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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Multi-disciplinary artist Melvis Santa regards the act of creating music with other people as compelling as the music itself. For the past couple years, the GRAMMY-nominated singer, dancer, percussionist and composer out of Cuba has led different iterations of her acclaimed collective Ashedí—meaning Invitation—across New York City’s vital scenes. This week, she returns to The Jazz Gallery as part of the Jazz Cubano series, in celebration of the venue’s 25th anniversary.

Allowing certain secular and spiritual elements to inform her music, Santa and her fellow artists explore new interpretations of rhythmic and melodic ideas from the Yoruba tradition and other styles that trace back to the same source. She discusses mysteries of the drum, the tonal characteristic of Yoruba language and the enduring legacy of the The Jazz Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: Talk to me, if you would, about the sacred connection between percussion and the voice or vocal expression.

Melvis Santa: The voice in the Afro-Cuban tradition is one of the main elements. It’s definitely sacred because of not only the voice, literally, of the singer but the voice that speaks through the instruments as a spirit, I would say. It’s really important in the religious context, and culturally as well because we inherited that from the African traditions. In oral tradition there is the “culture bearer,” who is someone who has knowledge—deep knowledge—and is the carrier of all those traditions. So either it is the storytellers, or the Babaaláwo, or high priestess Iyalosha, or a mother—all those are people who use their voice as a vessel for knowledge and for tradition.

And the sound, specifically in the Yoruba tradition because it’s a tonal language, is very important—tone makes all the differences. In my case, as a singer, I do want to keep having that other perspective to the voice—not only as someone that is just in front of a band expressing feeling spontaneously through the music, but also acknowledging certain responsibility with the legacy I come from. That’s how I see it. It’s a cultural responsibility. We’re transmitting not only sounds but I have a stance with my voice as a communicator. For example, in Lukumí ceremonies we have the akpwon, which is the singer who carries the knowledge to speak directly to the orishas. In order to be an akpwon, you must acquire that knowledge. So that’s my approach, as well.

TJG: We consider the oral tradition all the time when talking about Black American music.

MS: It all comes from Africa.

TJG: It’s illuminating to hear how it’s—almost literally—handed down in the Yoruba tradition.

MS: Yes.

TJG: Why is being a percussionist also important to you in connecting the literal, figurative—or spiritual—vocal tradition?

MS: The instruments are sacred as well, especially in percussion. They are homes for spirits that live inside the drum. It could be interpreted as the sound that you master or the people that work in developing the sound—and not only the sound but the language of the drum—their mission is to find that voice so they can understand and unveil the messages. So in order to have that level of perception, you really have to have a sophisticated sense of development. You have to put all of your senses toward that development. It’s a combination of knowledge, of tradition and of personal investment from inside and outside. The instruments also have their own voice, their own sound. It’s a communication between the instrument, the person that plays and the external elements—like nature, for example.

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Immanuel Wilkins & Logan Richardson. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Friday, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to host a special, intergenerational alto saxophone summit featuring Logan Richardson and Immanuel Wilkins. Both Gallery favorites, Richardson and Wilkins have honed their distinctive voices on the Gallery stage as both sidemen and leaders. To get an inkling of the fireworks that could ensure on the bandstand, check out the pair performing live shows in Washington D.C.—Wilkins at the Kennedy Center, and Richardson on NPR’s famed Tiny Desk.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, March 12, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome guitarist Fabrizio Sotti back to our stage for two sets. Since moving to New York in 1991, Sotti has been one of the scene’s true musical omnivores, as comfortable producing standout hip-hop tracks as unleashing flurries of post-bop lines with a fleet-footed trio. Check out Sotti’s recent performance of the Miles Davis standard “Solar,” which combines those different elements of his musical practice, below.

For this performance at the Gallery, Sotti has written a book of new music for a new band, featuring longtime collaborators Rachel Z on piano, Peter Slavov on bass, and Clarence Penn on drums. In addition, keep your ear out for a special upcoming EP of Sotti with Gallery co-founders Lezlie Harrison and Roy Hargrove, recorded in Sotti’s apartment back in the year 2000. (more…)

Clockwise from top left: Tyshawn Sorey, Sasha Berliner, Morgan Guerin, Nathan Reising, Lex Korten, and Nick Dunston, Photos courtesy of the artists.

For Jazz Gallery fans, Tyshawn Sorey requires no introduction, and any description of his music or style invariably leaves out something vital. Simply put, as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, Sorey moves in the realm of the rigorous, visceral, and sublime. Recently, the 2017 MacArthur fellow has been performing a sextet of young creative improvisers, featuring saxophonists Nathan Reising and Morgan Guerin, vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, pianist Lex Korten, and bassist Nick Dunston. After a completely packed concert at The Jazz Gallery last spring, the sextet will return to the Gallery with an unprecedented run of five shows over five consecutive evenings, one long set per evening.

Sorey spoke in depth via phone in a conversation about the group’s granular yet uninhibited approach to his music.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to start by asking about the length of each set. Every evening will feature a single set, starting at 7:30pm and stretching at least two hours. What begins to happen for you, physically and mentally, when you hit that two hour mark and beyond?

Tyshawn Sorey: At that point, it’s about the experience of being in the music itself. To me, this is not about performing a “concert.” I don’t care for “performances.” What I am interested in is the art of experience and how our relationship to time evolves over that experience, at which point, at least for me, time doesn’t exist. You lose your sense of time by being immersed in the experience of playing challenging music. You get to a point in the set where you’re not even thinking about time at all: it’s an out-of-body experience. That’s what I’m after in these situations.

When doing extended sets, things move toward a very heightened level of consciousness, effortlessness, and awareness—it’s an experience that you wouldn’t necessarily have in playing a 45- or 60-minute set. That hour and a half, two hour mark is a threshold that we’re used to arriving at during a given performance, but beyond that, you arrive at a different kind of zone, where time no longer exists. No matter the style of the music, I want to get to something well beyond how one feels while merely playing tunes for 45 minutes that contain structures that operate in the same fashion, which brings us to another reason why the sets are so long.

There is so much detail in each composition that we play. I hate stopping in between tunes. I’m not into standing there announcing song titles or cracking jokes between songs trying to be cute, funny, or likeable. I’m only there to do one thing: To play music that expands one’s consciousness, to tap into some beautiful zones, and to get into other areas of music-making that are interesting to me. Well, that’s three things [laughs]! Simply put, my job is to produce the best possible experience of music that one can think of, to give the listener something else to take with them.

TJG: The band is young—everyone’s in their twenties—so that extra length must be a unique aspect of these shows for them, since most of them are probably playing 45- to 90-minute sets at their usual gig.

TS: Right. It’s a different experience for them. And for me, too, because when I play in other people’s groups, we don’t even really get to do that. But ever since 2004, I’ve tended towards doing longer concerts with my group Oblique, and my quartet with Cory Smythe, Chris Tordini, and Ben Gerstein, and then my piano trio, so that hasn’t really changed since the formation of this band.

But in the case of performing with other bands, I’ll never forget one particular experience I had with Vijay Iyer in the summer of 2013 when I lived in Copenhagen, Denmark for a brief time, and I did a month-long tour of Europe with Vijay Iyer and Stephan Crump. In the middle of that tour, on July 13th, George Zimmerman had been acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. We were on our way to board a plane to Berlin at the time of hearing about this, and obviously it was devastating news for all of us. We were scheduled for a performance that same night, at a club called A-Trane. We didn’t really talk about what we were going to play or what we were going to do. We don’t really plan sets anyway. But I’ll never forget: On that night, we basically played a three hour set at this club [laughs]. The audience was with us, from start to finish, all the way.

Because we were so emotionally charged—we were deeply saddened by the news, of course—we wanted to offer something that really was more about celebrating life. Was it mournful? Yes. But we tapped into a very different energy that I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. It was fascinating for me to make music in that space with the understanding of our relationship with what’s going on in the world. To share that with Vijay, who I consider a brother of mine… I’d say it was the most vulnerable I’ve been on any bandstand. I can’t put into words how much that whole experience affected me. That night in Berlin, hearing about all of the crazy stuff that was going on out here at home, and having an opportunity to use our art as a way to relate to our experience, and to express our hopes, our sorrow, our disappointment in society… It was unlike any other experience we’d had together before, or probably since. We were in that same vibe for the rest of that tour, thinking about all of that. I’m emotional, thinking about this… It was deep on so many levels. I’ll never forget it.

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Photo by Tom Ehrlich, courtesy of the artist.

As part of its 25th Anniversary Celebration series, The Jazz Gallery welcomes pianist and composer Osmany Paredes and his Jazz Cubano Quartet. After an early introduction to rhythmic patterns at age 3 from his father, percussionist and band leader Guillermo Paredes, Paredes now stretches his artistry across styles and traditions, both emerging and enduring. Collaborators include Yosvany Terry, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Arturo Sandoval and the legendary Roy Hargrove, among countless other distinct voices. 

Paredes recently spoke with the Gallery on intercutting musical styles from a range of cultures, the role of clave in his artistic development and flexing leadership—again—in New York City. 

The Jazz Gallery: You were very, very young when you received an introduction to different rhythmic patterns and elements from Guillermo Paredes, your father and longtime percussionist at Modern Music Orchestra of Santa Clara. 

Osmany Paredes: He plays percussion and a little bit of valve trombone. In my hometown, Santa Clara, he played with a big band orchestra. He liked jazz, Brazilian music, Cuban music of course, and he introduced me to all these rhythms when I was really young. Also, he [kept] a lot of LPs in the house, so I listened to all different kinds of music—Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Chucho Valdes—many, many different styles of music. He also taught me a little bit about the pattern, the clave—rumba and son, different [variations] on the clave. So I had that information before I started in the music school, EVA Olga Alonso, in Santa Clara, and I felt proud about that.  

TJG: The other students, at the time, didn’t have the same exposure to clave before they started at the school? 

OP: Most of them didn’t know about that. I talked with some of them who maybe had fathers who were also musicians, but most of them, no. Actually, today some of them are musicians, but many of them are not working on music; they have different [careers]. Most of them didn’t know about clave because in school, we didn’t have material that teaches how to play Cuban music; it was all classical music. 

TJG: You seem to have an ability to intuit the precise tempo to call for every tune you play; do you feel as though your early introduction to clave has nurtured that ability? 

OP: Yes. For me, it was good to know clave and other [rhythmic ideas] when I was very young because that helped me to be able to play, as an individual, a lot of different styles. If you feel strong with your music—in this case, Cuban music—you can feel [more comfortable] playing other roots: Brazilian, African, jazz. So I think learning clave when I was young helped me to put different styles of music together.  

TJG: You have deep connection to beautiful, dissonant melodies. In what ways have Afro-Cuban traditions and other musical traditions and styles influenced your relationship with melody and lyricism? 

OP: I love the music from Brazil. That music has beautiful melodies and beautiful harmony—complicated harmony, but, at the same time, beautiful. I love classical music, too. I like African music and jazz. For me, the rhythm is very important, but it’s the balance of melody, harmony and rhythm. I like to compose melodies that feel familiar not only to musicians but to the people who come listen to the music. When I compose, I think about everyone—I’m not only thinking about musicians. I like to be in the middle, always thinking about rhythm, melody and harmony. Sometimes musicians do very [complex] things, which is part of the style they play, but it’s also good to compose something that sounds familiar to everyone so people can understand [the music] when they come to your concert. For me, that’s very important.

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