A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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Drummer Ted Poor demonstrates a rare and desired combination: both sensitive and strong, he can follow or lead from the kit. His keen musicianship has greatly serviced groups led by Ben Monder, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dan Tepfer, Cuong Vu, and Shane Endsley. Poor also contributes compositions to the collaborative bands Respect Sextet and Gallery stalwart Bad Touch, and he leads his own Mt. Varnum, whose sound is inspired by classic and indie rock. For the first time, on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014, he will bring a group under his own name to the Gallery.

Gathering some of the most distinctive personalities on the New York jazz scene, Poor will play sets loosely inspired by Sonny Rollins’s under-appreciated albums Our Man in Jazz and The Paris Concert, recorded in 1962 and ’63, respectively. Don’t get the wrong idea: the band is not a tribute project per se. The Rollins albums provide a stylistic entry point for Poor and his band to address the bebop tradition they were trained in. Featuring Bill McHenry on tenor saxophone, Josh Roseman on trombone, and Ben Street on bass, the Ted Poor Quartet offers inventive and exciting takes on standards and lesser-known repertory from the mid-20th century. We talked with Ted last week about what we can expect from the performance:

The Jazz Gallery: You just came off tour in Mexico with Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Standards band. How was that? 

Ted Poor: Oh, it was great. Wonderful audiences and nice venues. We felt very connected with the people there. We had a great time.

TJG: For how long have you been playing with him? 

TP: That was the first time in over two years. I was with the band regularly in 2011 and 2012. Probably even before then. Then he changed up the band, and we reconnected recently.

I really, really enjoy the Standards Trio with Kurt. No one really in my career in New York has asked me to go back to the bebop language and tradition and to be free in that world. I’ve come to really be thankful for that. Kurt is a master of that language, and it’s so joyous to be in that language with him. It’s partly the reason I’ve put this quartet together at The Jazz Gallery. It’s a band that I wanted to get together after having reconnected with this tradition.

TJG: A tribute project like this one comes out of a deep love for a particular album and style. What kind of balance do you seek between emulation and interpretation? 

TP: I can’t even say that we’re trying to emulate. In this community [New York City], it can be difficult to put your foot down and figure out what you want to go for with your music. My love of this era of Sonny helped me figure out who I wanted to call to play the way I wanted to. A year ago we first played a gig, and when I was putting it together I was wondering who I could get that’s going to love that way of playing as much as I’m loving that style. These musicians are just totally steeped in the tradition and so fearless. They’re all craving exploration and they’re always putting musicality at the forefront. They have no real agendas.

The Sonny albums were for us a filter or a way of getting to focus on our aesthetic or point of departure. Once we’re on the gig I don’t think that we’re thinking much about the record. We’re trying to channel the spirit and openness of the record and trying to revel in that and see what we come up with.

TJG: You seem not to play in many piano- or guitar-less groups. What kind of challenges does a horns-bass-drums setting pose and how does it affect your playing? 

TP: I like it for one because, especially with these individuals, the harmonic movement is so fluid and open to interpretation all the time. You only have two or three notes being played from the horns and bass, or the bass and the soloist. The guys in this band are so adventurous that they’re able to imply harmonies in a way that requires me to listen and respond not just to the rhythmic information they’re providing. The harmonic openness ensures that I’m meticulous with the colors on the set.

In this instrumentation there’s even more space in the sound for drums, and there’s a really neat rhythmic thing that happens in this band. Bill and Josh will sort of play rubato rather than dig in to the time. As they’re laying back, it requires a strong rhythmic propulsion from my end. I appreciate that challenge.

TJG: You mentioned in another interview that you like playing with Ben Street because he plays with a freer pulse. How do negotiate time in a free bop setting like this? 

TP: I love playing with Ben because on the one hand he’s incredibly open, but I feel a very strong opinion from him concerning what he wants from the music. He’s a bass player that forces me to listen to every note that he plays. All the subtle information about the bass is to me so present when he plays. It hits me like a ton of bricks. It’s a truly provocative force and it requires me to step up and share my own opinion about the beat and the sound and where the tune is heading. I find it very inspiring.

We don’t settle into one thing. Sometimes I play behind and sometimes ahead of him, or vice versa. I guess most of all he’s just searching for the best music in the moment, and I want to be around that and learn from that.

TJG: What about Bill McHenry and Josh Roseman? 

TP: I chose Bill and Josh because of their uniqueness. Individually they have such a natural, unusual, and incredibly musical approach. I’m drawn to their beautiful and inviting phrasing.  While they are steeped in the tradition, in the moment they play by ear (as does Ben). This is crucial for me because I feel it’s really the only way to make pure music as a band. Together, Bill and Josh have a way of conveying immediacy and openness simultaneously.

As with Sonny Rollins and Don Cherry [who plays on Our Man in Jazz and The Paris Concert], they are never competitive in spirit; always complimentary—even at their most dissonant. I greatly appreciate how they are not satisfied with only the literal aspects of the music: the feel, tempo, harmony. Bill and Josh have the courage to follow their ears in directions that are unknown and rely on an abstract understanding from Ben and myself. In these instances the song becomes secondary and the music we are making together is vaulted to new heights.

TJG: What kind of material are you playing? 

TP: In terms of repertoire, so far we’re only playing standard tunes. I’m not yet compelled to write for this band. There’s something so joyous about playing songs that we all know like the back of our hand, yet trying to approach them as if we’re playing them for the first time. Right now, that’s providing all the momentum we need.

It’ll be standards. I know that I want to play a tune called “Demon’s Lullaby” from Sun Ra’s record Angels and Demons at Play. It’s basically an 8-bar tune that’s repeated a couple of times and then it goes into a blues. It feels like it lends itself to what we’re getting into these days. I’d like to play “On Green Dolphin Street,” which is on the Paris Concert. I love the way the band plays that on the record and I want to address that in our own way. We’ll probably make up a slow blues—just set a tempo and let the band improvise a head. We’ve done that before and it’s really fun to hear what the guys do with it.

When we get to the gig, no one’s reading music. The song is always there because they know it by heart. The tune’s just the beginning point, and when you know it, there’s this huge space to create and explore as a band. I really look forward to the gigs with these guys because the vibe can be so mesmerizing and inspiring for me. I like what I end up playing on the drums.

The Ted Poor Quartet performs this Tuesday, July 22nd, at The Jazz Gallery. The band features Poor on drums, Bill McHenry on tenor saxophone, Josh Roseman on trombone, and Ben Street on bass. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $15 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here.