A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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We’ve been in touch with saxophonist Ben van Gelder a number of times over the past year: he spoke with us for an extended interview in October when he appeared with his quartet, and again in March for a weekend residency that featured both a chordless quartet and his working quintet. Back yet again, Ben will be premiering new works as part of our 2013-14 Residency Commissions series, which were composed over the past month for a larger ensemble than his more recent quartet-quintet work. For those unfamiliar with Ben’s sonic profile, NPR bestowed this appraisal upon the Dutch-born altoist after the conclusion of the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition last fall:

His blowing was deliberate, methodical, slow-developing; he held notes for what felt like a bit longer than his peers and often landed flush on top of the beat. His tone felt a bit reedy on purpose…One gets the sense he was cultivating a “hip to be square” vibe — perhaps inspired by teacher Lee Konitz, another alto-sax original.

Here’s our conversation with Ben about his latest compositional pursuits, his strategies for overcoming writer’s block, and how the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has been an inspiration in more ways than one:

The Jazz Gallery: What have you been working on so far during your Residency?

Ben van Gelder: The only thing that was really clear for me before I started was the instrumentation: I wanted to write for a seven-piece band. I started checking out a lot of larger ensemble stuff and a lot of music that I’ve always wanted to check out but didn’t have the time or patience to. I’ve been doing that and really trying to conceptualize everything before I sit down at the piano and start writing. It’s been a pretty conscious process and not so intuitive, I would say.

The fact that I have this space where I can go and work on music on a regular basis really helps because, for me, writing is hard and takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. For me, it works best when I can keep working at it for a long time in a row; consistency really helps. Even when there are days where not a lot is happening, something will start to happen somewhere along the line.

TJG: Have you been checking out any music for ideas or inspiration for this residency? 

BVG: I’ve been listening to these Herbie Hancock records from the ’70s with his Mwandishi band: Sextant, Crossings, those records. I’ve been checking out a lot of that—the music won’t sound like that—but just to get ideas for instrumentation, orchestration, and some conceptual frameworks. I’ve also been listening to some classical music like Morton Feldman, which is sonically very interesting and very different from a lot of other music.

TJG: Any particular works by Feldman?

BVG: One that I’ve been listening to more has been Rothko Chapel.

TJG: You mentioned when we spoke in October that you were interested at the time in being involved with the rhythm section and playing with them as a group. How do you deal with the challenge of enabling flexibility and improvisation within a larger ensemble?

BVG: That’s a good question. It’s something that I’m going to have to experience when we start rehearsing the music because that’s something that becomes clear when you play the music, but I’m trying to be conscious that I’m dealing with great improvisors, and they will probably be more capable of playing things than I could ever write, so I have to allow for that. I’m definitely trying to take that into account, but I’ve taken this opportunity to get involved with some more through-composed material, so every song that I’ve written has different sections. There’s only one song that’s kind of a song on its own, but everything else has different sections throughout.

TJG: You also mentioned in that conversation your interest in clear conceptual frameworks in compositions. What kinds of conceptual ideas have been you exploring lately? 

BVG: There are certain elements that recur in my compositions, but I think that has to do with the fact that I write on piano and my piano playing, of course, is limited to a certain extent. I have a harmonic language or certain chords that I’ll be likely to play, but to get away from that I’ve been trying to write more from the horn or away from any instrument whatsoever, which has helped me change things up. There’s more melodic material—it’s more note-y compared to music I’ve written before—so that’s a difference.

TJG: Speaking of compositional strategies, do you ever write with preconceived constraints in mind? 

BVG: Absolutely. Those are often the most successful compositions for me—when I predetermine certain things, you know, which can be anything: is the melody going to be unison or is it going to be three-part harmony, or unison first and then three-part, are the horns unaccompanied or accompanied? I ascribe roles to everybody and that definitely helps.

When you have to write a melody, not every melody is the same—there are many different kinds that you can write—so, as you said, restricting yourself to writing a melody with intervals larger than a third, for instance, you’re likely to come up with something, so I definitely do that.

TJG: Do you ever struggle with writer’s block—especially when dealing with a commission project like this—and, if so, how do you move past it? 

BVG: Completely. Writing music within a timeframe is very challenging, but I started doing this knowing that there’s no option for failure, so you have to come up with something; that’s a really healthy impetus. When nothing happens, it can definitely be frustrating and you can panic at the prospect that this will keep going for the unforeseeable future. So I definitely have strategies: I run whenever I feel stressed out, anxious, or negative. I take a break and run or walk or do something physical that allows me to completely put my mind onto something else.

Listening to music when I’m really stuck helps. I started writing pages down in a diary where I’m writing pretty much anything that comes to mind, but it mostly ends up being stuff that frustrates me. I analyze my previous compositions and analyze the process and see where the tipping point is: where did it shape up into a composition and I focus on that, you know? It’s like, “Well, you’ve done this before, so it’s possible, so how did it go last time?” so I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s what I thought about.” There are little strategies that you can use to help yourself, and you need it.

The biggest one I have is an inspiration board: I have a whiteboard in my room, and in the middle I wrote “Residency Commission” and outside of that I wrote all the things that I want to draw from—what I’ve been thinking about and that I’d like to see reflected in the music. I wrote the instrumentation next to that, the practical things—how many songs do I want to write ideally, planning rehearsals, yada yada yada. I keep diaries and write things down, and that really helps.

One artist who really inspires me is Haruki Murakami—this is kind of a tangent, but I think it’s pretty relevant—and writing didn’t come naturally to him. He didn’t start until he was 29 when it struck him that he always loved books, and he figured that he could become a writer. Now when he writes he has a very specific routine where he wakes super, super early and exercises and then writes for 5 hours, so when most people start their days he already has five writing hours clocked. The consistency will lead to something; it gets him into a kind of meditative state and that’s when stuff starts flowing for him. And he runs a lot, too: he wrote a book about how running influences his writing process called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I find that I very much relate to Murakami’s artistic process.

TJG: Writing requires a lot of discipline, although there seem to be some writers who manage to succeed without it. Do you think of yourself as naturally disciplined? 

BVG: I’m pretty disciplined, but I tend to give up easiest when it comes to writing because it’s not like practicing scales or memorizing chord changes. It’s abstract and it’s not something you can always force, so sheer perseverance isn’t always the solution. It is a solution, but it’s not necessarily the solution. I consider myself disciplined and I’ve been very disciplined about this and I’ve invested a lot of time.

TJG: Aside from this residency, what else has been occupying your time, musically or otherwise?

BVG: I was very busy before the residency: I had about two months where I was performing pretty much daily, so it’s been a really nice chance to just work on music. I love playing and performing and it’s great being on the road, but there’s not always a lot of time to be working on music, so this has been really great. I don’t have much going on this month, which is perfect.

TJG: How has the residency affected your work, or how have you benefited from it?

BVG: It’s so great. Oh, man, it’s really great, and it’s such a luxury and an honor. I feel a lot of responsibility because The Jazz Gallery is a famed institution, you know, and a very important one—especially because they do things like this. It feels like a vote of confidence from the Gallery to me, therefore I feel a lot of responsibility to produce something that I want to present—that I feel good about—so that already is tremendous. And to provide the financial means to facilitate whatever that takes is huge. I think it’s so important, and it’s been very big for me.

Ben van Gelder will perform on Friday and Saturday, June 27th and 28th, 2014, as part of The Jazz Gallery 2013-14 Residency Commissions. These premiere performances will feature Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Peter Schlamb on vibes, Kyle Wilson on tenor saxophone, Travis Reuter on guitar, Matt Brewer on bass, and Sean Mullins on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $22 general admission and $10 for Members. Purchase tickets here. 

The Jazz Gallery’s Residency Commission 2013-2014 is supported in part by a funding from the Jerome Foundation with additional support from the New York State Council on the Arts and Department of Cultural Affairs of New York City.