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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Chris Tordini holds the bass chair in so many bands that the list is a bit dizzying: Andy Milne, Steve Lehman, Becca Stevens, Tyshawn Sorey, Michael Dessen, Matt Mitchell, John Hollenbeck… not to mention that he subs for the Tony-winning Broadway musical Hadestown. It’s a rare moment when such a busy sideman steps into a leadership role. He’ll be arriving at The Jazz Gallery with a new collection of music which, in his words, “runs the gamut from rhythmic angularity to avuncular lyricism.” The new band features Anna Webber (tenor saxophone & flute), Red Wierenga (piano & accordion), and Dan Weiss (drums), each of whom has collaborated with Tordini, but never in this exact configuration. In a phone conversation, Tordini took us inside his process, from practice to performance.

The Jazz Gallery: How’s it going? Making it through the winter?

Chris Tordini: Things are pretty good. It’s that’s time of when we’re all trying to get through the cold. I’m at home now, was just practicing a little bit.

TJG: Do you mind if I ask what you’re practicing and how you’re practicing it?

CT: Sure. This is totally random, but I was just practicing a bass and trombone soli from “Tiptoe” by Thad Jones. I was looking for something to practice reading. I don’t do this often, you just happened to catch me when I was looking for something new to read. Before that, I was doing an exercise that I do a lot, putting the metronome on super slow–anywhere between 20 and 35 beats per minute–and playing quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, subdivisions like that. This slow-quarter-note-thing is something you’d find me doing on any given day when I have the time to practice.

TJG: Was there a reason you wanted to brush up on your reading chops?

CT: Lately, I’ve been trying to get out of my head, as far as reading new music. I’ve been doing exercises where I read music and try to hear it while I’m reading it, as opposed to mechanically, robotically reading notes. I’m trying to engage my ear more in the sight-reading process, which is difficult for me. Left to my own devices while reading music, I can be quite mechanical. I do consider myself a good reader, in the utility kind of way, so I’ve been trying to actively engage my ear in my practice lately, to make up for that.

TJG: Tell me about each of the musicians you picked for this upcoming show–Anna Webber, Red Wierenga, Dan Weiss–and how you met each of them.

CT: I’ll start with Dan, because I’ve played with him the most. Dan is a good friend of mine, and is one of my favorite drummers on the planet. I met him over ten years ago, when we started playing in a trio with Michael Dessen, a trombone player based in California. We clicked early on. Dan intimidated me at first because I had heard him a lot with other groups. We immediately clicked musically and personally, and we’ve been playing in a lot of projects together. We played with Matt Mitchell together, we’ve played in many different groups. He’s an inspiring guy, dedicated to music, to the craft of jazz drumming, to tabla.

Red Wierenga is an amazing piano player and accordion player. Most of the playing I’ve done with him has been in The Claudia Quintet, John Hollenbeck’s band, where I often sub for Drew Gress. I’ve loved playing with Red and hanging out with him. I’ve heard him play piano on recordings and have seen him live, but the playing we’ve done has almost exclusively featured him on accordion. As I’ve been playing through my new music, I knew I needed piano. Then I started hearing the possibility of accordion on a few things, and immediately thought of Red, because he’s such a great player on both instruments.

I’ve known Anna Weber for quite a while. We’ve known each other from the scene, I’ve seen her bands play, I’m always a fan of her music. A couple of years ago, she asked me to play on a record of hers, Clockwise, which came out last year. I was super happy to do that because I was already a fan of her music and playing. It was a pleasure working on her amazing, often difficult and complex music. We got to know each other a lot better through that process. She’s a friend of mine, she’s one of my favorite saxophone players. Anna is a great flute player as well, so I’m trying to figure out having her double in the same way as Red on piano and accordion.

TJG: With these three people–with what will be a quartet–how did you decide on the group as a whole? What kind of synergy do you imagine?

CT: Well, all of their last names begin with the letter W… I realized that after the fact, and it struck me as funny [laughs]. I may have played with Anna and Dan together in Matt Mitchell’s group, and Dan has a large ensemble where Anna is involved, so we have played together there. But in a large ensemble, you can’t really say that you’ve played with someone. For the most part, the four of us have not played together. I’ve played with all three of them in different settings. When I put a band together–which is not super frequently–I like the idea of going in with fresh, uncharted energy. I don’t really know what it’ll be like when the four of us are together, but I like the uncertainty. I have every confidence that they’ll play the hell out of my music, but as far as the particular energy, it’s unknown for me. Nerve-wracking, yet exciting.

TJG: What is this music? What kind of compositions and improvisations have you been putting together?

CT: I’ve been working on some new music for a while now. I’ve written some pieces over the past couple of years that have not really been played live. I have a collective trio called The Choir Invisible with Vinnie Sperrazza and Charlotte Greve, and I’ve been writing for that band. There are pieces that go beyond the trio format that have piano parts too, but they haven’t been performed. For the past month or so, I’ve been looking at those pieces, thinking about getting them to a place where they can be performed. Some of the pieces are longer: There’s one piece that has three sections, each of which could almost be its own tune, with improvisation in between. There will be complex written music, free improvisation, more written music, that kind of flow. There will be pieces where we play over forms. I think we’re going to play five pieces, so each will be on the longer side. I want us to have space to play.

TJG: What feels different for you about being a leader? I know some people get into the spotlight and feel that it’s not so different from what they normally do, while others feel that it’s a new challenge, a new opportunity.

CT: There’s a whole new level of accountability. As a sideman, which is mostly what I do, you go in and try to do your best to play the music. You don’t worry about setting up rehearsals, creating charts, getting schedules together. As a sideman, you can walk away from a so-so gig and say “Well, that gig wasn’t so great.” But if the music sounds bad and you’re the leader, it’s basically your fault, and you can walk away saying “Oh my god.” It can be an existential crisis. I’m not used to that. A lot of people do it all the time, so they’re well-versed in that game. But for someone like me, I start to feel extra pressure as the gig approaches. It’s a nice feeling, too, a good pressure. Accountability comes with perks: If the music sounds great, you feel really good about it. It’s a weird anxiety-inducing nervous energy, yet inspiring at the same time.

TJG: Speaking of inspiration, who are you checking out for bass players these days?

CT: There’s a lot of people out there doing great stuff. I’m sure you’re familiar with Kim Cass. I really like what he’s doing.

TJG: I know, and he’s fun to interview. We’re both from Maine, too! I interviewed him when he was co-leading a group with Matt Mitchell and Kate Gentile called Phalanx Trio.

CT: Nice! I saw on social media a while ago that Matt was posting pictures of Kim’s music, implying that they were rehearsing it. That’s something I’d like to hear. I’m a big fan of Nick Dunston, young Nick Dunston, he’s playing with everybody now. I was lucky enough to have him as a student for a semester at The New School. He didn’t need much from me, but we had a good time hanging out. I basically tried to challenge him in our lessons, which was difficult to do. He sounds amazing, so it’s good to hear him out there. I was just watching a video last night, Joel Ross’s trio live from SEEDS in Brooklyn with Daryl Johns on bass, he’s great. There are so many good people I don’t even know what to say about it. The scene is happening right now, on every instrument. Amazing young players are taking over. Scary, for an older guy like me. But very exciting.

The Christopher Tordini Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 16, 2020. The group features Mr. Tordini on bass, Anna Webber on tenor saxophone & flute, Red Wierenga on piano & accordion, and Dan Weiss on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.