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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Andy Milne, Ralph Alessi, Drew Gress, Ravi Coltrane, and Mark Ferber. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi possesses an oblique lyricism, offering melodies that don’t travel quite where you expect them to. A first call collaborator with the likes of Fred Hersch, Steve Coleman, and Don Byron, Alessi is a decorated bandleader as well with ten albums to his name. His most recent one—Imaginary Friends (ECM)—features his long-running ensemble This Against That, currently a quintet featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Andy Milne, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Mark Ferber.

This Friday, February 28, Alessi convenes This Against That on The Jazz Gallery stage for two sets. We spoke with Alessi on the phone about the group, catching up with him as he walked back to his hotel after a long day of teaching at the conservatory in Siena, Italy.

Ralph Alessi: Sorry, I’m just a little out of breath!

The Jazz Gallery: That’s ok—thanks for letting us drop in! I’d like to start with your teaching here in Siena. Do you find that your students here are hip to the same music as young jazz musicians in the states?

Ralph Alessi: I’d say that they’re aware of the same things that typical students in the states are into. Pretty similar in that for both groups I am pointing them in the direction of older players and recordings, often times focusing on conceptual things that are not as common with the younger players of today.  I find that the Siena students are very open, very respectful, so it’s quite a  nice experience for me here.

TJG: Sounds great. Next week, you’re bringing your quintet This Against That to the Gallery, so I’ve been checking out your latest record, Imaginary Friends (ECM). One thing that’s struck me is your interest in linear or narrative-driven structures with different spaces for improvisation. What draws you to that line of thinking?

RA: When I start conceptualizing a piece, one of the important decisions is whether I want differing episodes of improvisation. Sometimes that’s built into the composition, but sometimes it’s the players making choices to offer contrasts in how to shape different moments. I like leaving things up to the players and not doing too much directing, and so I like working with players who bring a kind of compositional sensibility to the improvisations.

TJG: What are the elements of that compositional sensibility?

RA: I love how players can hear the music as it’s happening, have an awareness of where it came from and have a sense for where to take it.

TJG: How does surprise or unpredictability factor into that quality of being able to decide what happens next?

RA: For sure—I want that feeling of mystery to exist throughout the music-making. We all want to be surprised, whether we say it or not. It’s what fuels the music. The last thing I want to do is play music where people are just going through the motions. We’re all trying to provoke each other and keep the music flowing and alive.

TJG: I like that idea of provocation, and it’s something I hear in your dynamic with Ravi Coltrane. What do you feel are the contrasts in your and Ravi’s playing that lead to that sense of provocation?

RA: I find that in reviews and what not, a lot of people mention how Ravi and I play together. I love playing with Ravi, but when I listen back to things we’ve done, I don’t hear that dynamic in the way that others do. But I trust it, because it’s mentioned so often.

In terms of trying to provoke each other, I don’t know if there’s any real thought behind it. I think we’re just playing, and we know each other’s sound so well. Maybe that’s it, in terms of that sense of contrast—we know each other’s sounds so well, that we can blend them in a certain way. I think it’s akin to having a conversation with someone and having that be a dance. We’re blending together, and also juxtaposing each other. But I think that’s just the dance of playing music with other people.

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Zaccai and Luques Curtis. Photo courtesy of the artists.

The Curtis Brothers, Zaccai and Luques, have forged interwoven yet independent paths through the jazz world. Amidst a shared upbringing in Hartford, Connecticut, shared musical mentors and education in Boston and New York, and in many ways a shared musical path, Luques and Zaccai maintain separate careers, playing and touring independently with all manner of jazz musicians. In August, The Curtis Brothers released Algorithm, featuring a host of their musical mentors—Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Ralph Peterson. Their upcoming show at The Gallery will feature saxophonist Nick Biello, trumpeter Josh Lawrence, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. We spoke with the brothers about their upbringing and their thoughts about the upcoming show.

TJG: Many people have mentors, and some have the good fortune to play with them, even work with them in their own bands. What has it been like to grow up with a musical sibling and work with your shared mentors together?

Luques Curtis: It’s basically a dream come true. It definitely makes some things more comfortable, which allows for more freedom on the bandstand. We approach the music similarly. These legends were artists that we grew up listening to and studying: To name a few, we had the great fortune to work together with Donald Harrison, Ralph Peterson Jr., Brian Lynch, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, and Eddie Palmieri.

Zaccai Curtis: There’s a lot of “brother programming” that gets in the way, but after a while, you grow out of it, and a ton of musical progress can begin. Having someone with the same musical roots as yourself is always an advantage. You don’t have to be actual brothers… brothers in music should be enough to make things easier. But my brother and I don’t just share the same parents: We share most of the same “musical parents” as well. 

TJG: I know you’ve both toured (independently and together) as sidemen for tons of prominent jazz musicians. Was there a time where you learned something apart from each other that made you say “Yes this is a lesson that I want to share with my brother and use it in our work together as Curtis Brothers”?

LC: We were very fortunate to go on the road pretty early in our career together. First with our group Insight, then we did some extensive traveling with our mentor Donald Harrison. The first real band where I started to travel without Zaccai was Gary Burton’s Generation Band. With Gary, I learned a lot about organization, tour planning and, when it came to music, how to shape sets. He would also talk with us about shaping our solos, to be similar to what was on the recording we did. Gary was always very conscious about the audience’s experience and liked to plan specific sets depending on the crowd. I thought that was a great lesson to bring into our group.

TJG: You’ve released a number of records together. What’s the news now, and what’s coming up for you?

ZC: This particular band from Algorithm is a blessing because it’s comprised of the best of the best. Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Ralph Peterson are the factors that make this project what it is. I feel that without any of them, it would be a different thing. We look forward to developing the live performance and this particular sound. We also have Curtis Brothers projects that are part of our other expressions, like Insight and our quartet that will continue to move parallel to this project. 

LC: Alongside all of that, we are working on a new Cubop release featuring Camilo Molina on congas, Reinaldo DeJesus on percussion, and Willie Martinez on drums. We are also working on a joint release with Uprising Music called Sonido Solar.

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Brandon Ross and Stomu Takeishi, photo courtesy of the artists.

Since joining Henry Threadgill’s Make a Move Band in 1996, guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Stomu Takeishi have become a truly simpatico musical pair. Whether playing as a duo, in a quartet, or a large ensemble, the pair can seemingly play with one mind, has an uncanny knack for improvising fully complementary ideas. In an interview with Jazz Speaks, Ross spoke about how their time with Threadgill still undergirds their interplay today:

Stomu and I have [Threadgill] as a reference point in terms of musical dynamics, musical language. What we have been able to distill from that experience at that time, and evolve and mature in the duo relationship that we have. And I guess the longevity of the language that we share and that we developed is something that is has a lot to do with the instruments that we’re playing—Steve Klein-designed instruments. They have such a particular character of sound production and the way they interact with one another – we just want to hear them! In the writing that we do, I just want to hear the instruments [laughs].

This Friday, February 21, Ross and Takeishi return to The Jazz Gallery for two sets. They will be introducing new music for the duo that both clarifies their lineage and points to what’s next. (more…)

Photo by Rori Palazzo, courtesy of the artist.

This Thursday, February 20, The Jazz Gallery welcomes saxophonist Nicola Caminiti to our stage for his Gallery debut. A native of Sicily, Caminiti came to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music and graduated last spring. Inspired by Jazz Gallery favorites like Walter Smith and Will Vinson, Caminiti sports a style that’s rhythmically-dextrous and harmonically-lush. We caught up with Caminiti to talk about growing up with jazz in Sicily and finding himself in the New York jazz community.

The Jazz Gallery: What were you doing in Italy before you came to New York?

Nicola Caminiti: I was born and raised in Sicily, so I spent most of my life there growing up, playing, and listening to music. I started playing saxophone when I was 8. I’ve been listening to jazz forever though. It’s funny—I was exposed only to jazz until I was about 4 or 5 years old, so I thought that was what everyone listens to until I got to elementary school where I realized no one even knew what jazz was.

TJG: Are your parents musicians?

NC: My father used to play guitar, but he’s moreso just a really big fan of jazz. I tell people that he knows more about jazz than I do even though I’ve been playing it for a while now. He got hip to all of the modern stuff before I did. Around 2008 through 2010 I was in my early Kenny Garrett stage and he was already showing me recordings of Jonathan Kreisberg, Will Vinson, Gary Versace, Mark Ferber. He found them all on Youtube, which has really opened up a lot of music to the world.

When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but 2 or 3 years later that was my favorite stuff to listen to. My dad always seemed to be a step ahead of me.

TJG: Would you say that there is an Italian musical tradition to grasp onto? How did you become a jazz musician specifically?

NC: Well, classical Italian music is opera, and there are also regional traditional musics that sometimes incorporate pop elements. In Sicily, there is the Tarantella and Neapolitan music, which I love. There are also Neapolitan musicians who have crossed over with jazz musicians—for example, one of my favorite singers is Pino Daniele, who is a guitar player and singer. He even played with Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Santana…it was kind of pop music, but not consumerist pop: meaningful pop.

Italian traditional music isn’t really that prevalent in every day life though. I feel like this type of tradition is stronger in countries like Cuba, for example. I have a lot of Cuban friends and friends from Latin America in general, and they tell me that music is being played on the street. It’s there. You can feel it. Even in Washington Heights where I live, you can feel it to some degree. It may be far from the Afro-Latin heritage, but you can still kind of get that feel. In Sicily, you don’t get that. You get pop, and usually it’s American.

But really, the reason jazz has always felt natural to me is because I was listening to it day and night with my dad.

TJG: And you starting touring around Italy before you came to Manhattan School of Music, correct?

NC: Yes, I started going outside of Sicily around 2013 when I was 18, and I need to thank a good friend of mine—a killing guitar player from Vicenza, Italy, Joe Clemente, who took me outside of my comfort zone. He brought me north, playing with musicians from the area, and that was the first time I toured and played some gigs outside Sicily

TJG: What was your jazz education like up to that point?

NC: My academic education was mostly in classical music—that’s what I studied when I was 12. But regarding jazz, I was always around the Sicilian jazz scene, and between 2008 and 2014 I felt like the scene was really strong. There was a good 25 or 30 of us who would get together during the summer for workshops and work on material together.

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Design courtesy of the artists.

In 2009, the creative duo consisting of John Ellis and Andy Bragen premiered their second collaborative work, The Ice Siren, an hour-long composition with music by Ellis and a libretto by Bragen. Weaving layers of narrative and musical language together, The Ice Siren features vocalists Miles Griffith and Gretchen Parlato, plus a lush mixed chamber-jazz ensemble including Ellis on reeds. The large-scale work returns to The Jazz Gallery this month in celebration of its recording and release, Ellis’s tenth album as a leader. Following up on multiple prior interviews with this blog, and in anticipation of the pre-concert conversation with WBGO’s Simon Rentner, we again spoke with both Ellis and Bragen, diving inside their collaborative world and their nuanced approach to their creative work.

TJG: Do I have it right that you and John met at Hunter College in the late 90s?

Andy Bragen: Not exactly. John’s mother was up in New York for a year taking a graduate course at Hunter College. I was also taking a course up there, I was in my twenties at the time. She mentioned that her son John and his brother were living in Williamsburg and had just lost their place, and there was an opening at this crazy house I was living at in the East Village. His mother connected us: John moved into that house, and we became great friends.

John Ellis: Lately, our personal lives have intersected even more. I’d been on the list for Mitchell-Lama housing in the East Village for almost a decade. I got in about a year and a half ago, and it was because of him that I knew about it. So basically, my life with Andy has always had to do with housing [laughs]. When I first came to New York I moved into his house, this crazy house on 7th street, we all got kicked out. We became friends living in this falling-down house, and have since intersected over the years. When he got into Village View, when the list opened, he told me, and that was good fortune, because now that’s where I am.

AB: Now we live in the same complex in the East Village, one building over from each other. He’s one of my best friends, a lifelong friend. He’s an important part of my community and life. His family and my family, we’re very connected. In terms of collaboration, I think we will again. The timing is just so hard to make a big piece, but the last one we did was delightful, exciting. I hope we will in the future. In the meantime, it’s nice to revisit this work, especially with the record coming out.

TJG: At what point in your friendship did things become more collaborative?

AB: We’d always enjoyed each others’ work, and I was friends with a lot of his musical friends in those years. In general, I knew some of those folks. Our first thing was a commission from The Jazz Gallery in 2007-8 for Dreamscapes. He invited me to do that with him. With that, I wrote some poems, and he wrote music to them. It wasn’t quite as integrated. My father was dying or had just died at the time, so it was deeply connected to that. We got to talking: the Gallery commissioned John again, and this time he really brought me in with The Ice Siren. We were more fully integrated around a conversation, a concept, a whole piece.

TJG: Between the three collaborations–The Ice Siren, Dreamscapes, and MOBRO, you must have learned so much. If you were to start something new now, what would you now know about the first creative steps you might take together?

AB: Especially for The Ice Siren and MOBRO, we were always good at talking about process. Building a story together. With The Ice Siren, we talked a lot about mood, references, interests. We talked about Tim Burton, scary and funny, dreams and nightmares. I responded to some of those ideas with language. I wrote the words first, and we put music to it. MOBRO was more deeply integrated in a way. We had a theme–that garbage barge–then we looked at different sections and pulled them together in terms of moods and feelings, then got more specific. That one felt truly integrated. We sat down together for a week during a residency in New Mexico, and could really talk through what the piece could be.

Moving forward, if we were to do something, we would both be starting with a great familiarity with each others’ work. We would be starting from themes, and try to find a working style. There’s not one simple way to do anything. If we were a musical theater team, we might have a fixed way of working, but we tend to come together project by project, and try to discover what can work in terms of inspiring each other with what we’re thinking.

JE: Each of our projects has been different, yet somehow the same too. Mostly, we’ve been looking at intersection of language and music–the obvious thing to think about–but narrative too. Mostly, our collaborations have been through the Gallery, presenting a show of music, and inviting Andy to bring his expertise. Essentially, we’re making music first. It’s been enormously productive to collaborate with Andy, but we haven’t yet made a work of theater, something where the music serves the writing more. I’ve invited him into my world, in a way, but I haven’t been in his world. We could try to write a straight-up musical, or something theatrical like that.

The other crazy thing is that I never think of these works as finished. Even though it’s so old–we debuted it in 2009–The Ice Siren has really only happened three times: The premiere, the second performance plus recording, and now. Every time we do it, we get the musicians, it comes together, and what inevitably happens is that I want to make it better. Even though we already made a record, I’m still making adjustments to it. I re-learn the piece, which means I remember what I was thinking, which means I dig deeply into the score, which means I see things that feel glaringly wrong in my 2020 eyes compared to my 2009 eyes [laughs]. It’ll continue to be better than ever. I’m trying to make the presentation of the work better, clearer.

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