Greater Good: Linda May Han Oh Speaks

In response to a cascade of cancellations from venues and festivals, artists like bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh have taken their careers online. Oh, who lives with her husband Fabian Almazan, has been producing videos and appearing in livestream events almost non-stop, both solo and as a duo with Almazan. We discussed the […]

Linda May Han Oh

Photo by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of the artist.

In response to a cascade of cancellations from venues and festivals, artists like bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh have taken their careers online. Oh, who lives with her husband Fabian Almazan, has been producing videos and appearing in livestream events almost non-stop, both solo and as a duo with Almazan. We discussed the logistics and preparation required for these musical events online, her favorite digital moments over the last few months, and her views on the current racial and social climate around the world.

The Jazz Gallery: Hi Linda, how are you? Where are you?

Linda May Han Oh: I’m in Harlem, in our apartment. Fabian and I live up on 148th Street. We’re good, you know, keeping busy… A lot of fireworks at night. We still have videos due for different people, still doing some live-stream stuff like one with Dan Tepfer this week, I am doing a video for Terri Lyne Carrington’s Big Band project too.

TJG: Do you have a soundproof-ish space?

LO: It’s generally good. Sound is a difficult thing to deal with, unless you have thousands of dollars. Before we moved in we tried a few different things. We put another layer of ceiling with Roxul insulation panels, we put insulation and another layer of plywood on the floor. We even ordered Perspex to put around the windows. We’re trying our best. It’s not easy, but we’re trying.

TJG: The two of you have been prolific, it seems, both individually and together. Livestream events, Zoom events, videos and recordings… Did this start as soon as the cancellations began, or did it take some time to realize that this is what you would be doing for the long haul?

LO: You know, it naturally happened. Seemed like the best thing to do. As soon as it all started getting cancelled, we thought, what are we going to do? How are we going to stay active? A lot of it is thanks to friends and colleagues who have stepped up. The Jazz Gallery is a great example of that, with all the Zoom hangs and great discussions, all the videos people have been making. It’s the whole community banding together. Thana Alexa, Owen Broder, Sirintip creating Live From Our Living Rooms, Anthony Tidd creating Act4Music, Dizzy’s facilitating events. The Academic Bass Council lead by Steve Bailey. It has taken some amazing people to step up and put a lot of hours into building platforms to keep people connected. I’m grateful for those people, and for Fabian too, watching him with the Biophilia live streams, it takes someone special to say “I’m going to spend hours to figure out how to get these musicians together, compile these videos, make events for people. To stay active, to keep us creating. The Jazz Coalition, Musicares, a lot of praise is owed to those people.

Fabian has been so proactive. As soon as this all went down, he was on top of it with the gear, he’s so curious and tenacious with this stuff. Trying out different things, different software, different ways to optimize the process. I feel very lucky to be his wife and to see him facilitate all of this. I’ve learned a lot of tech stuff from him too, learning how best we can do this, how to substitute a live performance and get a wide audience. We’ve been doing our best to stay connected and creative.

TJG: You listed so many different events and organizations that you’ve been musically involved with since the beginning of the pandemic. What fully digital events, for you, have been the most emotional, the most meaningful?

LO: A couple of things. The first was an Act4Music event curated by Miles Okazaki. He wanted to do a day where we would interview elders, people in the scene who have been mentor figures. I asked Kenny Barron since both Miles and I have played with him, and he has been a huge influence. I’m a huge fan. I wanted to interview him and get his perspective. For someone of his caliber, what he has seen throughout his life, I wanted to get his view on what is going on right now. It was uplifting, inspiring, he has a positive outlook. To hear stories from back in the day about how he worked on his creativity, touch, time, feel, it’s good to stay connected to that. This virus is effecting many of our elders, as well as people who are still relatively young who have done a lot in the community. It’s important to reflect and cherish those relationships, to keep them alive, and hear from some of the more veteran community. We need to maintain this community for the vitality of the music. So that was pretty uplifting.

I teach at Berklee College, primarily in the bass department but also in the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice lead by Terri Lyne Carrington. When this all went down, everyone was trying to figure out, How do we keep the students engaged? How do we stay creative and teach well? She has these gatherings every Monday, and so every Monday was just so special. She would bring in guests who normally wouldn’t be able to come to Berklee, and I think that was the upside of things being online, because we would have guests who were normally so busy they couldn’t get on a flight to Boston. The most memorable was having Angela Davis and Dr. Gina Dent. It was so special for all of the students to be able to speak to them and ask questions. I was in tears. This was in April or May, well before the George Floyd murder. Angela talked about the prison system, which needs complete reform. It would have been interesting had the talk been now, I wonder what it would have been like. But it was so powerful for these students to see. Even over Zoom, to meet someone who has made so much change throughout her life, was memorable.

We also had Wayne Shorter come in. It wouldn’t have been physically possible to get him to Berklee, so Terri and the rest of the team stepped up to organize it during the pandemic. It was possible for students to record and play for him, and they got to meet and hear from a veteran. He put things in perspective as well, in terms of the virus, how to deal with trauma, with points in your life that seem to be obstacles. We had another week with Henry Threadgill and Nicole Mitchell too. Each of these events was particularly moving.

TJG: There was the initial rush of concern about personal health and safety, and as it became clear that the virus is killing people of color at a higher rate, conversations started shifting to race. With the murder of George Floyd, so much about the current moment has become about racial disparity, but it seems like that conversation got started a lot earlier for you, in the lens of the pandemic.

LO: It’s definitely not new by any means. Compassion fatigue in the general public is a major concern, where if this stuff is in the forefront of the news then people gear up and are quite vocal about it, and then the next thing comes along and things die down. I hope that won’t be the case. I am optimistic that there will be change, and I hope there will be sustained concern, that things won’t just fade away. But it has been a powerful time, seeing people out in the streets, being vocal about things. I believe that protest works. I’d like to think some of it makes an impact. We do our best to donate to organizations that we believe are helping. But it’s unprecedented to have this in conjunction with the pandemic. Everyone should be out protesting, but minority communities are more at risk, and with the health system here being what it is…

I come from Australia where, for the most part, we have socialized universal healthcare. It is very good healthcare. It pains me to think that people are literally risking their lives to protest. But the fact that people are being careful is a good thing. You see people with masks, staying distant. It has moved things worldwide. In Australia, people have been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and there have been marches particularly pertaining to Aboriginal deaths in police custody. There was an amazing aerial shot of a BLM and Aboriginal deaths in custody protest where everyone was beautifully distanced so you could see the space between each person.

TJG: Where is Fabian from, where are you from, and do you each have family there still? Have you questioned the reality of living in New York, and thought about moving away?

LO: Yes, we have thought about it. Fabian was born in Cuba, grew up for some time in Mexico, then went to Miami, where he went to high school. I was born in Malaysia and we moved to Australia. For the moment, New York is definitely our home. Fabian has some family in Cuba, as well as Miami and Arizona, and my family is primarily in Perth and Sydney. It’s hard sometimes not to think about leaving, with Trump, with healthcare and the police system the way it is. It’s out of control. It’s unbelievable. I like to try to see different viewpoints, hear what others are saying, who have views that are not my own, but there’s so much misinformation, especially when it comes to socialized medicine. If not for the attitude of “everyone for themselves…”

In Australia, the quarantine laws are very strict. They require you to quarantine at the port of entry, and the government will pay for your hotel. It is taxpayer money, but the idea that it’s for the greater good… Even gun control, we had gun reform under one of our most conservative prime ministers. There were interviews with some rural farmers who initially were quite opposed to it who have literally said “You know, it’s for the greater good.” I wish there was a bit more of that here. I’m grateful to be living here, to be making music. I want to make this home better for us. I have a year or so before I can apply for citizenship, and before I can vote, but things need to change, it’s long overdue.

TJG: To ask a more pointed musical question: As you’ve been home a lot more, playing into your computer and camera, what have you been working on? Are you trying to keep up with the demand of the livestreams and recording, or is there something new happening in your fingers?

LO: I’m going back to fundamentals that I don’t often have time to take care of while on the road. Classical stuff, other things I’ve been revisiting. As part of the livestream process I’ve had to get more in touch with the technology, which has been great. I’ve learned a lot watching LinkedIn Learning videos, getting to know the gear, plugins, and software I have. That’s been rewarding and invigorating, and goes hand-in-hand with the streams.

I’ve also been looking more into orchestration, trying to orchestrate my own stuff for larger ensemble. As part of The Jazz Gallery Margaret Whitton Award, I have lessons with Maria Schneider and Roman Diaz. I want to have stuff prepared for Maria, some decent scores to show, so I’ve been checking out scores too. I was just checking out the Berlioz orchestration for the Schubert piece The Elf KingI find the art of orchestration really interesting, making something come alive with a larger ensemble.

TJG: It’s so good to hear that you’re keeping up with learning and exploring while also giving so much too. It’s inspiring to see those outgoing and incoming energies.

LO: I wish I had more time [laughs]. It’s funny, you would think that without touring and having to travel that you would have more time. But it ends up getting filled with things all the same. Even organizing things you have meant to organize takes time. All that extra learning, you have to fit it in.

Home Away: Miguel Zenón Speaks

Since his first gig at The Jazz Gallery in 2000, Miguel Zenón has been an integral part of the Gallery community. Countless concerts, residencies, events… He and his wife even had their baby shower here. The Jazz Gallery, says Miguel, is his home in New York. Currently in Puerto Rico, Miguel spoke with us via […]

Miguel Zenon

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Since his first gig at The Jazz Gallery in 2000, Miguel Zenón has been an integral part of the Gallery community. Countless concerts, residencies, events… He and his wife even had their baby shower here. The Jazz Gallery, says Miguel, is his home in New York. Currently in Puerto Rico, Miguel spoke with us via phone about how his life has changed since the pandemic, and got us up to speed on all of his new online projects.

The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making a little time, Miguel. How are you doing? Are the people you know healthy and safe?

Miguel Zenón: Yeah, we’re okay. I have some friends and some family members who have gotten sick at some point, my brother and his girlfriend actually work in a hospital. They got infected but made it through okay. We’ve had a few friends get it too, but nothing major. My family and I are down in Puerto Rico now, and we’re going to spend the rest of the summer here.

TJG: Walk me back to February, when things started to change. Were you in New York at the time?

MZ: I was on tour. The first cases surfaced in the Seattle area, and I was in Seattle that day, which is how I know [laughs]. We were flying around on the west coast, from San Diego or some place. At first we thought it would be fine, similar to SARS or other big scares like that at the beginning. I teach at Manhattan School and NEC, so I went back home, kept doing my thing, checking in with people, making sure everything was okay. At a certain point, it all shut down. In early March I was playing at Birdland with a student band put together by Berklee College of Music. We were supposed to go to Boston after the Birdland gig, but then the school cancelled the concert and told me that things were about to shut down. Everything started closing. Gigs, schools, everything in the states, overseas. It became obvious that this was a different situation.

TJG: So by that point you were back at your place in New York?

MZ: Yeah, and I didn’t travel again. I might have gone to Boston once to teach at NEC before they closed. But then it was all shut down. The red flag, for me, was seeing how far in advance things were getting cancelled. It was early March and all the summer festivals started cancelling. It was obvious that this is going to last awhile.

TJG: What were some major dates that were cancelled? I know you had a Vanguard lineup.

MZ: A lot, a lot, a lot… All in all, I probably lost $40,000 in cancellations. Everything from international gigs, things with my own band, gigs with other people, pretty much everything. It’s going to be the whole year. It’s a lot.

TJG: With all the cancellations coming in, how did you proceed? Did you just watch the emails flow?

MZ: Pretty much. I checked in with people right away. This is such an unprecedented thing. Most venues didn’t know how to deal with it. A lot of times, if something gets cancelled, you’ll get part of the fee, but this situation has never happened in our lifetimes.

TJG: You mentioned you lost about $40k, does that put you and your family in a tough spot? Have you been able to apply for different grants?

MZ: Of course, we’re in a tough spot. But I have some teaching gigs which kept going remotely. Because of that, I was able to keep that income. Also, I’m an artist-in-residence at the Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University. That was set in stone, and I can do that remotely too. Between those three gigs, I was able to stay above water. And because I was traveling a lot less, I was saving a lot more money. So I was able to balance things out. But there are many musicians who live exclusively off gigs, and those musicians are having a really rough time. Everything got cancelled. If you just live off gigs, you don’t have a lot of options.

TJG: Tell me a little more about the Zuckerman institute.

MZ: That came about last year—I had done stuff at Columbia University before with Chris Washburne, trombonist and great historian/musicologist. He approached me about this opportunity. They bring in a few artists from different branches, like a visual artist, a writer, and a jazz musician. Last year it was pianist Helen Sung. So they reached out to me. The person who got in touch was Michael Shadlen, one of the top neurologists in the world, and a jazz guitarist on the side. He reached out, we met, it seemed amazing. And in retrospect, this saved me, because I had that buffer.

TJG: What do you do with the institute? I noticed a playlist that you put out, what else does your engagement entail?

MZ: I can’t be there in person now, but they set up an office for me, and the idea was that I’d go there and work, do what I do, write music. I’d meet with people, talk to them about things that may have to do with how our brain works, what things effect how we hear and play music, how we perform. I’d been doing that earlier in the year, and planned to have some concerts, some idea exchanges, listening parties. Because I have to do things remotely now, I decided to put together a playlist every week and share it, and have been helping put together online listening parties. I had this event with some of the postdocs, an exercise on rhythm–a lot of the people in the institute are, not surprisingly, musicians or people with musical training. They’re familiar with musical terms. So we do clapping things, explore where the beat is, talk about why we hear things in certain ways, do dance parties and think about how our bodies react to rhythm, those kinds of things.

TJG: That sounds like a lot of fun, and it’s putting you in touch with some great people too.

MZ: Exactly. Also, the residency was supposed to be for this year–it started in January–but because of this situation they extended it to next summer. If things go back to some kind of normalcy, I’ll go back in and work there.

TJG: I saw Elvin, Confirmed with Dan Weiss on Bandcamp. Did you record that in your own spaces?

MZ: Yeah, that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to do more, like a lot of other musicians. Collaborating with people from a distance. Before that, I wasn’t really familiar with doing that myself, I didn’t know how to use Logic or anything. But I said “Listen, I have all this time now, this is the time to do it.” I started learning, little by little. Dan is one of those guys who’s always studying. He came up with this exercise based on an Elvin Jones record that mutates through different triplets, and he thought of me while he was playing it. I thought if I could write a melody that goes along to it, we could record things on our own and combine them. So that’s what we did. We created a guide track that we both played to. The process itself was great, so great that I’m planning to do more. I’m working on doing one now with Paoli Mejias, he’s from Puerto Rico and his main gig is with Carlos Santana. He’s an amazing percussionist, we’ve been collaborating for years. He’s always doing his own recordings, layering things, so I’m working on something with him now.

TJG: I saw you also did a livestream concert with Dan Tepfer, right? I just interviewed him as well, he was telling me about the whole setup. How did it go for you?

MZ: It was awesome. We’ve played a bunch as a duo over the years, and made a record which was supposed to come out now, but we’re holding onto it for obvious reasons. You know what he’s about–he can do a lot of things really well [laughs]. Initially he reached out about doing something with NPR, they were doing a piece on his music and use of technology. I didn’t have the time for that, but I said “If you ever want to collaborate on something that we can put online, we can bring in an audience and have people donate.” He set it up because he’d already been doing that on his own. He probably told you about the software, JackTrip, which is pretty great. Spending so much of my time doing live things on Zoom and working with those limitations, to play in real time with Dan was amazing. We were really playing, like playing for real.

TJG: Another thing I saw was this great conversation you did with Juan Sanchez.

MZ: That’s something I started doing recently, like many people. It’s amazing how this idea of being far away has awakened our need to be in touch with each other, to talk with each other, that kind of thing. I’ve been doing stuff with this theater downtown in the Bowery/Lower East Side, Teatro LATEA. They’re big in the Puerto Rican community. I basically curate a series of concerts for young jazz musicians so they can bring their bands. We also do events around MLK’s birthday every year. I proposed doing some online interviews, and Juan has a relationship with the theater too, so his was one of the first names that came up. With these conversations, they’re usually very biographical. I wanted these interviews to be about current things, and I wanted people to share music and art, not just talk. The one with Juan went great, I’m planning on doing some more. The next one is set up with David Sanchez, who is also from Puerto Rico.

TJG: In your conversation with Juan Sanchez, there was a great moment where he was saying his father had a second-grade education, his mother had a sixth-grade education, and they still encouraged him to go forward into the world of arts, they saw his talent.

MZ: One of the interesting things about these conversations is that you realize how everyone has a very specific way they got into artistic expression. Some people grew up with art around them, with others it’s totally the opposite, their parents supported them, or they didn’t and they rebelled, it’s so interesting.

TJG: Speaking of music, I’ve been really enjoying Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera. It’s a great album, light and cohesive, and it’s been fun listening to the music of your upbringing in Puerto Rico. Now that you’re living in San Juan for the summer, how does it feel being back?

MZ: It always feels nice. We come here often, my wife is from here too, most of our family is here. We come twice, three times a year. It always feels like home. I’ve been in New York since 1998 and I lived in Boston before that, so I’ve lived in the states way longer than where I lived in Puerto Rico growing up, I left at 19. New York is my home, my center. But coming here, it feels like reconnecting to my roots. I’m looking out into the backyard right now, looking at the way trees are here, the way grass looks, the way the weather feels, it’s all very familiar. Even though I only return several times a year, it never feels alien.

TJG: You mentioned that you moved to New York in 1998. At what point did The Jazz Gallery become an important part of your life?

MZ: Wow… So, I moved to New York to get a masters at Manhattan School, and around then I started writing some music. I had friends who would get together to try new music out. Many of those friends are in my band today. When I had enough music written, I said, “I guess I should try to get a gig.”

Yosvany Terry was really good friends with Dale Fitzgerald, and they were starting to do this Jazz Cubano series. I remember going to see him a couple of times, we had gotten close, and he said he would talk to Dale about me bringing a group to the Gallery. I talked to Dale on the phone. He was very proper, asked what my music was like, asked about my vision, he was very specific. But he gave me a gig. That was probably in 2000. It was pretty much my first gig as a leader, anywhere. Since then, as I’m sure you know, I’ve played there for years. I had my baby shower there. We were going there so much that at one point, my wife was like “Let’s just bring a mattress and put it in the dressing room.” I was there four or five times a week, it was my home in New York. It’s been a long relationship.

One thing about the Gallery, and I’m sure you’ve heard this from other people… Because of the type of place it is, the way they do things, Dale and Rio, everyone who now works there, their mentality is always about the music. Music and musicians. It’s obvious when you see what they’re doing now during this crisis. They’re setting up platforms for musicians to make a little money, to interact with fans. That’s not something everyone is doing. It’s pretty unique. The fact that they think about music first not only speaks to their character: They have really good taste in music too. I’m not just saying that because they hire me. You can see it in terms of the quality of what they have. It’s not about selling tickets, which is what you see in most places. You see good shows other places too, but they’re also trying to move product. At the Gallery, they’re specific about what they like, serious about giving young musicians opportunities to come up and play, and they don’t do it as a matter of fact. They’re selective. Because they’ve been an important platform over the years, there are generations of musicians who can call that place home.

Live from The Jazz Gallery: Joel Ross Speaks

Despite the pandemic performance freeze, vibraphonist Joel Ross has been able to forge a path forward with friends and community. Recently, Ross received a commission from the Jazz Coalition supporting his continued writing and playing, even while in lockdown. Ross is an integral member of The Jazz Gallery community, having been commissioned and featured on-stage […]

Joel Ross

Photo by Lauren Desberg, courtesy of the artist.

Despite the pandemic performance freeze, vibraphonist Joel Ross has been able to forge a path forward with friends and community. Recently, Ross received a commission from the Jazz Coalition supporting his continued writing and playing, even while in lockdown.

Ross is an integral member of The Jazz Gallery community, having been commissioned and featured on-stage and in the blog many times. He spoke with us via phone in anticipation of a big event: The first livestream trio concert from the Gallery stage, which takes place tonight featuring drummer Jeremy Dutton and bassist Or Baraket.

The Jazz Gallery: Hey Joel, where are you living right now?

Joel Ross: I’m in Brooklyn, I’ve stayed here this whole time, from the start. I live with two other musicians, but they both left. My girlfriend Gabrielle Garo and her family live about ten minutes from me, so I’ve been staying back and forth between their place and mine.

TJG: I’m sure you miss your roommates, but it’s nice that you have some space.

JR: Exactly [laughs]. It’s been nice playing with Gabrielle, and being close with her and her family. It would have been a lot worse if I were alone.

TJG: Tell me a little about how things have been for you. Take me back to February, when things started to look shaky.

JR: My band Good Vibes was finishing an east coast tour, and in the last week of February I was in Slovenia at the Creative Jazz Clinic Velenje camp with Jure Pukl. The first week of March we went on tour, and when we got back I was supposed to have some gigs around the 13th, 14th and 15th. That was when Europe started to get crazy with the virus. My last gig was on the 10th–I was a guest with the Brubeck Institute, one of my alma maters–and after that, some of our gigs got cancelled. One was supposed to be in LA, where my girlfriend was recording. I still went out there, thinking I could just chill with her, and we were planning to spend a week there, but around the 17th, LA completely shut down. We saw that New York was about to shut down. So we hurried up and flew back, and have been quarantining in Brooklyn ever since.

Like I was saying, it’s nice to have another musician to play music with. Before this, we were so busy. I was always on the road, she was finishing her masters, and now this is a dedicated time for us to play with each other, work out some ideas. We’ve been recording some things, duet videos for some commissions, it’s been nice in that regard.

TJG: Did you have things on the schedule for these and upcoming months that you were looking forward to?

JR: [Laughs]… Oh, yes. In March, I was supposed to go to Spain, and Good Vibes was supposed to go to Africa, to Cape Town for the jazz festival. I was sad to see that one not happen. There were some other gigs cancelled, another tour cancelled… I was supposed to go back to Chicago for a few days for a gig with Vijay Iyer. Some recording projects were cancelled too.

TJG: But you’ve been able to fill the time with meaningful stuff?

JR: I’ve kept writing. These types of situation don’t change my need to keep writing and creating. In general I’m able to keep a good attitude about things, and it hasn’t altered my ability to put out music. I’ve written a good amount of music and arranged some things. I got a commission grant from the Jazz Coalition, and a lot of the music I’ve been working on has gone toward that. It’s been good to get things done and have something to work towards.

I did another project through the Gabriela Lena Frank Academy where a classical composer wrote a piece for vibraphone–I’m using it as a challenge, since I don’t usually like to do four-mallet stuff. I talked with the composer and told him I could do three mallets, and he was cool with it, so it’s been a good opportunity to do three mallet with my right hand instead of my left, which I usually do.

TJG: Would you say your last major work was ‘The Beauty Of: Being A Young Black Man’?

JR: More recently, last May, I did another commission with Roulette, the venue in Brooklyn. I did a large ensemble suite called Revelation, it wasn’t a small gig, but it was a little under the radar. That was the last big composition I did. It’s nice to have another commission to work on now.

TJG: What are you looking at with this latest commission?

JR: The stipulation for the Jazz Coalition is anything related to the pandemic, any feelings I might be experiencing about it, any type of music that might be getting me through. For me, it’s been all about keeping hope. I’m calling it Praise In The Midst Of The Storm. A lot of the music has this old gospel-type vibe, a sound I grew up with, so I’m working with that.

TJG: How are you keeping your head up now? This is a rough time.

JR: Being here with my lady and her family is a huge part of it. Having a place to go, spending time with other people… Things like this don’t get at me too bad. I don’t let too many outside things affect my inner peace. I’m still able to keep in contact with friends. I still go outside and see people from a social distance. I still play, I still talk with my family. I try to keep a good attitude.

TJG: Have you been participating in any protests, or steering clear?

JR: I haven’t gone out. As much as I feel for it, I wouldn’t want to risk bringing anything back to the family here. Trying to do what I can online, with the Gallery, we shared the commission with hopes of bringing donations to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, doing what I can from where I’m at.

TJG: Tell me a little more about you and The Jazz Gallery over the years.

JR: Oh, it’s been a long one, I feel like. [Laughs] I haven’t even been in New York that long. When I moved to New York in 2015, I was close with pianist James Francies, who was living with Aaron Parks, so when I came to New York I would spend a lot of time at their crib. At the time, Aaron was doing the Mentoring Series, and James convinced him to work with me. That was cool because Aaron and I already kind of knew each other from that hang, getting to know each other musically and personally. We decided to play a lot of other peoples’ music, instead of originals.

Rio has always given me a lot of opportunities to try different things and present different groups. She’s been a huge advocate for my career. I love that place. I love her, I love everyone who works there. I love the vision. Rio is always looking for new young talent, giving people space to experiment and try new things, it’s so open. I see a lot of my peers, a lot of people I look up to, people who gave me a chance to play with them, it’s always a hang. It’s one of my favorite places, I’ve developed a close relationship with the venue. It’s dear to my heart.

TJG: And that has continued, through that pandemic? You still keep in touch with Rio?

JR: She’s pretty much become a mentor to me. We always talk about ideas for the Gallery, and she’ll give me pointers on now to look at things from a business standpoint. She comes to me with ideas about events like The Lockdown Series, the Happy Hours, these livestream concerts, she shares opportunities with me and includes me in a lot of her thinking so I can get an idea as to how things work.

TJG: Do you have a sense of how things will go tomorrow with Or Baraket and Jeremy Dutton?

JR: Jeremy Dutton is a founding member of the Good Vibes group. The usual bass player is Kanoa Mendenhall, but when she can’t do it, Or is the guy. Jeremy is usually in Houston but he came to town to play with Vijay for a livestream at the Vanguard. It just so happened that he was going to stay in town, so I asked if he could do it. These cats know the music very well, so we don’t have to prepare much. I’m just looking forward to playing with a group after three, four months. I’m looking at keeping it chill. Getting back into playing, it’s been a while and might be another while. It’s going to be great. Some originals, some standards, some arrangements. I’m impulsive. I don’t know what’ll happen until we get there.

The Joel Ross Trio plays a livestreamed set from The Jazz Gallery on June 25, 2020. The group features Mr. Ross on vibraphone, Or Baraket on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. The set is at 8 P.M. EST. $10 admission (FREE for members). Purchase tickets here.

A Different Form: Nick Dunston Speaks

We here at Jazz Speaks chat with Nick Dunston a lot, whether it is the occasion of an album release, group show, or just to catch up between gigs. Our recent conversation found Dunston in a very different space. As COVID is transforming the music industry around us, Dunston is in North Carolina, reflecting on […]

Photo courtesy of the artist.

We here at Jazz Speaks chat with Nick Dunston a lot, whether it is the occasion of an album release, group show, or just to catch up between gigs. Our recent conversation found Dunston in a very different space. As COVID is transforming the music industry around us, Dunston is in North Carolina, reflecting on the New York scene as it once was.

The Jazz Gallery: I was about to ask “How are you,” but that seems like an overwhelming question these days. Let’s start with “Where are you.”

Nick Dunston: I am at my mom’s house in Carrboro, North Carolina. I’ve been here since March 17th.

TJG: Did you go there directly from New York?

ND: Yeah, I did, but that wasn’t the original plan. I was initially going to fly to Berlin to be with my partner. I was on the plane—a direct flight from Newark—and they did the whole beginning part of a flight, the safety video and all of that. Then, they received a message from Germany banning non-EU citizens or residents. So I had to get off the plane. I immediately booked a ticket to North Carolina, and have been here ever since.

TJG: Wow… wow.

ND: Yeah.

TJG: How many other people got pulled off that flight?

ND: It ended up being just me and one other American. A third person almost got pulled, but she was connecting to Albania via Germany so she could stay.

TJG: Madness.

ND: It was crazy.

TJG: You must have been scared…

ND: Scared?

TJG: Angry? Confused?

ND: A little bit of everything. It was a devastating moment. That’s how things are now. We deal the best we can, and be gentle with ourselves about it, ideally.

TJG: So, when you left that flight, what did you have with you? Had you packed to be in Berlin for months?

ND: Yeah. I hate overpacking in general, I usually don’t even check bags. This time, I brought a few weeks of clothes, my computer, a couple of books. When I got here, I was asking around to see if there was anyone I could borrow or rent a bass from, and luckily, Lowell Ringell, who lives back and forth between here and Miami, had another bass he said I could borrow indefinitely. That has been really nice to have around.

TJG: That’s huge. I saw that you just posted some improvisations on Bandcamp. Was that recorded with Lowell’s bass?

ND: Yeah, just that bass, recorded on a Tascam field recorder.

TJG: You’ve been pretty active on instagram and facebook. I know this stuff isn’t great for one’s mental health, all the live-streaming and staring at screens. How are you navigating it?

ND: At first, I did a few live-stream series type of things. I wanted to see what it was like, see if it could facilitate any kind of meaningful interaction with an “audience,” and stimulate some of what we’re missing from live performance. For me, it has not been doing either of those things. It’s a stress-inducing unsatisfactory alternative that doesn’t give me the kind of connection or sense of ritual or purpose that I get from performing. What it does give me is unnecessary stress about sound quality. For me, it’s not working out. Some people have really taken it by storm, it works for them, and that’s great. I would rather sit in the feeling of missing performance, and see where that takes me, instead of trying to frantically find a substitute to give the illusion of normalcy. It would be different if I had someone else to perform with, but I’m the only musician in my house, so it’s not for me.

TJG: Who else is there with you?

ND: My mom and her wife.

TJG: Do you have the space to practice, improvise, and explore?

ND: I do. I’m very happy, and am so fortunate to be here, in a house, with rooms, not just a room, like in New York [laughs]. I have the space to make music when I want to or need to. That’s an enormous gift. The key thing there is “when I need to or want to.” This entire quarantine, I’ve been trying to avoid the ridiculous feeling that this is some sort of artist residency. Some kind of vacation. A gap in time where if we don’t get our shit together, we’re somehow failing ourselves. This is a global emergency. The most important thing we can do for ourselves is rest, be gentle, and kind. If making music or being productive is in direct service of that, then great.

I just think now is not the time to be fixated on the “grind” or “hustle” mentality. Having spent my life in New York, that’s been the predominating narrative of the music economy, in a way. We should now take the time and space we need to get in touch with our emotions, reflect, mourn what we’ve lost. Our collective health is a priority. Ultimately, that is the best thing we can do for our creativity.

TJG: I’ve interviewed half a dozen people since the beginning of the pandemic, and thankfully I’m hearing a lot of that sentiment. Most people are sitting, taking it all in, being kind. It’s beautiful to hear.

ND: That’s a pleasant surprise, and very uplifting.

TJG: Yeah, I know. Even people who are intensely trying to maintain the “grind” mentality, like Melissa Aldana and Dan Tepfer, it holds them together, helps build a framework for their days. Nobody’s trying to get a leg up on the competition.

ND: Exactly, it’s a time where we have to do what we need to stay alive, healthy and sane. It’s not about everyone conforming to one method of survival. Being out of that stream of energy in New York for the last few months, I’m realizing that all of this energy I was putting into my work, my life, my career, was going straight toward survival. I’m thankful for what my musical life has been, but I feel like I’m always on the edge of burning myself out, and for what? To be able to stay there? Obviously, there is so much creative energy, so much inspiration in that environment. But we don’t get a chance to see what it’s like when we’re doing exactly what is best for ourselves without the insane economic pressure.

TJG: By contrast, you’re there, at home, taking it slower. What would the last couple of months and next few months have looked like for you?

ND: Oof. I had a lot on my plate. A lot. I’m still in school, which is wrapping up now. I was going to be doing all of my classes, working on a thesis, all of that. I had two gigs as a leader with two separate new projects. I had a few mini-tours, a few one-offs around the country. Oh gosh, it’s all rushing in now. Summer, I would be in Europe for most of the time, doing festivals, hanging out with my partner. I had a teaching gig in the Redwoods. Within the span of a week, it all trickled away.

TJG: What was that “trickling away” feeling like?

ND: A constant oscillation of despair and relief. The financial instability is devastating. I am very much feeling it. I get worried, panicked if I think about it too much. But when the sense of choice is taken away, when the neutralizing effect is put into place, it makes it easier to accept what I can’t control. It’s out of my control. I don’t feel the same kind of despair as I would have when, for example, a big gig would get cancelled and I’d have to scramble to make up the funds. I think I’m finally settling into a sense of acceptance. And in light of that acceptance, I can begin to imagine new possibilities for how I want my life to be. That is empowering. But for me, it has required acceptance, and mourning, of what is lost.

TJG: I know The Jazz Gallery is a big part of your New York life. As the 25th Anniversary approaches, what are your thoughts on The Gallery these days?

ND: The Jazz Gallery for me, right now, is doing what it always does. It allows us to be active agents of the New York scene. It creates new spaces. It is a constant, non-stop effort in facilitating community. The Jazz Gallery is a space that creates more space. Social space, space for young artists to try stuff out in a professional setting. Now, it’s taking a different form. Whether a Zoom hang or performance, online dialogue, or an interview like this, it’s the same energy. It’s still present.

TJG: Have you been participating in any of the online events?

ND: I’ve watched a couple of shows. I haven’t done the dance parties. Every day is its own adventure, and there are days where I feel the need to reach out to lots of people, to check in. But most days, it’s hard for me to be social. Yes, some of us are experiencing similar phenomena right now. We’re missing common things, we long for things. But the pandemic has accentuated social disparities and inequalities. Ultimately, people are dying, and at disproportionate rates. Poor people are dying more. Black people are dying more. Democrats are dying more, and blue states are being given less aid. That stuff takes up so much headspace, and not in an abstract way. I have immunocompromised people in my family and have been dealing with family health issues. When I have the energy to be creative and social, I acknowledge it and am thankful it. But honestly, I’m just trying to take it easy. I’m glad the online platforms exist, but take them as you need them.

Live in Place: Dan Tepfer Speaks

Adaptable and tech-savvy, pianist Dan Tepfer has been working to meet the logistical challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic head-on. In a recent interview, we asked Tepfer when he began working on projects to fill the void of lost tours and gigs. He answered: “Immediately.” His projects are swiftly gaining momentum, as Tepfer was featured […]

Dan Tepfer

Photo by Josh Goleman, courtesy of the artist.

Adaptable and tech-savvy, pianist Dan Tepfer has been working to meet the logistical challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic head-on. In a recent interview, we asked Tepfer when he began working on projects to fill the void of lost tours and gigs. He answered: “Immediately.” His projects are swiftly gaining momentum, as Tepfer was featured in a The New York Times article published just days ago.

One of Tepfer’s longstanding friends and collaborators, the incomparable Lee Konitz, succumbed to COVID-19 at the age of 92. Speaking about Konitz, Tepfer notes that “I’m so inspired by the bar Lee set for truth and authenticity. I try to bring that into everything I do. I try not to compromise on that.” We spoke with Tepfer on the phone about his work with Konitz, his newest projects, and the development of his regular Monday live stream from Brooklyn. 

The Jazz Gallery: How has New York been for you?

Dan Tepfer: Life goes on. I’m lucky to live on Prospect Park, which so far has been—especially at off hours—easy and safe to enter. It’s not very crowded. That has been a total game changer in terms of my psychic well-being. 

TJG: Do you have favorite places in the park that you like to go?

DT: Many. I’ve lived on the park since 2006, so I know it well. Every time I go to the park, I have to walk by the Audubon Center, the boathouse in the middle on the east side. It’s so beautiful, especially at night. It has these lights lined up in front that reflect in the little lake, it’s beautiful. It feels like you’re in a different world where everything’s at peace. 

TJG: Have you been doing a lot of late night walking to keep away from the crowds? 

DT: I’ve been trying to keep it to off hours, yeah.

TJG: That’s good. The park seems like a real life-saver. I interviewed Alexis Cuadrado, who also lives on the park, and he said his family goes down every morning and plays a tag game they invented called “Corona,” where one of them is the virus and chases the others around. 

DT: Hah! That’s so dark [laughs].

TJG: Yeah, and another is the “respirator,” so if you get tagged, the ventilator person has to run over and resuscitate you. 

DT: Wow. Amazing.

TJG: Well, I was so sorry to hear about Lee Konitz passing away. One of my favorite shows I ever saw in NYC was you and Lee at The Jazz Gallery. 

DT: Thanks, man. 

TJG: How did that go down? How did you hear about it? I’m sure it was painful not to be there. 

DT: It was painful. I heard about it shortly after it happened because I got to be quite close with his family. They had been keeping me posted… You know, it’s tough, but at the same time, we take a step back, and just think about what an incredibly full, vibrant life Lee lead. You can’t ask for a lot more. The tragic thing is that he had to die alone–though I do think his son Josh was able to be with him at the end–and he spent most of the time before that alone, since they’re isolating people in the hospital. That’s really sad. It was the last two weeks of his life. I saw him March 6th, had a really good visit with him at his house. He was doing well. Can’t ask for more than that. Ninety-two-and-a-half full, creative, rich years… It’s pretty amazing.

TJG: Of course, everyone has lost the ability to play with others in person, but not a lot of people have lost collaborators and creative partners. Has it left a gap? 

DT: It had been quite some time since I had been playing a lot with Lee, since I have my own projects that are very active. But Lee was a dear friend of mine. He was like family, like a grandfather to me. It’s a big loss. But again, he was ninety-two-and-a-half, and we celebrate how lucky he was to live such a great life. 

TJG: I’ve really been enjoying watching your live streams. They’re usually at 2 P.M., so I always watch them at lunch time. There are a lot of folks out there who are struggling with finding a way to get themselves online, to get the livestream thing to feel fulfilling. It seems like you’ve hit quite a stride! Tell me a little about how you’ve arrived at the livestreams you’ve been doing. 

DT: Well, it’s taken me completely by surprise how much fun I’ve been having with them. It seems to really have compensated, to a surprising extent, for the lack of live performance in my life. I’m a performance junkie: My whole life, I’ve loved getting onstage and playing for people. When there are periods of my life when I don’t have gigs for a while, it really messes with me. I love it. I need it. It’s surprising how much the live-stream has felt similar to that. It feels like a genuine connection with an audience. It has that element of danger–since it is live–which is so important in that feeling of performance. 

I’d never done a live stream before April 6th, when an online festival asked me to participate. I had never done a live stream in my life, but I’m a tech-oriented person, so I was able to set it up pretty easily. I had already invested in a couple of 4K cameras when I was working on my Natural Machines record, which I filmed myself, and I’ve actually been recording my own records since 2011 with my own equipment, so I have good audio gear. On my first live stream on April 6th, I was amazed at what a good time I had. It was really something. I thought, “I just have to do this again,” and weekly felt like a good idea. There have been challenges along the way. I’ve had a few streams with technical issues. But generally speaking, I’ve been amazed at how generous the viewers have been with those issues, and have been touched by the feedback I’m getting. It seems that doing this is having a positive impact on peoples’ lives, which is all I can hope for at this point, as I, like many of us, feel so powerless right now. 

TJG: We, the public, gets to see you for about an hour in the afternoon during the stream. Tell me about the preparation that goes into putting it together. Musically, technically, emotionally. 

DT: Honestly, very little. I’m really an improviser. That’s why I got along so well with Lee Konitz. He was a spontaneous person, and so am I. So, I do basically no planning for the concept of the show. I might have a bit of an idea, but I don’t rehearse. Even the show I dedicated to Lee, which I did on April 20th, right after he died, I hadn’t decided that it would be devoted to Lee until I started. When it started, it felt like what I had to talk about, what I had to play about.

That’s something that’s taken me by surprise about this format. I often have to be a perfectionist in my work, and it can block me from expressing myself spontaneously and authentically. That’s why improvisation is so precious to me. In improvisation, you don’t get to second-guess yourself. What happens happens, it’s very liberating. In the past, when I post online, it’s usually a video where I can do ten takes if I want to. The beauty of the live stream is that I can circumvent my perfectionism. I’m just live, in front of the camera. There’s authenticity. It’s improvisational. The live stream has changed being online for me, from perfectionistic to open and free. 

TJG: So to your peers who feel like they wish they could be performing, but are hesitant about doing a live stream, what might you say to them?

DT: Just go for it. I have a number of friends who have been asking me how to do it. It is worth taking some time to get the best sound you can. Good sound really makes a difference. Your phone microphone won’t have the same ability to communicate to an audience, but the video from your phone camera is fine. I encourage people to work that out. If you have a Zoom recorder laying around the house, connect that to your computer and use it as a real-time sound input device. There are various microphones you can get that will connect to your phone via lightning cable. If you’re like me, you have some recording gear around the house, and you can use that. I think it’s really worth figuring it out. Aside from that, especially for us jazz musicians, just dive in and try it. 

TJG: That’s great advice. I think a lot of people will be inspired by it! So… I’ve checked out your performance calendar. Like everyone else, your schedule is blank. Give me a rundown on what you would have been doing for the next few months, and what your plans are now.

DT: Sure. Let’s look at right now. I would have just come from playing a solo concert of my Goldberg Variations project in Indianapolis, which is actually one of my few gigs that got maintained. The presenter, the American Pianists Association, were able to still pay me my fee, and decided to have the concert as a live stream, which was a godsend. It was amazing. They promoted the stream so it got over 60,000 views. Obviously not every presenter can do that. They’re an institution with an endowment and a great relationship with their patrons. But I hope the ones that have the ability can do that, because it’s a great way to support their artists. 

Anyway. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I would have played at The Gilmore in Kalamazoo, Michigan with my trio featuring Shawn Conley and Jochen Rueckert. We were going to do a mix of my own compositions and my arrangement of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella for trio. Tomorrow, I was supposed to play at Bargemusic in Brooklyn, where I was going to do Inventions/Reinventions, where I play Bach’s inventions, then create free-improvised inventions of my own for the missing keys. The 9th and 10th, I would have played at Bargemusic with the string quartet Semplice Players playing a Mozart piano concerto, as well as the New York premiere of my piano quintet, Solar Spiral. 

TJG: Wow. Would this pace have basically gone through the summer?

DT: It comes in waves. This happened to have been a busy week! On the 14th I would have played a solo concert and given a workshop in Prague, a week from today. On the 20th I would have played duo with French pianist Jean-François Zygel in Paris. In early June I was supposed to be on tour in Australia, playing the Melbourne Jazz Festival June 2nd-4th, doing my Natural Machines program in the Melbourne Planetarium. On the 6th I would be playing solo in Sydney. The 7th would have been duo in Brisbane with Kristin Berardi… On the 12th would have been a big solo concert in Lille, France: Luckily, they’re doing a live stream version of that one too. Now, none of that stuff is happening [laughs]. 

TJG: When in your life have you faced a sudden freeze like this? 

DT: Never. It’s never happened to me. The closest thing I can think of is that in my early days in New York, I had a gig as a sideman for a long tour, and the whole thing got cancelled. That was two weeks of unexpectedly not working. But this is months. Months of cancellations. 

TJG: I know you like to think big. Have you begun concocting any project ideas that will begin to fill that space, which you can do from home? 

DT: I started one immediately. March 18th, I was going crazy, I needed to do something. I started recording my #BachUpsideDown project, posting videos almost every day. That takes a huge amount of time, and I would not have been able to do it if I was touring. No way. It’s a project where I play pieces by Bach, then get my computer to do a real-time inversion of it. I want to finish that project; I have done the first half already. I want to start back up on the second half soon. 

The other project is these live streams. I intend to keep those going for as long as this is happening. I want the live stream to be more collaborative, because I’ve figured out how to play with other players who live geographically close to me in real-time with a low enough latency that you can really improvise together. I posted an example of playing Solar with Jorge Roeder. 

I have some albums that are ready to come out, too. I have a VR version of Natural Machines that I want to publish as an app. I also have a duo record with Miguel Zenón that’s done. I want to put that out soon. We have to think about how to do that, exactly, and whether we’ll delay it. When things start to open up a little bit more, I want to record the Stravinsky project, the arrangement of Pulcinella with the trio. 

With this time, I want to keep developing. I’m so lucky to have a Disklavier piano at home, so I can keep working with my Natural Machines project. A few live-streams ago, the one I dedicated to Lee Konitz, I stayed up all night before, coding this visualization that allows me to make music using the orbits of planetary systems. I have tons of other ideas for those projects. I want to keep developing those. The live stream allows me to have deadlines, and keep sharing with the world. 

TJG: You have a lot of great stuff on the horizon. 

DT: I want to make the most of the situation. I feel super privileged. I have what I need at home. I can do a lot alone as a pianist. I happen to be tech-oriented and that makes it natural for me to figure out things like low-latency duo playing. I don’t have a family, I don’t have children: My friends who have kids are in quite a different situation. So, I want to honor the fact that I am able to make quite a bit of music right now by making it, and sharing it.

Dialogues on Race: Gregg August Speaks

The release of Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race feels darkly relevant: The unsightly realities of how Covid-19 is disproportionately damaging black and brown communities is yet another reminder that America’s institutional inequities have daily and deadly consequences. Using the platform of his 2009 Jazz Gallery commission, bassist and composer Gregg August grapples with hard realities […]

Gregg August

Photo by John Marolakos, courtesy of the artist.

The release of Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race feels darkly relevant: The unsightly realities of how Covid-19 is disproportionately damaging black and brown communities is yet another reminder that America’s institutional inequities have daily and deadly consequences. Using the platform of his 2009 Jazz Gallery commission, bassist and composer Gregg August grapples with hard realities through Dialogues on Race, an album and series of beautiful videos using source material from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Marilyn Nelson, and Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till. Though the album release show at The Jazz Gallery was postponed due to Covid-19, we spoke with August via phone to discuss the new reality.

The Jazz Gallery: Hey Gregg. Are you still in New York City?

Gregg August: I live in Brooklyn, but I’m actually at a second place that my lady and I bought a few years ago up in Massachusetts. We’ve been safely out of New York for about a month now. My place in New York is tight. I have four basses, a piano and drums, and couldn’t think about moving within New York, because of the real estate market. It’s impossible to afford a new place to rent, forget about buying anything. So, we bought this old Victorian house in the Berkshires in a city called North Adams. There’s a great museum here, MASSMoCA, where I do a residency every summer with Bang On A Can. I’ve grown fond of the area, so we bought a place. Right now, it’s saving us.

TJG: Is it big enough for you to at least not feel claustrophobic?

GA: Oh yeah, it’s an old Victorian duplex. We usually rent the units, but nobody’s renting right now. So we’re here, just figuring everything out. I’m just beginning to get my studio functional, trying to organize things. It’s not easy. I’m sure we’ll talk about… reality [laughs].

TJG: Are you in a headspace to jump in and talk reality?

GA:  I’ll do my best, but things feel distant. The record isn’t where my head is right now.

TJG: Let’s start simple. Can you give me a run down of what you would have been doing during this time?

GA: Well, we had the record release for Dialogues on Race planned for May 29th. We had a gig that revolved around this release at The Jazz Gallery, scheduled for April 10th, which obviously was cancelled. The Jazz Gallery commissioned this piece ten years ago. When the recording was finally finished, Rio was nice enough to suggest that we do the release at the Gallery. Of course it’s all been postponed indefinitely. The CDs were in the process of being manufactured when the plant closed down. The LP’s are finished and on a boat coming from the Czech Republic. But my publicist Matt Merewitz needs CDs in-hand to get to journalists. Everything was going smoothly, but… the process has stopped. It’s disappointing, but certainly not life-or-death.

TJG: The videos are really nice. I’ve worked with Four/Ten before, they’re great.

GA: Oh man, they are so great. They just did another video for me, “Stand Up With Me,” which I published a few days ago. This was actually a separate project from Dialogues. I have a friend/colleague from The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra who is a bassoonist, but also sings! Her name is Gina Cuffari, and she commissioned the piece from me last year.

The videos associated with Dialogues On Race are “Your Only Child” and “Sherbet.” We did those last year in an amazing space in Brooklyn Heights, at a school called The Packer Collegiate Institute. Their chapel has 19th century stained-glass windows made by Tiffany. After first working with Evan and Kevin at Four/Ten on a video of my Trio for Violin, Piano and Bass, then discovering the beautiful chapel, it occurred to me that I needed to make videos of Dialogues on Race, in that space, with those guys. Making those videos helped incentivize getting the record done. With a lot of musicians, it’s expensive. Plus I’m balancing rehearsals, sessions, scheduling commitments, etc. Having those videos gave me a clear pathway to thinking, “Okay, now I have to get the record done.”

Publicity-wise, everything was going great and moving forward towards the release. To be clear, it’s not a big deal whether or not the record comes out right now. But the subject matter–race relations in the US–is a big deal. A big problem. Now, inequality is built into this Covid situation. We keep hearing about how African-Americans and Hispanics are more prone to getting and dying from the disease in the US. If I it understand correctly, it’s because many of these folks are “essential workers.” They have to go to work because they need to eat. Racism in the United States is once again rearing its ugly head, even in a pandemic… My record doesn’t matter, but the subject matter obviously does.

TJG: Institutional poverty, systems saving some and failing others… By extension, your record does matter, and your music matters.

GA: I know. The conversation is important, but the album’s release just isn’t that important right now. Truth be told, none of us knows what’s happening. With anything. We’re all in a state of suspension. We’re trying to stay creative. The silver lining is that normally I don’t often have a lot of down time to work consistently on projects. I practice, I move between things. But this has been a chance to really delve into some things I’ve wanted to get to, in terms of practicing, developing, even thinking. That’s been a good thing, in a way. But it’s a battle.

We’re dealing with our friends being sick. I just got off the phone with a Cuban guy whom I’ve worked with for years, my mentor for Cuban music, and one of the best musicians I’ve ever played with. He’s an older guy, in his seventies, and he spent 15 days in the hospital. I wasn’t expecting him to pull through, knowing what we know about this disease. But he made it out! I’ve been texting him over the last few days, and he actually just called me! He couldn’t talk for long because he was winded. But man, he’s alive.

TJG: What an unexpected gift. Who is this, if I may ask?

GA: It was a gift. I’m trying to process it all. His name is Pablo Moya. That cat, he’s from Guantanamo, Cuba. He was in a famous band called Los Karachi, where he was the bass player and arranger back in the 70s. He moved from Cuba to Ecuador, ended up in the states, played saxophone, did all these different things. I met him playing tres and singing on some restaurant gigs. He knew all the tunes. And I didn’t know the music that well at the time. But he took me by the hand and just let me play. He never told me anything was right or wrong, he would just start playing. It was real on-the-job training, completely organic, all by ear. But I did have to know the rhythms. At times I even sang coros, or backup vocals, in Spanish. He was always there, man, supporting me. I’m on a few records with him, and I’m so glad he’s still around, because obviously he’s got more to do. It’s a heavy hour.

TJG: So, let’s talk about the commission a little more. I found it interesting that you filmed these videos at Packer, an elite prep school in Brooklyn. It’s striking to see the black and brown faces of all these amazing musicians playing in front of the Tiffany stained-glass window backdrop at this prep school. By framing it like that, you created a provocative juxtaposition, given the subject at hand in your musical dialogues.

GA: I discovered Packer through my neighbor in Brooklyn, who had been a teacher there for decades. Her name was Jane Rinden. She had retired long ago, and passed away in July 2018. Her memorial service was held there and I was asked to organize some music for it. I got together about 15 string player friends and arranged an aria from the final scene of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Jane and her husband Thor were immense opera fans, and we’d spoken a lot about “Wotan’s Farewell,” a deep scene in the opera. You know in Ritt der Walküren, “The Ride of the Valkyries,” where Valkyrie Brünnhilde’s father is Wotan, king of the gods… It’s very moving music, some of the most beautiful music I know. Not many of my friends or family know it, but she did. Jane was simply my neighbor, but we had this beautiful connection.

Once I was in that chapel, I realized it was an incredible environment. Packer is not a religious school. And though the gorgeous Tiffany windows seem to have religious references, I later learned that they do not. Instead the images are derived from Renaissance iconography. Regardless, the space feels reverential, and I felt it would provide the perfect setting for filming parts of Dialogues on Race, particularly Marilyn Nelson’s “Your Only Child.”

TJG: So interesting.

GA: Yeah. In her poem, Marilyn Nelson is paying tribute to Emmett Till’s mother, whom she compares her to Jesus’s mother, about the suffering of her only child who is killed. The sound in the chapel is amazing-very resonant and comfortable to play in. Getting access wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. I’m glad you noticed it and enjoyed it.

TJG: As an aside, have you been to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC?

GA: I haven’t been yet, but it’s interesting you mention it, because a friend of mine’s daughter worked on that very exhibit–you’re about to mention Emmett Till’s casket, right?

TJG: Yes, exactly.

GA: She worked on that as they were preparing everything. She was telling me about the intensity of the experience of preparing that exhibit. They were bringing in cops and all different types of people to educate them about race dynamics in our country. They would bring, basically, white people to that exhibit to show them the power of it. It would quickly get them in touch with some of the things we’ve been dealing with in society for the last four hundred years. She was a spectator to it, a witness in a way. She said it was powerful.

Regarding the commission, Rio and Dale, God rest his soul, commission five or six musicians every year. With the commission in 2009, I didn’t know what I would write. But I arrived at the subject of race relations, and it struck me as something I wanted to approach. Then, I saw a documentary called The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till by Keith Beauchamp, and that triggered it all. I also included some poems by Maya Angelou and others because I wanted to create a broader discussion of race.

I reached out to Keith last year, and asked if I could use some of the footage from the film, specifically sections where Mamie Till speaks about Emmett. Incredibly, he gave me the whole film. I incorporated the text of Mother Mamie describing her son while he was a baby, and was growing up, and then of course what she saw at the funeral home. We improvise to the text–me, Marcus Rojas on tuba and Ken Thomson on bass clarinet. The track is called Mother Mamie’s Reflections. Though I’ve never met Keith in person, we’ve become close over phone calls and emails. I know he was planning to attend the April 10th Jazz Gallery gig.

TJG: You’ve performed at The Jazz Gallery many times, right?

GA: Oh yeah, with J. D. Allen, Michele Rosewoman, and with my project quite a bit. I used to have a working sextet and we’d play there regularly and workshop new material.

TJG: The Gallery is about to celebrate its 25th Anniversary. Can you take me back to some of those earlier memories, and tell me what The Gallery has meant to you over the course of your career?

GA: [Laughs] It’s funny, I don’t think J.D. Allen remembers this, but the first time I met him was there, at the Gallery. I was subbing for another bass player, it was a late-night thing. It was no big deal, a late night jam session kind of thing. But it’s funny to think back on it now, after working together for so many years. In addition to playing with his trio since 2006, he’s also on some of my records, including this one. J.D. is an important part of my musical life. But that gig at the old Gallery on Hudson Street was the first time we ever played together. Whenever I mention that gig, he doesn’t remember it. [Laughs]

Then I started playing there with my group regularly, which was great. The Gallery provides that environment where people can sit, listen, pay attention. It’s almost like a classical concert environment, rather than a jazz room with a lot of noise, people talking and drinking, not paying attention. At the Gallery, you can hold an audience. It’s special for that reason. It puts the music at another level of validation.

I remember hearing Miguel Zenón’s band at the record release show for Esta Plena, which was the result of a Guggenheim grant, if I remember correctly. I was standing next to the writer Ned Sublette, so I introduced myself. Ned writes a lot about race relations, about music in New Orleans, about Cuban music, about the slave trade. He has an amazing book on Cuban music (Cuba and Its Music) where I think he spends about 150 pages on Africa and another 150 on Spain before he even gets to the Caribbean. He’s an incredible source for Latin music. So, we were hanging and listening to Miguel’s killing music on Hudson Street. That’s another memory that jumps out.

TJG: Hopefully things will be back up and running in semi-short order.

GA: I hope so, man. I was just there in February to check out John Ellis’s piece, The Ice Siren, which was commissioned the same year as Dialogues on Race. We actually had a lot of the same musicians on our premiers, Miles Griffith and Marcus Rojas. John is great. And he’s playing soprano on Dialogues on Race.

TJG: You mentioned that you’re tucked up north in Massachusetts, and are coming around to new ways of practicing and thinking. How have you been passing the time?

GA: I’ve been finishing some stalled recording/video projects. First was Stand Up By Me, the video project we talked about. That was shot in September, and I was finally able to put that together. I have another piece that was filmed in December, a bass trio where all three double basses are in different tunings. It’s called Scordatura Harmonica Per Tre. Scordatura is a string-player term meaning re-tuning. We only play open strings and harmonics, hence the title. I need to finish editing the audio, and will then pass it along to Four/Ten Media. I’m thinking about changing the title actually. Not because of the italian thing, but I think there’s a deeper meaning in the music somewhere. Who knows…

I’m also practicing in a different way. I’m trying to connect with myself on a deeper level, simply as a result of not having anyone else to play with. People have been making these multi-screen videos, but we’re really all on our own right now. It’s surreal. Not knowing what’s coming, in terms of being able to ever play with other musicians again. And that’s what we all thrive on. It’s one thing to listen to people’s stuff online. I’m listening deeper, checking out what’s happening more. But what’s lacking is actual live playing. It’s taking a toll on my psyche, because we don’t know when it’ll return. Then, of course, there’s the economic reality of not being able to play gigs. But it’s really about the spiritual thing, with not having brethren to inspire us. We don’t appreciate it until we haven’t got it.