A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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Perhaps you’ve never heard of bassist Walter Stinson. But there’s a good chance you’ve seen him supporting one of the many talented, up-and-coming artists on the New York scene. While collaborating with Arturo O’Farrill, Kevin Sun, Onyx Collective, and Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days, Stinson has been quietly developing his own collection of original tunes. His upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery marks his debut as a bandleader.

Hailing from Ithaca, NY, Stinson grew up listening to his mother play the piano and sing jazz standards. He eventually moved to New York to study with bassist Bernie Upson and drummer George Reed, and graduated from Purchase College in 2012, having studied with John Clayton, Scott Colley, and Larry Grenadier along the way. For his debut at the Gallery, he’ll be joined by Kevin Sun on saxophones, pianist Dana Saul, and drummer David Frazier Jr.

The Jazz Gallery: This will be your first show at The Jazz Gallery as a leader?

Walter Stinson: Actually, this will be my first show as a leader anywhere. That’s what’s so exciting about it. I’ve never had a show of my own music before. It’s also an opportunity to put together a new band, a group of friends who have played together in different configurations but have never come together as a single group.

TJG: Back up a moment: This is really your first show ever as a leader? Does that sound strange when you say it out loud?

WS: [Laughs] Definitely. It’s surprising. That’s what feels so momentous about it. I’ve played at the Gallery many times supporting different groups over the years. I love the venue and the music they present. I’ve been writing for years, and have played my own music in some of my friend’s groups, but having a concert centered on my own compositions is new. It’s exciting.

TJG: How did this opportunity at The Jazz Gallery come about?

WS: I had never really spoken with Rio before one particular gig with Kevin Sun in his trio. After our first set, strangely enough, I felt pretty bad about my playing. It was an oddly dark moment for me. I was walking off stage, beating myself up, and Rio approached me and said “Hey Walter, you sound great.” I was like, “What?” She asked if I had my own group, and since I didn’t, she said having a gig at the Gallery would be a great opportunity to get my own band together. It was amazing. I felt so low, and someone I admired came through and helped me see through the negativity.

TJG: It makes you wonder if she saw you up there beating yourself up about your playing, and approached you in light of that.

WS: I’ve wondered. A similar experience happened when I went to Banff years ago. I was low as low can be, kind of emotional wreck, and I brought that feeling with me on stage. I thought “Man, I’m overplaying my instrument, I’m emotionally vomiting through my bass,” I was just up there being very human. But Vijay Iyer and the other instructors there were looking closely at my playing and saying really kind things. It’s nice to know that in this art form, being genuine is encouraged. If you’re a wreck, if you’re going through a lot, you can still perform and choose to make something from it. That’s the most beautiful thing. It’s genuine expression.

TJG: When you booked the show, did the personnel for this band come to mind?

WS: When I found out about the show, I was actually hanging with Kevin Sun and Dana Saul. David Frazier Jr. is an old friend of mine from SUNY Purchase, an amazing drummer who’s playing with a number of amazing jazz and hip hop artists. Having a group with them and playing my original music had honestly been a dream for a long time. I’d always thought it’d be fun, an experiment in a way, to assemble a band with these friends of mine, these musicians who inspire me. They each have different aesthetics, different approaches, but they’re all incredible. Personal connection, and that intersection of personal and professional, friends and colleagues, can make the music really interesting.

TJG: Tell me a little about the original tunes you’ll be playing.

WS: I’ve been working on most of these compositions over the past three years. Some go back even farther, and then there’s stuff I wrote as recently as a few weeks ago. The show might come across as “Here’s a span of Walter’s career as a composer to date.” There’s definitely a tangible difference between how I thought about composition then versus how I think about it now.

TJG: How has your thinking about composition evolved?

WS: I’m trying to use more space in my music now, more actual silence, more rest, more simplicity. There’s a great saxophonist based in Detroit named Marcus Elliot. I saw his trio once–they hadn’t been playing together for very long–and none of them had music in front of them. I asked, “Wow, how did you do that?” He said he used to write really dense scores, and it took a lot of rehearsal time to get it together. “I started teaching my friends the music by ear,” he said. “Everything came together in a very natural way.” A lot of my stuff from years ago can feel frustratingly dense. I’m trying to move away from that, but within that realm, there’s still a lot of material for this group to play.

TJG: How are you writing for your own voice, your own playing?

WS: I’ll often write around what I’ve been working on with the bass. A certain kind of double stop, a specific rhythm. I don’t often start with a bass line, but more recently, I’m starting with a line and writing it as a reference for later use. With lines or rhythms, a lot of this material comes from voice memos, where I’ll sing some idea and use it as the basis of a song. I have a huge amount of those voice memos to dig through. Being able to sing these ideas, to bring the music that much closer to me, is the goal.

TJG: Tell me about a new tune we might hear at the show.

WS: There’s one I wrote recently called “Snow Haze.” It was one of these snowy spring days where I was stuck in my apartment. I was writing, practicing, and there was a quiet tension in the room. I was feeling a bit of cabin fever. The song itself is meant to evoke that. It has an open bassline, where you don’t know exactly what the time or feel is, yet the drums and piano are doing these fast arpeggiated lines, frantically scattering. The melodic line is just quarter notes floating on top, very simple and open. It’s the first tune I’ve written like this. It’s quiet anxiety, which is an interesting aesthetic to me.

TJG: Any trepidation about the show? Concerned about anything?

WS: Man, how about everything [Laughs]. No, I don’t think there’s trepidation. I’ve known about the show for almost two months, so I’ve been preparing and trying not to overthink it. I don’t want this performance to be over: I’m trying to sit in this feeling, to be present with it, to let it happen naturally. I’m letting go of my expectations. And at the end of the day, it’s going to be my friends and family in the audience. There’s going to be a lot of love in the room. That’s my ideal crowd.

Walter Stinson plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 26, 2018. Mr. Stinson, bass, will be joined by Kevin on saxophone, Dana Saul on piano, and David Frazier Jr. on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($15 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.