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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Hannah Judd

Photo courtesy of the artist.

For four decades, Michael Formanek has been a fixture on the international jazz scene as a bassist, composer and improvisor, comfortable in any idiom. This Saturday, September 23rd, Formanek will convene his working quartet at The Jazz Gallery for two sets. We caught up with him to talk about his approaches to writing for this group, and to improvising more generally; excerpts of our conversation are below.

The Jazz Gallery: First, I wanted to just ask you about what music you’re going to be playing at this show.

Michael Formanek: It’s going to be a combination of some new music and older pieces for this group. I’m doing a few different groups now, but this is one quartet that I’m working on, and so there’ll definitely be some new music for that group. There’ll be a few pieces that I have that I’ve played in some different versions that are unrecorded, some recorded music, probably one or two things from one of my other groups, depending on how I structure the sets. And there’ll be a lot of improvisation, so you never want to let the music get much in the way of all the possibilities.

TJG: The quartet is such a fierce group of improvisers, so I’m sure it’s really dynamic playing together.

MF: Definitely. Some of my favorite musicians, of course.

TJG: How do you approach composing for a group where you know going in improvisation will feature heavily?

MF: Well, the main thing for me is to consider, in most cases when I’m writing for a group, the people. I consider things that I know that they do incredibly well, and also things sometimes that I might want to push a little different, in one way or the other. Just to kind of set up certain kinds of challenges that might make it a little more interesting, not just a complete improv gig. The compositions, I really do try to think about kind of getting things going certain ways, and structuring things enough, but not too much. I think it’s important to be willing to let the improvisers sense things a certain way, so I don’t think of things being completely finished until they’re actually played. And even then it’s different and evolving, as a process. That’s sort of what I think about.

TJG: That would make it different too, the live versus recorded iterations of the music.

MF: Yeah, definitely. I mean, just in terms of how you want to let things grow and develop over time, it doesn’t have to be so different than recorded versions, but oftentimes that is going to be the case.

TJG: How do you approach leading the group?

MF: In different groups, it kind of depends on the people involved sometimes, because I do like to get things going in such a way that there doesn’t have to be a lot of direction in the course of the actual performance. People have things they can get to, and they can start when they want to start, so everyone gets a little more directly involved in the composition, in the way the thing unfolds. To begin with whichever instrument, I could start something, but musically it might eventually move into another section, or move into another part of a piece. In some cases I can give that starting composition to somebody else, also for me it becomes a little irrelevant who’s the leader as much as I set up the problem and the situation, I try to pick the basic material we’re dealing with, in such a way that involves it being as natural as possible. And so in the best case scenario I’m just not thinking about that part of it at all.

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Since moving to New York over three decades ago, guitarist David Gilmore has traversed a huge range of the city’s music scenes. He’s been active member of M-Base and the plugged-in collective Lost Tribe. He’s been a sideman with the likes of Wayne Shorter and Ronald Shannon Jackson. And he’s been an in-demand session musician, recording with Elton John, Cassandra Wilson, and Joss Stone, among others. This Friday at the Gallery, Gilmore will present music from his most recent solo record Transitions (CrissCross) with the original quintet. The record features a few Gilmore originals, as well as several tributes to recently-deceased jazz legends. We caught up with Gilmore to talk about his band, influences, and musical direction; excerpts from that conversation are below.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re  performing with your quintet. How did you guys form?

David Gilmore: This quintet came about as a result of a record I did last September for Criss Cross records. They approached me to record something, and I had not had this thing in mind until approached by them. I thought of having a tribute to some recently deceased jazz ambassadors, like Toots Thieleman, we do a version of “Bluesette” by him; also Victor Bailey, a bass player who recently passed away—we did one of his songs. Bobby Hutcherson also passed away last year, so we played two of his songs, and Paul Bley, not a song of his but one he recorded by Annette Peacock, a tune that sort of encapsulates what he was all about in my opinion. I then wrote two originals, and we did another by Hermeto Pascoal, a tune called “Nem Un Talvez.” It’s sort of a mixture, but it’s mostly paying homage to a few of the recently deceased jazz greats, and so together these jazz guys I’ve worked with in various situations—like Mark Shim and Carlo DeRosa and E.J. Strickland—I thought it be good to take this direction. Victor Gould is a pianist I’ve known since he was a student at Berkeley, and he’s played my music before. So that’s how it came about. I called them up, and fortunately they were available and we knocked it out in the studio.

TJG: For the show on Friday will you be playing tunes from the record?

DG: It’s the original cast of characters from the CD, minus the guest artists, so the core quintet playing, and we’re going to play most of the tunes from the CD.

TJG: What do you see as the challenges and highlights of the ensemble?

DG: The highlights are the level of artistry that each musician brings. We’ve only done a handful of gigs since the record was recorded, so it’s different every time, and it’s just a level of artistry and chemistry that I think is great amongst these guys. What’s also great is the fact that we can actually get along—there are bands that don’t get along, but I always like working with people that I have a good time with, there’s that factor.

As far as the challenges, I could say on a personal level I find some of the music challenging. One tune of mine, “End of Daze,” is one that’s always a challenge to play, and some of the Bobby Hutcherson blues are not the repertoire I’m known for playing. To me this is more of a—dare I use the word—straight ahead kind of a vibe, which you’ll find on a lot of Criss Cross releases. My thought was to sort of bring in a concept in tune with the label and what it generally does and represents. For me that’s sort of stepping outside the box stylistically; it’s more straight ahead—I hate that word—but you know what I’m saying? There’s some out there stuff in there, but there’s some 4/4 straight-ahead swing. For me that’s actually a challenge to get inside that box, more traditional yet kind of still retain a modern edge to it. I’m not being ultra traditional—that’s not what I’m after in my music—but it is a tribute to older jazz. It is one foot in that world and one foot in the modern world, trying to bring a fresh interpretation.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, The Jazz Gallery is teaming up with the Polish Jazztopad Festival to present a night of international improvisational exchange. Representing Poland will be the Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet. Based in Warsaw, the group is made up of the Wójciński siblings on trumpet, piano, and bass, as well as drummer Krzysztof Szmańda. The group first gathered in the studio in 2014, releasing their electric interplay on record last year (which you can check out below).
Representing the United States is cellist Erik Friedlander. As a staple of the downtown jazz and improv scene for three decades, Friedlander has been a close collaborator of many musical luminaries, including Laurie Anderson, Dave Douglas, and John Zorn. He’s released dozens of diverse albums under his own name, including 2016’s Rings, featuring multi-keyboardist Shoko Nagai and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. We caught up with Friedlander via Skype to hear about the origins of this project and his thoughts on the cello as a jazz instrument.

Piotr Turkiewicz invited me to the Jazztopad Festival in Wroclaw, Poland two or three years ago. He commissioned a premiere and what resulted was a piece called Kore, which was a piece for small orchestra and cello. It was super exciting. Piotr is one of these great presenters who has such a love of music and is curious and is just a good guy—I am really glad that I can call him a friend. He’s really been a great proponent of the Polish scene. The last couple of years, I’ve gone to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola to see some of the Polish jazz groups and it’s been great.

This year, he invited me to participate in the New York edition of the Jazztopad Festival with the Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet. They like to do a lot of free improvisation, pieces with loose structures, and they’re very good at it. I have a feeling our concert will be a mix of organization and structures by design and free playing. One thing we’re going to do a lot of is dividing up into groups, like different combinations of duos—bass and cello, bass and piano, trumpet and cello, and so on.

In terms of fitting into a preexisting group, I feel it’s less about being a cello player and more about being a musician in general. It’s about getting on the same page in terms of how the music flows, and making sure we can all be creative together. I’m always looking for moments—moments of clarity, moments of inspiration, and hope to stay away from moments of boredom.

The cello in jazz is a tricky proposition. I feel when I play pizzicato like a bass player, it fits in really well. When I play with a bow, I feel it’s a much more modern sound—it’s less “jazz” per se, it’s something else. The cello can take on a number of different roles then—I’ll comp, I’ll play bass lines, I’ll play melodies, textures, sounds. With that in mind, the cello needs some kind of acceptance from the musical material and the other players. I’m really excited to see what happens.

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Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

Peter Evans is a trumpeter, bandleader, and composer navigating the nebulous worlds of jazz and other contemporary experimental musics with aplomb. In his latest venture, a new trio of trumpet, drums and vibraphone play a limitless series of new pieces. This trio will perform at The Jazz Gallery on June 1st; Peter will also perform a solo set that evening. We caught up with him via email to talk about politics, composition, and everything in between.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re opening this concert with a solo set, with trio following. How do you feel those formats interact with each other? Do they change your approach to playing?

Peter Evans: ​The ensemble and solo playing has been converging a lot more in the last year or so. It’s something I never really expected, but maybe it was inevitable. In my solo music I have been searching for ways to create coherent and interesting structures that can shape the music—structures that are clearly audible as structures but at the same time are flexible and malleable in the moment if need be. There are a bunch of different ways to achieve this, and some paths I have taken from my work as a composer for improvising ensembles: for instance, a 12 tone mode that repeats at the 2-octave point. This is a field of harmony and melody that fixes each pitch in space, allowing me to work with set materials in a very detailed and sometimes very fast way without having to juggle what note goes where. Strict modal improvisation, in short—nothing new about that! But it’s a development for me in the solo music that comes out of my writing for one of my bands (the piece “Intergalactic“).
Conversely, there are ways of developing and organizing material that grew directly out of my solo playing—for instance, juggling 2 or 3 small chunks of music (I think of them as characters or spirits)​ and bouncing them off one another, developing each character in isolation and in dialogue with the others. 

TJG: Do you prefer to play solo, or within a group?

PE: ​I don’t really think in terms of preference. I just try to answer the musical situation as naturally as I can and let things happen. The best feeling during a solo concert is when I feel like I’m just tending the fire, keeping it going and observing, almost as if I’m an audience member.​ It’s all a very strange process that I don’t actually understand. That feeling of participation somewhere between active and passive is much easier to achieve when you have other people to bounce off of.

TJG: You’re premiering some new compositions for this trio with Max Jaffe and Joel Ross—can you talk about what direction you feel they’ve taken, or what you were interested in while composing them?

PE: The pieces are still in the works.  I change them a little after each rehearsal. It’s a purposefully tricky instrumentation, but I’m into the challenge.  In addition to being virtuosos, both Max and Joel are extremely flexible and great listeners.  The vibe of the trio so far seems to be that there aren’t really any limits and that we can explore whatever we want, which feels great! I already have some other gigs booked for this group for the rest of the year. I can’t really predict what’s going to happen but I’m very optimistic.

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From L to R: Max Jaffe, Matt Nelson, Brandon Lopez, Amirtha Kidambi. Photo by Reuben Radding.

Amirtha Kidambi is a vocalist who draws on traditions of contemporary classical music, rock, jazz, Carnatic music, rock, and free improvisation in her work. Her band Elder Ones performs her compositions, which incorporate lyrics and vocal phonemes, at the Jazz Gallery this Thursday, April 13.

Last November, the group released their first record, Holy Science, on Northern Spy Records, receiving rave reviews from Ben Ratliff in the New York Times and Seth Colter Walls in Pitchfork. You can stream their memorial to Eric Garner, “Dvapara Yuga,” below.

We caught up with Kidambi by phone to talk about the group’s current evolution and her perspective on musical activism.

The Jazz Gallery: This concert with Elder Ones is going to feature some new music for the group. What direction do you feel it’s going?

Amirtha Kidambi: It’ll be a combination of the previous record, and a new set. Each set will probably be a combination of both, some of the older and some of the new stuff.

There are certain coherent threads that seem to be running through my compositions for this band. There’s definitely some use of the same phonemes, the wordless vocals that I was using in the previous set of music, but one of the biggest differences between the last set and the current one is I am starting to write lyrics and utilize direct language in a way that I didn’t at all on the last record. Part of it is, I think, the moment that we’re in. I felt compelled to as a singer be able to actually really voice certain thoughts and feelings I’ve been having about the state of our world, the state of our country, in a way that it felt important to me to directly vocalize and not deal as much in the abstract. The last record, there is a tune dedicated to Eric Garner and it’s wordless. And it’s potent, and I felt it helped me express that, but I wanted to go one step further for this and really verbalize what I’ve been thinking about. So it’s a kind of combination: each tune has a few sentences for the whole tune, of lyrics, and also interpolates between lyrics and the wordless improvisation as well.

Another thing that’s changed is the instrumentation, a little bit, in that I’m adding a synthesizer to the band. I play harmonium, and it’s always been harmonium, voice, soprano saxophone, bass and drums, and I wanted to see what it would do, how it would influence my writing. There are certain limitations to the harmonium. One thing I love about it—it’s a folk instrument, it’s kind of laborious and notes don’t sound exactly when you play them, with pumping; it has kind of creaky noises, which is such a beautiful quality and I love that. But I wanted to play some fast lines, I wanted to have some parts of the music that really get loud in a way that we were cognizant of not drowning out the harmonium element of the band, so we always played full force, but the synthesizer allows us to have moments that are in another zone. Max Jaffe, the drummer, has experimented with electronic triggers that he uses on his drums, and Matt Nelson, who’s also in the group Battle Trance, has some solo recordings where he uses the saxophone with pedals. So we might be playing with some electronic elements in this new set. There are similar musical elements: still a lot of drone and a lot from Indian rag, but this other thing with the electronic music and the lyrics, and it’s developed in this other place.

TJG: With the choice of syllables or lyrics, what makes you decide to go in one direction or another?

AK: For the lyrics, what I want is to create an impression, rather than it being more like narrative or every single note in the music is set to a lyric. Part of the reason I’ve used the syllables in the past and why I continue to feel like I gravitate towards using them is because of the freedom and improvisation. I might set the basic melodic line to the lyrics, but when I want to do variation or improvise on the line it makes more sense to leave the lyrics because sometimes it’s difficult, it can kind of hinder the improvisational process, like if you’re singing this particular word with three syllables in it and you want to do something rhythmically that kind of breaks that up or makes it awkward, or the word in some part of your voice doesn’t sound as well and might be an open vowel or something up top.

There are still so many ways in which the wordless syllables help me to be much more free and much more interactive with the band. I can respond—like if I hear saxophone do something, I can change my game plan the way a horn would do. Which is not something I feel like lyrics can always facilitate, but I do feel like I like the idea that there is—it’s a special thing to be a singer and I don’t want to erase that. The last record was an experiment in trying to do something different, but in this one I’m excited about being able to directly say something, create an impression, and then maybe that’s in the listener’s mind and then for improvising in that world, even if I leave the lyrics, that impression is still in your mind.

That’s a lot of things that we’re dealing with, now, about human rights and oppression and all these different issues that I feel like are impossible for me to not express right now, because it’s such a crazy time. One thing that was interesting with writing the piece for Eric Garner, which was absolutely a direct reaction to that event—I wrote that piece in 2014—was that it helps facilitate conversation, it helps, when I would get interviewed or something, to bring his name into the room and talk about it. So I feel like having lyrics can help shape these themes, and maybe facilitate discussion. I want to have elements of activism in my life as a musician, and this helps me express that feeling.

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