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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

Marcus Strickland, JD Allen, and Stacy Dillard. Photo courtesy of the artists.

This weekend, The Jazz Gallery brings together three leaders who push the tenor saxophone lineage in varied directions. Named for the three-headed monster king, Ghidorah features JD Allen, Stacy Dillard and Marcus Strickland, artists who have developed distinctive, resonating connections to their instrument.

In a joint interview, they spoke with The Jazz Gallery about melodic rub of the bass, sound signatures and their own long-percolating thoughts on the most damaging misnomer of all: “chordless trio.” 

The Jazz Gallery: You all have ways of cuing other players on the bandstand without actually saying anything. JD, you seem to cue the other members of your band entirely with your horn, whether it’s a feel change, a tempo change or moving into a different section—repeating a phrase now and then or using a quotation. I remember on one tune you were playing what sounded like this “Witch Hunt” melody fragment. Can you talk about your instincts for cuing the other players?

JD Allen: Don Cherry was very much into that during the ’60s. If you check out Complete Communion—there’s a few great live recordings of him doing it. That’s where I got that from. And Sonny Rollins’ band in the ’60s was known to do things like that; so that in itself, that’s where that comes from. Now why I do it—the whole focus for me is to make it to the ballad, because that’s when you can sell something and people allow you to do all kinds of other crazy stuff. I’ll notice people will come up sometimes and say, “I don’t know what the hell you guys did, but that ballad—I really loved that ballad.” 

Marcus Strickland: Exactly (laughs). Go head. 

JDA: I get into a ballad and I try to give people kind of a moment of resting from what they heard, good or bad, and then I try to scatter that notion by going into something else, unexpected—maybe a drum solo or another tune. But yeah, I do have cues. It could be a fragment of another melody of where I wanna go to or wherever I wanna go back to, but you’re right. 

Now the “Witch Hunt” reference, I love Wayne Shorter, so that’s possible. That could have happened. I’ll have to go back and investigate. 

TJG: Somewhere in the middle of your second set, you went into “Solitude.”

JDA: Yeah, “Solitude.” 

TJG: I remember thinking, “Wow. He really made us wait for the ballad.” 

JA, MS + Stacy Dillard: [Laughs]

JDA: I can promise you a ballad. I don’t know anything else, but I do know I have a ballad in every set. Or I try to anyway. And I thought it was really appropriate because I was in my solitude. [The audience was] talking so much, and I can hear what people are saying when I play a ballad. I can hear all kinds of conversations and I feel like, in some ways, I’m a soundtrack to whatever madness is going on. 

TJG: The Smalls audience is unpredictable. 

JDA: Oh I love it. They can talk all they want, we’re still gonna play [laughs]. 

TJG: All of you guys, again, have a distinct way of interpreting melody, or maybe I should say connecting to melody. Marcus, I know from past interviews I’ve read that melody was an important consideration for you when you were putting together your most recent release on Blue Note, Nihil Novi. Whether you’re playing live or in the studio, what are some of the different ways you allow the melody to inform how you craft a solo, or improvise more broadly?

MS: That’s definitely the main thing I’m referencing when I start a solo. Your first passage through the song is probably going to be from there. I take that as a reference, and I try to expound on it. That’s where improvisation kind of stems from, embellishing on the melody. So I’m really strong on that, and all these other guys are strong on that, too. 

TJG: Stacy? 

SD: I’m kind of similar to Marcus on that, with the whole embellishing on the melody. It goes back, for me, to listening to R&B and funk and that stuff — listening to the melodies and seeing how the singers go off the melody and how they riff. It’s going to depend on how you articulate the melody when you do blow. You know how Aretha Franklin would vibe at the end of a song. They might loop or something, and she’d riff. It’s a lot like that. Keep it home, and then take off, if you want to. 

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Photo by Philip J. Parsons, courtesy of the artist.

A lot can happen in a mentorship series.

During her initial hit at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem with Dayna Stephens, Marquis Hill and mentor Kendrick Scott, bass player-composer and multi-instrumentalist Kanoa Mendenhall returned from a post-soundcheck smoothie run to find one of her bass strings had snapped. “It was my first time playing with Kendrick, and I had to play the entire gig with three strings,” she says. 

But that night wasn’t the first “first” for the emerging artist out of Monterey. Since graduating from Columbia University last spring, Mendenhall has been out with other young leaders who are swiftly gaining global recognition, including vibraphonist-composer Joel Ross and saxophonist-composer Maria Grand. The Gallery caught up with Mendenhall to discuss her mentorship with Scott and talk engagement, freedom and the art of revival after an injury. 

The Jazz Gallery: How did you get started with the mentorship series? 

Kanoa Mendenhall: Rio reached out to me. She messaged me, “Do you want to work with Kendrick?” …Oh… Sure… (laughs). I hadn’t met Kendrick, but I was aware of his music and a big fan. So it was interesting the first time we met and talked about this whole series before it started. But yeah, Rio approached me and that’s how it happened. 

TJG: I’ve spoken to a number of artists who say they really enjoy playing with you because you have your “own thing happening.” Do you view yourself as an individualist on the bass? Do you have an idea of what they mean when they say that?

KM: I’m not intentionally trying to have my own sound, being different or individualistic. I’m trying to incorporate all the sounds I grew up with [into my playing]. My father’s a jazz pianist; I grew up heavily in the great American songbook tradition. He got me all the tunes, and I worked from a young age learning all these songs by ear. But there are also sounds from my mother’s side; I grew up listening to Japanese enka. It’s like this folk music that my grandma really listened to. So that really influences me—just like the melisma, the singing, all the little inflections. I guess sometimes that comes out in my playing, and all the experiences I’ve had in Japan. I’ve studied some traditional instruments, so I’ve incorporated sounds like strumming and those techniques into my bass playing. I just try to be true to the sound that is in my blood, and try to figure out how to play it. 

TJG: What are some of those instruments that you’ve studied? I know you started on cello.

KM: I did. And at one point, my grandma gave me as a present a shamisen. It’s like this three-string banjo kind of thing. Unfortunately, in high school my dad broke it by accident while we were moving, so that didn’t last long. That was sort of my introduction to traditional instruments. 

But then in college, at Columbia they have this great world music program. They have traditional Japanese music ensembles, and they give out the instruments. Basically, they let you borrow it for the semester and you can practice. So I took advantage of that and I studied koto with one of my teachers there, Masayo Ishigure. So that sound of the koto is really one of my favorite sounds. 

And then I also learned the shō, which is like a mouth organ kind of thing. It sounds like a harmonica but it’s very clean. That is in the gagaku tradition which is this 7th Century music coming from China and Korea that’s been unchanged for centuries through the imperial court. So the theory behind it—all the cluster chords—I’m somehow trying to incorporate into my playing and my compositions. So that’s some of my influences. 

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Photo by Jati Lindsey.

Joel Ross is a man of few idle moments. While touring his acclaimed debut record KingMaker (Blue Note, 2019) with members of Good Vibes, he’s been working out new music with them live on the bandstand. Returning from a week-long run in Asia, the vibraphonist-composer barely can process his jet lag before he hits at Seeds in Brooklyn. 

This weekend, he brings his good and mildly exhausted vibes to The Jazz Gallery for two evenings of original music from his recent release as well as compositions he’s looking toward recording next year. Ross spoke with the Gallery about different cueing personas, gleaning methods from colleagues, the concept of acclimation and why he’ll never stop dancing. 

The Jazz Gallery: So the last time we spoke, we actually talked about speaking—our individual speech patterns and how yours informs your playing. Now that you’ve been exploring that concept for some time, what are some other ideas that approach has sparked for you? 

Joel Ross: It relates much more now to the group interaction. I’m still extremely focused on the dynamic of the group as one entity but also as five different people becoming one entity. If we’re speaking, we’re all communicating with each other. So what I’ve been trying to get to with the group is making sure we understand what we’re doing is a conversation. A soloist might have the mic, per se, but a tune is talking about the same topic. The rhythm section might be the mediators keeping the conversation going. The soloist or improvisationalist at the time might have the mic about this particular topic and then we might pass it along. It’s all still an ongoing conversation. I don’t even like to think of it as soloing anymore because even if one of us is soloing, there are still probably two or three more players playing as well. No one’s really solo; it’s just a different form of accompanying. 

TJG: Do you think this more literal internalizing of what it means to be having a conversation has allowed you, intellectually, more invitation and and ensured a bit less imposition, particularly as a leader, when you play? 

JR: I’ve never really thought of it as me being up front. When people lead bands, they can be like, “This is my band and this is what I’m gonna do,” and I’ve never looked at it that way. 

TJG: So that hasn’t ever been an issue for you. 

JR: I wouldn’t say so. 

TJG: In terms of the band dynamic—well, in a past interview, I think it was with Nate Chinen, you cited Miles’ second Quintet as having had an influence on you as a band leader, specifically on your wordless cueing style. 

JR: Ah. Mmhm. 

TJG: So this question relates to that concept a little. In addition to leading your own project, recently you’ve been playing with folks like Makaya McCraven, Marquis Hill, Brandee Younger. Have you become hyper aware of the different cuing styles among these different leaders, and has working in these varied contexts had another influence on the way you cue, and interact with your own bandmates? 

JR: Oh yeah. Without a doubt. I’m really in touch with the way Makaya leads, and just what we do. A lot of the music that he does is is improvised and then realized in composition. There’s no sheet music. I learn everything by ear. I gotta remember. If I’m not as comfortable in a situation, I’ll play less just to gather the surroundings of the situation, but Makaya wants the opposite. He always wants me to play more—just jump in there and get acclimated.

The way he cues—ah, it’s cliched to say in the moment because that’s the title of his record—but it all tends to make sense. In a very musical aspect, we’re building a vibe for the song, starting off from somewhere, playing the melody a bunch of times. This past tour we did, the first couple of dates were quartet with Jeff Parker and Luke Stewart on bass, and we were just improvising the whole set. I loved those gigs the most. I feel like I’m better at it now than when I first started doing that with them. The cues—he wouldn’t have to cue as much, now that everybody has played with him a bunch and we understand, “Alright let’s set something up. Okay this new vibe, does it need a solo? Is it getting stagnant?” Things would naturally happen. 

In a band like Marquis’, we know the forms, he’ll pick the tunes. We don’t know what tunes might play. He might start with a tune, but after that he’ll just go into a tune. I love that. I’ve definitely picked that up from him. He’s tries to make that list, it’s usually a very in-the-moment thing. I’ve definitely picked that up from him. I usually try to pick the song we’re gonna start with and the song we’ll end with. Usually, at this point, if I start with a song and then don’t say anything, then they know what we’re going into. Or, I’ll start to play the next song in the song that we’re already playing. 

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Brooklyn-based artist and interdisciplinary performer Melvis Santa brings her critically-acclaimed project Ashedí “Afro-Cuban Jazz Meets Rumba” to The Jazz Gallery this month. Leading her band in explorations across a range of repertoire, the singer, dancer, percussionist and GRAMMY nominee presents an evening of music steeped in folkloric traditions from the Afro-Cuban lineage that stretches into the culture and sounds of today.

In the Afro-Cuban language of the Lucumí or Yoruba ethnicity, and for the purposes of Santa’s vision, Ashedí reflects the English word “invitation.” She aims to collaborate with open-minded artists who can share in celebrating a mingling of traditions, cultures and artistic expressions. In the video below, Santa speaks about her vision for the project.

This Wednesday and next at the Gallery, Melvis Santa invites Osmany Paredes on piano, Rafael Monteagudo on drums, Carlos Mena on bass and Brandee Younger on harp to join Ashedí.  (more…)

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Julius Rodriguez engages his music from different points of view. Pianist, drummer, composer and budding producer, Rodriguez has worked with an eclectic mix of artists, from Wynton Marsalis to Brasstracks to his own expanding collective that includes such artists as Morgan Guerin, Daryl Johns and Maya Carney. 

At 21, the artist and habitual collaborator has gone through some very adult changes in his personal and professional development, and he continues to evolve his music and his conception of sound. He spoke with The Gallery about how one instrument can inform others, his vision for the future of the music and which of today’s artists and producers are keeping him inspired in and out of the studio 

The Jazz Gallery: Happy birthday, by the way. 

Julius Rodriguez: Thank you. 

TJG: For someone without all these years of experience, you seem have quite a sophisticated way of playing with and alongside singers. 

JR: I love playing with singers. 

TJG: Obviously the singers who collaborate with you are equally sophisticated in their expressions and their artistries—I might mention Jazzmeia Horn, Voilet Skies, Abir. What have you discovered about your own playing from spending so much time collaborating with these great singers?

JR: Generally, I like accompanying. I feel like some of my better ideas come when I’m accompanying because I’m thinking more about the big picture than my own solo or my own thing. That’s probably one of the biggest [reasons] why I love playing with singers. I also just love learning about the relationship between melody and harmony. As a pianist, you learn more about that learning your instrument. 

I love the way singers are able to express melodies because the voice is different from the piano. The piano is note by note; with the voice, you can do different things with tone and quality and articulations. Being that I love hearing that so much, I’m always trying to find ways to accentuate that and play around it — make it sound good. 

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan. I’ve spent a great deal of time listening to Amy Winehouse—she’s one of my big favorites. Johny Hartman, as well. 

TJG: Do you see a thread of similarities in what attracts you to each of these singers, or do like them all for something that’s unique to each of them? 

JR: Well, I talk about Amy—she’s really one of my biggest musical influences. She obviously took a lot from listening to Billie Holiday, listening to Sarah, listening to Ella. But she grew up in the age that she did, so she has this sort of modern twist on it, which I think is a perfect example of what I think musicians today should be doing with our art: to have a deep sense of the history but also realize that we’re in 2019. Music has evolved; you should, with it. 

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