A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Hannah Judd

Photo by Herbert Ejzenberg.

This Friday, March 23, pianist Shai Maestro returns to The Jazz Gallery stage with his working trio, featuring Jorge Roeder on bass and Ofri Nehemya on drums. Maestro has been a frequent presence at the Gallery in recent years, performing in many different configurations, including solo, in dialogue with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and with larger ensembles. The show on Friday is a return to home base, as the trio prepares for an upcoming recording. We caught up with Maestro by phone to talk about the group’s new material and Maestro’s evolving compositional mindset.

The Jazz Gallery: What music will you be playing at the show?

Shai Maestro: We’re going to play very new material—in two weeks we’ll be recording a new album.

TJG: Could you talk about the new music?

SM: Definitely! It’s been an interesting process. Composing it, it didn’t go so easily this time. It opened up mainly when I let go of trying to do it, like many other things in life. This time it’s a lot more song oriented, rather than grandiose compositions and crazy odd meters and that kind of stuff. It’s more focusing on the songs, the DNA of a simple song, and trying to play within that, just with the material and the playing, the actual improvising. That’s something new for me. I came in being comfortable with a world of a lot of composed material. So that’s great—I’m excited to play with the guys, they’re incredible. Super open for adventures and the moments that might arrive. I’ve learned the music in all twelve keys, and different tempos, for flexibility to play with what I feel in the moment.

TJG: How do you approach writing for improvisation?

SM: I try to write things that will stimulate creativity. Usually that’s an artistic choice. Static material, melodies that’re kind of downbeat-oriented; things that don’t move a lot, tend to put you in a certain mood, and if I go to that mood, I try to find small movements that will inspire creativity. Or go to a completely different world, something that will just be uncomfortable to play, or placed at a weird place in the bar, or with tension on chords where when you play the chord other options are laid in front of you, of where you can go. So every time is different; sometimes there’s very little material, sometimes there’s a lot. The idea is the same.

TJG: With writing music, do you start at the piano when you’re composing, or do you think away from an instrument?

SM: You know, my phone is full of voice memos with me singing melodies in the street. I try to write on planes, on trains when I’m traveling, on little keyboards. The best songs come out when I sit next to the piano, and when I sing. When I play and sing at the same time, singing the melody, something about that action brings more honest notes.

TJG: This new music is more song oriented—does that come out of that vocalizing?

SM: Probably. Composition is such a mysterious process. I’m very systematic, in all of the aspects of music, practicing, pretty much anything. But composition is one of those rare things that just stay mystic, this spiritual, ungraphable quality that you can’t define, you can’t catch. The singing helps, but I don’t know! [laughs]


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Multi-instrumentalist Anna Webber has forged a distinctive voice as a composer and bandleader. In her work, precise, memorable musical ideas are placed in dialogue with wide-open, risk-taking improvisation. After releasing two records with her trio featuring pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck, Webber is expanding her instrumental palette with a new septet. At The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, January 18, the ensemble will make their debut playing Webber’s new original compositions inspired by 20th century percussion music (including works by Cage, Varese, and Stockhausen). We caught up with Webber by phone to talk about her translation of musical materials into new forms, as well as balancing precision and freedom in a band of improvisers.

The Jazz Gallery: What is your compositional process like?

Anna Webber: That’s a big question! All of the music that I’m going to be playing at The Jazz Gallery is music that I wrote this summer, at a residency in New Hampshire. All of it is very loosely derived from 20th century classical percussion music. That in itself is a bit of a hint at my compositional process—a lot of the stuff I write is taking a seed from some outside source. In this case I looked at these percussion scores and spent a lot of time analyzing them and reading both the composers’ notes on the pieces and other peoples’ papers or dissertations on them, and from there, found something that I thought was interesting, that I wanted to explore more. All of the pieces, if you heard my piece and then you heard the original, you wouldn’t be able to guess it. I tried to make the link very obscure, and to find something pretty non-obvious to go from.

In general, what I do compositionally is start from a small seed, so it could be a little rhythmic idea, a melodic idea, or an extramusical idea or a formal idea, and then spend my precompositional time developing everything from that seed that I possibly can, without thinking about how it’s going to fit in or what it might be. I just explore the idea in as much detail as I can. From there, it usually starts to take some sort of shape by itself.

TJG: What were the percussion pieces you started with?

AW: The pieces that I looked at were Xenakis, Persephassa, which is for six percussionists, John Cage’s Third Construction, Varese’s Ionization. They all used to have titles that were the same titles, but now I can’t remember what the original titles were. Zyklus, by Stockhausen. King of Denmark, by Morton Feldman. Yeah! And others [laughs].

TJG: How did you arrive at that as a starting point?

AW: It’s a little convoluted—basically, I used to have a band that had two drummers in it. I was planning on writing a bunch of music for that band, which is based in Germany, and the record label folded—a lot of things came in the way of me recording that band again. But I had this idea already that I wanted to look at percussion music, because that band had two percussionists and a vibraphone, or I guess three percussionists [laughs]. I wanted to explore different things that I could do with all of those drummers. I was getting kind of stuck when I was writing for the band, so I wanted to open that up. I started analyzing all these percussion pieces, and because all these other circumstances came in the way of that band actually recording and I ended up forming this new band, I still kept the basic idea, because I thought it was interesting and I was getting a lot out of it. I thought it was actually more interesting to use in a band that only has one drummer, because it sort of obscured the original idea even further.


Album design courtesy of the artist.

This weekend, the collaborative Borderlands Trio celebrates the release of their debut record, Asteroidea (Intakt), with four sets at The Jazz Gallery. The group features three standout improvisers—bassist Stephan Crump, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Eric McPherson—exploring the full expressive ranges of their instruments through spontaneous composition. We caught up with Mr. Crump by phone and spoke about the group’s origins, the recording process, and how their music morphs from gig to gig; excerpts of our conversation are below.

The Jazz Gallery: How did this trio form?

Stephan Crump: Kris and I got together at first as a duo just a couple of times to try playing together and see what happened. I want to say that was three years ago. It was immediately thrilling to play together, and very interesting, and we looked into doing some duo gigs. While that was underway, the stuff we were looking for didn’t quite pan out, but meanwhile, we got together in my studio with some other people here and there and just kept playing. Eric McPherson and I have been playing for quite a number of years, in Rez Abbasi’s Acoustic Quartet, and Eric has also done some gigs with my Rhombal quartet, and we’ve also just gotten together with different people, to play in my studio. He and I have always had a really powerful connection. He’s one of my favorite drummers.
There’s a really strong rhythmic concept and focus to how Kris approaches music and how Eric approaches it, not necessarily in the same way, but I feel in both of them a strong rhythmic pull. I thought it would be worth investigating for the three of us to play together. The first time we did that was at Korzo, the Konceptions series, a couple of years ago. We just did a few gigs before recording. It was just a year ago that we did a weekend at The Jazz Gallery, like we’re about to do. We did a Friday and Saturday night, and then Sunday morning we went in to record the album. It was a good plan, cause things were popping.
TJG: And this show is to celebrate the album release.
SC: We all three of us really love what we captured on the album. Every performance takes us to different places in various ways, but a lot of aspects of the group are well-represented on the album, as far as the way we all share, like I said, an absolute dedication to the groove, always leaving the door cracked for it to develop and keep morphing, but maintaining a tightness and a cohesion. There’s also a trust where different members of the band can be orbiting that same groove from different perspectives, and we don’t have to follow each other in a linear fashion all the time to feel like we’re connecting. There’s a trust in each other, if we each stick to our own orbit, as long as it’s related powerfully it’ll wind up in some interesting places and it’ll keep growing.
I think we all share an orchestral sense, a sense of structure, as far as each member has a broad conception of the range of possibilities on his or her instrument, and the various colors and textures and overtones, and thinking about what one can offer to the music that orchestrates it properly at any given moment based on what the others are offering. That might take each of us into areas that aren’t necessarily traditional areas on the instrument, but everybody in the band percieves the music on that level as well. I think of it as orchestration. So that’s really satisfying, because on a simple level it means that everybody’s always making things work. Whatever anybody offers to the music, the rest of the band will contextualize it instantly so it works, even as things are always morphing.
TJG: You mentioned a rhythmic focus; is that on your mind when you go in?
SC: We compose music together, in the moment. We don’t write things down later so far; it’s what we most often call improvisation, but I like to think of it as spontaneous composition, because I think that is a way of framing it that speaks to the fact that we perceive it that way. We are composing and thinking about all the aforementioned aspects of structure and development.


Design courtesy of the artist.

Interested in sourcing material from a wide variety of musical influences, the internet, and their own in-jokes, Secret Mall combines jazz, vaporwave, and friendship with aplomb, resulting in a band that you want to hear and one you want to hang out with. The group features Alfredo Colón on EWI, Edward Gavitt on guitar, Steve Williams on bass, and Andres Valbuena on drum, and (for this performance) Abdulrahman Amer on trombone. We caught up with Colón, Gavitt, Williams and Valbuena to discuss memes, inspiration, and what’s next.

The Jazz Gallery: Hi!

Secret Mall: Hi, I’m Secret Mall.

TJG: How are you guys?

SM: We are good. Collectively. Individually, answers may vary.

TJG: In some ways you guys are kind of an internet band—how does that work in real life, in real time?

Ed Gavitt: I guess the concept comes from the internet. The aesthetic of vaporwave is an internet culture, phenomenon. I was reading an interview with Macintosh Plus, the producer, who kind of described how music used to be thing where you have to be in a scene. If you’re a jazz musician you have to be in New York, or if you’re a pop musician you have to be in LA kind of thing, but with the advent of the internet, that barrier broke. In a way we are jazz musicians because we’re in the New York scene, but we’re taking elements from the internet and bringing that to the music.

Alfredo Colón: Also the internet is the future. I feel like a lot of people don’t accept that, like, everything’s on the internet. So if you’re not on the internet, you’re not anywhere.

EG: Honestly, as bad as Spotify and bandcamp are, people are embracing the fact that that’s how you’re gonna have to meet your people. We released our record on bandcamp, and that’s a way that we reached a lot of people.

TJG: Vaporwave is super visual—how are you bringing that to what you’re doing?

Andres Valbuena: It has to do a lot with the way we present ourselves, on our facebook, especially. The artwork. The person who’s most in charge of that is Alfredo, because he’s in charge of dealing with flyers and making promotional videos. You should go a little bit deeper with that.

AC: I mean with any kind of art, there’s always visual art of the time associated with it, there’s a parallel. We draw from vaporwave, that aesthetic of the music and the visual aspect is so closely tied to it that it’s hard to separate them from each other. Since that was the original idea for the band, to draw from that kind of music, it felt wrong to not draw influence from the artwork as well, for promotional stuff.

EG: It’s a medium where the artwork and music go hand in hand.

AG: It’s a complete thing when they’re together, so we try to do that as much as possible.

EG: Last time we played at the Gallery we actually presented video as well. Not during the performance but between performances which is part of the vibe too. We were projecting just memes and stuff, I basically just made a really long reel of memes.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Sunday, October 8th, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock back to our stage. Laubrock is among the most active and sought-after exploratory improvisers working in New York, performing with luminaries like Anthony Braxton, and many acclaimed groups led by her close collaborators including Mary Halvorson, Kris Davis, and Tom Rainey. Laubrock is an active leader in her own right, always seeking novel combinations of instruments and players, like in her 2015 Jazz Gallery Commission project.

On Sunday, Laubrock will convene a new lineup of her band Serpentines. Featuring Miya Masaoka on koto and Sam Pluta on electronics, alongside more typical jazz instruments, the group straddles many compositional and improvisational traditions. We caught up with Laubrock by phone to discuss the challenges of blending these diverse instruments and organizing a team of top-flight improvisers.

The Jazz Gallery: The instrumentation for this group is a little unusual—could you talk about that?

Ingrid Laubrock: The origin of this band is not what the lineup currently is—usually we also have Peter Evans, who is not available, and Kris Davis is on piano and Tom Rainey is on drums—but the music is written in a relatively open way, so the instrumentation can be adapted. Originally this was basically a commission by the 2014 Vision Fest, which asked me to put a group together, people who I’d like to play with, and I wrote for it. I really enjoyed it—for that particular event I wrote a very very open piece. And then Intakt records, who I usually record for, agreed to record the group, and I added Peter Evans to it. Since it has koto in it and electronics, I had to adapt my usual way of writing; certain specific things can’t be played on the koto since it’s not a chromatic instrument, and likewise, on electronics, I think of it as a different instrument, therefore not a traditional jazz instrument, so it was a good challenge for me.

TJG: How do you approach writing for these things differently?

IL: I check back a lot with Miya and with Sam, so I’ll write something or have an idea—sometimes it’s very intentional, maybe global idea, a sort of drone or sound or how I want a piece to communicate electronics over the course of the piece—things like that I’ve sort of closely checked with Sam, and Miya while I was writing it. I’ve gotten together with Miya a couple of times and seen what is possible on the koto, for her to demystify it a little bit so that I could write something that was meaningful for it.

And then of course they’re all fantastic improvisers and I wanted to make sure they had scope to express that, to have a certain open modes where they can really just put in their own taste buds.

TJG: There’s also a certain amount of large group coordination that goes on that I’m curious about, how that comes into play.

IL: You have to balance it all, more than with a smaller group. In a smaller group I might not specify combinations of improvisers, I might have an open section. In a large group, it’s more like I’ll ask—you three improvise, and then you two improvise and the rest are like backgrounds, or I specify backgrounds as in improvised intersections with cells of material, so it’s a little more organized than you might find in a smaller group, to prevent it from descending into chaos.