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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Don’t be fooled by the title of Gabriel Chakarji’s debut album, New Beginning: Chakarji has been thriving in the jazz scene for years, and his new record serves to solidify his evolving message and sound. Hailing from Caracas Venezuela, Chakarji grew up in a multicultural community, toured with the Simon Bolívar Jazz Band, was nominated for a Latin Grammy for his work with Linda Briceño, and has played on the stages of Dizzy’s, The Blue Note, The Bern Jazz Festival, The Mexico City Jazz Festival, and many more. Now in New York, Chakarji studies at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.

For Chakarji, New Beginning represents not only a synthesis of his musical influences–namely Afro-Venezuelan and jazz, musics with shared African roots–but also an expression of daily life as an immigrant in NYC, discovering the history and culture of The United States. The performance will feature Chakarji on piano, Ana Carmela Ramirez on voice, Morgan Guerin on saxophone and EWI, Juan Diego Villalobos on vibraphone and percussion, Dean Torrey on bass, Jongkuk Kim on drums, and Daniel Prim on percussion. We spoke with Chakarji as he was preparing for a different show at Terraza 7 in Queens with Spanish flamenco-jazz saxophonist Antonio Lizana.

TJG: How did you get connected with Antonio Lizana?

Gabriel Chakarji: I was on tour in Madrid, Spain, with some friends. I met him through those musicians, and I discovered that he has collaborated with other Venezuelan musicians that have played with me before. Antonio and I have lots of friends in common. Antonio has also collaborated with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, the big band of Arturo O’Farrill, and I’m close to them too. I sub for Arturo sometimes, I’m really good friends with Zach and Adam, it’s family for me. Zach will actually be playing tonight with Antonio too.

TJG: Have you been really focused on your Jazz Gallery show?

GC: Yeah, we rehearsed on Monday night. It’s a lot of people, and it’s always hard to schedule rehearsals in New York, but it worked out, and it was amazing. We’re working on music from my album, and it’s a lot of music. We’re playing a couple of my new songs too, and there will be a “premiere,” something I’ve never played before.

TJG: Will JK and Daniel be on the Gallery show?

GC: Yes, JK will be playing drums, and Daniel, my good friend from Venezuela, will be playing a bunch of different percussion instruments, at least four instruments from Afro-Venezuelan culture. One is the culo’e puya, a long drum, there’s also the cumaco that you play on the floor. Daniel Prim and Juan Diego Villalobos will be playing all those on different songs. That’s part of the music that I’m writing now, bringing these sounds together with the jazz quartet or quintet sound.

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Marcus Strickland, JD Allen, and Stacy Dillard. Photo courtesy of the artists.

This weekend, The Jazz Gallery brings together three leaders who push the tenor saxophone lineage in varied directions. Named for the three-headed monster king, Ghidorah features JD Allen, Stacy Dillard and Marcus Strickland, artists who have developed distinctive, resonating connections to their instrument.

In a joint interview, they spoke with The Jazz Gallery about melodic rub of the bass, sound signatures and their own long-percolating thoughts on the most damaging misnomer of all: “chordless trio.” 

The Jazz Gallery: You all have ways of cuing other players on the bandstand without actually saying anything. JD, you seem to cue the other members of your band entirely with your horn, whether it’s a feel change, a tempo change or moving into a different section—repeating a phrase now and then or using a quotation. I remember on one tune you were playing what sounded like this “Witch Hunt” melody fragment. Can you talk about your instincts for cuing the other players?

JD Allen: Don Cherry was very much into that during the ’60s. If you check out Complete Communion—there’s a few great live recordings of him doing it. That’s where I got that from. And Sonny Rollins’ band in the ’60s was known to do things like that; so that in itself, that’s where that comes from. Now why I do it—the whole focus for me is to make it to the ballad, because that’s when you can sell something and people allow you to do all kinds of other crazy stuff. I’ll notice people will come up sometimes and say, “I don’t know what the hell you guys did, but that ballad—I really loved that ballad.” 

Marcus Strickland: Exactly (laughs). Go head. 

JDA: I get into a ballad and I try to give people kind of a moment of resting from what they heard, good or bad, and then I try to scatter that notion by going into something else, unexpected—maybe a drum solo or another tune. But yeah, I do have cues. It could be a fragment of another melody of where I wanna go to or wherever I wanna go back to, but you’re right. 

Now the “Witch Hunt” reference, I love Wayne Shorter, so that’s possible. That could have happened. I’ll have to go back and investigate. 

TJG: Somewhere in the middle of your second set, you went into “Solitude.”

JDA: Yeah, “Solitude.” 

TJG: I remember thinking, “Wow. He really made us wait for the ballad.” 

JA, MS + Stacy Dillard: [Laughs]

JDA: I can promise you a ballad. I don’t know anything else, but I do know I have a ballad in every set. Or I try to anyway. And I thought it was really appropriate because I was in my solitude. [The audience was] talking so much, and I can hear what people are saying when I play a ballad. I can hear all kinds of conversations and I feel like, in some ways, I’m a soundtrack to whatever madness is going on. 

TJG: The Smalls audience is unpredictable. 

JDA: Oh I love it. They can talk all they want, we’re still gonna play [laughs]. 

TJG: All of you guys, again, have a distinct way of interpreting melody, or maybe I should say connecting to melody. Marcus, I know from past interviews I’ve read that melody was an important consideration for you when you were putting together your most recent release on Blue Note, Nihil Novi. Whether you’re playing live or in the studio, what are some of the different ways you allow the melody to inform how you craft a solo, or improvise more broadly?

MS: That’s definitely the main thing I’m referencing when I start a solo. Your first passage through the song is probably going to be from there. I take that as a reference, and I try to expound on it. That’s where improvisation kind of stems from, embellishing on the melody. So I’m really strong on that, and all these other guys are strong on that, too. 

TJG: Stacy? 

SD: I’m kind of similar to Marcus on that, with the whole embellishing on the melody. It goes back, for me, to listening to R&B and funk and that stuff — listening to the melodies and seeing how the singers go off the melody and how they riff. It’s going to depend on how you articulate the melody when you do blow. You know how Aretha Franklin would vibe at the end of a song. They might loop or something, and she’d riff. It’s a lot like that. Keep it home, and then take off, if you want to. 

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Photo by Gabriel Baharlia, courtesy of the artist.

This week, The Jazz Gallery welcomes pianist Shai Maestro to the stage for two evenings of performances. In his last appearance at the Gallery, Maestro presented his 2018-19 Residency Commission project—a book of lyrical-yet-athletic tunes for a chamber trio featuring Philip Dizack and trumpet and Joel Ross on vibraphone. Since then, Maestro has toured extensively with his home base trio of bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya, as well as making special guest appearances at Antonio Sanchez’s Music for Human Rights concert and ECM Records’ 50th Anniversary Celebration this fall.

For these performances at the Gallery, Maestro has invited Dizack to join his working trio to present a new book of music that will be recorded for a new album on ECM. To get a sense of how dialed in the trio is right now—and what sparks will fly when Dizack is added to the mix—check out a live performance of Maestro’s tune “From One Soul to Another,” recorded last month in Stockholm, Sweden.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Becca Stevens, an artist who at The Jazz Gallery needs no introduction, will be returning to the Gallery stage for the Commissions Revisited Series. Always pushing in some way against her own limitations and boundaries as a songwriter and musician, Stevens used the commissioning series to create Regina, a collection of music that eventually became her acclaimed album in 2017. Regina was the result of months of research, experimentation, and soul-searching, according to Stevens.

This weekend, Stevens will be revisiting the album at The Jazz Gallery with her band featuring herself on guitar, ukulele, charango, and voice, Michelle Willis on keyboards and voice, Jan Esbra on guitar, Chris Tordini on bass and voice, and Jordan Perlson on drums.

TJG: You just jumped straight over to Spain from Winter Jazz Fest to work on a project, correct?

Becca Stevens: That’s right, I’m in Spain doing a kind of writing retreat. Mike League and I are doing a record in about a week in New York with The Secret Trio, an amazing group of Turkish and Macedonian musicians. We’re getting the music together for that, writing it, pulling together arrangements.

TJG: How do you and Michael work together? What’s your process together for a situation like this?

BS: We’ve written together in a couple of different groups. With this one specifically, the songs started out with him sending me demos and ideas on oud and guitar. I would add melodies, harmonies, lyric ideas, things like that. Right now, I’m finishing that process. Once I get a song to a point where I think it’s pretty much finished, at least a draft, I’ll send it back to him. He adds more final touches, ways to bring in the trio. We’ll see how it goes! It’s a back-and-forth process. In the band we’re in with David Crosby, it’s more like we’re all writing together at the same time. All approaches work, this is just how we went about this one since we weren’t working in the same place.

TJG: Well, it’s a treat to be interviewing you, I’ve been a fan for years. The show at The Jazz Gallery is part of the Commissions Revisited Series, where you’ll be presenting music from Regina, correct?

BS: That’s right. The Gallery originally commissioned that music, so it’s the only place to do the reunion.

TJG: A lot of the album explores this childlike wonder, lost hope, dangers of love. Could you tell me about who Regina is, and how she sees the world?

BS: Regina began as a concept, the word ‘queen,’ and different things I could pull out of that word, everything and anything I associated with the word. Through the process of writing the record, Regina began to take on a life of her own. Maybe out of necessity, she became a writing partner, a voice in my own head that I would call upon for guidance, confidence, a clue from a muse. I found that assigning an entity to the muse behind the song helps with clarity. I get a stronger sense of whether I’m doing something that’s serving the song or serving myself, and when I’m writing, decisions that serve myself often don’t come across as poignantly or effectively.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

For the first time in over a decade, Massimo Biolcati is releasing a new record as a bandleader. Biolcati is known as a producer, composer, sideman, co-founder of Gilfema (a trio featuring Ferenc Nemeth and Lionel Loueke), and developer of the iReal Pro app. The Swedish/Italian bassist has lived in New York for quite some time, and has logged tours with Paquito D’Rivera, Terence Blanchard, Ravi Coltrane, Lizz Wright, and Luciana Souza. The new record, Incontre, is slated for release on January 24th, and features Dayna Stephens on saxophones, Sam Yahel on piano and organ, and Jongkuk Kim on drums. For our recent interview covering the new album and the iReal Pro app, read on.

TJG: Where and how does Incontre fit into your other projects? I know you’re busy with a lot of things, including your trio Gilfema with Ferenc Nemeth and Lionel Loueke.

MB: Yes, I’ve been playing a lot with Lionel, mostly in the Lionel Loueke trio configuration. We also have a more collaborative band, Gilfema, where I contribute compositions. This new band on the recording is my own band. I decided everything, took on all band-leading duties. Last year, I decided it was time to record another record as a bandleader. It had been about ten years, and as a bass player, one gets spoiled being called as a sideman on many projects: Sometimes it’s easy to get lazy and feel like you’re playing enough good music as it is, and I’ve been lucky to play with great people. But I felt it was time to record some music I’ve been writing throughout the years, so I decided to go into the studio. I looked to some musicians I’d played with in the past, as well as newer young musicians I’ve discovered recently. It was a nice combination.

TJG: Talk to me about the band.

MB: I’ve been playing with Sam on and off through the years. I love his playing. He also plays organ, and he’s gone deep with it, so he knows all about it. I like the idea of having that option as another color. Sam plays organ on several tracks. I’ve known Dayna since back in the day. We went to Berklee College together, then went to the Monk Institute together in 2001. He’s got such an earthy, soulful sound. He’s a beautiful person as well, which is so important when you’re making music with other people. JK is a young drummer who also went to Berklee, he’s in his mid-twenties. We started playing a few gigs here and there. I love his playing, he’s great. His groove is incredible, his listening skills are something I look for in a drummer. He’s truly in the moment, reactive, listens carefully.

TJG: How did Jongkuk Kim get on your radar?

MB: I host regular sessions at my house, and I always encourage people to bring their friends. I try to always meet the new young musicians that come to town. He’s one of the people I’ve met in this way. I like to keep a balance between playing with people of my own generation that I’ve grown up with musically, and I also want to be in the know, see what the young kids are doing, and get inspiration and motivation from that. I like the sharing between musical generations like that, it’s inspiring.

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