This week, violinist Sana Nagano comes to The Jazz Gallery with her band Smashing Humans, belatedly celebrating the release of their eponymous debut album.
Before the show, we at Jazz Speaks caught up with Nagano to talk about the band’s formation, her work with Karl Berger, and her emotional growth during this time of pandemic.
The Jazz Gallery: How are you?
Sara Nagano: I’m good, I’m doing well. Have been just busy. It’s been a crazy year and a half. Just learning to manage, settling down. I moved many times during COVID, during the whole year and a half, and I finally got my own apartment and am relaxing into it.
TJG: Smashing Humans, where did the name come from?
SN: The name of the band, well I named it a while ago, two, three years ago, and it means kind of like, smashing or slashing the thinking mind. I think that’s a little more accurate, I used to say ego, but that’s a little bit ambiguous. I think it’s a bit of a joke, but smashing or dealing with the thinking mind, everyday life, problems or limitations that we feel like we have. Basically it means—smashing is a little bit of an aggressive word—dealing with our thinking mind as humans, people.
TJG: And how did you and the rest of the band get connected?
SN: The guitarist Keisuke Matsuno and I have been good friends for a long time in New York City, probably about ten years. We met each other in some jazz jam session in Manhattan. There’s a place called Cleopatra’s Needle—I don’t know if it’s still there—but they used to have sessions every week, and I used to go there a lot to just kind of meet people and practice, to improvise over stuff like jazz standards. Keisuke was hosting one of the sessions, I think he was covering for someone, that’s when we met each other the first time. We had opportunities to meet up and hang out in those session situations and we became very good friends. And so I asked him to join the band.
Joe Hertenstein—the drummer on the album—I met him at the Creative Music Studio. Karl Berger is a mentor of mine, and in New York City he’s like a free jazz and jazz master. He’s also a good friend and I play in his Improviser Orchestra. I have been playing in his group for seven years or so, and that’s where I met Joe, and also we played together in Adam Rudolph’s Organic Orchestra. We also played in Harvey Valdes’ trio, another amazing guitarist and composer.
Ken Filiano and Peter Apfelbaum are also part of my New York City music family. They’re not like teachers, or mentors—they’re very friendly and down to earth—but I really look up to them as musicians and artists. I met them again in Karl Berger’s Creative Music Orchestra.
Danny Shir is our new drummer, since Joe is in Berlin. During the pandemic, it’s good to have a few different people in different places who can share this music together when we perform. Dan played in my other project, Atomic Pigeons, before the pandemic, and he’s just an amazing player. He also has his band, Horse Torso. It’s more rock music, really cool rhythmic elements, math rock. I’m a fan of his band, and I got to know him seeing his music and performances in Brooklyn. I just emailed him to see if he could play in Atomic Pigeons and he was like, “Yeah, of course!” And it was just amazing to work with him before the pandemic. This time, I feel really lucky to have Danny, because Joe is away and I was like, “Oh my god, who can play in this group?” Because I still wanted to play. And Danny just happens to be moving back to New York City, right on time, so I was like okay, let’s play!
We did a zoom rehearsal, a few months ago, before we knew about this Jazz Gallery gig, but I was like okay, we’re playing somewhere, let’s get ready! And he said, okay, I’ll be ready and he was really ready for our rehearsal a few weeks ago, he just killed it, so I’m really excited to have him and to play in this band together.
TJG: How did you start working with Karl?
SN: With Karl, that was about seven to eight years ago. The first time I saw him was at The Jazz Gallery actually. He played, he had his orchestra, and I went there with some friends who knew about this group, and I talked to Karl that day and said I play violin, and he said, “Okay, bring your violin the next time and we’ll play” so I did. That’s how I started playing with him.
TJG: Playing jazz, how did you start going in a free direction?
SN: Well, I have a strong background of jazz, bebop kind of stuff, and classical music. I love both of them, and I also just kind of wanted to come out of tradition a little bit and merge all the different elements musically, and try out different stuff. I started violin at the age of three and I did the Suzuki method, for kids training, where they teach you by ear. I went to the Suzuki school in Tokyo. They make you listen to music over and over on CD, and so I was just transcribing music as a child.
To me there’s not such a strong boundary between music that I have to study, and noise, and sounds that are around. I didn’t want to discriminate or categorize one music, one sound over the other. So I just thought, why do I stay with one kind of jazz, one kind of classical music. I love all of them, as well as many other things I’ve just played as a freelance violinist—fiddle music, Pop music, Rock music, Latin music. I wanted to approach my music more that way, as sound itself, also as vibration itself. I guess we call it free jazz, but that’s just a name.
I speak two languages, Japanese is the first and English is the second. I learned English when I was sixteen, in Oregon, when I was an exchange student. So either language I speak, I’m still the same person. I came from that idea: of course I will have to choose some kind of language—which is maybe some kind of style of music, more or less—but let’s see how far I can break it down, let’s see how much of myself I can be using whatever musical language that I’m using. In a way the stuff I do, especially Smashing Humans, is like a merge. A cocktail of noise music, some kind of classical music, definitely jazz, a little bit of rock, or whatever you want to call it. I think it all should be in it, naturally, not that I tried to put them together. I guess we call it free jazz or noise jazz, but the name is maybe not the most important thing.
TJG: So how composed are things, or improvising together?
SN: It’s a lot of composition, and a lot of improvisation. I think those two are the elements of the music. I was thinking a lot about the thinking mind and metric flow. That has to do with the name of the band again: Smashing Humans. The improvising part is about how to flow and go in and out of these limitations that we create with our mind. Just like everyday life things: I do what I want to do, but finance is tough. I want to be here, but immigration is tough. There’s so much that I have to do, things that feel like a limitation, when I just want to express myself freely. And those two things shouldn’t be against each other. That’s my visualization, or wish, or the truth that I want to get to.
In the music, I didn’t want to reject the idea of thinking, counting, practicing. That has to be there. As a violinist, I had to practice a lot! As a child I was enjoying it more, but when I got a little older, my teacher at the time and adults around started saying, “Practice hard so you can be a classical violinist.” And I was like, maybe that’s a way to go. So I had to practice a lot, but it felt like a lot of work, a lot of limitation, a lot of strictness. A lot of a conservative world. But there was some kind of flow to it, some kind of beauty to practice and work on things you can count, work with a metronome. I found some joy in it, or some beauty in it, which is the source of creativity. I feel like there’s flow in both, and both ideas should exist. That’s why I make compositions and make sure we’re improvising.
TJG: Something I feel like I sometimes miss from classical music is the idea of getting something perfect, sitting with one measure for long enough and get it perfect, and is there a perfect improvised thing?
SN: It’s really interesting that we feel like working on one measure’s so much, but then it’s not, you can really get into it and find so much creativity and flow and magic in it, it’s not so bad.
TJG: Were you able to keep meeting during the pandemic as a band? You recorded the album in 2019 and then it just came out this year.
SN: Yeah, so the album got recorded before the pandemic, and we had a handful of gigs throughout the years. We played a lot and rehearsed a lot, and we played in many different projects, which helped us get to know each other as band members and to work on our sounds together—I call it band chemistry. So I feel like working in places with Karl Berger or Adam Rudolph or some other projects that we do in smaller groups, I think that also helped us to get the band sound together for Smashing Humans.
We recorded in 2019. By the time the pandemic started, the mastering was done, so I was looking into labels. But then the pandemic happened and of course it was really rough. After a few months or so, I was kind of thinking, oh my god, what are we going to do? I emailed my friend Federico Ughi from 577 Records, and we had worked together in the past. We were just talking about this music, and he said, let’s do it, let’s put it out! Thatt was encouraging.
Also, some of the people I was around encouraged me to just keep doing it, if the music is done then just release it, it would be fun. In a way, partly because of the pandemic, I feel like I had a great connection with the team behind the album, so I really appreciate that. That’s why I started working on it along with the label. Also, Fully Altered Media has been amazing, very supportive. Yes, it’s work, it’s music business, but at the same time I felt more like, we care about each other as music lovers. I’m really fortunate to be able to work with everybody behind this album.
TJG: What have you been inspired by lately?
SN: So smashing humans was recorded in 2019, and so that’s not an old music but it’s done, and for me I need to be always doing something musically or creatively, otherwise it’s just tough emotionally for me. In order to keep myself sane, I need to keep checking out new concepts, new music, new sounds. So that has been good. During the pandemic, of course there was no one in my room except for my cat, so I did some solo music to post online and connect with people on social media. That’s basically the place I met and hung out with people, since I couldn’t really get out of my apartment so much during lockdown. I used it a lot, as much as I could, and it helped me feel a little more energetic. I was mentally having a very rough time, very depressed. Having stuff that I could just do at home with my instrument was really helpful for me.
During that time I started thinking about my improvisation and started noticing, “Oh man—I play so many notes!” I want to be grounded more, I want to mature more. I want to be always updating myself as a musician and a person. And the pandemic time was such a rough time that I learned that I have to mature up because otherwise it would get worse and worse. That was just my situation. Things were just rough, and I didn’t have too many people who I could immediately depend on. Of course friends and family in Japan have been supportive over text messages, but you know. I was like, “It’s just me right now, and I have to just get going.” So I recorded with Karl Berger and Billy Martin in August 2020, and then I recorded with violinist Leonor Falcon. I think that was a very good move in a way, because it made me learn so much about my progress as a musician during COVID. I learned that there’s always so much we can do, no matter what the situation is, as musicians and artists.
I started being interested in the idea of void. Because of COVID, it felt so dark, with myself and many people struggling. I was like, well, within it, there must be something. So I have been playing with the idea of it lately: how do we take advantage of or learn from, or in a way, creatively enjoy in a dark moment? In silence, in fear, when we’re depressed—what is the depression? What’s in it? Why do we have it? I have a therapist, and a lot of the talk about psychology inspired me to approach music in a new way. I’m alway interested in psychology, spirituality. It’s not that I’m religious, but I think it has a lot to do with creativity and art, and how our brain works, how emotions work, how our body works. That has been the next thing for me. What does it mean to be busy busy busy? Can business and consumerism reach through the void? Is it within the void? What’s void, what’s galaxy, what’s space? I’m interested in the idea of the darkness and the light.
In college, I read Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner. It’s trying to explain where creativity comes from. Also T.M., transcendental meditation. I got to know it through David Lynch’s work. The stuff we always tune into and feel when we’re making music, when we’re playing and listening to music. I think that’s what the source of creativity is. It’s a tool to connect to the source of sounds, creativity, flow, beauty, art. It’s like the idea of yin and yang, even number and odd, understanding a duality in a different way. I really enjoy trying to improvise more from that place. It’s not so much about not playing and playing. It’s much more about both of the moments together, that they both exist and both can be the moment of silence or the music happening.
TJG: It’s interesting to think about the void because sometimes there’s that question of where do your ideas come from, or where do you get your notes from? And it’s like, well they’re there.
SN: Yeah, they come from somewhere! It’s very interesting how we make music, make sounds and create, improvise or compose or sight-read or play together. Where did it come from?
TJG: So can you talk about the music you’re playing at the show?
SN: Well I’ll start with the piece “Humans in Gray.” It’s on the album, it’s about ten minutes. I love that song because it’s so much about consumerism, overthinking, overdoing—more money, I don’t have enough, I need to play more notes, all these ideas. And that’s probably why it’s ten minutes… the idea came from a childhood book that I read—Momo, by Michael Ende. He’s a German writer, and also the writer of The Neverending Story. I really liked Momo: it was the story of a girl who is very poor, doesn’t know where she came from, and she just listens more, that’s how it’s explained. This magical girl who isn’t so flashy, but she listens more, and it’s the adventure of this girl. The gray men are an enemy. They steal time from people. They’re like bankers, they take the time away from people so they can save it in a time-saving bank so later on you’ll get extra time, but basically they’re stealing the time so they can make cigars with elements of time. Reading it as a child, I just thought it was interesting.
There are so many chaotic things happening in Smashing Humans. In “Humans in Gray,” we have some improvisational moments here and there that we throw in. I think it was Ken Filliano’s idea to just throw in an open, free improv idea right in the middle of this dense composition, and I was like, oh, yeah, this sounds pretty cool!
Other ones that could be interesting to explain is “Loud Dinner Wanted.” The song is about wanting something extra, wanting something big. That’s the song that has some elements of jazz, in a way. I wrote the first version of this song originally at Queens College as a grad student, so that’s a long time ago. I updated it this time, since I didn’t want to waste a song. I just didn’t like how it sounded enough, so I wanted to add different twists to it, and I’m pretty happy about the way it came out. I used chords a little bit, kind of in the jazz standards way. This song is the only song that has a section like that; all the other songs, I composed with just lines and lines, layers of lines and rhythms.
Sana Nagano and Smashing Humans play The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, September 23, 2021. The group features Ms. Nagano on violin, Peter Apfelbaum on tenor saxophone, Keisuke Matsuno on guitar, Ken Filliano on bass, and Danny Sher on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. E.D.T. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.