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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Rob Shepherd

Kendrick Scott

Photo by Todd Cooper, courtesy of the artist.

Lockdowns. Quarantines. Social Distancing. In no small part, the stress, exhaustion, and sadness of the COVID-19 pandemic many have felt has come from an at least partial breakdown of community. In an effort to protect themselves from illness, often people have focused inward instead of upon things they still share in common with others.  

With Corridors, Kendrick Scott’s Fellowship Commission for The Jazz Gallery, the drummer emphasizes the commonalities between people. The idea is that while we each live our own separate lives, they are each connected along a shared path. One uniting element, arguably, is the importance of mentorship. With this in mind, we asked Scott about not only the general concept of Corridors but also some of his mentors—his mother, Joe Sample, Terence Blanchard, Charles Lloyd—he has thus far encountered in the hallway of his career.

The Jazz Gallery: What is the concept behind Corridors? 

Kendrick Scott: With Corridors, I am trying to focus on the joining elements in our lives. I named it Corridors because if you visit my apartment building in New York, all of the apartments are connected by a long corridor. People have their own lives but we also each share some elements which unite us.  

TJG: What sorts of elements? 

KS: Well, I think about culture. I think about faith. Many different things join us from our little rooms that we stay in. The pandemic kept many of us in those rooms for a year and a half and, in many ways, cut off from those common joining elements.  

In essence, I am trying to pull on common feelings. Some of the pieces for the commission use titles like “One Door Closes and Another Opens” or “Welcoming the Unwelcome.” I am trying to focus on the good points of what this pandemic means in terms of what we have learned about ourselves.  

TJG: In some ways that is aligned with the concept behind A Wall Becomes a Bridge (Blue Note, 2019) in the sense of turning something negative and divisive into something positive and unifying. 

KS: Yeah, yeah. I am definitely an optimist. As Wayne Shorter once said, “there’s always something good unfolding underneath everything bad.” There’s always something unfolding on the other side. I think as long as we can keep the optimism, we can achieve a certain level of peace.  

Honestly, though, I fight with myself on that all the time. Often, I make music as a somewhat selfish thing, basically using it to talk about things I am dealing with in my personal life. So, in many ways “A Wall Becomes a Bridge” is a mantra I have to keep saying in my life to keep my own sanity [laughing]. When something is going wrong in my life and my anxiety is getting to me, I have to say, “You know what? A wall becomes a bridge.” It’s going to be cool. Things will improve. It is about seeing the other side while you are inside of it. It’s hard to do. With Corridors, I am hoping to create a dialogue about the things that all of us have had to deal with from the pandemic.  

TJG: Taking an optimistic view, do you feel like there is some good that may have come out of the shutdowns in terms of music-making? 

KS: Yes, I think in some ways the pandemic has given people, including musicians, an opportunity to essentially meet their own shadow. A chance to sit down and think.  

I’ve been on the road my whole career. My shadow’s been following me like “come on man, let’s deal with this or deal with that.” But when I’m on the road, I’m so busy working that it sometimes causes me to neglect myself a little bit. I think the good thing that will come out of the pandemic is that we are given time to meet our shadow and actually converse with it. I think those conversations and thoughts will get us to a deeper level of knowing ourselves.  

Hopefully, that deeper understanding of yourself will lead artists to create more art that embodies their true selves and not the self that is running around like a chicken with their head cut off; just doing things to stay active instead of tapping into the true essence of who they are as a human being.  

I’ve found that during the pandemic I’ve been very hesitant about being around people. That’s been crazy to me. Living in a city like New York, you are surrounded by people and it is the people that make New York so beautiful. I am here because it lets me around all of these people. I find that as much as I travel the world and see people from different cultures, I see those same cultures right here in the city. I learn so much about myself and others myself that way. So, to be in New York and made to have a standoffish kind of vibe because of the pandemic has really shown me how much I love being around people and learning about people.

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Morgan Guerin

Photo courtesy of the artist.

As a multi-instrumentalist, Morgan Guerin has a uniquely-large sound palette. While he primarily performs on the saxophone, you can find also him playing at a professional level on several instruments, from bass with Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science to synthesizers with Esperanza Spalding. In some cases, as on his three self-released The Saga albums, he’ll perform multiple instruments on any given song.

Through his 2020-2021 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission, Sanctuary, Guerin focuses on another part of his artistry: his skills as a composer. In the piece, Guerin hopes to bridge any perceived gap between genres by conducting and adding his Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) and saxophone to a large ensemble featuring a mix of jazz and classical performers. In our conversation with Guerin, he reflected on how his instrumental skills impact his compositional process and how his music has evolved from project to project.

The Jazz Gallery: What is the concept behind Sanctuary?

Morgan Guerin: It is based on my longstanding desire to present long-form melodies and themes in their own time, as they come. Last year, I did a commission for Roulette called Wishes, which was inspired by Wayne Shorter. It featured an eight-person ensemble with two violas, cello, flute, bassoon, piano, bass, drums, and myself on saxophone and EWI. That project was fascinating to me and Sanctuary expands upon some of its ideas and instrumentation.

TJG: How is Sanctuary different from the work you did on Wishes?

MG: Sanctuary will be about twice as long as Wishes. It also involves more musicians. Both of those differences allow the group to open up a little more. Sanctuary also features new personnel for the most part. Of course, new artists will bring in new approaches and sounds.

TJG: Wayne Shorter is an obvious influence on your music. Was the choice in the title of this commission at all inspired by his famous composition of the same name on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew?

MG: No. I have always been fascinated by what Wayne Shorter has contributed to music, particularly his use of chamber instrumentation, but this piece wasn’t directly named after that song. I named it Sanctuary because it is effectively my invitation to listeners to enter into my sacred space. This commission is very personal and unlike anything I’ve released before. On many of my other projects, I play several instruments and the focus is on my skills on those instruments. But, here, the focus is primarily on my abilities as a composer rather than my own performance.

TJG: How do you feel being a multi-instrumentalist has shaped your compositional process compared to someone who focuses primarily on only one or a few instruments?

MG: To be honest, I am not sure whether being a multi-instrumentalist is an advantage or disadvantage in terms of composing. It certainly gives me more insight into what things are possible on a given instrument. During the writing process itself, that background also helps me figure things out on various instruments. I will have instruments in the same room while I have the scores pulled up and just imagine what things people could be playing or how they may be approaching a particular part. To be honest, most of my writing I do on a MIDI controller and Sibelius but it is still good to have that perspective at times.

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Fujiwara-Halvorson-Bynum

L to R: Tomas Fujiwara, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Mary Halvorson. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Throughout his career, drummer Tomas Fujiwara has not shied away from taking risks. This adventurousness has made him an ideal collaborator with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Meshell Ndegeocello, and John Zorn. He has also found a strong circle of colleagues, always ready for trips into soundscapes unknown. Among them are guitarist Mary Halvorson and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, both of whom have appeared with Fujiwara in several projects over the past two decades. The three are now touring as a trio, and will take the stage at The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, June 19. We caught up with Fujiwara to discuss how the pandemic has shaped his art, this new trio, and the importance of playing before live audiences again.

The Jazz Gallery: How do you feel the pandemic has impacted you creatively? 

Tomas Fujiwara: Well, it certainly gave me many more opportunities to think, observe, and reflect. It has also provided me a lot of time to practice and compose. Most other musicians I’ve spoken to have used the year to focus on new compositional projects, to study the music of another composer, or to add another instrument to their repertoire. I’ve done those things as well. In particular, the pandemic allowed me to practice the vibraphone more than I ever have before, which has been nice. I’ve played on the instrument before, but this year has given me the opportunity to dive deeper.

TJG:  What are your plans with the vibraphone? Are you just experimenting or do you have a specific project in mind? 

TF: Both.

I’ve been studying the instrument more and getting more comfortable with expressing myself creatively on it. But I’ve also been working towards a specific project. Mary [Halvorson], Michael [Formanek], and I will be recording a new Thumbscrew album later this summer. On it, I will be playing a significant amount of vibraphone.  So the three of us have been composing a lot of music for the instrument as part of that project.

I have also found that playing the vibraphone has been a great compositional tool for me. Playing the instrument has opened up my composing in new ways.

TJG: How so?  

TF: I think in some ways the vibraphone is an ideal instrument for me to use for composition because it allows me to use a lot of the techniques that I use on the drum set. I can readily draw upon my background in stick and mallet techniques, which gives a certain comfort during the process.

But there’s also something about the instrument’s resonance that speaks to me in terms of hearing harmonies. I feel like it gives me an incredibly clear expression of my harmonic ideas. It helps me more directly take my thoughts and then translate them to written music. It also helps that visually the vibraphone is like a keyboard. It allows you to literally see all of the notes, from high to low, and give ideas for melodic shapes.

So, I feel like the vibraphone is the best of all of those worlds, and composing on it feels incredibly comfortable.

TJG: Speaking of your compositions, how do you feel working with Anthony Braxton has influenced your approach to writing music? 

TF: I would say the biggest thing I have taken from him is to just go for things and take risks. Don’t question your creativity or ideas before you’ve gone forward and put them out there. If you have an idea, just run with it. Maybe you edit or condense it later but don’t stop yourself before you’ve even started. Go for big ideas; for those that you might initially think too ambitious or crazy or that don’t think will fit within a certain category or box. Questioning how you will pull something off can keep you from expressing your full creativity.

I feel like Anthony is a perfect model of someone that just constantly goes forward with full conviction and force. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned from my times around him. Of course, all of his compositions are part of this incredibly creative mind. They’re great to listen to, play, study and analyze. But, to me, the big takeaway is to consistently go forward and take chances. Put yourself out there and not question or second guess yourself. I always say he’s one of the most inspiring people to be around, even if you’re not playing music. Even just being in the same room with him, he has this incredible energy that I find amazingly inspiring.

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Marcus Gilmore

Photo courtesy of the artist.

While Marcus Gilmore is perhaps best-known as the go-to drummer for the likes of Chick Corea, Vijay Iyer, Mark Turner, Ambrose Akinmusire, and many others, he has in recent years cultivated a fascinating solo drum practice, often incorporating electronics. Jazz Speaks recently caught up with Gilmore to discuss these solo projects, his broader view of percussion instruments within music as a whole, and his thoughts on cross-collaborative art. 

The Jazz Gallery: Have you found yourself more or less incentivized to make music during the coronavirus shutdown?

Marcus Gilmore: I have been continuing to make music but I am not necessarily making more music. Normally, I would be playing gigs but, obviously, I can’t do that right now. So, there is definitely an overall decrease in quantity. But I am still continuing to write and record music. It does feel like I might be recording a little more than usual. There hasn’t been a full album recording session, at least not yet. Instead, it has been singles and songs for different people. Projects that are more singular, not like 10 compositions to make a complete album. 

TJG: Many people are familiar with your work as a sideman but you also have some interesting solo drum projects like Silhouwav or your version of David Virelles’ Excerpts of Nube, often also incorporating electronics. What has inspired you to take this less traditional route?

MG: I guess it is a non-traditional route, but there is quite a bit of history of drummers doing solo works. Max [Roach] was doing it in the ’50s and ’60s. At that time, it was even rarer. But today, there are so many different elements and components you can add to any particular instrument or setting. There is a lot available to musicians to allow them to add additional elements to our music or our concepts.

I have done solo performances previously, but adding electronics has taken them to a whole different place. The electronics came from working with a friend of mine who is also a drummer. I’ve known him for years; we went to high school together. He is behind the company that I like to use when I incorporate electronics with my solo performances or even performances with ensembles. Anyway, he reached out to me several years ago to tell me he was going to start a program for drums and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. As soon as I was able to try out his program and investigate it, I saw how I could incorporate it into my music.

I never have a shortage of musical ideas but that doesn’t always readily translate to reality. This particular set up and machinery make it possible for me to do a lot of the things that I had imagined for a while. Once it became an accessible instrument to use, I kind of jumped right on it. At some point, I realized that these different elements could sometimes make it sound like I was playing with a much larger group than just myself. So I became really curious about how to emphasize this aspect in my solo performances.

There is no Silhouwav album per se that I plan to release. I do have an album coming out that has a lot of different things on it that I have been working on in the last few years. There are a lot of people involved and it is not just one ensemble. It takes ideas from my solo works, but there is no solo album in the pipeline. I did do a tour about a year and a half ago that wasn’t exactly Silhouwav but a combination of things.

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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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