A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts from the Interviews Category

Photo by Philip J. Parsons, courtesy of the artist.

A lot can happen in a mentorship series.

During her initial hit at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem with Dayna Stephens, Marquis Hill and mentor Kendrick Scott, bass player-composer and multi-instrumentalist Kanoa Mendenhall returned from a post-soundcheck smoothie run to find one of her bass strings had snapped. “It was my first time playing with Kendrick, and I had to play the entire gig with three strings,” she says. 

But that night wasn’t the first “first” for the emerging artist out of Monterey. Since graduating from Columbia University last spring, Mendenhall has been out with other young leaders who are swiftly gaining global recognition, including vibraphonist-composer Joel Ross and saxophonist-composer Maria Grand. The Gallery caught up with Mendenhall to discuss her mentorship with Scott and talk engagement, freedom and the art of revival after an injury. 

The Jazz Gallery: How did you get started with the mentorship series? 

Kanoa Mendenhall: Rio reached out to me. She messaged me, “Do you want to work with Kendrick?” …Oh… Sure… (laughs). I hadn’t met Kendrick, but I was aware of his music and a big fan. So it was interesting the first time we met and talked about this whole series before it started. But yeah, Rio approached me and that’s how it happened. 

TJG: I’ve spoken to a number of artists who say they really enjoy playing with you because you have your “own thing happening.” Do you view yourself as an individualist on the bass? Do you have an idea of what they mean when they say that?

KM: I’m not intentionally trying to have my own sound, being different or individualistic. I’m trying to incorporate all the sounds I grew up with [into my playing]. My father’s a jazz pianist; I grew up heavily in the great American songbook tradition. He got me all the tunes, and I worked from a young age learning all these songs by ear. But there are also sounds from my mother’s side; I grew up listening to Japanese enka. It’s like this folk music that my grandma really listened to. So that really influences me—just like the melisma, the singing, all the little inflections. I guess sometimes that comes out in my playing, and all the experiences I’ve had in Japan. I’ve studied some traditional instruments, so I’ve incorporated sounds like strumming and those techniques into my bass playing. I just try to be true to the sound that is in my blood, and try to figure out how to play it. 

TJG: What are some of those instruments that you’ve studied? I know you started on cello.

KM: I did. And at one point, my grandma gave me as a present a shamisen. It’s like this three-string banjo kind of thing. Unfortunately, in high school my dad broke it by accident while we were moving, so that didn’t last long. That was sort of my introduction to traditional instruments. 

But then in college, at Columbia they have this great world music program. They have traditional Japanese music ensembles, and they give out the instruments. Basically, they let you borrow it for the semester and you can practice. So I took advantage of that and I studied koto with one of my teachers there, Masayo Ishigure. So that sound of the koto is really one of my favorite sounds. 

And then I also learned the shō, which is like a mouth organ kind of thing. It sounds like a harmonica but it’s very clean. That is in the gagaku tradition which is this 7th Century music coming from China and Korea that’s been unchanged for centuries through the imperial court. So the theory behind it—all the cluster chords—I’m somehow trying to incorporate into my playing and my compositions. So that’s some of my influences. 


Photo courtesy of the artist.

As far as drummer/composer/bandleaders go, it seem that E.J. Strickland has developed a dynamic, sustainable balance between his different creative pursuits. While leading and releasing projects under different umbrellas, as well as writing new music and working as a sideman, Strickland still finds time to explore new sonic territory. His latest project, The E.J. Strickland 4tet, which Strickland is also calling ”Pads N Loops,” explores territory that crosses into the realm of hip hop, featuring (for this upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery) Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Immanuel Wilkins on alto and soprano saxophones, Eric Wheeler on bass, and guest MC JSWISS. We caught up with Strickland by phone; he had just returned home to Brooklyn after a tour that brought him and his group to Germany, France, and The Netherlands.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making some time to chat during the holiday season! This is usually a pretty busy time for musicians; what does this time of year tend to look/feel like for you?

EJ Strickland: In the holiday season, most of the time it actually slows down for me. The busy times for me are usually spring, summer, and fall. It slows down around the holiday season but then picks up again in January. I’m closer to home this time of year, depending on the year.

TJG: So this seems like the perfect time to be trying something new at The Jazz Gallery.

EJS: Exactly. I’ve been writing a bunch of new music for this new group, The E.J. Strickland 4tet aka “Pads N Loops.” I wrote this music around this fall, August into September, I was writing a lot. We debuted in Brooklyn, and this performance at the Gallery will be our second performance of the year. It’s a slightly new sound for me, working with my own loops, challenging to write for but very fun.

TJG: Tell me about the pads. Tell me about the loops.

EJS: Pads N Loops. I’ve got two saxophones, bass, drums, and a guest MC. A lot of times, you know, most of my groups have chordal instruments, and this is my first time doing a group without chordal instruments. The pads of a chordal player have been replaced by how I’ve been writing for this group: We’re making our own kind of pads with our sound. As far as loops are concerned, it’s part of a concept. The group creates looping periods in the music, which borrows from hip hop, where loops come around every now and again in songs. I took that concept and put it into jazz music, you know, which is why I call it Pads N Loops.

TJG: How have you chosen to translate that loops concept into a jazz setting?

EJS: I’ve translated it in part by having Marcus on bass clarinet, because in my group he uses it both as a melodic and harmonic instrument, and also as an accompaniment instrument. A lot of the loops that you’ll hear in this music have to do with counter-basslines, superimposed on the main bassline. These loops come around any time during one of the tunes, and sometimes the horn backgrounds–those more ‘jazzlike’ concepts–I’ve turned those into loops too. Eight, sixteen bars, whatever you may have on a given song. There’s a lot of looping going on. It’s part of the sound of the group.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

With multiple degrees in jazz and improvisation, and a wide range of skills and interests, Utsav Lal has found a relatively unexplored niche as a pianist within the world of Indian Classical music. Having studied with legendary Indian Classical teachers including Wasifuddin Dagar and Sharat Srivastava, the result is a young pianist with a meditative, patient, powerful approach to the piano. This Wednesday, Lal will perform two sets of music at The Jazz Gallery: the first set a traditional exploration of a single raga followed by one or more compositions, and the second set a presentation of compositions featuring tabla. We spoke at length with Lal about his move to New York and approach to learning Indian Classical Music on the piano.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making the time to chat. Where are you living now?

Utsav Lal: I’ve been living in Bushwick for a little over a year now. It’s been great. New York is like a third round of school, in a way. It’s been amazing to arrive and meet so many people. I’d met a lot of people living in New York while I was living in Boston and studying at NEC, and Boston was great, but things felt somewhat detached from actually making music or seeing how it all fit together.

TJG: How does being a musician in New York feel more connected to the reality of what music is about for you?

UL: There’s a lot more to bounce things off. At school, at least in Boston, it’s mostly students. In school, you’re working hard and interacting with your peers, which was great at NEC because we all come from such different places. But it’s a small school. I moved to New York, and now I’m meeting people from completely different backgrounds, people who didn’t go to conservatory, people who have been working musicians for forty years and have a completely different kind of education and energy. I’m learning so much about different styles of music, and there are so many ways to get different kinds of feedback, perspectives, opinions. There are people I play with who have been hopping trains since they ran away from home at a young age. I’m living with a guy who has been teaching me these amazing country songs. I’m getting all of these new perspectives, and have been seeing how people react to my perspective too. Plus, it’s a great community. People really travel across the city to see each other. 

TJG: In this new environment, what have you been noticing about your piano playing?

UL: I play Indian Classical Music on the piano, an instrument that isn’t really suited for the genre. Many of the most special things about that genre of music can’t really be done on the piano. During my jazz undergrad and my classical piano training, I listened to very genre-specific pianists, like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Wynton Kelly, and the equivalent classical figures. So, the biggest change for me lately has been finding pianists who aren’t so easy to put in a box based on how and what they do, pianists who are in tune with their upbringing and life experiences.

One pianist I’m particularly interested in is Emahoy Tsegué Maryam. She learned classical piano when she was young, had to flee Ethiopia and had to live in all these different places. She spent years in a monastery, not much contact with anything else, and plays beautiful improvised adaptations of folk music as well as her own compositions. She has a completely different way of pedaling, phrasing, composing, improvising. Music is her life. 


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh has been thinking a lot about perception, choices, and life cycles. In a recent phone conversation, we spoke with Oh about her reading and research surrounding some of life’s big paradoxes, and how she has been using these thoughts to fuel a new set of compositions. The work–titled The Glass Hours–will have its Chamber Music America premiere at The Jazz Gallery this weekend, featuring vocalist Sara Serpa, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, pianist Fabian Almazan, drummer Obed Calvaire, and Linda Oh on bass.

Oh’s most recent release, Aventurine (Biophilia 2019) was an ambitious double quartet with string quartet and choir. Colorful and dense, flowing and crisp, Aventurine is a lush and cohesive work. Oh is a member of the We Have Voice Collective, and was succinctly described as a “musician with intention” by Music and Literature. She has been a longtime friend of The Jazz Gallery, has performed with Joe Lovano, Steve Wilson, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, Kenny Barron, Geri Allen, Fabian Almazan, and Terri Lyne Carrington, and is currently the bassist with guitarist Pat Metheny. Read on for our full conversation below.

The Jazz Gallery: Nice to catch up with you. Are you in New York at the moment?

Linda May Han Oh: I’m actually up in Tarrytown with Fabian Almazan. We’re both doing work at the Rockefeller Kykuit Estate, where they have a space for artists to work. We’ve spent the last couple of days here.

TJG: Sounds like a lovely way to get out of the city

LO: Exactly. I’ve been working on some of this new music.

TJG: Tell me a little more about the Chamber Music America premiere you’re working on.

LO: The lineup is Sara Serpa on vocals, Melissa Aldana on saxophone, Fabian Almazan on piano and electronics, and Obed Calvaire on drums. They’re all great musicians, and I’m excited to work with them on this new music. Most of these new pieces are based on abstract themes of life and time, linear versus cyclical, looking at the push-and-pull in our perceptions between old and new, and how it all plays out in the choices we make. As I’ve been writing, I’ve been exploring these concepts through different compositions and forms.

TJG: Before we get into the specifics, how did you decide to do a project along the lines of  space, time, life cycles?

LO: I’ve thought a lot about these themes, and my current work is based on a few different related things I’ve been checking out. Some of the music touches on stories and myths, partially derived from Joseph Campbell and his writing, including “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” I’ve been looking at how myths can parallel the trials and tribulations we have in our own lives, our expectations, our goals, et cetera. Some of these thoughts are based on stuff I’ve been reading, some are based on more general questions regarding the value of life. I’ve been reading and doing online coursework via Coursera relating to International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: I’m working on educating myself in my own values, exploring these questions and paradoxes.

I feel incredibly privileged that I don’t have to fight in a war at the moment, to go into battle. How interesting it is that we value life and the lives of others, and yet, there are paradoxes within the realm of international humanitarian law: We see guidelines in place to limit the amount of hurt and death that is happening, and yet, war is still war. It’s amazing how certain questions, like the ones in the back of my mind regarding the value of life, can feel so separate when we’re not living within the realm of war. It’s paradoxical that we value our lives and the lives of those around us, and yet you look at the military, the state of health care, gun reform… There are separations that make you question things.


Photo by Jati Lindsey.

Joel Ross is a man of few idle moments. While touring his acclaimed debut record KingMaker (Blue Note, 2019) with members of Good Vibes, he’s been working out new music with them live on the bandstand. Returning from a week-long run in Asia, the vibraphonist-composer barely can process his jet lag before he hits at Seeds in Brooklyn. 

This weekend, he brings his good and mildly exhausted vibes to The Jazz Gallery for two evenings of original music from his recent release as well as compositions he’s looking toward recording next year. Ross spoke with the Gallery about different cueing personas, gleaning methods from colleagues, the concept of acclimation and why he’ll never stop dancing. 

The Jazz Gallery: So the last time we spoke, we actually talked about speaking—our individual speech patterns and how yours informs your playing. Now that you’ve been exploring that concept for some time, what are some other ideas that approach has sparked for you? 

Joel Ross: It relates much more now to the group interaction. I’m still extremely focused on the dynamic of the group as one entity but also as five different people becoming one entity. If we’re speaking, we’re all communicating with each other. So what I’ve been trying to get to with the group is making sure we understand what we’re doing is a conversation. A soloist might have the mic, per se, but a tune is talking about the same topic. The rhythm section might be the mediators keeping the conversation going. The soloist or improvisationalist at the time might have the mic about this particular topic and then we might pass it along. It’s all still an ongoing conversation. I don’t even like to think of it as soloing anymore because even if one of us is soloing, there are still probably two or three more players playing as well. No one’s really solo; it’s just a different form of accompanying. 

TJG: Do you think this more literal internalizing of what it means to be having a conversation has allowed you, intellectually, more invitation and and ensured a bit less imposition, particularly as a leader, when you play? 

JR: I’ve never really thought of it as me being up front. When people lead bands, they can be like, “This is my band and this is what I’m gonna do,” and I’ve never looked at it that way. 

TJG: So that hasn’t ever been an issue for you. 

JR: I wouldn’t say so. 

TJG: In terms of the band dynamic—well, in a past interview, I think it was with Nate Chinen, you cited Miles’ second Quintet as having had an influence on you as a band leader, specifically on your wordless cueing style. 

JR: Ah. Mmhm. 

TJG: So this question relates to that concept a little. In addition to leading your own project, recently you’ve been playing with folks like Makaya McCraven, Marquis Hill, Brandee Younger. Have you become hyper aware of the different cuing styles among these different leaders, and has working in these varied contexts had another influence on the way you cue, and interact with your own bandmates? 

JR: Oh yeah. Without a doubt. I’m really in touch with the way Makaya leads, and just what we do. A lot of the music that he does is is improvised and then realized in composition. There’s no sheet music. I learn everything by ear. I gotta remember. If I’m not as comfortable in a situation, I’ll play less just to gather the surroundings of the situation, but Makaya wants the opposite. He always wants me to play more—just jump in there and get acclimated.

The way he cues—ah, it’s cliched to say in the moment because that’s the title of his record—but it all tends to make sense. In a very musical aspect, we’re building a vibe for the song, starting off from somewhere, playing the melody a bunch of times. This past tour we did, the first couple of dates were quartet with Jeff Parker and Luke Stewart on bass, and we were just improvising the whole set. I loved those gigs the most. I feel like I’m better at it now than when I first started doing that with them. The cues—he wouldn’t have to cue as much, now that everybody has played with him a bunch and we understand, “Alright let’s set something up. Okay this new vibe, does it need a solo? Is it getting stagnant?” Things would naturally happen. 

In a band like Marquis’, we know the forms, he’ll pick the tunes. We don’t know what tunes might play. He might start with a tune, but after that he’ll just go into a tune. I love that. I’ve definitely picked that up from him. He’s tries to make that list, it’s usually a very in-the-moment thing. I’ve definitely picked that up from him. I usually try to pick the song we’re gonna start with and the song we’ll end with. Usually, at this point, if I start with a song and then don’t say anything, then they know what we’re going into. Or, I’ll start to play the next song in the song that we’re already playing.