A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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You never quite know when and where drummer Ted Poor is going to show up on the bandstand. He might be playing in adventurous, open-ended groups like the Respect Sextet, or threading through the knotty mixed meters of guitarist Ben Monder’s music. Or he might be providing the solid backbeat to genre-crossing works by contemporary composer-performers William Britelle and Gabriel Kahane.

On Friday, March 27th, Ted Poor will bring a quartet to The Jazz Gallery featuring Dayna Stephens on saxophone, Josh Roseman on trombone, and Ben Street on bass. We caught up with Ted by phone to talk about his group and his recent work at the University of Washington while he was in Rotterdam, finishing up a tour with the Joris Roelofs trio.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re currently an artist in residence at University of Washington in Seattle. How do you like living Seattle?

Ted Poor: I’ve been there for about a year and a half. It’s a great place to live, a beautiful city.  It’s an opportunity to try something different; it’s been a good move. I still feel very connected to the people that I play with in New York and around the world. I was a little bit worried about that, in a way, because it’s hard to remove yourself from the New York community. But it’s been like I haven’t left. I’ve been able to maintain the relationships that I care about, musically, and I end up going back to New York every few months, at least. I still play and travel with the bands that are important to me. I’m not available for the “gig around town” in New York, and I do miss that, but I’m able to focus more exclusively on the things that are really important to me. Between touring and teaching at the University, I haven’t really had time to connect with the music scene in Seattle wholeheartedly, though Seattle is a really cultured, artistic city, with a great orchestra, museums, jazz and improvised music.

TJG: What are you doing at the University, and how are you working with your students?

TP: I ended up at the University of Washington in Seattle because of my good friend Cuong Vu, the trumpet player, who I’ve been playing with for about twelve years. We met in New York, and he moved back to Seattle about seven years ago. He was bringing the band out to play, and things sort of snowballed in terms of my position at the University. I teach all the drummers, and some other instrumentalists one-on-one. I see an ensemble twice a week, and I teach a class called “Jazz Lab,” which is very open-ended. We do a lot of transcribing, emulation, and composition.

TJG: Could you talk a little about what you mean by “emulation?”

TP: Well, we dig into particular records or artists, and take the opportunity to really get specific with our understanding of what’s going on with a record or song, or even the relationship between a couple of musicians from the history. We do a lot of transcribing and internalizing of the language. Then, we try to take that and use it in our own playing. It’s been very rewarding for the students and me.

TJG: Speaking of the relationship between musicians, how does your approach to your own instrument change depending on your format, in terms of duo, trio, and so on?

TP: My relationship to my instrument doesn’t change at all. I try to have a relationship with the drums where, in general, I’m trying to play what I want the drummer to play. So it’s really about listening, trying to conceive of something that I want to hear, from me or from the ensemble at large. So yes, my fundamental relationship to the instrument or the musical situation is really the same. It’s just that every situation is different, varying in complexity. I’m really just trying to listen, to get in touch with what I want to hear, and to express that as accurately as possible.

TJG: That sounds like a complicated mental loop. If you’re always trying to play what you’d ideally want to hear, then don’t you sacrifice the immediacy of playing what might occur to you in the moment?

TP: It’s actually quite an immediate process. When I say I play what I’d want the drummer to hear, there isn’t actually like a chain of command there. What I’m getting at is that I’m trying to get in touch with my personal musical desires in that moment, and to basically allow my ears and my intuition to control my hands and my feet. So ideally, that process is instantaneous.

TJG: You just played a show with Joris [Roelofs, bass clarinet] and Matt Penman [bass]. How do you approach playing with a chord-less trio?

TP: This has been a really fun trio that’s developed over the last four years or so. The absence of a chording instrument is something I don’t feel, because with these two other guys, there’s a real concern regarding the texture and collective sound of our band. The combination of bass clarinet and bass creates a cool dynamic, so when the band is really clicking, we’re first and foremost concerned with the meticulous control of our instruments. Matt is a virtuosic bass player, so he’s able to provide a lot of harmonic information without feeling limited by the fact that there’s no chording instrument. He absorbs that responsibility when necessary, to fill in that part of the spectrum. Additionally, Joris is able to effectively ‘comp on bass clarinet, so we’re able to trade roles in that regard. I feel that we’re really marking a lot of different opportunities within the trio setting.

TJG: Have you seen you playing stretch out and develop by playing in this configuration?

TP: Sonically, there’s a lot of space in the spectrum, when you add drum set, bass clarinet and bass. There’s a lot of space that I can choose to fill up or not fill up. I take those types of decisions seriously, I think about my sonic contribution. The drum set runs the gamut in terms of the spectrum of sound, so I try to be meticulous in terms of that responsibility, how I utilize that spectrum. I think I’m able to step forward as a melodic instrument in this trio in a unique way, mainly because Matt and Joris are able to come together as one neat ‘comping instrument. They have a strong time feel, and are able to provide pulse and rhythm in a way in which I can push against with some rhythmic dissonance, play rubato against, and vice-versa. So I’ve felt a particular comfort, a freedom in which I’ve been able to explore some new territory.

TJG: Your playing is so expressive without being imposing. How do you interact in such close-quarters ensemble situations without stepping on the other musician’s toes?

TP: It really comes down to listening, you know. If you’re stepping on people’s toes, it means that you’re closing your ears to some part of what’s going on. Self-awareness is key there, as well as trust in your fellow musicians, so that when you want to step forward and state something, they’re going to be there for you, and make your idea sound as good as possible. So then, you can turn around and do that for your band mates.

TJG: The group you’re bringing to the Jazz Gallery is a new-ish format, with Dayna Stephens on saxophone, Josh Roseman on trombone, and Ben Street on bass. How did this group come together?

TP: This group has worked a handful of times over the past few years, and has included Bill McHenry on saxophone. The initial idea behind the quartet with Bill, Josh, and Ben was that I was really digging into the Sonny Rollins and Don Cherry quartet records from the 60’s, with Billy Higgins and Bob Cranshaw, and records like Our Man In Jazz [RCA Victor, 1962]. I was struck with how swinging and grooving the band was, but how wide-open they played. Melodic, but free, and completely wild, open to seemingly any possibility. I was so inspired by that, that I wanted to put together a similar situation that we could use as a vague point of departure, so to speak.

So yeah, Bill wasn’t available. I’ve never played with Dayna, I’ve never even met him actually. But I’ve admired his music, through his records. And Ben Street highly recommended him. Ben’s played with Dayna before, and Ben and I share a lot of similar preference and taste when it comes to musicians. I trust him completely, so I’m really looking forward to this new format. We’ll play a little bit on the day of the gig, to have a few notes together, but it’ll be minimal, I’m sure. I’m confident that we’ll speak the same language!

TJG: Will the bulk of these compositions at The Jazz Gallery be your own?

TP: Actually, we aren’t going to play any of my original compositions on this gig. In the past we’ve played tunes from these Don Cherry records, like Doxy, Oleo, Green Dolphin Street. We’ll add some standards to that mix. We’ll probably improvise a slow blues; that seems to me one of the things we like to do. It’s kind of an opportunity to play some tunes that we know like the back of our hand. To use them as vehicles for exploring our sound together. And for me, I really am just trying to channel this spirit of these records, because it remains so inspiring to me, what they played. I’m eager to get some of that energy flowing through myself, if possible!

TJG: So you’ll be sticking with the chordless sound, yes? Is this a format that attracts you, because of people stepping in to fill that void in certain unexpected ways? Or is that just the way this gig panned out?

TP: I don’t have a specific agenda to avoid chording instruments in this band. It’s just the sound I’m going for, and yes, a band without a chording instrument operates differently. You have the drums, bass, and one or two other linear instruments. With a bassist like Ben Street, his ears are so enormous and finely tuned; he’s able to really follow things. A guy like Josh Roseman will follow his ideas off the edge of the earth, in a way that I can hardly ever predict, and I love that. He’s so fearless and irreverent, but thoughtful and overall very musical. With these guys, the right things are important. So it’s not about the lack of chording instruments, just the specifics of this group. I’ve got other projects with lots of chording instruments!

TJG: Could you describe Ben Street a little more? You’ve noted a few times that your musical relationship with him is something quite special.

TP: Well, for one thing, he might know more about drums than I do! The way he relates to the music and the tradition is really though the drums. So as the drummer, I feel a level of support that I haven’t really felt from other bass players, because he wants to make the drums sound as good as possible. It’s wonderful, but it puts a lot of responsibility on me to put out good ideas, so he can frame them and play along with them. In addition, he has a special sense of time, amazing ears, and an intuition that I feel is on such a high level. With all these guys, the goal is really just to make some great music, there’s really no agenda. The fundamentals of music are their primary concerns. It sounds basic, but you’d be surprised. It’s not always at the forefront of what people are thinking about, sound, blend, feel, the basics of music. They’re often cast aside in favor of some more complex things. I wanna just dig in and revel in the infinite possibilities of these fundamental things. That’s what I hear in these great, historical records.

TJG: It’s been great talking to you! We really appreciate you taking your time to call while on tour.

TP: No problem! We’re going to try to make The Jazz Gallery show as swinging as possible, and it’s gonna be fun. I’m just excited to get on the bandstand.

The Ted Poor Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, March 27th, 2015. The group features Mr. Poor on drums, Dayna Stephens on saxophone, Josh Roseman on trombone, and Ben Street on bass. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $22 general admission ($12 for members). Purchase tickets here.