Interview by Pachi Tapiz from Spain for Tomajazz (English translation)
Profiles. Ricardo Gallo. Interview by Pachi Tapiz.
Ricardo Gallo is a Colombian pianist who on 2010 published the recording Tierra de nadie with the Portuguese record label Clean Feed, while also appearing in Live in Lisbon as part of Peter Evan’s quartet. Pachi Tapiz talked to him about his new project Tierra de Nadie, as well as his other groups and of jazz in Colombia.
PACHI TAPIZ: First of all, I would like you to explain from where come the group’s name “Tierra de Nadie.”
RICARDO GALLO: It mainly comes from the intention to avoid identifying this music necessarily with a specific nationality. Another intention found there is to allow the musicians to express themselves freely with all the background that each one brings. This includes me as a composer and a pianist in the group. My background is present in my interest regarding folkloric music of my country and other places, as well as the interest of all of us in collective improvisation. But I do not intend to arrive at a specific sound, but rather that the result be the sum of what each one of us contributes. Lastly, the quote by Cortázar that I included in the record speaks of music as a no-man’s land where “[…] the complexes and the myths are resolved in melody […] the only thing that counts is a voice murmuring […] the recurrence of what we are, of what we will be.” To me it seemed appropriate to establish this relation between music as a space of interchange and a space in which we express where we come from, where we have been, and where we are going or desire to go.
PACHI TAPIZ: How does this formation emerge, in which we find Ray Anderson, Mark Helias, Satoshi Takeishi, Pheeroan AkLaff and Dan Blake?
RICARDO GALLO: Ray Anderson has been an important mentor to me and with him I have learned much about improvisation, about the tradition on which we build what we do, and also about the importance of searching for individuality as a fundamental thing. He became acquainted with my music through ensembles at the university where he was my professor and eventually through his own groups, while in turn I got familiar with his sound on the trombone. Through Ray I met Mark Helias and Pheeroan akLaff, whom I heard several times live in New York. Helias mixed my first record in 2005 and in that way he also began to get acquainted with my process. Pheeroan had already worked with another Colombian musician (Juan Sebastián Monsalve). We once played together in one of Ray’s group and he has a personal interest in getting to know music from other latitudes. I heard Dan Blake play with a common friend, the Argentinean singer Sofía Rei Koutsovitis, and we collaborated in other projects before Tierra de Nadie. We always had great empathy. Satoshi Takeishi has a long history of collaborations with Colombian musicians. He lived in Colombia for five years and was a pioneer in the incorporation of traditional rhythms from there into contemporary jazz. He is also a great source of inspiration for drummers, percussionists, and musicians in general in my country, while also having a wealth of knowledge in other types of music. I had the opportunity to present a group of mine at the Encuentro de Músicos Colombianos en Nueva York (Encounter of Colombian Musicians in New York) that is organized by pianist Pablo Mayor. In previous editions of the festival, I had participated with other groups that I led. For that occasion, which took place on December 2007, I began to write a repertoire with the intentions I mentioned before, and it seemed appropriate to me to call them. After this, I wrote more for this group that had worked very well in its first performance, then we had more shows and began putting together the rest of the album’s music.
PACHI TAPIZ: In your music there is a strong folkloric influence, nevertheless your music in Tierra de Nadie sounds like contemporary jazz. How do you work with your fellow group members to achieve this result?
RICARDO GALLO: In this group I bring the material with which we work, compositions that in some cases may have certain elements belonging to folkloric music. But this is found more in the writing than in the way of playing or in the instruments used, as would be the case of another group of mine, which is the quartet in Bogotá. The writing in this case is also more distilled, since it does not refer directly to a specific type of music. Even though in the group we work to emphasize the idiosyncrasy of each piece, I take care to leave each musician a lot of freedom and to think of different ways of interacting. Finally, I should say that working with them is a pleasure, because the commitment to the music and the experience of each one them in group creation helps bring about the results of this process in a very organic manner.
PACHI TAPIZ: Gerry Hemingway is Ray Anderson and Mark Helias’ fellow band mate in the trio BassDrumBone (among other formations), and usually plays with a multitude of musicians. Have you had the chance to play with him in some occasion?
RICARDO GALLO: Yes. I had the opportunity to play with him only once so far. It was in New York, in a quartet directed by Ray Anderson in which we played his compositions. Completing the quartet was double-bass player Brad Jones. It was a pleasure to play with Gerry Hemingway. At least on my part, I felt that there was a connection. I have listened his quintet in concert and also BassDrumBone several times, which are fascinating live.
PACHI TAPIZ: On the other hand and returning to your answers, and in light of the good response that the group’s first recording has had, which are the following steps that you have foreseen taking with Tierra de Nadie? Have you any plans of playing in Europe?
RICARDO GALLO: I have recently played with the group in New York. On April 28  we played at Drom and on May 1st at Cornelia Street Café. I will be nurturing the repertoire little by little. In the CD release last November, we premiered a piece and for the months to come I plan to have some new music. I am beginning to knock on some doors to take them to Colombia, since in September there is a network of festivals around the country. I would love to present this project in Europe, but there is nothing definite yet.
PACHI TAPIZ: In your Colombian quartet the folkloric influences are noticed more clearly. Last year you published Resistencias, which is your third recording. Tell us about this group. How it emerged and which are your next projects.
RICARDO GALLO: The group came into being in 2005 with the intention to present some repertoire of mine that had been written thinking of folkloric influences from diverse regions of the country and with which I was trying to find a fresh sound by using the piano in percussive ways or, conversely, by being very melodic. Also, the use of percussion would add another color to the traditional piano trio. After recording the first album, Los Cerros Testigos, and playing some concerts just before the recording and after its release, I felt that a group identity had been created. Besides, this debut was very well received in general, and we have great empathy. I wanted then to continue nurturing the idea of the group. This is why the next album, Urdimbres y Marañas, has a wider rhythmic and timber variety with pieces that are specifically thought for the group, especially due to the fact that there are drums and percussion. The third recording, Resistencias, keeps insisting in the group’s identity, in the expansion of our sound, and in the quest for collective creation (in improvisation as well as in composition).
For our next projects we are intent on trying to take this music live to more places, both in and out of Colombia. Music-wise, we are exploring a lot with collective improvisation using our repertoire as a starting point or a site of arrival. Little by little we are expanding that repertoire, but we do not have plans for another recording in the near future.
PACHI TAPIZ: The artwork in Resistencias indicates that: “We suggest a resistance to categories, a resistance to the scene’s limitations before new proposals, a resistance to media invasion, a resistance to the idea that individual development is opposed to collective development.” There are also some of the pieces’ titles, such as “Inseguridad democrática” [Democratic Insecurity] (which I regard as of a certain passivity and a theme with a very melancholic or sad tone) or even “Viejo presagio” [Old Presage]. What reasons impel you to carry out or advocate these Resistances?
RICARDO GALLO: These pronouncements are perhaps the result of a context. In Colombia, we had and still have to insist much to make our music be heard and valued. When I use the first person plural I am referring not only to my group, but also to other projects of the group’s members and therefore by extension to other related musicians. There is still a big inferiority complex in Colombia. Perhaps this has changed a little, but not enough. Clearly and from a political point of view, we have a lot to advance in cultural terms, which is paradoxical since there are many ebullient expressions both indigenous and recent that are in dialogue with what is happening in other countries. “Inseguridad democrática” is a commentary about the main policy of the previous government, (a coarse imitation of ideas belonging to the prior government in the United States) that neglected many aspects. The title also seeks to be interpreted in multiple ways, as you have done. “Viejo presagio” is more personal, like an anticipated disappointment.
PACHI TAPIZ: Going back to the folkloric influence, I would you to explain to us the origins of the music that appear in your themes (cumbia, porro, bambuco…), both in your quartet as in your duo with Alejandro Flórez.
RICARDO GALLO: We have used many rhythms and genres from a diversity of regions. I was going to begin enumerating them, but they are too many… The important thing is that I am interested in the diversity that exists in Colombia, which on one hand is a product of ethnic multiplicity, both pre-Columbian and after the conquest: Europeans and Africans are added to the natives, the Europeans being mainly Iberian, already coming mixed themselves. The African influence brings in a whole sonic universe and the “mestizaje” of all these influences creates something that is particular to the place. I am interested in the different ways of conceiving music, beyond the elements that each contributes. This is why the approach to each folkloric element when making a piece is different. I feel there is an infinity of resources with which to experiment. Since I am interested in rhythm, it would be boring to me to just stay with one or a few rhythms.
PACHI TAPIZ: From what I read in the lines of Meléyolamente… what is the purpose of this recording’s music? Do you plan to continue publishing another recording? On one hand, I love the folkloric influence, as well as the sound of the tiple, but it seems very striking that there are themes with great liberty (“Ni Ebla el Páramo,” for example).
RICARDO GALLO: I believe that initial question is also the result of a context and is related to what you felt was striking, that there is so much free improvisation in the midst of a more folkloric ambience. Perhaps in other places it would not be questioned so much; the “usefulness” of music would not be an object of doubt. We have thought of eventually recording more. We have some new repertoire, and the duo’s sound changed after several performances that we gave after publishing the record, but we do not have specific plans in the near future.
PACHI TAPIZ: Besides other enigmas that appear in your quartet’s first two recordings, such as the theme “La Distritofobia,” because the distributer of your works is precisely “La Distritofónica,” it seems very enigmatic to me the theme titled “Contradictions of an inverse serpent” (Contradicciones de una serpiente inversa). Even though it is not yours, could you explain to us from where comes such a particular title?
RICARDO GALLO: La Distritofobia is a friendly word game, but also a commentary on the love-hate we feel for our city, Bogotá (Capital District, this is why the prefix “distrito” is used so much). About “Contradicciones…,” the truth is that I have not been able to obtain an explanation from its composer, our bassist Juan Manuel Toro. So we are kept in the enigma.
PACHI TAPIZ: What other projects do you have under way or are planning to begin?
RICARDO GALLO: With the trio TAOUM that I have with Satoshi Takeishi and Dan Blake, we have the intention to record soon. In principle it is a cooperative group. On the other hand, I have begun to play some solo recitals, but I would like to do some more before I record something. I have also given some concerts in duo with the drummer Jorge Sepúlveda in Bogotá. Occasionally we get together with other musicians in new formations, maybe some of them might crystallize in a project.
PACHI TAPIZ: How do you face your concerts of solo piano? Do you begin with some initial repertoire, maybe there initial ideas but it is a more or less free development, or are they directly free improvisations?
RICARDO GALLO: It is something that I am beginning to develop. I have used repertoire of mine that I have used in other groups, but adapting it to solo piano. I also do free improvisations, as well as improvisations as introductions, endings, and interludes between the pieces. That is what I have done so far, at least for the time being.
PACHI TAPIZ: Besides the projects and recordings, when and who or what was it that made you decide to become a musician, a pianist, and dedicate yourself to jazz?
RICARDO GALLO: I realized at a young age that I liked music very much, but it was shortly before starting going to the university that I began to consider it seriously as a career. I took one semester of electronic engineering, but from the first day realized that I should study music full on. I had already studied keyboards and guitar, so the piano came as something inevitable. First, because I had always liked it, even though I had not really studied it, and second, because I knew I wanted to study composition and imagined that the piano would be a necessary tool. Jazz also came before I entered the university. I listened to it on the radio and exchanged recordings with friends. When I began to study in Bogotá and took part of some jazz group at the university I loved the experience of direct interaction with other musicians and of spontaneous creation. From there I began a true deepening of these aspects.
PACHI TAPIZ: I would also like you to do for us a small portrait of jazz in Colombia. Here in Spain it not well known, even though there are some musicians, such as the bassist Juan Pablo Balcázar or the guitarist Juan Camacho, whom I like a very much.
RICARDO GALLO: Well, it is very difficult to answer this briefly. Perhaps what is more adequate is to speak of the most current and of some previous incursions, since a chronological history is a whole investigation even though it has been and still is a small scene. Curiously, today it is a very prolific moment in this aspect. In 2010, 24 jazz albums were issued, something significant since ten years ago the recordings that were published could be counted with the fingers of one hand. There are young musicians prepared both abroad (United States of America, Europe, Buenos Aires), as well as in Colombia. There has been an interest in local music that is truly varied and rich, and the projects with this interest are in some cases more evident or deeper than others. There is a group of musicians who are interested in a creative exploration that goes beyond what is proposed in jazz schools, which is very interesting. Some current names are: Juan Manuel Toro, Jorge Sepúlveda (who, beyond being my band mates, have their own projects and own repertoires and compositional styles), Pacho Dávila, Juan Andrés Ospina, Nicolás Ospina, Kike Mendoza, Juan Sebastián Monsalve; in New York we find Pablo Mayor, Lucía Pulido, Sebastián Cruz, Alejandro Flórez, Edmar Castañeda, Samuel Torres. Some have been around longer, like Hector Martignon in New York and Antonio Arnedo in Colombia. The later was particularly influential during the 90s, just when a more notable discography was starting being created. In the 80s, the composer Zumaqué made a pioneering project in the venture of local music and jazz in which Antonio Arnedo and Satoshi Takeishi participated. Of course, I am leaving out many current names and in the past there were many other contributors, but even though I have followed what has been going on in the jazz scene of our country, I am not devoted to researching the subject, nor is this the space for such a thing. For recent documentation there is an website that is slowly consolidating itself and in which more information can be found: www.jazzcolombia.com. I also invite you to visit the page of the collective of creative music called La Distritofonica, www.ladistritofonica.com, and the page of the venue matik-matik where you can hear recordings of jazz concerts as well as of experimental music, http://matik.matik.com/media/
PACHI TAPIZ: To end, would you tell us your favorite solo piano recordings?
RICARDO GALLO: It is hard to choose, but here are some that come to mind:
Cecil Taylor. Silent Tongues
Muhal Richard Abrams. Vision Towards Essence
Sylvie Courvoisier. Signs And Epigrams
Thelonious Monk. Solo Monk
Herbie Hancock. The Piano
Bill Evans. Alone
Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Solo
Andrew Hill. From California With Love
Text: © Pachi Tapiz 2011
Translation: Carla Macchiavello
Original interview in Spanish here: