A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Pianist Theo Walentiny will present his Theo Walentiny Group at The Jazz Gallery this week, alongside a series of abstract paintings created his father, painter Joe Walentiny. The paintings, collectively entitled “Soundscapes,” reflect and explore the impressionistic and improvisatory nature of Theo Walentiny’s compositions. Theo’s septet will include Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Jasper Dutz on woodwinds, Kalia Vandever on trombone, and Lee Meadvin on guitar, in addition to Nick Dunston on bass and Connor Parks on drums who, with Walentiny, constitute the Aurelia Trio. We spoke with Walentiny, who gave us a sense of his compositional style, his affinity for thinking visually, and his thoughts on the New York scene from a childhood across the Hudson.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell me a little about the new group?

Theo Walentiny: Absolutely. It’s a mix of new and old music. We’ll play some older pieces, orchestrated for this newer instrumentation, as well as a few new things. In addition, my dad is an abstract painter, and he did a series of paintings in collaboration with a group of my compositions. We’re going to have the physical canvasses on display at The Gallery. When I’d visit home throughout the project, he would show me his progress. The work took a long time to develop and complete, so I was able to really see them grow.

TJG: How did this concept for the paired paintings come about?

TW: He proposed the idea after one of my shows. He took my recordings and spent a few months just painting and listening to the music. Each painting corresponds to a specific composition. It wasn’t a literal thing, where you might have certain brushstrokes corresponding to certain notes: It wasn’t systematic like that. Instead, he took the overall aura of the piece and allowed it to emerge visually. There’s one piece called “Short Story,” which is a tribute to Ravel, who’s been an important figure to me. The finished painting goes really well with the piece, with a very impressionistic atmosphere. “Short Story” is probably the most extended work we’ll be playing, with different sections and layers, which also translates well in the painting.

TJG: It’s great that the painting process is as impressionistic and improvisatory as your music. Talk to me about your compositions, and how improvisation comes into play.

TW: My music is definitely improvisation-driven, and much of how it sounds truly depends on the people playing it. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about this date at The Gallery. I love how passionate everyone in the group is, and I don’t like to be too restrictive or possessive, because everyone has such a voice. I’ve worked with this specific group of people in different capacities, and it’ll be really special to have everyone together like this.

In my music, I’m often not trying to simply have a melody, changes, solos, and a recap of the melody. It’s more like there are points where the music opens up, and improvisation becomes something people bring to the table. There’s this piece “Apprehension,” which starts out with a piano riff, or a duo with guitar, then a melody, and a form for soloing which can go almost anywhere. It’s not limited by the page. I’m focused on transitions between songs as well, and strive for a continuous set of music. I try to bridge the pieces with pairs of duos within the group. Horns might do a cadenza, there might be a short chorale, nothing too strict. Overall, we have a full sound where guitar and piano add a lot of warmth, and especially with bass clarinet, we have a lot of great options in terms of timbre.

TJG: I see the Aurelia Trio, with you, Connor Parks, and Nick Dunston, is nestled into the larger ensemble here. Is there any shared repertoire, and are the dynamics different with you as the leader?

TW: The trio was born of an octet project I used to have: We tried some of that music with Aurelia, and a few things worked, but it’s mostly a different book of repertoire, especially having the horns. With Nick and Connor in the group, it feels totally comfortable. Between the three of us, there’s so much trust, which comes from a lot of serious playing together. It makes whatever might happen automatically feel very comfortable.

TJG: You do some film scoring as well. What inspires you about composing for film?

TW: I enjoy looking at music visually, as I was talking about earlier with my dad’s paintings. When composing, I see scenes or colors in my head, that type of thing. It feels very intuitive to look at things visually. Sometimes, working with the ensemble, it’s about creating lush landscapes, harsh edges, distant vistas. I try to orchestrate spaciousness into the group. Everyone can imagine something different, which is valid. I’ve often received comments that my music feels visual, especially from listeners at shows, and those visuals are often different from what I see in my head. 

TJG: I see you’ve been on the road a lot, from Israel to Switzerland. What foreign musical experience has made the biggest impact on you?

TW: The different range of audiences made an impact on me, compared to the New York audience. People really show up, and they listen with such enthusiasm. I felt an acceptance for whatever we wanted to play, especially in Switzerland at the Montreux festival. We don’t change our playing for our audiences, and I think they really appreciate it.

TJG: As a New York musician now, how did growing up in New Jersey shape your perspective of the scene?

TW: Being so close growing up, I would go in every weekend to see music. I got an early view of what it is to be a working musician in the city. I was able to see that everyone does a huge variety of things, even if they’re known for one thing in particular. For example, I did a precollege program run by Christian McBride, who most people think of as a straight-ahead jazz bass player. But he does everything. For example, I saw with him at the Vanguard with John Zorn, Tyshawn Sorey, and Steve Coleman. I’m glad I was able to see at a young age. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have realized the depth of what a lot of people do to work as musicians in the city.

The Theo Walentiny Group plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, February 22, 2018. The group features Mr. Walentiny on piano, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Jasper Dutz on woodwinds, Kalia Vandever on trombone, Lee Meadvin on guitar, Nick Dunston on bass, and Connor Parks on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.