A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts from the Interviews Category

Photo by Rori Palazzo, courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, February 20, The Jazz Gallery welcomes saxophonist Nicola Caminiti to our stage for his Gallery debut. A native of Sicily, Caminiti came to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music and graduated last spring. Inspired by Jazz Gallery favorites like Walter Smith and Will Vinson, Caminiti sports a style that’s rhythmically-dextrous and harmonically-lush. We caught up with Caminiti to talk about growing up with jazz in Sicily and finding himself in the New York jazz community.

The Jazz Gallery: What were you doing in Italy before you came to New York?

Nicola Caminiti: I was born and raised in Sicily, so I spent most of my life there growing up, playing, and listening to music. I started playing saxophone when I was 8. I’ve been listening to jazz forever though. It’s funny—I was exposed only to jazz until I was about 4 or 5 years old, so I thought that was what everyone listens to until I got to elementary school where I realized no one even knew what jazz was.

TJG: Are your parents musicians?

NC: My father used to play guitar, but he’s moreso just a really big fan of jazz. I tell people that he knows more about jazz than I do even though I’ve been playing it for a while now. He got hip to all of the modern stuff before I did. Around 2008 through 2010 I was in my early Kenny Garrett stage and he was already showing me recordings of Jonathan Kreisberg, Will Vinson, Gary Versace, Mark Ferber. He found them all on Youtube, which has really opened up a lot of music to the world.

When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but 2 or 3 years later that was my favorite stuff to listen to. My dad always seemed to be a step ahead of me.

TJG: Would you say that there is an Italian musical tradition to grasp onto? How did you become a jazz musician specifically?

NC: Well, classical Italian music is opera, and there are also regional traditional musics that sometimes incorporate pop elements. In Sicily, there is the Tarantella and Neapolitan music, which I love. There are also Neapolitan musicians who have crossed over with jazz musicians—for example, one of my favorite singers is Pino Daniele, who is a guitar player and singer. He even played with Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Santana…it was kind of pop music, but not consumerist pop: meaningful pop.

Italian traditional music isn’t really that prevalent in every day life though. I feel like this type of tradition is stronger in countries like Cuba, for example. I have a lot of Cuban friends and friends from Latin America in general, and they tell me that music is being played on the street. It’s there. You can feel it. Even in Washington Heights where I live, you can feel it to some degree. It may be far from the Afro-Latin heritage, but you can still kind of get that feel. In Sicily, you don’t get that. You get pop, and usually it’s American.

But really, the reason jazz has always felt natural to me is because I was listening to it day and night with my dad.

TJG: And you starting touring around Italy before you came to Manhattan School of Music, correct?

NC: Yes, I started going outside of Sicily around 2013 when I was 18, and I need to thank a good friend of mine—a killing guitar player from Vicenza, Italy, Joe Clemente, who took me outside of my comfort zone. He brought me north, playing with musicians from the area, and that was the first time I toured and played some gigs outside Sicily

TJG: What was your jazz education like up to that point?

NC: My academic education was mostly in classical music—that’s what I studied when I was 12. But regarding jazz, I was always around the Sicilian jazz scene, and between 2008 and 2014 I felt like the scene was really strong. There was a good 25 or 30 of us who would get together during the summer for workshops and work on material together.


Design courtesy of the artists.

In 2009, the creative duo consisting of John Ellis and Andy Bragen premiered their second collaborative work, The Ice Siren, an hour-long composition with music by Ellis and a libretto by Bragen. Weaving layers of narrative and musical language together, The Ice Siren features vocalists Miles Griffith and Gretchen Parlato, plus a lush mixed chamber-jazz ensemble including Ellis on reeds. The large-scale work returns to The Jazz Gallery this month in celebration of its recording and release, Ellis’s tenth album as a leader. Following up on multiple prior interviews with this blog, and in anticipation of the pre-concert conversation with WBGO’s Simon Rentner, we again spoke with both Ellis and Bragen, diving inside their collaborative world and their nuanced approach to their creative work.

TJG: Do I have it right that you and John met at Hunter College in the late 90s?

Andy Bragen: Not exactly. John’s mother was up in New York for a year taking a graduate course at Hunter College. I was also taking a course up there, I was in my twenties at the time. She mentioned that her son John and his brother were living in Williamsburg and had just lost their place, and there was an opening at this crazy house I was living at in the East Village. His mother connected us: John moved into that house, and we became great friends.

John Ellis: Lately, our personal lives have intersected even more. I’d been on the list for Mitchell-Lama housing in the East Village for almost a decade. I got in about a year and a half ago, and it was because of him that I knew about it. So basically, my life with Andy has always had to do with housing [laughs]. When I first came to New York I moved into his house, this crazy house on 7th street, we all got kicked out. We became friends living in this falling-down house, and have since intersected over the years. When he got into Village View, when the list opened, he told me, and that was good fortune, because now that’s where I am.

AB: Now we live in the same complex in the East Village, one building over from each other. He’s one of my best friends, a lifelong friend. He’s an important part of my community and life. His family and my family, we’re very connected. In terms of collaboration, I think we will again. The timing is just so hard to make a big piece, but the last one we did was delightful, exciting. I hope we will in the future. In the meantime, it’s nice to revisit this work, especially with the record coming out.

TJG: At what point in your friendship did things become more collaborative?

AB: We’d always enjoyed each others’ work, and I was friends with a lot of his musical friends in those years. In general, I knew some of those folks. Our first thing was a commission from The Jazz Gallery in 2007-8 for Dreamscapes. He invited me to do that with him. With that, I wrote some poems, and he wrote music to them. It wasn’t quite as integrated. My father was dying or had just died at the time, so it was deeply connected to that. We got to talking: the Gallery commissioned John again, and this time he really brought me in with The Ice Siren. We were more fully integrated around a conversation, a concept, a whole piece.

TJG: Between the three collaborations–The Ice Siren, Dreamscapes, and MOBRO, you must have learned so much. If you were to start something new now, what would you now know about the first creative steps you might take together?

AB: Especially for The Ice Siren and MOBRO, we were always good at talking about process. Building a story together. With The Ice Siren, we talked a lot about mood, references, interests. We talked about Tim Burton, scary and funny, dreams and nightmares. I responded to some of those ideas with language. I wrote the words first, and we put music to it. MOBRO was more deeply integrated in a way. We had a theme–that garbage barge–then we looked at different sections and pulled them together in terms of moods and feelings, then got more specific. That one felt truly integrated. We sat down together for a week during a residency in New Mexico, and could really talk through what the piece could be.

Moving forward, if we were to do something, we would both be starting with a great familiarity with each others’ work. We would be starting from themes, and try to find a working style. There’s not one simple way to do anything. If we were a musical theater team, we might have a fixed way of working, but we tend to come together project by project, and try to discover what can work in terms of inspiring each other with what we’re thinking.

JE: Each of our projects has been different, yet somehow the same too. Mostly, we’ve been looking at intersection of language and music–the obvious thing to think about–but narrative too. Mostly, our collaborations have been through the Gallery, presenting a show of music, and inviting Andy to bring his expertise. Essentially, we’re making music first. It’s been enormously productive to collaborate with Andy, but we haven’t yet made a work of theater, something where the music serves the writing more. I’ve invited him into my world, in a way, but I haven’t been in his world. We could try to write a straight-up musical, or something theatrical like that.

The other crazy thing is that I never think of these works as finished. Even though it’s so old–we debuted it in 2009–The Ice Siren has really only happened three times: The premiere, the second performance plus recording, and now. Every time we do it, we get the musicians, it comes together, and what inevitably happens is that I want to make it better. Even though we already made a record, I’m still making adjustments to it. I re-learn the piece, which means I remember what I was thinking, which means I dig deeply into the score, which means I see things that feel glaringly wrong in my 2020 eyes compared to my 2009 eyes [laughs]. It’ll continue to be better than ever. I’m trying to make the presentation of the work better, clearer.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Don’t be fooled by the title of Gabriel Chakarji’s debut album, New Beginning: Chakarji has been thriving in the jazz scene for years, and his new record serves to solidify his evolving message and sound. Hailing from Caracas Venezuela, Chakarji grew up in a multicultural community, toured with the Simon Bolívar Jazz Band, was nominated for a Latin Grammy for his work with Linda Briceño, and has played on the stages of Dizzy’s, The Blue Note, The Bern Jazz Festival, The Mexico City Jazz Festival, and many more. Now in New York, Chakarji studies at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.

For Chakarji, New Beginning represents not only a synthesis of his musical influences–namely Afro-Venezuelan and jazz, musics with shared African roots–but also an expression of daily life as an immigrant in NYC, discovering the history and culture of The United States. The performance will feature Chakarji on piano, Ana Carmela Ramirez on voice, Morgan Guerin on saxophone and EWI, Juan Diego Villalobos on vibraphone and percussion, Dean Torrey on bass, Jongkuk Kim on drums, and Daniel Prim on percussion. We spoke with Chakarji as he was preparing for a different show at Terraza 7 in Queens with Spanish flamenco-jazz saxophonist Antonio Lizana.

TJG: How did you get connected with Antonio Lizana?

Gabriel Chakarji: I was on tour in Madrid, Spain, with some friends. I met him through those musicians, and I discovered that he has collaborated with other Venezuelan musicians that have played with me before. Antonio and I have lots of friends in common. Antonio has also collaborated with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, the big band of Arturo O’Farrill, and I’m close to them too. I sub for Arturo sometimes, I’m really good friends with Zach and Adam, it’s family for me. Zach will actually be playing tonight with Antonio too.

TJG: Have you been really focused on your Jazz Gallery show?

GC: Yeah, we rehearsed on Monday night. It’s a lot of people, and it’s always hard to schedule rehearsals in New York, but it worked out, and it was amazing. We’re working on music from my album, and it’s a lot of music. We’re playing a couple of my new songs too, and there will be a “premiere,” something I’ve never played before.

TJG: Will JK and Daniel be on the Gallery show?

GC: Yes, JK will be playing drums, and Daniel, my good friend from Venezuela, will be playing a bunch of different percussion instruments, at least four instruments from Afro-Venezuelan culture. One is the culo’e puya, a long drum, there’s also the cumaco that you play on the floor. Daniel Prim and Juan Diego Villalobos will be playing all those on different songs. That’s part of the music that I’m writing now, bringing these sounds together with the jazz quartet or quintet sound.


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. 


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Becca Stevens, an artist who at The Jazz Gallery needs no introduction, will be returning to the Gallery stage for the Commissions Revisited Series. Always pushing in some way against her own limitations and boundaries as a songwriter and musician, Stevens used the commissioning series to create Regina, a collection of music that eventually became her acclaimed album in 2017. Regina was the result of months of research, experimentation, and soul-searching, according to Stevens.

This weekend, Stevens will be revisiting the album at The Jazz Gallery with her band featuring herself on guitar, ukulele, charango, and voice, Michelle Willis on keyboards and voice, Jan Esbra on guitar, Chris Tordini on bass and voice, and Jordan Perlson on drums.

TJG: You just jumped straight over to Spain from Winter Jazz Fest to work on a project, correct?

Becca Stevens: That’s right, I’m in Spain doing a kind of writing retreat. Mike League and I are doing a record in about a week in New York with The Secret Trio, an amazing group of Turkish and Macedonian musicians. We’re getting the music together for that, writing it, pulling together arrangements.

TJG: How do you and Michael work together? What’s your process together for a situation like this?

BS: We’ve written together in a couple of different groups. With this one specifically, the songs started out with him sending me demos and ideas on oud and guitar. I would add melodies, harmonies, lyric ideas, things like that. Right now, I’m finishing that process. Once I get a song to a point where I think it’s pretty much finished, at least a draft, I’ll send it back to him. He adds more final touches, ways to bring in the trio. We’ll see how it goes! It’s a back-and-forth process. In the band we’re in with David Crosby, it’s more like we’re all writing together at the same time. All approaches work, this is just how we went about this one since we weren’t working in the same place.

TJG: Well, it’s a treat to be interviewing you, I’ve been a fan for years. The show at The Jazz Gallery is part of the Commissions Revisited Series, where you’ll be presenting music from Regina, correct?

BS: That’s right. The Gallery originally commissioned that music, so it’s the only place to do the reunion.

TJG: A lot of the album explores this childlike wonder, lost hope, dangers of love. Could you tell me about who Regina is, and how she sees the world?

BS: Regina began as a concept, the word ‘queen,’ and different things I could pull out of that word, everything and anything I associated with the word. Through the process of writing the record, Regina began to take on a life of her own. Maybe out of necessity, she became a writing partner, a voice in my own head that I would call upon for guidance, confidence, a clue from a muse. I found that assigning an entity to the muse behind the song helps with clarity. I get a stronger sense of whether I’m doing something that’s serving the song or serving myself, and when I’m writing, decisions that serve myself often don’t come across as poignantly or effectively.