Eden Ladin, one of the busiest pianists on the New York scene, has built a deep community for himself in city over the past eight years. When we spoke for the interview, he was running from a rehearsal to a Rosh Hashanah dinner with Omer Avital and his family. Between world tours and recording sessions, Ladin found the time to lead and record his first album. Called Yequm, meaning “universe” in Hebrew, the work encapsulates the spark of Ladin’s vivid imagination as a composer. With narrative imagery and heavy musicianship, Yequm is a personal and fantastical musical tale.
The album features Dayna Stephens (tenor sax and EWI), John Ellis (tenor and soprano saxes), Gilad Hekselman (guitars), Harish Raghavan (bass), Daniel Dor (drums), Camila Meza (voice), and Yonatan Albalak (guitar). Ladin will premiere the album at The Jazz Gallery with the much of the same personnel. We discussed the process of recording the album, the ways being a bandleader has changed his work as a sideman, and the lessons he’ll carry with him to the next project.
The Jazz Gallery: I’ve been enjoying listening to the album! It’s been years in the making; What has been the most rewarding part of watching this album come to life?
Eden Ladin: So many things. I’ve been wanting to do this album for about seven years. But I didn’t have money, I was busy being a sideman, I was at The New School. So, I didn’t have time. One day, I found out that my apartment was rent stabilized, and sued my landlord, which ended in my favor. Right after that, I got called for some long tours with the bassist Avishai Cohen. So after these two things, I had a little money, and it was the perfect time to make the record. But it was a long process. One of my favorite things about that process was the cover. I found this artist from Berlin, Rahel Süßkind, and really fell in love with her style. I contacted her, and she really liked the record. She made the cover as I narrated and art-directed her work.
TJG: I was about to ask about it. The album cover is fascinating, showing these different worlds intersecting, technological, geographical, fantastical, childish, accessible. Can you tell me a little about it?
EL: It’s actually based on the tracks, on each of the songs. “Smell / Faded Memory” is the ‘nose world’ on the upper right, for example. “Lonely Arcade Man” has that digital thing in the lower right. They’re all linked to the stories on the album.
TJG: I was about to ask about those two tracks, too. On track one, “Lonely Arcade Man,” you have this open, electronic, spacious, melodic feel. Then on track two, “Smell / Faded Memory,” you launch into this acoustic world of splashy cymbals, block chords, double bass, soprano saxophone. A big narrative jump, right at the beginning. Did you spend a lot of time ordering the tunes and building a structure?
EL: Yup, yup. I did spend a lot of time with the track order. This track order, the most recent one, was actually done by Gilad Hekselman.
TJG: How did that come about?
EL: I came to his place, we were hanging out, just listening. In my shows, I like to have a lot of differences in the setlist. I love contrast. This order works for me. Chill, dreamy, spacey, then active and engaged, back and forth. Keeps the listener on their toes. The extreme changes in the vibe really drew me. The first track is sad, the second is intense and jazzy, the third is mysterious, I really change it up from track to track.
TJG: In the liner notes, you wrote that the album has tunes you’ve been composing your whole life. Which song represents your oldest work?
EL: The oldest is probably “Smell / Faded Memory.” It starts with four chords on piano, chords I wrote around 2006 as a part of a different song. The B section came in 2012 or something, and there was a new melody for the A section. It was a work in progress for something like eight years. “The One Warm Hearted Man Living in The Kingdom Of Ice” also started as a piano idea. I wrote the melody like a year later. I use my voice memos to record small ideas, and then, maybe two years later, I’ll revisit it and find something new in the material.
TJG: Is that process frustrating for you? Where you feel like nothing’s finished, until suddenly it is?
EL: I guess it is, in a way. But it’s the way I approach everything in life. The way I released the record is the same way I wrote the music: “I have these tunes, I wanna play with these people, I have no time, blah blah blah.” And then, suddenly, there’s the record. It is frustrating, but that’s the way I work. But not every song evolved like that. I have some songs which I wrote on the spot. I actually wrote “Lonely Arcade Man” in an hour. Originally, it was an electronic track, because I make electronic music too. I was sitting in front of my computer, playing something, and it came out. Others, as I’ve said, were a much longer process.
TJG: Track four, “The One Warm Hearted Man Living in The Kingdom Of Ice” has such a narrative feel to it. It really sounds like it’s telling the story of someone. Who?
EL: On the CD itself, I actually wrote the story of each song. It’s a story I invented about a frozen planet, and there’s a sad evil witch, and one guy with a warm heart, who wants to save the people. The song is about this man, the one with the warm heart. He’s been preparing all his life to kill the witch.
TJG: So what happens? Does he kill the witch?
EL: That’s up to you when you listen to the song [laughs]. I think it’s a heroic thing, he’s going to beat the witch. But the song is about the struggle of preparing for the fight.
TJG: Did you come up with that story while writing? After? Before?
EL: The music gave me this idea. It happened while composing. That’s how it is with all my songs, each one is really talking about some specific story.
TJG: Do you write a lot of fiction?
EL: I write a lot of poetry, actually. I used to be more into it. Usually, with the music I write, I see things in my head, stories and characters and feelings, even personal things. That’s what inspires me to write. “They Way We Used To Laugh,” that’s a song about relationships that end, where you reach a point of no turning back, and then reminisce about the way things were. I like to combine happiness and melancholy.
TJG: On track 8, “Dreams,” with all this amazing voice-leading and almost game-music feel, Camila fits into the texture of the album so well that it feels like she could have been there all along. What was it like working with her?
EL: Camila is a great friend of mine. I’m playing on her upcoming record as well. We’ve been good friends for a long time. We hardly rehearsed this song, actually. I showed it to her, she fit right in, showed up to the studio and killed it right away. So natural.
TJG: John Ellis and Dayna Stephens never play on the same track, but both play on about half the album. Did you want to highlight both of them in different ways with your music?
EL: At first, I talked to Dayna about doing the record. But then I did a tour with Joe Sanders’ band in Mexico with John Ellis. I fell in love with John’s sound, on soprano mostly with that tour, and tenor too. I really loved the sound. I was hearing John’s sound on a few songs, I was hearing Dayna, and I really wanted both. So I just asked both. Two saxophones can be a little too much, especially with guitar and piano. But at The Jazz Gallery gig they might play together on a few songs. We’re rehearsing soon and will figure it out.
TJG: Does leading an album like this change your view of your work as a sideman?
EL: Absolutely. I have a new appreciation for the work people put in to other people’s projects. Since then, I’ve recorded a few other people’s albums, and have really wanted to do everything I could to make it easier for the leader. You don’t really appreciate how hard it is until you try to lead an album. Now I know. The musicians for my record were so professional. They learned the music so well. Now, I’m more serious about learning others’ music professionally. Before the experience of leading my album, I might say “Oh yeah, this bar I’ll figure it out in the studio.” Now, I want to get it down before I walk in the studio.
TJG: Any challenges or surprises leading up to the show at the Gallery, or anything you’re particularly excited about?
EL: No surprises, just excitement. The date Rio gave me was amazing, actually. All of these musicians are super busy, on the road all the time, and for this show they were somehow all available. I’m really looking forward to it.
Eden Ladin celebrates the release of Yequm (Contagious Music) at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, September 27th, 2017. The group features Mr. Ladin on piano/keyboards, Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone/EWI, John Ellis on tenor/soprano saxophones, Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Harish Raghavan on bass, Daniel Dor on drums, and Camila Meza on vocals. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.