A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Mikael Darmanie

Michael Cain (middle) and members of Sola. Photo courtesy of the artist.

A true musical polymath, pianist Michael Cain has forged a unique path through the international jazz scene over the last three decades. Cain has worked closely with artists as diverse as Jack DeJohnette, Billy Higgins, Greg Osby, and Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello, and his own music draws from traditions from around the world. His current working band is called Sola, and finds Cain exploring various forms of hip hop and electronica. An old Gallery regular, Cain will bring Sola to our stage this Thursday, July 20th, for two sets. We caught up with Cain last week by phone; excerpts of the conversation are below.

The Jazz Gallery: What’s your history with The Jazz Gallery?

Michael Cain: I’ve played there many times, but it’s been a while. I used to play there all the time when it first opened. The Gallery was my spot—it was my favorite. I’ve been friends with Rio Sakairi since before the Gallery opened, so I’ve seen it go through its various evolutions.

TJG: Can you talk about your band Sola, which is coming to the Gallery?

MC: Sola is the name of my working band right now, and the name of my last album. It was a combination of different horns and keyboard sounds and electronics. It’s an ensemble that helps me get to the world that I like living in.

TJG: What is that world?

MC: I would say that it’s some sort of combination of jazz, and some hip hop in there, and EDM and electronica, and somewhere there’s rock & roll—a kind of hybrid music. I hear all of those elements most clearly in the music.

TJG: Who are some of the people in the hip hop world that you’ve been listening to recently?

MC: I’m really into Kendrick Lamar and I’ve been spending a lot of time with Jay-Z’s new album. Definitely a lot of Migos.

For me, I need to hear what’s happening in the community right now, what people are dancing to. These days, I feel like I live in different places. I teach at Brandon University in Canada, and I spend a lot of time nowadays in Las Vegas, which is my hometown. When I’m in Vegas—which is a great place for music—I’m going out clubbing every night I can. So I’m listening to whatever’s playing in the club, whatever remixes are coming through. I feel I have to get that side of the music.

In my music—I’m 51 years old, so I’m not trying to imitate that music. But I have to hear that music to get to the sounds that I want to play, for some reason. I’ll start there, and really get a sense of what people are dancing to in a big way.

TJG: Are you trying to directly connect to this popular culture with your music, or is it just something that you’re opening yourself up to as a potential influence?

MC: That’s a great question. I would answer that two ways. One, because I’ve been a teacher for so long, I’m always connected to young culture. I keep getting older every year, but the students don’t, so I always have to stay plugged into what they’re talking about. Teaching is an exchange for sure, so they’re learning from me and I’m learning from them. So that’s part of it, but my ear has always naturally flowed that way too. I’ve always been fascinated with the music that young people are making. I’ve always been interested in their perspective—the sounds, the ideas, the concepts, how they’re constructing their world.

More specifically, it’s the nature of dance. It’s what’s happening in the club. For me, the club is the ritual. That’s where a lot of the music is really alive. What’s interesting about clubbing in Vegas, though, is that it’s not a velvet rope thing, or an age thing. Everybody from all generations can be there. I feel that the club is where everything comes together—the people, the dance, the sound, the energy. Because I study this music so much, when I go to write my own music, I can really feel how those sounds and sensibilities can play out in what I’m doing.


Photo by Antonio Porcar, courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Antonio Porcar, courtesy of the artist.

Even after spending over a decade in New York, pianist and composer Mara Rosenbloom still holds fast to her Midwestern roots. Her 2013 record, Songs From The Ground (Fresh Sound) drew from her experiences growing up in Madison, Wisconsin. This Friday, October 14th, Rosenbloom will release a followup on Fresh Sound with more music evocative of the midwest, Prairie Burn. Featuring bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor, Prairie Burn features a continuous set of original compositions that blur the line between composition and free improvisation. This Thursday, Rosenbloom and her trio will convene at The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of this album with two sets of music. We caught up with Rosenbloom by phone last week to hear about the music on the record is a vehicle for her own personal growth.

TJG: I find that your playing has a particular kind of dexterity that reflects some kind of classical training. What’s your background as a pianist?

MR: I started taking piano lessons when I was five—your standard lesson books. I don’t consider that classical music, rather than middle-C, square one stuff. Eventually I did take a more classical route, because that was the only route that I knew of, and where my teachers led me.

TJG: You’re from Madison, Wisconsin, so was there not much of a jazz scene there?

MR: Well there’s a decent jazz scene. I’d say compared to other cities of its size, it’s not bad. It’s small, but there are some good players there, and some have been in New York for a time. Some stay, and some return, wiser. Johannes Wallmann is now the director of Jazz Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison and I originally met him in New York when he was teaching at NYU.

So I studied classical music up through high school to the point of doing local concerto competitions. I guess I was decent to a certain extent, I was memorizing long pieces. But I knew that I didn’t really fit there while I was playing it, and it caused a lot of anxiety for me, especially when delving into these long Beethoven pieces. I felt like that this was not me.

I would actually say that a lot of the technical dexterity that you’re hearing has a lot more to do with jazz technique than anything I learned from classical music. The big takeaway that I assume I got from classical music is that I internalized a lot of melody and a lot of forms and harmonies and structures just through the playing of that music. I know that has laid a foundation for my sense of how music fits together.

TJG: What caused you to make the jump into playing jazz and improvised music during high school?

MR: The more I learned about jazz, the more I was drawn to it. It became about finding people that knew about it, finding people who were willing to teach me, finding records. My first real turning point memory about this was in eighth grade, hearing Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.” I had an eighth grade teacher who was a huge jazz fan. He would do “This Day in History” at the beginning of class and when it was a jazz musician’s birthday, he would play a record and talk about it a little bit. That record was really a turning point for me, partially because it was piano, and it called out to me—that was the stuff I wanted to be doing. It was an immediate response. There were a lot of things about it. The simplicity—which I don’t mean easy or trivial—but the relationship between its simplicity and its complexity. There’s so much personality, that really struck me. The humor.

When I heard that track, I went up to my teacher and was like, “I want to learn this,” and thought that I would just get the sheet music. I didn’t even know that it was improvised music. At the time, my teacher was like, “I can’t teach you that, you need to find someone else.” So eventually I found a local teacher who showed me some basic stuff, like gave me a lead sheet and wrote out some chord voicings. Just a couple of bits. But I was able to get into my high school’s jazz band and it was a good learning experience, having to count off a tune and try to play from chord symbols, which I had never done before. I was lucky to meet other musicians in high school who knew way more than I did and were down to play. We took some little gigs around town. One friend who played guitar was always checking out new records and passing them on.

TJG: All of your records really showcase your compositional voice. When did you begin to explore that side of your musicianship?

MR: I always improvised, as far back as I remember. I didn’t think about it much at the time—I felt I was just playing around—but in a way, I was beginning to build my own language. It definitely wasn’t in the context of a jazz language, which I didn’t know anything about.

It was later in high school, when my music teacher Steve Morgan really started to get on me about starting to write some stuff down. My senior year, I had a free study period where I basically had the music room to myself and so I would meet with him. It also came from college auditions. I auditioned as a composer major, so I had to submit written work. My first three pieces were basically written for my application.


Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

This week, pianist Craig Taborn heads into the studio with a quartet of longtime associates—saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, bassist Chris Lightcap, and drummer Dave King—to record his next album for ECM. But before then, Taborn is stopping by The Jazz Gallery to put the new music through its paces. Jazz Speaks caught up with Taborn this past week to discuss the concept for his new album, how he keeps creative, and how his compositions grow and develop over time.

The Jazz Gallery: How is the interaction between players in this group different than say your trio?

Craig Taborn: I’ve played with all these guys for a long time. It’s similar to the trio in that sense, and also in the sense that they’re very individual players, rather than players coming out of a certain bag. I’m not as interested in super-pro guys who just do what’s required in terms of style. I need that, because I like to throw stuff to people and let them do what they’re gonna do with it.

TJG: And so they can throw stuff back at you.

CT: Yeah. I need it! Otherwise, my creativity kind of bogs down. I need people to throw curveballs and make some executive decisions on their own. I’m an improviser in that way—I’m not that much of a control freak.

TJG: That’s interesting, because with your solo work, I feel that you can get so much going on your own.

CT: Yeah. That was the big thing with the solo project—trying to figure out how to make that spontaneity happen for myself. If I’m too set, if I know what’s going to happen and it’s just a question of executing it, then I can lose the thread. It’s hard to find inspiration when that happens. I need to be challenged in the moment.

TJG: What do Chris, Chris, and Dave bring to the group in this regard?

CT: It was definitely based around a certain concept: a sound, an affinity. It stemmed from using organ—not a Hammond organ, but a transistor organ—so it had a certain 1960s Sun Ra inspiration. I don’t want to say too much about style because I’m not really thinking that way, but everyone has a certain sound-approach coming from an appreciation of electric sounds. It’s not as much of an electronic thing as Junk Magic is, but it’s definitely an electric thing, if that makes sense. It might be a bit of a rock thing, or have this other ’60s kind of stuff in there.

Chris Lightcap is a really great electric bass player as well as upright, and so he does a lot of stuff with that. And I’ve known Dave since we were twelve. Dave likes to play with electronic drum pads as well as his regular kit, and Chris Speed plays both tenor saxophone and clarinet, so there’s definitely a broad palette between all the players. We can go fully into a more synth world, or fully into an acoustic world. The group has that mobility, and I like playing with that. It can have more of a chamber vibe, or go straight-ahead or go electronic at will. Everybody is up to that task and really into that.

TJG: Does this interest in electric instruments and those kinds of sounds relate at all to your work with the quartet Prism, with Dave Holland, Kevin Eubanks, and Eric Harland?

CT: I play a lot of Rhodes in that group and with this group, and in Tim Berne’s and Chris Potter’s groups. I wanted to get away from that sound a little bit. I love that sound, but I thought about what would happen if I played with something completely different. A Farfisa or Vox organ has a trashy and kind of limited sound. Those limitations are important to me, which is why I don’t want to bring the full battery sounds that a computer can make. So I’m working with a piano, a transistor organ, and a small synth, and seeing what I can get out of that setup.

This is related to using the Rhodes in Prism and in Chris Potter’s Underground. I wanted to focus on Rhodes to create a limitation for myself. With all the possibilities of electronics, it can be overwhelming, and it can limit creativity in a way because there are too many options. I feel my creative reaction to things is spurred on by having access to a more limited palette and then trying to force it out. A transistor organ is perfect for that, because you have to work with it more to make it do stuff.

TJG: Igor Stravinsky has a quote about how he felt most creative when he put the most restrictions on himself.

CT: Exactly.

TJG: What kind of material have you guys been working on for the Gallery gigs? Is it more open or more composed?

CT: It’s all my compositions. It’s all newish music, some very new music, some older pieces that I haven’t documented before. We’re recording this material on Thursday and Friday for ECM, so the gig is a bit of preparation for the recording. Because of that and time constraints, we’re really focusing on the new stuff. We’ve done arrangements of tunes from other projects, like Beat the Ground from Chants, but we’ve got to really lock in this new stuff when we rehearse earlier in the week.

Like with the trio, I like to go into a bit of a sprawl with each set—like have a structured set list but then let some pieces merge into others and figure out how to get from one place to the next, basically have a set be uninterrupted in that way. I’m not sure if we’ll completely do that at the shows. Since we’re going in to record, we might do some shorter versions of some pieces. We have to decide as a group on that.

Interesting things happen when you play tunes a lot over a short period of time, like you go in the studio all day and then you play it again in a show. Playing the same music that you’ve been recording all day has a feeling of being unleashed. All the things that you were uptight about in the recording studio are now gone, and there is a different energy. Even if you’re tired, there’s another level.