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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

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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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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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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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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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