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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Noah Fishman

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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Photo courtesy of the artist.

As far as drummer/composer/bandleaders go, it seem that E.J. Strickland has developed a dynamic, sustainable balance between his different creative pursuits. While leading and releasing projects under different umbrellas, as well as writing new music and working as a sideman, Strickland still finds time to explore new sonic territory. His latest project, The E.J. Strickland 4tet, which Strickland is also calling ”Pads N Loops,” explores territory that crosses into the realm of hip hop, featuring (for this upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery) Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Immanuel Wilkins on alto and soprano saxophones, Eric Wheeler on bass, and guest MC JSWISS. We caught up with Strickland by phone; he had just returned home to Brooklyn after a tour that brought him and his group to Germany, France, and The Netherlands.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making some time to chat during the holiday season! This is usually a pretty busy time for musicians; what does this time of year tend to look/feel like for you?

EJ Strickland: In the holiday season, most of the time it actually slows down for me. The busy times for me are usually spring, summer, and fall. It slows down around the holiday season but then picks up again in January. I’m closer to home this time of year, depending on the year.

TJG: So this seems like the perfect time to be trying something new at The Jazz Gallery.

EJS: Exactly. I’ve been writing a bunch of new music for this new group, The E.J. Strickland 4tet aka “Pads N Loops.” I wrote this music around this fall, August into September, I was writing a lot. We debuted in Brooklyn, and this performance at the Gallery will be our second performance of the year. It’s a slightly new sound for me, working with my own loops, challenging to write for but very fun.

TJG: Tell me about the pads. Tell me about the loops.

EJS: Pads N Loops. I’ve got two saxophones, bass, drums, and a guest MC. A lot of times, you know, most of my groups have chordal instruments, and this is my first time doing a group without chordal instruments. The pads of a chordal player have been replaced by how I’ve been writing for this group: We’re making our own kind of pads with our sound. As far as loops are concerned, it’s part of a concept. The group creates looping periods in the music, which borrows from hip hop, where loops come around every now and again in songs. I took that concept and put it into jazz music, you know, which is why I call it Pads N Loops.

TJG: How have you chosen to translate that loops concept into a jazz setting?

EJS: I’ve translated it in part by having Marcus on bass clarinet, because in my group he uses it both as a melodic and harmonic instrument, and also as an accompaniment instrument. A lot of the loops that you’ll hear in this music have to do with counter-basslines, superimposed on the main bassline. These loops come around any time during one of the tunes, and sometimes the horn backgrounds–those more ‘jazzlike’ concepts–I’ve turned those into loops too. Eight, sixteen bars, whatever you may have on a given song. There’s a lot of looping going on. It’s part of the sound of the group.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

With multiple degrees in jazz and improvisation, and a wide range of skills and interests, Utsav Lal has found a relatively unexplored niche as a pianist within the world of Indian Classical music. Having studied with legendary Indian Classical teachers including Wasifuddin Dagar and Sharat Srivastava, the result is a young pianist with a meditative, patient, powerful approach to the piano. This Wednesday, Lal will perform two sets of music at The Jazz Gallery: the first set a traditional exploration of a single raga followed by one or more compositions, and the second set a presentation of compositions featuring tabla. We spoke at length with Lal about his move to New York and approach to learning Indian Classical Music on the piano.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making the time to chat. Where are you living now?

Utsav Lal: I’ve been living in Bushwick for a little over a year now. It’s been great. New York is like a third round of school, in a way. It’s been amazing to arrive and meet so many people. I’d met a lot of people living in New York while I was living in Boston and studying at NEC, and Boston was great, but things felt somewhat detached from actually making music or seeing how it all fit together.

TJG: How does being a musician in New York feel more connected to the reality of what music is about for you?

UL: There’s a lot more to bounce things off. At school, at least in Boston, it’s mostly students. In school, you’re working hard and interacting with your peers, which was great at NEC because we all come from such different places. But it’s a small school. I moved to New York, and now I’m meeting people from completely different backgrounds, people who didn’t go to conservatory, people who have been working musicians for forty years and have a completely different kind of education and energy. I’m learning so much about different styles of music, and there are so many ways to get different kinds of feedback, perspectives, opinions. There are people I play with who have been hopping trains since they ran away from home at a young age. I’m living with a guy who has been teaching me these amazing country songs. I’m getting all of these new perspectives, and have been seeing how people react to my perspective too. Plus, it’s a great community. People really travel across the city to see each other. 

TJG: In this new environment, what have you been noticing about your piano playing?

UL: I play Indian Classical Music on the piano, an instrument that isn’t really suited for the genre. Many of the most special things about that genre of music can’t really be done on the piano. During my jazz undergrad and my classical piano training, I listened to very genre-specific pianists, like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Wynton Kelly, and the equivalent classical figures. So, the biggest change for me lately has been finding pianists who aren’t so easy to put in a box based on how and what they do, pianists who are in tune with their upbringing and life experiences.

One pianist I’m particularly interested in is Emahoy Tsegué Maryam. She learned classical piano when she was young, had to flee Ethiopia and had to live in all these different places. She spent years in a monastery, not much contact with anything else, and plays beautiful improvised adaptations of folk music as well as her own compositions. She has a completely different way of pedaling, phrasing, composing, improvising. Music is her life. 

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh has been thinking a lot about perception, choices, and life cycles. In a recent phone conversation, we spoke with Oh about her reading and research surrounding some of life’s big paradoxes, and how she has been using these thoughts to fuel a new set of compositions. The work–titled The Glass Hours–will have its Chamber Music America premiere at The Jazz Gallery this weekend, featuring vocalist Sara Serpa, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, pianist Fabian Almazan, drummer Obed Calvaire, and Linda Oh on bass.

Oh’s most recent release, Aventurine (Biophilia 2019) was an ambitious double quartet with string quartet and choir. Colorful and dense, flowing and crisp, Aventurine is a lush and cohesive work. Oh is a member of the We Have Voice Collective, and was succinctly described as a “musician with intention” by Music and Literature. She has been a longtime friend of The Jazz Gallery, has performed with Joe Lovano, Steve Wilson, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Kenny Barron, Geri Allen, Fabian Almazan, and Terri Lyne Carrington, and is currently the bassist with guitarist Pat Metheny. Read on for our full conversation below.

The Jazz Gallery: Nice to catch up with you. Are you in New York at the moment?

Linda May Han Oh: I’m actually up in Tarrytown with Fabian Almazan. We’re both doing work at the Rockefeller Kykuit Estate, where they have a space for artists to work. We’ve spent the last couple of days here.

TJG: Sounds like a lovely way to get out of the city

LO: Exactly. I’ve been working on some of this new music.

TJG: Tell me a little more about the Chamber Music America premiere you’re working on.

LO: The lineup is Sara Serpa on vocals, Melissa Aldana on saxophone, Fabian Almazan on piano and electronics, and Obed Calvaire on drums. They’re all great musicians, and I’m excited to work with them on this new music. Most of these new pieces are based on abstract themes of life and time, linear versus cyclical, looking at the push-and-pull in our perceptions between old and new, and how it all plays out in the choices we make. As I’ve been writing, I’ve been exploring these concepts through different compositions and forms.

TJG: Before we get into the specifics, how did you decide to do a project along the lines of  space, time, life cycles?

LO: I’ve thought a lot about these themes, and my current work is based on a few different related things I’ve been checking out. Some of the music touches on stories and myths, partially derived from Joseph Campbell and his writing, including “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” I’ve been looking at how myths can parallel the trials and tribulations we have in our own lives, our expectations, our goals, et cetera. Some of these thoughts are based on stuff I’ve been reading, some are based on more general questions regarding the value of life. I’ve been reading and doing online coursework via Coursera relating to International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: I’m working on educating myself in my own values, exploring these questions and paradoxes.

I feel incredibly privileged that I don’t have to fight in a war at the moment, to go into battle. How interesting it is that we value life and the lives of others, and yet, there are paradoxes within the realm of international humanitarian law: We see guidelines in place to limit the amount of hurt and death that is happening, and yet, war is still war. It’s amazing how certain questions, like the ones in the back of my mind regarding the value of life, can feel so separate when we’re not living within the realm of war. It’s paradoxical that we value our lives and the lives of those around us, and yet you look at the military, the state of health care, gun reform… There are separations that make you question things.

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