A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Zane Smith, courtesy of the artist

Photo by Zane Smith, courtesy of the artist

Originally from the city, Gabriel Zucker spent the past couple years attending college in Connecticut, where he graduated summa cum laude from Yale with a double major in Music (composition) and Ethics, Politics & Economics. With his background in classical composition and jazz piano, Zucker has been exploring the potential of long-form compositional frameworks that integrate improvisation for some time. His ensemble, The Delegation, has been active for nearly a year and will premiere his 100-minute-long composition Evergreen (Cancelled World), which was commissioned by the American Composers Forum’s JFund in 2013, on our stage on Tuesday, May 6th, 2014.

NB: There will only be one set at 9 p.m. with a brief intermission.

We caught up with Zucker by phone to learn more about the composition, his distinctive approach to integrating preconceived materials with improvisation, and the origins of The Delegation.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you speak a bit about the genesis of The Delegation? 

Gabriel Zucker: I’ve been very interested in doing this medium-sized ensemble for a while; it’s sort of a mix of some traditional jazz instrumentation and some chamber music instrumentation. I did some of that in college, and my senior project had a similar instrumentation. After graduating from college, I had another group of a similar size and instrumentation, but I think with both of those groups, what they lacked was that none of the musicians were improvisors. This music was a lot of notation, but I didn’t want to be notating as much as I was. A year ago I met a bunch of these guys at the Banff Jazz Workshop. It was a very similar style to what I did before, and it really kind of clicked: this was the right way to do it; this was the right set of musicians. Back in New York, I touched base with these musicians and asked them to find more players like them. The group is 13 now and has been growing and growing. It was originally eight, but they’ve connected me to some really awesome people. 

TJG: Could you speak a bit about how the long-form format of this work is matched with its content? In other words, what convinced you that this long-form format would be best for the content you were working with?

GZ: Again, it’s sort of one of these things that’s been a trend for a while. I’ve always been drawn to long forms because there’s a certain maximalism to it, I guess. I like the idea of music and art really exploring all aspects of our experience, and certainly there’s a place for shorter pieces that focus on one thing or two ideas right next to each other, but I really love forms that take you across the entire world and hit every emotional area so that, by the end, you’re exhausted because you’ve done the whole thing. I really love that because today your concerts are going to be pretty long, and I’d rather have one concert that’s one long, sculpted, coherent expression. If you string together a lot of smaller tunes, you might miss out on this opportunity.

I keep learning about new ways to make a piece cohere without being heavy-handed about it. The first time was a very simple palindromic thing, but this piece is three or four really big ideas that keep coming back expressed different ways, and I can explore different aspects of the material. It wasn’t like I wrote the first theme and thought, “This needs to be two hours long,” but I like a project where I can explore everything. I was combining everything I was doing in different contexts and compiling it. It wasn’t all written specifically for this work, but I found that a lot of it coheres emotionally and over time it built up into this big work.

TJG: How long has this been a work in progress?

GZ: I’ve had it in mind since October, which was when I got the grant that funded it, but one of the themes I wrote maybe last June, so if you want to say 11 months that’d be accurate. But in terms of knowing I was writing for this group, the material I wrote was starting in October.

TJG: Did your interests in Western classical music and jazz form concurrently?

GZ: I was trained classically on piano and my composition training has all been classical. At Yale it was all standard classic music stuff, and I started playing jazz in high school—more or less like everyone else did. There were aspects that I was always drawn to, and it took me a while to understand what it was about jazz that I wanted to bring to my compositions. In college it was pretty basic: I liked the energy of my combo, but I also liked the structure of my writing, and it was very dichotomous combining these two separate things. I think you heard it in the music—“Here’s the jazz part; here’s the not-jazz part”—but now I think I have a good sense of how to integrate them.

I don’t try to spit out my themes in music. In classical, you write down the development, so you basically write the solo. I really have faith in improvisation, so now I write the theme and leave it to the improvisors to expand on it. It’s the architecture and way of thinking about themes that I got from my classical side. I developed those interests simultaneously, but over time I realized there was something to do there, but never realized what that thing was. At this point there are aspects that I like about all those worlds and I try to put them where they belong.

TJG: Do you have any rules of thumb for striking a balance between preconceived materials and improvisation?

GZ: My bottom line is that for every note I write down, I should be able to say why it’s written down and not left for improvisation, and for every improvisation to say why it’s improvised. In a way, improvisation is negative space: I write down everything that’s integral and leave as much else open to improvisation because it ends up being more spontaneous and in the moment, right down to what I’ve written. I guess that’s my rule: everything I write down, there must be a real good reason for why I wrote it down, and, if not, don’t write it down. I think where I might differ from some who do this music is that my forms are extremely explicit. The form of the movement isn’t left open to improvisation. We’re going to go from this to that, but the forms get too complex if the group is too big and the rehearsal time is too little to improvise the form, so that ended up getting pretty scripted.

TJG: In writing this piece, were you working with any specific sonic frames of reference? 

GZ: Not explicitly. Obviously I’ve been extremely influenced by lots of people—I’m not saying I’m the frontier onto myself; that’s obviously not the case—but I wouldn’t point to any one individual as a way of mixing things. The way I’m looking at large-scale composition is really based on my classical influence. I tend to cite Ives and Messiaen, which is still the case. Messiaen has all these 8, 10, 12-movement pieces where he’s bringing the same ideas back over and over. As far as structure goes, he’s the biggest influence: taking you on this whole journey and every time it’s a little bit different. In terms of the practical surface level of mixing improvisation and scripted things, I think I’ve been influenced by great improvisation I’ve heard: I go to tons of shows around New York, so pretty much anyone who’s on the scene right now. I haven’t studied too many scores of people who’ve done music like this, but I’m more into emulating effects that other people do that I love a lot. I think these scores aren’t necessarily things people have seen before—the way I’ve notated—which isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it’s something I feel pretty happy about. This summer I’ll sit down and really refine some of the things I’m doing in terms of writing things down.

TJG: Do you find a distinction between “art music” and non-art music? Is it useful?

GZ: I find that other people do. People talk about how they’re so fusion-y, but at the end of the day you can pretty easily peg people who come from classical or jazz backgrounds, which is interesting to me. I find that to be the case even if the music is not reflective of that, so I draw distinctions insofar as the distinction is drawn in the world and people have those shared backgrounds and experiences, but I don’t necessarily like the distinction. People tend to tell me that this is jazz when it’s performed, and it’s fine if you want to call it that, but I find that a lot of the best art music being made today—whatever you want to call it: experimental, avant-garde—is in the jazz world. People are calling it jazz only because it has improvisation and because it has saxophone and double bass instead of violins and keyboards. There are a lot of things that are being called jazz these days that new music departments should be looking at more seriously than they are. In terms of what I’m making, I don’t know what to call it and I don’t really care. I don’t want to get pegged to anything; I want this to be taken in on its own, so when people say, “Oh, it’s just jazz,” it’s kind of annoying. It’s like they’ve missed the rest of it, which is frustrating.

TJG: As a songwriter, how did you approach writing lyrics for this work?

GZ: To simplify it, I’m doing with singers what I’d do in a rock ‘n’ roll group. The most compelling vocal music to me is stuff that’s considered alternative rock ‘n’ roll—whatever it’s called: the “Radiohead” school of vocals, not the jazz school of vocals. In that sense, I didn’t really adapt my approach of writing lyrics as a guitarist. Some stuff, especially in Movement VI, is what I’d call more highfaluting poetic stuff, but a lot of the song elements are pretty alt-rock-y or whatever we want to call the genre, so in that sense I really tried to stay true to that way of working.

TJG: Did you have any particular goals in mind when composing this work?

GZ: I think I got across the main stuff, which is trying to pull in my favorite elements of various styles of music—not for the sake of pulling them in, but because I want to express all of them. I don’t want to choose between them, and that’s the main thing going on here. I hope the result is that it’s music that anyone can access. There are some movements where if you’re not someone who listens to a lot of free stuff—you don’t hang out at the Stone or Roulette—you might get confused, but there’s also some really musically simple movements that anyone who listens to the radio should be able to get something from. I think combining these different influences does help to achieve that and it ends up being a long, complex, dense piece, but my goal is that even my friends who aren’t musicians can emotionally connect to this music. I would consider it a failure if it only spoke to the “free jazz” crowd.

TJG: Any parting thoughts?

GZ: I feel really lucky to have found all these musicians. This music really couldn’t possibly come together without them being willing to put in way, way more rehearsal time and energy than probably most other gigs in New York, and also putting up with all this notational confusion to get to where the music should be. I’ve also just learned so much from them about music, and about improvisation and feel in particular. So much of what I’ve written at this point is inspired by or even directly dictated by their playing. That kind of synergy with players is something I’d read about existing, but it’s really incredible to actually experience it.

Gabriel Zucker and The Delegation will premiere “Evergreen (Canceled World) this Tuesday, May 6th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The Delegation features Zucker on piano, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Jacob Teichroew on saxophone and clarinet, Eric Trudel and Bryan Qu on saxophone, Mark Chung on violin, Ron Lawrence on viola, Eric Allen on cello, Artemisz Polonyi and Tiffany Ortiz on voice, Bam Bam Rodriguez on bass, Gabriel Globus-Hoenich on drums, and Chris Connors on electronics. This performance will only have one set starting at 9 p.m. with a brief intermission; $15 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here. 

Evergreen (Canceled World) was made possible by a grant from the American Composers Forum with funds provided by the Jerome Foundation.