Second Saturdays with Sonikora at the Vanderelli Room

A monthly multi-disciplinary improvisational jazz event recently returned to the local jazz calendar. Second Saturdays with Sonikora takes place at The Vanderelli Room in Franklinton on the second Saturday of each month. Each installment finds the Sonikora trio joined by a different musical collaborator, as well as a visual artist who also takes part. While this art space is also home to the Filament listening room, these concerts are now being held in the main gallery. On Saturday, January 12th at 7pm, Sonikora will be joined by renowned guitarist Stan Smith, as well as painter (and venue operator) AJ Vanderelli. There is no cover for admission. Sonikora member Chris Haas was kind enough to answer my questions about the band and the series, keep reading to learn more.

How did Sonikora come together?

Chris Haas (CH): Sonikora started as an offshoot of a group the three of us were in a few years ago. In terms of genre, that group generally fell in the funk/rock/groove family, but over time its focus and approach to playing live evolved. We went from a more traditional songs-and-solos approach to really opening up the material on a more structural level and exploring unscripted segues between songs. Then in early 2015, the three of us decided to take the next step in that evolution and forego the “song” component altogether – at least in the traditional sense – and that marked the beginning of Sonikora as a new group. And we’ve stayed as a trio since then, with Bob White on drums and percussion, Jason Miles on bass and percussion, and Chris Haas on keys, guitar, trumpet, and percussion.

Were there any collective influences, inspirations or ideas that the group formed around?

CH: From the outset, we all felt there was a spark of something new and exciting in this group, but other than the general idea of a completely improvised format, we didn’t start out with a preconceived notion of what we wanted to do or how to do it. So in the beginning we were mainly exploring how the three of us interacted in this context without any real expectations of where it would go. We had lots of long practices, and we’d spend a lot of time listening back to them, talking about things that we thought worked or didn’t work, what we wanted to get out of this project, what made it feel special and unique – and fun. And then we’d just set all that aside and play for a few hours, and the cycle would repeat.

Over time, we started to develop a shared musical language and mindset for navigating a totally open-ended format without stagnating. In any improvised playing, there is often tension between the gravitational pull to build and maintain a musical structure – because there’s a certain kind of energy and momentum you can harness from it – and the outward pressure to knock down that structure and explore something new. And we try to balance that tension and create an improvised set with no breaks, that breathes and evolves smoothly across the arc of the entire set as well as smaller components of the set.

I call this “long-form” improvised music, because the focus is on the larger-scale ebb and flow of the set, rather than just a solo or stand-alone piece. But it’s really a cyclical process that requires a lot of trust, patience, and above all else listening to each other. As we’re playing we are all looking for a seed that we can build from – it might be a short melody, a catchy rhythm, electronic bleeps, almost anything really – but regardless of where the seed originated, we each try to fold some aspect of it into our own playing to create something collective that we can explore, deconstruct, and which then offers the seeds for the next cycle.

How does each member of the group contribute to the sound and experience?

CH: That’s an interesting question, because it can often be hard to decipher who is contributing what. For example, there are many times when we’ve been playing and I thought I came up with a great little melody, and then when I listen back I realize I was just melodifying something Bob or Jason were already playing. We’ll also often shift the traditional roles of our instruments, so I might end up being the one doing some pulse or rhythm and then Bob and Jason explore more melodic ideas.

I think in a broader sense, we’re in that Goldilocks zone where we each have enough overlapping interests that we have a lot of common ground to explore, but we also have things that we are more uniquely interested in and that we can offer to the group. So we are often sharing new clips or albums with each other from things we’ve found online. Some of it is more jazz-oriented, but a lot of it is not – traditional music from other cultures, modern minimalist work, electronic music, etc.

We’re all very open to new sounds and ideas, and they often work their way into the group collective and then gets expressed when we play. So what comes out over a set is often something like a mural woven with elements of Miles Davis, Steve Reich, Led Zeppelin, and MMW, with some tribal drumming and atonal noise for good measure.

I was glad to hear about the return of Second Saturdays to the Vanderelli Room. For the uninitiated, could you describe what one could expect when coming out to these events?

CH: The downside of our long-form approach is that it is hard to convey in a modern, social-media environment. It’s something meant to be experienced in real-time, where you can hear how each part of the cycle is created and how it relates to the larger structure. So part of what we try to do with the Second Saturday events is to offer a more diverse and immersive experience so the audience isn’t just sitting in a chair for a few hours. There is usually some form of live painting, dancing, or other visual art, and there is of course the art in the gallery itself that people can explore.

Also, one of the great advantages of this group is how we can incorporate other musicians on the fly. Our approach is centered on listening and assimilating what other players are offering, so adding another musician offers a new source of ideas we can build on. So we have at least one guest musician at these events. They will often play a solo set, and then we will do sets as a trio and with the guest. Depending on the circumstances, we may also have a more open set where guests from the audience can join in.

Do you have any particular goals or mission for the Second Saturdays series?

CH: I think the main goal is to create a new and different environment that can shape how we and the other artists perform. The three of us really love playing together, and so in many senses we would be completely happy just practicing and playing to ourselves. In fact, we’ve started streaming many of our practices online to capture that aspect of what we do. But it’s also fun to bring in the energy of a live room with other artists and see where that can take you.

How do you think the venue contributes to the Second Saturdays vibe?

CH: Columbus is very fortunate to have the Vanderelli Room and the Filament listening room. They offer a super-accessible environment for people to seriously pursue art in an unpretentious way. And both AJ Vanderelli and Gerard Cox have been incredibly supportive of Sonikora and the Second Saturday series. We actually started doing the Second Saturdays in the main gallery, before Filament existed. Then when Filament opened in 2018 we did shows there for a while. I’m probably biased because I helped put that room together, but I think it’s a terrific sounding room and I love playing there. We recently moved back to the main gallery though to accommodate the additional musicians and visual artists for the Second Saturday events. It’s also very fitting for these events to be surrounded by the art in the gallery.

Tell us about the guest musical and visual artists scheduled to appear at this month’s show.

CH: Our guest musician this month is Stan Smith. I’m assuming anyone reading this in Columbus knows who Stan is. We’ve played with him a few times, and it’s always exciting. He brings a whole host of new ideas and influences that pushes us to explore new territory.

We are also very honored to have AJ Vanderelli doing live painting with us this Saturday. She has a unique ability to capture the energy and movement of the music in her paintings, and we’re excited to see what she creates with us this month.

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