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Musician Zac Galen: “Labels be Damned”

It’s 9 p.m. on a Tuesday at Herd Studios in Boston, Massachusetts. I’m sitting in on a studio session with Zac Galen on piano and Andrew Hlynsky on drums while they work out new material.

Two, dissonant piano chords crescendo over a frenetic high-hat that surges like a freight train capable of running off its course, only to circle back again to a beautiful blues-gospel melody in 6/8 time.

Miles Davis once said “I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.”  This statement perfectly sums up my conversation with Zac Galen. Though trained as a jazz musician, he’s not one to adhere to any label or tradition. The first time I saw Zac perform, he interlaced his own music with Joni Mitchell’s ‘All I Want,’ Erykah Badu’s ‘Back in the Day’ and De La Soul’s “Stakes is High,” a refreshing repertoire for someone so young in age who might otherwise be captivated by a long list of commercial acts.

When playing, Zac easily embodies the free spirit of a gypsy. When talking, the precision of a professor, an extremely passionate professor who talks about music in the same protective manner a parent might talk about his children.

The music has stopped for now. Zac and I have quickly transition to a spirited discussion about bad, rap mix-tapes, Cannonball Adderley, Amy Winehouse, Donny Hathaway, Prince and the New York Knicks.

Zac is quick to point out the connection between funk, jazz and hip hop citing Funkadelic’s collaboration with Dr. Dre and Ron Carter’s collaboration with A Tribe Called Quest.

“Hip Hop comes from the same exact tradition as jazz and funk.” Labels BE DAMNED — it’s just pure music. Of course labels are appropriate to help discussion, but take Prince for instance — his whole thing was the abolishment of musical boundaries.”

Who are your biggest influences?

Miles, top of the list. Coltrane, Monk, Charles Mingus, Donny HathawayStevie Wonder, D’Angelo, Bill Evans, Dylan, Ed O.G., Erykah Badu, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Sufjan StevensBillie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock. As far as an idiom, I know most about jazz music, but I listened mostly to hip hop growing up.

Nice, so who are your biggest hip hop influences?

Mostly stuff from when I was in high school, mainly East Coast and Southern: Wu-Tang, Mos Def, NAS, KRS-One, Rakim, Pharoahe Monch, Black Star, Soulquarians, Goodie Mob, the whole Dungeon Family, Outkast.

How did you first develop your sound?

I’m not one of those people who set out to develop a sound. I didn’t one day decide to become a musician. My family plays music. My father is a folk singer/songwriter. I started playing guitar seriously at around 14,  but I was playing alto and singing early on. I still can’t really sight read. I hear what I hear. I don’t see it on paper, I hear and see it on the fretboard or the keyboard. Music, especially guitar, is just geometry and physics.

What’s your songwriting process like?

I almost never come up with lyrics first unless its accompanied by a hook. I usually write soul over a hip hop beat.

Where’s your favorite place to gig?

As far as my favorite venues, I like hangs. I like to play for crowds that don’t drink necessarily drink. As far as clubs in Boston, I like to play at the Burren, Lizard Lounge, Wally’s. Some of my other, favorite spots are Philly, NYC, Baltimore, Portland Maine is great. Montreal is really cool too.

Anything else you’d like to say to the world, Zac?

Shout out to twitter for my Celtics information.

My EP will be done in May and I’m planning a June tour.

You can catch Zac tonight (Friday, March 1) with Todd Marston (piano/accordion) and Andrew Hlynsky (drums) at Clover in Harvard Square and every Wednesday at EL TALLER, 275 Essex St., Lawrence, MA.

Musicians interested in recording at a brand-new, comfortable and fully-equipped studio can feel free to contact Sid Lees at Herd Studio.

About Kristen Damasida

Kristen Damasida
Writer and Photographer for Virago Magazine, Kristen grew up listening to vinyl and highlighting the dictionary. Her work has appeared in IrockJazz.com, The East Harlem Journal, Boston's Culturehive, the Ithacan and other publications. Her love of music cannot be eclipsed by her love of words. She's been coined the "Akira Kurosawa of Blogs" by such people as herself. An aspiring musician, she has a serious penchant for peach-flavored anything, multi-tasking, slow-paced thrillers and dreams of going back to South America, laying on the beach, and drinking from a coconut.

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