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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

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. 

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Peter Bernstein & Gilad Hekselman. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Guitarist-composers, bandleaders and compulsive hangers, Pete Bernstein and Gilad Hekselman each have left a strong mark on contemporary sound. As proud descendants of a fabled guitar lineage, Hekselman and Bernstein over the years have collaborated with diverse artists, including Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Esperanza Spalding, and Ben Wendel, as well as Joshua Redman, Diana Krall, Nicholas Payton and Dr. Lonnie Smith, respectively. Back on New York City soil after a couple tightly-booked European tours, both artists took a few minutes to discuss playing with and off each other, democratic leadership (in music) and the DNA of their sound.

The Jazz Gallery: Pete, you were just out for a while—exclusively in Europe?

Pete Bernstein: I was all around Europe, starting Moscow, then up through Paris. Did a few stops with Larry Goldings and Bill Stewart. It was fun all around. We had like 15 gigs in 18 days.

TJG: Pro.

PB: Yeah, I guess so. It’s a miracle when a tour is actually put together. It’s really hard to do, a lot of work. Buying tickets, hotel coordinating… The whole idea of how a booking agent does that, it’s kind of amazing. It’s like architecture. And fishing. At the same time. The first part is fishing because you just throw a gig into the water and see who takes the bait, and then you get one big one you try to book around it. There’s an art to it, I think.

TJG: Apt. Do you guys always use the same booking agent for your Europe tours?

PB: Yeah, we’ve been using the same booking agent Helen Kondos. [We’ve been working with her] for about four years. She’s great. She’s very unusual, too, because she’ll send dozens of emails saying, “Okay, do you guy wanna do this to make this flight? The next day you’d have to get up and do this…” She’s very much involved in what our experience will be, which is nice. Most people just try to put [the tour] together and cut corners or save money—they just do whatever. She’s about asking us what we would rather do.

TJG: Well then we should totally give her a shout out in this interview.

PB: Yeah, she’s unusual. A lot of times you look at it on paper and it’s like wow: four days in a row you’re waking up at five in the morning. After a while, you really start to crumble when things are put together in a very sadistic way.

The whole thing is a miracle, but especially the first step, when someone actually wants us to come play for them. And then people come out and see the gig. That’s all miraculous.

TJG: You still find that first part miraculous, after all the years you’ve been out there?

PB: I find it more miraculous than ever now. Gilad, maybe you know the feeling: You get on a couple of airplanes, take a van ride and you’re at this place and you’re like, “Where the fuck are we?” And then people actually come out. It’s amazing.

Gilad Hekselman: I agree. I think too often, especially in some situations that I’ve been in, people take that stuff for granted, but I agree with you.

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Photo by Rachel Thalia Fisher, courtesy of the artist.

Camila Meza engages listeners by sharing her unique experiences and personal longings. Hers are stories of movement, both journeys and emergences.

On the heels of her studio release Ámbar (Sony Masterworks), the Chilean-born singer, guitarist and composer returns to the bandstand to perform Portal, her 2019 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission. While composing the project, Meza chose to explore new music in an instrumental context unfamiliar to her, in part, so she could inhabit one of Portal’s essential themes: the struggle to seek and find solutions to hard questions.

Ahead of her performance, Meza spoke with the Jazz Speaks about joys and challenges of creating possibilities, her connection to vocal harmony, and the enduring aesthetic of “layering” in her work.

The Jazz Gallery: In terms of instrumentation, this project is a departure from your work with the Nectar Orchestra.

Camila Meza: I’d say so. Although in its quantity, it’s similar. It’s a lot of people.

TJG: And you’ve been playing with and composing for Nectar over the past three years—or longer than that?

CM: Well [the Nectar] project started maybe around six years ago but, in the middle, I was taking care of Traces. There was some sort of hiatus for that album, so the last three years have been totally dedicated to Ámbar.

TJG: In what ways do you feel your compositions have expanded—or maybe your compositional style has expanded—as a result of spending so much time with the orchestra?

CM: Having the possibility to experiment with a larger group of people, a wider instrumentation, it really, intuitively gives you so many more options in terms of arranging and landscaping the songs and compositions. It puts you in a position of having to pay a lot of attention to detail and ask yourself “How am I going to use all of these sounds in a cohesive way so that I take advantage of them and also use them in a way that serves the music?”

TJG: Did you ever find those possibilities overwhelming, or did you always sort of find them to be intriguing?

CM: Both. It definitely enhances your creativity. You suddenly have more colors to play with, which sounds enticing, but you’re also in front of another problem to solve. You have to pay attention so you’re able to use these colors without overusing them only because you have them in front of you. That’s the challenge.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Vibraphonist-composer Nikara Warren combines a broad lineage of music with the very personal and diverse artistry she grew up embracing in her native Brooklyn, creating new music that confronts injustice and celebrates humanity.

While her debut recording Black Wall Street awaits release, Warren invites the Black Wall Street band back to The Jazz Gallery stage for the final performance of her Political Gangster Trilogy, which offers original interpretations of music from Nina Simone and Me’Shell Ndegeocello. In her interview with Jazz Speaks, Warren discusses similarities and differences in political inquiries through music, the atmospheres she creates for listeners, and the universal need—and love—for the process.

The Jazz Gallery: You have a connection to the human voice—this performance in more of a literal way, many of the horn parts for Black Wall Street to have kind of a choral quality, and you sing through your instrument—listeners can hear you sing while you play, and you’ve been known to grab the mic yourself in different contexts. In what ways has the decision to become politically gangster with your artistry given you a stronger connection to the human voice?

Nikara Warren: Well politics, that’s what it’s all about—people speaking their truths—which is also what music is all about. I’m not really someone who enjoys talking about politics; if I’m hanging out, it’s not on the list of things I want to chat about. But, because of the state of the country and the world, I feel like I guess I have to be. And I don’t always know that my words can really do it. But [the state we’re in] has forced me to find ways to make statements, musically, that were directly related to my political stance, which I guess is kind of difficult – being able to say things with no words, because I don’t always have them.

TJG: I’d like to read you a quotation from the one-sheet for Me’Shell’s Ventriloquism.

NW: Okay.

TJG: “In times so extreme and overwhelming, when there is no known expression for the feeling, no satisfactory direction for art or action, then [artists] might take refuge in a process, a ritual, something familiar, the shape and sound of which recall another time altogether, so that they can weather the present long enough to call it the past.”

NW: Yeah that’s the blues. That’s the premise of the blues, where all this music started.

TJG: How does that sentiment resonate with your choices as an artist?

NW: The beauty of music is that it can move you. It can move you, and it can change the place that you’re in mentally. And I think a lot of the reason artists make art is to reflect the times emotionally, or what’s going on. So there are times for artists when things are difficult, you might want to cling on to, or submerge yourself in a process that maybe feels like home. For a lot of artists, that’s just creating—being creative. Because, if you do that, you can kind of weather the storm. You can get through it. Thank you for reading that.

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Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Raga Massive.

Part of mandolin master Snehasish Mozumder’s mission—and that of artist-based collective Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM)—is to create opportunities for artistic exchanges and cultural communication through engagement with Indian classical music. This engagement has deep roots in jazz and Western popular music, through the work of artists including John and Alice Coltrane, The Beatles and, of course, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Within his own project, Sound of Mandolin, Mozumder interprets his lineage through the lens of cultural curiosity and inclusion, playing Indian classical music and composing “raga-inspired” music. He has released 28 recordings as a leader, constantly seeking new situations for collaboration. Along with other members of BRM’s ensembles, Mozumder has re-envisioned the music of McLaughlin, Mahavishnu and Shakti to reflect his own expression and the movements of the moment in 2019. This McLaughlin-inspired project will play The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday, June 19.

Before the hit, we spoke with Mozumder and BRM artist and band leader/drummer Vin Scialla. Each offered thoughts on finding new paths through the music, the challenges and triumphs of spontaneity and collaboration and the mysterious power of “the drone.”

The Jazz Gallery: Snehasish—You began playing tabla at age 4. What prompted the switch to studying mandolin, which I understand is not considered traditional to Hindustani Indian classical music?

Snehasish Mozumder: [Mandolin] is Italian originally. I am from a musical family; I’m the third generation doing music. My grandfather started a style of teaching the young kids—first, tabla when you’re 4. He used to play violin and mandolin—not like me, but some songs, some initial phrases of ragas. So when I was 4, I asked for the tabla; then when I was 9 or 10, mandolin, for some initial idea of the melodic instruction. Then, when I was 16, I switched over to a traditional Indian classical instrument—I switched over to sitar.

TJG: So you continued studying mandolin while studying sitar?

SM: Exactly, because I loved the tone of the mandolin, and I noticed that what I had heard on other Indian instruments, I played that sound on the mandolin. We had a big family, so many different rooms. In one room, my father Himangshu Mozumder, very famous guitar player, he used to play light classical and modern songs also, and [in another room] my uncle was playing sitar and another uncle was playing sarod—so from that childhood, I tried to adapt that type of North Indian classical style on mandolin. That was the very start of [my artistry]. And then there was a lot of struggle.

TJG: In what ways do you feel that your first instrument being percussive offered you certain advantages as you pursued mastering other instruments?

SM: It’s like playing a new instrument in an authentic society. It’s very hard. At the initial stage, I [encountered] many problems. But, slowly, I have come out from that. My first big achievement was in 1997, my debut album Mandolin Dreams. Then I got a little bit of international notoriety in 2001, when I had my first Europe tour—Europe and Britain, both. My last concert was at London at Bharitiya Vidya Bhavan; it’s a pretty famous hall for Indian classical music. Fortunately, at this concert, Pandit Ravi Shankar ji came to listen to my music, and he liked it. Then, in 2002, he invited me to Royal Albert Hall as a soloist at the [George Harrison Memorial Concert] “Concert for George.” And now I’m getting recognition from all over the world, and in India, but I’m really grateful to American audiences because they’re always liking a new style, especially mandolin. While I am playing Indian classical style on mandolin, all the mandolin players are sitting in the front row – that’s really, very inspiring.

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