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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Courtesy of John Chin

Courtesy of John Chin

Although already a known quantity on the New York jazz scene since he moved to the city in 1998, pianist John Chin has been patient in deciding when to record and release his original music. His first album, 2007’s Blackout Conception (Fresh Sound Records), featured saxophonist Mark Turner, bassists Chris Higgins and Alexis Cuadrado, and Bill Campbell on drums. He released his new sophomore album, Undercover, earlier this year, which documents the rich, fluid sound of his working trio at the time, with Orlando le Fleming on bass and Dan Rieser on drums.

We spoke transatlantically with John Chin, who was in London performing with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you say a bit about the band you’ve assembled?

John Chin: I’ve known Ari since 1996 and we’ve done a few gigs together; we just did a gig in Los Angeles at the Blue Whale. While he’s not on the record, he and I have been playing a bit and I thought it’d be really fun to have him. I love Dan [Rieser], of course, who’s on the record, but I think Dan is actually on the road with Rosanne Cash right now, so how luxurious is my life that Ari Hoenig is subbing for Dan Rieser? [laughs]

It’s kind of remarkable, but it’s what I love about being here in New York: that’s the kind of stuff that happens here that I can’t imagine would happen anywhere else. Orlando’s on the record and, on top of that, Orlando and Ari play a lot together, so with the chemistry that the two of them have, it’s this love triangle between the three of us.

It’s funny because even though I’ve played with each of them individually, this combination is something that happens not so often. I’m excited to see what happens.

TJG: And you’ve also got Tivon Pennicott and Stacy Dillard on saxophones.

JC: I’ve been playing with those two guys on Monday nights at Smalls, and the rhythm section is the five of us with Spencer Murphy on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums. We have a collective group and we’ve recorded a record that we’ll be releasing over the next few months.

The thing about Stacy and Tivon when they play together is that they have amazing chemistry; I sort of see them as a unit—that’s the kind of chemistry that they have. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s like they share a mind and compliment each other so beautifully.

I love bringing people together and trying new things as part of the process of discovering, especially with this music; it’s actually sort of in the spirit of everything I do musically. I guess it’s the nature of being a freelance jazz musician: you’re always playing with people and finding different chemistries with people. I have a special relationship with every single member of the band, so to bring everyone together sort of as my own all-star group, I’m really excited.

TJG: One aspect of the record that struck me as I listened to it was how well conceived and thoughtfully orchestrated the trio sound was. How did you adapt it with the addition of two horns?

JC: I’ve played a lot of this material with these guys, and they’re great musicians. The approach is not that different, actually. Adapting with Stacy and Tivon is no problem at all. It’s just like having them join the conversation, but, in a way, it almost has a Dixieland quality in some respects. I mean, we all take solos individually, but there is something special with them playing together and interacting. I had actually never thought of that Dixieland aesthetic, but it sort of makes sense: it’s a modern take.

TJG: Were there any particular musical inspirations for the music on Undercover?

JC: Something I’d been working on was polyphonic improvisation, which stems from listening to Bach, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Art Tatum, and also Brad Mehldau, and just sort of running with it. As far as the improvisation goes, all of the things I’ll be performing have been gradually developing; I’ve been workshopping them and they’re still developing. They’re just a product of bunch of gigs.

I’d also say that inspiration for this record came from all the musicians I’d been playing with.  I wrote some music and came up with arrangements, but it really came to life when I’d just start playing the arrangements on piano and guys would play along.  It’s remarkable what these guys come up with on the fly!

TJG: It’s obvious listening to the album that this wasn’t a band convened just for a recording session; there’s that ensemble precision coupled with a sense of looseness that you only get with working bands.

JC: It’s that band at that particular time—it’s a working band—and really we wanted to go in and document what we had been doing. We didn’t have a rehearsal for making this; we had been playing a bunch of gigs, which I love. I love working bands, and those always sound the best to me.

Also, when we went in and recorded that record, I didn’t want to wear headphones. It didn’t make sense to me for us to play a bunch of gigs together and go into the studio into a completely artificial environment with each of us in a different room. I felt like putting the band in that environment would completely kill the vibe, so when we did it, I told Mike Perez, the recording engineer, that I wanted to record it all in the same room. That record is basically a live record; he mixed it, but there’s no editing.

Every mistake is an honest to goodness mistake along with all the great moments. It’s all the same, and it’s part of a documentation of those moments. It’s not contrived; it’s not manipulated.

TJG: One thing that occurred to me is that this band really has a strong Smalls vibe. 

JC: I actually don’t really know what you mean.

TJG: Like there’s a certain way of dealing with the jazz tradition that gets associated with the regular players at Smalls.

JC: I think I sort of know what you mean by Smalls vibe—at least what it meant to me when I first came to New York. I don’t think of it in those terms at all, though. I definitely hold the tradition of jazz music in high regard and, philosophically speaking, hold to that in my playing.

I don’t know how I’d feel about my own playing if I couldn’t swing, you know? I felt like early on when I was learning how to play this music that learning your history was an essential part of becoming a jazz musician. I wanted that kind of depth in my playing, and I love that music—that’s the other thing.

I’m just speaking to my own perspective. I go to Smalls and I’ve been hanging out there for many years, but as far as my playing is concerned, I wouldn’t point to Smalls; I’d point to the musicians I play with!

What I’m referring to is being a product of your environment. Hanging out at Smalls and hearing different guys can inspire your playing immensely. It’s the whole reason I moved to NYC in the first place. I wanted to be in an environment where the bar is set high, and for jazz it was New York City.

Smalls is definitely a kind of community center, a hub of jazz musicians. I also feel like the variety is so wide at Smalls between the band that I play with and Ari’s band, and there’s Carlos Abadie’s band and there’s Kyle Poole. Everyone’s pretty different, I feel.

TJG: You were also at Smalls in the ’90s, which now carries its own sort of aura for musicians of my generation who weren’t there to see it developing.

JC: It would be like Sam Yahel and Brian Blade and Joshua Redman on Wednesdays, Kurt [Rosenwinkel] would play on Tuesday nights, and there would be Charles Owens on Fridays. Wow, that was something. It was exciting; the club was packed.

The John Chin Group performs this Thursday, November 6th, 2014 at The Jazz Gallery. The band features Chin on piano and keyboard, Stacy Dillard and Tivon Pennicott on saxophones, Orlando le Fleming on bass, and Ari Hoenig on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m., and tickets are $22.00 ($12.00 for Members). Purchase tickets here.