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Photo courtesy of the artist.

This month marks the grand finale of The Jazz Gallery 2018-19 Residency Commission projects. On June 28 and 29, vocalist/guitarist Camila Meza will present her new work, entitled Portal, while on June 21 and 22, drummer Kassa Overall will conclude his ongoing Time Capsule project with a concert featuring visual artist Nate Lewis and a slew of special guests. The festivities start this weekend with two evenings of performances by a new trio led by pianist Shai Maestro, featuring trumpeter Philip Dizack and vibraphonist Joel Ross. We sat down with Maestro to talk about the excitement and challenges of writing for this chamber-like instrumentation, and communicating a view of modern life through an abstract medium.

The Jazz Gallery: So how to you treat an event like this? Is this an opportunity? A challenge? A chance to step out of bounds a little bit?

Shai Maestro: Exactly, that’s what it is. Rio Sakairi asked that I do something that I wouldn’t do otherwise. You get funds from The Jazz Gallery through different foundations and that just allows you to sit at home and compose without needing to constantly work. It allows you to explore, experiment, and yeah, step out of bounds even further.

TJG: Will the bigger experimentation be in the instrumentation you’ll be using or in the lack thereof?

SM: I chose to write for Joel Ross and Phil Dizack. It’s going to be a trio—trumpet, vibraphone, and piano. Usually I write for solo piano or trio, but I saw this as an opportunity to experiment with the instruments and moreso than the instruments themselves, with the guys I chose to play with. Both of them are incredibly open-minded and capable musicians that will do a lot with written material and will do a lot with the space you leave for them. I’ve written many songs or melodies with them in mind.

TJG: Before this project started?

SM: No, it had originally started as a duo with Joel, but I thought Phil would be a complimentary sound. It really made sense to me.

TJG: You’ve played with Joel as a duo before, right?

SM: Yeah, it was great. We played tunes mainly. There were a few of my songs but we mostly played standards. Playing standards is always a great opportunity for me to get to know the person I’m playing with on a deeper level because I don’t have any agenda. Whereas with my music, I wrote it, so I have a vision. The goal is to not have an agenda with my music as well, but it’s harder since you know what the song is about. So playing standards with Joel allowed me to communicate with him in a really direct way.


Design courtesy of the artist.

Kassa Overall uses language like he uses music. Everything is a metaphor, a colorful snapshot of a larger picture. When he speaks, the next idea could be from poetry or chemistry, economics or philosophy, film or fashion. In Overall’s words, African-American music has frozen assets in the form of meaning and interpretation; these musical flowers will bloom for larger audiences when people begin listening to new music like they read unfamiliar poetry. Everything is a remix. This type of genre-clashing in the world of music, according to Overall, is a way to “reconnect the dots, intuitively and systematically, of the past present and future.”

Raised in Seattle and trained at Oberlin, Overall has performed around the world over the last decade with Geri Allen, Vijay Iyer, Das Racist, Mayer Hawthorne, Wallace Roney, Ravi Coltrane, Gary Bartz, The Late Show band, and many more. His identity as a jazz drummer blends seamlessly with his production and rapping skills, which can be seen on his recent Drake It Till You Make It EP, where he covers Drake, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West–the new standards, says Overall–alongside Theo Croker, Julius Rodriguez, Dominic Missana, and Aaron Parks.

TIME CAPSULE is the name of Overall’s new project, a Jazz Gallery residency and commission that will unfold over the next seven months. Overall’s idea is to “expand the limits of time and genre in music,” and to generate fresh, remix-able material with pianists including Jason Moran, Aaron Parks, Sullivan Fortner, Kris Davis and Craig Taborn. The first date will feature Jon Batiste, widely known from his gig as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In  our recent phone interview, Overall spared no words, laying out his plans for the next six months in enthusiastic, technicolor detail.

The Jazz Gallery: Kassa, it’s my pleasure to interview you about the very first show in your TIME CAPSULE residency at The Jazz Gallery. What’s been keeping you busy?

Kassa Overall: Right now, I’m finishing up a new body of recorded work. I tend to make songs in a kind of backwards way. For example, I had this song with drums, keys, organ, all this different stuff. After it was finished, I wrote a little melody, and had a pianist record and sing it to me. I added it to the track, and I’m trying to figure out if it fits.

TJG: So it’s kind of a three-step process, where you put in everything except the melody, you add the melody, and you rebuild the song around it?

KO: That’s how it went this time. With every song, I never really know when it’s finished, until I’m at the deadline, and I say “Word, it’s finished I guess” [laughs]. This thing started as more of an interlude or intro, so it didn’t really need a melody, and the drums were introduced throughout the song as a speaking part. The melody is minimal, just one or two notes, but it almost re-contextualizes the whole piece. Do I want to do that or not? Do I want to keep the drums out front, or should I give the people the melody? A lot of it is decision-making, more so than composing. It’s like, “Do I wear the red shoes, or do I wear the black ones and let the colorful shirt be the main focus?” The answer is different for every song.

TJG: Got it. So, let’s jump to the Jazz Gallery show, I’ve got some questions about the upcoming residency. I’ll start art with a quote from Jonathan Zwickel, who interviewed you for City Arts Magazine in Seattle.

KO: Oh yeah, I loved that interview.

TJG: Me too. Jonathan wrote, “Kassa is one of those people who’s not only good at everything he does but is often the only one doing the thing he’s doing.” How would you describe what you’re doing, and do you think you’re the only one doing it?

KO: Because I do a lot of different things, the correct thing to say would be, “No, I’m not the only one doing what I’m doing.” But, at the same time, the answer is yes, because I’m the only one doing what I’m doing in the way I’m doing it. A lot of it has to do with the way I’ve divided myself and my surroundings in the past. For example: I play the drums, and many people play the drums. But I approach drumming a certain way. For me, that magic thing that speaks to me is the polyrhythmic side, or the harmonic rhythm, of drumming. Elvin Jones was one of the greatest independence guys, where the cymbal, snare, and bass drum are doing different things. A lot of cats from that era, from Art Blakey and Max Roach to Tony Williams and Kenny Clarke, were dealing with that kind of information. But even back when Elvin was the man, there were a lot of drummers who weren’t dealing with independence, and were coming from different aesthetic perspectives. So in that sense, considering the harmonics of drumming, there are only a certain number of cats who see that evolution as an important aspect of drumming today. I’d consider myself one of those drummers.

Then you have different producers who are dealing with jazz aesthetic, chopping up live music, and so on. A lot of musicians and producers are doing that, but there aren’t that many jazz musicians that are also doing that. That puts me in a smaller group of people. You have the lineage of J Dilla, Madlib, Flying Lotus… For example, I was just in Chicago, hanging out with Makaya McCraven. He showed me his own approach, coming from that same hip hop/jazz/live beats lineage. There’s not too many people doing that. And then, I also write lyrics and rap. So when you take all of these different elements and compound them, there’s probably nobody doing exactly what I’m doing. If you take any specific element of what I do, there are people I look up to in every direction. I’m the only one with my perspective, but we all have our own perspective, and it takes a long time to find out what that is. It’s an infinite journey.



Photo by Amy Mills

For the occasion of her 2017 Residency Commission, the saxophonist, vocalist, and composer María Grand has expanded the quintet featured on her EP TetraWind, released earlier this year, and brought both dance and rap into the fold for Embracements. We caught up with her by phone to discuss the upcoming premiere and the creative inspirations in this latest work:

The Jazz Gallery: When The Jazz Gallery reached out to you about writing a commission, where did you start with the process?

María Grand: I actually had the idea of doing a project with a rapper before I heard about the Gallery commission. When Rio [Sakairi] told me I had the commission, it seemed like I could finally get a larger ensemble together, budget-wise, and I was interested in creating some kind of chamber work that also was working with a rapper.

That was my beginning idea, but I also had this idea about learning about what the feminine side of God means for different cultures and using that to create music, and also using that to create lyrics, which was all connected to the rapper. So I kind of had the whole project in my mind, and I was waiting for somebody to give the money for me to do it, so it all came at the right time.

TJG: Had you worked with the rapper Amani Fela previously?

MG: I met him at the Marc Cary Harlem session, and I had never worked with a rapper. What I liked about him was that he was interested in music as a whole: I remember showing him a drumbeat that was maybe in 5 or something, and he said, “Oh, cool—I know what this is.” It wasn’t like musical information was going to be an issue for him; it wasn’t like he was going to be intimidated by any kind of musical information I wrote for him, because he plays drums, too, and he plays some piano, so I felt that he would be flexible.

I should tell you the whole story of how I wrote the music: I went to Cuba and did a three-week sabbatical there, and I took five books with me that were all about different goddesses: Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, by Merlin Stone; The Goddesses’ Mirror, by David R. Kinsley; Images of Women in Antiquity, by Averil Cameron and Amélie Kuhrt; Women’s Roles in Ancient Civilization, by Bella Vivante; and Promiscuities, by Naomi Wolf.

I was trying to find parallels between goddesses and also the stories and the legends, and my experience or in general the female experience in this culture that I’m living in. So this is what I thought of when I was writing the music, and each song is  dedicated to a certain goddess or dedicated to characters that represented something similar in my mind. They may not be from the same culture, but they represent a certain aspect of life that was similar.

So I read all these books and then I wrote the music, and then when it came time to write for Imani, I had already written the music. What I did was, I learned the music that I had written by heart and then wrote these poems that were related to whatever symbolical or allegorical energy I was working with when I wrote the music. I used that to create a poem, and then I rapped the text over the music, but made it fit in specific ways. It was super specific, and once I was happy with that, I recorded it and I sent that to Imani. So it was basically like I was sending him a chart.


Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

With his fluid style and warmly-distorted sound, guitarist Gilad Hekselman is one of the most sought after musicians in New York today. He’s been tapped as a sideman by everyone from drummer Ari Hoenig to bassists Ben Williams and Esperanza Spalding to multi-reedist Anat Cohen. His solo work has received much critical acclaim, including 2015’s Homes (Jazz Village). He’s sought after by students as well, hoping to learn the secrets of his style—when searching his name on Google, two of the top suggested search terms are “Gilad Hekselman lessons” and “Gilad Hekselman gear.”

This weekend, Hekselman returns to The Jazz Gallery as part of our 2016 Residency Commission series to present new music for his band Zuperoctave. The quartet features some of Hekselman’s closest musical associates—saxophonist Ben Wendel, pianist Shai Maestro, and drummer Kush Abadey—and a lush, plugged-in sound. We caught up with Hekselman by phone to talk about his writing process for the commission, which included some false starts and questioning his musical intuition.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been all over the world in the past few months; where are you now, and where have you been recently?

Gilad Hekselman: I’ve been in New York for about a week—before that, I was touring in Japan and Korea. In Japan, I was a sideman with a saxophone player named Sadao Watanabe, and before that in Korea I did a little tour with my trio. It was my sixth time in Japan and my second time in Korea. I like it there, and would love to go there more.

TJG: Tell me about your commissioned project, Zuperoctave: It’s got Ben Wendel (saxophones), it’s got Shai Maestro (keys), it’s got Kush Abadey (drums). What’s the concept?

GH: The concept is more or less as usual; trying to write some good tunes, and have some good musicians play them. This is a little different because there’s no bass, and we’re going for a more electronic sound. A lot of the compositions are leaning towards that. We’re using some synths, Ben is using some effects, I’m going to use some effects, and Kush is playing some electronic drums.

TJG: When did you decide not to have a bass player?

GH: This project is called Zuperoctave, and I’ve been doing it for a few years with different personnel. That’s part of the idea of the band, to free up the bass a little bit. Sometimes I use a pedal and play bass, sometimes Shai does some bass sounds, or even Ben. Generally speaking, we like to have more flexibility, so we experiment with the bass.

TJG: So how do you write, regarding the low end, knowing that you’ll have that flexibility where anyone can play the bass in the band? Does it change your compositional approach?

GH: A lot of the songs are brand new work that I did for the commission. They have these musicians and instrumentation in mind. I try to imagine a group sound, rather than focusing too much on the bass, or the lack of it. I imagine what the instruments I have can do in that context. Each song is different, as far as the process goes. I find a melody, or some lyrics, a bassline, or something else that works for me—some of them are inspired by my musicians, or musical ideas that remind me of friends. For me, words aren’t really helpful in describing these kinds of musical relationships. You hear it and you know it, but it’s hard to verbalize.

TJG: So how did you begin working with The Jazz Gallery, and when did you get your commission?

GH: I think it all started with Nir Felder, actually. He was talking to Rio about how it would be great to do commission work with a guitar player. Nir, Rio and I worked on the application, then Rio got a grant for it, and that was it. This is my first commission. It’s been cool working to a deadline. The first thing I had in mind was a different project, which eventually fell through. It was originally more vocal music. I had this idea to do music for yoga sequences as well. I’d have a yoga practitioner do a sequence of poses on stage while we play. But that fell through too. Meanwhile, while looking at those ideas, I noticed that a lot of these ideas for Zuperoctave just appeared. I ignored it for a while, trying to work on the other ideas, but honestly feeling a little under-inspired. And then, I talked to my wife, and she asked me to think about whether I was swimming with or against the stream; that’s when I realized I should drop everything and follow the Zuperoctave project, since that’s where my heart was. So that’s what I did. Ever since then, I’ve been writing non-stop.


Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Guitarist Mary Halvorson has gained attention for her dextrous improvisation, her unique, prickly sound sound, and her intricate compositions, which range from solo guitar music to works for bands of 8+. Code Girl, the new project she will debut at The Jazz Gallery as part of the 2016 Jazz Gallery Residency Commissions, features longtime bandmates Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums), as well as trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire and singer Amirtha Kidambi. We spoke with Halvorson this week about the project’s multifaceted inspirations and the new challenges she posed for herself in writing it.

The Jazz Gallery: You’re both a guitarist and a composer, and your sound on the guitar is particularly unique. How do you feel your composition affects your performance, and vice versa?

Mary Halvorson: I definitely think of the two things as related. The composing, for me, comes first when I’m thinking about this group, and then based on what I write, that sets up a mood or a tone for the improvisation. So I definitely think about them as related, but I try to leave the compositions open enough that the improvisation has room to grow, and so the composition won’t necessarily happen the same way every time.

TJG: How much does improvisation play a role in the compositional process for you?

MH: It plays a pretty big role. Usually when I start to compose, I start by just improvising on the guitar. So I’ll sit down on the guitar and start improvising until I come up with something which I think could be an idea, or a theme for a composition, and then I’ll start writing stuff down, and I’ll sort of develop an idea, but it always comes from an improvisational space for me. In the case of this group, which has lyrics, I had written the lyrics first, so I wrote the lyrics and then when I sat down to compose the music I would start improvising on guitar but also singing. So I’d be singing some of the lyrics and then develop the composition in that way.

TJG: So you were writing the lyrics also.

MH: Yes.

TJG: What was your thought process for composing for this band?

MH: It’s a pretty different project for me, and this is the first time I’ve written for a group with a singer, though I have had a couple groups in the past where I sung a little bit, and I’ve written a few lyrics in the past. But this is the first group where I have a dedicated singer, and I’m writing all the lyrics myself. So just because of that, it’s been a little bit of a different process. And like I described, I would write the lyrics first and then build the compositions around the lyrics, so the song structure around the vocal structure, if that makes sense.

TJG: Do you think of the voice as separate from a melodic instrument, in that case? Or is it just a melody line?

MH: I guess I think about it as both, because I’m definitely thinking about melody quite a bit. But then also because it’s expressing words, for me it does take on a different role and a different focus from the instruments. In a way I’m thinking, although deeper, highly improvisational lines, also thinking of them as songs, like you would have a folk song. So sort of combining those elements.