A look inside The Jazz Gallery

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This month, we present four performances with pianist Taylor Eigsti and up-and-coming drummer Jeremy Dutton as part of our Mentoring Series. We’ve published a series of blog posts about these two artists and their ongoing musical friendship. Read Part I and Part II; the final installment is an interview with Jeremy:

The Jazz Gallery: How long have you been in New York?

Jeremy Dutton: It’s hard to say; it feels like it’s been a long time! It was 2012 [when I moved here], so I guess I’ve only been here for two years, but it feels so much longer. Time passes quicker; it’s easier for things to just go by. When I first got here, I just practiced a lot. Something that I was starting to lose at the end of high school was the access to playing a drum set all the time because, you know, 18 years of your son playing drums in the house is a lot to put up with, so by the end it was like, “Why don’t you go do homework?” I played a lot of sessions with people at New School, and I was pretty nervous about it all, honestly, because I was pretty aware that the people I was playing with were some of the best people at school.

When I first got here, there were things I had to get used to in terms of how your environment affects the way you play. To go through such a dramatic change in environment, from being able to see my family everyday to being in New York when I’m on my own every day—it changed my mind a little bit.

There was a period of time when I was trying to gain my footing mentally, and that’s something that I’m always working with and focused on: the mental aspect of playing music. I think that’s a part that goes unchecked a lot of times, and for me it’s been crucial to understanding how to play at a high level. It’s an elusive thing because the situations change so much and there’s no one solution, but generally what I’d say is just relaxing and trying to get away from judgment—getting out of your head, assigning value judgments and all that. It detracts from your focus on the music.

The way I always think of it in my mind is that there’s a door, and I know that once I open the door and go through it, I don’t have to think about anything anymore; I’m just there. The trick is that sometimes the door’s closed, so you have to figure out the way to open it, and it’s almost like you’re figuring out how to open your mind up to different things. It’s just the way life is where you’re dealing with a million other things: your rent’s due, or the homework’s not done, or the song needs to be finished by tomorrow.

Sometimes, all that stress can bring you way closer to the music because you sit down to play and you don’t have time to think about that, but other times you can get to the music and you feel like your thoughts are still somewhere else, which is a hard thing to get over.

TJG: Which drummers did you check out early on?

JD: I used to check out Art Blakey all the time. It just progressed in middle school: Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, then to Jo Jones, Elvin, of course, on his stuff and with Coltrane. I’m trying to think of the order, because I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I only listened to one of them, but usually there’s a guy that I’m focusing in on.

Art Blakey was that guy for a long time and Elvin was, too, and those were the two that I was really, really into—probably because they were on some of the first records I received. And Art Taylor, too; my uncle bought me a record, Taylor’s Wailers or something, and I remember us going to Barnes and Noble and him buying me that record, so I checked that out a lot.

When I really love the way somebody played, I always try to find out more about those people in terms of what kinds of people they were or are, if they’re living. You can go on Wikipedia and look at Art Blakey’s discography in order, and I know that I was trying to check out every Art Blakey record I could find. I loved Mosaic, Indestructible, Roots and Herbsjust albums on top of albums on top of albums of Art Blakey.

That whole period in my life is kind of like an explosion of all this different stuff. I essentially became this huge jazz fan taking in whatever I could without necessarily knowing that these people were huge, huge deals. For instance, there was a period of time when I was listening to Art Blakey and didn’t know who those people were on the record playing with him. I just liked who they were, and a little later I found out that they were Lee Morgan and Cedar Walton and Jymie Merritt.

My teacher Sebastian Whitaker was always telling me to go check out certain records, like Drums Around the Corner, which has Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones on it playing different tunes. Basically, every song is somebody takes a solo and it’s drum trading for an extended period of time, and it’s crazy to hear all those different styles of playing drums on the same record.

I remember the first time I heard certain people, and from there that took me into different periods of studying that person as much as I could. In ninth grade, we had this class called “Rhythm Section,” and it was all rhythm section players and the instructor would bring in different tunes and we’d play. Hayden Hamilton, who I looked up to and still look up to a lot, played this recording for me one day, “Pinocchio” with the Miles Quintet, and I remember listening to the head and there’s this fill that Tony [Williams] plays—I had never checked out Tony—and I was like, “Man, who is that?” It’s a classic Tony thing that he does all the time, and so from there I got into this huge Tony Williams phase.

TJG: Do you remember what the particular fill was?

JD: He’ll be playing time and he’ll play the bass drum and ride together, two hits on the bass drum and ride, two hits on the snare. *sings melody of “Pinocchio” while tapping out time and inserting fill* Another thing that attracted me to Tony was something so radically different from before. I was coming out of Art Blakey and Elvin, and you can still hear that spirit in what Tony does, but you can also hear Tony!

I was really into Tony for a while and I used to just check him out constantly, and I noticed as I get older that people tend to not cop as much stuff from Tony. Technically, Tony’s stuff is way harder to cop than Elvin’s stuff because Elvin’s stuff works out of a lot of triplets and it’s more or less that. When I say cop, it’s easy to get that one fill, as opposed to Tony’s stuff. He’s comping all over the beat, so to get to that you have to get to the whole thing of what he’s doing.

I always wanted to be somebody who could just hear it and play it, and whenever I can’t do that, there’s more to it than practicing the one thing you hear and can’t play. If I can’t play something I hear, I want to find out the reason why. Is independence the reason I can’t play it? Is it because I can’t play it fast enough? Is it because it’s phrased in a certain way? Is it because it’s coming in on a certain beat? There’s almost like a checklist of things that I go through mentally to find out at the core what this thing is, and then I practice that as opposed to the one lick. If you practice the lick, then you only get that lick, but if you practice what’s behind it, you not only cover that but might find other things that you like, too.

I think that understanding the way someone phrases is just as important, if not more important, than what exactly they’re playing because otherwise it’s just notes. We talk about these great people in jazz or music in general, and nine times out of 10 I’m going to find whatever I can on that person. I’m going to read interviews that they do because these people may have passed away, but you can get a real sense for who they were and how that relates to their playing. You can get in touch with who they are as a person, and that’s a huge part of progressing on your instrument. Something that doesn’t always get acknowledged is that the great people in music are also the great thinkers.

YouTube is amazing: you can watch how they physically do it. Something I’ve always liked about Papa Jo Jones in particular is that he’s got a flair: “I’ve got it all under control.” It’s always exciting watching him play; he’s so relaxed and enjoying what he’s playing.

TJG: Since you’ve been playing with Taylor, do you feel like he ever purposely tries to challenge you as a player? Throwing unexpected things at you deliberately?

JD: No, no … that sounds like something me and my friends would do in high school. It was really cool because we were always into challenging one another to get better. I remember freshman year the teacher was like, “We’re going to play ‘Giant Steps’ in seven.” Now, that’s like, “Okay, whatever,” but back then it was like, “In seven?” So from there it was, “Well, what about seven over four? And nine? And 13? And 11?” Basically, my friends and I were always trying to one-up each other, so then came these arrangements of songs that were like, “Can you do this? Can you do that?” But it was never really in an “I’m going to beat you” sort of a way.

You know the phrase, “Steel sharpens steel?” It was like that. We were challenging each other in a way that’s healthy, to grow each other. It was like, “We’re growing together. Here’s something I know that I’m sharing with you so that you can know it, too,” and then that person takes it and comes back, usually with something like, “I know this and I know this now, so what if we did this?” It’s a never-ending thing, and it still happens with my friends today. I think when I hear some of the people who’ve come out of HSPVA talk, that’s the type of thing that’s been happening for all those people that people harp on about, like Jason [Moran] and Chris [Dave] and Robert [Glasper] and Walter [Smith III], that healthy sort of building each other up, continuing the vibe, I guess.

Taylor Eigsti and Jeremy Dutton perform their last show as part of The Jazz Gallery Mentoring Series this Tuesday, October 28th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The performance will feature Eigsti on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Dutton on drums, featuring the original music of Jeremy Dutton. The first set is $15.00 ($10.00 for Members); the second set is $10.00 for everyone. Purchase tickets here.