A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by David Austin

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.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday, November 28th, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome drummer Kate Gentile and her quartet to our stage. Gentile has had a breakout 2017, appearing on Matt Mitchell’s acclaimed large ensemble record A Pouting Grimace (Pi Recordings) and releasing her own debut Mannequins (Skirl), which also received very positive notice from WBGO, PopMatters, and DownBeat.

At the Gallery on Tuesday, Gentile will convene her working quartet to present two sets of brand new music. We caught up with her to talk about her ever-shifting compositional process, the quartet’s rapport, and her philosophy of rhythm; excerpts of our conversation are below.

The Jazz Gallery: What was your musical education like?

Kate Gentile: Well, I had the jazz school experience. Eastman was pretty bebop-oriented—there’s always some kids there that are into some weird shit, but they’re usually in the minority, at least when I went. I think it’s good to have that experience because I don’t think most kids check out bebop on their own, so it’s good to go to school and have someone show you stuff you wouldn’t otherwise learn.

TJG: How do you feel about bebop?

KG: I love all that music. I feel like that music in its time is, in some ways, a lot like the music I’m interested in now. Bebop was a harmonically and rhythmically complex music—finding rhythms and harmonies, voice leading, phrases that felt good relative to the way people were playing before that. What I’m doing—what a lot of the musicians in the zone I’m thinking of are doing, it sounds so different from traditional jazz, but in many ways it’s not. The same idea is there—you’re playing music and you’re improvising through it, but in these cases instead of chord changes there are raw chunks of material. It’s almost more exacting than chord changes.

TJG: I almost feel like your music lends itself to more emotionality than bebop.

KG: A lot of the classic bebop recordings make me think of playing with different attitudes, whether it’s being clever and slick, and witty—that’s how Philly Joe Jones strikes me, for instance. With lots of players that come to mind, the whole range of emotions, including joy, is in there. It’s just more subtle than total rage or metal.

TJG: I definitely do hear some metal in your playing.

KG: Yeah, both Matt [Mitchell] and I spend hours listening to metal.

TJG: Which bands?

KG: I don’t know a lot of the metal bands that everyone knows. I just know some bands that I’ve found out about. Defeated Sanity, Malignancy, Incantation, Immolation, Deeds of Flesh are some…and Wormed and Cenotaph, which both have this insane vocal multphonics thing happening that I love. 

TJG: What sort of compositional approach do you take and how do you title your tunes?

KG: A lot of the titles are aesthetically driven. Part of what’s enjoyable about writing for me is the whole range of possible approaches when composing. I don’t write with the same approach every time. Sometimes it starts with an idea about a form, or sometimes it might start with a rhythmic idea, or sometimes I might write a bunch of chords or a four-part harmony chorale. Sometimes it’s at a keyboard, sometimes it’s at a guitar, sometimes it’s away from any instruments. Sometimes it’s direct brain into Finale. For the opening track on the record I had a metronome on and I sang a rhythm against the metronome and then transcribed it, which made it totally different. Sometimes you know right away that something will really sound good. Sometimes you don’t, and it’s just a theoretical idea, and then you see if you can hear it.

TJG: Do you try to write what you hear?

KG: I don’t think you have to write what you hear—I find that limiting. I think melodicism and having a good rhythmic feel is important, and good voice leading is important—that’s kind of how you make all of these weird harmonies sound good and perceptible, but I think if you write only what you hear, you don’t get to all this other awesome shit. You can hear it later—you can teach yourself to hear more by writing this kind of stuff.

“Unreasonable Optimism” is an example of me sort of freestyling what I’m hearing and not worrying about it. I find that to be one of the safer ways of composing, actually—when you hear it you know what it’s going to sound like. There’s note doubling within piano chords in some of that tune, and I went back and thought, “There’s doubling. Should I change that?” And then I think “No, that’s what I want to hear.” I love how those harmonies work. It doesn’t have to follow these rules that you can get sucked into.

TJG: What sort of harmonic theories do you use in your writing?

KG: It’s different for every tune. In “Alchemy Melt with Tilt,” I had pitch collections first, but not totally invertible pitch collections. I was thinking of one or two notes in the bass—in the bottom of the pitch collection.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, October 26th, The Jazz Gallery is proud to present pianist Micah Thomas’s debut on our stage. An undergraduate at Juilliard, Thomas has already made a name for himself outside of the classroom, playing with the likes of guitarist Lage Lund, saxophonist Stacey Dillard, and The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. At the Gallery, Thomas will convene his current working trio, featuring Dean Torrey on bass and Kyle Benford on drums. We caught up with Thomas to talk about his musical upbringing, his current technical pursuits, and getting out of one’s critical mindset.

The Jazz Gallery: Where are you from?

Micah Thomas: I’m from Columbus, Ohio.

TJG: How’s the music scene there?

MT: For a city that’s not a major jazz hub like New York or Philly, I’d say it’s really good.

TJG: Were you gigging there early on?

MT: I wasn’t really part of the scene, but I had gigs with Byron Stripling, who was the director of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra and Christian Howes, who’s a jazz violinist from there.

TJG: And piano’s always been your instrument.  When did you start playing?

MT: Since age 2. I think either the theme from Bob the Builder or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star was playing on TV and I played it on the piano by ear, and my parents said, “Let’s get this kid some lessons.”

TJG: So you have perfect pitch?

MT: Yeah.

TJG: How is that? Blessing or curse?

MT: I think I’ve actually lost a little bit of it because of how annoying it can be at times.  But it’s definitely helpful—certainly for music.

TJG: There’s this crazy video of this young kid online where he can piece out these extremely dissonant chords-

MT: I know exactly what you’re talking about—where the guy is just playing random notes on the piano. Yeah, that kid’s pretty crazy. He’s working with something different than I am.

TJG: Do you think perfect pitch lends itself to musicality? Will having that gift help him in the long run?

MT: If he wants to be a musician then definitely.