A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Don Getsug

Photo by Don Getsug

Following Ben Wendel’s December residency, saxophonist and composer Greg Ward will be at The Jazz Gallery through April and early May as part of our Residency Commissions series. Ward is known in the jazz world for leading bands such as Sonic Juggernaut, his powerhouse trio with bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Damion Reid, but also works effortlessly across genre boundaries; for instance, he has composed works for the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Peoria Ballet Company, and was recently commissioned to compose a work for the Chicago-based Spektral String quartet, currently in residence at the University of Chicago. We caught up with Greg by phone to talk about his plans for his Residency this month.

The Jazz Gallery: Are there any particular goals or musical ideas you want to achieve during your residency?

Greg Ward: I’d like to execute this project to the best of my ability, which is composing a set of music that really expresses my gratitude and overall appreciation for the influence that I’ve received from my mentor, Preston Jackson, and also to showcase different aspects of his work,  his life, and our interactions together through music.

Also, we’ve made a film for this project and over this next six weeks we hope to put that together as best as we can. I’d like to leave the audience with a little curiosity about Preston Jackson—to go and to be inspired by his work as I have been.

TJG: Could you say a few words about Preston Jackson for those who may be less familiar with his work?

GW: Preston Jackson is well known as a visual artist, sculptor, welder, painter. He’s done a lot of public art—all kinds of stuff—and he’s really just a master, one of the people I was very fortunate to meet at a young age, but the thing that’s special about him is that he’s explored many different facets of art—or just many disciplines of life.

He’s still an amazing musician to this day and a master martial artist; he was a Tai Chi master as well. It’s just amazing that somebody has pursued these different paths that, to me, seem they would take an entire life to master just one, but he’s done all that in his 70 years.

TJG: When did you first meet him?

GW: I’m 31 now and I met him when I was 15. I had a band in my hometown when I was 15 and I knew him as a guitarist in Peoria, Illinois. He lives between Peoria and Chicago, and people told me that he would come and sit in on my gig. I had a gig at a church that was having a jazz Sunday event, so I took my band and showed up. We had never met, but I knew who he was and we played together. Right after the first song we made a connection, and by the time the gig was over, he had kind of taken me under his wing.

“Oh yeah, we’re going to do a lot of work together,” he said, and he started hiring me for engagements he was playing. I didn’t even know he was an artist at that point, so through hanging out and playing with him I began to see that he was this master artist, and he still has the contemporary arts center in Peoria where he does a lot of his work. There are classes for the community—Tai Chi classes, classes for kids, painting, welding, sculpting—so it was cool to have that period before I went off to school to spend with someone who was very encouraging and very focused about his craft.

TJG: Can you tell us about the ensemble or ensembles you’ll be writing for?

GW: It’s going to be for septet and we have alto sax, tenor sax, guitar, piano, vocals, upright bass, and drum set. This is the first time in a long time that I’ve had an opportunity to write for an ensemble larger than my trio and quartets, improvising ensembles. I’ve been doing work for different chamber and orchestral groups and they don’t necessarily improvise as much; it’s been a real treat to dive into this group.

TJG: What other work have you been involved in lately over the past year?

GW: I did my first film score for a film called Pinch by a filmmaker named Beresford Bennett. It hasn’t come out yet, but it was just a wonderful thing to be a part of, something I’ve been very interested in over the past few years (and I’ve known Beresford for probably six years now). I always love collaborations like that.

I’ve also been commissioned for this Spektral Quartet, which is based in Chicago. It’s a string quartet that’s the resident ensemble of the University of Chicago right now. They just did this giant cell phone ring tone project where they had over 50 really heavy contemporary classical composers, and I snuck in there to compose different ring tones of different lengths. I’ve also been on tour with Mike Reed’s group, Living by Lanterns.

TJG: You work across so many different musical worlds; do you self-identify as a “jazz musician?” How do you feel about the idea of genres?

GW: I don’t know what I think about the genre thing. I guess my hope is that, since I have such eclectic tastes I just consider myself a musician. And yeah, I have very strong jazz roots because that’s how I seriously studied the music, but also I feel like jazz is a very amazingly blended music with influences. It keeps growing and changing, and I guess you could call the music that I make “jazz” because they’re calling so many things jazz, or just look at it as music that I’m making. Maybe it sounds like some of the other people who make music, people who have the same common interests.

People like to argue about what to call it, and I don’t know—I just hope that people like the music or that they’re moved; they can call it whatever they like. I think it’s easy to identify the things that do influence me: you can say, “Oh yeah, that’s some classical, that’s some jazz.” That’s easy to do, but I don’t know what to do after that.