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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts from the Interviews Category

Tivon Pennicott

Photo courtesy of the artist.

As a saxophonist and composer, Tivon Pennicott has one foot on the dance floor and the other stepping into the beyond. Across his two albums Lover of Nature and Spirit Garden, Pennicott has drawn from his Jamaican heritage, Pentecostal upbringing, and love of film music. Pennicott furthers his expansive musical vision in From Roots to Branches, his new Jazz Gallery Residency Commission. Joined by bassist Louis Cato and drummer Joe Saylor, Pennicott will premiere the work at the Gallery this Friday and Saturday, July 23 and 24. We caught up with Pennicott to talk about the sources of his musical searching, and the commission’s new experiments.

The Jazz Gallery: Out of curiosity, what were you just doing in France?

Tivon Pennicott: That was just a gig with Gregory Porter. It was our first time back at a festival. It was just a three-day trip and now I’m back in New York.

TJG: What was that like returning to Europe after the pandemic and all that time?

TP: It was surreal.The band has been together so much for the past four or five years. We had to just abruptly take a break and now, a year and a half later, we met up again. It felt like we picked up where we left off, just as far as the camaraderie, the music, the jokes, and the fellowship goes. The big difference of course is that everyone’s wearing masks inside and the audience cannot enter after the show. I’m so used to greeting fans and just talking to them and getting to know them a little bit, so that kind of sucked.

TJG: Both of your albums, Lover of Nature and Spirit Garden are clearly focused on these broad themes of nature. Could you talk more about your connection to nature and the thematic inspirations for those two albums?

TP: My name, Tivon, is actually a Hebrew name that means “lover of nature. “ I felt like my parents did a pretty good job naming me because I was always outside. I was always in the moment as a child. I was always following my nature and the nature of who I am. I am blessed to have parents who put up with me and let me be free, as a child. So, I think my name suits me and that carries over to my creativity and my music. I especially felt that the first album, Lover of Nature, was a good opportunity to showcase some of the moments in my life that I wanted to amplify. 

Naturally, the second album digs a little deeper into what “Lover of Nature” means and is more specific on how I live my life, as far as wellness is concerned, and how taking care of your physical body relates to you know your friends and family. It is all one, as far as nature is concerned.

TJG:  You’ve said elsewhere that your first album was inspired by the time you had spent in New York. How do you feel your art has been inspired by earlier phases of your life, such as your time growing up in your hometown of Marietta, Georgia?

TP: I am very inspired by my Jamaican heritage. I grew up in Georgia, but my household was very Jamaican. On top of that, my parents are strong Christians. My parents related to the hymns at church, that is what drew them there. I’m Black, but no Black churches were really singing those hymns that they heard in Jamaica, so they were drawn towards a white southern Pentecostal church. So I have this interesting mixture of Jamaican heritage, with southern white gospel in my head and in my ears. I think that was a big influence on how I move musically and creatively. Of course,  I was also in Atlanta Georgia, so I got the American Black culture as well.

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Morgan Guerin

Photo courtesy of the artist.

As a multi-instrumentalist, Morgan Guerin has a uniquely-large sound palette. While he primarily performs on the saxophone, you can find also him playing at a professional level on several instruments, from bass with Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science to synthesizers with Esperanza Spalding. In some cases, as on his three self-released The Saga albums, he’ll perform multiple instruments on any given song.

Through his 2020-2021 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission, Sanctuary, Guerin focuses on another part of his artistry: his skills as a composer. In the piece, Guerin hopes to bridge any perceived gap between genres by conducting and adding his Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) and saxophone to a large ensemble featuring a mix of jazz and classical performers. In our conversation with Guerin, he reflected on how his instrumental skills impact his compositional process and how his music has evolved from project to project.

The Jazz Gallery: What is the concept behind Sanctuary?

Morgan Guerin: It is based on my longstanding desire to present long-form melodies and themes in their own time, as they come. Last year, I did a commission for Roulette called Wishes, which was inspired by Wayne Shorter. It featured an eight-person ensemble with two violas, cello, flute, bassoon, piano, bass, drums, and myself on saxophone and EWI. That project was fascinating to me and Sanctuary expands upon some of its ideas and instrumentation.

TJG: How is Sanctuary different from the work you did on Wishes?

MG: Sanctuary will be about twice as long as Wishes. It also involves more musicians. Both of those differences allow the group to open up a little more. Sanctuary also features new personnel for the most part. Of course, new artists will bring in new approaches and sounds.

TJG: Wayne Shorter is an obvious influence on your music. Was the choice in the title of this commission at all inspired by his famous composition of the same name on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew?

MG: No. I have always been fascinated by what Wayne Shorter has contributed to music, particularly his use of chamber instrumentation, but this piece wasn’t directly named after that song. I named it Sanctuary because it is effectively my invitation to listeners to enter into my sacred space. This commission is very personal and unlike anything I’ve released before. On many of my other projects, I play several instruments and the focus is on my skills on those instruments. But, here, the focus is primarily on my abilities as a composer rather than my own performance.

TJG: How do you feel being a multi-instrumentalist has shaped your compositional process compared to someone who focuses primarily on only one or a few instruments?

MG: To be honest, I am not sure whether being a multi-instrumentalist is an advantage or disadvantage in terms of composing. It certainly gives me more insight into what things are possible on a given instrument. During the writing process itself, that background also helps me figure things out on various instruments. I will have instruments in the same room while I have the scores pulled up and just imagine what things people could be playing or how they may be approaching a particular part. To be honest, most of my writing I do on a MIDI controller and Sibelius but it is still good to have that perspective at times.

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Samara Joy

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Originally from the Bronx, Samara Joy first came into the public eye after winning the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019. A couple of years and a pandemic later, Joy is making her Jazz Gallery debut on Thursday, July 15th, following the recent release of her self-titled debut album. One the record, Joy presents her contemporary take on a set of jazz standards, backed by guitarist Pasquale Grasso, bassist Ari Roland, and drummer Kenny Washington.

Before her Gallery show this week, we at Jazz Speaks sat down with Joy to talk about this new release, dealing with the pressures of early success, and some of her favorite singers.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us a little bit about what to expect from your first album?

Samara Joy: My debut album is really exciting—all the songs I have a personal connection to.  I wanted this repertoire to be songs that I could personally relate to, or at least add my own perspective to. A lot of standards talk about love and loss. So me being 21, and having only sung this music for the past three or four years, I wanted to pick songs that I personally relate to, as well as songs that I can add my own perspective to, and authentically convey. So you can expect a very stripped back acoustic sound of songs that I really love to sing.

TJG: Could you give an example of a particular song on your album that you have a personal connection to?

SJ: The first one that comes to mind is “It Only Happens Once.” This was a song that I came across towards the start of the pandemic, by Nat King Cole. The message really struck me because, I had a friend, or a friendship, I should say, that I lost. So, the lyrics, for the first time, struck me not in a romantic sort of way. It spoke to me personally, like:  “It only happens once. I’ll never feel that thrill again.”  Basically it is saying, this person that you come across is so unique and so special, and you know that you’ll never meet anybody else like that.

So that’s one that definitely comes to mind, as well as, “Stardust.” “Stardust” is one that definitely personally struck me. When I was studying in college, I came across the song, also sung by Nat King Cole, as well as Louis Armstrong. It was just the lyrics. Obviously, it’s been recorded so many times, but the melody and the way that it’s interpreted differently by each artist—that is really beautiful to me.

TJG: How do you go about arranging these songs and making them feel like your own?

SJ: Usually, if I’m not asking for help, I can hear the arrangements in my head or sing it in my head, if that makes sense. Or I’ll sing it out loud. Ideas will come as far as how I want to end it or how I would want to start it. I’ll listen back to versions and see how I can take  one idea for an intro and ending and make it my own. But usually, I just sing them out loud, and come up with it that way.

TJG:  You won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019 and were also named an Ella Fitzgerald scholar in college. What does it mean to you to have these jazz giants associated with you and your art?

SJ: Honestly, it’s incredible. And it’s so surreal—to have started so early, and to have started with, with these same giants. So, freshman year coming in not knowing anything about jazz, and turning to Ella and turning to Sarah for perspective on certain songs and still doing so. So, to have these honors attached to my name, it’s incredible. And I’m extremely grateful for it. I don’t take it lightly. I can’t say I’ll live up to that standard. I’m just really grateful.

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Noah Becker

Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr, courtesy of the artist.

Multi-reedist Noah Becker is filled with deep curiosity. When we at Jazz Speaks sat down with Noah to talk about his upcoming Jazz Gallery show and new record, our conservation flowed from mathematics to a painting by Paul Klee to devotional traditions of Yemenite Judaism. Becker mines this curiosity in his compositions, crafting music that is at turns rough-hewn and delicate.

On Saturday, July 10, Becker will make his Gallery debut as a leader with his band Underthought, featuring Alex Levine on guitar, Tyrone Allen on bass, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. Becker and company will be celebrating the release of their first record, The Hollow Count, which you can check out below. While you may come for the music on this stirring debut, stay for the wide-ranging conversation beyond.

The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell me about your upcoming record release?

Noah Becker: The name of the record is The Hollow Count, and it’ll be out July 7th on Bandcamp. I may do physical discs at the end of 2021, but not for now. I put out my first record, Retumbra, this past December as a co-leader with Steve Williams and Jonah Udall, only playing clarinet in that band, but this will be my first record as a solo leader (playing alto and clarinet both). The process has been really meaningful to me, and I’m grateful to everyone involved for their enormous contributions—Stephen, Tyrone and Alex for giving so much to the music, Edward Gavitt for recording and mixing, Zekkereya El-magharbel for the artwork, Griffin Brown for the liner notes, Arielle Toub and Alex Hunter for the video work…I’m proud of the final result, and I’m glad to be playing this music some more with Underthought at the Gallery.

TJG: How did the pandemic affect the timing of the release?

NB: Underthought recorded in February 2020 just before the pandemic. Actually, I recorded the Underthought and Retumbra records in two days back-to-back. I decided to release Retumbra first, and then staggered the release of The Hollow Count later.

TJG: Can you tell me what a Hollow Count is? What are we counting? And why is it hollow?

NB: Yeah, that is a curious title. I had been thinking to myself that what is countable, or what is perceivable in the world—there’s so much more to things and to people than what we see immediately. I think everyone knows this on some level, but people can really become reliant on their initial perceptions, or the perceptions that they’ve codified or internalized over time, or those that feel native to them. The simplest way for me of summarizing that idea of what’s immediately perceived, is counting.

TJG: Just to be clear, when you say counting, you’re not specifically referring to counting the beat, right?

NB: Counting in that way is something that all musicians do, like it or not, admit it or not—but no, I don’t mean that kind of counting outright. There are so many ways that numbers manifest in music—counting, and also in the construction of compositions and the construction of improvisations. They find a voice, they find a life. They’re not a dead thing. I mean, music of all places is such a wonderful place where numbers find some of their highest or most transcendent significance—or lowest, really, most rooted in the earth.

I actually initially went to school for engineering—

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Peter Evans

Photo courtesy of the artist.

When COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic in March 2020, trumpeter Peter Evans was in Lisbon, Portugal. He was supposed to be heading back to the US for a tour in support of his new record featuring the band Being and Becoming. With those dates cancelled, Evans remained in Lisbon, and began an unscripted year of new projects and big life changes.

This Thursday, June 24, Evans will return to The Jazz Gallery with Being and Becoming, belatedly celebrating the release of the group’s self-title debut album.
Not resting on their laurels, Evans and company will present a whole new set of music, freshly-commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble. We caught up with Peter to talk about the year’s impact on his writing and playing—a story of improvisation on and off the bandstand.

The Jazz Gallery: I saw Wynton Marsalis’s first live gig since COVID a few weeks back. At one point, he joked about how he was talking more in between the songs because he needed to give his lips more rest! And then Jacob Garchik has joked that 2021 is going to be the “year of the clam.” So I was curious—how are your lips physically? Have you found yourself really needing to build back up into live performances?

Peter Evans: I know that everyone’s had different experiences during COVID—I don’t want to take anything away from that. My personal experience in terms of music and playing has been positive. Minus the financial problem of not being able to do what I normally do to make a living and having to fill those gaps in, I’ve enjoyed this. This isn’t my first gig in a year—I’ve been lucky that I’ve had almost symmetrically-placed opportunities to present my music in public since last July.

I was living in Lisbon, Portugal when this all started to go down. It was cool because I was touring a lot in Europe and I was able to use that as a base. When everything shut down in March, I was supposed to come to the States and that didn’t happen. It took me a couple of days to adjust, but then I was like, “Alright. I want to write a piccolo-flute piece that’s been on my mind for months now, so I’m going to sit down and do it.”

TJG: Did you find yourself practicing in a different way because there wasn’t a deadline for a specific show or piece?

PE: I was able to practice the way I really want to practice, which is more of an open-ended, investigative mining of material. It’s rare that I get like a prolonged amount of time to actually do that. 

When it comes to writing, I don’t mind having a deadline. In January, I did a show at Roulette with my other band with Mazz Swift, Levy Lorenzo, and Ron Stabinsky. All of that stuff is really elaborate. When I get asked to do something, I take it pretty seriously. I write a lot of music, like maybe 80, 90 minutes’ worth of stuff and we rehearse and we fine tune it as best as we can under the time constraints. 

In April, I had an opportunity through the International Contemporary Ensemble to do a thing with Being and Becoming, and so that was the same thing with writing new material. At first, I thought I’d write five, six little ditties and we’ll just blow through them and it’ll be really simple. That didn’t feel honest or responsible to myself (or the band) in the end; I ended up writing a whole bunch of new music, mainly two multi-movement suites. One is inspired by the Islamic prayer tradition of Salah, the 5-times a day prayer cycle, and the other is inspired by the European Medieval scholastic tradition of the Quadrivium, and that piece is dedicated to McCoy Tyner.  

We filmed and recorded all that and it’s going to be a video stream. It’s weird because we’re in this period right now where there’s COVID-type gigs happening and then live gigs happening all at once, which I think is interesting. After this Jazz Gallery gig, five days later there’s the broadcast of this other Being and Becoming project we did for ICEensemble.

TJG: I was curious whether you’d have a new book for the band, or if you’d go back to the material on the record, since that came out last April and you didn’t have the opportunity to do the supporting tour.

With the kind of exploratory practicing you were able to do last year, did that inform the material you’ve written more recently? In a previous interview you talked about how your writing for solo and ensemble performance were converging. Did that continue with your focus on individual practice this year?

PE: Yeah, I think things have changed since that interview in the last few years or so. Now what I do is write away from the trumpet—I try to write away from instruments entirely. The kinds of materials and methods of manipulation that I practice are the things that I’m trying to ingest and hardwire into my system as a trumpet player, as an improviser. However, they are all essentially compositional devices. You don’t really need to have a trumpet in hand to access those.

I still feel like things are still converging in a nice way, but it’s not forced anymore. I think it’s happening in a way that when you’re doing any kind of creative work, you let the stuff come out of you without judging it without analyzing it, and see the ideas through, and trust that all the practice and the hard work that you’ve done to prepare yourself for that moment will aid you in coming up with something decent. I’m trying to sit in that space. It’s not easy but I don’t think it necessarily should be. 

The other day, I finished a piece for a chamber music and composition workshop in New Hampshire where I’m going to play and teach. I’m presenting some pieces and I was sitting there the other night, looking at this stuff, thinking, “What the hell is this?”  I think it works—all I can do is go into the rehearsal and feel that at least the nuts and bolts work. The musicians are close friends of mine and they’re all great musicians. So while I feel like we can make it happen, there’s still a lot of nail biting. It’s just letting things happen more than making them happen. It’s a continuous process of trying to shed the layers of the onion and get to something that feels true.

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