With uncommon rhythmic dexterity and a delicate touch that belies his age, pianist Glenn Zaleski has quickly established himself as a musician worthy of attention amid the clamorous New York scene. The trio Stranahan/Zaleski/Rosato, which features Colin Stranahan on drums and Rick Rosato on bass and performed on our stage in August, has just released their second album Limitless, a record suffused with both lyricism and dynamic rhythmic interplay. He’s won accolades from the likes of NPR and the New York Times, and has turned heads at both the Thelonious Monk and Cole Porter Fellowship competitions.
But Zaleski feels that he is still learning. On Thursday night, Zaleski brings a new trio to The Jazz Gallery, featuring two of his relative elders, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Ari Hoenig. We caught up with Glenn by phone to talk about how each gig is learning experience, full of surprises for both the performers and the audience.
The Jazz Gallery: This group has a bit of a different lineup than your home base trio (Stranahan/Zaleski/Rosato). What’s your experience playing with Matt and Ari and what do you like about their playing?
Glenn Zaleski: Matt is one of the most versatile and accomplished bass players on the scene now. I’ve always admired him. We played one time—it was a gig of mine at Smalls, similar to this gig coming up—except for that gig we never had a single rehearsal. We just got to Smalls and Matt was playing bass and he just read everything perfectly and just brought so much energy to the music. I was always looking for another opportunity to get together with him and this date seemed perfect.
My experience with Ari is a little bit similar. I played a handful of gigs with Ari last year and I’ve always looked up to him. I’ve listened to him as long as I’ve been studying music; he’s one of the great musicians out there. From the handful of gigs I got to play with him last year, I’m still learning from the things that he would play. I have some music that has some intricate rhythmic layouts that Ari can really get to the bottom of, really get some juice out of.
I just always wanted to play with them again, and hopefully this will be the start of a bunch of more times to come.
TJG: Whether you’re working in a new group like this one or in a working band, do you tend to write music with the other players in mind?
GZ: I either write or arrange or pick tunes; I’m always very conscious of repertoire and trying to pick material that brings out the best in everybody, and different people have different sorts of strengths. In this case, I’ve picked out some newer music and some standards I like to play that very much have these guys in mind.
TJG: How’s the experience different for you when you play with a new group like this one vs. a working band?
GZ: I think when playing with a new group there’s a kind of excitement, sometimes it’s kind of a nervous energy, but it’s an excitement that I think can generate a lot of great music. And it’s kind of something that can only happen the first time—there’s something very special about a first performance, and it’s not always the cleanest, but there’s an energy that’s unique to that moment.
TJG: But there’s a lot of risk in doing this, a much higher probability of things going off the rails. Do you find yourself playing it safe in these contexts, or do you go all in?
GZ: I definitely think it serves to bring out elements of your playing that you wouldn’t have heard before. I know that the first time I played with Ari, I found myself playing things that I didn’t think I could play because of the energy that he brings to the table. I mean a lot of the people I’ve played with recently help me to open up and play with an energy that I never really felt before. That’s really how to learn and grow as a musician, by playing with new people.
TJG: And in this case you’re playing with people who would be considered your elders—guys who have established themselves in New York over a number of years.
GZ: Yeah. I think it’s critical to seek out playing opportunities with as vast an array of musicians as possible, older and younger. You absorb energy through everyone you play with—that’s really the learning process. I think it’s really important to seek out playing with a lot of different people, especially people you’d normally be uncomfortable or unfamiliar with.
TJG: So, it’s going to be Halloween. Can you tell us what tricks or treats you and your group may have for our audience on Thursday?
GZ: We do have a couple of tricks up our sleeve. I’m not going to be wearing a pumpkin costume, but we do have a couple of fun things in store.
The Glenn Zaleski “Halloween” trio, featuring Matt Clohesy on bass and Ari Hoenig on drums, performs at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, October 31st. Sets at 9 and 10:30 pm. The first set is $15 general admission and $10 for Members. The second set is $10 general admission and $5 for Members. Purchase tickets here.