When was the last time you heard two upright basses play a Mingus tune? Or a guitar trio? How about a vocalist with a quartet behind her?
On Saturday, November 18, at 3:00 p.m., RIVAA Gallery will be celebrating seven years of jazz salons with its Combinatorial Equation – Duos, Trios, and Quartets jam session, featuring interesting combinations of sounds and musicianship.
Over seven years, and more than 40 performances, the RIVAA jazz salon has become a treasured event on Roosevelt Island, helping the art gallery evolve into a cultural center for the community, with a reach far beyond its origins as an artists’ collective.
Taking a break between sets at a 2016 session, Metrocard Unlimited band:
(l-r) Ken Pace, Francois Alghisi, Susheel Kurien, and Itta Weiss.
From the Beginning
The jazz salon tradition started in 2010 when Gallery RIVAA hosted a preview of a documentary film by Rivercross resident Susheel Kurien called Finding Carlton, about the history of Jazz in India.
“Some documentaries are just fact, fact, fact. I didn’t want that,” says Kurien. Instead, he was interested in telling a story that was original, syncopated, and emotional – a documentary about jazz that is like jazz itself.
A long-standing jazz afficionado with a passion and love for this great musical form, he recalls eschewing the rock of his youth in favor of jazz at the age of 15, after hearing John Coltrane’s legendary album, Giant Steps.
Kurien put his passion into making the film as funds became available. When he was turned down for support by grant-making organizations, he continued anyway, relying instead on “the support and help of my wife, friends from Roosevelt Island and from all over the world.” The result was a documentary film that has screened at international festivals and seminars, and is in the catalogs of over 100 of the world’s leading university libraries.
As a thank you to RIVAA for showcasing his efforts, Kurien asked some friends to play jazz with him as a warm-up event about the research and background to the film.
The performance was received with enthusiasm, with people dancing to the swing and enjoying the live music. The result was a long-term collaboration between the gallery and the jazz players.
“Music and joy is what comes to mind when thinking of Susheel and his Jazz Salon,” says Esther Cohen, RIVAA vice president. “We are so fortunate to celebrate with these talented musicians every time they perform at Gallery RIVAA.”
Over the years, the jazz salons have attracted a regular audience of listeners – and even some dancers, who share their rhythm with the band that is playing. Children are encouraged and their reactions to the music and rhythms are often astonishing. Kurien recalls a young fan of the drums who used to come with his parents. He was so clearly fascinated by the instrument that he insisted on sitting as close as he could to the drummer during the session, and always wanted to “test” the drums at the end of the session. Kurien says he was heartened to recently learn from the boy’s family, who moved off the Island a couple of years ago, that he is now a seven-year-old drummer-in-training and passionate about his instrument.
Members of the Art and the Impressionists band : (l-r) Kurien, Matt Matyisk, and Sri V
Gallery RIVAA opened on Main Street with space and a grant provided by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) in March 2002. The community’s support back then, along with the hard work and dedication of the group’s founding members and of the ethnically diverse group of artist members, brought the gallery to fruition. Following a complete renovation of a former pharmacy located in the Rivercross complex, the grand opening showcased a members’ group exhibit, Vernissage 1, including works by more than a dozen Island artists.
From the beginning, the RIVAA members were eager to showcase the living presence of art in its many forms, with the groundbreaking introduction of the Fall for Arts event in 2005, to book prose readings, performance events, poetry readings and music. The global depth and reach of the Gallery’s spirit has been showcased with exhibits and events from China, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Madagascar, and currently, Romania, truly making it a cultural crossroads for Roosevelt Islanders.
Kurien is thankful for all of the musicians who have contributed their talent and goodwill over the last seven years. As with much of the art adorning the gallery’s walls, Kurien says the music often showcases the professional talents of Island residents. He lists Tex Allen (trumpet), Mark Hynes (tenor sax), Andrew Baird (guitar), Allegra Levy (vocal), and Jordan Carr (a phenomenal young drummer, who is a graduate of Lincoln Center’s prestigious youth program) as past performers.
“Playing RIVAA jazz jam has been quite rewarding,” says Bishu Chattopadhyay, a professional bassist. “It is a wonderful space for making sound. I met some of New York’s finest musicians there. The audience there also performs with so much listening attention that at times one cannot distinguish between the audience and performers.”
Jazz Salon has also collaborated on producing a jazz series, New Voices, New Sounds, that featured young conservatory-trained jazz musicians in unique ensembles and original sounds.
For Kurien, the highlight of the gallery’s jazz-related effort was 2016’s three-day production, in collaboration with RIOC, to produce the first ever Roosevelt Island Jazz and World Music Festival, featuring luminaries such as Rez Abbasi (guitar), Danny Walsh (sax), Bruce Edwards (guitar), Essiet Okon Essiet (bass), Reggie Nicholso (drums), two time Latin Grammy Nominee Julio Botti (sax), Roni Ben Hur (guitar), Hendrik Meurkens (guitar), Magos Herrera (vocals), and Kiran Ahluwalia (vocals) in outstanding ensembles.
“It’s always nice to perform in a small room with the audience close to you; you can really feel their energy and see their reactions to the music,” said Bruce Edwards, a world-renowned jazz musician whose credits include the Sun Ra Arkestra. “I think I made a few new friends that night, who were happy to see that there was some live jazz happening on Roosevelt Island, and a few old friends showed up for the concert as well, one coming from as far away as Astoria to hear us. Susheel (Kurien) and the team that put on the concert really had it together as far as making sure we had what we needed on stage, and provided a meal as well. It was a very pleasant experience playing at the gallery, and myself and the band hope to do it again in the future.”
Saxophonist Ken Pace, agrees. “I always look forward to our jazz concerts at RIVAA.
To come together with a group of like-minded individuals and a creative live experience is wonderfully invigorating and refreshing. Performing among works of art makes the entire concert that much more rewarding. To bring in local people, regulars, and people off Roosevelt Island to RIVAA where they can enjoy art and music together and promote local culture is, in a word, ‘cool.’”
Alto Sax Kazuo Ogura evokes memories of his time with Rainbow Room orchestra with swinging bebop phrases
As to the logistics, it hasn’t always been easy, Kurien acknowledges. He refuses to comment on whether he has ever had to pay musicians for transport and other obligations out of his own pocket. He does agree that Gallery RIVAA has been supportive in every way it can, recognizing that it has been severely challenged for funding.
The musicians who perform at these sessions include both amateurs and professionals, who are dependent on the donation jar at the door for compensation.
Kurien says that the future of jazz at the RIVAA Gallery, and its continued evolution into a key cultural center for the community, hinges on establishing a financial foundation that will not only keep the doors open all year round, by providing heat in winter, and cooling in summer, but will allow it to bring more cultural events to the Island, and continue to delight those who appreciate this unique combination of experiencing performance surrounded by artistic expression. In the meantime, says Kurien, “get on the gallery mailing list so that you are aware of upcoming events, and come out and shake a leg!”