A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

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. 


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. 


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. 


Kris Davis & Julian Lage. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Pianist Kris Davis and guitarist Julian Lage are two hard-to-pin-down musicians. Davis’ and Lage’s individual projects over the years, have engaged a huge range of personalities. For Davis, that includes Terri Lyne Carrington, Craig Taborn, Ingrid Laubrock, and Mary Halvorson; while for Lage, that includes Nels Cline, Eric Harland, Nicole Henry and Fred Hersch. Ahead of their duo hit at The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday and Thursday, they discuss the merits of judgment, cooperative exploration and those persistent playback scaries. 

The Jazz Gallery: Musicians are always engaging in conversation, bandstand dialogue, etc. Both of you obviously are very receptive conscious listeners. Kris, to me there’s something about your playing that feels like a very close to literal translation of the idea of conversation, almost a voice speaking. In what ways, if any, do you feel like there’s a connection between your actual speech patterns and your phrasing choices or broad musical choices? 

Kris Davis: I guess what I would say is that I’m innately a shy person and some times it’s hard for me to come up with things to say. So when I’m playing music, it’s kind of the opposite. I feel completely free to generate material and express myself. And I think that’s really how I express myself in general. 

TJG: When you’re playing, do you feel as though you’re not going to be judge for what you’re saying musically in the way that you might be judged for what you say verbally? 

KD: I’m from the school of “There are no mistakes.” It hasn’t always been that way but, at this point, anything I come across, if I think it’s not sounding that exciting or I’m not happy with my choice, sometimes I’ll just stick with it and see where I can take it. Things that might seem dissonant or, I don’t know, things that other people might consider a mistake or a bad sound, to me, I try to come from a place of loving all sound and just rolling with that and going with it. 

TJG: That concept relates directly to the practice of reserving self-judgment. Julian, over the course of your career as an artist, have you transitioned into that headspace of being far less critical of yourself than maybe when you began playing? 

Julian Lage: That’s a good question. I suppose in certain respects, the stakes seem a little clearer now than maybe they did when I was younger, as far as what’s really at risk, what’s really at stake if I don’t play exactly as I had hoped or it doesn’t go the way I’d wished it would. 

KD: Yeah, I understand that sentiment. 

JL: As far as critique and judgment, I’m very much aligned with Kris in that respect. I embrace critique as kind of a dramatic subtext. Maybe a player is going about their business and then you hear something happen that you maybe think, “Ooh, that’s awkward,” and then you hear how they reconcile it. I would say it’s like that. It’s very dramatically interesting. And it’s not divorced from judgment per se; it’s just the relationship to judgment is not stifled. I’m pretty blunt. If I play something that I feel is not going well, I’ll say, “That sucked. Cool.” And then if it’s killing, there’s something happening and I might say, “Well that was amazing.” I’ll feel empowered to say, “Did you hear that? I’ve never heard a guitar do that. It’s amazing.” I don’t take any credit for it, but I do think amazing things happen and it’s fun to rejoice.