Saxophonist Kevin Sun deftly navigates jazz’s knife edge of tradition and novelty. While Sun’s compositions embrace rhythmic and harmonic abstractions, his playing is rooted in the deep study of saxophone elders from Lester Young to Stan Getz to Mark Turner. Sun’s newest project straddles that divide between new and old, a Charlie Parker exploration called <3 […]

Kevin Sun

Photo by Diane Zhou, courtesy of the artist.

Saxophonist Kevin Sun deftly navigates jazz’s knife edge of tradition and novelty. While Sun’s compositions embrace rhythmic and harmonic abstractions, his playing is rooted in the deep study of saxophone elders from Lester Young to Stan Getz to Mark Turner. Sun’s newest project straddles that divide between new and old, a Charlie Parker exploration called <3 Bird (Endectomorph), released just in time for Parker’s 101st birthday. In “Greenlit,” below, Parker’s tune “Confirmation” is shot through a rhythmic prism, exaggerating the tune’s already-slippery twists and turns.

This Thursday, August 19, Sun returns to The Jazz Gallery stage to celebrate the release of <3 Bird, alongside the album’s full-band lineup: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, guitarist Max Light, pianist Christian Li, bassist Walter Stinson, and drummer Matt Honor. We caught up with Sun to discuss the project’s origins and his experience listening to Parker’s complete recorded output.

The Jazz Gallery: I was going back and reading your Parker blog posts from the past year-plus. When you started writing these in late spring 2020, was this something you had always planned on doing for Parker’s centennial, or was this something you went toward in that early pandemic headspace?

Kevin Sun: It wasn’t really planned. I would say more that I gravitated toward it and found myself sucked in when I was really isolated for a while, like everyone else. In the back of my mind I knew that Charlie Parker was very important to me and I wanted to do something for the centennial, but, I didn’t have anything really in mind.

It just slowly grew, and it kept growing; the more I listened, I had more and more questions come up. Some of them I haven’t really found a satisfactory answer, and I’m not sure there is one. I have like three or four legal pads just filled with tons of notes: questions, listening notes, reading notes. It was something that gave me life and pretty much kept me going.

TJG: Since you already knew Parker’s playing well, what were some of the things that appeared differently in your listening this time? What were those questions?

KS: The biggest thing that occurred to me was to get my hands on everything that is known to exist, and there’s this amazing resource—a website made by Peter Losin that has a database and a search function, so that was super helpful for me in terms of organizing the discography as I was acquiring recordings. I tried to listen to everything, and it comes out to about 72 hours. Based on what I have, I’m missing a handful of dates—like three or four—but I pretty much have everything. From there, I extracted all of the solos; that’s close to about 24 hours, which is more manageable. If you want to listen to 3 hours a day, you can do it in a little over a week.

The first thing that struck me is consistency. Pretty much in every recording, except for one or two, he’s just him. It’s all there—the time, the feel, the phrasing. It’s so clear and distinct, and it never feels like he’s overly accommodating. He always presents himself and makes his own voice fit in the context of how the music’s happening. That just blew me away, because it’s pretty much his whole recorded career. It’s kind of shocking because there are so few musicians who are on that level of consistency. Other people I’ve studied a lot—like Joe Henderson or Coltrane—have good nights and less good nights. Parker just never had an off night from what I can tell recording-wise, and that’s pretty freakish.

TJG: That consistency brings up interesting questions about how Parker’s improviser-brain worked, especially compared to people like Henderson and Coltrane.

KS: I thought about that a lot. One of the questions that brought up for me is, what did he practice? How did he practice to reach such a level of consistency that was apparent from a young age? Pretty much from his early 20s, we have recordings where he’s playing with bands and playing bebop.

It seems to me that he must have been very clear to himself, very decisive in terms of choosing what melodic material he thought was the strongest, and wanting to use that again and again and again. That also means that he had to decide not to do all of this other stuff that he was aware of. Other people might play that way, but he decided not to play it because it doesn’t speak to him in a profound way like the material he devised.

That second element seems really hard to do for me. It’s not just discipline, but sacrifice, because you’re choosing to cut out other things that might be fun to flirt with. I feel like for young musicians today—myself included—a big part of the learning process is trying a lot of things, and some things stick and other things don’t. Bird somehow just accelerated the process, or he just knew within himself from an early age what he wanted to say.

TJG: How did this thinking about Parker’s consistency impact the way you’ve practiced recently, and how you devised the music for the album?

KS: Well, my understanding about the consistency came way after I wrote the music for the record! The writing was pretty whimsical. I would just sketch out ideas and things that occurred to me, whatever came to mind on a given day. During that three-month period where I was pretty much alone and wasn’t seeing anyone, I just sketched ideas with the thought that I would be able to try this music out with my friends at some point, whether that was a year or something. A lot of them were just fun mental exercises, trying to take my attention away from the world for just a little bit.

One thing I’ll say is that I didn’t intend to really record this music as an album—I just wrote music as it came. Like the “Dewey Square” thing (“Du Yi’s Choir”), I actually started thinking about that a little bit before the lockdown happened. I knew I was into that intro from the original recording, which has this weird cross-rhythm happening. I messed around with speeding it up and slowing down. There’s the piano versus the bass and drums—what if one starts way faster and slows down, and the other starts slower and speeds up until they cross? It’s kind of nerdy stuff that could be interesting, but I don’t know if it’ll actually sound good until we play it.

TJG: That’s making me think of the Conlon Nancarrow player piano pieces—there’s one in particular that has two voices speeding up and slowing down in that way. And that’s making me think about how Nancarrow and Parker aren’t that far apart in age, and what would have happened if they had met in a different timeline.

KS: Interesting—I didn’t know that. I always thought Nancarrow was much older.

Thinking about collaboration more generally, it’s funny that a lot of the ideas for pieces on the album came from song introductions, and I get the feeling that Bird didn’t come up with them. The thing from “Dewey Square” seems more like something Max Roach would have come up with. If you listen to the various takes, the first take doesn’t have an intro—they just hit the melody. In the second, there’s an intro, but Max Roach is just playing time under the piano figure,  then it’s the third take where Roach comes up with that really interesting cross-rhythm thing that makes it more mysterious.

I think it says something about Charlie Parker as a composer and bandleader: He has a very strong sense of the material he’s going to present in terms of the core of the melody, but leaves space for the people he’s collaborating with to bring something new. In “Scrapple from the Apple,” Roy Haynes comes up with something brilliant for the intro, a counterpoint to that upbeat figure.

TJG: To me, this relates to the kind of restraint you were talking about earlier—Parker knowing what his music was and what it wasn’t, and that quality allowing for other kinds of music to fit in the space around Parker’s lines, whether that’s the rhythmic games of Roach or Haynes, or the big orchestral sound in Bird with Strings.

KS: One thing I feel is that the negative space for collaborators to jump into is only as effective as how clear we define the positive spaces. In Parker’s case, the aesthetic of his lines is so clear. That makes it so that other people are freer to be themselves and contribute their personal feeling. I think that’s the clearest in the way drummers play with him, like Roach or Haynes or Art Blakey. On the best live recordings, there can be so much counterpoint happening, way more than I think typically happens in the hard bop bands of the ‘50s. Parker’s drawing the line so clearly in the sand, so you know where you can to complement it. Maybe a better word to use is “conviction,” and how that conviction is expressed through musical choices.

TJG: One element of your Parker project more generally was listening through all the solos to find every musical reference he played. Since I’m really interested in what musical reference can do, I’d love to hear you speak about what you think the purpose of those references are in Parker’s playing, especially juxtaposed with the consistent melodic style we’ve talked about.

KS: I bumped into Miles Okazaki randomly a few weeks ago in the Village. We were talking about the references, and Miles brought up a really good point. One of the main purposes is to play something that the audience members can connect to and recognize, so they feel a part of the musical experience. That definitely sounds like the case on certain recordings where you hear people respond loudly when Parker plays something really obvious. He knows how to connect to people dancing in a ballroom, and playing something people will recognize does that.

TJG: Basically what a DJ does to keep the vibe going.

KS: But for me, there’s another thing, too. I was using this website Chasin’ the Bird, which is a crowd-sourced catalog of quotes. They had over 150, and I added a few others that I recognized. My theory right now is that based on the breadth, volume, and frequency of quotes you can recognize and identify on his recordings, he had a remarkable gift for recalling melody and then playing it back. I don’t think he had perfect pitch as far as I know, but he just had great ears for that kind of thing. I think the implication is that if you don’t have to think as hard about melody, or if melody is more accessible to you, maybe you can focus more of your conscious, creative exertion on other aspects, like rhythm and phrasing. For me, it makes sense because you’re not thinking so much about what the melodic part is, but how to phrase the melody, how it’s going to come out in the moment. If that’s the case, I think it explains a lot about his style and why it’s so powerful.

TJG: This is getting back to that question of an improviser’s cognitive activity. When there are so many notes flying by, it’s clear that the player isn’t thinking about every single note, it’s these larger chunks that coalesce as an object. It’s something I teach a lot in aural skills classes—being able to recognize larger patterns, so when you’re soloing, it’s thinking about beginnings and endings of chunks and where they’re placed in time. And for Parker, those chunks are the melodic phrases that we associate with him that he practiced so much, and the musical quotations.

KS: Yeah—something about his language can be very discretized, like in terms of his sequences of pitches. But what’s challenging and interesting is how from solo to solo, there are big changes in how they’re phrased, and where the emphasis is, and the pauses and which notes are held out. It’s a higher-level organization on top of the discretized pitch material.

TJG: In some way, I feel it’s analogous to a total serialist approach to composition, where there are different levels of organization of different musical parameters and the ways that they conflict and coincide create musical shapes. Parker’s organizing different parameters with a different method, but that kind of layered system feels very modernist.

So one last question: when you actually got this material in front of the band, how did the performances line up with what you were imagining back in spring 2020?

KS: I mean, I was pretty blown away. They’re all amazing musicians. For the purposes of the album, I split up the group, featuring certain people on certain tracks. But most of them have played or read through most of the music at some point. The Gallery show will be interesting because we’re not going to play the album as written, but do sextet arrangements for everything. I think that’s a bit more suitable for a live setting—both more organized and more chaotic, I think.

When we first started playing, it felt like some of the music was really hard. That usually happens, and it takes a while to acclimate to new music like this. But by the end of the recording session, I was thinking, “Man, I’m sure Charlie Parker would sound amazing if he played on any of these songs.” Even with all the odd meter things, I don’t think he’d have any issue hearing it, knowing what we know about how flexible and solid his sense of time was, and how flexible he can be with phrasing. I don’t know, I would hope that he would be into it in some way.

Saxophonist Kevin Sun celebrates the release of <3 Bird (Endectomorph) at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, August 19, 2021. Mr. Sun will be joined by Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Max Light on guitar, Christian Li on piano, Walter Stinson on bass, and Matt Honor on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. E.D.T. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($10 for members), $20 livestream access (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.


The Spirit of a Sound: Alfredo Colón Speaks

Whether you’re talking about the person or the band, the music you’ll hear inside Alfredo Colón’s Big Head is filled with a wry and subversive humor. This Saturday, August 7, Colón returns to The Jazz Gallery with his home-base group, presenting a mix of new material and old favorites. We caught up with Colón to […]

Alfredo Colon

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Whether you’re talking about the person or the band, the music you’ll hear inside Alfredo Colón’s Big Head is filled with a wry and subversive humor. This Saturday, August 7, Colón returns to The Jazz Gallery with his home-base group, presenting a mix of new material and old favorites. We caught up with Colón to talk about the ambiguities of musical emotion and his pandemic deep dive into the music of Ornette Coleman.

The Jazz Gallery: I know you wanted to discuss how your band has evolved. Is your head bigger now?

Alfredo Colón: It’s literally the same size, but I do think it’s gotten a little smaller in terms of big-headedness.

TJG: I see, so you’re losing your big-headedness figuratively. But not literally—you still have a nice large head.

AC: I’m saving up for the cosmetic surgery.

TJG: That’s great. So how has the band changed?

AC: Well, it originally started off with Nick Dunston on bass before he moved to Berlin. We would always greet each other with “hey big head,” which, you know, is a joke. That evolved to “big head, big sound,” and over time the name kind of became a character in my head that I would write about.

So Big Head, he’s a little full of himself. He means what he says and he says what he means. Overall, at the end of the day I think he’s a pretty good dude. His character is maybe an over-exaggeration of a lot of my qualities.

TJG: So what started Big Head’s musical journey?

AC: Well, for a while, any gig I played that offered me some creative freedom was on EWI. And I was like, “Man, I’m a saxophone player. I work on this instrument more than anything else. I should let people know that I play saxophone.” So I really booked the gig just to be like, “Hey, everyone, I play the saxophone.” There’s no electronics. It’s just saxophone-dot-com all day.

I didn’t really have much more of a vision for the band than that. The music kind-of just came together. I wrote in such a way where the music was so open ended that the sound would be dictated by however the cats sounded in the moment.

That was the first gig that I had ever played with Jacob [Sacks], with the exception of my graduation recital. And it was my first time ever playing with Connor [Parks]; we didn’t even rehearse for that first gig—we just sat down and played. There was a vibe present immediately.

So initially it was pretty open music—a lot of the melodies would be six, eight bars, and then we’d make it up from there. Jacob, Connor, Nick, and Steve all play in a really compositional way, so I felt like I didn’t really need to write an ending to a lot of the songs. We’d perform them and they would sound completely different every time, but they always felt like complete pieces. But over time a sonic identity became present so I could finally write in a way that wasn’t so open ended and catered more to the abilities of the musicians in the band.

TJG: What are some of the major influences on the Big Head sound?

AC: A lot of the melodic stuff and the sound I’m going for comes from my heroes, predominantly Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Bunky Green. Attitude-wise, it comes from influences that aren’t along the jazz idiom. Someone like Lil Uzi would be an influence in terms of like attitude—his music is overwhelming in a way. I was listening to him the other day, and I was like, “man, you can hear the blues in Lil Uzi.” I was so fixated on it.

TJG: I’m not sure too many people would pick up on that aesthetic.

AC: I mean, when you go to school, they tell you the blues is 12 bars, there’s the I, IV, and V chords and then you’d have your Bird blues or jazz blues. And they get so into the harmony of what a lot of the cats play that they overlook a lot of the sentiment, meaning, delivery and attitude.

TJG:  Can we talk about some of your tunes? How about “I’m Me (Or I’m Not Nothing)?”

AC: That one’s kind of funny. I wrote that one when I was 19 and I was like, sad. There was a meme going around at the time—shout-out to the Important Videos Playlist—I was really into that playlist at the time. They had a one video where this very drunk British kid is trying to walk into a bush and his friends are trying to stop him. They finally let him go, and right before he lands in the bush, he goes, “If I’m not a bush, I’m not no one.” And then he puts his head in the bush. I thought that was really funny. So I spun that phrase to turn it from silly into serious.

TJG: In the Gallery gig with Rocky Amer, it sounds like you’re melting on that tune.

AC: Yeah, you know I like a screaming saxophone that’s rough around the edges—a sound that’s hairy or itchy.

TJG: Right, I joked last time that you need to get your octave key fixed.

AC: Yeah, I like that sound, and I think when we first spoke I talked about the struggle in the sound. Aside from the influences I already mentioned, someone that comes to mind with that kind of sound is Henry Threadgill. I actually think I enjoy listening to him because I can’t really explain much of what’s happening compositionally. It stops me from worrying too much about “figuring it out” or understanding it on a technical level and only leaves me with feeling the music in the moment. That’s something I like about his playing—it taps into that mystery I had as a kid listening to something like Bebop. At the time I couldn’t explain what those guys were doing but I enjoyed it. With Henry, it captures that same feeling, but it’s so different and it feels almost like I’m peeking into something personal.

TJG: And you’re gathering this screamy influence from places outside of jazz too, right? Like, I know you’re a big punk pop fan…

AC: Yeah, I mean, a lot of finding my voice involved embracing a lot of the stuff I liked growing up. Like, I used to listen to The Strokes a lot. Julian Casablancas’ voice is so rough around the edges. It’s the struggle in the sound thing all over again.

TJG: It sounds so much more serious out of a horn though.

AC: Yeah—but it’s really the same thing.

TJG: Let’s talk about another one of your tunes, “Our Simplest Office Clerk.”

AC: The title to that one comes from a video game. Probably one of the worst video games I’ve ever played: “No Thing.” It’s essentially Temple Run, but the graphics are very low quality 3d, retro video game vibes. As you progress in the game, there’s a robot voice telling you a story. And the protagonist is referred to as the “Simplest Office Clerk.”

His life is pretty mundane, repetitive, and monotonous, but the game is about his adventure when he’s given a really important task.  At the end, they refer to him as the “Very Important Office Clerk”. I think we all feel like that sometimes, like we’re doing the same thing over and over again.

TJG: When you finish playing that tune is that a completion of the mission?

AC: Yeah, so the head is really short, and then there’s a big piano solo. There’s really nothing on the sheet music—it’s just slash marks, and then I tell the band to slowly crescendo into total destruction. From there, it goes into silence.

TJG: As an office guy, that song to me sounds like someone who’s had enough and goes into their boss’s office and goes insane.

AC: It’s open for interpretation. I mean, you don’t tell the cats everything. You want them to put themselves into it.

Sometimes you play with some cats, and they’ll tell you the whole story behind their piece and how you’ve got to play this very specific role in telling that story. That’s a valid way to go about it, but I really love leaving some spaces where the musicians can fill it with how they’re feeling at that very moment. We all get to tell our story.

There was actually a beautiful moment: when we were recording for my Jazz Coalition commission, I threw Rocky in there, and he played in a way that was different from anybody else. He played that tune in a way that sounded really triumphant, and it became a whole new piece. The plan was for the piece to crumble but he made it sound like we were going through golden gates, and then there was a clear resolution to the tune. Not telling the cats everything lets them turn it into something else, which I encourage.

TJG: And can you talk a little bit about having these different cast members? Obviously, Aaron Parks and Jacob Sacks are very different piano players. How do you guide those two differently? And how do each of their styles affect your playing?

TJG: I feel like I can’t speak on playing with Aaron as much as I could with Jacob just because I’ve spent more time playing with Jacob. I’ve only played with Aaron once. I think of Jacob as a kind of a mad hatter. He’ll guide you somewhere but he’ll also surprise you along the way.

Aaron’s got this thing where he leaves so much space that you can’t bullshit with him. There’s a certain bounce to him that’s undeniably Aaron, which is very familiar to our band because we all grew up listening to him. There’s a push-pull element to his playing which is fun to navigate, but he also answers your phrases in a really distinct kind of way that I can’t really put into words.

TJG: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I perceive Aaron as having a much brighter sound on the piano. And Jacob’s sound is more dense, or blockier, isn’t it?

AC: Yeah, Jacob can get in between the spaces into all the nooks and crannies while Aaron leaves wide gaps for you. Both are really cool in different ways. They make you play differently. I have Connor and Steve [Williams] or Nick as my familiar cast—a safety net of sorts. I know how to interact with them. Jacob and Aaron are both people that I don’t interact with musically as much. It’s a balance playing with this band—you get some safety and some danger on the same stage.

TJG: How about the addition of Kalia Vandever to this gig? It seems like you have a thing for hiring trombonists.

AC: Trombone actually took me a while to grow to love. A lot of the trombone I heard while I was coming up came out of the modern big band sound, which is very much not for me. Rocky was really the first person that made the instrument exciting for me. I’ve known rocky since I was like 15 years old, and he always had something different on the trombone. Through Rocky, I’ve found out about a lot of other trombone players that I really enjoy, namely Kalia, and then Zekkereya El-magharbel.

TJG: Do you feel like their uniqueness, or the uniqueness of the trombone itself is what draws you to them?

AC: I think it’s an instrument that blends well with so many other instruments. It’s got such a warm, rich sound and sits in a beautiful range. The timbre also fits so many spaces, so you can give them completely different roles. They can switch roles really quickly, and blend beautifully with both rhythm section and wind instruments. I feel like they can serve as the glue in the music to some degree.

TJG: How are you planning on writing for Kalia and what are you looking forward to hearing from her?

AC: Kalia is amazing—she can really do it all. I think she has some of the best rhythm I’ve ever heard. But then, she’ll also outline harmony in such a clear, and creative way that also maintains the essence of the melody. I feel like Kalia’s playing is very melody-driven, and that’s one of the biggest elements of her playing that connected with me.

TJG: So what else went into preparation for this gig? Were you planning for the whole pandemic?

AC: There were a good few months where I just didn’t do anything musical. I didn’t play from April to like, June—I was pretty much just hanging. I think that was a lot of cats’ experience.

TJG: Was that on purpose?

AC: No, but I think we all kind of needed a break from something; I was just overwhelmed from work, and then there was nothing, so I embraced the nothing for a while.

Then June hit and I suddenly had the urge to get back into some music I hadn’t listened to in a while. I was listening to a lot of Joshua Redman. He’s my childhood hero but I hadn’t heard too many peers talking about him in recent years. It was nice to get back into searching for stuff on my own without sifting through dozens of recommendations. It was just me and all the time in the world.

There was also the realization that not everything is for me, at least not right now in this very moment. A lot of the musicians adjacent to my circle are very into contemporary classical composers and new music. I always felt bad for not connecting with that stuff the way they did,and kept forcing myself to listen to it constantly. Eventually I realized I should just sit down with the stuff I really love for now and not force it. I’m going to keep checking it out until I find something that really resonates with me.

Aside from Joshua, one of the guys I really did a deep dive into was Ornette Coleman. Later, when I sat down and started writing again, it was clear that I had checked out a lot of his stuff—like I was taking a new compositional path that I originally had not been able to.

TJG: What was it about Ornette? What new came to you about Ornette during the pandemic? What was the revelation?

AC: So prior to the pandemic, my last performance actually was playing Ornette’s birthday. They have a birthday party for him every five years, and this was the first one where he wasn’t with us. I was invited by Jamaaladeen Tacuma, a bass player who played with him in the 80s. It was a great honor to be around all those cats. A lot of those present that day were former band members and musicians who were adjacent to that crew when Ornette was around. There were also a ton of saxophone players there that were touched by Ornette in some way.

It was wild to be in Ornette’s apartment. Right before we played, there’s a big hang, and they were calling tunes that I had never even heard before. One I’m actually playing this one on the gig—it’s called “In All Languages.” They taught me how to play a lot of these tunes in his studio. I got to learn so much from as close to the source as possible and that’s a memory that I’ll cherish forever. Finding out about all these deep cuts that I had not heard of before from the people he played with was super special and it got me deep into researching him during the pandemic. I remember not really spending too much time on Ornette when I was in school. He was briefly touched on during jazz history lessons and was kind of dismissed as this weird guy. He’s as big as someone like Bird or Trane in my eyes.

TJG: So I asked you to send me videos of what you were checking out and you sent me a 12 minute clip of Ornette playing “Turnaround” at the North Sea Festival from 2010. Can we talk about how he plays the melody here?

AC: So this goes back to what I was talking about. This is the blues! In this context it’s not a fixed thing that loops, but it’s undeniably the blues!

TJG: It also sounds like he’s changing his sound throughout each line, which is something I’ve noticed in your playing. And the melody is super rubato, isn’t it? It feels almost out of time.

AC: He’s just playing with it! Ornette would constantly go back and forth between playing in and out of the grid. You actually get that feel in some folk songs too—sometimes you’ll hear this big downbeat on the first beat of a bar, and the more you listen to it, the more you realize there’s a huge, huge argument leading up to that moment.

As far as changing my tone, yeah, that’s a parameter that I play with a lot. Going back to the school thing, they teach you so much about harmony and building tension through harmony. Outside of private lessons, I hardly heard professors talk about how we shape our playing through sound alone. I want to have moments where it’s like a quiet scream; I want a loud scream; I want to speak at a speaking volume; I want to sing—all in one solo. I want to have all the elements of human speech in my sound at all times. I want to use the parameter of timbre as a way to build a solo instead of just using harmony or melody. Because it’s there—it’s available to me.

I’ve been realizing that a lot of the music that stuck with me the most has the sound of being bigger than the individual. It’s the sound of someone connecting to a feeling that we all can connect to in some way or another. And this Ornette performance—it sounds like yearning, like he misses something or someone. And we’ve all felt that in some way. To capture the sound of something so big, you can’t do it with notes alone. I don’t even know how to put it in words because there’s no one way to do it. It’s like, have you ever been to a really good performance and it was emotional, and you feel the air kind of settling down at the end of it?

TJG: Yes, sure.

AC: I’m searching for that, and I think you need to have something human in the sound for it to happen. You know, I’ve seen players play circles around the horn, and they do all these acrobatics, and at the end I’m like, “Wow, that was really cool,” but being impressed was the only feeling I felt, versus something like this Ornette performance. There’s no acrobatics. It’s just melody. And for me personally, listening to it gives me the feeling of something bigger than Ornette and bigger than me. It’s the sound of the feeling.

TJG: I know I’ve asked you this before, but if your playing is a reflection of you, why are you so angry?

AC: It’s not anger! This reminds me of the first time I checked out late Coltrane or Albert Ayler. The first time I heard it, I was like, “Why is he so angry?” I obviously wasn’t ready for those records at the time. But I went back about five years later, and I heard what sounded like intense joy to me—it sounded happy! Sometimes you’ve just got to let out a happy scream.

Alfredo Colón’s Big Head plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, August 7, 2021. The group features Mr. Colón on saxophone, Kalia Vandever on trombone, Jacob Sacks on piano, Steve Williams on bass, and Conor Parks on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. E.D.T. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($10 for members), $20 for livestream access ($5 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.

Stories and Universes: Vanisha Gould Speaks

Vanisha Gould has a lot to share but never all at once: she lets the moment set the mood. The New York-based singer and songwriter has been a fixture at uptown venues and downtown clubs for the past several years, leading different bands. Through frank delivery and subtle-gestured phrasing, she shares stories teeming with empathy, humor […]

Vanisha Gould

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Vanisha Gould has a lot to share but never all at once: she lets the moment set the mood. The New York-based singer and songwriter has been a fixture at uptown venues and downtown clubs for the past several years, leading different bands. Through frank delivery and subtle-gestured phrasing, she shares stories teeming with empathy, humor and self-reflection. This week at The Jazz Gallery, Vanisha brings her own interpretation of existing works alongside trio mates Chris McCarthy, Tyrone Allen and Adam Arruda. 

The Jazz Gallery: You view yourself as a storyteller, and I think so much of your original music really reflects that identity. You have a way of lyric writing around these melodious compositions with this wonderful meaty arc. Can you share a little bit about your process for composing and how it’s maybe evolved over the years? 

Vanisha Gould: It’s easier to do than to explain because for me, it’s so fluid. When I compose, I usually do melody and lyrics first. But it’s really just walking down the street, walking home from a bar. If I can retain the idea when I get home, then I just build on it from there and see where the story takes me. But it’s never “sit down and write.” It just unfolds, based on rhyming, even melody. I’m not a piano player. My power is that when I’m away from a piano, I’m not restricted by all this knowledge of chords and how a song “should” be. But then I can see how I can change it in some way when I’m just dealing with the melody. From there, once the melody and lyrics are down and I got it in a voice memo, I can sit down at the piano and painstakingly try and find the chord changes for it. But it’s a very fluid process in terms of finding the actual story. 

Walking down the street, you could see a person getting out of the car, hugging another person goodbye, and that’s a story, if you find the melody to it. Are they hugging goodbye? Did they break up? Is that a family member? How long will they not see each other? 

TJG: That explains a lot about how natural your compositions feel. You really have an empathetic curiosity about other people. 

VG: It’s just observing and then making up your own stories about what you’re observing. I will say that as natural as the songs may sound to you, it’s few and far between. The gaps in between, the writers block in between is so large. I only write three to four tunes a year. I certainly don’t force it. I’m not someone who sits down and says, “I’m gonna write a song today.” When it does come naturally, it’s awesome. But then, in between, it’s like, “Oh, well, I guess I’m singing this song indefinitely.” 

TJG: Are you content with that process or is it something you wish were different? 

VG: I wish it were different. I wish I had that work ethic. There are some people who say, “I’m gonna write a tune a day. I’m gonna write a tune a week.” And not all of them will be good, but the whole point is completion—to make a promise to yourself and complete it. I don’t do that. I wish I had that urge [laughs]. But I am content when a song comes out: “Okay, well, dig. That’s a completed song. And it’s new. And I finished it.” I wish I had that spirit but that’s not me. So I guess I am content with it. 

TJG: I think anyone who goes out regularly to the clubs in New York likely has heard your distinctive swinging trio and quartet sound that often features your originals as well as standard repertoire, but so much of your music reflects this stunning, expansive orchestration. You do create your own arrangements, so I was wondering, are you also developing your voice as an orchestrator these days? 

VG: I wish. I don’t have the knowledge yet. I know how bass, drums and piano work [laughs]. I know I can write out a complete tune with the changes over the slash chords and that those three instruments will know exactly what to do. So that’s what I deal with. But I do have a band of bass, guitar and violin. And my bass player Dan Pappalardo, I consider him a great arranger. During our rehearsals, I’ll bring in a skeleton chart but, again, just the changes and slash chords, and he’ll be the one to stop the music and say, “Okay, what are the dynamics of this line?” or “Let’s think of the lyrics here,” or “Maybe the bass should be out, and I’ll come back on this part…” So my arranging is very much band-oriented. Collaboration.

I’m open for ideas because I only know melody, lyrics and the chord changes. That’s the complete tune until an added idea shows up from the band. There’s one tune I have called “Now That You’re Here” and during one rehearsal, there’s a line the bass player played in unison with me. That was like five years ago. Ever since… forever, on this line, no matter who’s playing, I say play that bass line in unison with me. If someone comes up with an idea that I love, I’m like “Fuck yeah. I’ll keep it. That’s mine.” 

TJG: I’m glad you brought up that band. I love how you and Ludovica sound together. What have you found most compelling—for you as a vocalist and as a composer—about collaborating with her and other kinds of instrumental textures? 

VG: I don’t even remember the moment I met her. It must have been a session. But the added element of violin—I have an upcoming album which she’s on with cello—I really love working with non-traditional instruments in the jazz universe [laughs]. They can work by ear, and I’m not writing out a violin line [laughs]. I’m like, play what you hear. And [Ludovica] has a great ear, a beautiful sound, too. And my whole vibe is, this is jazz—shit, play what you hear! Those are the changes. See what works. What’s great with her is she’s very complementary to my tone because I’m obviously low voiced—tenor, low alto. She’s very tasty with singing around me. I have two bands: my straight-ahead band and my more jazzy/folky band with “Donovan’s Dream.” And we’ve built a rapport. It feels good. It’s nice to find your people. 

TJG: Something else I believe listeners find inviting and captivating about your music is its vulnerability and certain self-disclosure. Is it challenging composing with these intimate thoughts and experiences in mind, or is it maybe cathartic—or both? 

VG: I find it kind of cathartic. It’s stories. The freedom of creating such a story that makes a lot of people come to me and ask, “Where did that story come from?” Once I have that out there, then I can create any story I want. Some of them are true and some of them are not. Some relate to my life and some of them don’t. I love leaving it up to the audience to guess. Some of the stories I come up with are better suited to a 150-page screenplay, which I have delved into. I just love creating a different universe where you have complete control over the ending of the story. Putting an entire universe into a tune that maybe has a solo or two, it’s fun. 

TJG: Your lyrics are so smart and sometimes devastating, and also sometimes really funny and charming. I think the very first original of yours I ever heard you perform was “Cute Boy.” How do you feel your lyric writing has developed since you came to New York in 2015? 

VG: I think now, and even with the full jazz group with Ludovica, those stories have become a little more autobiographical, a little more related to what I’ve experienced. That’s what I would say. As I’m writing more, I’m being inspired by what happens to me on a day to day basis or what’s on my mind, and trying to put it into words that are either very poetic or very literal. There’s a tune I have called “Storyteller” that’s basically a woman who’s the other woman—and that’s not my story. So it goes in and out of that. I guess it’s been consistently me being inspired by different things and seeing where the lyrics take me in the writing process. 

TJG: What do you hope listeners will bring with them to your set at the Gallery? 

VG: Openness and curiosity. I’m planning a suite based on Scripture. I did another suite just before Covid based on the Song of Songs and I wanna do the same thing but a different book in the Bible. What was great about that is I didn’t have to use my words—they were already written. And the Bible is pretty poetic. You can interpret it in any way you like. So I’m like, dig. I can figure out how to shape it into a tune that’s enjoyable but also very true to what I hold as important. So yeah, openness and curiosity [laughs]. 

The Vanisha Gould Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, July 31, 2021. The band features Ms. Gould on vocals, Chris McCarthy on guitar, Tyrone Allen on bass and Adam Arruda on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. E.S.T. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.

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.

Regenerating Possibilities: Dafnis Prieto Speaks

When Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto moved to New York full time in 1999, he made an immediate splash. Seemingly overnight, Prieto began playing the likes of Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman, and Brian Lynch, showcasing his ability to execute the knotty counterpoint of a full Cuban percussion section with a single drum kit. Since then, Prieto […]

Dafnis Prieto

Photo courtesy of the artist.

When Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto moved to New York full time in 1999, he made an immediate splash. Seemingly overnight, Prieto began playing the likes of Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman, and Brian Lynch, showcasing his ability to execute the knotty counterpoint of a full Cuban percussion section with a single drum kit. Since then, Prieto has released seven acclaimed albums as a leader, taught at NYU and the University of Miami, and received a MacArthur fellowship. Prieto has also developed a close relationship with The Jazz Gallery, performing on the “Jazz Cubano” series, writing commissioned works, and most recently, celebrating the release of his Grammy-winning big band album.

This evening, June 12, Prieto will guest on The Jazz Gallery’s online “Words and Music” series. Before joining the conversation, check out the following interview with Prieto where he remembers his earliest days in New York and his musical growth at the Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: When you first moved to New York full-time, how did you go about meeting other people to play with? You started playing with Henry Threadgill and Brian Lynch seemingly overnight.

Dafnis Prieto: I got to New York in 1999. I already knew a few musicians there, like Brian and Henry and Steve Coleman. I had met them all over the previous five years or so on different occasions. I met Brian at Stanford University during a previous trip to the states for a residency. I met Steve when he came to Cuba in 1996. And I met Henry the previous time I had come through New York on a tour—Henry came to see the band. It was a band that I was part of in Cuba called Columna B and the members were Yosvany Terry, Roberto Carcassés on piano, and Descemer Bueno on bass. So in any case, when I arrived, because I already knew these musicians, I just called them up. Henry had expressed interest in working with me previously, as well as Steve, so I was looking forward to that.

I started playing around with other musicians, too. I think something that was really helpful was that I liked going from one genre to another, even in a matter of hours. Like I could have a more avant-garde gig, or a more straight ahead-jazz gig, and then four hours later had a gig that was completely Latin. I learned how to swim in different waters, and that helped balance my exposure, as well just make a living.

At the same time, in the early 2000s, there were a lot of other musicians coming to New York for the first time. I mean, there are always musicians coming to New York, but at that time, but I feel there was a particularly big wave at that time. One of those musicians was Yosvany Terry, who happened to be a good friend of mine. We had played together in Cuba a lot, and we kept doing that in New York. Yosvany started doing the “Jazz Cubano” series at The Jazz Gallery in 2000 and I played with him there. That was how I first got introduced to The Jazz Gallery and Dale Fitzgerald and Rio.

After that, I started presenting my own projects at the Gallery, too. One of the projects had Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Ravi Coltrane on tenor saxophone, and Henry Threadgill on alto.

TJG: I want to hear that recording!

DP: Yeah! That was a really fun performance. And the relationship with The Jazz Gallery just grew from there. I basically debuted every project I came up with there. It really felt like a laboratory for the musicians, allowing us to experiment and bring things to life for people to experience in the audience. We were really blessed to have a place like The Jazz Gallery that was so open to different kinds of music. I think a lot about the quality with which the Gallery treated musicians. It really felt like a pleasant community, and I think that’s reflected in the quality of the music presented.

TJG: So the Gallery was clearly an important spot for you from the beginning, but you also mentioned that you would play a huge range of gigs. Were there other venues that you played a lot, or met future collaborators?

DP: One of the other big places for me was the old Zinc Bar on Houston Street. I used to play there almost every week, and sometimes two or three times a week! The music presented there was at a very high level. I met so many musicians who would come and hang out because it was one of the places that would stay open until 2 or 3 A.M. People would finish their gigs at 11 or 12 and then come over to hang at Zinc Bar.

TJG: Smalls wasn’t too far from there and stayed open late. Did you hang there as well?

DP: I never did that much at Smalls. I probably played there a couple of times. I mean, I played lots of different places. But in terms of places I would go to almost every week, either to play or check other people out, it was Zinc Bar and The Jazz Gallery.

TJG: I’d like to move on to your work as a composer. Had you written a lot of music before coming to New York?

DP: I had written some tunes in Cuba, and I played a few of them with Columna B. But I wasn’t fully into writing music. I was more into playing drums. When I got to New York, the city really invited me, or challenged me, or inspired me because of the amount of different music happening. I started feeling a sense that I needed to create my own music. I needed to express myself not just in my own drumming, but in composition. I don’t think I would have developed the music that I make now without the New York experience. It helped me believe that I could write music of my own, have great musicians play it, and have it be personal and different.

I was developing that voice through the drums, but I wanted to go farther than that. When I visualize what I wanted to do, I see it as creating my own water to swim in. It became a necessity for me, and it grew more important. New York was the perfect scenario for this growth because I had met all of these great musicians who were willing to play my music.

TJG: When you started writing, were there particular musicians whom you saw as models? Like, Steve and Henry are very powerful conceptualists in terms of how they devise music for their ensembles. Were they models?

DP: Of course! That was part of the inspiration when I came to New York. It was really inspiring to be around and work with these unbelievable musicians who have such a distinctive vocabulary and concept behind the music. I wanted to do that too.

When I say something inspired me, I’m not saying that I wanted to imitate it. They all do distinctive kinds of music, and their perspectives inspired me, but when I work music out within myself, it comes out in a different way.

And beyond Steve and Henry, I got to check out many other wonderful composers too. I got to play with Andrew Hill, who was one of a kind. That was very special. And then I was playing with Eddie Palmieri and Michel Camilo. They’re all so distinctive from each other, but I was able to enjoy and understand and appreciate where they were coming from, musically-speaking.

TJG: In some ways, it seems like the inspiration is how to distill different sounds into a personal voice, rather than superficially imitating what was around you.

DP: Yeah. I never really wanted to do things like someone else. Listening to their music for long periods of time, I appreciate it and it inspires me, but it doesn’t mean I want to sound like them. Music, for me, isn’t one formula. There are different kinds of musicians, there are different kinds of human beings. Some people need to be told what to do. Others go out and find it and get it. I always felt much more related to the latter. In my life, I never had people give me stuff for nothing. So I always see myself with that responsibility to find my own way.

TJG: How much do you remember about how the first Jazz Gallery commission came about?

DP: I remember two or three different commissions through The Jazz Gallery. I remember preparing a statement about what I wanted to pursue on that specific project. And then with The Jazz Gallery, we submitted that proposal to funders. I think one of the first ones was for my project the Absolute Quintet. That was a project that involved string players, and we eventually did an album. I really like to address specific musical ideas in each project. I want to get as much as I can from the sound and the individual musicians. We’re talking about stuff twenty years ago, so I can’t remember all the specifics!

I forget if this was a commission or not, but I remember being part of a collaborative project where there were a series of duos. One day, I played music with Vijay Iyer, and then the next day I played with James Hurt. I also played duo with Kwaku Obeng, the percussionist from Ghana, I believe. That project was all about being open and conscious of who was in front of you. There were so many different settings for making music, so that was very exciting.

TJG: I was able to find a review of one of the 2002 commission concerts of yours that featured Avishai Cohen, Peter Apfelbaum, Jason Lindner, and Hans Glawischnig in the band, plus Claudia Acuña guesting on a couple of numbers. It mentioned a few tune titles and I was struck by how those tunes have showed up on different albums of yours recorded at different times. Can you talk about the process of reimagining compositions of yours over time?

DP: There are pieces that have that quality, that regenerate in a way. Others are more specific in how they should sound. That evolution has to do with your imagination and really taking advantage of the full possibilities that you have. You might be in a situation where you’re asked to bring something in to a band, and it might be a different configuration than what you originally had, and so you think about which one is more appropriate for this setting. It’s a great exercise for a musician.

I’ve been doing that for a long time, and I really did that with my big band record. I took some older songs of mine and rearranged them. It became about exploring different sounds and different expressions from the same source. I’ve always been open to that. As much as I like to be a composer, in terms of conceiving something for a specific situation, I also have to give value to the performer who brings the music alive. If I write something for piano and I don’t have a good pianist to play it, I might bring that part to the saxophone. It’s just a great adventure.

Opening up to have the same material played by different configurations is a learning process. I’ve always been drawn to that—the experience of learning from my peers, learning from the feedback that I get when we play. It’s not only the verbal feedback, whether criticism or not, but the feedback from the performer interpretation. That will trigger something new and different in me. It’s kind of a chain reaction.

TJG: I’m interested in artists who have a more evolutionary approach to their music versus those who may be more conceptual. I think of John Coltrane as an evolutionary artist—so many of his albums are for quartet, and his music evolves gradually from record to record. And I think of Miles Davis as a more conceptual artist who can have really rapid departures in sound and instrumentation from album to album.

DP: I’m interested in the evolutionary nature of music, but I also like doing really different things as well. Like, there are some songs that are written specifically for the Absolute Quintet that I would never imagine doing in a different situation. I’m not someone who sees this idea in black and white. I see so many choices when it comes to music. Sometimes, there are musical things that I don’t want to do, but I have to do because of logistics, or I have to because it will pay off in the long run. I like both approaches. Both of them are valuable. I have to deal with the situations in my life.

TJG: I think Henry and Steve have that mixed approach as well. They can have really different instrumentations from album to album, but have also been honing their respective compositional systems for long periods of time.

DP: Yeah. For example, I have a different perspective about that. I’m a big fan of Salvador Dalí. He said this thing in an interview, and it’s a really surreal statement, but also so real. They asked him, “What makes you Salvador Dalí?” And he said, “I like to repeat myself.” At first, that sounds like the opposite of creativity. I think what he means is that if you’re thinking that you’re doing something new, you’re just adding something to what you already are. It’s just a continuation. It deals with your perception of that moment versus the full perception of your body of work.

I’ll say this: it’s very hard to get rid of yourself. I have to love myself in order to express something about who I am. In a way, I’m thinking in the long run. Each record works as a continuation, or adds a very specific sound. But to me, it all adds to a body of work. And the end, you can look back and say, “I did a lot of different projects with different sounds and different musicians. I got to share this with lots of different people, and this is who I am.”

You mentioned earlier Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and how Coltrane really evolved gradually from Blue Train to the later periods. But I can see the same thing in Miles Davis! From Kind of Blue to the Tutu record, that’s an evolution right there from one to another. It’s a different kind of evolution, but he’s just a different human being. Different human beings have different strategies, different formulas. And they react differently to reality, too. All of this is so personal. It’s like life itself. It’s unique and personal, but also general at the same time. It’s the concept that there are two sides to the story.

Striking Melodies: Marcus Gilmore Speaks

While Marcus Gilmore is perhaps best-known as the go-to drummer for the likes of Chick Corea, Vijay Iyer, Mark Turner, Ambrose Akinmusire, and many others, he has in recent years cultivated a fascinating solo drum practice, often incorporating electronics. Jazz Speaks recently caught up with Gilmore to discuss these solo projects, his broader view of […]

Marcus Gilmore

Photo courtesy of the artist.

While Marcus Gilmore is perhaps best-known as the go-to drummer for the likes of Chick Corea, Vijay Iyer, Mark Turner, Ambrose Akinmusire, and many others, he has in recent years cultivated a fascinating solo drum practice, often incorporating electronics. Jazz Speaks recently caught up with Gilmore to discuss these solo projects, his broader view of percussion instruments within music as a whole, and his thoughts on cross-collaborative art. 

The Jazz Gallery: Have you found yourself more or less incentivized to make music during the coronavirus shutdown?

Marcus Gilmore: I have been continuing to make music but I am not necessarily making more music. Normally, I would be playing gigs but, obviously, I can’t do that right now. So, there is definitely an overall decrease in quantity. But I am still continuing to write and record music. It does feel like I might be recording a little more than usual. There hasn’t been a full album recording session, at least not yet. Instead, it has been singles and songs for different people. Projects that are more singular, not like 10 compositions to make a complete album. 

TJG: Many people are familiar with your work as a sideman but you also have some interesting solo drum projects like Silhouwav or your version of David Virelles’ Excerpts of Nube, often also incorporating electronics. What has inspired you to take this less traditional route?

MG: I guess it is a non-traditional route, but there is quite a bit of history of drummers doing solo works. Max [Roach] was doing it in the ’50s and ’60s. At that time, it was even rarer. But today, there are so many different elements and components you can add to any particular instrument or setting. There is a lot available to musicians to allow them to add additional elements to our music or our concepts.

I have done solo performances previously, but adding electronics has taken them to a whole different place. The electronics came from working with a friend of mine who is also a drummer. I’ve known him for years; we went to high school together. He is behind the company that I like to use when I incorporate electronics with my solo performances or even performances with ensembles. Anyway, he reached out to me several years ago to tell me he was going to start a program for drums and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. As soon as I was able to try out his program and investigate it, I saw how I could incorporate it into my music.

I never have a shortage of musical ideas but that doesn’t always readily translate to reality. This particular set up and machinery make it possible for me to do a lot of the things that I had imagined for a while. Once it became an accessible instrument to use, I kind of jumped right on it. At some point, I realized that these different elements could sometimes make it sound like I was playing with a much larger group than just myself. So I became really curious about how to emphasize this aspect in my solo performances.

There is no Silhouwav album per se that I plan to release. I do have an album coming out that has a lot of different things on it that I have been working on in the last few years. There are a lot of people involved and it is not just one ensemble. It takes ideas from my solo works, but there is no solo album in the pipeline. I did do a tour about a year and a half ago that wasn’t exactly Silhouwav but a combination of things.

TJG: As far as making new sounds through the use of electronics, one thing people would notice is how the pieces are overtly melodic or harmonic. There is a long history of musicians who have viewed the drums as more than a rhythmic instrument. What are your thoughts on this?

MG: The drums have always been a melodic and harmonic instrument. From what I’ve seen and researched, in most parts of the world, drums are viewed as more than just rhythmic instruments. Many different cultures throughout history seem to realize that the instrument is very much melodic and harmonic. Of course, there are different types of drums. Maybe certain drums might have clearer melodic or harmonic content than others. But it ultimately comes down to how it is played. 

Many African cultures tune their drums to specific notes. For instance, the talking drum used in certain parts of Senegal or Nigeria is very tonal. Some other drums aren’t quite as tonal but are still very linguistic. But when you are discussing linguistics, you are essentially dealing with melody as the two are inseparable. In Asia, I don’t know so much about how Japanese culture uses taiko drums or how Chinese music uses drums. But Indian music definitely uses the drums as a melodic and tonal instrument. India’s national instrument is the tabla and it is as tonal as any other drum I have heard in my life. So you have these ideas in Asia and Africa of the drums as more than a rhythmic instrument. I am not too familiar with the indigenous music of Australia. 

The idea that drums are not melodic or harmonic is a newer concept that has emerged over only the last few hundred years in Western culture. The focus on rudiments and modern-day snare drums in Europe definitely has not emphasized the instrument’s role as a melodic tool. Seeing as a lot of countries in the West are colonized by Europeans I feel like it goes hand in hand with that culture. 

Though it seems like now many in the West are starting to realize that drums are more than solely rhythmic instruments. I am fortunate that I come from a musical family with a long tradition and culture of seeing the instrument as a very melodic instrument so I had great examples at a very early age. I have always had examples of people who didn’t see limits on the instrument. So I’ve spent most of my life thinking of the drums as a melodic and harmonic instrument and I’ve heard that from more people than I have heard it is primarily rhythmic.

TJG: Speaking of the tabla, you recently had a mentoring relationship with the great Zakir Hussain. What did you take away from that experience?

MG: I learned a lot of things from working with Zakir. Sometimes a person like Zakir can be very literal, talking about specific things. But even when he has specific things to say, he would say what he had to say and that was it. It was never a long-winded speech or explanation. It was very seamless and natural and organic. 

The way I learned growing up was mostly through observation and that is how it was with Zakir. I am amazed at not just his timing on the drums but his time management skills in general. He is so busy and involved in so many initiatives but still finds time for family. That alone is pretty incredible actually. I also checked out his specific process for composing and rituals and how he carries himself when he travels all of which I find to be very informative and I’ve benefited from it for sure. 

The opportunity to have this experience was also incredible just because of how it came to be. It was sponsored by Rolex and the type of support they provided is very rare. Not to call names out but you see so many multi-billion dollar corporations in the US and they almost never have an arts initiative. But being from Switzerland, Rolex was part of the European emphasis on arts initiatives. Why don’t we have more support like that here? There is so much art coming from the states but there is almost no support for it. It is insane. We are making American music with just so little financial support for it.

TJG: In the past, you have had presented performances with tap dancer Savion Glover, including some dates at The Jazz Gallery. How do you view the relationship between music and other forms of art? 

MG: I have always made cross-disciplinary art, even as far back as when I was in high school. I went to an art school that had instrumentalists, vocalists, dancers, and visual artists. There was a lot of collaboration. I never really stopped being involved in these kinds of projects but it feels like at some point getting involved in certain circles began happening less. 

Throughout the years, Savion has been the primary dancer I have been working with. But in terms of visual artists, I still try to maintain a community with visual artists and videographers. I am happy to say I have somehow managed to stay in touch with a lot of them and continue to work on things with them. I am hoping to do more music with film and also with dance, for sure.

I am open to all of it. In reality, music has more in common with these other forms of art than it differs from them. They are all connected. Music, to me, can accompany anything. It is a universal thing. Art is universal as well, but as a musician, I of course feel strongest about music. Music is powerful because it can inspire your imagination on its own but can also be used to interact with visuals. As far as dance, it can have its own audio component as well. Savion is visually focused but also very audible too. If you think about it, he is actually a percussionist.

TJG: It is interesting you identify him as a percussionist. You have also worked with some of today’s best pianists, everyone from Chick Corea to Vijay Iyer. Of course, the piano uses mallets to strike strings. Do you see a special relationship between the piano and percussion instruments?

MG: The piano is a percussion instrument. Actually, I started playing piano before I played drums because growing up we had a piano in my house. I touched the piano before I touched the drums. And, when I was very young I went to a program at Juilliard to learn how to read music. In the percussion room, there was a piano because they said it was a percussion instrument. So, I have never really viewed the piano as not being a percussion instrument. I know there are strings, so you can say it is a string instrument as well, but it is the mallet striking the strings that makes sound. So it is primarily a percussion instrument to me.

TJG: Switching gears a bit, what can you tell me about your first time at the Jazz Gallery?

MG: [laughing] The first time I went to the Gallery was actually to pick up my grandfather’s cymbals. I was with my mom, so I wasn’t by myself. I think it was around late 2002 because I already played with Steve [Coleman] by then, though I think it was the same year. My grandfather was on tour with the Birds of a Feather band and, for some reason, the cymbals didn’t come back with him. Somehow [Roy] Hargrove was able to arrange for them to be sent to the Gallery for my mom and me to pick them up. So, that was my first time at the Gallery [laughing].

TJG: Not a lot of people can say that 

MG: Nope. But after that, if my memory serves me correctly, I believe the next time I went was for a jam session. It would have been either later that year or in 2003. They had jam sessions for maybe a little under a year. They were great. Everybody was there. Even if it was only five people there it would be a small group of the dopest musicians. I had some great experiences with that.

I have many memories of the Gallery, especially from when it was on Hudson street [The Jazz Gallery moved from 290 Hudson Street to its current location at 1160 Broadway in 2014]. A lot of great memories. 

The first time I ever played with my own band was at the Gallery in 2005. It was with David Bryant, Gregoire Maret, and get this— Dayna Stephens on bass. [laughing]. Around that same time, I was also part of The Jazz Gallery’s mentoring series, a generational thing where they pair up a legendary artist with a younger one. I was matched with Chico Hamilton and his band. I came in to sit in on a few songs and also spent some time at his house to watch his band rehearse. It was really beautiful.

TJG: The Jazz Gallery is not physically open at this time but has remained very active online. On June 6th, as part of their “Lockdown Sessions,” you will be presenting a new solo performance piece. What can you tell us about it?

MG: I will perform for about fifteen minutes. I think I will just keep it to the drum set. It will probably be a primarily acoustic thing. That is pretty much all I know for now [laughing]. We’ll see. 

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.

Knitting a Scene: Jason Lindner Speaks

As both a leader and sideman, pianist Jason Lindner has stitched vast threads of connection within the New York jazz world and beyond. His omnipresence at the Winter Jazz Festival, for instance, inspired WBGO’s Simon Rentner to coin “The Jason Lindner Award” for the busiest musician at the festival. As someone who has moved fluidly […]

Photo courtesy of the artist.

As both a leader and sideman, pianist Jason Lindner has stitched vast threads of connection within the New York jazz world and beyond. His omnipresence at the Winter Jazz Festival, for instance, inspired WBGO’s Simon Rentner to coin “The Jason Lindner Award” for the busiest musician at the festival.

As someone who has moved fluidly through the scenes at venues like Smalls, NuBlu, and The Jazz Gallery, we at Jazz Speaks thought it would be great to sit down with Lindner and talk about how the jazz community has moved and changed over the years.

The Jazz Gallery: Smalls was such an important place for you and a lot of your peers when you were getting started in the 1990s. Why do you think Smalls ended up being a real lodestar for your musical community at the time?

Jason Lindner: First, it was their booking model. Musicians were in charge of finding other musicians to play. Musicians tend to know more about the scene because they’re on the scene. It might take someone who’s a booker or a club owner a little longer to understand what’s happening.

In New York at the time, for the premier jazz clubs like the Vanguard and the Blue Note, you had to be of a certain career stature to play there. It was how their model worked—they sold tickets, had cover charges, and attracted a certain clientele. Smalls didn’t have that type of model—it’s why that first Smalls compilation album was called Jazz Underground. These weren’t artists who were names in the recording industry yet. So you had all of these underground jazz musicians that were known in the community but not beyond that. Through Smalls, they had a chance to have worldwide recognition.

Number two, the model of Smalls was very accessible. They had no liquor license, so there was no age limit. They didn’t have to adhere to a lot of the same rules and regulations that regular bars had to. Smalls helped so many young people in New York, especially students, by being so accessible and so affordable. It was pretty multi-generational. It was striking how accessible Smalls was when other jazz clubs weren’t. A student wouldn’t go to the Blue Note unless they were a superfan of somebody and wanted to save up $25-85 for a ticket.

But maybe the biggest reason was the jam sessions. They had open-ended jam sessions seven nights a week and the club wouldn’t close until the last person left. That’s why they called it Bohemian, stuff like that. All the musicians who came to New York to a play a show would all end up at Smalls by the end of the night. That’s how a lot of people met and made relationships and new groups.

One more thing—because it was so musician-friendly, Mitch Borden actually financially supported a number of older, down-and-out musicians. These were freelancers, master musicians in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, who had played for a long time, but weren’t part of the larger employment system, so they didn’t have health benefits and what not. These were people that my peers looked up to, but they weren’t able to make ends meet financially, or get help with health or addiction issues. Smalls was really a home for a lot of those musicians. There was an ecosystem of support between older and younger musicians.

There’s never been another place like that in New York in my lifetime. And they’re not like that anymore because they’re a legally-operating bar. It might be more comparable to the World Stage in Los Angeles where Terrace Martin, Thundercat, and the LA jazz community came up. Billy Higgins was the founder of that place. That really has an ecosystem of youth and elders. There was also a place called the University of the Streets in New York where I used to play a lot, and they had jam sessions and concerts. That was more of a community center. It wasn’t really run like a club.

TJG: It’s interesting hearing about Smalls compared to somewhere like the old Knitting Factory, which also had a strong community, but a very different model. A lot of the performers associated with the Knitting Factory had eclectic tastes and styles, which I definitely associate with you and many of your peers. Was there a lot of crossover between the Smalls and Knitting Factory scenes when you were coming up?

JL: If the original Knitting Factory was still around now, I feel that would be a choice place of mine because of the experimental and eclectic spirit. I really like that music, but back in the ‘90s, it wasn’t really a scene that I fell into. The people I was playing with at the time were bebop-centric. I had studied with Barry Harris and a lot of my friends were in that same circle. Smalls became a pretty bop-centric place. I feel the taste of Mitch Borden had a lot to do with that, as well as the people he associated with, like Frank Hewitt and Tommy Turrentine—they were straight-up bebop.

I actually dislike using names for genres, because they oversimplify and generalize cultural movements, downplaying the innovative individuals involved — terms and phrases historically created largely by outliers to those movements.

But anyway, for explanation sake, Smalls was more in that vein.

There were a few players—definitely the minority—like myself, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Omer Avital, Myron Walden and others—who weren’t restricting themselves to that style of music, who’s style was more genre-fluid. That grew as the years went on, especially after the release of Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls. But Smalls and the Knitting Factory were really different scenes back then. There was little crossover, I think.

TJG: How did The Jazz Gallery first get on your radar?

JL: Rio’s ex-husband Stafford Hunter was a trombonist in my big band, so that’s how I met Rio. A short time after I met Rio—this is in 2001—Smalls was going through financial difficulty and heading toward a temporary closure. Since Smalls was where my big band had been playing every week, Rio had the idea of the band continuing our performances but at The Jazz Gallery, which we did.

Roy Hargrove was also a part of the Smalls community. He would definitely hang at Smalls a lot and play in the jam sessions, as would the musicians associated with Roy. At the same time, Roy was collaborating with Cuban musicians and experimenting with that and with hip hop, so I think he helped facilitate more of that crossover mentality. A lot of musicians that I associate with the Gallery I met at Smalls, like James Hurt, Sherman Irby, Dana Murray. And, of course, the whole clique from Texas, like Robert Glasper. I heard a lot of people for the first time at Smalls. That was pre-Jazz Gallery. Sherman played with Roy too.

TJG: Beyond the big band residency, were you performing with other projects at the Gallery in those early years?

JL: I think the first thing was this piano duo series that the Gallery did. I performed duet with James Hurt at one piano. It was heavily improvised, but anchored within our own compositional ideas. Ben Ratliff actually wrote a cool review for the New York Times back when that publication used to review local cultural events.

TJG:  Then in 2002, you were part of the Gallery’s first commission series. Can you talk about working on that project?

JL: That was for an insane group of some of my favorite musiciansJeff Ballard, Larry Grenadier, Miguel Zenon, and Mark Turner. It also featured Todd Low, who played the Chinese snake violin—the erhu—and taught me some traditional songs for that instrument which I arranged for the band and that was so cool!

TJG: That’s quite a lineup!

JL: Yeah. And then later I brought in other projects including a duo with drummer Dan Weiss, where Miriam Crowe, a visual design and lighting artist, created a really cool mini-installation of rose-colored hanging ornaments lit in a really cool way.

TJG: One thing that’s interesting to me is that you didn’t document these projects on record, like you have with Now vs. Now. What do think the reason is for that?

JL: I feel the early 2000s predated the idea that you have to document every single thing you do. I know the Gallery documented all of those performances for their own catalog

TJG: It’s all on MiniDisc!

JL: [Laughs]. At the time, I would have loved to record those projects, but I think it was too much. It wouldn’t have been financially possible, and we didn’t have great recording equipment of our own at that time. Now, it’s kind of a no brainer—you have a show, so you record it, video it, make content. If it’s a good show, it could even be a record. Back then, people weren’t really thinking like that. In improvised music and jazz, I feel people were more appreciative of being in the moment and accepting that that moment as being a future memory and a feeling, as opposed to a document you can revisit. If you know you can’t revisit something, you’ll be sure to pay attention more, to really experience it with your entire being.

I’ve always done a lot of experimentation, but in terms of pooling resources to actually release an album, I always put extra pressure on myself to make sure that shit is really good and feel confident about what I’m presenting. I think that’s a big reason why there was such a big gap between my big band records and Now vs. Now. For ten years before Now vs. Now, I was experimenting with different groups, mixing styles, getting my feet wet with electronics and with extended song form, playing at Nublu and other spots. I recorded gigs for myself, but I never thought, “Yeah, this is ready to be a record.”

We also relied on record labels back then and we don’t need to anymore. If we all could have released shit on Bandcamp in 2002, we all would have been doing it. That didn’t exist back then.

I mean, there must have been artists in the early millennium who were thinking like that. Marc Ribot comes to mind, since he’s so radically independent. A great example is Sun Ra, who was a relentlessly prolific DIY recording artist before anyone even did that. But I didn’t grow up in a DIY culture, unfortunately. I kind of wish I did. I had to learn that a little later.

TJG: I think Sun Ra and Marc Ribot are good examples, because I associate that DIY ethos with a lot of the downtown improvisers and artist collectives like the AACM. 

JL: You’re right. I feel like in the downtown jazz scene, there’s a lot of crossover into other experimental, DIY scenes, and those experimental scenes are purely for art’s sake, and there’s not necessarily any expectation or want or need to be more than that. I would say that experimental artists in this country are basically forced to do everything themselves because they don’t receive any type of support. But it fills a cultural gap and is absolutely needed.

TJG: I want to end by talking a bit about yourself as a kind of “elder statesman” of The Jazz Gallery. Back in 2015, you worked with pianist James Francies as part of the Gallery’s Mentoring Series. What made you want to be involved in the series and how did you choose James?

JL: When Rio asked me about getting involved in the series, I had recently been up at a place in Harlem and heard James at a jam session. I was totally blown away. I had just met him that night and talked for a bit, so I didn’t really know him. I thought of him immediately regarding the series.

It was a little weird for me at first. If I’m a mentor, there’s this stipulation that I’m the teacher and I’m inviting someone to learn from me. I wasn’t really comfortable with that. But when I saw James play, I saw someone who was inspiring me, so I flipped the whole idea. James then happens to be a very humble and dedicated musician and a very nice human being. I think it worked out in a really cool way because he got to learn some stuff about my songs and my approach just from the experience of playing in Now Vs Now. And he truly inspired all of us as well!

Since then, I’ve seen him get more into electronic instruments and he does it in a very different way than I do it, which is awesome. He found the kinds of instruments that fit into the music he wants to make—he became a multi-keyboardist. It seems like there was a bit of influence there. I just think it’s awesome that he’s gotten so many opportunities, and I’m not surprised, because he’s freakishly good.