few of my songs but we mostly played standards. Playing standards is always a great opportunity for me to get to know the person I’m playing with on a deeper level because I don’t have any agenda. Whereas with my music, I wrote it, so I have a vision. The goal is to not have an agenda with my music as well, but it’s harder since you know what the song is about. So playing standards with Joel allowed me to communicate with him in a really direct way.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

As one-fourth of the collective Secret Mall, Alfredo Colon has established himself as a rare dedicatee to the Electronic Wind Instrument, or EWI. However, for his upcoming solo show at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 11, Colon has put together a fully acoustic project called Big Head with pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Connor Parks joining Colon on alto saxophone. We caught up with Colon to talk about his differing approaches to saxophone and EWI, capturing the spirit of electronic music  with acoustic instruments, and the not-so-elusive origins of the project’s title.

The Jazz Gallery: What is the significance of the title, “Big Head?”

Alfredo Colon: It’s very literal—I just have a big head. It’s also an inside joke between Nick Dunston and me. Lately I’ve been playing sessions with him pretty frequently where we just improvise. I feel like I can play anything and he’ll make it sound like a tune under me. Just anything he adds sounds so big and full with so much motion.

TJG: Is there a theme to the music besides your large head?

AC: A lot of it is inspired by my time in middle school—just being 12 or 13.There’s a tune about running around in the woods with my friends, getting lost all the time. We used to hang out in Inwood Park, the last remaining natural forest in New York City [laughs].

TJG: How did you decide to write about this stuff?

AC: I’ve been listening to a lot of pop punk from when I was that age. The Starting Line is my shit. Shout-out to Steve Williams—he’s a fellow Starting Line fan. Listening back invoked a lot of feelings and brought back those memories…

TJG: How do you capture the spirit of pop-punk for example in acoustic music?

AC: I think it’s all about energy. When you break that music down, it’s really kind of just dumb and loud, but in a good way. Put a 17 year-old kid in front a microphone and tell him to scream and sing about how he feels. There are a lot of feelings when you’re 17 years old. So I think the takeaway is I have a lot of feelings and I want to play loud (laughs).

TJG: What were you like as a kid?

AC: I was kind of annoying [laughs].

TJG: Is that something you’re looking to capture in the music?

AC: No, I’ve filtered out the annoying stuff. I’d describe the music as very catchy but frantic at the same time.

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