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Photo via Mario Castro's official Facebook page

Photo via Mario Castro’s official Facebook page

Two weeks ago, we posted the first part of our conversation with MacArthur Award-winning alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, who has selected tenor saxophonist Mario Castro to join him as part of The Jazz Gallery Mentoring Series. Their first performance of four was well-received, and we’re looking forward to hearing the chordless quartet again on Thursday, July 17th, 2014 , as they continue to refine their two-horn ensemble sound.

Here’s our conversation with Castro, who, like Zenón, hails from Puerto Rico and is a Berklee alumnus (Zenón is class of ’98; Castro graduated in 2011):

The Jazz Gallery: When did you first meet Miguel?

Mario Castro: I met Miguel for the first time at a jam session he did in Puerto Rico. He used to go every December and do some jam sessions with the purpose of bringing up the musician community, and I met him at one of those sessions. It must have been like 2004 or 2005.

TJG: What do you recall of that meeting?

MC: At the first jam session, I got really sick—I think it was because I was really nervous—and at the second, I got to play with him. The third one got cancelled, but at the fourth one I got to talk to him for a while. He talked to me about sound and about the importance of knowing vocabulary, of having substance when I play; he told me, “You gotta develop this, that…you gotta develop a repertoire.”

And I remember he looked at me in the eyes and asked, “Are you serious about this?” And I said, “Yes.” So he said, “Okay, if you want to learn for real, you have to leave Puerto Rico and try to expand.” At that time, I feel like “jazz education” in Puerto Rico wasn’t as developed as it is maybe now. The conservatory has a program and they bring in all different artists, and I feel like that happened so quickly thanks to Miguel and David [Sánchez] and people who, you know, had an urge to bring education there.


Photo via

Photo via

After having alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and flutist/vocalist Elena Pinderhughes inaugurate our Mentoring Series in April, we’re continuing the series with another woodwind duo in July and August: alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, a MacArthur Award-winning artist who first débuted on our stage back in 2001, will appear alongside tenor saxophonist Mario Castro, a fellow Puerto Rican and Berklee alumnus. Castro released his début album, Primavera, on Greg Osby’s Inner Circle Music in 2012, which Dave Liebman praised as “a real JAZZ recording, [with] no tricks, no games, pure beauty, energy and honesty. For a premier performance it doesn’t get much better.”

Miguel and Mario will appear at the Gallery on two Thursdays in July (the 3rd and the 17th) as well as on two additional Thursdays in August (the 7th and the 14th). We spoke with both Miguel and Mario about their thoughts on these upcoming performances, and we’ll be sharing portions of these interviews over the coming weeks. Here’s part one of our conversation with Miguel:

The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us about how you first met Mario?

Miguel Zenón: I met Mario maybe about 7 or 8 years ago. I had been organizing for the last decade or so some jam sessions in Puerto Rico when I go over during the Christmas holidays. I remember he came to one of the first ones when he was still in high school—still a young guy, but obviously very talented and really into the music.

He was very dedicated and he was always asking questions. He spent a little bit of time studying with David Sánchez, too. He was serious about what he was trying to do, so when we spoke I tried to tell him what I could and he always seemed to be asking the right questions. He always seemed to be trying to get better.

We stayed in touch and he eventually moved to Boston, so we continued to stay in touch when he went to school. (more…)

Photo via

Photo via

We’ve been in touch with saxophonist Ben van Gelder a number of times over the past year: he spoke with us for an extended interview in October when he appeared with his quartet, and again in March for a weekend residency that featured both a chordless quartet and his working quintet. Back yet again, Ben will be premiering new works as part of our 2013-14 Residency Commissions series, which were composed over the past month for a larger ensemble than his more recent quartet-quintet work. For those unfamiliar with Ben’s sonic profile, NPR bestowed this appraisal upon the Dutch-born altoist after the conclusion of the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition last fall:

His blowing was deliberate, methodical, slow-developing; he held notes for what felt like a bit longer than his peers and often landed flush on top of the beat. His tone felt a bit reedy on purpose…One gets the sense he was cultivating a “hip to be square” vibe — perhaps inspired by teacher Lee Konitz, another alto-sax original.

Here’s our conversation with Ben about his latest compositional pursuits, his strategies for overcoming writer’s block, and how the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has been an inspiration in more ways than one:

The Jazz Gallery: What have you been working on so far during your Residency?

Ben van Gelder: The only thing that was really clear for me before I started was the instrumentation: I wanted to write for a seven-piece band. I started checking out a lot of larger ensemble stuff and a lot of music that I’ve always wanted to check out but didn’t have the time or patience to. I’ve been doing that and really trying to conceptualize everything before I sit down at the piano and start writing. It’s been a pretty conscious process and not so intuitive, I would say.

The fact that I have this space where I can go and work on music on a regular basis really helps because, for me, writing is hard and takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. For me, it works best when I can keep working at it for a long time in a row; consistency really helps. Even when there are days where not a lot is happening, something will start to happen somewhere along the line.

TJG: Have you been checking out any music for ideas or inspiration for this residency? 

BVG: I’ve been listening to these Herbie Hancock records from the ’70s with his Mwandishi band: Sextant, Crossings, those records. I’ve been checking out a lot of that—the music won’t sound like that—but just to get ideas for instrumentation, orchestration, and some conceptual frameworks. I’ve also been listening to some classical music like Morton Feldman, which is sonically very interesting and very different from a lot of other music.


Photo via

Photo via

This Friday and Saturday, June 20th and 21st, 2014, saxophonist Godwin Louis will present a new musical project at The Jazz Gallery as part of our 2013-2014 Residency Commissions series, which this year features saxophonists and reed players. This is the third performance in the series, following Ben Wendel in February and Greg Ward in May, and will be followed by Ben van Gelder in late June and conclude with Roman Filiu in July.

Godwin spent his youth both in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Port au Prince, Haiti, before studying at the Berklee College of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz. His project draws from his Haitian heritage and his modern jazz training alike. This past week, Godwin spoke to us about the inspiration for his project:

I attended the Thelonious Monk Institute in New Orleans, where I got to study with the likes of Barry Harris, Jimmy Heath, and Billy Pierce. I’m also of Haitian descent: my parents are from the beautiful island of Haiti, and I actually got to live there between 1994 and 1997. When I moved to New Orleans, the very first thing I noticed was that there was a heavy presence of Catholicism like you’d find in the rest of the Caribbean, whether Antigua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico. I lived next to a Catholic church, and the bell would go off by the hour, which reminded me of Haiti. The cuisine and the architecture were similar, too. Even though I had never studied traditional New Orleans jazz before, when I heard the music, it felt like some of the Haitian music my dad would play for me growing up; there were similar arpeggios and chord movements and cadences.

When I was at the Institute, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra did a project in New Orleans. The clarinetist Victor Goines talked about the history of music in New Orleans and the relationship between the city and Haiti. Many Africans that ended up in New Orleans came by way of Haiti, and a big reason for the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon was the Haitian Revolution. After hearing that, I was like, “Okay. I get it now.” I understood why people called New Orleans the northernmost city in the Caribbean. Also, I got to work with Dr. Michael White, a great New Orleans clarinetist, and he taught me more about how some parts of New Orleans jazz came from Haitian sources.

After that, I became more and more interested in Haitian culture, something I took for granted as a teenager. For the past four years, I’ve gone back to Haiti a few times a year to learn more of the country’s history, to try to find documentation supporting the idea that a lot of music passed from Haiti to New Orleans, and to become more familiar with the rhythms of Haitian music. I also began to work on a series of compositions showcasing the connections between Haiti and New Orleans.

However, the project has changed over the past few years. A lot of what I’m writing is coming from the rhythms I’ve learned in Haiti and the Haitian composers that I’ve checked out, like Ludovic Lamothe, who was known as the “Black Chopin.” I will be performing some interpretations of his work at The Jazz Gallery as well as my own pieces that try to bring the modern saxophone side of my personality to the Haitian rhythms that I love. There are so many wonderful musical cultures on the continent that travel all over and inform each other, and I feel that it’s very important to draw from them. This is an ongoing project, and I hope to keep adding to it over the next few years.

Godwin Louis will present his new Haitian-inspired musical project this Friday and Saturday, June 20th and 21st, 2014. Louis will appear as part of The Jazz Gallery 2013-14 Residency Commissions. Joining him will be Pauline Jean on vocals, Axel Tosca Laugart on piano, Billy Buss on trumpet, Zach Brown on bass, Nick Falk on drums, and Paulo Stagnaro on percussion. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $22 general admission and $10 for Members. Purchase tickets here. 

The Jazz Gallery’s Residency Commission 2013-2014 is supported in part by a funding from the Jerome Foundation with additional support from the New York State Council on the Arts and Department of Cultural Affairs of New York City.

Photo by Don Getsug

Photo by Don Getsug

This Friday and Saturday, May 16th and 17th, 2014, alto saxophonist Greg Ward will present a musical tribute to artist and mentor Preston Jackson as part of The Jazz Gallery 2013-14 Residency Commissions. Greg is the second artist to be featured in this year’s season of saxophonic commissions following Ben Wendel, who performed his commissioned work in February. Next month, we’ll be presenting both Godwin Louis and Ben van Gelder as the next two artists in the series.

We spoke to Greg last month as he was beginning his residency, and we followed up with him earlier this week to get a sense of how things went. We’re excited to hear what he’s come up with and hope that you’ll join us to welcome him back to our stage.

The Jazz Gallery: Last month, you mentioned looking forward to writing for septet; in writing for this medium-sized group, how did you negotiate a balance between spontaneous improvisation and preconceived, written material?

Greg Ward: Well, I try to just write the music: what I want to have set and written. Then when I want to begin to orchestrate the ideas for the ensemble, I try to find space where it would fit musically for people to explore. I try to find space where we can expand on what I’d already written, so once I had a clear idea of what I wanted written down and I began to put it together, I knew where it’d be appropriate to have some sort of solo section or other moments of improvisation.

Also, when we got a chance to get together and rehearse the material—that let me get a clearer picture of how the musicians would all sound together. Once you get an idea of how they respond to what you write, you can say, “Oh, this space would work well for this player and for his personality to interpret the music.” So that was the biggest factor after getting a chance to hear what I wrote down and seeing what they did with it. I want everybody to express themselves.