A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Rob Shepherd

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.”