A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Kevin Laskey

Photo by Scott Friedlander, courtesy of the artist.

Whether writing for his Claudia Quintet or Large Ensemble, drummer/composer John Hollenbeck creates expansive canvases out of small, sturdy ideas. Hollenbeck’s music is equal parts knotty and lyrical, held together with a playful and subversive sense of humor. Ahead of what was to be a North American tour with the Claudia Quintet, we at Jazz Speaks caught up with John by phone to talk about making music from those small ideas, whether melodic cells or “forbidden” words.

The Jazz Gallery: Recently, you’ve written this new batch of music based on words that were left out, or recommended left out, of CDC budget proposals. What drew you to these words, and to turning them into musical forms?

John Hollenbeck: At the time, I was thinking about writing some new music for the Claudia Quintet, and this report came out, which was really big news for a week. Because the initial headlines were sensationalized, it was dismissed as “fake news.” But after reading more even-handed reports, I discovered it was true that the omission of certain words was discussed by career government employees who were actually trying to help their colleagues get their proposals through congressional channels. I was so surprised that this particular collection of words was deemed so sensitive and thought, “wouldn’t it be terrible if those words went out of fashion because of this.” From my perspective, the possibility that someone wouldn’t fund a CDC program because they read the term “science-based” in a proposal document is crazy!

Every time I work on music, I’m using cells, or musical ideas, in different ways. In this case, each word became a title and then I tried have the musical material relate to the title in some way. For example, one of the pieces, “evidenced-based” also has a bit of a relationship to Thelonious Monk’s tune “Evidence,” at least rhythmically. It’s not the same rhythm, but it evokes that rhythm.

TJG: That sort of left jab, right hook thing, the listener not knowing when the next hit is going to land.

JH: Yeah. But a lot of the other pieces have a more fluid relationship to the words. The words were a little inspiration to get me going. The basic idea was to have pieces with those titles to keep those words alive.

TJG: I’d love to talk more about your process of translation from words to music. You’ve used text in your pieces before in different ways, like the recitations and settings of Kenneth Patchen poems from What is the Beautiful, or the Franklin Delano Roosevelt speech recording that you used on September. But in this case, with words acting more as inspiration than surface texture, how important is it for the meaning of the word to appear to the listener in the piece?

JH: Thinking about other music that I’ve written, I don’t think transmitting the meaning of the words is that important, because that meaning is super subjective anyway. Everyone has their own ideas of what words mean.  In this case, I think having the words as titles was a way to keep me on a certain track when making compositional decisions.

Certain words, like “entitlement,” are really complex in their meaning. So for me, that translated as a really long, rhythmically-abstract piece. It has a really solid groove to it, but you can hear it in two different tempos at the same time. Of course, someone could easily say, “That doesn’t sound like entitlement!”  The titles helped me put the compositions in a certain place, but they don’t define one particular listener experience.

TJG: I’m interested in how titles like these can be evocative of the music, and also provocative. Like if a listener hears this music without the title, they could interpret a very different meaning than if they knew the title going in. Do you think the title words provoke the listeners to experience the music in a certain way?

JH: It might, buy that was not my intention. Writing music inspired by these words was a very spontaneous decision. The words inspired me to write some new music.  At that moment, I was not thinking farther than their conception.


Immanuel Wilkins & Logan Richardson. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Friday, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to host a special, intergenerational alto saxophone summit featuring Logan Richardson and Immanuel Wilkins. Both Gallery favorites, Richardson and Wilkins have honed their distinctive voices on the Gallery stage as both sidemen and leaders. To get an inkling of the fireworks that could ensure on the bandstand, check out the pair performing live shows in Washington D.C.—Wilkins at the Kennedy Center, and Richardson on NPR’s famed Tiny Desk.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, March 12, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome guitarist Fabrizio Sotti back to our stage for two sets. Since moving to New York in 1991, Sotti has been one of the scene’s true musical omnivores, as comfortable producing standout hip-hop tracks as unleashing flurries of post-bop lines with a fleet-footed trio. Check out Sotti’s recent performance of the Miles Davis standard “Solar,” which combines those different elements of his musical practice, below.

For this performance at the Gallery, Sotti has written a book of new music for a new band, featuring longtime collaborators Rachel Z on piano, Peter Slavov on bass, and Clarence Penn on drums. In addition, keep your ear out for a special upcoming EP of Sotti with Gallery co-founders Lezlie Harrison and Roy Hargrove, recorded in Sotti’s apartment back in the year 2000. (more…)

Andy Milne, Ralph Alessi, Drew Gress, Ravi Coltrane, and Mark Ferber. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi possesses an oblique lyricism, offering melodies that don’t travel quite where you expect them to. A first call collaborator with the likes of Fred Hersch, Steve Coleman, and Don Byron, Alessi is a decorated bandleader as well with ten albums to his name. His most recent one—Imaginary Friends (ECM)—features his long-running ensemble This Against That, currently a quintet featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Andy Milne, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Mark Ferber.

This Friday, February 28, Alessi convenes This Against That on The Jazz Gallery stage for two sets. We spoke with Alessi on the phone about the group, catching up with him as he walked back to his hotel after a long day of teaching at the conservatory in Siena, Italy.

Ralph Alessi: Sorry, I’m just a little out of breath!

The Jazz Gallery: That’s ok—thanks for letting us drop in! I’d like to start with your teaching here in Siena. Do you find that your students here are hip to the same music as young jazz musicians in the states?

Ralph Alessi: I’d say that they’re aware of the same things that typical students in the states are into. Pretty similar in that for both groups I am pointing them in the direction of older players and recordings, often times focusing on conceptual things that are not as common with the younger players of today.  I find that the Siena students are very open, very respectful, so it’s quite a  nice experience for me here.

TJG: Sounds great. Next week, you’re bringing your quintet This Against That to the Gallery, so I’ve been checking out your latest record, Imaginary Friends (ECM). One thing that’s struck me is your interest in linear or narrative-driven structures with different spaces for improvisation. What draws you to that line of thinking?

RA: When I start conceptualizing a piece, one of the important decisions is whether I want differing episodes of improvisation. Sometimes that’s built into the composition, but sometimes it’s the players making choices to offer contrasts in how to shape different moments. I like leaving things up to the players and not doing too much directing, and so I like working with players who bring a kind of compositional sensibility to the improvisations.

TJG: What are the elements of that compositional sensibility?

RA: I love how players can hear the music as it’s happening, have an awareness of where it came from and have a sense for where to take it.

TJG: How does surprise or unpredictability factor into that quality of being able to decide what happens next?

RA: For sure—I want that feeling of mystery to exist throughout the music-making. We all want to be surprised, whether we say it or not. It’s what fuels the music. The last thing I want to do is play music where people are just going through the motions. We’re all trying to provoke each other and keep the music flowing and alive.

TJG: I like that idea of provocation, and it’s something I hear in your dynamic with Ravi Coltrane. What do you feel are the contrasts in your and Ravi’s playing that lead to that sense of provocation?

RA: I find that in reviews and what not, a lot of people mention how Ravi and I play together. I love playing with Ravi, but when I listen back to things we’ve done, I don’t hear that dynamic in the way that others do. But I trust it, because it’s mentioned so often.

In terms of trying to provoke each other, I don’t know if there’s any real thought behind it. I think we’re just playing, and we know each other’s sound so well. Maybe that’s it, in terms of that sense of contrast—we know each other’s sounds so well, that we can blend them in a certain way. I think it’s akin to having a conversation with someone and having that be a dance. We’re blending together, and also juxtaposing each other. But I think that’s just the dance of playing music with other people.


Brandon Ross and Stomu Takeishi, photo courtesy of the artists.

Since joining Henry Threadgill’s Make a Move Band in 1996, guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Stomu Takeishi have become a truly simpatico musical pair. Whether playing as a duo, in a quartet, or a large ensemble, the pair can seemingly play with one mind, has an uncanny knack for improvising fully complementary ideas. In an interview with Jazz Speaks, Ross spoke about how their time with Threadgill still undergirds their interplay today:

Stomu and I have [Threadgill] as a reference point in terms of musical dynamics, musical language. What we have been able to distill from that experience at that time, and evolve and mature in the duo relationship that we have. And I guess the longevity of the language that we share and that we developed is something that is has a lot to do with the instruments that we’re playing—Steve Klein-designed instruments. They have such a particular character of sound production and the way they interact with one another – we just want to hear them! In the writing that we do, I just want to hear the instruments [laughs].

This Friday, February 21, Ross and Takeishi return to The Jazz Gallery for two sets. They will be introducing new music for the duo that both clarifies their lineage and points to what’s next. (more…)