A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Rebecca Zola

Photo courtesy of the artist.

A recent graduate of the Juilliard School, trombonist Kalia Vandever is a true musical omnivore. In her young career, she has played with everyone from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, to pianist Fabian Almazan, to drummer Tyshawn Sorey, to pop and hip-hop groups. She has recently completed her first tour as a bandleader, and will bring her working band to The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 9th, for two sets. We recently caught up with Vandever to talk about her post-graduation experiences and how they have impacted her composing for the group.

The Jazz Gallery: This is your first time playing at the jazz gallery as a leader with your own band. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are bringing, and the music that we will be hearing?

Kalia Vandever: I am bringing my quintet, which consists of Immanuel Wilkins on alto, Connor Parks on drums, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass and Theo Walentiny on piano, and myself on trombone, and we will be playing mostly my compositions, as well as some of the compositions of people in the band as well. These are newer compositions of mine that I’ve composed in the last year, and some of them are really recent pieces of mine.

TJG: Are the compositions all encompassing one general time frame or body of work?

KV: Yeah definitely, I feel like the compositions have been inspired by a couple things, one being the beginning of my life out of school, also, a lot of my music is inspired by my family, specific family members of mine, a couple pieces that I’ve written have been dedicated to my sister, or my grandmother, and their experiences but also my relationship with them. And other pieces are inspired by nature, I have a lot of pieces that have just naturally been inspired by my surroundings on trips, or surroundings in New York City.

TJG: You said some of the pieces are inspired by what your life has been like since you’ve been out of school. Do you think being out of school has changed how you’re approaching music, what has been one of the biggest changes for you since you’ve been out of a structured jazz program?

KV: I’ve just felt really freed by the space that I’m in now, which is not confined to any specific method of composing, or not feeling confined by specific music I’m listening to. I found when I was in school I was listening to a lot of music that was guided by those who were teaching me at the time but now I’m in this space where everything I’m inspired by is what’s around me.


Photo by Herbert Ejzenberg.

This Monday, August 21st, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome pianist Shai Maestro to our stage for two sets of solo piano. Best known for exquisite work with his trio, like on last year’s record The Stone Skipper (Sound Surveyor), and as vocal accompanist (with Theo Bleckmann among others), this solo show marks the beginning of a new avenue of exploration for Maestro. We caught up with Maestro by phone after a busy summer of touring—he had just arrived in Israel after a long summer tour through Europe. We talked about the continuing evolution of the music from The Stone Skipper, and his mental and emotional approach to playing solo; excerpts of our conversation are below.

The Jazz Gallery: When did you arrive in Israel?

Shai Maestro: I arrived yesterday, I came from Belgium.

TJG: You’ve been touring since the end of June and through all of July—how has that been? You’ve been with the trio mostly?

SM: Yeah, mostly with the trio. My career these days is divided into trio, solo, and side bands and projects. So this was mainly trio, I did two gigs with the Mark Guiliana quartet, and now I’m here in Israel to play three solo shows, I have one solo show in France in a week, and then we are going to Kazakhstan and Japan—we have a bunch of stuff going on.

TJG: How has it been performing with the trio now that you last album, The Stone Skipper, has been out for a while. Do you feel like the music has evolved a lot?

SM: Oh yeah, definitely. I actually had a conversation about that recently, someone asked me if when I listen back to The Stone Skipper I feel regret, because the music has evolved so much, and if I wish the music had been different on the album, and my answer is no, because I feel like with The Stone Skipper, we managed to capture something that is honest, at least for me, and that was a representation of this moment in time. And sure, as soon as I understand that music is basically an extension of life, then the change is inevitable. We change as people, and so everything is felt in the music. So the music has developed a lot, but I see it as a beautiful thing, not as a regret.

TJG: How do you typically adapt your music from playing in the trio setting to when you’re playing in the solo piano setting?

SM: The first thing I try to do is embrace the new sonority. To embrace the fact that it’s only me and to embrace the fact that the sonic information onstage is less than half. You feel very naked all of a sudden. The idea is to not expect anything, and to have a constant dialogue with silence, first of all, and then come out from that. So each note feels like it’s full instead of feeling like I’m missing something, like I’m missing the trio. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is interaction—I have to be the ventriloquist and the dummy; I have to be the one activating and the one activated. And it’s kind of a schizophrenic reality to live in. when I’m playing trio or with other people, I’m still executing my own thoughts, but when it’s solo, I’m the only one responsible for it. It’s a really beautiful freedom, but it’s also a great challenge. And that’s something that I have to be very conscious of what does A-minor do to you as a performer, instead of playing for your bass player or playing for your drummer.

The third thing is the left hand challenge, which is something I think that all piano players neglect—the majority of piano players neglect the left hand because this register is taken by the bass player or by the drummer usually, so you can kind of hide and play things that are almost there, but not quite there. And when you’re playing solo you’re very exposed so you have to take care of it, so this has been a great gift to me to be able to work on that.


Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Percussionist, composer, and improviser Rajna Swaminathan is a trailblazer in the fields of South Indian traditional music and beyond. Not only is Swaminathan one of only a few female mrudangam players in the world, she has expanded her art to encompass diverse forms of improvisation. Over the past several years, Swaminathan has been exploring this netherworld between musical styles with her group RAJAS, which features a rotating cast of top New York improvisers. This week, Swaminathan and RAJAS will make their debut at The Jazz Gallery, performing two sets of music. We caught up with her last week to hear about how she thinks about combining different musical traditions and the complex gender politics of her varied musical communities.

The Jazz Gallery: You have performed in classical South Indian concerts, with different jazz musicians, and with dance and theatre companies.  How does your foundational background in South Indian Carnatic music affect the way you approach working with dance groups, and jazz and other creative improvisational settings?

Rajna Swaminathan: The dance company that I work with is called Ragamala, and they are a South Indian dance company.  There is a branch of carnatic music that is used to accompany Bharatanatyam which is the South Indian dance style. So in that case it’s pretty much seamless, it is using the vocabulary that is traditionally used, but they also do a lot of collaborative projects with different genres of music.  So for those productions, it involves some more creative thinking, using a foundation in Carnatic music. And depending on who’s the collaborator—like, we’ve worked with Taiko drummers before, there was one project with Rudresh Mahanthappa, so that was jazz, and the most recent one was with Amir ElSaffar composing, so he brought some stuff from the Maqam tradition. So it just involves months of trying to figure out musically what’s going to work.  Also, dancers have a very specific relationship with my instrument, mrudangam, with the specific footwork in South Indian dance, so we have to try to work the music for that to match up and also to be musically somewhat seamless.

As far as the jazz scene, I’ve been a little more intensely involved over the past few years, since about 2011 I would say. I started working with Steve Coleman, so he was the first person to get me thinking outside of my perspective. There’s a kind of fusion that happens when people are just playing what they would normally play in their traditions, almost like autopilot, tracking against each other, but he was against that approach. He was like, you really have to learn how to think polyrhythmically if you’re going to be playing with jazz musicians. And there are some related concepts in South Indian music, but it involves some work and rewiring and it’s mostly been work on listening, and being able to hear.

South Indian music is so linear.  There’s usually a singer, mrudangam player, and violinist, and you’re usually expected to match each other and mirror each other almost phrase for phrase, anticipating what the other person is going to do. So the emphasis isn’t really on this polyphonic sound at all. For me to even get into the jazz scene, I had to be able to hear multiple things going on that are complementary to each other, but not in one stream of musical thought. So it required some work, directly working with Steve, and some other folks on the scene, like Vijay Iyer. At first I was just curious about this music, and I spent my undergrad studying anthropology, so I got some research funding to actually spend a Summer in New York and do field work. During that summer I got together with several drummers and musicians all in this creative music scene, went out to listen to a lot of music—a lot at the Jazz Gallery actually—just to get this music in my body, because I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of jazz, and I was very interested in learning more and being a part of the scene.

It’s really become like a home for me. I still do traditional Carnatic music gigs every once and a while, I travel to India and do that, and I’m obviously involved with the dance company, but this has been another way for me to feel at home in music, in the creative music scene. Of course, not everyone is looking for a mrudangam player, so at first it was hard to find work, and find situations where people were willing to spend the time and really write parts that made sense for me, or had the time to work on it, how would you fit a mrudangam into this context. So in 2013 I started this band, with the idea that I would write my own music, and I would try to curate my own group so that I could experiment with how I would carve out a space for myself in the creative music scene, like how would I structure things. It was just a way of running through different ideas and working with musicians that I really resonated with, and try to learn in the process. This ensemble that I have now has been three years of working with different configurations and learning the whole time, how to come from the foundation that I started with, and bring it into this completely different scene, with different sensibilities and aesthetics.

TJG: Can you talk a little bit about how you approach composition with your group RAJAS, which is a very cross-cultural improvisation based group?

RS: So basically every time there has been a slightly different instrumentation, but this particular group, we’ve been playing together for the past year or so, and I find that it’s been a really solid group of people, and compositionally it ends up reflecting who’s in the band. I compose these sort of frameworks, more or less, melodic, and to some extent harmonic and rhythmic frameworks, and it’s not so much a traditional jazz composition to play through everything and have these set solo sections, but the whole thing is like this world that you can enter, and everyone is expected to collectively improvise. It’s highly textural and involves a lot of rehearsal and finding those spaces that work best for different instruments and different people. And as I’ve been doing more shows with the group, it influences how I write, and how I direct them, and get directed by them. And I’ve worked in the past with folks like Amir ElSaffar, and Miles and Stephan, who are in this group, and they’re  all senior musicians that have a lot of experience not only in their field, but also collaborating outside their field. Miles actually has a lot of experience with South Indian rhythms, so that’s a great anchoring force in the group. I’ve been learning a lot in terms of not just composing but also curating improvisation within the group, which I think is where the focus is really at in my band.


Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo courtesy of the artist

While bassist Linda Oh has been a longtime regular at The Jazz Gallery, her recent musical pursuits have brought her farther afield. She’s recently been touring with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and next month will begin touring with guitarist Pat Metheny, the latest in a line of illustrious bassists (including Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, and Larry Grenadier) to go toe-to-toe with the great guitarist.

Last month, Oh went into the studio with a quartet of longtime collaborators including saxophonist Ben Wendel to record her next record. This Thursday, Oh will bring a similar quartet to The Jazz Gallery to perform some of this new music, as well as material from her previous record, Sun Pictures. We caught up with Linda this past week to talk about her preparations for the Metheny tour and the new musical areas she is exploring on her upcoming record.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve started playing in a new group with Pat Metheny. What’s exciting and challenging about playing with this group?

Linda Oh: We haven’t played a gig yet, but we’ve done two rehearsals. I’ve played a little bit with Pat and a little bit with Antonio Sanchez. The pianist is based in the UK, so a few weeks ago was the first time we played as a group, and yeah, it’s an invigorating experience to be playing with musicians of a higher level, also musicians who I have been listening to like Pat and Antonio. We haven’t played actually in any setting besides this, so that’s always an invigorating challenge to be put in a setting with any new musician. But honestly I do that quite often anyway. It’s great to be playing this music, some of the repertoire I’ve been listening to for a long, long time on some older records of Pat’s, but it’s definitely exciting for me to be playing with those musicians.

TJG: You mentioned that you play with a lot of different musicians and group configurations. What do you think drives you to create all the different musical groups that you’ve been a part of as a leader?

LO: There are lots of things that inspire me—there are the individual musicians themselves who I want to play with, so if I want to play with them and I want to hear them in a specific setting, then leading a band is a great way to be able to have that opportunity. And the other thing is just working on my own music and writing style, as it sits with these individual voices and musicians. And also in improving my own compositional style, it’s also a good challenge to experiment with different instrumentations, different individuals and their different strengths and weaknesses and capabilities.

TJG: One musician that you’ve been developing a musical relationship with for a few years now is Ben Wendel, who you’ll be playing with at the Jazz Gallery. I was wondering if you could share how you guys started playing together, and what your musical relationship has been like and how it’s grown over the past years since you’ve been playing.

LO: I guess one of the first times that I played with Ben was at a session and I can’t remember which session it was, but we’ve done many sessions over the years with various groups, just playing for fun in Brooklyn, up in Harlem. Plus Ben is on my third record Sun Pictures. We’ve also played in Justin Brown’s group once together, we’ve played with the La Boeuf brothers, other groups like that. There’s a group called Lage, which I believe debuted at The Jazz Gallery, which was kind of a collective thing with me, Ben, Julian, Aaron Parks, and Rodney Green. Ben’s an incredible musician and reader, and he’s a leader in many ways when he plays, and it’s really refreshing to play with him in different settings, and obviously I’ve heard him a lot with the band Kneebody. He’s not only a great saxophonist, but he’s also a great producer. He has a very organized mentality, he’s very good at getting things done, and he’s a very proactive person in general. It’s very inspiring to be around.


Photo by Phil Knot.

Photo by Phil Knot.

2015 has been a big year for vocalist Sachal Vasandani—he released his fourth album as a leader featuring all original compositions, Slow Motion Miracles, on Sony’s Okeh imprint and followed that release with extensive touring around the world. Back home in New York this month, Sachal has been focusing on a different project, celebrating the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra. Earlier this month, Sachal performed this material at the Jazz Standard with a big band. But this Tuesday, December 22nd, he returns to The Jazz Gallery to perform more intimate versions of Sinatra’s classic repertoire, featuring an ace young trio of James Francies on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums.

We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Sachal by phone to hear about how he made his deftly-orchestrated new album, and how performing his own material live informs his approach to singing old standards.

The Jazz Gallery: Your latest album, Slow Motion Miracles (Okeh), is an amalgam of musical styles, including indie-hip-hop, pop, electronica, Afro-beat, and jazz. Could you talk a little bit about what inspired you to move into this new musical sound, a bit of a departure from a typical jazz record?

Sachal Vasandani: Sure, the inspiration just kind of came from allowing myself to lead with my pen. If I lead with my songwriting, then some different styles flow out, and they are a reflection of the styles that you mentioned, and more, you know? They are held together by melodies and lyrics that have a certain resonance at this time for me, so making a record that is led by that process is going to be a little bit different than one that is led by only my singing or only my interpreting other people’s music.

TJG: Do you want to share about your composition process? Do you have a specific way you go about writing your music? What does that look like for you?

SV: When I compose, I try to respond to inspiration from a few different sources.  One is melodies that stick in my head, and come from nowhere, really, they just stay with me.  Another is chords—chord progressions that I play that move in a certain way that just happen when I play the piano. Another is rhythm—they speak, they come into my head, that I want to respond to; and then another is lyric, different lyrical themes or ideas, often times just phrases or little words that stick in my head, or I repeat to myself, and I have a hard time getting away from them, although sometimes I want to, and so they come out in song. So I try to be ready for all those by kind of having the sheet music and a voice memo, and my logic on my computer and my piano handy, some combination of those handy so that I can flesh out ideas, and then the song is hatched you could say.  Then I start a long editing process, and I take the best of all those songs, which is a lot, and then I cut stuff out, and maybe add a few little things here there everywhere, and those end up being the songs that end up on the record.

TJG: You’ve been touring internationally a lot lately. What has the experience of touring been like for you? What’s something that you may have learned from touring?

SV: It’s just been a lot of fun, and it’s been diverse in terms of not just the places you’ve mentioned, but the opportunities, you know? I experienced a lot of those places for the first time this year. I had never been to, for example, Brazil, Finland, or Korea before, so that was new and fun. I think what’s really nice is just sharing music with people and seeing people respond, especially when I sing my new songs, or seeing people listen, and I have to say it’s a pretty great feeling, it’s pretty simple.

TJG: Do you have a fun/funny story from the tour you could share?

SV: Well just a recent experience is I did a gig at Mezzrow in New York, with Taylor Eigsti the pianist, and he’s played my music for a really, really long time, and he always finds new tempos and new harmonic elements to introduce to my songs, so I was really happy, I was almost laughing—I mean I didn’t because I had to sing, I mean it’s not so much funny like ha-ha, it’s funny like, this man is amazing and he’s been in my group now for a few years and he’s always finding new ways to attack music that I’ve written.  So there’s a song that I wrote from my first album, and Taylor plays it as a solo piece, and I said to the audience after, you know you got a guy building a mansion out of a composition that was basically built like a tin shack. So that’s how he played the song. It’s pretty awesome.