A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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Photo by Cornel Brad, courtesy of the artists.

One of the pleasures of speaking with musicians is that you can discover the connection between their speaking voices and their musical voices. This phenomenon emerged during a recent phone conversation with Lucian Ban and Alex Harding, after listening to their latest album, Dark Blue (Sunnyside). Harding, baritone saxophonist and Detroit native, speaks with deep, punctuated bursts of ideas and phrases. Lucian Ban, pianist from Transylvania, communicates with a flowing string of sentences and stories. The music they create together sounds much like their friendship itself.

Harding and Ban have been collaborating for nearly twenty years, releasing albums and touring along the way, often featuring other artists including Bob Stewart, JD Allen, and Sam Newsome. Both are deeply influenced by jazz, blues, and chamber music traditions, and their music deftly blurs the divide between improvisation and composition, a topic that became the center of our recent phone conversation.

The Jazz Gallery: I’d love to hear a little about how your collaboration started. You released your first album together in 2001, so you must now have been collaborating for almost twenty years.

Lucian Ban: Exactly, the new album is, in some ways, a celebration of us working together.

Alex Harding: Isn’t that interesting? We didn’t work it out that way, it just seems to be the way it happened.

TJG: Take me back two decades and talk a little about how you met, and what musically spoke to you about each other.

LB: Sure. I first saw Alex in 1996 when I visited New York. I went to hear The Sun Ra Arkestra, and it was so impressive, the musicians were coming out from the kitchen, from the hallway, Alex was playing baritone, it was fascinating, man. I always liked Sun Ra, but seeing them live was a new experience. I moved to New York to study at New School, and one of my roommates at the time said, “We gotta go listen to this amazing baritone player on the lower east side at a place called Pink Pony,” a venue that isn’t there anymore. I went there and heard the trio which featured Alex, which sounded killing. After the show, I talked to Alex, who was gracious enough to say “Yeah, let’s do something together.” We did a quintet gig, and then my first album in the US was a duet with Alex, called Somethin’ Holy (Cimp 2001). We’ve always had both musical and personal affinity for each other. Alex Harding was and is, in a way, my biggest connection to this music once I moved to New York. I value our collaboration deeply.

TJG: Alex, do you remember your first impression of Lucian?

AH: Yeah I do. I don’t remember meeting him at the Sun Ra gig, because as he said, we were playing and walking through the kitchen and the hallways. I remember meeting him at Pink Pony. I remember it fondly. Lucian’s enthusiasm, his desire to play with good cats… I did what I was taught to do: I passed it on, I helped out where I could. That’s what I did, and twenty years later, here we are.

TJG: On your records, you really sound like friends throughout the music. You’re there for each other, you’re respectful, you push each other a bit.

AH: Like an old married couple [laughs]!

LB: [Laughs] Like a successful marriage, let’s put it that way.

TJG: So what’s your friendship like when you’re not on tour? Do you talk, do you hang out?

AH: Yeah, absolutely. When I lived in New York, we’d go out, have meals, hang out. Always a good time, always fun, always good energy.

LB: Alex and I have toured Europe a lot, and we had a chance to get to Romania. He met my folks, you know. This is a very strong connection between us, Alex is one of my great friends.

AH: Absolutely, I feel the same.


Photo by Spencer Ostrander, courtesy of the artist.

Over the last six months, Kassa Overall composed, improvised, and took musical risks at The Jazz Gallery alongside six deeply contrasting pianists. Each session was meticulously recorded, generating raw material for Overall to sample, recompose, and produce. Now, Overall (plus some surprise guests) will return to The Jazz Gallery for two final nights showcasing the results of the long-form experiment. The Jazz Gallery will effectively become a live production studio, and audience members will witness a new kind of re-contextualization, improvisation, and listening experience.

Jazz Speaks writer Noah Fishman interviewed Kassa Overall every month for half a year, following Overall’s creative process and growth. It’s our pleasure to present their final conversation, serving as both a retrospective and a nod to the future.

The Jazz Gallery: I want to start by asking you to briefly describe your big-picture lessons from each show.

Kassa Overall: With Jon Batiste, I had no idea where we were headed. It was a great adventure. Afterwards, I felt confident about the whole series. I realized that I had high-level musicians, and it wasn’t so much about over-preparing, but rather creating a space for everybody. If I did that, then they could shine. The first show gave me that perspective.

Jason Moran’s set had the most earthly intensity of all the shows. Between him and bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, there was a lot of power on stage. After that one, I remember thinking, “I’m playing with some heavy-hitters, and I gotta make sure my drum chops are on the right level.”

With Aaron Parks, we leaned in with the Valentine’s Day energy. With that one, I realized the importance of setting a tone for each show. After that show, there were still some remnants of the Jason Moran thought. So I decided to practice every day for thirty days.

With Sullivan Fortner’s set, I was beginning to understand that as well as having these great musicians, I had to prepare myself, and put myself in the right space. I though, “Let me just prepare on my own.” I gave Sullivan a piano, B3, and Rhodes, and I practiced every day. Then we just improvised. That was the first set where I decided to improvise the whole set: For the rest of the shows, it was all improvisational.

With Kris Davis, again, the thought was, “How can I set the stage?” With this one, I decided to incorporate my vocals and effects. That one was one of the most intense shows. Ever. Especially the first set. A new thing opened up. It was faith-affirming in the idea of spontaneity.

This all lead me to Craig Taborn. We couldn’t get into the Gallery to rehearse, so we decided to just walk around the city and talk. That was our rehearsal. Again, it was assurance that there’s something to spontaneity, to preparing in a way that’s not typically considered preparing. It was another amazing experience. I was shocked at how we arrived at a concept without really discussing it. We just talked about what we love about music. Through that, we created an identity.

This whole experience has brought me to a realization. It’s great to prepare music, but there are many ways of preparing: Don’t use preparation as a creative crutch. Don’t use preparation as a way of saying, “I can’t improvise, so I’m going to perfectly orchestrate all of this stuff. It’ll sound like I’m improvising, but what I’m really doing is a magic trick, a circus act.” Now, I’m really trying to accept that that’s what people like. There’s a time to cut the edges off the crust. There are times to make things more correct. But don’t sacrifice the magic of spontaneity.


Photo by Russ Rowland, courtesy of the artist.

When he was a child, saxophonist Michaël Attias had what one could categorize as an auditory hallucination while in bed with a fever. “Suddenly, I started hearing all of these different kinds of music happening all at once,” Attias remembers. “It was an amazing feeling, like all boundaries had dissolved and the walls of the room had melted.” Inspired by this experience, Attias has cultivated a practice of polyphonic multiplicity in his work as a saxophonist and composer.

At The Jazz Gallery this Tuesday, June 11, Attias will convene his nine-piece ensemble, composed of similarly-adventurous improvisers drawn from his community of improvisers. Attias’s work contains nine musical “moments,” merging distinctly-notated sections with guided improvisations. We caught up with Attias by phone to talk about these compositions’ evolution, listening to dense music, and drawing inspiration from the work of Anthony Braxton and Paul Motian.

The Jazz Gallery: I’d like to start with a bit of a superficial question—why did you want to put together a group of this size after focusing on 3 and 4-person groups more recently?

Michaël Attias: One of my first groups in New York was a sextet, and I had an eleven-piece group that played at The Stone a few years ago. I’ve written for big band, and I’ve written an orchestra piece for Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Orchestra a little while back. I’ve always dreamed of working with larger groups.

For this group, nine is a special number—three times three. The core of the group is the trio Renku, which has been around since 2003 with John Hébert and Satoshi Takeishi. Over the years, we’ve expanded, plus one or plus two. We did a recording with Tony Malaby and Russ Lossing about ten years ago. So that’s the core—the trio triangulated, a triple Renku.

TJG: Strikingly, the group also has a lot of pairs in it. What’s the significance of that for you?

MA: It has two strings—bass and cello—two brass, two reeds, two percussion, and one piano. The piano kind of offsets the paired energies. Polyphony, multiplicity, many things going on at once—that extreme of the music has always attracted me. As a child I had a formative experience that you could categorize as an auditory hallucination. I was six or seven years old in bed with a fever. Suddenly, I started hearing all of these different kinds of music happening all at once. It was an amazing feeling, like all boundaries had dissolved and the walls of the room had melted. I’ve heard music in dreams like that, too. When I later heard music by Mahler and Ives—big orchestra pieces, multilayered music, sometimes with really contradictory things happening—it was like hearing the music that I had imagined. It connected me to that fever dream.

TJG: I’ll say that I’m personally drawn to this multiplicity, but I think for some listeners, it can be hard to parse multiple, contradictory streams of music. When you’re listening to this kind of richly-layered music, whether it’s by Ives or Anthony Braxton, what’s your mindset? How do you put yourself in a space to take in that kind of music?

MA: One thing that’s really important is balance. Like if there’s too much at one point, there should also be not enough at another point. I’m also really drawn to music where almost nothing happens. I like the experience of listening to a single line, with moment-by-moment attention.

But in terms of listening to music with a lot of activity, I read once that trance happens when you can focus on five things at the same time. When following four things, there’s still a guiding self-consciousness, aware of itself and aware of the four things happening. But when the fifth layer gets added, it’s as if that self vanishes and becomes pure attention.

You were talking about Braxton’s music—that’s also a formative example for me, playing in his orchestra. I got to play duo with him, in a quartet. The orchestra music, was truly a kind of trance music (this was before the period of what he called Ghost Trance music). People might describe his music as being really brainy or intellectual—and that dimension is obviously there—but what I think he was looking for is a complete immersion, and breaking down the divides between the rational mind and irrational mind, intuition, being able to negotiate challenging notation, improvise while counting, improvise without counting, improvise with shapes, improvise with specific pitches or specific directions. Sometimes those different activities are counted and repeated. Some of them are not counted and constantly evolving. Some can be more textural, some can be more melodic It was about navigating all of these binaries and erasing them until you become a field of activity and awareness. There’s a sense of ritual about it.

When I’m listening to polyphonic music, the question for me is whether you’re willing to lose yourself. I remember seeing Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time at a festival in Spain and it was a wall of sound. It was so loud and dense and intense. And then I closed my eyes and it was like the wall receded and I could hear things happening in multiple layers at the same time. It was really amazing. The wall can be a little bit prohibitive and push you away, but then you break through it and something opens up. I love that experience. I feel that all of the players in this band are comfortable with this experience and are available to navigate it.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

At Kassa Overall’s most recent performance from his TIME CAPSULE residency, he ventured into unknown territory with pianist Kris Davis, bassist Stephan Crump, and an assortment of electronics and vocal processing gear. Stepping even further into the void, Kassa will be joined for his next performance by the inimitable Craig Taborn on piano, rhodes, and electronics. While Taborn and Overall share an affinity for exploring electronic sounds and styles, the two have no prior history of playing together. In Overall’s words, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen… I’m excited to take the journey” Read more below, starting with how Overall starts his day.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks again for making time to chat about your ongoing residency. Do your days tend get started pretty early?

Kassa Overall: It depends. I try to sleep in as long as possible, and usually try to keep all my plans to the afternoon, keeping mornings open for my most strenuous mental work and my own creative endeavors. If I’ve done my morning routine and done something important to me, like working on new music, then whatever I have to do for the rest of the day, at least I got a little bit of the heavy lifting out of the way.

TJG: So what did you have on the creative table this morning?

KO: Well, that whole previous explanation is a theory [laughs]. Today, I actually woke up really early, and I went to the practice space and practiced drums at around 7:30 A.M., so the whole thing is a little different. I just finished my morning routine, and now I’m trying to finish one of these TIME CAPSULE joints. I’m taking these recordings and making original pieces out of them. There’s a part where Sullivan Fortner goes to the organ during our first duo set, and we play a kind of improvised ballad. I chopped it up, sped it up, and made a whole piece out of it. It’s almost really good, but it still has some rough edges in terms of the arrangement and direction. It has the ingredients of something special, but it’s not done yet. I have to make some decisions.

TJG: What form is it in right now? Lead sheet? Demo?

KO: I’m making a recorded piece of art in Ableton. It’s not so much a demo, but a piece of recorded work, a new sound recording, which I’ll probably release as an official song, then find a way to play it live.

TJG: Speaking of live, how was your Blue Note show with Paul Wilson and BIGYUKI?

KO: You know? It was another step in the right direction. That was my first attempt at playing the album material live in a “correct” way. It’s a lot harder than other performances because you’re trying to recreate something that lives on the album. It’s always an internal debate as to how similar it should be to the album, and how creative we should get. This time, we went extreme with recreating the album. I automated vocal delay stuff, we had all sorts of stuff being triggered from laptops. In order for that performance to work, it had to ping pong between precision and open creativity. The Blue Note show lacked some of that open creativity. From playing these TIME CAPSULE shows at The Jazz Gallery, I’ve tapped into a new kind of spontaneous composition, and have to rely on a new type of performance approach. For the live album set, it still has to have that oceanic-waves-crashing-spontaneity, and then fall into something precise. We’re working on it.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

At the last installation of the TIME CAPSULE residency, Kassa Overall and Sullivan Fortner traveled to outer space. With Fortner on B3 organ, Rhodes, and piano, the two musicians charter a path to a completely improvised world of sparkling rhythms and melodies. In Overall’s words, “After the first set, I felt like we had just finished getting a spa treatment.”

In our fifth interview, Overall told us about a few more of his current projects, how they feed into and result from the ongoing TIME CAPSULE residency, and the upcoming show with Kris Davis and Stephan Crump.

The Jazz Gallery: You mentioned that you’re in the middle of doing some remixes?

Kassa Overall: Man, it’s exciting. I’ve had some recent opportunities to give guest DJ mixes to different radio stations. The first one was for KMHD, the main jazz radio station in Portland, and the one I’m working on now is for BBC 6, which has Gilles Peterson, new music, jazz, quasi-jazz vibes, everything. KMHD hit me up about doing an interview to promote a show in Portland, and they said I could also do a guest DJ mix. So I started taking recordings by some of my favorite jazz friends, chopping up their songs, and adding a little production to the tracks. I took a Jon Batiste song from his piano and voice album, chopped it up, and added drums. I did it to a Vijay Iyer song, a Charles Tolliver song, an Esperanza song. It was like, “If this were my album, this is what I would have done.” You know?

TJG: Like you were being a producer, in a way?

KO: Yeah. It’s remixing, but a little more creative. Somewhere between sampling and remixing. When we make something, we often think about defining it first, then making it from that context. If you say “I’m gonna make a remix,” and you start making a remix, you assume all these positions, you assume what it is to remix something. You might limit how much you add original content. When sampling songs, people often just sample four to eight seconds. When you think about it, you realize these definitions break up the creative process. So when I started to really dig in, I got excited. I was having a bit of writer’s block, and wasn’t really getting excited about anything creative. Then I started working on these remixes, and I got that excited feeling. I worked for three days, and at the end of it, I knew I had something good. KMHD played it on the radio and loved it. Now I’m working on a thirty-minute version for BBC 6. I’m currently chopping up one of my favorite songs from Makaya McCraven’s new album Universal Beings.

TJG: This isn’t so different from what you’re doing with TIME CAPSULE.

KO: Exactly. It’s all related experimentation with the idea of finished-work-as-source-material. It’s a big circle. This song, I realized, has the same chord changes as the Nas and Lauryn Hill song “If I Ruled The World” from 1996. Once I figured that out, boom, I started chopping that up, and now I’m in this big rabbit hole.

TJG: You think this is connecting some neurons around what you’re about to do with the residency?

KO: Yeah. Honestly, it’s all the same kind of experimentation. In every project, you lean more heavily on one aspect or another. But they say there’s nothing new under the sun. The key is letting go of that mental inhibitor that says “Nah, I can’t do that,” or “That’s too sacred.” From time to time I think about the Campbell’s Soup Cans that Andy Warhol did. I’m sure it was the early version of trolling, in a sense, but half the people were like, “Oh my god, amazing, it’s Campbell’s Soup!” And then the other half were like “I can’t believe you like this guy.” Anyone could have that thought, but to take the time to do it in its best possible way. It takes a certain amount of courage.