Kassa Overall doesn’t fear a creative challenge, and when he was given a seven-concert commission series at The Jazz Gallery, he came up with a project that would remix his identities as a drummer, rapper, composer, lyricist, and producer. During every show of the TIME CAPSULE residency, Overall will present a pianist and occasionally other instrumentalists as well, and every show will be recorded. The current plan is for Overall to use the recordings as sampling material for a final live production session.
The first TIME CAPSULE show featured pianist Jon Batiste, as well as bassist Ameen Saleem. Overall now continues the residency with Jason Moran. In our first conversation, Overall went deep, and in our second, he went deeper, focusing on how context and audience preparation can change the entire concert experience. Check out our second interview below, where Overall reflected on the successes of the Batiste show, and made some predictions about the upcoming show with Moran.
The Jazz Gallery: How was the first TIME CAPSULE show for you?
Kassa Overall: I couldn’t have asked for a better first show. It came together perfectly, in terms of what we prepared and what we left for spontaneity. I talked to some people after the show, some of the heads that go to all The Jazz Gallery shows, and a few of them said something along the lines of “It’s so great to see some outside stuff, some free stuff here.” I feel like they have lots of outside stuff at the Gallery, you know, but I think they were speaking to the particular approach we were bringing to it, which was very off-the-page, very spontaneous. We connected with the crowd in a different way.
TJG: How do you think people were able to connect with what they saw onstage?
KO: Even if you’re not a master listener, a musician, or don’t know the language of music, everybody knows body language. That’s the funny thing about music. You could bring somebody off the street who has never seen a live show, and there’s certain stuff they could tell you about the performance: Whether it’s good or bad, whether the musicians are communicating well, whether the piano player is enjoying himself. The basic human perceptions. At the first Gallery show, we were discovering the music on stage just like the people in the crowd were. There were moments where Jon would play something, I’d be surprised, then realize he was surprised, and the crowd could feel that something was happening between us in the moment.
We framed the performance in such a way that the audience understood what was about to happen. They knew that there was spontaneous composition happening, and that we were recording it. The show was connected to a bigger story, a bigger frame, if you will. It’s like the audience had an instruction booklet already [laughs]. The way they were listening, you could feel them thinking. There were moments when we’d be playing, maybe just a drum solo or a piano solo with sparse accompaniment, and you could feel certain heads in the crowd were like “Yo, that’ll be a dope sample.” The idea worked.
TJG: Put yourself back in that mental space of the show: Do you remember a specific moment where that feeling happened? Where you were doing something completely unexpected, and thought “This will be cool later”?
KO: Definitely. There was a moment when Ameen Saleem was taking a bass solo, and then he fell into this ostinato thing. It might even be a thing he has in his bag, you know what I mean. He was playing it, and I started rubbing my hands together, clapping a little. Jon started clapping, and we started doing this whole clap beat behind him. It was a breakbeat like something you’d find on one of those records from some live show back in the day. It sounded perfect. It felt good. It felt inspiring, like this could be the beginning of something.
TJG: Speaking of beginnings, this is a new project for you. We spent a lot of time talking about identity last time we spoke: What about this first TIME CAPSULE show felt like “This is me, Kassa, doing my thing,” and what felt like “This is a brand new chapter”?
KO: Every time I’ve done something a little bit abstract, it felt like I had to make the crowd get it. To turn back to the ‘instruction manual’ part, I felt like this was the first time where the audience was ready for what I was about to do. There was a backstory. They weren’t there to see someone play drums: They were there for the whole process. Press, story, and narrative can get a bad rap, and you can be great at something, but at the end of the day, you have to be able to communicate what it is that you’re doing. Otherwise, people will just take it as gibberish. I think this is the beginning of learning how to communicate my intentions in my own voice, in a way that makes people ready for it. I did a whole lot of different stuff at the Gallery, but it wasn’t a surprise to anyone. It all fit into the context of the story. That feels freeing, because when you’re bringing more to the table, it’s hard when people only recognize a piece of what you’re bringing. I want to show the whole picture. This feels like the beginning of being able to show the whole picture, and having people comprehend it. It’s about becoming a better communicator in my presentation of my art.
TJG: You were particularly excited for the show with Jon because you’d be bringing him outside his sphere of The Late Show, putting him in front of a different audience. How did that shape up?
KO: It was fantastic. I bumped into Jonathan Chimene the other day, the photographer who takes pictures at all The Jazz Gallery shows. What he said to me reflected perfectly what I was trying to make happen. He was like, “Thank you for bringing Jon into this, and showing the other side of him.” Jon’s a great musician who also needs to be able to show all his sides, and that happened. There were some times when he was taking it ALL the way out. The more out he went, the more people dug it. A lot of people were there to see him, and they probably hadn’t seen him in that kind of context before. Some people might even look at the list of the pianists on this commission series and say “Oh, he put Jon on the same list as Craig Taborn?” Bro, these musicians, they can do anything.
They could be whatever types of pianists they want to be. Once you start doing a certain thing at a high level, people expect you to do it over and over and over. You might decide to take a certain direction, say “I’m going this way now,” try to find your voice. But I guarantee any one of those piano players could play in any sub-genre of jazz they want to. I know that Jon has more that he wants to bring out. I’m hoping this will be the beginning of more explorations for him, for us. It’s important.
TJG: Swinging from Jon to Jason Moran, how did you start playing with Jason, and what made you choose him for this project?
KO: It’s possible that Jason and I have never played together before. But we’ve seen each other play a lot, and we’ve talked about music a lot. I think I got on his radar when he saw me with Geri Allen, but he noticed I was putting out these rap records, releasing albums on Bandcamp, making music videos. He was interested in that. He was trying to understand self-releasing: Now he has his own label and releases his own music. I think he was interested in my multi-dimensionality, so we’d talk about stuff like that. I was thinking about that today, and I remembered an exact moment: I saw him at the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival years ago, and he had a beat machine on stage, but it wasn’t an avant-garde hip-hop show. At one point in the set, he just played a Supersonic, Planet Rock type beat. It might have been at the end. I realized that he framed that moment. It’s the presentation, the contextualizing approach.
If you listen to Jason’s Bandwagon album, from 2003, a live record, the band basically switches genres on each song. The only consistent thing is the voice of the trio. They go from some totally outside stuff to some European classical stuff, back outside, to “Body and Soul” and referencing a backbeat, and they end with “Planet Rock.” I think he’s dealing with a similar kind of ideology of reframing: If you listen to the beginning of the album, there’s almost a sample, like “Check this out” [laughs]. It makes it so that when you’re in the music, playing whatever you want to call it, you’re just going for it, and you’ve brought the listener through these different pathways with you. When you get there, you’re in an oasis. You’ve come out of a tunnel. That, I think, is the line that connects us. I’m not sure if that answers your question, but I think it answers a bigger one.
TJG: I think you hit it [laughs]. One aspect of TIME CAPSULE is about exploring time with someone. What is it about Jason’s time that you want to explore on stage?
KO: He has good time, and I like playing with people who have good time [laughs]. I will say, he draws his inspiration from a huge range of places. He deals with all kinds of music. Right now he’s doing a James Reese Europe thing. And he probably doesn’t know that I know this, but back in the early 2000s he sent Billy Hart a sheet of paper that listed every rapper or rap group by region, west coast, east coast, a whole hiphop lineage. His scholar brain is dealing with music that goes back to the American songbook and beyond, all the way up to now.
TJG: So you’ve got a lot of shared backstory and interests. Will there be any differences in your approach between Jon and Jason?
KO: Nope. Even though this series has its own voice, its own ideas, I’m going to try to make each performance into its own little case study. For this next one, I’ve been listening to a whole bunch of Gnawa music. It’s North African, Sufi music. The bass part has a percussion thing going on, these looped bass pattern, and there’s always a two-against-three clanging bells thing. A vocalist repeats these melodies over and over and over and over. It’s a meditation, chant kind of vibe. I’m digging into that, and I have a bunch of West African rhythmic stuff I’ve been getting under my fingertips for some years, understanding the connections. Jon came in and we had a few little sketches and built off those: I’ll do that again with Jason. I’m going to use some inspiration from ancient African sources, mainly spiritual music. I hope Jason’s with it. I think he will be. We’ll see where it goes from there.
Kassa Overall presents the second edition of Time Capsule at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, January 18, 2019. Mr. Overall, on drums, will be joined by Jason Moran on piano. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.