Monday, June 6, 2011

A Giraffe: Under A Table

A Giraffe (group)
Under A Table (self produced)
Joe Santa Maria (sax)
Mike Lockwood (drums)
Emilio Terranova (bass)
Steve Blum (piano)

Different than what you've been listening to so far this year. That's what I said to myself as I was taking a spin through the self produced debut, Under A Table from A Giraffe.

A Giraffe started as group of musically similar friends who met during their time at California Institute Of Arts. This surprisingly well equipped LA outfit delivers a contemporary gem with past, present and future written throughout. In a similar vein to how another LA band from two decades ago, Black/Note, caused a stir and a bit of seismic shift of the scene, A Giraffe could do the same. Another sign that the California jazz scene is becoming more and more significant by the month.

Under A Table opens with "A Ranger", a tune with what feels like an infinite loop of Steve Blum pulsating yet hypnotic keys. They are joined by the Santa Maria's muscular tone on sax and as the tune builds the quartet gain more strength and the dynamics and improvisation really start to come to the fore. "A Ranger" and its follow up "Silo" have a feel of mid-period Branford Marsalis Quartet at its peak with Kirkland, "Tain" Watts and Robert Hurst. "Silo" opens with playful crossrhythms from both Blum and Terranova that lead way to some beautiful patterns from Santa Maria. "Silo" continually shifts pace and features a great interchange between Santa Maria and Blum midway through.

A Giraffe show that they can be more than just a straight ahead jazz quartet with the complexed passages included on "You Shouldn'tven't." Steve Blum's playing starts in a classical fashion before evolving into a free form pattern which allows the rest of the band to improvise and play around within the space. "Finding Yourself" is a lovely ballad that still features some complex structures for which, you would almost mistake the group being European than Californian. The title track, beautifully and effectively closes out the album. "Under A Table" is highlighted by some stellar solo patterns from Terranova with Blum adding colour on top of the beat.

Under A Table is a phenomenal debut from a quartet that seems to be developing a lot of ideas at once. But there ability to combine them into agile yet free flowing journeys in sound is one of the reason I've been impressed and listening to this album almost twice a day. For me it was refreshing to hear a number of combinations that were still different than a lot the music I've already been listening to this year. This is one my favourite albums this year.

JazzWrap had the honour of discussing the album and various other thoughts with the band recently.

JW: While A Giraffe are originally from LA, you're now based in New York. Do you feel a difference in the two musical communities?


Yes I feel that there is a large difference between NYC and Los Angeles.  Besides the most obvious differences of population density and weather, which I feel have very strong influence on the mentality of the people, I think that there are different reasons for people to "arrive" at these two special locations.  I have seen both sides and I believe that I can sum it up in this way:  

Los Angeles is technically still the wild west.  It's where people have gone traditionally to break new ground, get away from oppression in their home environment, and find some sort of new and foreign territory to explore.  The kind of musicians that I came in contact with there were very experimental and open minded.  Even to the point that they demanded that things they were involved in were cutting edge and crossing borders.  The influence of Asia, Latin America, and Africa are very apparent and not compartmentalized adding to the openness of the scene.  Artistic people in LA travel the massive city in search of each other and in search of a feeling of beauty and connectedness.  It in some ways is a more lonely city then NY, because it takes more effort to expand your physical borders.  Monetarily it was very difficult to be an artist there.  There are very few venues to see or perform acoustic music, even though there are many many great artists.  I was actually disappointed that it was so difficult to find and be a part of the creative scene.  Had I not been at Calarts, which is an oasis of creative potential, I imagine it would have taken me a very long time to come in contact with the people I did in the 2 years I lived there.  That said, I think that the type of artist in LA is a very special breed.  They are extremely creative and determined, nomadic by nature and willing to try anything once without complaint.  However, they are not willing to sell short on their beliefs if faced with opposition.  The members of the Los Angeles avant-garde constitute a very long and illustrious list.  And besides the avant-garde, there are also many "straight ahead" musicians there that are second to none.  

Now New York on the other hand is in a class all it's own.  I feel that people come here to "Conquer" as well as "Explore."  There is an air of urgency in the city and as a resident you are constantly surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes.  In such a small region there are more people then any other city in the country.  This fact can not be underestimated.  People are physically on top of each other like cookies in a jar.  I believe the constant stimulation awakens an animal instinct in everyone.  There is constant danger as well as inspiration and peace (when you can find it).   I feel that in this city you can really explore your imagination and hone your "killer instinct" so to speak.  Your reaction time has to be quick and you can't afford to be too relaxed.  I feel that for this time in my life the amount of stimulation is perfect.  Unlike any other city on the planet I can go see multiple shows a day, sometimes for free.  In the Jazz world this is absolutely impossible anywhere else.  Not to mention that NYC is also a Meca for many other art forms.  In the time I've been here I've seen countless performances of music as well as some classical dance, performance art, theatre, and even a robotics concert where a young guy did a rap alongside an animatronic doll.  All these things are happening in Los Angeles, but here it seems that if I even have the notion that something may exist or would be interesting to see I can find someone doing it and i can go see for myself today...  not in a few months.  Surprisingly enough, I've also found that the rent is comparable to LA if not cheaper here.  I've also found luck, albeit after a year of searching, finding work.  I teach woodwinds out on Long Island and intern for a startup music website  I've had a pretty easy time finding good jobs, but when I got here I couldn't find a service job to save my life.  It seems like New York is a city looking for specialists of all kinds.  Which is good for me, because I'm over qualified in some very niche areas.  

JW: Have the two scenes influenced "Under A Table"?


Yes absolutely, all of us in the band are well traveled and have been heavily influenced by New York musicians.  Although I'm the only one currently living in the city Mike has come to visit on several occasions and thoroughly enjoys the environment.  I think that as a Jazz musician or an artist of any kind there is no way to avoid the influence of the NY scene.  But, then it's not to say that many spectacular artists from all over the world didn't develop their styles somewhere else and bring in to New York fully formed.  A great teacher of mine in LA pointed out to me that Charles Mingus spent his early development in Los Angeles and he is someone who's music I had always associated with a "New York" sound.  New York is a real melting pot.  Also, as a musician in the modern era I think that my influences are coming from all over the world.  I personally have studied many genres  (Jazz, Classical, Folk, Brazilian, Indonesian, Balkan, Indian, Japanese, Celtic, and African music to name some).  Of course I'm no jack of all trades, but I have taken away very important lessons from this exposure. 

JW: There are moments on Under A Table where the band really stretch and seemed to be having a lot of fun ("You Shouldn't'vent," and "Live Oak"). Can you describe the group composition/writing style?

Joe : 

It's interesting that you should mention both of those songs.  They both had quite a different process or at least very different material.  "Live Oak" is my composition and It developed over several months.  It is based off of a palindrome rhythm i created (3+8+3+4+3+8+3).  It started simply enough as an exercise in that pattern (which actually fits into 4 bars of 4/4 time if given 8th note value).  Eventually I created the melody line, which wound up breaking up the symmetry of the pattern.  Then came the triplet section which is found at the end of the "A" section.  These two parts make up the area of the song where I play my solo.  After my solo the song goes into a section that reflects the original palindrome in the bass line.  Steve takes his solo in this part of the song and so does Mike.  It's an interesting composition because at the same time that it is pretty complicated rhythmically, the way it moves seems organic and like an ocean to me.  There are peaks and valleys built into the structure and it makes it very fun to perform.  We had a very challenging time with this piece, because it was difficult to define the rhythm structures, but to also interact and really enjoy the performance.  We needed to get past the complexity somehow and listen to each other very hard.  This is I think very indicative of our group dynamic.  We are trying to flush out complicated ideas in a way that keeps them alive.  Not to perform complications for their own sake, but to use them as a platform for exploration and to take chances and perhaps break the structure.  There is nothing less interesting to me in modern music than a song that constantly pounds you in the ear with it's base concept, unless its absolutely beautiful.  I think a piece should always build from it's original inspiration into something more and not be afraid to evolve.  

Mike's song "You Shouldn't'vent" represents another part of our spectrum.  His piece has a rather complicated solo between Steve and I before my sax solo, but other then that it is a very simple 8 bar melody with a tag in mixed meter.  We start out with a piano solo where Steve explores the material in a free environment.  We have a tendency to take "free jazz" sensibilities and incorporate them into more complicated song structures.  In this piece we use the cyclical nature of the harmony to move in and out of different zones.  We don't play a literal form for the solo sections, but because of the strength of the melody we don't stray too far away from the sounds implied in the writing.  The most free that it becomes is towards the end of the Alto solo when we reach some very pensive and beautiful moments, which strikingly contrast the beginning of the sax solo.  I feel that this is a very unique composition and that it is also very representative of our collective approach and attitude towards modern Jazz.  Mike's compositions have a very special energy and this one is on the edge of his aggressive, but still playful side.  

Steve B:

There is always a certain balance between composition and improvisation in jazz - each group approaches that balance differently. In our case, each tune has a different amount of weight placed on the compositional elements, and a certain amount of liberty is allowed by the composer. In most cases, this is discovered as a band as we work our way through the rehearsal process. We discover what sections should be more open, and what sections we should play more literally. Though compositions are written and then brought to the group, we usually discover our approach to them as an ensemble, and this can even change over time.

JW: What albums or artist have the group been listening to that you're currently digging?


I've been checking out a pretty wide variety of things.  Most recently I've been listening to a lot of Balkan music including Trifon Trifonov, Ivo Papasov, and the Bulgarian Women's Choir (Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares).  Some of my all time favorite albums (that I still listen to constantly) are:  

Aphex Twin - Richard D James and Melodies From Mars 
John Coltrane - Ballads, w/Johnny Hartman, Live in Seatle, and Plays the Blues.
Cannonball Adderly - Know What I Mean w/Bill Evans
Diabate-Sekou Kouyate - Mali: Ancient Strings
David Murray & Jack Dejohnette - In Our Style
Andrew Hill - Black Fire
Battles - Mirrored 
Air Mali Music - Djembe And African Drums
Ahmad Jamal - Live at the Pershing 
Bill Evans Trio - The 1960 Birdland Sessions
Marvin Gaye - Lets Get It On
Duke Ellington - w/Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong - Porgy and Bess
Gnawa Halwa - Rhabaouine
Guines, Tata - Aniversario
Potato y Totico - Patato y Totico
Redman/Blackwell - Red & Black In Willisau
The Shaggs - Philosophy of the World
Sun Ra - Calling Planet Earth
Sonny Rollins - Live at the Village Vanguard
I Nyoman Windha - Kreasi Pilihan
Street Music of Java - Various Artists 

A few from Steve Blum

Steve B:

Personally, I have been pretty obsessed with Shane Ensley's latest album. I love Craig Taborn. The Claudia Quintet's latest album is another recent favorite of mine. Kneebody's newer album as well. I have also been listening to a lot of solo piano music - Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans.

JW: While Under A Table is rooted in more a hard bop style, members of the band have experimented with different soundscapes as evident on your bandcamp page. What's next for A Giraffe?


I believe that we will stay the course as an acoustic quartet for some time.  Although Mike and I both have aspirations to join the world of electronic music (Mike is further down that path then I) "A Giraffe" is a fantastic outlet for us to explore our love of all music and find creative ways to bring these influences back to our collective roots as instrumental acoustic improvisers.  We will likely in the next 5 years expand our sound pallet and branch out, but we certainly haven't exhausted our acoustic possibilities.  In fact I think we are just at the very beginning.  

Steve B: 

I think A Giraffe has a pretty specific niche we are carving for ourselves, though we are a young band. Hopefully soon we will be touring and exploring new material, and developing further as an ensemble. We all have other projects we are involved in, but I very much look forward to discovering all of the possibilities this band is capable of. I imagine we will stick with our acoustic format for some time and try to broaden our palate of musical possibilities within our current context.

JW: How does A Giraffe feel about jazz in this digital age?


I think that music is benefiting incredibly from technology.  If not in the improvement of certain instruments (notably keyboards and recording equipment) then with internet as a forum for exploration and marketing.  If it weren't for the improved communication of this age it's likely I would have never come in contact with you or your blog!  There is a rich community out there in the world that appreciates new art.  I have been extremely lucky to encounter more art in my short 26 year lifetime then many of my predecessors could have in a lifetime of striving.  Technology brings the foundation level of knowledge up many levels.  The art we will see in the near future (as exhibited by the current trends) is going to be the art of the world, made by people who have real knowledge of different cultures and who appreciate humanity as a whole, taking the best from everyone across the globe and making it sing through their own personalities.  

Steve B: 

Personally, I feel that jazz is more alive than ever. More people have access to a wider variety of records. It's easier to exchange information. It's easier to share your music with people than ever before. The internet allows both the producers and consumers to cut out the middlemen, and everyone benefits from this. This is not just true in jazz, but in all styles of modern music. Remember the stylistic diversity of music in America 75 years ago. Compare it to the diversity of music on the scene in 2011. It is orders of magnitudes greater. One will find that in every niche music there is a set of devoted fans. It is pretty incredible.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Vern, for the awesome review. Your time listening and writing is much appreciated! You rock.