For his fifth and latest release as a leader, the assertively titled Still Doing Our Thing (Posi-Tone), New Jersey-based vibraphonist Behn Gillece leads a quartet through compositions abounding with tight-fitting arrangements and rapt solos, tempered by a heartfelt groove appeal that’ll keep you glued to your headphones. In an era of sometimes academic jazz that can leave listeners disengaged, that’s no easy task.
“I always try to strike a good balance between making music listenable and also making it compelling for people that really listen to jazz,” Gillece says. “I want to create something that isn’t going to lose the average person, music that people who don’t really know anything about jazz can enjoy. At the same time, I definitely want to make something challenging and compelling, because that’s what we’ve worked towards as musicians.”
On Still Doing Our Thing, the “we” includes Art Hirahara on acoustic piano and Rhodes; Boris Kozlov on bass; Rudy Royston on drums and percussion; and Nicole Glover on tenor saxophone. Though recorded during COVID, the album suffers from zero lack of creative fire. Opener “Extraction” swings the blue sky clean, as Gillece and Hirahara fire forward invigorating solos like energized bats out for a dawn raid. “Rattles” recalls prime Cal Tjader, the knotty, funky melody a thing of beauty leading to near-avant solo terrain; the title track increases the tempo while retaining the spry mood. Royston’s “Glad to Be Back” is a blues-streaked samba fest, while Kozlov’s “Outnumbered” finds his electric bass intimating a ’70s fusion collision and Hirahara’s “Event Horizon” brings bittersweet sentiment to bear. The vibraphonist’s own “Don’t Despair” closes the set with an uplifting message wrapped in Hirahara’s lush Rhodes, Royston’s simmering pocket, and a sublime melody.
“If I think about it,” Gillece muses, “all the music that I like, the artists that I listen to, they never lose that sense of the tune and making it melodic-sounding. Every time I record, I try to evolve—you get a little better each time. I try to milk all the good things that happened in each album for all their worth. And I spend a lot of time tweaking compositions. I make sure all the details are strong. I took inspiration from Bobby Hutcherson’s 1960s Blue Note albums, Happenings and Oblique. I try to borrow from them and explore albums with a similar Instrumentation as I’m working with.”
During high school in Burlington, New Jersey, Gillece played drums and percussion in concert and marching band; he studied vibraphone while pursuing his master’s degree at New York’s SUNY Purchase. “What made me lean towards vibes was that it put you in the front of the ensemble, and you’re not only playing a drum part, but you’re also learning composition,” he says. “It was an opportunity to explore melody and harmony that I wasn’t getting from general percussion.”
A chance meeting at SUNY with then-student Spike Wilner led to steady employment at the latter’s NYC jazz venue Smalls. “Spike was finishing his degree,” Gillece recalls. “He’s a great piano player. When he opened Smalls he got a vibraphone for the club [making it one of only a handful in the world that has an in-house set of vibes] and asked me to play it. Then he started putting me on all these gigs. That opened up a lot of doors.”
In the past year, due to the pandemic, many doors have closed for Gillece and his fellow jazz musicians. How will they look back at this time of lost work and endangered opportunity?
“People are going to look back at this financially as a terrible event,” Gillece says. “Some artists get no inspiration from staying home and practicing; some people are natural born performers. But if you’re an introverted musician like myself, it isn’t such a bad thing. It’s helped me reconnect with past routines, like practicing smarter and revisiting ideas I had in my twenties. So yeah, there’s been a silver lining to all this horror because it made me adjust in certain ways, and made me reevaluate where I am.”