Pianist and composer Lex Korten is making swift, thoughtful strides through the New York jazz community. As he strings together work as a sideman with increasing visibility and demand, The Jazz Gallery continues to be a venue for him to explore his voice as a leader. For two sets this Thursday, Korten will bring Gallery regulars Jasper Dütz (woodwinds) and Kalia Vandever (trombone) to the stage, as well as bassist Adam Olszewski and drummer Evan Hyde. Jazz Speaks writer Noah Fishman met Korten at The Kennedy Center’s Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program, and the two recently caught up via phone to talk about Korten’s last few months.
The Jazz Gallery: How have you been this fall? I haven’t seen you since The Kennedy Center this summer.
Lex Korten: It’s been a wild ride. Since The Kennedy Center, I’ve had some really important experiences as a sideman: I’ve been contacted by people I have looked up to for a long time. The fact that they’ve shown a desire to work with me and want to have my voice in their band has been a welcome theme over the last couple of months…I’ve been really grateful to have played for the first time with Jaleel Shaw and Ari Hoenig’s group, in addition to my work with Tyshawn Sorey. Of course, this is not to exclude musicians of my own generation; I’ve also been working with quite a handful of really great players my age.
TJG: Do you feel like it’s about time that you’ve gotten yourself on these musicians’ radars, since these are the people you’d have hoped to be playing with at this point? Or are you still pinching yourself, saying “This doesn’t feel real” to be playing with Jaleel Shaw and other greats?
LK: Good question. When I moved to New York, coming from school in Michigan, I felt like my biggest inhibition was going to be whether or not I would be accepted by peers in my own generation. I was concerned people wouldn’t understand where I’m coming from, my teachers, my choice to have gone to jazz school in the Midwest. But when I moved back to New York, that was the first thing that was proved so wrong. I feel like I was immediately embraced by all these people who were happy to have a fresh voice, someone who wasn’t part of the “New York City jazz school” thing.
So when I got over that initial fear of rejection from my own peers, which was such a wonderful thing and I continue to be grateful for it, I realized that there seems to be a big wall between older musicians and musicians of our generation. It gradually became a point of frustration as I tried to figure out how this barrier might get jumped over. It felt like, for a long time, everything I was doing was successful to a point–which was that I was able to establish a reputation for myself among my age group–but that would be it.
All of this is to say, I have been waiting for this for a long time, and I’m grateful for it. I’ve been listening to these people for so many years, and can’t believe that out of the pianists they might know, they want to play with me. I can’t believe they’ve chosen to play with me. In some cases, before a performance, I certainly get inside my head, and start asking myself whether I’m worthy of these opportunities. Thankfully, it’s never become crippling, because I always come back to the thought: Do I trust Jaleel Shaw and his musical instincts? Of course I do. He’s the one who heard something in my playing and decided that I was the right one for this group. All I have to do is be myself, and nothing else. In a previous stage of my life, if I were on stage with Jaleel Shaw at Smalls, I’d be thinking throughout the set, “Am I doing enough of this, of that?” Now, I can just say, “I need to be myself, because that’s why he called me.”
TJG: Given all of this amazing sideman work you’ve been doing, why did you decide to do a show as a leader? I know it’s important to write your own music, to show people that you have a voice of your own. But given the timing and how motivated you’ve been with everything else, what was it that made you say “I really want to present something of my own right now?”
LK: Part of it is that yes, I have shown people that I can lead a band in my previous shows, and yes, I have a voice and some ideas as a writer. But I have been feeling like my shows so far are steps toward painting a more complete picture of what I’m like as a leader and composer. I didn’t realize this at the beginning, but after making the set list and rehearsing the music, this show really addresses a lot of the things that I haven’t been able to accomplish so far. I haven’t had a lot of time to work on my own projects over the last few months, which is why I suddenly thought, “You know, I should try to have a show to write for and lead.” As you know from our last interview, that’s a helpful impetus for me.
I want to feature myself as a pianist more in my music. The last two groups that I’ve put together over three shows at The Jazz Gallery have been composition-forward, and I didn’t really think about how I would fit into my own groups as a pianist. That’s something this sideman experience has helped me with: To better understand how I fit in into a band sound. In other shows that I’ve lead, I think about the entire rest of the group sounds as a unit, but I don’t think about being the “fourth corner” of a quartet, or quintet, sextet, you know. That’s a new focus for me.
TJG: Along with having goals about your own playing, did you also have a band in mind that you wanted to showcase?
LK: It wasn’t until after I was offered this date that I put the group together. I had them all in mind, but I think there’s something fundamentally different about how I’ve assembled this group. I didn’t have a sense of idiom in mind, and I hadn’t written some of the music yet: I called people that I trusted enough so that whichever direction the project took, they would be there for the music and for me. I’ve known all of them for at least three years, some for five or more. They’re some of my best friends, and we haven’t had the chance to play my original music together yet. These friends and I have a strong trust-based relationship, and they will take care of my music, whatever form it takes. It allowed me to write a set of music that wasn’t anchored in a specific band sound but instead pokes in different directions, which feels more open overall.
Kalia is one of my favorite interpreters of my original music—I was blown away by the way she hopped on board with my quartet repertoire in January. But I view that music as more idiomatic; I wanted to have a chance to form a group with her in mind from the start, and play in a way we could really build our communication. Jasper has never played my music, but is one of the most boundless musical spirits in my life right now. I’ve been eager to create this chance, and I wrote a lot of the music with his voice in mind specifically. It’s also worth mentioning that these two have been playing together since they were high school classmates in Los Angeles, and that’s a level of trust I’m honored to have in this band.
TJG: I don’t know Adam or Evan at all, and haven’t heard them play. Can you tell me about them?
LK: I would be delighted. They’re actually both from Michigan, from separate sides of the state. Adam is like family to me, we’ve known each other for many, many years. Adam is from Ann Arbor, and he was at Michigan State University when I was going to University of Michigan, and we were introduced by our mutual friend Kayvon Gordon, a drummer from Detroit. Adam and I spent our undergrad playing all the time. We had a trio, we had a quintet, we played each others’ original music. He always struck me as someone who was absolutely in love with understanding every step along this tradition of Black American music, and how it lead to where it is now, really embracing the tradition. Yet, at a certain point, he realized that he didn’t want to sound the way some of his teachers, school, and jazz education environment were encouraging him to sound. So, he has a really open way of playing. He and I have played hundreds of gigs together, restaurant gigs, whatever, and we have a similar attitude about trying to take things in interesting directions.
TJG: And Evan?
LK: Evan is from Western Michigan and did his undergrad at Western Michigan University, then went to Miami for his masters. We were introduced after he attended the Banff program in 2016 with some mutual Michigan friends. We met during my last week of living in Michigan, and we played some gigs together. I was instantly taken by his playing. He’s a beautifully selfless drummer: He has so much ability, but it seems like he’s always making choices that help everyone else in the band feel comfortable playing their best. He’s dynamic, an incredible interpreter of original music. Seems like his ears are everywhere. He and I moved to New York around the same time, which is fun. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t played my music with him in earnest yet, so this felt like a great opportunity: When I got the date for the gig, I called him first to see if he was free.
TJG: Given the five of you, and that you’re eager to hear how you all perform together, what is the music like? What have you been writing and arranging?
LK: It was after my first show at The Jazz Gallery that an audience member, someone I’d never met and someone who is not a musician, came up to me. They were saying a lot of really nice things about the set, and they threw in that the music sort of lacked a sense of humor. I thought that was funny, because for many years I have said in my head that I don’t think your music can have this bounce, or sense of swing I guess, if you’re a person who doesn’t have a sense of humor. Having a sense of humor certainly doesn’t mean that your music sounds silly, but I think the music can be brought to new places if the creator explores a wider emotional range and is willing to be playful.
TJG: Did that critique cut you? Especially since it’s been on your mind?
LK: You know? It did. It didn’t feel like the end of the world, but when I thought about the set, I thought, “You know, they are completely right.” After consciously writing with that in mind, I do think that there’s something about the music for this set that feels warmer, like it has that sense of joviality, at least in some cases. It may also have to do with the people I’m playing with too. Anyway, I sat down after the gig was booked and said “Okay, I’m going to write a ton of music.” What I wound up doing was writing a little bit of music, then taking a lot of unfinished ideas and giving them new life, completed them. It’s a motley crew of music, five originals that have never been performed before, except for “Cthonian Planet,” which we played together at The Kennedy Center.
TJG: A great tune, indeed.
LK: Thank you. With a group like this, songs with strong imagery work great. Songs where I don’t have to say “This is the feel, this is based on this kind of groove, check out this band.” There’s none of that. It’s more like, “This song is about planets that are raining lava, let’s make it feel like that.”
I’ve filled out the set with a couple of other songs too. After having played everything, it’s incredible how they all fit together. I commissioned Adam, the bass player, to write a song for this group. He has always had a voice as a writer, but over the last year, I think he has totally come into its own. He did a masters recital at Juilliard last April, and wrote some of the most creative big band music I’ve heard in years, it completely floored me. I asked him to write a ballad for this group, and it’s an amazing piece about the Aurora Borealis. The imagery is simple and straightforward, but the way he goes about it with his compositional techniques is lovely and cool.
I’m also playing a piece by Geri Allen, my old teacher and one of my favorite pianists of all time. I love her so much. There’s one piece of hers that I felt would work so well with this group called “Little Wind.” It’s not a familiar head-and-solos form, it demands that the band be thinking freely and texturally while there’s actually a strong rhythmic pulse. I don’t think I’ve played other pieces that have that dichotomy in precisely this way.
TJG: Back to the humor comment: Feel free to disagree, but it’s interesting that you started this conversation about how excited and validated you’ve felt playing as a sideman in New York with your idols. I wonder if that sense of comfort and stability has made you more receptive to thinking about the impact of your music on your audience, especially in being more playful on stage.
LK: Wow. I’m happy to just accept that as a fascinating piece of psychoanalysis.
TJG: [Laughs] I’m not trying to Freud you!
LK: That’s okay [laughs]. I don’t think I articulated this earlier, but a lot of my sideman experiences, some of them have been one-offs, feel like exactly what they are: A first taste of something. I by no means take any of this for granted. It’s not guaranteed. I don’t feel like I’ve suddenly done something that makes me feel like I’m going to coast, and I never feel like that as a freelancer. These past weeks and months, doing what I do has involved so much running around, and so few of these shows are of the variety that are fulfilling, though thankfully I usually play these gigs with people who make the music creatively interesting. I’m understanding what hard work feels like for the first time. It really is work, so I’m thinking about it that way without feeling trapped in. But to your question, I think it’s possible.
TJG: The inverse could be possible too, where you’re saying “Now I see how hard this work can really be… Now let me express my humor on stage.”
LK: I agree. I want to emphasize that my music seems to be taking on a new mood, partially because I directly noticed some things that were lacking in previous repertoires of mine, partially because of my own initiative, partially because it fell into place that way. Although a lot of this original music was written before the last three months, the sound of this band is coming together in this moment.
The Lex Korten Quintet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 21, 2019. The group features Mr. Korten on piano, Jasper Dütz on woodwinds, Kalia Vandever on trombone, Adam Olszewski on bass, and
Evan Hyde on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.