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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

Restless in the city that never sleeps, Mary Halvorson spends her waking hours with her music. The guitarist-composer flew back to Brooklyn in the middle of a European tour, after the pandemic reduced her dates from eight to four—and then to none. 

Quarantined with her guitar, she explores new possibilities and reinterprets elements from past projects. This past week, we at Jazz Speaks caught up with Halvorson for a virtual discussion on composition ruts and revisions, mysteries of the instrument, and what’s next for Code Girl. 

The Jazz Gallery: In past interviews you’ve spoken about sound density in terms of instrumentation and just sheer number of instrumentalists. What are some of the more recent ways you’ve challenged yourself to maintain this sort of Halvorson agility and intense clarity of sound and intention inside that denseness?

Mary Halvorson: I’m glad you hear it like that [laughs]. It’s always a challenge when writing for a larger group—and even when you’re improvising with people—to ensure it doesn’t have to be everybody all the time. If I’m writing for a group, I’m definitely aware of having different colors pop out, and having moments of density but not having it feel like it’s constant—in other words, being able to leave space, or have different orchestral possibilities pop out.

For me, it’s also based around the specific people I’m writing for and their instruments. I very rarely write a composition that’s an open instrumentation composition that can be transferred to different groups; I pretty much always write very instrumentation-specific compositions. For example, if I’m writing for my octet which has a pedal steel guitar, four horns and guitar, bass and drums, I’ll be thinking about all those colors and trying to have it make sense and have different voices and sub-sections of the band come through in different moments, as a contrast and release from the density of the full band.

TJG: Did it take you some trial and error to maintain that balance of inhaling and exhaling and pacing with specific configurations?

MH: It’s always trial and error. I think it does take some work, particularly when you just get started with a new group. You’re kind of excited about all the colors and all the voices, so it’s probably easy to over-compose. But what I often do with compositions is, write them, then take a step back, then come back to them with a fresh brain [laughs] maybe on a different day. And sometimes, it’s during those moments when you’ll see the big picture more clearly: “Oh this is way too much,” or “Maybe if I get rid of some things in this one section,” or “Maybe this other thing needs to be made longer.” I do a lot of revisions. I write very quickly but then I go back and revise. So I think kind of the best way for me to see the big picture is to take some time away from a piece of music and then come back to it.  

TJG: That must be hard to do when you’re really excited about a project. 

MH: Yeah. But also I think of the time away from actual composing as part of the composing process, too.

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Photo by Una Stade, courtesy of the artist.

Housebound in New York, singer and composer Arta Jēkabsone leans in to solitude. Alone in her apartment, her natural effervescence stills, but not entirely, and only for the moment. 

Like so many emerging artists, Jēkabsone searches for answers at a time when performances have halted, sessions have stopped and creative collaborations, typically a contact sport, have pivoted to socially-distant online exchanges. But her spirit remains buoyant. 

The Latvian-born artist has crafted a sound niche reflective of her journeys, both physical and emotional. Hope, wanderlust, and self-reflection emerge as raw materials for carefully sculpted compositions; her lyrics brim with intimacy.

From the quiet of her kitchen, Jēkabsone spoke with the Gallery about melodic tendencies, violin as a voice and her hope for the future of human connection. 

The Jazz Gallery: I recently spoke with singer and percussionist Melvis Santa about drawing inspiration from the natural world. You’re also known to tap that world for creative inspiration — particularly on your most recent studio release Light. Can you discuss how nature influences your compositional concepts and broader concepts for an album? 

Arta Jēkabsone: That’s a really huge part of me because, as you know, I’m from Latvia and Latvia is more or less a country that is super green—at least 60 percent is the woods. So I grew up in this really small town where I was surrounded by river and trees. I would go out into nature and listen to all the birds that are singing and the water that is doing his own noise—it’s a part of me—listening to what’s happening around me, listening to what’s inside of me and [finding ways to] make all these little sounds into a composition. It’s a very abstract way of how I hear music and how I feel things. And if you listen to my lyrics, there’s a lot of reference to nature, in the Light album and also my recent project that I did with string quartet and jazz quintet that was presented at The Jazz Gallery in May 2019. That concept was more how I feel—life situations happening around me—and also [bringing] the nature aspect into it. There’s a song called “Rain Song.” If I hear the rain pour down, I think about healing—how it washes away all your tough, emotional moments. 

TJG: You mentioned the string quartet. So much of your artistry comes from your identity as a violin player. In what ways does violin influence your choices and this unique sound you’ve cultivated as a vocalist?

AJ: When I was a kid, I played violin. And I always sang, but when I really started to study violin, I had really good teachers who would always ask me to listen to the music first and then try to [play] to kind of see what happens. So I did classical violin for 15 years, and then after, when I started focusing on singing, I understood how the violin has helped me to hear the music. It helped me to train my relative pitch. That has helped me, even with singing, tuning with people and other tiny details. I think that’s one of the biggest things violin has given me.

And also, the teachers always would tell me, “When you’re playing, think as though you’re singing.” So afterwards I started to realize, yeah, I think I’m singing the way I play violin and I’m playing the violin as if I’m singing. And you can see, with my music, I don’t view myself as a vocalist who wants to always do everything with lyric. I actually feel more connected doing stuff with instrumental lines. I would often ask somebody to double lines with me, like a guitar player or a saxophone player. I love that. That’s the approach that I really love. And I think that stems from violin. 

And doing a lot of violin ensembles and orchestras really taught me to understand that if I go out on stage, I wanna be part of the group, not an individual artist who wants to be the lead. I’ve been talking with a lot of musicians about that. Most of them say, “Yeah, when we’re on stage, we feel like we’re a part of what you’re trying to do. It’s not you alone. You’re kind of inviting us to be with you on this journey.” It’s like a conversation. Sometimes, the more people who join, the more interesting it can get, because you have these different opinions. You end up having this beautiful conversation with so many thoughts, but they’re all speaking about this one thing. 

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Multi-disciplinary artist Melvis Santa regards the act of creating music with other people as compelling as the music itself. For the past couple years, the GRAMMY-nominated singer, dancer, percussionist and composer out of Cuba has led different iterations of her acclaimed collective Ashedí—meaning Invitation—across New York City’s vital scenes. This week, she returns to The Jazz Gallery as part of the Jazz Cubano series, in celebration of the venue’s 25th anniversary.

Allowing certain secular and spiritual elements to inform her music, Santa and her fellow artists explore new interpretations of rhythmic and melodic ideas from the Yoruba tradition and other styles that trace back to the same source. She discusses mysteries of the drum, the tonal characteristic of Yoruba language and the enduring legacy of the The Jazz Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: Talk to me, if you would, about the sacred connection between percussion and the voice or vocal expression.

Melvis Santa: The voice in the Afro-Cuban tradition is one of the main elements. It’s definitely sacred because of not only the voice, literally, of the singer but the voice that speaks through the instruments as a spirit, I would say. It’s really important in the religious context, and culturally as well because we inherited that from the African traditions. In oral tradition there is the “culture bearer,” who is someone who has knowledge—deep knowledge—and is the carrier of all those traditions. So either it is the storytellers, or the Babaaláwo, or high priestess Iyalosha, or a mother—all those are people who use their voice as a vessel for knowledge and for tradition.

And the sound, specifically in the Yoruba tradition because it’s a tonal language, is very important—tone makes all the differences. In my case, as a singer, I do want to keep having that other perspective to the voice—not only as someone that is just in front of a band expressing feeling spontaneously through the music, but also acknowledging certain responsibility with the legacy I come from. That’s how I see it. It’s a cultural responsibility. We’re transmitting not only sounds but I have a stance with my voice as a communicator. For example, in Lukumí ceremonies we have the akpwon, which is the singer who carries the knowledge to speak directly to the orishas. In order to be an akpwon, you must acquire that knowledge. So that’s my approach, as well.

TJG: We consider the oral tradition all the time when talking about Black American music.

MS: It all comes from Africa.

TJG: It’s illuminating to hear how it’s—almost literally—handed down in the Yoruba tradition.

MS: Yes.

TJG: Why is being a percussionist also important to you in connecting the literal, figurative—or spiritual—vocal tradition?

MS: The instruments are sacred as well, especially in percussion. They are homes for spirits that live inside the drum. It could be interpreted as the sound that you master or the people that work in developing the sound—and not only the sound but the language of the drum—their mission is to find that voice so they can understand and unveil the messages. So in order to have that level of perception, you really have to have a sophisticated sense of development. You have to put all of your senses toward that development. It’s a combination of knowledge, of tradition and of personal investment from inside and outside. The instruments also have their own voice, their own sound. It’s a communication between the instrument, the person that plays and the external elements—like nature, for example.

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Photo by Tom Ehrlich, courtesy of the artist.

As part of its 25th Anniversary Celebration series, The Jazz Gallery welcomes pianist and composer Osmany Paredes and his Jazz Cubano Quartet. After an early introduction to rhythmic patterns at age 3 from his father, percussionist and band leader Guillermo Paredes, Paredes now stretches his artistry across styles and traditions, both emerging and enduring. Collaborators include Yosvany Terry, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Arturo Sandoval and the legendary Roy Hargrove, among countless other distinct voices. 

Paredes recently spoke with the Gallery on intercutting musical styles from a range of cultures, the role of clave in his artistic development and flexing leadership—again—in New York City. 

The Jazz Gallery: You were very, very young when you received an introduction to different rhythmic patterns and elements from Guillermo Paredes, your father and longtime percussionist at Modern Music Orchestra of Santa Clara. 

Osmany Paredes: He plays percussion and a little bit of valve trombone. In my hometown, Santa Clara, he played with a big band orchestra. He liked jazz, Brazilian music, Cuban music of course, and he introduced me to all these rhythms when I was really young. Also, he [kept] a lot of LPs in the house, so I listened to all different kinds of music—Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Chucho Valdes—many, many different styles of music. He also taught me a little bit about the pattern, the clave—rumba and son, different [variations] on the clave. So I had that information before I started in the music school, EVA Olga Alonso, in Santa Clara, and I felt proud about that.  

TJG: The other students, at the time, didn’t have the same exposure to clave before they started at the school? 

OP: Most of them didn’t know about that. I talked with some of them who maybe had fathers who were also musicians, but most of them, no. Actually, today some of them are musicians, but many of them are not working on music; they have different [careers]. Most of them didn’t know about clave because in school, we didn’t have material that teaches how to play Cuban music; it was all classical music. 

TJG: You seem to have an ability to intuit the precise tempo to call for every tune you play; do you feel as though your early introduction to clave has nurtured that ability? 

OP: Yes. For me, it was good to know clave and other [rhythmic ideas] when I was very young because that helped me to be able to play, as an individual, a lot of different styles. If you feel strong with your music—in this case, Cuban music—you can feel [more comfortable] playing other roots: Brazilian, African, jazz. So I think learning clave when I was young helped me to put different styles of music together.  

TJG: You have deep connection to beautiful, dissonant melodies. In what ways have Afro-Cuban traditions and other musical traditions and styles influenced your relationship with melody and lyricism? 

OP: I love the music from Brazil. That music has beautiful melodies and beautiful harmony—complicated harmony, but, at the same time, beautiful. I love classical music, too. I like African music and jazz. For me, the rhythm is very important, but it’s the balance of melody, harmony and rhythm. I like to compose melodies that feel familiar not only to musicians but to the people who come listen to the music. When I compose, I think about everyone—I’m not only thinking about musicians. I like to be in the middle, always thinking about rhythm, melody and harmony. Sometimes musicians do very [complex] things, which is part of the style they play, but it’s also good to compose something that sounds familiar to everyone so people can understand [the music] when they come to your concert. For me, that’s very important.

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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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