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Posts from the Interviews Category

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Multi-disciplinary artist Melvis Santa regards the act of creating music with other people as compelling as the music itself. For the past couple years, the GRAMMY-nominated singer, dancer, percussionist and composer out of Cuba has led different iterations of her acclaimed collective Ashedí—meaning Invitation—across New York City’s vital scenes. This week, she returns to The Jazz Gallery as part of the Jazz Cubano series, in celebration of the venue’s 25th anniversary.

Allowing certain secular and spiritual elements to inform her music, Santa and her fellow artists explore new interpretations of rhythmic and melodic ideas from the Yoruba tradition and other styles that trace back to the same source. She discusses mysteries of the drum, the tonal characteristic of Yoruba language and the enduring legacy of the The Jazz Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: Talk to me, if you would, about the sacred connection between percussion and the voice or vocal expression.

Melvis Santa: The voice in the Afro-Cuban tradition is one of the main elements. It’s definitely sacred because of not only the voice, literally, of the singer but the voice that speaks through the instruments as a spirit, I would say. It’s really important in the religious context, and culturally as well because we inherited that from the African traditions. In oral tradition there is the “culture bearer,” who is someone who has knowledge—deep knowledge—and is the carrier of all those traditions. So either it is the storytellers, or the Babaaláwo, or high priestess Iyalosha, or a mother—all those are people who use their voice as a vessel for knowledge and for tradition.

And the sound, specifically in the Yoruba tradition because it’s a tonal language, is very important—tone makes all the differences. In my case, as a singer, I do want to keep having that other perspective to the voice—not only as someone that is just in front of a band expressing feeling spontaneously through the music, but also acknowledging certain responsibility with the legacy I come from. That’s how I see it. It’s a cultural responsibility. We’re transmitting not only sounds but I have a stance with my voice as a communicator. For example, in Lukumí ceremonies we have the akpwon, which is the singer who carries the knowledge to speak directly to the orishas. In order to be an akpwon, you must acquire that knowledge. So that’s my approach, as well.

TJG: We consider the oral tradition all the time when talking about Black American music.

MS: It all comes from Africa.

TJG: It’s illuminating to hear how it’s—almost literally—handed down in the Yoruba tradition.

MS: Yes.

TJG: Why is being a percussionist also important to you in connecting the literal, figurative—or spiritual—vocal tradition?

MS: The instruments are sacred as well, especially in percussion. They are homes for spirits that live inside the drum. It could be interpreted as the sound that you master or the people that work in developing the sound—and not only the sound but the language of the drum—their mission is to find that voice so they can understand and unveil the messages. So in order to have that level of perception, you really have to have a sophisticated sense of development. You have to put all of your senses toward that development. It’s a combination of knowledge, of tradition and of personal investment from inside and outside. The instruments also have their own voice, their own sound. It’s a communication between the instrument, the person that plays and the external elements—like nature, for example.

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Clockwise from top left: Tyshawn Sorey, Sasha Berliner, Morgan Guerin, Nathan Reising, Lex Korten, and Nick Dunston, Photos courtesy of the artists.

For Jazz Gallery fans, Tyshawn Sorey requires no introduction, and any description of his music or style invariably leaves out something vital. Simply put, as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, Sorey moves in the realm of the rigorous, visceral, and sublime. Recently, the 2017 MacArthur fellow has been performing a sextet of young creative improvisers, featuring saxophonists Nathan Reising and Morgan Guerin, vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, pianist Lex Korten, and bassist Nick Dunston. After a completely packed concert at The Jazz Gallery last spring, the sextet will return to the Gallery with an unprecedented run of five shows over five consecutive evenings, one long set per evening.

Sorey spoke in depth via phone in a conversation about the group’s granular yet uninhibited approach to his music.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to start by asking about the length of each set. Every evening will feature a single set, starting at 7:30pm and stretching at least two hours. What begins to happen for you, physically and mentally, when you hit that two hour mark and beyond?

Tyshawn Sorey: At that point, it’s about the experience of being in the music itself. To me, this is not about performing a “concert.” I don’t care for “performances.” What I am interested in is the art of experience and how our relationship to time evolves over that experience, at which point, at least for me, time doesn’t exist. You lose your sense of time by being immersed in the experience of playing challenging music. You get to a point in the set where you’re not even thinking about time at all: it’s an out-of-body experience. That’s what I’m after in these situations.

When doing extended sets, things move toward a very heightened level of consciousness, effortlessness, and awareness—it’s an experience that you wouldn’t necessarily have in playing a 45- or 60-minute set. That hour and a half, two hour mark is a threshold that we’re used to arriving at during a given performance, but beyond that, you arrive at a different kind of zone, where time no longer exists. No matter the style of the music, I want to get to something well beyond how one feels while merely playing tunes for 45 minutes that contain structures that operate in the same fashion, which brings us to another reason why the sets are so long.

There is so much detail in each composition that we play. I hate stopping in between tunes. I’m not into standing there announcing song titles or cracking jokes between songs trying to be cute, funny, or likeable. I’m only there to do one thing: To play music that expands one’s consciousness, to tap into some beautiful zones, and to get into other areas of music-making that are interesting to me. Well, that’s three things [laughs]! Simply put, my job is to produce the best possible experience of music that one can think of, to give the listener something else to take with them.

TJG: The band is young—everyone’s in their twenties—so that extra length must be a unique aspect of these shows for them, since most of them are probably playing 45- to 90-minute sets at their usual gig.

TS: Right. It’s a different experience for them. And for me, too, because when I play in other people’s groups, we don’t even really get to do that. But ever since 2004, I’ve tended towards doing longer concerts with my group Oblique, and my quartet with Cory Smythe, Chris Tordini, and Ben Gerstein, and then my piano trio, so that hasn’t really changed since the formation of this band.

But in the case of performing with other bands, I’ll never forget one particular experience I had with Vijay Iyer in the summer of 2013 when I lived in Copenhagen, Denmark for a brief time, and I did a month-long tour of Europe with Vijay Iyer and Stephan Crump. In the middle of that tour, on July 13th, George Zimmerman had been acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. We were on our way to board a plane to Berlin at the time of hearing about this, and obviously it was devastating news for all of us. We were scheduled for a performance that same night, at a club called A-Trane. We didn’t really talk about what we were going to play or what we were going to do. We don’t really plan sets anyway. But I’ll never forget: On that night, we basically played a three hour set at this club [laughs]. The audience was with us, from start to finish, all the way.

Because we were so emotionally charged—we were deeply saddened by the news, of course—we wanted to offer something that really was more about celebrating life. Was it mournful? Yes. But we tapped into a very different energy that I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. It was fascinating for me to make music in that space with the understanding of our relationship with what’s going on in the world. To share that with Vijay, who I consider a brother of mine… I’d say it was the most vulnerable I’ve been on any bandstand. I can’t put into words how much that whole experience affected me. That night in Berlin, hearing about all of the crazy stuff that was going on out here at home, and having an opportunity to use our art as a way to relate to our experience, and to express our hopes, our sorrow, our disappointment in society… It was unlike any other experience we’d had together before, or probably since. We were in that same vibe for the rest of that tour, thinking about all of that. I’m emotional, thinking about this… It was deep on so many levels. I’ll never forget it.

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Photo by Tom Ehrlich, courtesy of the artist.

As part of its 25th Anniversary Celebration series, The Jazz Gallery welcomes pianist and composer Osmany Paredes and his Jazz Cubano Quartet. After an early introduction to rhythmic patterns at age 3 from his father, percussionist and band leader Guillermo Paredes, Paredes now stretches his artistry across styles and traditions, both emerging and enduring. Collaborators include Yosvany Terry, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Arturo Sandoval and the legendary Roy Hargrove, among countless other distinct voices. 

Paredes recently spoke with the Gallery on intercutting musical styles from a range of cultures, the role of clave in his artistic development and flexing leadership—again—in New York City. 

The Jazz Gallery: You were very, very young when you received an introduction to different rhythmic patterns and elements from Guillermo Paredes, your father and longtime percussionist at Modern Music Orchestra of Santa Clara. 

Osmany Paredes: He plays percussion and a little bit of valve trombone. In my hometown, Santa Clara, he played with a big band orchestra. He liked jazz, Brazilian music, Cuban music of course, and he introduced me to all these rhythms when I was really young. Also, he [kept] a lot of LPs in the house, so I listened to all different kinds of music—Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Chucho Valdes—many, many different styles of music. He also taught me a little bit about the pattern, the clave—rumba and son, different [variations] on the clave. So I had that information before I started in the music school, EVA Olga Alonso, in Santa Clara, and I felt proud about that.  

TJG: The other students, at the time, didn’t have the same exposure to clave before they started at the school? 

OP: Most of them didn’t know about that. I talked with some of them who maybe had fathers who were also musicians, but most of them, no. Actually, today some of them are musicians, but many of them are not working on music; they have different [careers]. Most of them didn’t know about clave because in school, we didn’t have material that teaches how to play Cuban music; it was all classical music. 

TJG: You seem to have an ability to intuit the precise tempo to call for every tune you play; do you feel as though your early introduction to clave has nurtured that ability? 

OP: Yes. For me, it was good to know clave and other [rhythmic ideas] when I was very young because that helped me to be able to play, as an individual, a lot of different styles. If you feel strong with your music—in this case, Cuban music—you can feel [more comfortable] playing other roots: Brazilian, African, jazz. So I think learning clave when I was young helped me to put different styles of music together.  

TJG: You have deep connection to beautiful, dissonant melodies. In what ways have Afro-Cuban traditions and other musical traditions and styles influenced your relationship with melody and lyricism? 

OP: I love the music from Brazil. That music has beautiful melodies and beautiful harmony—complicated harmony, but, at the same time, beautiful. I love classical music, too. I like African music and jazz. For me, the rhythm is very important, but it’s the balance of melody, harmony and rhythm. I like to compose melodies that feel familiar not only to musicians but to the people who come listen to the music. When I compose, I think about everyone—I’m not only thinking about musicians. I like to be in the middle, always thinking about rhythm, melody and harmony. Sometimes musicians do very [complex] things, which is part of the style they play, but it’s also good to compose something that sounds familiar to everyone so people can understand [the music] when they come to your concert. For me, that’s very important.

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Andy Milne, Ralph Alessi, Drew Gress, Ravi Coltrane, and Mark Ferber. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi possesses an oblique lyricism, offering melodies that don’t travel quite where you expect them to. A first call collaborator with the likes of Fred Hersch, Steve Coleman, and Don Byron, Alessi is a decorated bandleader as well with ten albums to his name. His most recent one—Imaginary Friends (ECM)—features his long-running ensemble This Against That, currently a quintet featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Andy Milne, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Mark Ferber.

This Friday, February 28, Alessi convenes This Against That on The Jazz Gallery stage for two sets. We spoke with Alessi on the phone about the group, catching up with him as he walked back to his hotel after a long day of teaching at the conservatory in Siena, Italy.

Ralph Alessi: Sorry, I’m just a little out of breath!

The Jazz Gallery: That’s ok—thanks for letting us drop in! I’d like to start with your teaching here in Siena. Do you find that your students here are hip to the same music as young jazz musicians in the states?

Ralph Alessi: I’d say that they’re aware of the same things that typical students in the states are into. Pretty similar in that for both groups I am pointing them in the direction of older players and recordings, often times focusing on conceptual things that are not as common with the younger players of today.  I find that the Siena students are very open, very respectful, so it’s quite a  nice experience for me here.

TJG: Sounds great. Next week, you’re bringing your quintet This Against That to the Gallery, so I’ve been checking out your latest record, Imaginary Friends (ECM). One thing that’s struck me is your interest in linear or narrative-driven structures with different spaces for improvisation. What draws you to that line of thinking?

RA: When I start conceptualizing a piece, one of the important decisions is whether I want differing episodes of improvisation. Sometimes that’s built into the composition, but sometimes it’s the players making choices to offer contrasts in how to shape different moments. I like leaving things up to the players and not doing too much directing, and so I like working with players who bring a kind of compositional sensibility to the improvisations.

TJG: What are the elements of that compositional sensibility?

RA: I love how players can hear the music as it’s happening, have an awareness of where it came from and have a sense for where to take it.

TJG: How does surprise or unpredictability factor into that quality of being able to decide what happens next?

RA: For sure—I want that feeling of mystery to exist throughout the music-making. We all want to be surprised, whether we say it or not. It’s what fuels the music. The last thing I want to do is play music where people are just going through the motions. We’re all trying to provoke each other and keep the music flowing and alive.

TJG: I like that idea of provocation, and it’s something I hear in your dynamic with Ravi Coltrane. What do you feel are the contrasts in your and Ravi’s playing that lead to that sense of provocation?

RA: I find that in reviews and what not, a lot of people mention how Ravi and I play together. I love playing with Ravi, but when I listen back to things we’ve done, I don’t hear that dynamic in the way that others do. But I trust it, because it’s mentioned so often.

In terms of trying to provoke each other, I don’t know if there’s any real thought behind it. I think we’re just playing, and we know each other’s sound so well. Maybe that’s it, in terms of that sense of contrast—we know each other’s sounds so well, that we can blend them in a certain way. I think it’s akin to having a conversation with someone and having that be a dance. We’re blending together, and also juxtaposing each other. But I think that’s just the dance of playing music with other people.

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Zaccai and Luques Curtis. Photo courtesy of the artists.

The Curtis Brothers, Zaccai and Luques, have forged interwoven yet independent paths through the jazz world. Amidst a shared upbringing in Hartford, Connecticut, shared musical mentors and education in Boston and New York, and in many ways a shared musical path, Luques and Zaccai maintain separate careers, playing and touring independently with all manner of jazz musicians. In August, The Curtis Brothers released Algorithm, featuring a host of their musical mentors—Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Ralph Peterson. Their upcoming show at The Gallery will feature saxophonist Nick Biello, trumpeter Josh Lawrence, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. We spoke with the brothers about their upbringing and their thoughts about the upcoming show.

TJG: Many people have mentors, and some have the good fortune to play with them, even work with them in their own bands. What has it been like to grow up with a musical sibling and work with your shared mentors together?

Luques Curtis: It’s basically a dream come true. It definitely makes some things more comfortable, which allows for more freedom on the bandstand. We approach the music similarly. These legends were artists that we grew up listening to and studying: To name a few, we had the great fortune to work together with Donald Harrison, Ralph Peterson Jr., Brian Lynch, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, and Eddie Palmieri.

Zaccai Curtis: There’s a lot of “brother programming” that gets in the way, but after a while, you grow out of it, and a ton of musical progress can begin. Having someone with the same musical roots as yourself is always an advantage. You don’t have to be actual brothers… brothers in music should be enough to make things easier. But my brother and I don’t just share the same parents: We share most of the same “musical parents” as well. 

TJG: I know you’ve both toured (independently and together) as sidemen for tons of prominent jazz musicians. Was there a time where you learned something apart from each other that made you say “Yes this is a lesson that I want to share with my brother and use it in our work together as Curtis Brothers”?

LC: We were very fortunate to go on the road pretty early in our career together. First with our group Insight, then we did some extensive traveling with our mentor Donald Harrison. The first real band where I started to travel without Zaccai was Gary Burton’s Generation Band. With Gary, I learned a lot about organization, tour planning and, when it came to music, how to shape sets. He would also talk with us about shaping our solos, to be similar to what was on the recording we did. Gary was always very conscious about the audience’s experience and liked to plan specific sets depending on the crowd. I thought that was a great lesson to bring into our group.

TJG: You’ve released a number of records together. What’s the news now, and what’s coming up for you?

ZC: This particular band from Algorithm is a blessing because it’s comprised of the best of the best. Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Ralph Peterson are the factors that make this project what it is. I feel that without any of them, it would be a different thing. We look forward to developing the live performance and this particular sound. We also have Curtis Brothers projects that are part of our other expressions, like Insight and our quartet that will continue to move parallel to this project. 

LC: Alongside all of that, we are working on a new Cubop release featuring Camilo Molina on congas, Reinaldo DeJesus on percussion, and Willie Martinez on drums. We are also working on a joint release with Uprising Music called Sonido Solar.

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