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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Becca Stevens, an artist who at The Jazz Gallery needs no introduction, will be returning to the Gallery stage for the Commissions Revisited Series. Always pushing in some way against her own limitations and boundaries as a songwriter and musician, Stevens used the commissioning series to create Regina, a collection of music that eventually became her acclaimed album in 2017. Regina was the result of months of research, experimentation, and soul-searching, according to Stevens.

This weekend, Stevens will be revisiting the album at The Jazz Gallery with her band featuring herself on guitar, ukulele, charango, and voice, Michelle Willis on keyboards and voice, Jan Esbra on guitar, Chris Tordini on bass and voice, and Jordan Perlson on drums.

TJG: You just jumped straight over to Spain from Winter Jazz Fest to work on a project, correct?

Becca Stevens: That’s right, I’m in Spain doing a kind of writing retreat. Mike League and I are doing a record in about a week in New York with The Secret Trio, an amazing group of Turkish and Macedonian musicians. We’re getting the music together for that, writing it, pulling together arrangements.

TJG: How do you and Michael work together? What’s your process together for a situation like this?

BS: We’ve written together in a couple of different groups. With this one specifically, the songs started out with him sending me demos and ideas on oud and guitar. I would add melodies, harmonies, lyric ideas, things like that. Right now, I’m finishing that process. Once I get a song to a point where I think it’s pretty much finished, at least a draft, I’ll send it back to him. He adds more final touches, ways to bring in the trio. We’ll see how it goes! It’s a back-and-forth process. In the band we’re in with David Crosby, it’s more like we’re all writing together at the same time. All approaches work, this is just how we went about this one since we weren’t working in the same place.

TJG: Well, it’s a treat to be interviewing you, I’ve been a fan for years. The show at The Jazz Gallery is part of the Commissions Revisited Series, where you’ll be presenting music from Regina, correct?

BS: That’s right. The Gallery originally commissioned that music, so it’s the only place to do the reunion.

TJG: A lot of the album explores this childlike wonder, lost hope, dangers of love. Could you tell me about who Regina is, and how she sees the world?

BS: Regina began as a concept, the word ‘queen,’ and different things I could pull out of that word, everything and anything I associated with the word. Through the process of writing the record, Regina began to take on a life of her own. Maybe out of necessity, she became a writing partner, a voice in my own head that I would call upon for guidance, confidence, a clue from a muse. I found that assigning an entity to the muse behind the song helps with clarity. I get a stronger sense of whether I’m doing something that’s serving the song or serving myself, and when I’m writing, decisions that serve myself often don’t come across as poignantly or effectively.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

For the first time in over a decade, Massimo Biolcati is releasing a new record as a bandleader. Biolcati is known as a producer, composer, sideman, co-founder of Gilfema (a trio featuring Ferenc Nemeth and Lionel Loueke), and developer of the iReal Pro app. The Swedish/Italian bassist has lived in New York for quite some time, and has logged tours with Paquito D’Rivera, Terence Blanchard, Ravi Coltrane, Lizz Wright, and Luciana Souza. The new record, Incontre, is slated for release on January 24th, and features Dayna Stephens on saxophones, Sam Yahel on piano and organ, and Jongkuk Kim on drums. For our recent interview covering the new album and the iReal Pro app, read on.

TJG: Where and how does Incontre fit into your other projects? I know you’re busy with a lot of things, including your trio Gilfema with Ferenc Nemeth and Lionel Loueke.

MB: Yes, I’ve been playing a lot with Lionel, mostly in the Lionel Loueke trio configuration. We also have a more collaborative band, Gilfema, where I contribute compositions. This new band on the recording is my own band. I decided everything, took on all band-leading duties. Last year, I decided it was time to record another record as a bandleader. It had been about ten years, and as a bass player, one gets spoiled being called as a sideman on many projects: Sometimes it’s easy to get lazy and feel like you’re playing enough good music as it is, and I’ve been lucky to play with great people. But I felt it was time to record some music I’ve been writing throughout the years, so I decided to go into the studio. I looked to some musicians I’d played with in the past, as well as newer young musicians I’ve discovered recently. It was a nice combination.

TJG: Talk to me about the band.

MB: I’ve been playing with Sam on and off through the years. I love his playing. He also plays organ, and he’s gone deep with it, so he knows all about it. I like the idea of having that option as another color. Sam plays organ on several tracks. I’ve known Dayna since back in the day. We went to Berklee College together, then went to the Monk Institute together in 2001. He’s got such an earthy, soulful sound. He’s a beautiful person as well, which is so important when you’re making music with other people. JK is a young drummer who also went to Berklee, he’s in his mid-twenties. We started playing a few gigs here and there. I love his playing, he’s great. His groove is incredible, his listening skills are something I look for in a drummer. He’s truly in the moment, reactive, listens carefully.

TJG: How did Jongkuk Kim get on your radar?

MB: I host regular sessions at my house, and I always encourage people to bring their friends. I try to always meet the new young musicians that come to town. He’s one of the people I’ve met in this way. I like to keep a balance between playing with people of my own generation that I’ve grown up with musically, and I also want to be in the know, see what the young kids are doing, and get inspiration and motivation from that. I like the sharing between musical generations like that, it’s inspiring.

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Chris Tordini holds the bass chair in so many bands that the list is a bit dizzying: Andy Milne, Steve Lehman, Becca Stevens, Tyshawn Sorey, Michael Dessen, Matt Mitchell, John Hollenbeck… not to mention that he subs for the Tony-winning Broadway musical Hadestown. It’s a rare moment when such a busy sideman steps into a leadership role. He’ll be arriving at The Jazz Gallery with a new collection of music which, in his words, “runs the gamut from rhythmic angularity to avuncular lyricism.” The new band features Anna Webber (tenor saxophone & flute), Red Wierenga (piano & accordion), and Dan Weiss (drums), each of whom has collaborated with Tordini, but never in this exact configuration. In a phone conversation, Tordini took us inside his process, from practice to performance.

The Jazz Gallery: How’s it going? Making it through the winter?

Chris Tordini: Things are pretty good. It’s that’s time of when we’re all trying to get through the cold. I’m at home now, was just practicing a little bit.

TJG: Do you mind if I ask what you’re practicing and how you’re practicing it?

CT: Sure. This is totally random, but I was just practicing a bass and trombone soli from “Tiptoe” by Thad Jones. I was looking for something to practice reading. I don’t do this often, you just happened to catch me when I was looking for something new to read. Before that, I was doing an exercise that I do a lot, putting the metronome on super slow–anywhere between 20 and 35 beats per minute–and playing quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, subdivisions like that. This slow-quarter-note-thing is something you’d find me doing on any given day when I have the time to practice.

TJG: Was there a reason you wanted to brush up on your reading chops?

CT: Lately, I’ve been trying to get out of my head, as far as reading new music. I’ve been doing exercises where I read music and try to hear it while I’m reading it, as opposed to mechanically, robotically reading notes. I’m trying to engage my ear more in the sight-reading process, which is difficult for me. Left to my own devices while reading music, I can be quite mechanical. I do consider myself a good reader, in the utility kind of way, so I’ve been trying to actively engage my ear in my practice lately, to make up for that.

TJG: Tell me about each of the musicians you picked for this upcoming show–Anna Webber, Red Wierenga, Dan Weiss–and how you met each of them.

CT: I’ll start with Dan, because I’ve played with him the most. Dan is a good friend of mine, and is one of my favorite drummers on the planet. I met him over ten years ago, when we started playing in a trio with Michael Dessen, a trombone player based in California. We clicked early on. Dan intimidated me at first because I had heard him a lot with other groups. We immediately clicked musically and personally, and we’ve been playing in a lot of projects together. We played with Matt Mitchell together, we’ve played in many different groups. He’s an inspiring guy, dedicated to music, to the craft of jazz drumming, to tabla.

Red Wierenga is an amazing piano player and accordion player. Most of the playing I’ve done with him has been in The Claudia Quintet, John Hollenbeck’s band, where I often sub for Drew Gress. I’ve loved playing with Red and hanging out with him. I’ve heard him play piano on recordings and have seen him live, but the playing we’ve done has almost exclusively featured him on accordion. As I’ve been playing through my new music, I knew I needed piano. Then I started hearing the possibility of accordion on a few things, and immediately thought of Red, because he’s such a great player on both instruments.

I’ve known Anna Weber for quite a while. We’ve known each other from the scene, I’ve seen her bands play, I’m always a fan of her music. A couple of years ago, she asked me to play on a record of hers, Clockwise, which came out last year. I was super happy to do that because I was already a fan of her music and playing. It was a pleasure working on her amazing, often difficult and complex music. We got to know each other a lot better through that process. She’s a friend of mine, she’s one of my favorite saxophone players. Anna is a great flute player as well, so I’m trying to figure out having her double in the same way as Red on piano and accordion.

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Photo by Daniel Reichert, courtesy of the artist.

Jen Shyu—the ever-ambitious, ever-evolving vocalist—has produced and performed several multi-disciplinary solo shows. Her latest one—Zero Grasses—was commissioned by John Zorn and premiered at National Sawdust. It is perhaps her most personal project to date.

Over the course of the show, Shyu will sing in multiple languages, play a variety of instruments, and dance, as well as having composed the music, worked on sound design, and written the libretto. For every ticket sold–aligned with the themes of birth, death, and rebirth–a tree will be planted in the forest of Shyu’s father, in collaboration with WEARTH. We recently spoke at length with Shyu about how the work transformed around the recent passing of her father.

TJG: It’s amazing to think that our last interview was almost exactly two years ago today. At that time, we were discussing Zero Grasses, which seems like it has really transformed. It was a Jade Tongue ensemble project, correct?

Jen Shyu: Yes, exactly. When it was In Healing | Zero Grasses, it was the day before I was going to record with Jade Tongue, the band with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. Some of those songs remained in this solo version, but indeed, the show took a big turn, in terms of its themes, in terms of everything.

TJG: When we last talked, the emphasis was on relationships and grief, personal and environmental, and not necessarily focusing on particulars. I was just reading about the recent passing of your father—was that a catalyzing moment for you and for this work?

JS: Yes. I was in Japan in January for what was to be a five-month fellowship, doing research, focusing on the premiere of Zero Grasses, the solo show at National Sawdust commissioned by John Zorn. The fellowship was the U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship by way of The Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission. Those five months were going to feed directly into the piece. After that, I was immediately going to stop by New York before going to Sienna in Italy where I teach at the jazz workshop. After that, I was going to do a composition residency through the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, which would be where I was going to finally organize this whole solo piece.

I got an email during a Japanese lesson about a month and a half into my time in Japan. It was from the sheriff where my parents lived in Texas: “We are sorry to inform you that your father, Tsu Shyu, has passed away.” I was like… What the hell?! I thought it was a joke, a scam. I couldn’t believe it. I called my mom, in a panic, and it was true. The ambulance had already come, dad had already been pronounced dead. He had passed away during his nap, before dinner. He wasn’t sick: He’d just come back from a trip in Egypt with my mom and was about to go to Greece. It was such a shock. That changed everything.

That night in Japan, before flying back home, I had a biwa lesson. I needed some comfort. My teacher was like a mother figure to me, and when I told her what had happened, that my father he had passed away during his nap, she said “Oh, yes, that’s how I want to go too” [laughs]. It instantly made me feel better.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Gretchen Parlato has an unmistakeable voice and presence, and there would be no better way to close out 2019 at The Jazz Gallery than with two nights featuring Parlato’s new music. Joined by a dream team of Camila Meza (guitar), Chris Morrissey (bass), and Mark Guiliana (drums), Parlato will premiere The Stars Or Space Between, a cohesive set of originals over two nights on the Gallery stage. In 2019, Parlato was honored with a Jazz Gallery Fellowship Commission, affording her an opportunity to compose a new body of work, and the whole band is excited about it: According to Parlato in a recent phone conversation, “It’ll be as much a premiere for us as the listener. I’ve been imagining this music all year, and can’t wait to hear it realized.” Read on for the interview below:

TJG: I hear you’ve been living in LA since June. How do you feel about living in California now?

GP: It’s coming back home, I grew up in LA. Mark and I moved from New Jersey, where we’d lived for six years. Before that, I spent 10 years in New York City. I’ll always be nostalgic for my time on the East Coast, the feeling of living there, but I always dreamed of some point coming back home and settling in Los Angeles. Thankfully, Mark was into the idea too, and our son is so happy. We love it. 

TJG: Does the new music in the commission resonate with the idea of homecoming?

GP: Perhaps. The title of the show is “The Stars Or Space Between.” I wrote some thoughts for the program, stream-of-consciousness, that I’d like to share:

the stars or space between is a contemplative musical experience 

revolving around life and the existence of opposition. /em>

up and down. joy and pain. day and night. light and dark. 

like an inhale and an exhale, life is effort and release. 

holding on and letting go. movement and stillness. 

it’s finding the balance, and accepting the ever-constant changes. 

there are events in our lives we view as anchors, milestones, or turning points. 

like stars in the night sky, we can point to them. they define us. they guide us. 

they are clearly bright and visible.

in that same night sky, is the vastness of space. 

to be here may feel empty, transitional, dark, and uncertain.

but the space is only seemingly invisible.

in this journey of nothingness, everything is happening.

let tonight be about reflection of where we’ve been

the wonder of where we’re going

and most importantly, gratitude for where we are right here and now. 

are we the stars or space between?

GP: These thoughts can be interpreted in many ways, as broadly as possible, or in minute detail. My hope is that the audience can connect and relate to the music: I’d like the evening to be a chance for reflection, meditation, therapy, any word that is comfortable. The songs reflect my own life and past, but my hope is that the listener can hear these songs and define their meaning for themselves, and maybe even see or hear their own story as they listen.

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