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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

From L to R: Joe Sanders, Jure Pukl, Melissa Aldana, Greg Hutchinson. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Tenor saxophonist Jure Pukl returns to The Jazz Gallery this week to celebrate the release of Doubtless. The new record, released on Inner Circle, highlights the remarkable musical synergy between Pukl and his wife, saxophonist Melissa Aldana. The record also features Greg Hutchinson (drums) and Joe Sanders (bass), and was recorded in Pukl’s home country of Slovenia. We spoke with Pukl for the second time this year to discuss the inspiration, development, and message behind the new release.

TJG: Between our previous interview and now, I was actually on tour with an orchestra in Slovenia, and was amazed by both the magnificence of the country and the generosity of everyone I met. We played in a festival at a huge castle called Grad Snežnik.

JP: Man! I know the place. I probably was there twenty years ago, for a school trip or something. Slovenia is so small, but there are still these places hidden away [laughs]. I’ve heard of that festival at Snežnik. Right now, I’m trying to establish a festival too. It’s currently a one-week clinic at the end of February, using the clubs and music school in my hometown of Velenje. But we have lakes, a camping area, restaurants, lots of space, so it would be a perfect festival site in the future.

TJG: You recorded the new album in Slovenia. Do you return often to perform?

JP: I go back every time I go to Europe, usually twice a year. I love playing in Slovenia, especially now that I’m doing this workshop in my hometown. We have around eighty students from all around Europe, from age 12 to 25, even some older musicians who want to learn new things. I bring Joe Sanders, Greg Hutchinson, Melissa of course. This year we have Shai Maestro. Last year we had Kurt Rosenwinkel in residence. And there are always European cats too. We perform for the students, make spontaneous groups, and end with a three-night festival, so the students get the real thing. It gets bigger every year, and it’s amazing that I get to play in my own hometown with such great musicians.

TJG: That’s what happens when you create your own festival: You attract students and fans to learn and socialize, and then when you want to perform and try new things, there’s an audience.

JP: Exactly. That’s how this band on Doubtless got started. We were teaching and playing at the clinic in different settings. The band started as a friendship, a family thing. Joe was at my wedding to Melissa, for example. Our first gig was at Porgy And Bess in Vienna, and our second gig was in my hometown at the workshop. After the clinic week, we did a few more gigs, then went to a studio in Slovenia and tracked all the music. We made the record in three hours. We know each other so well, we were hungry for music, and it just poured out.

TJG: On the new album, you include a quote from Joe Lovano: “Jure Pukl and Melissa Aldana play as one.” It seems like an obvious thing to say, after listening to the album, but what does it mean to hear it from Lovano?

JP: He got the vibe of the record. Anyone who hears it says “Wow, you guys are like one.” Melissa and I are married now, we’ve been living together for the past two years, we practice at home, and sometimes–but not too often–we practice together. We do other people’s records too. It all feels so natural. Lovano heard that right away when he listened to the record. It’s about complete trust. That’s why I called it Doubtless, to a degree. I had no doubts about this project.

TJG: Right off the bat, “Doves” is amazing. I love the way you start with harmony, use the bass solo to morph grooves, move to wild soloing and end with intense unison lines.

JP: “Doves” has the subtitle “For My Mother.” We made the record around the time when my mother was sick with cancer. She was getting better, and I was sure–doubtless–that she would push through. She’s alright, thank god. But it was a turbulent time. So with “Doves,” the first part is a beautiful, calm melody, almost mystical. We hear about the disease, the cancer. The middle part with the bass is where she’s getting treatment. Things were confused, open, subtle, a lot of emotions which are challenging to explain. And the third part is this victory: She’s cleaned of cancer, and we all feel the strength that she found during the process. The whole tune is written for her, for the emotions in my mind and soul. The strong unison at the end brings it all together, moving forward through strength.

TJG: Do you feel that emotional weight, that narrative shape with most of the songs on the record?

JP: “Bad Year/Good Year” was another one I wrote during this period, documenting her diagnosis in 2016 and her recovery in 2017. But that’s a tune, where “Doves” is more of a suite. I wrote “Doubtless” with this really positive major sound, when I knew my mother would be okay. And I wrote “Where Are You Coming From” in the time when she was sick. You think about the way you grew up with your mom, and you realize she may be gone in a matter of months. I wrote that tune in the spirit of family. It has a very classical sound to it, a gesture to my own roots as a classical saxophonist at University of Vienna.

TJG: Our first conversation for Jazz Speaks centered around the idea of your journey towards “a zone where improvisation and composition become one, where my technique, harmonic knowledge, and extended [techniques] can all come together and be a strong voice or expression.” How would you say this album embodies this continued journey?

JP: It’s a continuation, but different from how we discussed it last time. This music, as you heard, has a mixture of composition and freeness. On “Mind And A Soul,” there are melodies, but they come freely, and you hear free parts in between those melodies. There are cues, but all musical, not physical or verbal. I didn’t tell Joe or Hutch to play right away. I didn’t tell them not to play, either. They decided on their own, and every gig was different, including at the recording session. With other bands, like my project with Darius Jones, it’s about playing grooves, melodies, and forms, then opening it up and going somewhere new, maybe not even coming back to the original vamp. This record, “Doubtless,” has a little more structure. The end effect, the mindset I want to find, is that improvisation and composition should be one. I’m still figuring out how to describe it in words. It may take a few more years.

Jure Pukl celebrates the release of Doubtless (Inner Circle Music) at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, October 14th, 2017. The group features Mr. Pukl on saxophone, Melissa Aldana on saxophone, Rick Rosato on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.