A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Hannah Judd

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Arun Ramamurthy navigates both jazz and Indian Classical circles. He’s a Carnatic violinist with a vested interest in improvisation and broadening musical horizons. Not only is he the co-founder of Brooklyn Raga Massive, and he also plays music that he calls “jazz carnatica” in a trio setting.

Ramamurthy and his trio, featuring Michael Gam on bass and Sameer Gupta on drums, will play two sets at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 26th. We caught up with Arun by phone to discuss the different musical worlds he navigates and the way he finds his voice and a cohesive community in performance.

The Jazz Gallery: Your trio plays jazz carnatica; that’s also the title of your record. What does that mean to you?

Arun Ramamurthy: Basically, the music is drawing from the Carnatic repertoire. So a lot of the compositions we’re doing are actually part of the traditional songs of South Indian classical music, and we recontextualize the music within this jazz trio—a lot of the elements of jazz, or other styles of music that don’t exist in Carnatic music like ensemble playing. Playing a role, collectively making the sounds together, is what I also want to experiment with in this trio—how each person can kind of bring things to the table. In Carnatic music a lot of times the violinist would shadow a vocalist or the percussionist, and the percussionist is also shadowing and playing to this one sound; there’s this one linear movement as opposed to everyone playing their own role and together it becomes this one sound as a band.

I also try to see into these Carnatic songs and view it from a different place, a different perspective. There are certain songs, apart from compositions, that can be explored, and when a bass line is put behind it and Sameer [Gupta] and [regular bassist] Perry [Wortman] are hearing in one way, we can vibe and vamp on something that creates a whole new atmosphere within a song that didn’t always have that. I’m trying explore the Carnatic songs that have existed for a long time, and breathe a little new life into them from my own perspective.

TJG: There are also new compositions that you play.

AR: Yeah. Many of those songs, I’m using rhythmic concepts that exist in Carnatic music, and then using that as a foundation for these new compositions, moving between different rhythmic concepts. There will be some rhythm in the bass and the melody on top of that, different repeating patterns that sit over the time cycle. I’ll usually pick a raga, a scale that I want to write in. And I’ll pick a thala, the time signature that I want to write in. So there’s a rhythmic landscape that rides underneath and then the melody is kind of sitting on top, and then we interact and play with each other, adding another dimension.

A lot of this Carnatic training has helped me seeing things rhythmically in a different way than a jazz musician might. But it would all make sense to both of us, and we would all feel it in a different way. That’s the excitement: we feel things in different ways, and the result is surprising. I think the original songs especially, I think they’re really drawn from the experience of playing with these guys and what they would feel and how they would feel certain things. I find that some of the inspirations come from all the different artists that I end up collaborating with. You hear certain things that really make sense to you, and then I try to incorporate that into my own language, and when you internalize that it comes out as you, but you’re still coming from the root of Carnatic music.


Photos courtesy of the artists.

Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, December 15th, The Jazz Gallery caps off its final edition of the 2016 Mentoring Series with a performance by saxophonists Dayna Stephens and Patrick Bartley. Over the course of three performances, the pair have explored their own original compositions, as well as different instrumental possibilities including the clarinet and EWI. We caught up with Bartley by phone to hear about his experience working with Stephens thus far; our conversation is below.

The Jazz Gallery: Had you worked with Dayna before this experience?

Patrick Bartley: Yes, actually. I’m a big fan of Dayna. He’s been one of my favorite saxophonists that I’ve heard since coming to New York in 2011. But the reason this all came about was because I met him on this big band gig with trumpeter Etienne Charles that I had at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola a year and a half ago. Etienne called me to play second tenor in the band and Dayna was playing first tenor, so I met him on that gig. It was really great because I was able to connect with him on this mutual level. We both really like playing EWI—the electronic wind instrument—and so that was a bridge that brought out this inner geek in both of us. We talked about that for a good hour or so. I feel that getting to know him has helped me learn how to play his music. I’m not just learning the notes, but seeing his personality through the writing.

TJG: What kind of stuff have you been working with Dayna for this project?

PB: We’ve been exploring some of his new music, but he’s also given me the opportunity to bring in some of my own music. Most of Dayna’s pieces haven’t been recorded or performed before. This is exciting for me because I’m piloting an inaugural element in these pieces. Some of the pieces he’s been playing in groups with trumpeters, like Philip Dizack. Some of his tunes are family-inspired, which is really cool—he has one tune dedicated to his uncle Junior.That kind of personal approach is really resonant for me. There is this one tune that I’ve brought in called “Blues for the Living.” I recorded it on an album in 2013 called The Red Planet and it’s a tribute to those who are alive and those who are suffering, who are just living on this planet, as opposed to just mourning for those who have gone. It’s a celebration of life, but also an acknowledgment of what people have to go through on a daily basis and the experience of being able to pass that down through family. This kind of writing makes me think of Dayna because of all that he has been through and getting the new kidney last year, which is incredible, and getting to push on. I feel we have a meaningful set of music that’s also quite fun.

I was a little hesitant at first to bring in my own material because I had never played with the guys in the rhythm section before. I didn’t know what they would like or what they would be interested in playing or how the vibe would work out. But I ended up bringing in two of my songs, and one has been working out really well so far.

We’ve really just been playing, hanging out, talking to each other. I’ve tried to absorb the band’s vibe, and hopefully they’d be saying the same thing about me. It’s a great learning process seeing how these guys naturally operate in their environment because it’s just another gig for them. Since the rhythm section and Dayna have known each other for a long time, it’s really interesting to see how they play and how comfortable they are with each other. I’m trying to tap into that and grow within their energy.

TJG: How has the rehearsal process been?

PB: We actually haven’t gotten to rehearse that much. The groups have been a little different every show because everyone’s an in-demand musician in New York, especially the rhythm section. Each time it seems that the new person in the band has to listen to the chart, look at the sheet music and then go. The guys have been able to fool the audience at every single show. It’s incredible. We got to do a good rehearsal the day of our first show, and the recordings we made that day have been helpful in teaching the music to the new players. I think it’s a testament to Dayna’s music that it really works in this context. It’s music with a cyclical form that gets more comfortable the more you play it on stage. Even though there may only be 12 to 36 bars of material, it’s rich enough that you can keep cycling through it for ten minutes and it doesn’t get old. Every 40-second cycle through the form, you’re learning something new about the musicians on stage. This is what’s really cool to me and what keeps the music pushing forward.


Photo via Wikimedia commons.

Photo via Wikimedia commons.

We previously spoke with composer and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock several times: about her 2015 Residency Commission Series premiere concerts, again in the summer of 2014 when the band returned under the name “Nor’easter,” and we when she released her Ubatuba record in 2015. She will return to the Jazz Gallery this Friday, October 21, with her band Anti-House 4, which also includes Mary Halvorson on guitar,  Kris Davis on piano, and Tom Rainey on drums. We caught up with Ingrid by phone; here are excerpts from that conversation.

Ingrid Laubrock: We’re driving through Oregon, through some severe weather, but it turned out to not be so severe after all [laughs], so we can talk now!

The Jazz Gallery: Oh, good! The group you’re playing with is Anti-House 4, your usual band minus the bass. Why did you pick that iteration for this concert?

IL: Last year when I was doing my big Jazz Gallery commission, I wrote a bunch of trio music for one of the days. Since that music has not been played by anyone since, and since the bassist couldn’t make the gig, I decided to resurrect the trio and perform with something else, by adding Tom Rainey.

We’ll be playing the compositions that I wrote for the Jazz Gallery commission last year, which will be new to us, because we haven’t actually played i, in this band. And what I will also do is add a couple of pieces from the full Anti-House repertoire.

TJG: You’ve been with this band for quite a while. How has the music changed as you’ve gotten to know the musicians better?

IL: I think once you know people’s voices, you kind of write differently, you tend to have them in mind when you compose. I kind of write for them, where there will be a sound and a feel, and make sure I write room to explore together, basically.

TJG: How do you feel that your compositions change with different instrumentations and different bands, since you have some very chordal bands and some that are horn-heavy?

IL: Yes. I think it’s a number of different things. I sometimes write pieces that are off instrumentation, they’re not really geared towards any particular orchestration. They tend to be more changable, so I’m experimenting with that. For other groups, for example my Ubatuba, which is saxophone, brass, and drums, I wrote all the material on my saxophone or in my head. When I write for groups like Anti-House I often compose at the piano. That changes a little bit how all the music turns out, I think. But even having chordal instruments in my groups—like in Anti-House I now have two chordal instruments—I don’t tend to use it in a heavily kind of vertical way, I think much more horizontal, using lines rather than stacks of chords.

TJG: So do you often start with melodies?

IL: I often take really varying approaches with different pieces. Sometimes I hear a melody and in that case I will write a melody. Other times I will just pick around a lot of material to choose from and play around with cells, or intervals. And then there’s other times where I have a big sonic structure in my head, and I will try and write down the shapes of where this music needs to go to, rather than melodies or chords.

TJG: How do you build improvisation into that?

IL: Improvisation’s always very open. Occasionally I’ll have a vamp, but even if I have vamps, I tend to make them quite long, so they don’t really feel that much like vamps. Most of the improvisation is open so the musicians who play with me can explore in different ways every time we play it. Other times, I prescribe the combinations of musicians that improvise. A few times, I write in cells of the notes that I want to hear at that point, but most of the time I leave improvisation up to the musicians.


Stephan Crump & Rombal Quartet in performance. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Stephan Crump & Rombal Quartet in performance. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bassist and composer Stephan Crump is always keen on making music in a familiar environment—he has long collaborated with his wife, singer-songwriter Jen Chapin, for one. His latest project as a bandleader, Rhombal Quartet, also has a familiar source. In 2014, Stephan’s brother Patrick died after a courageous battle with sarcoma. Over the last few months of his brother’s life, Stephan composed music, not out of sadness for his brother’s death, but in honor and commemoration of a death well-confronted. With the Rhombal Quartet in tow, Crump will celebrate the release of the group’s debut album, Rhombal, at the Jazz Gallery this Saturday. We caught up with Stephan by phone to hear about working on such a personal project and how he assembled this band of multi-faceted players.

The Jazz Gallery: This show is a record release for your new album, Rhombal. Can you talk about the album and how it came to be?

Stephan Crump: This album is the first album by this quartet, and I put the quartet together around a body of music that I wrote for my brother Patrick, who passed away a little over two years ago, after battling a very aggressive and rare cancer for about a year and a half. So short story is the music was borne of my experience with him and the inspiration of how he dealt with what he was confronting.

TJG: The other members of this group, Ellery Eskelin, Adam O’Farrill, and Tyshawn Sorey, you’re all playing together as a group for the first time on this album.

SC: Yes. Tyshawn and I have been working together for over a decade. I guess maybe it was 2003 or 2004 that we did a record together with Vijay Iyer, with whom we both still play. So we’ve been collaborating a lot with Vijay since then, for over a decade, and in some other groups as well, and that includes a lot of touring. So we’ve had a lot of experiences with each other and have a deep connection.

I met in 2013 when I was on faculty at Banff, the creative music program in the summer. That’s where we first connected, and I was really drawn to him, as just a beautiful person but also I was just knocked out by his musicality. After that summer, we stayed in touch, and I invited him over to my studio to play on a number of occasions with various other people. So I had in mind wanting to put a group together with him. And then Ellery is someone who I didn’t really know before putting this group together, but I have certainly had a lot of respect and admiration for him from afar, for many years, and I introduced myself to him with this project in mind. So he was the only one who I had never really played with, and we got together, just the two of us, a couple of times, just to check out playing the music together. Then we started getting together as the band. That was a year and a half ago, when the band first played. Our first gig was in January of 2015.

TJG: How did you decide that this was the instrumentation that you wanted?

SC: Well, over the last ten years or so, for my own projects, I’ve been doing a lot of drumless groups. Largely because in some of the other bands I play in as a side person, I play in a number of bands with drums, and I’ve just been wanting to explore some other things with my own music of late. But I knew I wanted to try, I knew I was ready to lead a group again with drums and explore certain grooves with drums, and also my brother, who was also a musician and we grew up learning to love music together and eventually playing music together, he was a guitarist and drummer, and was obsessed with music and especially loved great drummers. So it just made sense, I was ready for drums and it made sense, and putting a band together in tribute to him it made sense to get a great drummer in there.

With the horns, I had been dealing in my groups with my Rosetta trio for instance, which has acoustic guitar and electric guitar and bass, and we’ve done a number of records over the last ten years, and I have some duo projects, with Mary Halvorson on guitar, and others—I’m in plenty of groups with chordal instruments. I wanted to explore a palette that didn’t include a chordal instrument, that the band could, at times, become that instrument, sometimes in a vertical fashion where we’re moving together through harmonic implications, and sometimes in a linear fashion or even a more additive fashion where things are implied in a more abstract way. Different approaches, and a different kind of openness, but also a different challenge and a different responsibility.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Caroline Davis is a true Renaissance woman: a singer, a storyteller, a saxophonist, a scholar, a teacher, and more. This Thursday she performs with her quintet at the Jazz Gallery; we spoke with her on the phone about her upcoming performances, and her new experiments in rhythm, neuron-tracking, and more.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve performed with a quartet in the past. What prompted the transition to a quintet?

Caroline Davis: I really wanted to push myself to write for two melodic voices, with harmony behind it, which is kind of another step for me, in terms of my own composition. I wanted to add another voice. It’s really my own goal of adding another voice, and I like trumpet, I’ve always wanted to have a trumpet player in my band. I guess maybe it also comes from hearing Cannonball Adderly playing with his brother Nat Adderly in his quartet, hearing that sound. I had that sound in my head and wanted to incorporate that sound into my music.

TJG: And you’re a singer and a saxophonist too, in your bands, right?

CD: Yeah, but in this context I’m just going to be playing saxophone.

TJG: Can you talk a little bit about the way you incorporate history in your music? You’ve done some work featuring storytelling.

CD: The album I came out with in November was kind of an homage to this community in Chicago that mentored me. I wanted to know where they came from, and how they found influence when they were my age. So now those musicians who mentored me, they’re in their 50s, their later 50s, and I wanted to know what their stories were from my age standpoint. So that was the reason why I wrote that music.

Nowadays, though, I feel like some of the music I’m writing is coming from a different place. I can’t necessarily verbalize where that place is… I’ve written two new pieces for this show. Those two new pieces are more interested in rhythm, and transpositions between rhythms, metric modulations, and this way of superimposing a different meter on top of a standard 4/4. I’m more interested in rhythm these days. But I think there’s a longstanding history of people being interested in rhythm. I have been reading the composer, Elliot Carter, who cared a lot about rhythm, I read some of his works and looked at some of his music. Steve Coleman has always been a huge influence on me, historically, and I’ve been listening to his music for years now but trying to figure out what’s going on more specifically in his music. I’m trying to look a little deeper into the input I’ve had for years, so I guess you could say I’ve been incorporating history in that way, but it’s a little different  than before.

TJG: With your rhythmic explorations, do you start by scoring it, or by feeling the rhythm you want and then figuring out how to notate it?

CD: The latter, feeling and then notating. Sometimes that takes a little longer than I’d like, but it feels more natural that way, feeling and then notating. I write it from there.

TJG: How do you feel your identities as a scholar and a performer interact?

CD: I always try to do a lot of research. Like going with that theme of rhythm– reading what people have written about rhythm; there’s a lot of scholars who have written about superimposition of polymeter in music theory journals, so I checked that out. I know how to look for articles that are relevant to the way I want to compose. Also, when I was in graduate school, I was taught that if I was interested in a scholar, I should contact them. I still do that these days; Steve Coleman for example, I contact him and ask him a lot of questions. Sometimes people are too busy to answer my questions, but sometimes they’ll take the time to answer. So those are a couple things that I was taught to do, and I still use those ways of being, and of getting in touch with people who I’m interested in.

In the future also I’m trying to incorporate this idea of the way music is represented in the brain, trying to represent that better. So that I can potentially write music that complements that. Our brains interpret music in certain ways, and it’s not the easiest to understand the ways that our brains interpret music, but I want to try to represent that in a piece of music. If our neurons respond to a pitch in the brain in a certain way, I want to see if I can try to write a piece of music that eventually describes how the brain interprets music. Something that musically represents the way it looks: I want to explain the way the brain interprets music through music. I’m trying to figure out a way to do that, but I’m still learning a lot more about neuron response.

I have a couple friends who are working on projects where they write music based on the response of the brain. A friend of mine has played a piece where they hook up electrodes to her scalp and she’s interacting with her brain; the sounds that are emanating from her brain– we can hook up a system that measures the response of the brain and turns that into sound, and then it powers that through a speaker, and she’s playing along with that, which is really cool. I’m really interested in that kind of thing—she had a really good time doing that piece.