When did you start the group?
It was started over 20 years ago.

How did the band form?
Kathy, my wife, sings in the group. Her dad was a very well known piano player, “Uncle Paul” Montgomery. I used to play with them and over the years, the quintet has had different people playing, so there wasn’t much of a static group as much as an interchangeable mix of musicians. Paul passed away a while ago, but we’ve got different​ people all the time. Often times, I use Steve Anderson on piano as well as my wife. I play the saxophone and the clarinet in the band. We also have a drummer and a bass player.

What do you like about performing?
I love to play and I love to play with a good group. I love to play good tunes, performing jazz standards. There’s so many great tunes, it’s nice to be able to play and being a jazz artist, improvisation is the essential thing and it’s so much fun to improvise. I love it!

Have you written any of your own compositions?
Yes, I’ve written a lot. The quintet will probably play them on Saturday, a few originals.

Does the band practice before performing or do you just wing it?
That’s a good question. Jazz musicians, for the most part, practice a lot on their own and we’re able to come together without practicing as a group because we all work individually on our music. Basically, everybody practices a lot and because of that, we come together and we play a repertoire everybody’s familiar with. We’ve played together for so long, it’s just a matter of saying, “let’s play this tune.” Boom. You know what I mean? It’s like second nature. It’s a very flexible group and not a formatted thing. It’s not like if you have an orchestra, then you’d have to rehearse. But with four or five people, you know, it’s really easy to say, “let’s play this tune.” And then everybody can improvise without there being any problems. So we can work it out on the spot and nobody would know in the audience. Nobody would ever know. It’s almost more spontaneous and better if we just say, “Okay, here’s the list we’re doing.” Boom. We’re going to have fun with it.

What challenges does the group face?
We want the audience to have a good time and to enjoy the music. There’s no challenge with us playing together, there’s the challenge – always – of entertaining the audience and getting them to listen. That’s the difficulty. But, we’re up to it and we try to make our presentation as good as possible so people really listen. People are not really used to focusing on music. That’s the hurtle we have to get over.

This year, Gregg Gelb was a recipient of the 2018 City of Raleigh Medal of Art.

The Zen Poets have been at Irregardless for years and the energy the audience feeds off of them is powerfully mellow and inviting. Consisting of members Annalise Stalls on saxophone, Aaron Gross on bass, Daniel Faust on drums, and Gabriel Dansereau on the jazz guitar.


When did you start the group?

Aaron Gross: We were all in school at UNC Greensboro and that’s how we met. Annalise started the group around 2013 and I’ve been with the group for four years. Annalise and I have been co-leading for the past couple years.

Why did you choose the name Zen Poets?
Annalise Stalls: I actually write zen poetry and at the time five years ago, I had to come up with a name for the band and I just had to come up with something really quick and I said, “Well, what have I been doing lately?” I had been absorbing a lot of poetry and the zen philosophy, so it just kind of came together like that.

What do you like most about performing?
AS: There’s nothing like a great performance and the way that energy is exchanged between various musicians that are performing together, the way that they exchange energy and how they exchange energy with the audience. When it goes really well, it fills you up and then there’s also the aspect of performing where one gets to express what’s inside of them. Creative experience is super empowering.

AG: Similarly, I think that seeing a performance is like a shared experience between you, the audience and the other band members. If we spent enough time practicing and know stuff enough, we can hopefully convey a message to people that we’re all enjoying the music. Hopefully, when we perform, it’ll convey that we are just instruments that are being used for something that’s bigger and more important than us as people and it’s like a shared experience between everybody. Nobody is more important than anyone else; the performer is not more important than the listener.

Where do you get the inspiration from the compositions you wrote?
AS: Not always, but sometimes the poetry is where I get inspiration for my song ideas. I have some songs that I’ve written for the band that do have poems that go with them, and some don’t. It is part of it for sure.

AG: For me, sometimes, the melody comes when it reminds me of something, but more often than not, I have a specific person or a specific place in mind. I get inspired by the people around me and also the places that I’ve gone like the mountains of North Carolina or heading out West and seeing the landscape out there.

What are some challenges you face with the band?
AS: Scheduling is hard sometimes because everyone is really busy. When important decisions have to be made, we work through it. It’s also hard to find venues for what we do and what we want to present, but we’re glad to have places like Irregardless and Sharp 9 Gallery.

AG: I think also the music part is great, but it’s getting to the stage stuff like doing your own marketing, booking your own gigs, essentially being your own manager that’s difficult. Any other business would be like “duh”, but it’s kind of like as a band or just yourself, you have to work it out. Every interaction, you have to be as professional as possible; you need to have a website; you need to have business cards; you have to have professional photos and all that stuff costs money and you have to make that investment. I’m saying that because I didn’t realize until recently.

Do you think it’s gotten easier, the types of things you learn as a musician and other added business work?

AG: Some things have gotten easier and some things have gotten harder. I think whenever the more I know, the less I actually know. Whenever something gets done, there’s another challenge that presents itself and that’s not just a terrible thing, it’s a wonderful thing as well. Practicing, like any other artist doing photography or writing, it’s always going to be better.

Who are your musical influences?
AS: For me, I’d say Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Steve Lacy, John Ellis, Kenny Garrett, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman.

Tell me about the tour and the new songs.

AG: So when the group got started, Annalise wrote a lot of the music, but she and I are co-leading and the record is going to be half her songs and half my songs. We both gave each other input on our songs too, to help arrange them a little bit. The album we just recorded this part Spring, we did a Kickstarter and were fully funded in May. We are doing a little run-out tour playing in New York, Boston, and Washington D.C.