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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

Photo by Harrison Weinstein, courtesy of the artist.

From conservatory students to seasoned road veterans, everyone across the jazz community is grappling with the same questions right now: How to maintain our mental health, how to keep writing and practicing, how to take care of ourselves and our families, how to make up lost income, how to stay safe and sane. Last week, we spoke about these issues with saxophonist and composer Melissa Aldana. As a core member of The Jazz Gallery community, Aldana had wonderful thoughts on how to develop a routine amidst this crisis, as well as fond memories of the Gallery looking ahead to the ongoing 25th Anniversary celebration.

The Jazz Gallery: Hi Melissa. How are you doing?

Melissa Aldana: I’m in New York. Right now, it feels like everything is so fragile… It’s hard to accept everything that’s happening. But somehow… [laughs] I’ve been able to do about five, six hours of practicing a day. My purpose right now is to take care of myself, practice, and stay calm and positive. Everyone is having those same feelings.

TJG: Did you lose a huge amount of work?

MA: Yeah, I did, I lost a lot of work. But I was able to finish out a tour. The hard thing is to stay calm, positive, and try to make the best of this situation. Of course, I’m sad that I can’t play with people right now. I need to do an online concert, or something, but right now I’m working on getting through the quarantine.

TJG: What have you been practicing?

MA: I’ve been working a lot on sound, which I’ve done for years. I do a good hour of long tones, a good hour of time feel, some other various techniques focusing on control. I’ve been working on Bach on piano too, an hour and a half every day. I’m trying to compose a little bit, been transcribing solos, working on claves, standards in all keys, whatever I can do to keep my head busy right now [laughs].

TJG: I like how you start your day with control—it’s really important to practice being in control during this out-of-control time.

MA: Oh yes. To me, that’s the most important. A big part of my practicing can be boring, in a sense. A bit obsessive. But years and experience have proven that if I’m consistent like that, if I am aware of how I practice, I start moving forward. I know that it really works for my sound and helps get things together.

TJG: What have been some important resources for you during this time? People, apps, websites, walks… What’s keeping you held together?

MA: I’m walking a lot, exercising quite a lot, a good hour and a half every day. I’ve been constantly doing yoga, trying to meditate, though it’s really hard. Long walks. I have an elliptical at home. I’m slowly getting it together… I’ve been walking, I’ve been giving myself homework, things to learn, like Bach on piano. Doing basic things, reading books, taking advantage of the time.

At the same time, I’m telling myself that there’s no reason to push myself so hard. Why not learn just how to be? That’s something a lot of us don’t do, just be. We don’t have to be working all the time, running around, writing music. What about just being yourself? It’s been an interesting week, and it’s going to be an interesting couple of months of personal growth.

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Clockwise from top left: Tyshawn Sorey, Sasha Berliner, Morgan Guerin, Nathan Reising, Lex Korten, and Nick Dunston, Photos courtesy of the artists.

For Jazz Gallery fans, Tyshawn Sorey requires no introduction, and any description of his music or style invariably leaves out something vital. Simply put, as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, Sorey moves in the realm of the rigorous, visceral, and sublime. Recently, the 2017 MacArthur fellow has been performing a sextet of young creative improvisers, featuring saxophonists Nathan Reising and Morgan Guerin, vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, pianist Lex Korten, and bassist Nick Dunston. After a completely packed concert at The Jazz Gallery last spring, the sextet will return to the Gallery with an unprecedented run of five shows over five consecutive evenings, one long set per evening.

Sorey spoke in depth via phone in a conversation about the group’s granular yet uninhibited approach to his music.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to start by asking about the length of each set. Every evening will feature a single set, starting at 7:30pm and stretching at least two hours. What begins to happen for you, physically and mentally, when you hit that two hour mark and beyond?

Tyshawn Sorey: At that point, it’s about the experience of being in the music itself. To me, this is not about performing a “concert.” I don’t care for “performances.” What I am interested in is the art of experience and how our relationship to time evolves over that experience, at which point, at least for me, time doesn’t exist. You lose your sense of time by being immersed in the experience of playing challenging music. You get to a point in the set where you’re not even thinking about time at all: it’s an out-of-body experience. That’s what I’m after in these situations.

When doing extended sets, things move toward a very heightened level of consciousness, effortlessness, and awareness—it’s an experience that you wouldn’t necessarily have in playing a 45- or 60-minute set. That hour and a half, two hour mark is a threshold that we’re used to arriving at during a given performance, but beyond that, you arrive at a different kind of zone, where time no longer exists. No matter the style of the music, I want to get to something well beyond how one feels while merely playing tunes for 45 minutes that contain structures that operate in the same fashion, which brings us to another reason why the sets are so long.

There is so much detail in each composition that we play. I hate stopping in between tunes. I’m not into standing there announcing song titles or cracking jokes between songs trying to be cute, funny, or likeable. I’m only there to do one thing: To play music that expands one’s consciousness, to tap into some beautiful zones, and to get into other areas of music-making that are interesting to me. Well, that’s three things [laughs]! Simply put, my job is to produce the best possible experience of music that one can think of, to give the listener something else to take with them.

TJG: The band is young—everyone’s in their twenties—so that extra length must be a unique aspect of these shows for them, since most of them are probably playing 45- to 90-minute sets at their usual gig.

TS: Right. It’s a different experience for them. And for me, too, because when I play in other people’s groups, we don’t even really get to do that. But ever since 2004, I’ve tended towards doing longer concerts with my group Oblique, and my quartet with Cory Smythe, Chris Tordini, and Ben Gerstein, and then my piano trio, so that hasn’t really changed since the formation of this band.

But in the case of performing with other bands, I’ll never forget one particular experience I had with Vijay Iyer in the summer of 2013 when I lived in Copenhagen, Denmark for a brief time, and I did a month-long tour of Europe with Vijay Iyer and Stephan Crump. In the middle of that tour, on July 13th, George Zimmerman had been acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. We were on our way to board a plane to Berlin at the time of hearing about this, and obviously it was devastating news for all of us. We were scheduled for a performance that same night, at a club called A-Trane. We didn’t really talk about what we were going to play or what we were going to do. We don’t really plan sets anyway. But I’ll never forget: On that night, we basically played a three hour set at this club [laughs]. The audience was with us, from start to finish, all the way.

Because we were so emotionally charged—we were deeply saddened by the news, of course—we wanted to offer something that really was more about celebrating life. Was it mournful? Yes. But we tapped into a very different energy that I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. It was fascinating for me to make music in that space with the understanding of our relationship with what’s going on in the world. To share that with Vijay, who I consider a brother of mine… I’d say it was the most vulnerable I’ve been on any bandstand. I can’t put into words how much that whole experience affected me. That night in Berlin, hearing about all of the crazy stuff that was going on out here at home, and having an opportunity to use our art as a way to relate to our experience, and to express our hopes, our sorrow, our disappointment in society… It was unlike any other experience we’d had together before, or probably since. We were in that same vibe for the rest of that tour, thinking about all of that. I’m emotional, thinking about this… It was deep on so many levels. I’ll never forget it.

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Zaccai and Luques Curtis. Photo courtesy of the artists.

The Curtis Brothers, Zaccai and Luques, have forged interwoven yet independent paths through the jazz world. Amidst a shared upbringing in Hartford, Connecticut, shared musical mentors and education in Boston and New York, and in many ways a shared musical path, Luques and Zaccai maintain separate careers, playing and touring independently with all manner of jazz musicians. In August, The Curtis Brothers released Algorithm, featuring a host of their musical mentors—Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Ralph Peterson. Their upcoming show at The Gallery will feature saxophonist Nick Biello, trumpeter Josh Lawrence, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. We spoke with the brothers about their upbringing and their thoughts about the upcoming show.

TJG: Many people have mentors, and some have the good fortune to play with them, even work with them in their own bands. What has it been like to grow up with a musical sibling and work with your shared mentors together?

Luques Curtis: It’s basically a dream come true. It definitely makes some things more comfortable, which allows for more freedom on the bandstand. We approach the music similarly. These legends were artists that we grew up listening to and studying: To name a few, we had the great fortune to work together with Donald Harrison, Ralph Peterson Jr., Brian Lynch, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, and Eddie Palmieri.

Zaccai Curtis: There’s a lot of “brother programming” that gets in the way, but after a while, you grow out of it, and a ton of musical progress can begin. Having someone with the same musical roots as yourself is always an advantage. You don’t have to be actual brothers… brothers in music should be enough to make things easier. But my brother and I don’t just share the same parents: We share most of the same “musical parents” as well. 

TJG: I know you’ve both toured (independently and together) as sidemen for tons of prominent jazz musicians. Was there a time where you learned something apart from each other that made you say “Yes this is a lesson that I want to share with my brother and use it in our work together as Curtis Brothers”?

LC: We were very fortunate to go on the road pretty early in our career together. First with our group Insight, then we did some extensive traveling with our mentor Donald Harrison. The first real band where I started to travel without Zaccai was Gary Burton’s Generation Band. With Gary, I learned a lot about organization, tour planning and, when it came to music, how to shape sets. He would also talk with us about shaping our solos, to be similar to what was on the recording we did. Gary was always very conscious about the audience’s experience and liked to plan specific sets depending on the crowd. I thought that was a great lesson to bring into our group.

TJG: You’ve released a number of records together. What’s the news now, and what’s coming up for you?

ZC: This particular band from Algorithm is a blessing because it’s comprised of the best of the best. Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Ralph Peterson are the factors that make this project what it is. I feel that without any of them, it would be a different thing. We look forward to developing the live performance and this particular sound. We also have Curtis Brothers projects that are part of our other expressions, like Insight and our quartet that will continue to move parallel to this project. 

LC: Alongside all of that, we are working on a new Cubop release featuring Camilo Molina on congas, Reinaldo DeJesus on percussion, and Willie Martinez on drums. We are also working on a joint release with Uprising Music called Sonido Solar.

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Design courtesy of the artists.

In 2009, the creative duo consisting of John Ellis and Andy Bragen premiered their second collaborative work, The Ice Siren, an hour-long composition with music by Ellis and a libretto by Bragen. Weaving layers of narrative and musical language together, The Ice Siren features vocalists Miles Griffith and Gretchen Parlato, plus a lush mixed chamber-jazz ensemble including Ellis on reeds. The large-scale work returns to The Jazz Gallery this month in celebration of its recording and release, Ellis’s tenth album as a leader. Following up on multiple prior interviews with this blog, and in anticipation of the pre-concert conversation with WBGO’s Simon Rentner, we again spoke with both Ellis and Bragen, diving inside their collaborative world and their nuanced approach to their creative work.

TJG: Do I have it right that you and John met at Hunter College in the late 90s?

Andy Bragen: Not exactly. John’s mother was up in New York for a year taking a graduate course at Hunter College. I was also taking a course up there, I was in my twenties at the time. She mentioned that her son John and his brother were living in Williamsburg and had just lost their place, and there was an opening at this crazy house I was living at in the East Village. His mother connected us: John moved into that house, and we became great friends.

John Ellis: Lately, our personal lives have intersected even more. I’d been on the list for Mitchell-Lama housing in the East Village for almost a decade. I got in about a year and a half ago, and it was because of him that I knew about it. So basically, my life with Andy has always had to do with housing [laughs]. When I first came to New York I moved into his house, this crazy house on 7th street, we all got kicked out. We became friends living in this falling-down house, and have since intersected over the years. When he got into Village View, when the list opened, he told me, and that was good fortune, because now that’s where I am.

AB: Now we live in the same complex in the East Village, one building over from each other. He’s one of my best friends, a lifelong friend. He’s an important part of my community and life. His family and my family, we’re very connected. In terms of collaboration, I think we will again. The timing is just so hard to make a big piece, but the last one we did was delightful, exciting. I hope we will in the future. In the meantime, it’s nice to revisit this work, especially with the record coming out.

TJG: At what point in your friendship did things become more collaborative?

AB: We’d always enjoyed each others’ work, and I was friends with a lot of his musical friends in those years. In general, I knew some of those folks. Our first thing was a commission from The Jazz Gallery in 2007-8 for Dreamscapes. He invited me to do that with him. With that, I wrote some poems, and he wrote music to them. It wasn’t quite as integrated. My father was dying or had just died at the time, so it was deeply connected to that. We got to talking: the Gallery commissioned John again, and this time he really brought me in with The Ice Siren. We were more fully integrated around a conversation, a concept, a whole piece.

TJG: Between the three collaborations–The Ice Siren, Dreamscapes, and MOBRO, you must have learned so much. If you were to start something new now, what would you now know about the first creative steps you might take together?

AB: Especially for The Ice Siren and MOBRO, we were always good at talking about process. Building a story together. With The Ice Siren, we talked a lot about mood, references, interests. We talked about Tim Burton, scary and funny, dreams and nightmares. I responded to some of those ideas with language. I wrote the words first, and we put music to it. MOBRO was more deeply integrated in a way. We had a theme–that garbage barge–then we looked at different sections and pulled them together in terms of moods and feelings, then got more specific. That one felt truly integrated. We sat down together for a week during a residency in New Mexico, and could really talk through what the piece could be.

Moving forward, if we were to do something, we would both be starting with a great familiarity with each others’ work. We would be starting from themes, and try to find a working style. There’s not one simple way to do anything. If we were a musical theater team, we might have a fixed way of working, but we tend to come together project by project, and try to discover what can work in terms of inspiring each other with what we’re thinking.

JE: Each of our projects has been different, yet somehow the same too. Mostly, we’ve been looking at intersection of language and music–the obvious thing to think about–but narrative too. Mostly, our collaborations have been through the Gallery, presenting a show of music, and inviting Andy to bring his expertise. Essentially, we’re making music first. It’s been enormously productive to collaborate with Andy, but we haven’t yet made a work of theater, something where the music serves the writing more. I’ve invited him into my world, in a way, but I haven’t been in his world. We could try to write a straight-up musical, or something theatrical like that.

The other crazy thing is that I never think of these works as finished. Even though it’s so old–we debuted it in 2009–The Ice Siren has really only happened three times: The premiere, the second performance plus recording, and now. Every time we do it, we get the musicians, it comes together, and what inevitably happens is that I want to make it better. Even though we already made a record, I’m still making adjustments to it. I re-learn the piece, which means I remember what I was thinking, which means I dig deeply into the score, which means I see things that feel glaringly wrong in my 2020 eyes compared to my 2009 eyes [laughs]. It’ll continue to be better than ever. I’m trying to make the presentation of the work better, clearer.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Don’t be fooled by the title of Gabriel Chakarji’s debut album, New Beginning: Chakarji has been thriving in the jazz scene for years, and his new record serves to solidify his evolving message and sound. Hailing from Caracas Venezuela, Chakarji grew up in a multicultural community, toured with the Simon Bolívar Jazz Band, was nominated for a Latin Grammy for his work with Linda Briceño, and has played on the stages of Dizzy’s, The Blue Note, The Bern Jazz Festival, The Mexico City Jazz Festival, and many more. Now in New York, Chakarji studies at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.

For Chakarji, New Beginning represents not only a synthesis of his musical influences–namely Afro-Venezuelan and jazz, musics with shared African roots–but also an expression of daily life as an immigrant in NYC, discovering the history and culture of The United States. The performance will feature Chakarji on piano, Ana Carmela Ramirez on voice, Morgan Guerin on saxophone and EWI, Juan Diego Villalobos on vibraphone and percussion, Dean Torrey on bass, Jongkuk Kim on drums, and Daniel Prim on percussion. We spoke with Chakarji as he was preparing for a different show at Terraza 7 in Queens with Spanish flamenco-jazz saxophonist Antonio Lizana.

TJG: How did you get connected with Antonio Lizana?

Gabriel Chakarji: I was on tour in Madrid, Spain, with some friends. I met him through those musicians, and I discovered that he has collaborated with other Venezuelan musicians that have played with me before. Antonio and I have lots of friends in common. Antonio has also collaborated with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, the big band of Arturo O’Farrill, and I’m close to them too. I sub for Arturo sometimes, I’m really good friends with Zach and Adam, it’s family for me. Zach will actually be playing tonight with Antonio too.

TJG: Have you been really focused on your Jazz Gallery show?

GC: Yeah, we rehearsed on Monday night. It’s a lot of people, and it’s always hard to schedule rehearsals in New York, but it worked out, and it was amazing. We’re working on music from my album, and it’s a lot of music. We’re playing a couple of my new songs too, and there will be a “premiere,” something I’ve never played before.

TJG: Will JK and Daniel be on the Gallery show?

GC: Yes, JK will be playing drums, and Daniel, my good friend from Venezuela, will be playing a bunch of different percussion instruments, at least four instruments from Afro-Venezuelan culture. One is the culo’e puya, a long drum, there’s also the cumaco that you play on the floor. Daniel Prim and Juan Diego Villalobos will be playing all those on different songs. That’s part of the music that I’m writing now, bringing these sounds together with the jazz quartet or quintet sound.

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