Joe Gallant Reboots Illuminati
On Saturday night, Joe Gallant will return to the stage with Illuminati. This 18 piece orchestra will reassemble after nearly a decade for a performance at Brooklyn Bowl, following a stretch during which the group gained notoreity with its big band arrangements of Grateful Dead albums Blues For Allah and Terrapin Station. In the following converasation Gallant shares some insight into what folks can expect on Saturday and what looms on the horizon as well.
For our readers who are unaware, how would you describe Illuminati?
A dark-plumed dead-of-night freight-train, disguised as an 18-piece orchestra dedicated to my original music and to my evocative arrangements of Grateful Dead songs.
What sparked its return?
it just feels like a great time to rev it up, in an era when the jamband aesthetic feels closer in some ways to my jazz/improv roots than a few years ago… it seems the scene might also benefit in some small way from this strange mutant leviathan large-scale chamber/jazz ensemble, with its scene history and its dense, celebratory writing, awakening from slumber and slouching toward Bethlehem. Again.
What had you been up to in the interim?
I was a filmmaker fulltime for the last 10 years, writing/directing/ scoring/ sound designing all my projects here in town and in LA, making the periodic pilgrimage to awards shows and screenings in Vegas and Europe.. I finished segments of my “junkie-eros revolutionary opera” that some folks in Berlin are considering staging, I wrote a big chunk of a book I’m shopping, and I opened a theater/rehearsal space in Las Vegas a while back, which was an extremely Hunter Thompson-esque chapter.
What’s new this time? What did you learn from last time?
It feels like i can take the energy and familiarity of the Dead material and mix it even more readily with my more avant leanings, in terms of more experimental/operatic/cinematic directions, more now than a decade ago. That’s an element I plan to incorporate as we start things up anew.
Back in the later 90s, I created a body of original work that grooved hard and was less thorny than Illuminati’s original chamber music of the early 80s and 90s, specifically written to be part of the live shows and jamband festivals we were doing… I think in this new cycle, I can bring back some of the more dense material over time, and assimilate it into the process. It’s what makes Illuminati’s book unique, I think.
How many songs have you worked up and what has been the most significant challenge?
I think there’s approximately 50 Dead arrangements and approximately 55 originals in the Illuminati book, written over a 20-year period.
What is your favorite memory of past gigs?
In my other projects over the years, several Knitting Factiry tours of Europe with Prima Materia, a John Coltrane rep quartet, were completely life-changing. A revelatory upright bass/tenor sax duet session with the late, brilliant Michael Brecker for a Japanese sax promo commercial was a highlight and a true gift. Meeting and hanging with Phil Lesh on several occasions was like climbing the highest peak- where can you go from there, but back down the mountain with your head full of offhanded dharma wisdom and humor? Illuminati’s Town Hall gig was fantastic… and in our Dead-arrangement years, the Great American Music Hall gigs, the Fillmore gig, the Camp Creek night, the Paradiso in Amsterdam, tons of Wetlands gig are all great memories, among a Cornell box of other fine Illuminati moments.
Can you talk about some of the feedback you have received over the years for the project?
People have really dug the band in its several incarnations- Illuminati’s chamber/jazz years definitely had serious “downtown” adherents, as did the Dead-music/jamband-circuit years- I hear from people all the time who still listen to “The Blues for Allah Project” and “Terrapin” CDs, and my big setpiece originals projects, “Code of the West” and Shadowhead.” During the Dead-music years, some critiques have been directed toward the vocal styles, and I do understand what they’ve meant. My new approach to the vocals is to keep them clear and simple. The 3 chicks we have on this gig- Alexis Thomason, Cindy Lopez from Half Step and Chriss Dalen, are amazing.
Beyond the Brooklyn Bowl show, what else is in the offing?
A new live Illuminati CD will be released soon by Unseen Rain records. I’ve also created a fantastic Dead-esque project over the last 2 years that lies heavily under wraps until i have a few key elements in place. Hopefully, it can be unveiled soon. We also plan to make some fresh inroads into the jamfest circuit this summer, because it’s a great way to connect, have a blast, and to make new chums & allies on the scene.