Several years ago, we spoke with Alex LoRe around the time of his first release, Dream House (Inner Circle Music, 2014). In the years since, Alex has been busy. As the subject of a seven-episode web series about the lives of musicians in New York City, LoRe can be seen running across town to teach, record, and play, all while working in real estate and holding together a sustainable existence. Today, LoRe celebrates the release of his second album on Inner Circle, More Figs and Blue Things. Glenn Zaleski (piano), Desmond White (bass), and Colin Stranahan (drums) round out the record. LoRe continues to explore a fine balance between improvisation and composition, striving for a strong and direct narrative arc for the listener to follow. We caught up with LoRe via phone about the release of More Figs and Blue Things, while digging a little deeper about his mentors, influences, and love of Thai cuisine.
The Jazz Gallery: In a prior interview with us, you discussed the relationship you forged with George Garzone. Since moving to New York, who has most influenced your musical outlook?
Alex LoRe: I got to study with some great teachers when I was at the Manhattan School of Music. George was one of them, as he was there for a short period of time. I also got to connect with people like Steve Wilson and John Riley, among others. In the composition world, I took a course with Mark Stambaugh. People can get down on the whole ‘school scene,’ but it’s what you make of it. You seek out the people who offer what you’re looking for, and you can turn it into a positive experience. Additionally, I’ve been able to study with Lee Konitz for some time now. It’s been remarkable. We talk, we’ll play duo, and do a combination of singing and playing. One of his main ideas about music is that you shouldn’t really be doing anything superfluous. It’s about making sure you’re really playing what you’re hearing. If you sing over a standard for eight bars, and then you play for eight bars, how similar can they sound? How true are you being to your ear? I think it’s enlightening and humbling. Coming from a school environment where you’re given tons of information to regurgitate, one can lose sight of truly making music. Things like that can help bring it back and keep it in perspective.
TJG: Do you ever push against Konitz and his particular approach? After all, if we’re trying to get as close as we can to the voice and the musical ear, we could get rid of the instruments altogether and just sing.
AL: Haha, that’s true. But I find merit and logic in what Konitz says, so I haven’t pushed back on that in particular. We’ve definitely had our back-and-forths about music, though. He likes certain things and I like certain things. It’s nice to have an engaging conversation where we don’t have to see eye to eye.
TJG: Tell me a little about your musical upbringing—what were some of your formative sounds and influential figures, before NEC and MSM?
AL: I transferred to NEC after two years at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. I got to study with one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had, Bunky Green. He’s one of the warmest human beings and is an incredible musician. He opened my ears to all sorts of different harmonic and musical possibilities. I credit him for the musical path I’ve gone down, even though aesthetically we went different ways once I found about Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. I started to shape my sound in a way that I thought was more fitting to the way I heard music. Bunky was a monumental figure in my life for those first years of school. At the time he was in his mid seventies, and he would be running around the music building playing pranks on people. So much fun to be around, and a great influence to absorb. He’d say, “No matter what, try to find the beauty in everything that you do.” Whether music or life in general, having that helps puts things in perspective when the going gets tough or you’re feeling lost.
TJG: In discussing your first release Dream House (Inner Circle, 2013), drummer Colin Stranahan said that you “write music that brings out the best in all of us.” What do you think he meant by that, and how does collaboration inform your compositional process?
AL: With my band members, I try to give them things that really allow them to be themselves, but push them in directions that they wouldn’t naturally go on their own. Now that the things I’ve been writing for quartet are a bit more detailed and specific, I try to leave room for freedom on their part. There’s a lot to be done with that openness, alongside how composed the composition may be.
TJG: Does collaboration inform a lot of your compositional process?
AL: Absolutely. It’s not just about my compositions or my group. One of the ultimate goals of our quartet is ridding ourselves of our traditional roles that our instruments play in that format. When we’re able to do that, we realize that we’re accompanying one another. It allows us to access some different musical possibilities that might not have been attainable beforehand.
TJG: What sorts of possibilities?
AL: That’s to be seen. When the drums are locked into their traditional job, when the pianist accompanies in a traditional way, and so forth, we simply get a variation on that format. When you get rid of the format, and challenge the way the drums keep time or the bass walks, or allow someone to be an instigator in a new way, it changes what the ensemble can be.
TJG: You’ve spoken about the power of arranging and orchestration that fuels the music of Brahms, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg. How do you consume their large-ensemble music and apply it to writing for your quartet?
AL: For me, I try to listen to certain textural things, colors and methods of orchestration. I see what one instrument group is doing while others are doing something else. While the quartet isn’t an orchestra, we can re-contextualize those sounds and adapt them to a smaller group. That’s what I’ve been attempting to do. Conceptually, I take these composers’ ideas and see how I can integrate them in as natural a way as possible.
TJG: Can you give a specific example of some musical material or textural content that you’ve found in an orchestral piece and integrated into what you’re playing today?
AL: Sure. For example, one of our newer compositions is based off of an etude by a Polish composer named Karol Szymanowski. He has a set of piano etudes that deal with duple versus triple meter, but it’s written in 2/8 so it’s a very compact meter. Notationally, it looks pretty difficult. Essentially, I wrote a composition based off of that aspect, where Glen plays the duple meter on the bottom, and I play the triple-meter melody on top. It develops from there, Desmond picks up what Glen’s doing, and we work through the themes.
TJG: Your gig at The Gallery will celebrate the release of More Figs and Blue Things (Inner Circle, 2016). What’s the story behind the name?
AL: Haha, good question! Essentially, I took all of the words in all of the tracks on the record and put them into an online and hit ‘go.’ It created a bunch of mashup phrases, and I isolated a phrase that I liked. It can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending on your perspective.
TJG: I love how your compositions and improvisations on the album vary quite dramatically in length. Did you try to tailor the shape and structure of the album to the experience of the listener?
AL: More and more, I’m trying to think of improvisation as a compositional tool, rather than an end. I think of where improvisation might fit into a composition as a whole, rather than going for a typical head-solos-head structure. How can improvisation make the compositional arc most effective? When you think about it like that, it opens up a number of interesting possibilities. Fifteen minute solos and improvisations can be amazing in their own right, but we’re trying something different. I’m trying to be thoughtful about where improvisation falls with regard to the rest of the written material.
TJG: The lines in “No More Blue Skies” almost sound like something straight out of a Shostakovich quartet.
AL: Thanks. The meaning behind that piece is pretty somber. It’s discussing drone strikes, and other horrors that are taking place across the ocean. There’s such suffering that we, somewhat thankfully, don’t and can’t understand. I wanted to write something meditative. I wrote the melody and the bassline together. There’s no improvisation in the piece, but in the end, the rhythm section meditates on the thematic figure for a while.
TJG: What’s a Xaphoon? I see you play one on track six, “Interlude.”
AL: [Laughs] A Xaphoon is a wooden reed instrument made of bamboo from Maui, Hawaii. My good friend Jonathan Ragonese is writing a feature-length film score for big band. It’s an old film from 1928, a silent film. One of the scenes has a Sheik-looking guy who enters a party scene playing a strange instrument, and Jonathan said ‘Alex, you need to get the Xaphoon. I’m going to write it into the film.’ I got it, and started practicing it a bit. It’s really hard to play – the mouthpiece is carved into the actual instrument, so there’s lots of different things going on as far as tuning. For that track, I wanted to write a short palate cleanser, diverting from everything you’d heard from the record so far. A lemon sorbet, so to speak.
TJG: Speaking of food; I love that you have a ‘Food’ section on your website. What’s in your kitchen these days?
AL: In short, my father is an executive chef who grew up in Sicily and traveled throughout Europe when he was younger. I worked with him from a very young age in his restaurants, from twelve all the way through college. He taught me so much about cooking. I got to work in every different station, from prep and knife skills to appetizers, to line cooking and desserts. I got a broad range of training from him. Somewhere along the line, it developed into a passion. I think there are a number of parallels between cooking and music, so I wanted to include a little something on my website. These days, I’ve been really into cooking Thai cuisine. I picked up a great recipe book from a restaurant in Red Hook called Pok Pok. They have a lot of authentic recipes in that book. My pantry is getting restocked in a Thai sort of way, in terms of having many different types of soy sauces and fish sauces, tamarind, all these different ingredients. The depth of flavor and the combinations are incredible. There’s so much to be said for slowing down and making something delicious for people to share. It makes you take a deep breath.
TJG: Alex, thank you for taking the time to chat. Can’t wait for the show!
AL: Thank you. The Jazz Gallery gig is our CD release show, and I’m really looking forward to celebrating. We’ll be playing music from the record, as well as a few things I’ve recently been finishing up. The Jazz Gallery is one of my favorite places to play in New York and beyond, and I’m fortunate that we get to share our music there.
Alex LoRe celebrates the release of More Figs and Blue Things at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, October 20th, 2016. Mr. LoRe, saxophone, will be joined by Glenn Zaleski on piano, Desmond White on bass, and Colin Stranahan on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.