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Photo by Emra Islek, design by Nerissa Campbell

Photo by Emra Islek, design by Nerissa Campbell

Every Sunday, the man leaves roses for his dead lover. One spring afternoon, an ethereal voice lures him downward, into the crypt…

THE ICE SIREN, a jazz opera composed by John Ellis with libretto by Andy Bragen, had its premiere performances on The Jazz Gallery’s stage, back in late May, 2009, as part of our Large Ensemble Commissions Series. Now, over six years later, this haunting tale of a lover’s journey into a frozen world beneath a crypt returns to our stage as part of The Jazz Gallery’s 20th Anniversary Concert Series. The work, the second of three large-scale collaborations between Ellis and Bragen, has never been commercially recorded or released, so don’t miss your chance to hear this work performed live by a cast made up of almost entirely original members of the Dreamscapes Ensemble, including the vocal leads Gretchen Parlato and Miles Griffith.

We caught up with Ellis by phone to hear his thoughts upon revisiting this ambitious work, and to get more of a sense of what’s in store for those who dare to descend into the world of THE ICE SIREN.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you talk about the plot of Ice Siren and how you approached composing music for a more plot-driven narrative scenario?

John Ellis: This was the second collaboration I did with my playwright friend Andy Bragen, which grew out of the first one, which we called “Dreamscapes.” We were thinking about the relationship between words and music in the most general sense and how we could investigate that.

For “Dreamscapes,” I had him write 12-line dream scenarios, kind of like poems, and each was meant to be as a dream might be. I created an instrumentation that was meant to be cinematic and have a lot of emotional, compositional, and orchestral possibilities, and that included a string quartet, percussion, tuba, vibes, and marimba. That project was more like, “Here are the words, and then here is the music,” so the audience hears the words and then hears the music, and the music is supposed to conjure up a dream-like feeling.

It was a really cool process and I learned a lot; I don’t think it was totally successful from an execution standpoint, but from a conceptual standpoint it was good. So, from that, we said, “What if we take one dream and try to create an hour-long narrative story?” We decided to focus on nightmares.

Andy did a lot of research. He was up at night watching scary films, reading scary books, and we gravitated toward this combination of frightening and humorous, sort of inspired by Tim Burton and various people that deal with that idea: a little bit cartoonish, but still scary. The most natural next phase of words and music interacting was to make songs. We were writing independently, but he had the text first and I would try to write music to the words, which was a little counterintuitive. It was fun to do it that way; I think we discovered through MOBRO that, as a process, if you put words to music, it seems to work a little bit better.


Taylor Eigsti (l), photo by Bill Douthart; Jeremy Dutton (r), photo via

Taylor Eigsti (l), photo by Bill Douthart; Jeremy Dutton (r), photo via

NB: Thursday’s Mentoring Series performance will take place at SEEDS::Brooklyn Arts, located at 617 Vanderbilt Ave. in Brooklyn. There will be one set only at 9 p.m.

This month, we feature four performances with pianist Taylor Eigsti and up-and-coming drummer Jeremy Dutton as part of our Mentoring Series. We’ll be publishing a series of blog posts about these two artists and their ongoing musical friendship. Read the first post of the series here.

Although Jeremy Dutton had met Taylor Eigsti at the Stanford Jazz Workshop while still in high school, they didn’t start making music together immediately.

“I didn’t really talk to Taylor that much there,” Jeremy recalls. “I was always stepping on eggshells around him because just me as a person, I don’t ever talk out of obligation. I just can’t do it, so I just say what flows, and if I don’t feel anything, I don’t say anything.”

Already at the time, however, Taylor had picked up on Jeremy’s musical potential.

“I first heard Jeremy years ago when he was a student at Stanford Jazz Workshop,” Taylor says. “He really stood out to me as someone who not only had great talent on the instrument, but also possessed a natural quality as a bandleader. I remember watching a combo in a student performance where he was introducing the songs, and I thought, ‘This guy a born bandleader!”

Once Jeremy arrived in New York in fall of 2012 to attend The New School, he followed up with Taylor and played some more with him. Then, a serendipitous turn of events came about in the fall of 2013. The student housing that Jeremy sought at The New School wasn’t available for the first month, but Taylor fortunately needed a subletter for the month.

“We hung out a lot that month, and every now and then he’d treat me to dinner or something and he’s a real personable, warm, funny kind of dude, and I really appreciated that,” Jeremy recalls. “From then on we were pretty much friends.”

When vocalist Sachal Vasandani was putting a band together for an extended tour across Africa and Europe in early 2014, Taylor recommended Jeremy, and the music continued to develop from there. According to Taylor, it wasn’t just Jeremy’s outstanding musicianship that made him a great choice for the gig; it was also his attitude. Many of Taylor’s mentors—he cites Dave Brubeck, David Benoit, Red Holloway, Ernestine Anderson, and Shelly Berg as a few—taught him not only about music, but also the bigger picture.

“[They] taught me to be good to other people and not to take yourself too seriously and remain grounded in everything else, which is why I’m drawn to Jeremy in particular,” he says. “He’s a gentle guy and a humble guy, a person of really high character, which comes out in his music. He’s never playing music to impress people; he’s playing to bring out a beautiful moment in life, to express emotions. … I feel like music reflects life, so if you can get along with someone socially and personally, then the music really falls into place.”

In the case of Taylor and Jeremy, a friendship outside of music helped strengthen a music relationship that continues to evolve.

“Having that tour was really when we got to develop the way we play together and get used to the way we interpret music—basically bringing the friendship we already had outside of music into the music, which didn’t take long,” Jeremy says.

“I had a feeling on the first tour we ever did together with Sachal,” Taylor says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be friends with this guy for a long time.'”

The Cycle of Learning

For Taylor, the Mentoring Series is both an opportunity to introduce Jeremy’s formidable musical talents to a larger audience and a chance to shift the conversation in jazz toward the future, rather than the past. (more…)

Photo via

Photo via

This month, we feature four performances with pianist Taylor Eigsti and up-and-coming drummer Jeremy Dutton as part of our Mentoring Series. We’ll be publishing a series of blog posts about these two artists and their ongoing musical friendship. Here’s the first:

“I had no idea the legacy of what had happened through HSPVA [Houston School of Performing and Visual Arts], but I auditioned and got in,” says Jeremy Dutton. “We learned about Robert Glasper and Jason Moran, and there were these plaques on the wall about people going to All-State, YoungArts Awards, the Jason Moran Award, and all this other stuff. We saw these names on the wall and then we learned as we were there, ‘Oh my goodness, this could be done.’ So the goal became to go to New York.”

Now 20 years old and enrolled at The New School, Jeremy has been diligently pursuing (and succeeding in) his dream to make music with some of the best musicians on the scene. In February of 2014, he embarked on his first tour with vocalist Sachal Vasandani, performing across Africa and Europe with pianist Taylor Eigsti and bassist Buster Hemphill.

Before this tour, Jeremy had already released his début album in 2013, I Am, with his band Wayfarer, and had been actively performing and recording with iiii, a collaborative jazz-R&B-singer-songwriter-hip-hop project with vocalist Laila Smith, pianist Paul Bloom, and bassist Connor Schultze, each an enterprising young musician still enrolled in university (Harvard, Columbia, and Manhattan School of Music, respectively).

A native of Houston, Texas, Jeremy started on the drums early:

“When I was two, my mom bought me a plastic drum set for my birthday. Apparently, I really liked that drum set because when I was four, my mom and my uncle bought me a real, wooden drum set to play. I used to watch the drummer in my church player and music was just something that I was attracted to. It seems random because nobody else in my family is a musician, but I stuck with it. My mom was always really encouraging—my family in general was really encouraging—and my mom let me practice in the house and stuff like that.”

There is an emergent modern lineage of jazz drumming that can be traced directly to Houston: drummers Eric Harland, Kendrick Scott, Chris Dave, and Jamire Williams are some of the influential figures associated with the city. In the summer after fifth grade, Jeremy unknowingly became part of that lineage: (more…)

Photo via

Photo via

Saxophonists Miguel Zenón and Mario Castro return to the Gallery stage this Thursday, August 7th, 2014, for the third of four installments of The Jazz Gallery Mentoring Series, Vol. 1, Edition 2. Their final performance in the series will take place next Thursday, August 14th, 2014.

We’ve already posted the first half of our conversation with Miguel and our conversation with Mario; here’s the second half of our conversation with Miguel:

The Jazz Gallery: When you work with younger musicians, what do you hope to impart to them? 

Miguel Zenón: In terms of teaching, I see myself as someone who’s had specific experiences and has a specific point of view about a lot of things. It’s not necessarily something that’s right or wrong—it’s what I could share, so when I’m working with younger musicians, I’ll share what I feel has worked for me. But, at the same time, I feel that music education and jazz education in general is still a great platform for acquiring information, especially in this age when there’s so much information out there and so much stuff that you can work on.

If you think about 50 years ago when Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker were working on their stuff, their process had to be totally different. They didn’t sit in a classroom listening to somebody teach them harmony; they had to figure it out on their own or in a community. Today it’s a lot more like you feed yourself information and hope that you find opportunities to put it into practice. It’s not replaceable, though, with experience on the bandstand, getting to play and getting experiences with older musicians, going through struggles on the bandstand—like real-life musical situations that you’re not going to get in school.

In school you’re comfortable: you’re in a combo with people who listen to the same records, you do concerts, and it’s really good. But, at the same time, I think it’s important for younger students and musicians to know that the eventual reality is going to be different. When you’re not in school you’re going to have to deal with responsibilities on your own and not just as an assignment, or get better because you have a test. It has to become a lifelong thing where you’re committed to getting better.

At the same time there’s all this stuff connected to being an artist. This is how you’re going to make a living, so you have to be on top of that: you have to know how things work, you experience situations where you’re going to have to say, “Okay, this is my job. I’m going to have to take this seriously from that point of view, also,” and, to tell you the truth, I wish it wasn’t like that.

When we started playing music, we played it because we liked it and we were in love with the music; it didn’t have to do with how much we were going to get paid, but eventually, because it becomes your line of work, you have to consider that, also.


Román Filiú at The Village Vanguard (via

Román Filiú at the Village Vanguard (via

This Friday and Saturday, July 18th and 19th, 2014, will conclude The Jazz Gallery’s 2013-2014 Residency Commissions series. These two nights will feature original music from Cuban-born saxophonist-composer Román Filiú and the septet that he convened for the occasion. Filiú assumes the final chapter in the series storyline—this year focused on saxophonists and reed players—outlined by Ben WendelGreg Ward, Ben van Gelder, and Godwin Louis earlier in the season.

Since 2011, Filiú has successfully embedded himself in the engine of New York’s contemporary jazz scene, firing with cylinders like Matt BrewerMarcus Gilmore, Dafnis Prieto, Adam Rogers, Yusnier SanchezDavid Virelles, and Craig Weinrib, among others. Prior to landing in New York, Filiú was based in Havana for eight years while heavily involved with Chucho Valdes‘s “Irakere” band and also in Madrid for six years, often working with David Murray and Doug Hammond. A frequenter of our stage and our blog, the saxophonist will call upon Ralph Alessi, Dayna Stephens, David Virelles, Matt Brewer, Craig Weinrib, and Yusnier Sanchez to present his new material. We caught up with him by phone this past week:

The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us a bit about what you’ve been working on in your residency?

Román Filiú: When The Jazz Gallery presented the opportunity to me, I wanted to do something that drew on inspiration from the music I grew up with—music that I heard in my hometown. As Santiago de Cuba was a very musical town, with traditions across conga, bolero, and sonCarnival music—I was inundated with it all of the time. Aside from my father being a musician, my brothers were violin players so I was trying to compete with them, trying to play violin music because I was the only one that played saxophone.

Aside from Cuban music, we were listening to a lot of classical, things like Bartók or Zoltán Kodály. I didn’t know anything about jazz; I wasn’t listening to it at the time. So it was an interesting mix of classical music, Carnival music, Cuban folkloric music, and popular music in Cuba that was on the radio. This residency was about considering this whole musical environment: how all of these styles converged in my head, opening up my mind to more advanced music and helping me find my own voice. I tried to reproduce these themes in the songs that I’ve been working on and frame them within the context of jazz improvisation.

I am grateful to The Jazz Gallery for the opportunity to make this music. I’m very fond of everyone else who has participated in this series, so it’s an honor.