Photo by TJ Huff courtesy of Kate Gentile

The New Jazz of the 21st Century: A Case Study in Kate Gentile and ‘Mannequins’

Drummer and composer Kate Gentile's debut recording is making a New Jazz splash. PopMatters interviews her to get behind this new direction in improvised music.
Kate Gentile

Mannequins wears the clothing of jazz and includes a heap of improvising but in almost every other way it stays away from classic “jazz” practice.

The last ten or 15 years have been a thrilling time in creative music, improvised music, jazz, BAM, whatever you want to to call this music that … that we call … whatever you want to call it.

Musicians hate categories. But if we writers are going to communicate to folks about the music, we have to reach for words, references, histories to which the music relates. It’s getting harder to do this.

A case in point, perhaps, is the stunning — even important — recording by drummer Kate Gentile, Mannequins. So here we go: I want to explain to you why I think it’s important, why it’s essential listening in 2017 if you are interested in creative art music, “jazz”, improvised music, and so on.

To get some help with this, I got Gentile on the phone.

Mannequins in Short

Let me start by telling you why the Jazz Today column is the right place for this music. Mannequins consists of 13 compositions written by drummer Gentile and performed by a quartet: Gentile, Adam Hopkins on acoustic bass, pianist Matt Mitchell (who doubles on Prophet 6 synthesizer and electronics), and Jeremy Viner playing tenor saxophone and clarinet.

So, in instrumentation, this looks like a jazz group: wind plus a rhythm section. This is the instrumentation of 10,000 jazz groups from the sublime (The John Coltrane Quartet) to some band playing in a local Holiday Inn.

But this record is also a superb example of something new and increasingly prominent in 2017. It’s a record that wears the clothing of jazz and includes a heap of improvising but in almost every other way it stays away from classic “jazz” practice.

Most of those classic jazz quartets were playing “standard” jazz themes — 32-bar songs by Gershwin or 12-bar blues or other classic song forms, with a melody to be interpreted by the saxophone, the rhythm section swinging in either 4/4 or 3/4 time and providing accompanying harmonies in the form of “chord changes”. First, the band plays the melody, then the musicians take turns improvising new melodies on top of the chords, followed by the melody one last time.

Mitchell, who plays an instrument that could just be accompanying with chords, generally does not play the standard chords. The rhythm section is required to play beyond a single time signature — all the tunes have unusual and/or shifting requirements of time. Toe-tapping (or dancing) to this music is a Ph.D level challenge. Sets harmonies or the melodies that ride over them are unlikely to be played, embellished, and then repeated.

To be clear, Gentile is far from alone in making this “New Jazz”. The New York Times recently published a strong article by my colleague Giovanni Russonello (“Is It Jazz?” under the phrase “The New Vanguard”) on a recording by drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey that got into this new direction.

There are lots of ways to think about this, no one utterly correct. You’d be right if you observed that this music often sounds like (or uses the techniques of) the classical music that is often called “new music” — the kind of thing you might hear from the Bang on a Can collective. But there’s so much improvising here that it doesn’t really fit in that box.

You’d be right if you noted that this music is a far cry from the soulful, blues-based jazz that has been so central to that tradition — if you said that it often sounds more like modern “European” music when it gets cacophonous in a certain way. But there’s a core of blues language here that can’t be denied, including a sensibility that will remind you of the music of “jazz” musicians such as Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and Julius Hemphill that was utterly grounded in the blues.

You’d be right if you noted that the rhythms here most often don’t have that classic sound of swing, the propulsive feeling of forward motion in time or down-home kick on the backbeat. These rhythms more often lurch or skitter or simply move in a precise serious of syncopations that can sound mechanical. But these rhythms may also remind you of the skittering complications of hip hop rhythm, the very definition of groove music in today’s world.

It’s “jazz”, I will argue, but it’s complicated.

Who is Kate Gentile?

New York in 2017 is teeming with brilliant new musicians — composers, improvisors, students, masters, musical entrepreneurs — and sometimes I think I’ve met all of them and always I’m wrong. Gentile arrived in New York six years ago after a three-year stint in Toronto. In that time she has played and studied with many of the people she calls her “heroes”: Tony Malaby, Kris Davis, Marty Ehrlich, Michael Formanek, Chris Speed, and Matt Mitchell. Also on her list are Anthony Braxton and John Zorn.

Gentile is originally from Buffalo, New York. There, she says, “I liked lots of ‘90s rock, stuff that was happening at the time. I wasn’t really exposed to lots of cool music in high school. I was busy cramming for my music school auditions,” she jokes.

Music school, for her, meant The Eastman School at the University of Rochester. “I had the classic Eastman experience. Eastman is a school where the theory is really strong. You learn sight reading and fundamentals, but you don’t get much ensemble work.”

She married a Canadian, which is what brought her to Toronto. “I couldn’t legally work, so I taught, I practiced, and I gigged — with a weird metal band, with an avant-garde art rock band.” But, over the course of those three years, she realized that “I had to move to Brooklyn. I didn’t know anybody. I’m not very outgoing, but I went to shows and met people. The most respectful way to meet great musicians is to take a lesson — you develop a relationship and learn from them.”

Today, Gentile is working in or leading as many as four bands in the city, including the band on Mannequins. “Snark Horse”, a duo with Mitchell that works on many very short compositions by each member and collaborates with other musicians such as guitarist Mary Halvorson, Jon Irabagon, and Ben Gerstein. “Secret People” is a duo with guitarist Dustin Carlson playing rock, jazz, and noise/electronic music. Phalanx Trio sounds like a more conventional piano trio with Kim Cass on bass and Mitchell’s piano. But, with Gentile, I’m guessing that the trio gets different too.

How Kate Gentile Thinks About Her New Record

Mannequins is a recording that provides both the concrete pleasures of listening to “jazz” and yet also seems to exist as a more complicated/ formal bit of music-making and in a more emotional, shoot-from-the-hip realm too. Sometimes it sounds incredibly “free” and at other times you feel you need a diagram to find your place.

In talking to (or exchanging emails with) the incredibly thoughtful Gentile, this all starts to make sense because she has a language for it.

Gentile explains that she thinks of music, particularly music that provides for improvisation, as having a balance of two approaches. Music usually has a “language” — its norms of harmony, scales, rhythms, and so on. There is, she points out, a standard “jazz language or jazz vocabulary” and certain compositions are very much “language-based” and then ask the musicians to improvise based on the tune’s pitches and rhythms, on the “language”.

The alternative to that is playing and improvising that is based on “sound” — “a piece about dry textures, static, rates of transitions, notes per breath, overtones, rhythms of things like construction sites or record players skipping, waves, turning a pitch collection inside out, playing with or against someone else, a state of mind, contrast, unity, pointillism, injustice, basking in the sound and stillness of a breath, subway rage, maximalism, whatever.” On such a piece of music, musical choices aren’t organized by scales or rhythms or harmonic rules but sounds, ideas, and feelings.

The music on Mannequins, then, can be thought of as balance of those two approaches.

“There’s a unification or synthesis of ‘sound’ and ‘language’ that I’ve felt has not been explored enough, relatively speaking. I love music that is centered around both of those things, and they aren’t totally separate. In some ways, it’s a false separation of two things that are really all one. There has always been music with both approaches, it’s nothing new, but that’s the zone I find myself interested in dealing with, both when improvising and composing.”

“Sound” Tunes and Their Secrets

A composition like “SSGF” is one of the more “abstract” ones, Gentile says. It begins with a written theme for piano trio that uses a repeated rhythmic motif, then it adds clarinet as the theme develops and slowly changes. The first improvisation by Mitchell (and bass and drums too) doesn’t use much of the “language” of the first theme — it swirls into a realm of “sound” though it returns to the rhythmic idea briefly. A bass solo eventually introduces a new theme with contrasting, calm mood. Gentile says that the themes are “aesthetically related, but not obviously so”. And when Viner improvises on tenor, again, we don’t hear him following a set of chords or remaining within a mode or some other “language-based” set of rules. A new set of syncopated punches by the piano trio come in beneath the saxophone, but the effect is one of “sound” most certainly — eventually leading us to the third theme.

If it all sounds forbidding or overly complex, let me tell you, it’s not. This third theme in “SSGF” is wonderfully playful and dancing, something that could have come from Chick Corea’s pen on a certain day. Happily, then, it gets interrupted by an atonal saxophone flurry for ten seconds durations … leading to a mysterious and lyrical theme #4 that pairs Viner’s clarinet and Gentile playing vibes … which devolves into a silence from which Mitchell and Viner pull a uniquely beautiful final theme. Does that final theme somehow encapsulate all those that came before? I don’t know how, but it does. It leaves you enchanted. On sound alone.

Here’s another composition built on sound: “stars covered in clouds of metal”. Mitchell is working with the synth, getting a harsh tone that sounds like an overdriven Rhodes or clarinet but with an otherworldly buzzing at its core. His theme is highly percussive, and Gentile explains that “I put on a metronome and then played behind it in a way that felt good to me and transcribed it.” Vine enters with a counter melody, and then the short tune crumbles into an improvisation that is purely textural — clattering percussion and percussion synthesizer — that ends quickly.

The next tune, “trapezoidal nirvana” has a theme that sounds connected to “stars” but stated acoustically. Gentile explains that the two compositions were written a few years apart, but she put them together on the album consciously. “I was imagining this low-high thing,” she says, as the main theme has the instruments playing a melody together that leaps in wide, punching intervals. It’s a funky theme, odd but appealing. “It starts out, harmonically, as whatever I’m hearing, but then once I have eight bars or so, the tune has its set rules.”

When Mitchell begins improvising, however, the “rules” seem to be more on the “sound” side than the “language” side. He develops mood and texture with no regard for the previous harmonic pattern, and then the whole band enters into a quiet jam that allows them to invent in the moment, creating subtle sonic mist. Viner brings the band back to the hopping theme, but it becomes a new melody for piano and clarinet — more chromatic now, Gentile points out — that is offset by a different melody and rhythm for the bass and Mitchell’s left hand.

“Sound” is something Gentile thinks about a lot. “I generally don’t like piano as an instrument because of sonic limitations, which is a huge compliment to Matt’s skill, sound, and musicianship that I’d rather have him than a guitar player, for instance.” Gentile, however, didn’t want the band on Mannequins to sound too much like a traditional trio or quartet. “I think I tried to overcompensate. That was a factor in why I got Adam Hopkins, because his playing is really colorful, sound-wise, and then I also decided I’d just try to be extra sonically interesting myself, since that’s easy to do as a drummer. Then I figured I could play vibes, too, and that’s another color, and Matt could do electronics stuff, and then I added Jeremy and he plays two instruments.” Beyond that, Gentile got guitarist and producer David Torn to master the finished product. Torn has famously worked with the widest possible array of artists — from Madonna, Jeff Beck, and David Bowie to Tim Berne and Laurie Anderson.

Beyond the instruments and players, Gentile thought about “sound” in her composing. “Even if you use a variety of voicings and intervals and chord sounds, there’s always going to be personal tendencies that define the music’s ’sound’.” She explains that her music contains “very few instances of just a single melody and bass line” but instead is rich in dyads and “thick harmonies”. She sites “unreasonable optimism” as having an initial composed section that was written very freely, but that created parameters she tried to follow in the rest of the tune. “Writing in a way that has a sound from the resultant vertical harmonies that I like but that has the kinds of horizontal ideas and phrases I like with good counterpoint and voice leading is often like a tedious puzzle where you’re constantly cross-checking how things work out from every angle, and adjusting from all directions.”

The result, then, is both meticulous and outside the standard “jazz” forms that have become so familiar — the ii-V-I harmonies of Tin Pan Alley, for example.

Rhythm or Where’s the “Swing” in the New Jazz?

The most traditionally “swinging” performance on Mannequins is “wrack”, which has certain forward momentum, sometimes (but certainly not always) combined with a “four on the floor” feeling of grooving quarter notes, the very sound like swing in modern jazz. Gentile is up on her ride cymbal for much of the first half of the tune, pushing the groove forward, which also contributes to the sense of traditional swing.

But on closer listening, almost all of “wrack” is a web of complex rhythms that come off as swing because of the character of the performances. The opening theme seems to have two rhythms working against each other, and this kind of odd, push-pull rhythm is truly highlighted at the end of the piano solo going into a Gentile drum solo. Is that some hip hop influence? Starting from the swing feeling, it starts to feel mechanical.

“Maybe this stuff sounds mechanical,” Gentile suggests, “because it’s something that we are used to using machines to do. In music school, we were often transcribing solos and notating these very subtle rhythmic complexities. That kind of attention to detail is no different from when the snare in a Madlib tune is just slightly behind by some unquantifiable amount. So, if you are playing improvised music, there is all this territory to mine, figure out how to notate feels, and make them part of the composition. That’s where it’s coming from, I think, trying to reflect the things that I like.”

Another specific example is “unreasonable optimism”, a tune that begins with Gentile on vibes and Viner on clarinet, sounding like a modern chamber piece dense in harmonies and with a jagged rhythm that is hard to count. “That rhythm is 7 against 6,” Gentile explains, “and halfway through the 7 and 6 flip from top to bottom.” That jaggedness, then, comes from two different divisions of time in the bar length, laid on top of each other so that notes start subtly out of phase with each other. Gentile adds that “in the beginning, the melodic phrases are five bars long, then they get shorter.” So, another kind of uncertainty or phasing occurs.

With All the Complexity, Is This Really “New Music” with Solos? Or Is It Hip-Hop?

For people listening to contemporary classical music, the category “New Music” refers to a creative cutting edge of the composed, European tradition — though New Music open includes influence from around the world (and from jazz). It’s often based on complex rhythms, dissonant harmonies, “extended techniques” in playing instruments. How does Gentile’s music compare to “New Music”?

“There are lots of unspoken relationships to music that we like,” Gentile says. “Like electronic music that unfolds. We are sometimes trying to get that feeling. Rhythms or harmonies that aren’t commonly used in jazz or pop/rock — that stuff has been used in classical music. So, when we use that stuff, but we improvise, then it’s still jazz to me, even thought some material is coming from other genres. The approach is still improvising, a free spirit, exploration.”

It’s not just classical music that seems to take over at times. “A lot of it just has to do with what records you liked or heard at different points in your life,” suggests Gentile. “Hip hop is totally in there. Georgia Anne Muldrow is incredible — she programs stuff and her stuff and her feel is really amazing. There is a love of detail in that music.”

Listen to “Otto, on alien shoulders” and you can hear all this in play. It doesn’t sound like classical or like hip-hop, but the elements of both are there — the push and pull of rhythmic detail, the harmonic elements from beyond jazz, the use of synthesizers, yet there is something in the core DNA that still says “jazz”.

“The impetus for writing ‘Otto, on alien shoulders’ was imagining a bass line with something like the feeling of swimming in a mud pit or moving through molasses, something with a lot of resistance, and then having a light, quirky, f-ed up melody over it moving faster and seemingly free, unhindered. Totally abstract. But it’s all notated in a meter — mostly 4/4, with tuplets and specific harmony, and we play on the tune freely and play ideas from the tune in the ‘language-y’ way but it’s also obviously super abstract and about the sounds, the vibe, the types of phrases in it.”

And so there we are, back again to this idea of “sound” and “language” and the way the two ultimately, occupy the space. “It’s all one thing. And the majority of the tunes are like that. I think I picked “Otto” because it’s so out in some ways, especially sonically, but we actually sort of ended up playing the form, like a jazz tune.”

This is May Be the Future of “Jazz”

Mannequins is Gentile’s first recording and it ought to propel her into the conversation about the New Jazz and what’s best and most soulful about it. But even that conversation is pretty small these days. Jazz, the complex, new, somewhat avant-garde stuff, does not a mortgage pay.

“It’s really hard,” Gentile confesses without any pity. “I’m not necessarily making it work. I’m in debt. I worked in a coffee shop for five years, I messed up my knees. I just view it as, well, I could get a 9 to 5 and not do what I do and have a safer life, have health insurance. But if I have to give up the whole point of my life to get a safety net, then . . .”

The bright side is that Mannequins has made a reasonable splash.

“I expected to have to make ten records before anyone would pay attention. So this is great. It’s cool to me when people like Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey check it out and want to tell people about it. I made this record for myself, and I think that’s what people should do and that’s what makes it best for everyone.”

In the end. Gentile is an optimist, and that spark of life is audible in her music. Listen to “Micronesia parakeet”, with its transparent beauty — the pure high tone of Viner’s clarinet riding over a subtle piano part that avoids every cliché. The groove begins in an unusual time signature (or more than one), but it puts your toe tapping or your hip shaking still. It unfolds as a journey — not theme-solos-theme but a gradual turn of a kaleidoscope … quiet and then loud again and a return to the start for those of you who still want that kind of thing.

Lovely. The music of someone not afraid to open herself up.

“I think that anyone who gets dark or jaded doesn’t last. There’s so much good music that’s being made right now. People at the top are getting paid. The level that Matt Mitchell is at — you get paid. Tim Berne and Matt are role models. Steve Coleman is one of my heroes, a man with a deep well of information from all over the world.

“I have a lot of ideas in my head about compositions I want. I want to make so many records as a leader and also be a sideman playing with people I love.”

If Mannequins is a beginning, then there’s no limit to the love that Kate Gentile will get to play on her drums and with her pen. Just keep listening.