A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Emra Islek, courtesy of the artist.

Charles Altura asks the big questions without saying a word. Coveted for his receptivity and strong presence by Chick Corea, Terence Blanchard, Tom Harrell and Ambrose Akinmusire—artists with whom he has enjoyed long, formative associations—the guitar player and composer evolves his own perceptions of music and context through dialogue.

When The Jazz Gallery awarded Altura the 2017-2018 Residency Commission, he relied on his tendency toward allowing music to emerge organically. What evolved was an idea for soundscaping with very specific voices in mind: Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Aaron Parks on piano, Joe Martin on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums. The resulting project, Portraits of Resonance, may be Altura’s first of many explorations tracing the influence harmony and texture have on the human experience of listening—and playing.

The Jazz Gallery: I recently had the chance to speak with Vijay Iyer about resonance as it relates to harmony and how he perceives harmony, regardless of instrumentation. Can you talk a little bit about your understanding of resonance and how it enters into your conception for this project?

Charles Altura: As I’ve been writing, I have realized that resonance was a kind of theme, hearing the music’s resonant qualities—thinking of it in that way, instead of standard harmony and melody combinations. So [Portraits of Resonance] relates to the process that has evolved while I’ve been working on the music, focusing more on the harmonic texture.

TJG: Had you chosen to follow the idea of resonance wherever the writing seemed to take you, or did you have in mind a specific kind of resonance?

CA: It is more of a specific resonance because I’ve had these musicians in mind the whole time as I’ve been writing the music. I think I’m familiar with some of the ways that we share viewing harmony, so that’s a major focus. It’s based more on texture and harmony and how that translates to emotional quality.

TJG: Evocative texture?

CA: Right.

TJG: You’ve been asked many times about your playing, so I thought I’d ask you about your space-leaving. And speaking of textures, you’ve played in so many different ensembles, often with piano. When did you begin to intuit how to fit into those contexts, and how would you describe your relationship with leaving space?

CA: It comes from [the fact] that I started on piano. I’ve always been fascinated by the combination of guitar and piano together—and actually trumpet, too. So a lot of the texture is just dealing with that combination. I tend to think of the guitar and the piano as extensions of each other when you have both in the same band. It’s always an interesting thing, the way people deal with guitar and piano together because they cover the same register.

TJG: I would imagine many listeners hearing you together with a piano player would hear this sort of effortless navigation. Is that intuiton something you’ve always had, or is it something you’ve developed?

CA: Yeah, I think it’s because my first instrument was piano and I still see the guitar from the perspective of being a piano player. I’ve written all of the music for [the commission] on piano. So then when I get to the guitar, I’m kind of seeing it as one instrument. Having that perspective helps me to have an idea of what space needs to be filled—or not filled.

TJG: When you’re playing guitar, or if you choose to compose or arrange something on your guitar, do you have a visual of the piano as you’re doing it?

CA: Yes. Definitely. In fact, if I can, when I’m on stage, I like to be near the piano because it’s helpful to see what’s going on. But when I’m writing, I have to remind myself to play the guitar sometimes. I’ll think, “Oh, I should try this on guitar, too, I guess.”

TJG: You recently played duo with Ben Wendel for his Standards with Friends project, and you both were playing lines, or in what some might call a linear way. How did you guys land on that arrangement?

CA: With guitar, there’s always a choice. Sometimes I’m seeing it as a piano; sometimes I’m seeing it as a horn. I kind of like what you can do—implying harmony a little more on the guitar, without having to spell it out.

TJG: I would guess one of the reasons you get called so often, and over and over, is because of your ability to bring your artistic personality into whatever you’re playing while still serving the context. What would you say to younger players struggling to find their own voice or identity, particularly as they get called by more and more strong band leaders?

CA: For me it has been about trying to find the things I like that are the common denominators for different musical situations. Those are the things that usually end up sticking in my playing, and working in a wider range of situations. A lot of it does have to do with being aware of the relationship between the guitar and piano. [It’s] being aware of your role—knowing when you have a harmonic versus a melodic role in the music.

TJG: As an in-demand guitar player who seems to have what so many band leaders want for their projects, what do you look for specifically in rhythm section players when you’re putting together a project of your own, and is something like that subjective and dependent on the project?

CA: The main thing I’m looking for is the way that people listen to each other while they’re playing, and the connection that I have with them. I’m looking for a certain energy and connection—an awareness. It sounds obvious but—just how much are people listening to the the other musicians they’re playing with? And the pure sound of the instrument, for me, I think a lot of it is just about touch—the timbre. It’s such an essential part.

TJG: Can you talk a little bit about the personnel for this project; have you played with Adam before?

CA: This will actually be our first show together. We met in Cuba a couple of years ago. I heard him playing at a kind of jam session in Havana and we spoke about doing some music back in New York. [The commission] seemed like a great opportunity to do that.

TJG: And you have played a little with Joe before?

CA: Yeah. And I’ve played a lot with Aaron and Kendrick. I’ve known Aaron for a long time and I definitely had this specific band in mind. I wrote the music as a canvas for this band.

TJG: When you were awarded the commission, did you immediately have these guys in mind and then start to compose accordingly?

CA: Pretty much. I wanted to try a few different things compositionally. It has been a great opportunity to explore, and I wound up settling on this idea of the resonant qualities with this particular group of musicians. I like the combination of guitar, piano and trumpet together. It seems to be coming up a lot. I’m very excited to try this.

The Jazz Gallery Residency Commission 2017-2018 presents Charles Altura’s Portraits of Resonance on Friday August 24, and Saturday August 25, 2018. Performances feature Charles Altura on guitar, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Aaron Parks on piano, Joe Martin on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.