A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photos by Rafiq for Jazz Speaks

On Friday and Saturday, Joe Sanders will present the premiere of new work created through the 2012 Jazz Gallery Residency Commissions series “Leading From the Bass.” I caught up with Joe today to snap some photos during the band’s rehearsal (see above), and to chat with him about the highs and lows of composing, developing ideas at The Gallery, and leading from the bass:

You’ve been here for two weeks; how clear was your idea of what you wanted to do when you started and what’s happened since then?

Well, when I started, I really had no idea what I was gonna do! I just knew I wanted four basses. But I kept thinking that the idea of four basses is just absurd; just to write for it and make it interesting enough for an audience to listen to for an hour. So I thought, “well, that’s not really going to work too well.” But then I realized that I could add a band, and I thought, “oh! duh!”, and it all came together.

I was transcribing string quartets and symphonies and trying to get ideas of how to orchestrate before I had written anything…

Who were some of the composers you were listening to?

You know, my main people: I love Tchaikovsky, I love Mahler. [Their music is] just ravishing…so powerful, but the orchestration is very minimal. They take an idea and they run it through the whole piece. That’s the beauty [of it]; I was trying to find something like that.

I did that, and I was just writing things. Whatever came to my head. I was just trying to write for four basses and trying to see what works, and in which register. The bass is such a limited instrument to write for in terms of register, especially for four people to play it and not get in each other’s way, and for it to not sound muddy. That was the first test I had to pass in order to make this work.

Before I got together with the guys for the first time, I wrote them an email, and was like, “this is either going to be really easy, or really, really hard.” But then, [when we played through the material], I thought, “Oh, okay! This might work.” It felt like a sigh of relief, like wiping my brow, because I would have really had to start fresh after doing all of this analyzing and all of this homework. So I’m glad it worked out.

Since then, I’ve continued adding [to the pieces] and being more meticulous about what I wanted from the sound of the music. [I had to figure out] who would play each part and which other instrumentalists I would get to play in the band. All of those things came later, in the last week, because I was so engulfed in the process of writing music. It was a bit daunting at first, but I pressed on.

As far as your day-to-day experience at The Gallery goes, what has been most useful or rewarding for you?

Well, the thing is that you can come here at any time. Being in New York, it’s so difficult to practice at night. The beauty of this is that you have the key [to the space], and you can come in at any time to work on an idea. Or, you can just come here without any prior inspiration whatsoever and just sit here for a couple of minutes!

There’s nothing else; there are no distractions. At home, there’s the TV, there’s the computer; there are all of these things to distract you. Here, you could just sit here for an hour and not do anything, but there’s a piano right there and there are basses and drums, so you can be inspired in some sort of way. [You can] sit down, think for a while, and then come up [on stage] and play or write.

There were only one or two times where I came in and had no idea what I was going to do; maybe the first couple of days when I was still pulling my hair out!

You’re usually so busy; I wonder if this has also provided you with some more focused time to write?

It has. In fact, this is one of the first times in a long time that I’ve had two weeks to just do one thing.

I feel like a real composer now! It’s really amazing; when I went through days of depression, I felt like a real writer. Like, “Whoa! Okay…This is how writers feel.” They’re going through it, and they have all of these ideas, but then sometimes they don’t have any ideas!

I’m a bass player. I play bass all the time, so I’ve always felt like a bass player. Sometimes, I feel like a bassist-composer. But, at this point, I feel like a composer-bassist. It’s been really weird being in the house all day not touching my instrument and just writing for ten hours!

So it’s been a great experience, just to have the focus of this.

So, while this has been something you’ve done while you’ve been in this space, it’s also been your focus in your time away from The Gallery?

Yeah. Usually, I have gigs and do other things, but I had to make this my priority, because I was being compensated, first of all, but also because I told myself that I had to be a composer, and to do what I set out to do.

I wouldn’t have accepted this opportunity if the task had just been to write a jazz quartet piece; that’s fine, I can do that, and have done it before with my band. But this was a challenge. We’ll see what happens – whether or not people like it – but I feel that I stepped up to the challenge, and made something out of nothing, really. It’s very rare that you hear four basses, period.

I’m not imagining [the end product] in any way – that’s the beauty of it. And I never was. I was never set on what I wanted it to be. You just roll with it, every minute; that’s how I like to live life. Roll with life. You can have your plan, and your priorities, but you can’t plan everything.

I’m happy that I have this opportunity because it’s opened my mind to possibilities and to challenges. This is the first time I’ve actually had to write something on a deadline; I’ve made records of my own and have written music, but it’s never been so intense. I’ve also never played so many roles: I’m the manager, I’m the assistant, I’m the copyist! I’m putting music in folders right now. I’m doing everything. From the beginning to the end, this has been like my baby.

But also it’s still a work in progress. I’m not going to stop working on it. This is something I can always come back to. And I’ll probably take some of the pieces from this project [and perform them again], even if it’s not with four basses.

I like it. And it’s good when you like what you write! There are so many pieces that I write that I don’t like.

And I’m happy with the progress, because, with the bass…it’s hard. It’s hard to get in tune, it’s hard to play, and this music really is not easy. So I have to give it up to these bass players, because they really stepped up to the challenge.

I know bass players. I know them really well. And I knew that these guys would be gung-ho about this, because it’s something really different, and something new, and [they would do] anything to advance the bass. These guys have been wonderful. And I’m in the same boat that they are, which is usually not the case. Because [no bandleader] really knows what you’re doing with the bass – [e.g.] the fingerings or bowings that you have to use – so we’re all in the same space. And I’m playing this music too, and it’s hard for me, and I wrote it!

It’s not going to be perfect at first, which is great. That’s why we rehearse. But performance elements give you a different perspective on things. So I’m really excited to hear what the performance is going to sound like.

Joe Recommends:

EATALY: “I love Italian food, and this place is authentic. I went yesterday and had the best mozzarella you can find in the city. They have an espresso machine especially for espresso. Sometimes I go there just for an espresso. It’s a taste of Italy!”

Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony and Mahler’s 5th Symphony: “I played these pieces in the youth symphony in high school. They are two of my favorites.”

We hope you will join us for Joe’s performances on Friday, March 2nd, and Saturday, March 3rd.