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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Mira Alpers

Tivon Pennicott

Photo courtesy of the artist.

As a saxophonist and composer, Tivon Pennicott has one foot on the dance floor and the other stepping into the beyond. Across his two albums Lover of Nature and Spirit Garden, Pennicott has drawn from his Jamaican heritage, Pentecostal upbringing, and love of film music. Pennicott furthers his expansive musical vision in From Roots to Branches, his new Jazz Gallery Residency Commission. Joined by bassist Louis Cato and drummer Joe Saylor, Pennicott will premiere the work at the Gallery this Friday and Saturday, July 23 and 24. We caught up with Pennicott to talk about the sources of his musical searching, and the commission’s new experiments.

The Jazz Gallery: Out of curiosity, what were you just doing in France?

Tivon Pennicott: That was just a gig with Gregory Porter. It was our first time back at a festival. It was just a three-day trip and now I’m back in New York.

TJG: What was that like returning to Europe after the pandemic and all that time?

TP: It was surreal.The band has been together so much for the past four or five years. We had to just abruptly take a break and now, a year and a half later, we met up again. It felt like we picked up where we left off, just as far as the camaraderie, the music, the jokes, and the fellowship goes. The big difference of course is that everyone’s wearing masks inside and the audience cannot enter after the show. I’m so used to greeting fans and just talking to them and getting to know them a little bit, so that kind of sucked.

TJG: Both of your albums, Lover of Nature and Spirit Garden are clearly focused on these broad themes of nature. Could you talk more about your connection to nature and the thematic inspirations for those two albums?

TP: My name, Tivon, is actually a Hebrew name that means “lover of nature. “ I felt like my parents did a pretty good job naming me because I was always outside. I was always in the moment as a child. I was always following my nature and the nature of who I am. I am blessed to have parents who put up with me and let me be free, as a child. So, I think my name suits me and that carries over to my creativity and my music. I especially felt that the first album, Lover of Nature, was a good opportunity to showcase some of the moments in my life that I wanted to amplify. 

Naturally, the second album digs a little deeper into what “Lover of Nature” means and is more specific on how I live my life, as far as wellness is concerned, and how taking care of your physical body relates to you know your friends and family. It is all one, as far as nature is concerned.

TJG:  You’ve said elsewhere that your first album was inspired by the time you had spent in New York. How do you feel your art has been inspired by earlier phases of your life, such as your time growing up in your hometown of Marietta, Georgia?

TP: I am very inspired by my Jamaican heritage. I grew up in Georgia, but my household was very Jamaican. On top of that, my parents are strong Christians. My parents related to the hymns at church, that is what drew them there. I’m Black, but no Black churches were really singing those hymns that they heard in Jamaica, so they were drawn towards a white southern Pentecostal church. So I have this interesting mixture of Jamaican heritage, with southern white gospel in my head and in my ears. I think that was a big influence on how I move musically and creatively. Of course,  I was also in Atlanta Georgia, so I got the American Black culture as well.

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Samara Joy

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Originally from the Bronx, Samara Joy first came into the public eye after winning the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019. A couple of years and a pandemic later, Joy is making her Jazz Gallery debut on Thursday, July 15th, following the recent release of her self-titled debut album. One the record, Joy presents her contemporary take on a set of jazz standards, backed by guitarist Pasquale Grasso, bassist Ari Roland, and drummer Kenny Washington.

Before her Gallery show this week, we at Jazz Speaks sat down with Joy to talk about this new release, dealing with the pressures of early success, and some of her favorite singers.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us a little bit about what to expect from your first album?

Samara Joy: My debut album is really exciting—all the songs I have a personal connection to.  I wanted this repertoire to be songs that I could personally relate to, or at least add my own perspective to. A lot of standards talk about love and loss. So me being 21, and having only sung this music for the past three or four years, I wanted to pick songs that I personally relate to, as well as songs that I can add my own perspective to, and authentically convey. So you can expect a very stripped back acoustic sound of songs that I really love to sing.

TJG: Could you give an example of a particular song on your album that you have a personal connection to?

SJ: The first one that comes to mind is “It Only Happens Once.” This was a song that I came across towards the start of the pandemic, by Nat King Cole. The message really struck me because, I had a friend, or a friendship, I should say, that I lost. So, the lyrics, for the first time, struck me not in a romantic sort of way. It spoke to me personally, like:  “It only happens once. I’ll never feel that thrill again.”  Basically it is saying, this person that you come across is so unique and so special, and you know that you’ll never meet anybody else like that.

So that’s one that definitely comes to mind, as well as, “Stardust.” “Stardust” is one that definitely personally struck me. When I was studying in college, I came across the song, also sung by Nat King Cole, as well as Louis Armstrong. It was just the lyrics. Obviously, it’s been recorded so many times, but the melody and the way that it’s interpreted differently by each artist—that is really beautiful to me.

TJG: How do you go about arranging these songs and making them feel like your own?

SJ: Usually, if I’m not asking for help, I can hear the arrangements in my head or sing it in my head, if that makes sense. Or I’ll sing it out loud. Ideas will come as far as how I want to end it or how I would want to start it. I’ll listen back to versions and see how I can take  one idea for an intro and ending and make it my own. But usually, I just sing them out loud, and come up with it that way.

TJG:  You won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019 and were also named an Ella Fitzgerald scholar in college. What does it mean to you to have these jazz giants associated with you and your art?

SJ: Honestly, it’s incredible. And it’s so surreal—to have started so early, and to have started with, with these same giants. So, freshman year coming in not knowing anything about jazz, and turning to Ella and turning to Sarah for perspective on certain songs and still doing so. So, to have these honors attached to my name, it’s incredible. And I’m extremely grateful for it. I don’t take it lightly. I can’t say I’ll live up to that standard. I’m just really grateful.

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