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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Chris Tordini holds the bass chair in so many bands that the list is a bit dizzying: Andy Milne, Steve Lehman, Becca Stevens, Tyshawn Sorey, Michael Dessen, Matt Mitchell, John Hollenbeck… not to mention that he subs for the Tony-winning Broadway musical Hadestown. It’s a rare moment when such a busy sideman steps into a leadership role. He’ll be arriving at The Jazz Gallery with a new collection of music which, in his words, “runs the gamut from rhythmic angularity to avuncular lyricism.” The new band features Anna Webber (tenor saxophone & flute), Red Wierenga (piano & accordion), and Dan Weiss (drums), each of whom has collaborated with Tordini, but never in this exact configuration. In a phone conversation, Tordini took us inside his process, from practice to performance.

The Jazz Gallery: How’s it going? Making it through the winter?

Chris Tordini: Things are pretty good. It’s that’s time of when we’re all trying to get through the cold. I’m at home now, was just practicing a little bit.

TJG: Do you mind if I ask what you’re practicing and how you’re practicing it?

CT: Sure. This is totally random, but I was just practicing a bass and trombone soli from “Tiptoe” by Thad Jones. I was looking for something to practice reading. I don’t do this often, you just happened to catch me when I was looking for something new to read. Before that, I was doing an exercise that I do a lot, putting the metronome on super slow–anywhere between 20 and 35 beats per minute–and playing quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, subdivisions like that. This slow-quarter-note-thing is something you’d find me doing on any given day when I have the time to practice.

TJG: Was there a reason you wanted to brush up on your reading chops?

CT: Lately, I’ve been trying to get out of my head, as far as reading new music. I’ve been doing exercises where I read music and try to hear it while I’m reading it, as opposed to mechanically, robotically reading notes. I’m trying to engage my ear more in the sight-reading process, which is difficult for me. Left to my own devices while reading music, I can be quite mechanical. I do consider myself a good reader, in the utility kind of way, so I’ve been trying to actively engage my ear in my practice lately, to make up for that.

TJG: Tell me about each of the musicians you picked for this upcoming show–Anna Webber, Red Wierenga, Dan Weiss–and how you met each of them.

CT: I’ll start with Dan, because I’ve played with him the most. Dan is a good friend of mine, and is one of my favorite drummers on the planet. I met him over ten years ago, when we started playing in a trio with Michael Dessen, a trombone player based in California. We clicked early on. Dan intimidated me at first because I had heard him a lot with other groups. We immediately clicked musically and personally, and we’ve been playing in a lot of projects together. We played with Matt Mitchell together, we’ve played in many different groups. He’s an inspiring guy, dedicated to music, to the craft of jazz drumming, to tabla.

Red Wierenga is an amazing piano player and accordion player. Most of the playing I’ve done with him has been in The Claudia Quintet, John Hollenbeck’s band, where I often sub for Drew Gress. I’ve loved playing with Red and hanging out with him. I’ve heard him play piano on recordings and have seen him live, but the playing we’ve done has almost exclusively featured him on accordion. As I’ve been playing through my new music, I knew I needed piano. Then I started hearing the possibility of accordion on a few things, and immediately thought of Red, because he’s such a great player on both instruments.

I’ve known Anna Weber for quite a while. We’ve known each other from the scene, I’ve seen her bands play, I’m always a fan of her music. A couple of years ago, she asked me to play on a record of hers, Clockwise, which came out last year. I was super happy to do that because I was already a fan of her music and playing. It was a pleasure working on her amazing, often difficult and complex music. We got to know each other a lot better through that process. She’s a friend of mine, she’s one of my favorite saxophone players. Anna is a great flute player as well, so I’m trying to figure out having her double in the same way as Red on piano and accordion.

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Members of the California State University, Northridge jazz program. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This coming weekend, Jazz at Lincoln Center is hosting the first ever Jack Rudin Jazz Championship. The competition features 10 acclaimed college jazz bands from across the country performing in both big band and combo configurations. But before taking the stage uptown this weekend, the combos from California State University, Northridge will perform a special concert at The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday evening with special guest (and SoCal native) Ben Wendel.

To get a sense of what the talented Northridge students can do, watch their big band take on Chris Potter’s knotty and athletic “New Year’s Day,” below.

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Photo by Daniel Reichert, courtesy of the artist.

Jen Shyu—the ever-ambitious, ever-evolving vocalist—has produced and performed several multi-disciplinary solo shows. Her latest one—Zero Grasses—was commissioned by John Zorn and premiered at National Sawdust. It is perhaps her most personal project to date.

Over the course of the show, Shyu will sing in multiple languages, play a variety of instruments, and dance, as well as having composed the music, worked on sound design, and written the libretto. For every ticket sold–aligned with the themes of birth, death, and rebirth–a tree will be planted in the forest of Shyu’s father, in collaboration with WEARTH. We recently spoke at length with Shyu about how the work transformed around the recent passing of her father.

TJG: It’s amazing to think that our last interview was almost exactly two years ago today. At that time, we were discussing Zero Grasses, which seems like it has really transformed. It was a Jade Tongue ensemble project, correct?

Jen Shyu: Yes, exactly. When it was In Healing | Zero Grasses, it was the day before I was going to record with Jade Tongue, the band with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. Some of those songs remained in this solo version, but indeed, the show took a big turn, in terms of its themes, in terms of everything.

TJG: When we last talked, the emphasis was on relationships and grief, personal and environmental, and not necessarily focusing on particulars. I was just reading about the recent passing of your father—was that a catalyzing moment for you and for this work?

JS: Yes. I was in Japan in January for what was to be a five-month fellowship, doing research, focusing on the premiere of Zero Grasses, the solo show at National Sawdust commissioned by John Zorn. The fellowship was the U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship by way of The Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission. Those five months were going to feed directly into the piece. After that, I was immediately going to stop by New York before going to Sienna in Italy where I teach at the jazz workshop. After that, I was going to do a composition residency through the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, which would be where I was going to finally organize this whole solo piece.

I got an email during a Japanese lesson about a month and a half into my time in Japan. It was from the sheriff where my parents lived in Texas: “We are sorry to inform you that your father, Tsu Shyu, has passed away.” I was like… What the hell?! I thought it was a joke, a scam. I couldn’t believe it. I called my mom, in a panic, and it was true. The ambulance had already come, dad had already been pronounced dead. He had passed away during his nap, before dinner. He wasn’t sick: He’d just come back from a trip in Egypt with my mom and was about to go to Greece. It was such a shock. That changed everything.

That night in Japan, before flying back home, I had a biwa lesson. I needed some comfort. My teacher was like a mother figure to me, and when I told her what had happened, that my father he had passed away during his nap, she said “Oh, yes, that’s how I want to go too” [laughs]. It instantly made me feel better.

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Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein, courtesy of the artist.

Darcy James Argue’s 18-piece big band Secret Society graces The Jazz Gallery’s stage once again this Thursday and Friday evening. Amid rich textures and dramatic arcs, the band’s music opens a wider dialogue with political issues both past and present.

Amidst a busy rehearsal schedule after returning from his native Vancouver, we spoke with Argue over the phone about how the current socio-political climate impacts his new and previous works, how the history of the internet impacts the music world, and what we can expect from these special Secret Society performances.

The Jazz Gallery: It’s been a few years since the premiere of your project Real Enemies. How has your view of the piece changed as the band has played it more, and in light of the current political climate?

Darcy James Argue: Real Enemies premiered in November 2015 at BAM, and we recorded it in early 2016 before any of the primaries had taken place. And of course, all the writing and contextualization for it began about three years before the premiere, back in 2012 when Isaac Butler and I first had the idea for the piece. We sort of wondered, at the time, whether anyone would really be interested in a piece about conspiracy theories and weaponized paranoia! We knew we were interested, and it looked to us that these trends were in ascendance, but we had no idea how drastically our culture would shift, to the point that we (A) elected a conspiracy theorist as president, and (B) put conspiracy theories at the front and center of American politics for the past 4 to 5 years.

TJG: Interesting—yes the piece is relevant right now and extremely prescient at its inception. How does your recent commission “Ebonite” compare to Real Enemies?

DJA: “Ebonite” is probably the opposite of Real Enemies! It’s sunny and bright and a piece full of joy and life. It’s named after this sort of miracle substance that comes from the South American rubber tree. Hard rubber ebonite is used in things as diverse as saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces and hockey pucks. With the grimness of today’s world—that’s something I grapple with in my music and my day to day life—you also need to periodically remind yourself of the stuff that roots you and brings you joy in life.

Ironically, this was driven home for me last Thursday when the assassination of Soleimani was announced. I was at a hockey game in Vancouver—watching my home team, the Canucks, pull out a 7-5 victory, a really exciting and thrilling game with so many beautiful goals. You leave the stadium in great spirits and then check your phone for alerts and you’re like, wait… what? Having these wild emotional swings is very much part of our current culture. For better or worse, this is part of the connected world we live in.

I’m not trying to make light of the dire situation we currently find ourselves in, on the brink of a conflict that could make the Iraq War look like a cakewalk. It’s really important that we resist this latest attempt to thrust the world into violence and chaos. But in order to deal with this, a certain amount of self-care is necessary and for me that self-care is often music.

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Photo by Kevin Matthews, courtesy of the artist.

This week, The Jazz Gallery and Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning’s Thursday Night Jazz series returns with a performance by drummer Jeremy Dutton. A Gallery regular and alumnus of our Mentoring Series, Dutton is now a highly sought collaborator, holding the drum chair in Joel Ross’s Good Vibes, James Francies’s Kinetic, and the Vijay Iyer Trio. Check out Dutton’s recent performance with Iyer on the Chris Thile public media program, Live from Here.

Last month, Dutton went into the studio to record a new album as a leader, so come out to JCAL in Queens to get a sneak peak at this unreleased music. (more…)