Unifying Qualities: Giveton Gelin Speaks

Growing up in the Bahamas, Giveton Gelin quickly learned his musical ABCs: always be communicating. Playing beside the pulpit or on the bandstand, the trumpet player and composer shares what’s on his mind and in his ears, leaving plenty of room for response. The unspoken language he’s developed as a bandleader allows him to stretch inside his other roles: guide, interpreter, and truth seeker.

Though still somewhat of a newcomer to the New York scene, Gelin already has collaborated with a range of distinctive voices that span generations, from Jon Batiste to Harold Mabern. This week’s performance reflects the connection he’s fostered with his quintet; the music itself, a tribute to the importance of fostering connections on and off the bandstand.

The Jazz Gallery: Your music seems to have a sophisticated degree of orchestration. Do you have any strategies for balancing written orchestration with spontaneous orchestration?

Giveton Gelin: Yes, if you look at some of the great leaders like Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Miles Davis, they all had a natural sense of leadership; they could orchestrate the band to do whatever they wanted them to do by having certain cues, by just doing things on the bandstand that all the other musicians would know: “This is what he meant by this, this is what he meant by that.” And they’re very subtle, but sometimes those are the key elements to really being able to lead a band. With jazz musicians, it’s all about being able to improvise and doing things on the bandstand. And of course, part of that is in the music and being able to follow the music—that’s part of orchestration. But I think, especially with my band, I do a lot of orchestration on the bandstand because I feel as though it’s definitely one of the elements that keeps the audience captivated. You never really know what’s coming—especially with this group.

TJG: What is it about this band that serves that kind of spontaneity?

GG: You have Micah Thomas on piano, Philip Norris on bass and Kyle Benford on drums. The rhythm section alone—there are so many directions it could take. Micah’s thing is he’s able to hear a lot and manipulate harmony. Actually, a lot of the time when I’m playing, I know I can lead him somewhere because I know he’ll be able to hear it. So I have a lot of leeway with Micah to be able to say, “Oh—let’s do this,” or “Let’s go here.” And Kyle is always listening intently—attentively—to everything I play. Philip Norris, he’s one of those solid rocks. He keeps everything together. It’s kind of amazing. Of course Immanuel Wilkins on alto sax—he’s the right hand. He’s the gunner. I know I can count on him, especially for being able to bring a certain level of energy. So when I’m on the stage with that group, I know all of that strength and how they operate, and I use that to lead.

TJG: Are you cueing them visually as well as musically?

GG: It’s both. It’s a lot of visual cues; it’s a lot of musical cues, as well. That’s one of the things I feel, especially now with the younger generation—that tradition of being able to cue the band where it’s not expected—is an old school way of doing it, calling tunes on the spot. I feel like that’s the sort of tradition that kind of accentuates what we’re doing.

TJG: Part of your virtuosity is your lyricism. It’s not only interesting to hear you play; it’s beautiful to hear you play. Why is it important for instrumentalists always to be singing what they’re playing?

GG: That’s first and foremost how I learned how to play because I grew up in church. That was basically the way of playing—if you’re not singing, why would you play? That’s kind of the concept of music I got from early on—being able to sing. When I started listening to jazz music, a lot of the great improvisers, they were able to capture the vocal quality in their playing, and I kind of connected to that quickly. So when I played, it was just natural for me to play very melodically, and I have a certain level of vocal quality in my playing. And I take that seriously when it comes to the notes. Every note means a lot to me. I’m not just playing the notes; if they don’t sound the way they’re supposed to sound, it really hurts me. I’m always critiquing myself. And I feel it’s that level of care for the notes that maybe comes out as having a singing quality. There are a lot of factors, of course; me growing up in church with a lot of spirituals, I guess that’s part of it, too. Being able to listen to that style of music, gospel music, and hear how they interpret their melodies—I kind of incorporate that into my playing, as well.

TJG: Artists come to New York from all over the country and different parts of the world, and if they grew up in the church, they’re bringing that with them. It’s interesting to observe how those different church influences are distinctive, but there’s a greater commonality there.

GG: Definitely. I feel that commonality [among] musicians I’ve met, especially in New York now. Younger cats like Immanuel, Joel Ross, cats that are playing on the scene now, I’ve started realizing these cats are playing songs I’ve been listening to forever. That brings us together, for sure.

TJG: You have a very specific mentorship journey that began in the Bahamas. Can you talk a little bit about the emotional impact of visiting Jacaranda House that fateful day and your resulting association with bass player Adrian D’Aguilar?

GG: Yeah that was definitely one of those days for me. I knew about jazz and I had a little curiosity about it, but when I went to Jacaranda House, I was able to hear it live—hear people play it. I was super overwhelmed. It was a moment, for sure. I knew that I wanted to play music, but when I [entered] this environment for the first time, it was like a calling. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I feel like for me, meeting Adrian kind of just led me to it. When he heard me play, he gave me some records. I went to his house and [we played] some records. He was on the scene in New York City, and he knew what it was all about. He really guided me. He basically created an environment for me to be able to grow. Even though I wasn’t starting in a place like New York or Philly, I had him. We’d be playing all the time together. It was really remarkable—I was thinking about it. In the Bahamas, there’s not really a jazz scene; I can count maybe five or six people. And it’s truly remarkable to think that it doesn’t necessarily matter where you’re from—jazz music has that impact. The level of music just draws you in, and through the music I was able to [remain inspired]. Through YouTube and Google, I found out about the greats on the instrument. Clifford Brown and Miles Davis are some of the people who kept me, in the Bahamas, inspired all the time.

TJG: Your website biography mentions “incorporating core human qualities into sound,” and I imagine your music. What’s your interpretation of those qualities and how will they be reflected in this performance?

GG: When it comes to what I’m really trying to be, musically, that’s always been a big thing for me. Especially in jazz music, there’s a lot of different ideologies about how the set’s supposed to be or what the music’s supposed to sound like. I feel like the human qualities—that’s the commonality. It doesn’t matter who comes to hear you play; if you involve some of the common human qualities like love, happiness—a lot of the things we share in common—if you involve that level of spirituality, that touches people. Those are some of the things I think of when I talk about human qualities in sound—the thing that brings us together. I feel as if that’s more important than saying, “You gotta play something like this,” or “You gotta play something a little more groovy.” Yes, those are definitely things to think about, but I feel as though, over all, this group is more so about having a very deep emotional content. I think that’s what I mean by incorporating human qualities into sound. That’s what touches us. Our commonality brings us together. If you come to hear the show, I think you’re going to leave a little more uplifted and healed.

Giveton Gelin