A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Willie Davis, courtesy of the artist.

This Tuesday, July 31, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome saxophonist Steve Lehman and his trio back to our stage for two sets. Lehman, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Damion Reid have been playing together for ten years and are preparing material for their next record.

The last time Lehman’s trio graced our stage, the musicians were joined by saxophonist Maria Grand as part of The Jazz Gallery’s Mentorship Series. After that experience, we sat down with Lehman and Grand to talk about the educational exchange. Read below to dive into both artists’ thoughts on phrasing, commanding space as a soloist, and fitting in with a long-running group, before coming out to see Lehman’s trio at the Gallery this week.

The Jazz Gallery: Maria, how were the shows for you?

Maria Grand: I had an amazing time. They didn’t go easy on me at all, and I progressed a lot. I feel like I learned more at those three shows than I might have learned in a long time of practicing.

TJG: What do you mean? Walk me through it.

MG: I mean, you can practice forever, but there are things you only learn in a focused performance environment. One thing I learned a lot about was phrasing. Every show we played, I recorded with my phone, and I’d listen back the next morning. On the first show, I noticed that my phrasing was just too soft, compared to Steve’s. It was lacking, in my opinion. So I became really aware that I’d have to keep things strong, solid, and assertive throughout a phrase I’d be playing. He’d play a solo, and I’d have to make a statement after that: His solidity forced me to have more solidity. So you can practice, but I don’t know if you can learn that stuff on your own.

TJG: Steve, did you and Maria speak about her awareness of phrasing, and the idea that it “wasn’t strong enough?”

Steve Lehman: Yes, I remember talking about carving out a space for yourself as a soloist in a wide variety of musical settings. If the music is quiet, spacious, transparent, it’s easier to make space for yourself as a soloist. If things are dense, louder, there’s a lot of activity, a great deal of interaction, it can be a little bit more challenging. If you feel like you’re not able to drive the music or contribute in the way you want, you’re compelled to think about what tools you have to make the space you’re looking for. It might be something about your phrasing, the length of your notes, the register you’re playing in, your articulation, how big your sound is, clarity of ideas, how straight-forward it is for a rhythm section or accompanist to follow whatever indications you’re putting out there. It can happen off the bandstand too, through a discussion, making sure everybody’s on the same page, thinking about aesthetics in ways that overlap, compliment each other.

TJG: So after you made those changes, did Steve notice? Did you talk?

MG: Yeah. We also talked about not thinking about the rhythm section as an assistant, as someone who’s going to help you out. I’ve noticed a lot of times that when Steve solos, it’s almost like he’s stating the form, and Damian would be playing some intricate counterpoint, not necessarily stating the form in a basic way. Of course, he knows where he is, but no big crashes on the one [laughs]. Steve was stating the form, and Damion would be improvising around him. So even though it was Steve’s solo, Damion was also soloing.

TJG: In what way did they not take it easy on you, as you mentioned?

MG: Matt and Damion have been playing a long time, and together, they form a really aggressive, assertive, strong rhythm section. I had to really project, fill out the horn consistently. If you give Matt a bassline, a lot of times, he’ll add stuff and move around it, so it’s your job to maintain your place through that. I had to pay a lot of close attention, otherwise, it would be easy to feel I was somewhere where I wasn’t.

TJG: Steve, Maria mentioned how glad she was that the band “didn’t take it easy on her.” You’re a tight group and have been playing forever, and she was thrown right into that mix. How did it feel having her onstage in that context?

SL: This is a situation that comes up. I’m often asked to join a rhythm section, or a group of musicians with a long history, and then asked to add to it, to negotiate a previously established language. I was just traveling with a group of mine, and ended up playing in the same festival as Ambrose Akinmusire’s quartet. I sat in for a piece in their set, and in some ways, that’s a pretty similar situation to this mentorship with Maria. With Ambrose, it was on me to listen and think about the way his group interacts, to fit within their language, and to carve a compelling, meaningful space for myself as a soloist.

TJG: Maria, Is that something you’ve seen in a soloist before, commanding the form like that?

MG: I’ve seen soloists do that. I saw Steve Coleman do that. I’ve seen people do it before, but for me to notice it that within the context of Steve Lehman’s music, it became really clear to me. Of course, you have to be strong on the form, so you can have something to offer, rather than needing something from the rhythm section. As a horn player, you don’t want to be needing them to state the form for you. But I’ve heard several horn players direct the time of the band. It’s an unclear role. You’re taking a solo, but you’re also solidly stating the form, so you’re being creative but also a container. You have to be able to do that. Damion and Matt don’t want to have to babysit anyone, if you know what I mean.

TJG: With the idea of carving a space for yourself in someone else’s long-established band, how much of that is the responsibility of the band to step back and make space for the new soloist? Can a new soloist bring something strong to say when what your trio has is already so complete?

SL: I think the probably the lion’s share of the responsibility is on the soloist. It’s definitely shared, but the majority of it is on the soloist. A good rhythm section is going to adjust as well, but for the most part, if the rhythm section is doing something that works and is compelling, it’s the responsibility of the soloist to fit inside of that and add in a certain way. Maria did a stellar job handling all of that with the trio. I was impressed with the amount of material she was able to get together in a short time. Compositions of mine, arrangements we played, she didn’t have any problem.

TJG: Was it an educational experience, not just a bandstand setting?

MG: Oh yeah, so much. You know, just talking with the guys after the shows, there are so many little things you learn that you’re able to pick up in professional settings. I’ve never really been in school, so I don’t know how it works there, but maybe it’s like this too. After the shows, someone might say, “You know, I heard this record years ago, so-and-so plays this way,” and then you go home and check out the record. It’s all a part of this culture. These guys have a lot of knowledge. They share experiences from their lives, their own upbringing. That’s really priceless. That’s one of the great things about having an experience like this. A lot of learning goes down like that. People talk about the music they listen to, the music they like.

TJG: We were talking about mentorship as a two-way street. Did you leave them with anything?

MG: The one thing I would say I did well is preparing. I try to do that for everything. In this case, Steve sent me the music with enough time to prepare. I was able to really study the music, and all we had to do was piece it together. I could learn a lot more that way, because I wasn’t like, “Oh, what note is this?” If I hadn’t prepared as much, I wouldn’t have been able to be as observing as people were doing, because I would have been worried about what I had to do. I really learned the songs. It was a mentorship, but I treated it like any other gig; I loved the music, and I really wanted to do my best.

TJG: Steve, anything else meaningful about the mentorship process?

SL: She’s a great musician, so it was good to have a concentrated period where she, I, Matt, and Damion were able to see each other every day, talk about music, play the same repertoire for several days in a row, that’s something we all really cherish. To me, and I told her as much as well, the manner in which she played the material and played with the ensemble, it’s further confirmation that the sky’s the limit for her. In terms of what she wants to do musically, I don’t see any obstacles, in terms of musicianship or concept. Whatever she decides she wants to set her mind to, she’s able to realize it. That’s pretty exciting. For her, and for all of us who are invested in the music.