A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Miles Okazaki & Paul Cornish. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Miles Okazaki & Paul Cornish. Photos courtesy of the artists.

This Thursday, June 2nd, The Jazz Gallery kicks off the next round of our Mentorship Series with guitarist Miles Okazaki working with pianist Paul Cornish. While some of our previous mentees had played on the Gallery stage previously, Cornish is a new member of the extended Gallery family. Cornish hails from Houston, Texas and attended the prestigious High School for the Performing and Visual Arts there (like fellow pianists Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, and Helen Sung). He just finished his second year studying jazz at the University of Southern California and has already been decorated with awards from ASCAP, Yamaha, and the Next Generation Jazz Festival. The tracks on Cornish’s SoundCloud page show an immense talent, poised to break out to a wider audience.

Before Cornish arrives in New York to make his Gallery debut, we caught up with Miles Okazaki to talk about his project with Paul and what he’s learned about band-leading from working with Steve Coleman.

The Jazz Gallery: How did you and Paul meet?

Miles Okazaki: Not many people know Paul because he’s never been to New York. Well maybe he’s passed through, but he’s never really checked out New York. This will be an interesting experience for him because of that, and because the music that we’re doing isn’t the most conventional.

I was teaching at the Banff Institute in Canada last summer, and Paul was in my ensemble. He was obviously very advanced, very talented. He was always hanging out, playing at the jam sessions. But he’s also a little shy, so I don’t know him that well on a personal level, I just know how he plays. I’ve been trying to imagine what it would have been like to be 19 or 20 and come to New York and play with some older musicians or more experienced musicians and just have that kind of mind-blown thing. What we’re doing is providing a framework for Paul to live in New York for a month, so he can go out and explore and get on the scene a little bit.

I feel like this kind of situation is more authentic and less theoretical than just working in a classroom setting. Like, do you want to have a doctor who’s studied all the books and knows everything, or someone who has done ten thousand hours of surgery and never cracked open a book? Not that this is one way or the other, but this is just a jumpstart on some playing experience.

TJG: It’s almost as if Paul is a sort of jazz exchange student and you are part of his host family.

MO: Yeah. It is true that he’s coming here without really knowing anyone else.

TJG: Earlier you mentioned that the music that you’ll be working on with Paul isn’t the most conventional. How so?

MO: We’re going to be playing music from a record that I recorded recently that isn’t out yet, with Anthony Tidd on bass and Sean Rickman on drums. It’s a new book of material that I’m trying out and before this, the only person who’s played it is Craig Taborn. I gave Paul the tapes and said, “Just check out Craig Taborn.” I think that will be a good lesson by itself! Paul’s just going to jump right into the fire with us, but it’s a supportive project. Sometimes people can have bad experiences when they just jump into situations, when the other band members can be like, “Hey man. Just get it together!” That can be a good thing too, but we’re not going to be trying to do that here. It’s more like we’re just on a gig and trying to make all this music happen together.

TJG: You’ve worked with Steve Coleman for many years, and he has a very particular way of mentoring players and teaching his music. How has Steve influenced your approach to working with younger players like Paul?

MO: Steve is a big influence of mine obviously–I’ve been playing with him for quite a while now. And, the rhythm section on the record is Steve’s rhythm section. I’m glad I got to steal them for this month. I wanted to get Anthony and Sean’s sound, but have them do it my way. My way is definitely different from Steve’s way, though it is informed by it, much like how Steve’s way is informed by Charlie Parker. In terms of band leading, Steve has a very unique style that requires a very intense type of study. Everything is memorized, taught by ear, and then scrambled up. The process is very organic. Whatever happens in performance, happens. It doesn’t happen in the first show, it takes time. That’s predicated on having a long-running band.

We don’t have time to do that with this band, though I did do that originally when working on this project. With Paul coming to town, I just gave him charts and told him to do his homework. I’m not as interested in doing the head-solo-head thing and am hoping to get into more of a collective band sound. Hopefully he’ll have the information under his fingers and then we can deal with the concept stuff together. Like when I write the harmony “F,” I don’t mean F-major-7, sharp 11. I just mean the notes F-A-C. So we’ll have to talk through some of this stylistic interpretation stuff. But overall, I still want it to have some of the feel of Steve’s band, letting the music go wherever it goes and having a really open approach to the improvisation.

There’s always been a tradition of older musicians playing with younger guys. Like part of it is that when people get older, they get busier so it’s harder to get everyone together. But it’s also really important to establish a link between generations, passing on information from person to person. That’s how this music has been taught through history, but there’s less of it now when people are in school. You might meet the professor and get some one-on-one time and play with his band, and you progress to some other kind of relationship. But the classroom is a different thing. Nothing against schools and all of that, but this kind of mentorship program is a necessary thing, as just a structured version of the free-for-all, move to New York, move to wherever, try to sit in kind of thing.

The Jazz Gallery Mentorship Series, Vol. 3, Ed. 2, kicks off at the Gallery this Thursday, June 2nd, 2016. The group features Miles Okazaki on guitar, Paul Cornish on piano, Anthony Tidd on bass, and Sean Rickman on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.