A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by David Austin

From L to R: Shai Maestro, Ari Bragi Karason, Arthur Hnatek, Rick Rosato. Photo courtesy of the artist.

A native of Switzerland, drummer Arthur Hnatek arrived in New York a decade ago to study at the New School. Now based in Berlin, Hnatek is seemingly always on the move, touring with the likes of pianist Tigran Hamasyan and trumpeter Erik Truffaz. A composer of diverse interests and expansive vision, Hnatek is equally comfortable writing for large ensembles as he is devising work for his solo project, SWIMS.

This Saturday, February 23, Hnatek returns to New York to perform at The Jazz Gallery with the collaborative quartet, Melismetiq. Featuring New School peers Rick Rosato on bass and Ari Bragi Karason on trumpet (along with pianist Shai Maestro), the group explores stripped-down forms as a jumping-off point for melodic expression. We caught up with Hnatek at home in Berlin via Skype, where he spoke about Melismetiq’s development and expanding the expressive vocabulary of the drum set.

The Jazz Gallery: I understand you just arrived home?

AH: Yes, I just got back today from Switzerland, where I’m from originally. I played in this city called Basel, where I played my solo drums and electronics project, SWIMS.

TJG: Does that stand for something?

AH: It’s just one of those words where if you spell it in capital letters and turn it on itself, it remains the same. Most of my titles with that project are either palindromes or other forms of wordplay—I just like the games (laughs)—simple words with some kind of visual meaning to them.

TJG: It seems like a lot of drummers have recently been adding electronic sounds to their repertoire. I’m sure you know Marcus Gilmore and Ian Chang.

AH: Yes, of course. Ian was actually the one who hooked me up with Sunhouse Sensory Percussion.

TJG: I personally think it’s amazing how natural the integration of the electronic sounds has become. It’s almost like DJing in that you can instantly trigger a sound or loop in time the same way you might hit a snare for example. Do you see these additions as a natural progression of the instrument?

AH: I think drummers in general have always been interested in audio technology—if you look back to jazz drummers of the past, some of them would record and mix their own albums and were very savvy with technology in general. I know so many drummers who are sound engineers, and who do really great production work. So yes, I think it comes naturally for a drummer to be interested in using these types of auxiliary equipment, maybe in the same way a guitar player is interested in all of their gear and pedals.

TJG: So you’ve been touring SWIMS a bit—have you been touring with Melismetiq recently?

AH: No, we’ve never really toured the band. We kind of play one-off gigs here and there. The last one was actually also in Switzerland. Usually the gigs either come from my contacts or from Ari, the Icelandic trumpet player. In the past, festivals have asked us to bring a project, and we try to feature Melismetiq. We played this last summer in Geneva for a festival, but it was only one show. Both Shai and Rick had to fly to all the way from New York just for that one concert.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This weekend, The Jazz Gallery is proud to present the first FutureFest. Curated with Abdulrahman “Rocky”Amer and the band Secret Mall, FutureFest features a diverse slate of emerging New York bands, showcasing the current generation’s full range of improvisational practices. On each night, the Gallery will present three groups—Tiny Gun, Ba Akhu, and Blake Opper’s Questionable Solution—on Friday, and Adam O’Farrill/Gabe Schneider, Secret Mall, and the Sasha Berliner Quartet on Saturday.

Over the course of the week, Jazz Speaks will have interviews with some of the artists and curators of FutureFest, and today we have a conversation with saxophonist Blake Opper. Opper is a native of Houston, Texas and an alumnus of the city’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (“where all the famous people went,” reads Opper’s deadpan bio). He graduated from the New School this past spring and already has his hands full with a number of different musical projects. We spoke with Oppler about the formation of his so-called “logistical dumpster fire” of Questionable Solution, and his synthesis of myriad influences, from the music of Stephen Sondheim to the comedy of Chris Gethard.

The Jazz Gallery: The band is called “Questionable Solution.” What is the problem and what is the solution you’re proposing?

Blake Opper: I think the problem is the functionality of the instrumentation—mainly our having two pianos. Having an 8-person band in New York is hard, but not impossible. But having two pianos is a bit extreme. So that’s where the name came from. And the solution is people hiring me (laughs). Yeah, I’m still not quite sure what the solution is yet.

TJG: Why did you create this problem?

BO: It started pretty arbitrarily. I had a class with Dave Douglas at the New School, and in that ensemble we happened to have a room with two grand pianos. One of the pieces that I wrote for that class turned out light years better than anything I had written before, almost to the point where I wasn’t sure I could duplicate it. But then, another year went on and I thought, what if I try to write with that instrumentation again since that one time went so well? So I worked out another arrangement and it also turned out to be light years ahead of anything I had written before. So then I thought, maybe there is something to this instrumentation that allows me to write better somehow.

TJG: Why do you think that instrumentation resonates with you?

BO: I really like the sound of the bottom of the piano, but I don’t like the jazz trope of having bass and piano doubling a bass line. It’s overdone at this point. But I also need the rest of the piano available, and with a piano player devoted exclusively to bass, a second player becomes necessary. I also just like the challenge of it. Compositionally, I like to start with a challenge. A lot of the stuff I write starts with “What if this happened? How would that work?”

TJG: Are these ideas usually functional, like unique instrumentation, or abstract?

BO: They can be instrument-specific or they can be music-specific. I had an idea for a group that would have two electric basses, two tenors, drums, and then separately a guitar player. They would never play at the same time—it would be the band, and then solo guitar. I think that would be really dumb, and that excited me. A lot of my decision-making boils down to, “That sounds dumb, let me see if I can pull that off.” And when I say “dumb,” I don’t mean it in a pejorative way. If I think something will be really dumb or absurd, I feel like it’s a good place to start, because it’s probably an original idea—either no one has thought of it yet, or if they have, they still probably wouldn’t do it.

TJG: Is there guiding principle or sonic vision that ties your writing for Questionable Solution together? I notice a lot of what you might call ambient, or “soundscapey” techniques being used in a lot of your compositions. Is that a result of the instruments being used, or does that just capture your inclinations as a composer?

BO: I think both. Generally, I like an ambient sound to be present, but one thing I really like about the instrumentation is that because I don’t have a bass player, there are a lot of jazz tropes that I can’t fall into. For example, I can’t just have the bass player walk. I also think having two pianos specifically lends itself to a moody, repetitive, soundscape-y environment.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Following in the footsteps of Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Kendrick Scott, and others, drummer Jeremy Dutton has established himself as a worthy member of the great Houston drum tradition. He’s equally comfortable holding down the drum chair in groups of his peers and those led by acclaimed veterans like Ambrose Akinmusire and Vijay Iyer.

Dutton is also a probing composer, using his keen melodic sense to explore both his internal and external worlds. This Thursday, May 31, Dutton will convene a top notch group to perform his newest project, Mirrors. We caught up with Dutton to talk about his mindset on the bandstand, how he conceives of his sound, and the composers he admires.

The Jazz Gallery: Are you gigging a lot these days?

Jeremy Dutton: It ebbs and flows, but yeah, pretty consistently.

TJG: What kinds of gigs are you playing?

JD: There are some gigs that are jazz clubs and some that are concerts. It changes month to month. This month I’m doing a good mix of things—I’ll be at the Vanguard with Vijay Iyer, I have some stuff with James Francies out of town, and then I’ll be at the Gallery a few times with Harish [Raghavan], and then for Melissa Aldana’s commission project, and James’ [Francies] commissioned work. It should be a good month—some stuff out of town, and the Gallery is one of my favorite places to play.

TJG: Would you call playing The Jazz Gallery a concert or a jazz club hit?

JD: What I like about the Gallery is it can feel like either depending on the music being played and the audience vibe. I think it’s kind of in between the two.

TJG: Do you play differently in the two contexts?

JD: I try not to. I want to be consistent, and in every setting I am who I am. There are things like playing to the room and understanding balance, but in general, the core way that I approach playing music, the baseline, remains the same.

TJG: What is that baseline?

JD: For me, it’s about being conversational. It’s all about the moment and making something spontaneously, as opposed to everyone just playing their role. That can be cool too, and the moment might call for that, but in general I try to bring openness to what I do so the music can move however it wants to move. The way we do it in soundcheck doesn’t have to be the way we do it on stage. Anything can happen up there—sometimes it’s a mistake. Somebody might go to a section too soon or someone might forget a section. Then we have to react. But in that reaction there’s often an opportunity for something really cool, because the only way to move forward is for everyone to trust each other, and to me, that’s when the music sounds best. So that’s my baseline: listening to everyone and trying to receive what they’re playing and reciprocate that energy.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, March 31, alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins returns to The Jazz Gallery with his working quartet. While still a student at Juilliard, Wilkins has established himself as an in-demand sideman and burgeoning bandleader. In 2018 alone, Wilkins has gotten the call from such luminaries as Jason Moran, Gerald Clayton, E.J. Strickland, David Weiss, and Ben Wolfe.

For the Gallery show this weekend, Wilkins and company will be playing a mix of old and new tunes, including new settings of poetry featuring vocalist Alyssa McDoom. We caught up with Wilkins for a wide-ranging conversation about his music as a religious outlet, the sources of his saxophone sound, and his noted fashion sense.

The Jazz Gallery: So who’s in this iteration of the band?

Immanuel Wilkins: Micah Thomas, Kweku Sumbry, Daryl Johns, and Alyssa McDoom will be singing on some tunes. Those were the musicians this concept was built around.

TJG: What was the concept? I feel like I hear a lot of open gospel-like voicings in your music?

IW: Yeah, I played piano in church up until I moved to New York, and I usually compose on the piano. The idea was to write modern day hymns—music that is influenced by my upbringing. But the general sound that you’re referring to almost came about by accident. I didn’t necessarily try to do it. It was just what was on my fingers at the time. I wanted a band that understood my vision of what the music was and I also wanted individual voices that would be able to bring it beyond what I had had in mind.

For the first couple of years being here I was just searching to find the closest I could get to my vision. But when I found it I knew it. It was then time to move forward.

TJG: How did you go about picking your bandmates? I don’t necessarily imagine all of them as the religious type.

IW: (Laughs) Believe it or not, Micah’s dad’s a pastor. Micah has actually become one of my closest friends—we’ve really been able to hold each other up as far as spirituality and just dealing with the music school experience.

TJG: Are you still a church regular these days?

IW: I’m trying to find a church but I want something that’s real. I just haven’t really found that yet.

TJG: Is part of the missing connection the fact that you’re not playing?

IW: It’s partly that, but I’m also trying to make it a point not to play now, and actually go and be on the receiving side only instead of the giving and receiving side. I want to just be there.

TJG: Outside of Church, when you’re playing with your band, would you call that a “religious experience?”

IW: Definitely, yeah. I want it to be religious for everybody hearing it and I hope that comes across. I want my music to be so undeniably what it is that it just draws cats in. That’s also why I love playing in a band so much, especially playing in my band; I’m trying to write music that facilitates a space for us to be religious vessels for the music—have us actually act as vessels for Jesus. And as we build, I feel us getting closer to that role.

TJG: How does it work when you play sideman gigs—when you play with musicians who may not necessarily be religious?

IW: This is my personal pursuit, and I’m leaving it at the doorstep of whoever I’m playing with. If it affects you then you can dive into what I’m doing, or say “No, that’s not for me. Let me find my own path.” But this is my thing. This works for me. If my playing touches you in a way that makes you think, “That’s the way,” then you’re welcome to come on in.

TJG: What are you thinking about when you’re soloing? Are you thinking?

IW: No, but I’m really aware. That’s one of the things I pride myself on. I’m really aware of what’s happening all around the band. That’s allowed me to be a better sideman and better musician in general. It takes a certain musical vulnerability to do that—I try to listen a lot and then add my own language based on that context.

TJG: The language you add in a musical context seems to be very different than in an everyday context.  When speaking, you come across as laid back and really nice, but your playing almost reminds me of an exorcism (laughing). Occasionally I’ll even catch you yelling between notes. When I asked you why that is previously, Micah jumped in and joked that you’re “repressed.” What do you think is going on?

IW: Ha, people have told me about the yelling thing and so I’ve listened back, and yeah, I’m actually screaming (laughs). I think it all goes back to spirituality. I’m not repressed, but that is pretty funny that Micah called me that. I think I’m just private day-to-day and about my spiritual walk. I don’t talk about it much, but music is my outlet for that kind of stuff to come out. I’m not coming from an angry place, but I am trying to get a lot out all at once. The screaming comes from me losing my meditative train of thought. Going back to the vessel thing, I don’t want to get in the way of whatever I’m channeling. Once my mind gets in the way of what’s happening, that’s when the screams happen. The goal is to get to a place where I’m so focused that I’m almost out-of-body.


Photo by Chris Shervin, courtesy of the artist.

This Wednesday, February 21, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome bassist Chris Morrissey and his band Standard Candle back to our stage. The group has grown out of a 2015 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission, continuously building a unique repertoire of what Morrissey calls “singing, kind of asymmetrical, through-composed stuff with improvising.” We caught up with Chris to talk about the group’s development, his musical lineages, and his love of American musical theater.

The Jazz Gallery: What are you working on these days?

Chris Morrissey: I have a record coming out March 9th. It’s been done for a long time, so I’m happy to finally be able to share it. We’ve also been working on editing a music video for the first single that comes out next week, so that’s been occupying some of my creative brain. I have been writing a lot—this has been a strikingly slow few months, so I’ve been trying to navigate space that has no borders—no demands on my time. I’m normally pretty good at creating my own schedule—like incorporating time to practice, time to do yoga and run and everything, but this has been a longer than normal period for that. I’m happy with the writing and the music video I’ve been working on, but there’s also been a lot of looking out of windows, wondering what to do.

TJG: If another period like this comes up, would you approach it differently?

CM: Well these periods have come before. The last time something of this length happened was probably 9 years ago when I wrote most of what was my 2nd record, which is a rock record. I look back very fondly on that time even as stressed out as I was, and I try to apply that perspective to this time, even though this time is very different in a lot of ways because I have touring periods peppered throughout the next 18 months. Back then the feeling was more, “What am I going to do in New York?” And now I have a pretty firm grasp on what I do in New York, so it doesn’t have the same sense of freefall. These days, if things are just not moving, I try to let that be, knowing that it’s bound to change. January and February are notoriously like that—I’ve always felt immune to that, or have had some sense of entitlement to work but I’m learning that that’s not always the case.

TJG: Your approach sounds very Taoist. I know from other interviews you’re very into Buddhism and yoga.

CM: I love many Buddhist authors and speakers like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron and a lot of others. What I was sort of paraphrasing, which I think got you to think that it was Taoist, was a Murakami quote from Wind Up Bird Chronicle. In the book, the main character has a spiritual advisor, and he references this one session where the advisor said something like “You are either moving upwards or you are moving downwards, or you are staying perfectly still. Your job is to assess which of those things is happening and then not resist. If you’re going down, go all the way down. And if you’re going up, go all the way up. And if you’re still, stay as still as you can be.”

TJG: Let inertia take you.

CM: Yeah, I think so. Knowing the influence that you have over your ability to enjoy your moment or be driven mad by your moment—even if it’s an unpleasant thing, knowing that it will shift at some point. That your state of being is the sum of controllable factors interacting with uncontrollable factors.

TJG: It seems like a lot of musicians are practitioners of or are at least “into” Eastern Religion. Where do you think that connection lies? Does your interest in Eastern tradition play into your music directly or is that more a mindset that occurs independently?

CM: There are parallels. I have a progressive family—from a line of progressive artist-type people, but we were in a suburban, Midwestern, not very diverse community, where religion was just Catholic or Lutheran. Our church was Catholic and very progressive. Our priest, who is no longer with us, went on to fight for women to be able to be in the priesthood, and fought for some things that you don’t normally associate with Catholicism and priests. But it was still Catholic, and never really resonated with me the way some of Buddhism has.

So as I got older I had the desire for some sort of spiritual community that felt like music did. Celebratory, current, honest…I’m fishing around a little bit, because I don’t know exactly where that spiritual desire came from. I just know that if you’re pursuing music, you have this sense that you aren’t creating by yourself, that there is some sort of mystical community in this pursuit. I think some religion, Buddhism specifically, in its celebration of inter-being parallels musical creativity’s dependence on the community and the social.