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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Rob Shepherd

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Over the course of his career, Ambrose Akinmusire has complicated traditional labels and categories, collaborating with artists as wide-ranging as Brad Mehldau, Kendrick Lamar, Mary Halvorson, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, and Steve Coleman. The diversity of his musicianship is also apparent in his albums as a leader, including the forthcoming on the tender spot of every calloused moment out on Blue Note Records in June.

We caught up with Akinmusire to discuss this forthcoming release, the role music can play in healing, and his memories of both Roy Hargrove and the early moments of his career at The Jazz Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: How are you handling everything that is going on with the Coronavirus? Is it particularly motivating or demotivating you in making music?

Ambrose Akinmusire: I’m pretty self-inspired. Also, since I don’t live in New York or LA, I am used to not hearing that much music and not being inspired by my external environment. So the current pandemic does not change things for my day to day life that much. At the same time, it is forcing me to reevaluate my community and value relationships with people a little more. If we want to talk about how it has impacted me and if I know anyone who passed away, yeah. I was very close to Wallace Roney and a few other people who have died, not necessarily from COVID-19 itself, but who were sort of side-swiped from this.

TJG:  Do you think the current pandemic will have on your music going forward? 

AA: I think all art represents the circumstances in which it is created, even when the artist is not necessarily aware of its impact. If you look at the music before, during, and after the Vietnam War, you can sort of sense and feel the war’s impact. Same thing with World War II. It is always in the music somewhere.

TJG: You’ve significantly addressed racism and police brutality in your music. A number of reports have shown that the coronavirus has disproportionately hit people of color. Do you think this ties into some of the messages on your prior works?

AA: It does and it doesn’t. What I am trying to do is connect what is happening today with the past, both musically and socially. When people talk about racism, they have a tendency to focus on a statement like “Black Lives Matter” and treat it as a present thing. And it is, but it is also a continuation of what came before. I am interested in connecting the present to the past so that when future generations look back, they can see how they are all connected. You see the problem and a culture that is trying to find solutions to it. The important thing is to continue the narrative. Many of the same problems that existed before are still here and have never gone anywhere. Black music and black art has always been about that.

In some ways, I see my job as similar to that of a journalist. That is, to observe these things, distill them, and put them into art. To come up with a concoction that can help heal people. I also think that culturally that is how music works best. If you think about the blues, you are talking about resilience. You are taking a shitty situation and having the audacity to go forward.

TJG: To make something of it?

AA: Yeah, to have even just a pinhole of optimism in a shitty situation. It is also related to your other question of police brutality and all these things. I am really trying to find some optimism in everything. It is like the last part of the blues; you know “My baby left me and she’s not coming back.  My baby left me and she’s gone forever. My baby left me but tomorrow I am going to get a new baby.” That last part is my focus.

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Jen Shyu performs Raging Waters, Red Sands at The Jazz Gallery in December 2009. Photo courtesy of the artist.

While The Jazz Gallery has postponed upcoming performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jazz Speaks will continue to share the music and stories of Gallery performers. Today, we present an interview with Jen Shyu, who was to present her longford piece Raging Waters, Red Sands this coming weekend. Originally a Jazz Gallery commission from 2009, the work showcases Shyu’s ability to bind together diverse artistic influences i through the use of cohesive narrative. Raging Waters builds upon an ancient Chinese story to explore notions of love, existence, and universal versus personal obligation. It also draws from the words of Brazillian poet Patrícia Magalhães and the performance spans five languages: Portuguese, Tetum, English, Taiwanese, and Mandarin. Check out our conversation about the work and how Shyu sees its continuing influence on her current process, as well as a recording of the work, below.

The Jazz Gallery: You seem like an artist who has typically looked forward when it comes to your work. Is there something particularly unique about Raging Waters, Red Sands to cause you to consider going back to revisit it?

Jen Shyu: Rio [Sakairi, The Gallery’s Artistic Director and the Director of Programming] asked me last year if I would be interested in re-imagining the work. The opportunity interested me because Raging Waters, Red Sands is a really special composition. Back in 2009, we presented it five times—the two nights at the Gallery, once at the Vision Festival, an additional time at McCarren Hall in Williamsburg [Brooklyn, NY], then one more time at Bar 269.  We also recorded it live at the Gallery, which was released on Bandcamp. But that was it. Then I started traveling a lot, first to China then to Indonesia, and became involved in a lot of other projects.

Raging Waters, Red Sands is a really important piece because it was one of the first times I fully integrated dramatic and narrative aspects into my work. Previously, with my band Jade Tongue, I had always written songs in a certain order and would try to create a narrative by fitting them together. This was one of the first times I had a set story then framed the songs to fit. It was also the first time I worked with a librettist. It featured a very specific libretto written by a Brazilian writer and friend Patrícia Magalhães.

The story was inspired by recent visitations to Taiwan and China. Taiwan was my place of fieldwork and inspiration for a while, from 2003, really through 2010. As for China, I went there just before Raging Waters, around 2008 or 2009. While I was in Taiwan, I studied indigenous music and folk music. I found a community of folk singers and Taiwanese yueqin, or in Taiwanese, “gwat kim” musicians and elders who were keeping this tradition alive. The tradition is called Hengchun folk song, which is named after a township in southern Taiwan. It is a very beautiful tradition and began with vocal songs they would sing in the fields. Later, musicians added instruments. The instruments probably migrated from China, but Tawainese musicians settled on their own yueqin, a two-stringed instrument with a longer neck than what you would find in China. It is also round like the moon, so sometimes they call it the “moon instrument.”

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