A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Hannah Judd

Jeff "Tain" Watts

Photo courtesy of the artist.

With his fiercely polyrhythmic playing, Jeff “Tain” Watts has made an indelible impact on the sound of contemporary jazz drumming. While perhaps best known for his association with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Watts is also an accomplished composer and bandleader, with several albums to his name, including 2009’s Grammy-winning Watts (Dark Key Music).

This week, Watts convenes an intergenerational trio featuring longtime collaborator Paul Bollenback on guitar and James Francies on piano. We caught up with Watts at his home in Pennsylvania to talk about his life in Covid and his many new compositions.

The Jazz Gallery: What music will you be playing?

Jeff Watts: The music for the show—some music from a few different things. Some music that I’ve already recorded. Of course, like a lot of artists during this pandemic, a lot of unrecorded material, new stuff. You know, you have a lot of free time to compose! I’ve been working on a couple different projects. One is a suite of music that was funded by a Guggenheim fellowship almost three years ago. I proposed to them that I was going to do a musical tribute to the play cycle of August Wilson, who’s from my neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Originally it was about him, but then the more I studied August Wilson and his work, the more I wanted to be less derivative of anything. So as of now, this suite is a broader thing, about Pittsburgh and things indigenous to Pittsburgh, and I’m calling it “Suite to Pittsburgh”. There’ll be a few things from that.

I’ve been writing things about the pandemic itself—a song called “Sanctuary” that’s about being safe. I did something for The Jazz Gallery earlier in the pandemic, where they asked me what I was working on. I had a commission from the University of Michigan, right around the same time the riots were happening around the country, so I have a piece dedicated to George Floyd and how that moved things to a certain point where people felt the need to be responsible for the climate of the country. So I think we’ll premiere that piece. It’s called “Big Floyd and Tipping Point.” That should be very interesting; it has some spoken word, and it should be very evocative of jazz and Mingus and hip hop and a little bit of the vibe of the group the Last Poets.

What else did I write during this thing? Something about the virus—it was an excuse for me to write something in 19/8. I should be premiering a piece originally for the suite, but in the midst of it we lost Ellis Marsalis, so I wrote an elegy that’s dedicated to him.

And then I just wrote something last week. I was watching a documentary about Don Cherry, from 1978, that was done by some Swedish folks. And in the midst of his interview, he’s talking, and he’s like, “Yes, you know America has certain priorities, there’s emphasis on the media, trendy things,” basically saying the climate of America was stunting the “spontanewity” of an artist—and I just thought that word “spontanewity” was cool, so I wrote a new song.


Clockwise from top left: Tyshawn Sorey, Sasha Berliner, Morgan Guerin, Nathan Reising, Lex Korten, and Nick Dunston, Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Saturday, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome drummer & composer Tyshawn Sorey back to our stage. Fresh off an acclaimed Composer Portraits series concert at the Miller Theatre, Sorey will convene his new sextet project at the Gallery. Featuring saxophonists Nathan Reising and Morgan Guerin, vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, pianist Lex Korten, and bassist Nick Dunston, the group made their debut this past fall at The Kitchen, and this will be their second performance.

We caught up with Tyshawn by phone to talk about the group’s inception and the new musical avenues they explore in Sorey’s compositions.

The Jazz Gallery: How was the band formed?

Tyshawn Sorey: We met at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in August 2018. We had rehearsed for two weeks leading up to a concert that we gave at the workshop premiering the pieces. Nick Dunston was not there for that—we had another bass player who was playing with us, and we also had a vocalist and no vibes. The group became what it is now when we performed at the Kitchen this past October as part of my three-night residency there. We performed, and on that second night we basically rehearsed for about five or six hours, and we then took a break and then we played the show. And that’s how that went!

TJG: What is the music that you’ll be performing at this show?

TS: We’ll be performing seven or eight compositions. We will be doing that as one very long show. We don’t do set breaks, so we’ll do one long show from 7:30 until about 9:30 or 10 o’clock, or maybe 10:30 even, depending on how we get through the material. We’ll be doing some very intense rehearsing and then we’ll arrive at the concert. We’ll just perform the music at the Gallery. It’s seven pieces that I created during my residency in Captiva, Florida as part of their Robert Rauschenberg artist residency, and I was one of the fellows. It was a six week program in Captiva, where I spent a great amount of time in Rauschenberg’s main studio as well as hanging around a lot of different visual artists and people like that. I was the only musician/composer who was there, at the part of that residency. I wanted to develop a set of pieces that show a side of me that not a lot of people are very familiar with, I wanted to explore another side of my work. And so all these compositions are meant to represent a side of me, in terms of my own compositional creative output, that maybe people are less familiar with.

TJG: How would you describe that side of you? What is unfamiliar about it to people?

TS: I think people know my work as mostly being very quiet and slowly unfolding and with a great deal of compositional material that people are reading and stuff like that. There is a lot of is always a lot of detail in what we do as a sextet, in terms of how we go about navigating through the material. No two performances of the music is ever the same. However, the music sort of—I guess there’s less, I don’t want to say less rigor because there’s a lot of rigor in everything that I do, but—I don’t really know how to describe it other than—the music well, you will definitely hear a lot more drumming coming from me, and you’ll also hear a lot more opportunities for creative interplay and that sort of thing so. Not that that doesn’t exist in any of my other music but it’s more about how we function as a unit together, and how we best navigate through material. As I said before, no two performances of the music is ever the same, even though people have charts in front of them. Just like in my trio, we determine certain forms ahead of time, and if train wrecks happen we find other ways of navigating through the music that work in real time. That’s generally how the group functions. I don’t like to give too much away in terms of what people should expect to hear in a given performance of what we’re doing, because I’d rather they come here and get surprised by what we’re playing. Hopefully they will take a little bit of something else about my work with them, that maybe they didn’t otherwise realize.


Angela Morris conducting the Webber/Morris Big Band at Roulette. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Led by composer/woodwind players Anna Webber and Angela Morris, the Webber/Morris Big Band is one of several up-and-coming big bands making their mark in New York right now. In a recent feature on the city’s big band scene, Giovanni Russonello of The New York Times called the ensemble “…a jagged-edged band that has begun to turn musicians’ heads.” While both Webber and Morris have been featured composers in The Jazz Gallery’s Jazz Composers’ Workshop series, they will bring their own band to The Jazz Gallery on Friday evening for the first time. We caught up with Angela Morris by phone to talk about the band’s origins, their developing book of compositions, and what’s next for the ensemble.

The Jazz Gallery: How did the big band form?

Angela Morris: Anna and I started this band in 2015. It came out of our mutual music circles combined with the fact that we both did the BMI big band composer’s workshop, which Jim McNeely was running. We were riding the train home from a concert together, and I said, “do you want to start a big band together?” We figured we would include a lot of the same musicians, and it’s a very intensive, whimsical project to have such a large ensemble, so it’s great to do it with somebody else. And hopefully it goes without saying that I love Anna’s music and really admire her as a composer, so it’s great to have that.

TJG: How does it work with the two of you as joint leaders? Does you take turns, or work together?

AM: The music is not co-composed; we compose separately. In terms of the operation of the band, we do it together. When we want to do concerts, or planning rehearsals, or applying for grants, any of that kind of stuff, we’re doing it in collaboration.

TJG: What is the composition process like for you with a larger ensemble? Do issues of orchestration come up?

AM: I think at the beginning I was really interested in thinking about the big band less as the sound of a big band that you might think of traditionally in jazz and more as a large ensemble, like an orchestra of improvisers. So it’s thinking about ways to make the ensemble sound surprising, exploring all the different timbres and combinations you can get, especially when you’re dealing with improvisers who have vocabularies of extended techniques and ways of improvising that aren’t just playing over changes.

I’m thinking about that on the one hand, and on the other thinking about how to incorporate improvisation in those different ways, to give the musicians different ways of effecting the course of the piece. In such a big group, that challenge is more of an idea than a reality; it’s challenging to make it really true that they can influence the form of the piece, because obviously I have to compose a lot of that. There’s different ways of incorporating the improvising.

Besides musical influences, I’ve had different nonmusical influcenes. Like there was one piece that I needed to write and I was kind of in a rut, so I made a spreadsheet, got a number generator, had it churn out a bunch of material and chose from that. Or another piece was composed around some words from a poem.


From L to R: Jessica Jones, Kenny Wollesen, Tony Jones, and Stomu Takeishi. Photo courtesy of the artist.

As a saxophonist/composer/teacher/non-profit creator, Jessica Jones takes a holistic approach to music-making. All of the different hats she wears align in an open and positive musical expression. As a composer and improviser, Jones draws comfortably and equally from a wide range of sources, including mentors like Don Cherry and Joseph Jarman, as well as musics from the Caribbean and West Africa. This perspective is showcased on Jones’ newest record, Continuum (REVA), released this week. Featuring her longtime working band of Tony Jones on tenor saxophone, Stomu Takeishi on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums, the record showcases the continuum of the jazz tradition, both stylistically and educationally (Jones’s former student Ambrose Akinmusire guests).

Jones and her quartet will celebrate the release of Continuum this Friday, January 25, at The Jazz Gallery. We caught up with her by phone to discuss the history of the group, her approach to working with diverse musics and performers, and the work of her non-profit organization, Rare Earth Vibration Association.

The Jazz Gallery: This show Is celebrating the release of your new album, Continuum. What does the name mean?

Jessica Jones: It’s about the way that you learn jazz, as a continuum, from elders all the way down. One of my students who I had for six years, who just graduated from high school, he’s 17, he’s on the album. And Ambrose Akimusire is on it; he also used to study with me when he was young. So that’s kind of the thread going through it, the idea of the title.

TJG: How do you choose which guests to bring in, with how your band is structured?

JJ: Each case is an individual case. I wanted to feature this young student, because I think he’s really ready for that kind of opportunity, for being heard. And as far as the song with the singer, Ed Reed, he and I had some conversations, and I had taken some notes on the things he said, because he’s been through a lot and he’s really wise. And I wound up putting some of his ideas into a song, things he has talked to me about. So I wrote the lyrics based on things he’d said, and I’d never had anyone perform it vocally, only instrumentally. So I thought, why not see if he wants to do it. He sang the song, and that was geared specifically to him. The other song that has guests is, I was working at a music camp and someone was playing an instrument that he calls a kamale, a Malian instrument. He was in the room next to me, in the living situation, so I would hear him practicing. It sounded like the sonic area that Don Cherry used to play, when he played his ngoni. So I was really curious about the instrument, and wrote a song to go along with that and asked him to play on it. I asked Ambrose to play on it, because I was really hearing that trumpet sound, and he was in town, so it worked out that we could do that recording of that song together. Those were three individual situations where, compositionally, I was hearing that kind of direction, with these individuals.

TJG: What is your compositional process like? Were you thinking towards the scope of the album when you were writing pieces?

JJ: I was trying to document recent work, and looking across and seeing what united it, what the common ideas were. It’s really a cross range of styles on the album. Some funk, calypso, free stuff, blues, kind of a range, which I can’t really help.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Already with an acclaimed big band record under her belt, composer and vocalist Jihye Lee steps out in a new direction on her newest release, As The Night Passes. Instead of the extensive big band palette she used so deftly on her debut album, April, Lee strips down the music on As The Night Passes to just her voice and piano.

This Saturday, October 13, Lee returns to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the album’s release, alongside pianist Vadim Neselovsky. We caught up with Lee by phone to talk about her approach to delivering her music in a vulnerable setting and the diverse origins of her musical materials.

The Jazz Gallery: How would you describe this project, and this show?

Jihye Lee: Before this project, I did a lot of big band writing, so this is a drastic change; I have seventeen people in my band, and now I’m having a duo album release show! So I think it’s a very different project, I think I’ve been more vulnerable. Before I was facing my back to the audience, I was conducting. I let my band play my music; now I have to deliver it. At the same time, it’s more me, I composed it and I’m singing with my voice. It’s more of me delivering my music; it’s very different. It’s kind of unusual, that a big band composer sings.

TJG: Why did you decide to move from a big band to a duo?

JL: I was a singer-songwriter in Korea, and I came to the United States and became a big band composer. I loved the harmony of jazz, the intricate rhythms, while I was in Korea already. I’ve lived in the states for seven years, and I dedicated myself intensely for five years to the big band writing. But meanwhile I was still writing vocal music, it was natural for me to write songs, singing stuff. This is the collection of songs I’ve been writing for five years. Two years ago, I was thinking, I have to put it out there! Otherwise I’ll let my ideas down. So I recorded all of my songs, like ten songs that I chose, and recorded it. I neglected it again, for two years, and this fall I just thought I should do it. It’s not a surprise to me; it’s natural. I’m a writer who uses different forms.

TJG: Do you think of this as jazz?

JL: I don’t know! [Laughs]. It’s hard to describe; it’s not swing music at all. It’s not one music at all either. It’s very European jazz, modern jazz, I would say. And also there’s some Korean pop music in it, because that’s what I listened to growing up! Even though I didn’t really intend to write music like that, I was thinking that there’s a lot of jazz harmony, it’s still Korean. I don’t know how to describe it. Some people say my singing is like musical theater; jazz-y, folk-y. It can be anything; it’s a hard question for me to answer, because I’m inside of it; I can’t see myself objectively. I honestly don’t know.

TJG: What was your compositional process like?

JL: I mostly write lyrics, melody, chord changes at the same time. It’s kind of crazy. Some songs, I wrote the melody and chord changes first, and then I put the lyrics later. Two of the songs, I collaborated with another lyricist; I gave her Korean lyrics and she translated or wrote me lyrics.

I think composition to me is all about delivery and expressing myself, so when I have something that I want to say, I think about the image and what kind of melody will deliver this emotion or thoughts in the proper way. It always starts with my imagination, with thoughts, and thinking about the form that the music will take.