A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist.

At Kassa Overall’s most recent performance from his TIME CAPSULE residency, he ventured into unknown territory with pianist Kris Davis, bassist Stephan Crump, and an assortment of electronics and vocal processing gear. Stepping even further into the void, Kassa will be joined for his next performance by the inimitable Craig Taborn on piano, rhodes, and electronics. While Taborn and Overall share an affinity for exploring electronic sounds and styles, the two have no prior history of playing together. In Overall’s words, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen… I’m excited to take the journey” Read more below, starting with how Overall starts his day.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks again for making time to chat about your ongoing residency. Do your days tend get started pretty early?

Kassa Overall: It depends. I try to sleep in as long as possible, and usually try to keep all my plans to the afternoon, keeping mornings open for my most strenuous mental work and my own creative endeavors. If I’ve done my morning routine and done something important to me, like working on new music, then whatever I have to do for the rest of the day, at least I got a little bit of the heavy lifting out of the way.

TJG: So what did you have on the creative table this morning?

KO: Well, that whole previous explanation is a theory [laughs]. Today, I actually woke up really early, and I went to the practice space and practiced drums at around 7:30 A.M., so the whole thing is a little different. I just finished my morning routine, and now I’m trying to finish one of these TIME CAPSULE joints. I’m taking these recordings and making original pieces out of them. There’s a part where Sullivan Fortner goes to the organ during our first duo set, and we play a kind of improvised ballad. I chopped it up, sped it up, and made a whole piece out of it. It’s almost really good, but it still has some rough edges in terms of the arrangement and direction. It has the ingredients of something special, but it’s not done yet. I have to make some decisions.

TJG: What form is it in right now? Lead sheet? Demo?

KO: I’m making a recorded piece of art in Ableton. It’s not so much a demo, but a piece of recorded work, a new sound recording, which I’ll probably release as an official song, then find a way to play it live.

TJG: Speaking of live, how was your Blue Note show with Paul Wilson and BIGYUKI?

KO: You know? It was another step in the right direction. That was my first attempt at playing the album material live in a “correct” way. It’s a lot harder than other performances because you’re trying to recreate something that lives on the album. It’s always an internal debate as to how similar it should be to the album, and how creative we should get. This time, we went extreme with recreating the album. I automated vocal delay stuff, we had all sorts of stuff being triggered from laptops. In order for that performance to work, it had to ping pong between precision and open creativity. The Blue Note show lacked some of that open creativity. From playing these TIME CAPSULE shows at The Jazz Gallery, I’ve tapped into a new kind of spontaneous composition, and have to rely on a new type of performance approach. For the live album set, it still has to have that oceanic-waves-crashing-spontaneity, and then fall into something precise. We’re working on it.

TJG: Do you see a path forward, in terms of a type of show or band where you can do both of those approaches?

KO: Absolutely. The things that are meant to be tight need to be really tight, and we have to master them so we can play them effortlessly. There can be no preparation on stage, no “Let me pull the music up,” or “Let me load these files,” everything needs to be at our fingertips, so we can be in this field of open improvisation, and at the click of a button, drop in. More preparation will allow us to become more spontaneous and less calculated.

TJG: I was just talking to Keith Witty about the same approach.

KO: My name didn’t come up, did it? [laughs].

TJG: It did, actually! He said he had called you for a gig, and you recommended David Frazier.

KO: Yup. I recommend David Frazier all the time [laughs]. It’s funny that came up, because in the last two weeks I must have recommended David Frazier four or five times. It’s funny. There are a lot of great drummers. But I know what a lot of people are looking for… and they don’t know it, but they’re looking for David Frazier [laughs]. He’s got the pocket, he’s got everything. There are a lot of things in my own playing that I aspire to be more like David Frazier. I’m not necessarily like him at all, I have my own particular voice, which is ultimately what I want. But everything that’s not that, I’d like to be more like David Frazier [laughs].

TJG: It seems like if people are calling you, you must have some of that going on. Maybe David will start recommending you for all his gigs, and in the end you’ll just have each others’ gigs.

KO: You know, that would work. Depends on the gig [laughs].

TJG: So talk to me a little about Craig Taborn.

KO: He’s a mystery. Geri Allen was a mystery, even though I played with her for many years, and part of the reason it hurts when people like her move on is that, it’s almost like, “But wait, I had so many questions still. If I’d known you were leaving, we could have had a mystery talk, and you’d have given me all the keys.” Roy Hargrove was like that too, soft spoken, didn’t use a lot of words to say a lot. Craig is one of those cats. He’s oozing with knowledge, wisdom, inspiration. But he doesn’t waste it. In my opinion, he puts all of that into making music. He doesn’t spend a lot of time packaging the music or dealing with anything that’s not conducive to that mindset. I’ve bumped into him a few times over the years, overseas, once at the beach in Brooklyn. Each time, we’ve been congratulatory to each other, and always say “Man, we’ve got to do something together one of these days.” He’s the kind of guy where if I don’t figure out a way, I’m not gonna get that lesson. I want to get close to him, see what his process is, and try to get a little of that going in my own process.

The last time I heard him was at the Geri Allen tribute at The New School at Winter Jazz Fest. I didn’t notice at the time, but there was a video of Geri playing as an opening sequence, and Craig played along with her. Then Geri faded out and Craig kept playing. Geri had some type of science in her use of harmony. I have a limited technical knowledge, so I couldn’t tell you what it is or what she does, but it makes sense. You can feel the divine geometry. With Craig, I heard it in his playing too. It was like he spoke the exact same language. When he was playing, it was like icicles of light… I asked him about it, and he said he was freestyling, he didn’t know what Geri was playing, but that he’d studied Geri in such depth that he could slip right into it, he spoke that language too. I’m most excited about this one, in the sense that I don’t know what’s gonna happen, and we don’t have any musical history together, but I feel like I understand where he’s coming from. I’m excited to take that journey.

TJG: So what preparation have you been doing to get your ears warmed up for playing with him?

KO: I’ll be listening to some of his records over the next week. I also know that he does some electronics stuff, so I want to do a little research and see what I can dig up in terms of what he’s into when it comes to electronics. Maybe I’ll bring something in… Are we going to talk about the Kris Davis show too?

TJG: Absolutely [laughs]. That’s as good a transition as any. Tell me all about it!

KO: I know the formula now [laughs]. Did I tell you about my vocal setup with the laptop?

TJG: Yeah, we were talking about it last month when you had just rehearsed, the chromatic auto-tuning.

KO: Exactly. Man. It was cool. I’ve always had heated debates about autotune. Not even debates, but just heard people condemning it, and with it this whole section of music that they find problematic. I get it, there are things that I think are trash too. But maybe autotune isn’t what people are so mad about. Maybe it’s more about the use of it. Autotune is used in certain kinds of ways, for the most part, and they’re all connected to a specific pop sensibility. That lead me to think about what it might be like to make the autotune chromatic. You still have to be musical, you can’t just yell into the microphone and make it sound like you can sing: You still have to have a harmonic or melodic sensibility. When Kanye did “808s & Heartbreak” back in 2008, the whole album was auto-tuned. That gave him a bad rap, but he said in an interview that he recorded everything chromatic, and you still have to sing everything in tune for the notes to be right. It nullifies the concept that autotune is this simple tool. If a singer bends a note with autotune, it cracks and jumps around, you know? You hear it on Kanye’s album. He said that’s the “heartbreak,” the imperfection in a metaphorical sense. The human element.

All of that all being said, autotune is out there. That was ten years ago. It’s only a matter of time before people take tools to their virtuosic, musical limit. So when I was messing with the chromatic pitch correction with Stephan Crump and Kris Davis harmonizing with me, it was mindblowing. Taking autotune and using it with two of the most out-there harmonic ears in the game, it worked. We were hitting some weird harmonic worlds. I had a blast.

TJG: So even if autotune restricts your pitch range, it’s adding so much more emotional possibility for you.

KO: Exactly. It’s happened in a few different arenas in life. Something comes around, and it’s like boom, everyone can do this now with the push of a button, and now you have to show your personal ability. Like Stephen Curry coming on the scene, and now everyone can do it. Things change the game, but the game stays the same. You know what I mean [laughs].

Kassa Overall continues his TIME CAPSULE residency at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Mr. Overall, on drums, will be joined by Craig Taborn on piano & keyboards. 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.