JAZZ INSIDE Magazine
June 2012 Complete Interview
By: Eric Nemeyer
JI: You have a new CD Spirit Driven that you are releasing please talk about the music and what this project means to you. Tell us about the preparation, the musicians and how the music developed.
JS: Spirit Driven, is a double CD of original music that is a conglomerate of indigenous world rhythms from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America that I rearranged, recomposed and later orchestrated to create a unique sound that I call Afro-Caribbean-Experimental (ACE) Music. The musicians are: Nora McCarthy – voice, poetry; Waldron Ricks—trpt; Pablo Vergara—pno; Donald Nicks—elec. bs; Kenny Grohowski—drums, percussion. Improvisation is a large component of our sound and sometimes is used in a collective format and other times in individual statements made by each musician. The Jazz tradition is referenced throughout. Spoken word is used as part of the improvisation as well as a vehicle for the lyrical message.
There are 9 compositions, 8 of which are original which includes one contributed by Nora McCarthy, “The Light Of Truth’s High Noon Is Not For Tender Leaves.” “Construction No. 1” and “Construction No. 2” are the central pieces. “Obeah Man", “Cycle of Life”, “Masouc” “Paulina’s Prayer” dedicated to my mother and “Remember Haiti” dedicated to the people of Haiti. There is one cover, “To Be With You” is a beautiful bolero that Nora re-harmonized and made her own. It was written by Nick Jimenez and Willie Torres and was originally sung by the late great singer Jimmy Sabater. I added and orchestrated the horn line.
This project is the first recording of the ACE Collective and it has been a long time coming and certainly not without its difficulties. It means everything to me first of all because it is something I envisioned years ago with the ACE Trio and now it has been brought to fruition. This project is a continuation of my ACE Trio which was the point of departure for my experimentation back in 2001 when I recorded the CD In the Ear of the Beholder. The ACE Collective is an extension of the ACE Trio and it can develop into a sextet, a nine piece group or an orchestra. Having this CD feels great because I can see and hear how the music is evolving.
JI: You've released the CD independently - on your own label. How has that approach been the best road for you to take?
JS: After a long process of searching for a label’s interest, I realized it was better to put this music out on my own. Because of the musical integrity and message, the nine compositions cannot be separated they are equal parts of a whole work. It just happens that they all came about on two discs that we will be selling for the price of one. Nora created a label, Red Zen Records ™ and we will be putting it out under that label. For me the musical integrity is the bottom line when it comes to producing any type of music and with the label thing, there are always compromises and so called “executives” that want to control your product and impose their own ideas which can be in direct conflict with what you are trying to say.
JI: You've got a performance at Drom in New York City in June. Could you talk about what you've got planned for that?
JS: This edition of the Collective has been performing since 2010. The last performance was on February 6 of this year so the music has developed to a point where everyone is taking more chances during performance because they understand more how the concept works as a unit, so I’m expecting to not expect – in fact, I look forward to surprises. We will be performing composition from the CD naturally, and I plan to premier a new composition, “Construction No. 3." You know you can never get too comfortable with the music, you must always present a challenge to yourself and the musicians by playing new compositions.
JI: Could you provide a glimpse into how you discovered your passion for jazz and the people and or opportunities that opened the door for your immersion and development in the music when you were growing up in Panama.
JS: I’ve always said that I learned to play Jazz by way of association. It just happens that I was already improvising at a very young age because my father had all the jazz lps and that sound came to me in a very natural way. I remember performing in dance bands and during my solo the musicians would say, “Hey, you’re playing jazz, you’re playing jazz!” For whatever that meant at that time, I did not know because it was a natural process. I guess they new what jazz was. At home I used to practice all day long. And during that time, my father would play Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins. At the time, I was going to elementary school and taking private saxophone lessons from my teacher Euclides Hall. He loved jazz but all we did was study out of the Klosé Saxophone Method and music theory. Mr. Hall would take me to his cabaret night gigs and dance music gigs and would sit me down next to him so I could understand how to sight read music.
Reading syncopation music was a big deal back then in Colon where I’m from. I remember how the older musicians would hang out at the corner and discuss about music all day long. They would talk about harmony, music theory, etc. that’s how I grew up in Colon and Panama City. At age fourteen, I was also going to the Conservatory and studied with the National Symphonic Orchestra first oboist and alto saxophonist, Efrain Castro. He had a beautiful tone and we mainly studied interpretation. During my third year at the Conservatory, he sent me sub for him with master pianist, Victor Boa, who was way ahead of his time. I used to hear the elder musicians talk about him and now that I reflect, he was playing piano at the level of Monk and Bud Powell. When I went to sub with maestro Boa, it was a great experience and after he heard me improvise, he hired me to be part of his band. I was 22 years old. Victor Boa was very influential because that was when I started to really play jazz with a real jazz band.
All of these guys were elder musicians. I remember the trumpet player Gene White and another great tenor player by the name of Bat Gordon – they were well aware of what was happening in the U.S. jazz scene. They all had a high level of musicianship.
JI: How did your studies at Panama Conservatory of Music, University of Panama, and State University of New York College at New Paltz where you earned a degree in 1981 support or challenge your artistic and creative efforts and perspectives?
JS: My studies at Panama Conservatory of Music were mainly classical music studies. I studied saxophone technique, harmony, music theory, choral composition and lots of music dictation. All of these studies help to form my musical background. At the University of Panama I studied Music Education. I was supposed to earn my degree but in 1976, at age 23, I moved to Madrid, Spain along with six other musicians from Panama on a six month contract accompanying a singer from Nicaragua. After three months, I quit the band because I wasn’t being paid properly. So I broke the contract and decided to make the scene in Madrid. I started playing jazz with some of the local musicians. At that time, Spain’s dictator, Franco, had just passed away and the country was in a state of celebration all the way – it was like a carnival. I met many musicians including another great pianist by the name of Louis Vecchio from Argentine. He has just gotten back from the U.S. where he studied at Berkeley College in Boston. I was introduced to him by another Argentinean drummer by the name Fernando Bermudez and he got me some gigs with Vecchio to perform in Las Palmas, Canary Islands where he had created the first school of jazz and contemporary music. Aside from being part of his quartet at that time, I studied advance harmony with him and I learned how to use chords as sound textures and how to balance dissonance and consonance. He had a very personal way of using chord extensions. He would voice the chord using clusters in a very unique way that would later remind me of some of Sun Ra’s music. He was the first one that exposed me to play the so-called “avant-garde” music. At that time, I was playing alto, tenor and soprano saxophones and his music was a combination of electric modal, funk, and jazz combined with open free improvisation.
In 1980, while living in Madrid, I saw an ad in the Downbeat Magazine advertising the Creative Music Studio and I decided to go and study there in order to expand my creative musical knowledge. That was my turning point. That experience changed my perspective, musical direction and conceptual view of how the music develops in terms of form and sound. The time at CMS made my focus very clear by just being in a very creative environment surrounded by musicians that were coming from many different places.
JI: What kinds of challenges and opportunities did you experience in Panama as you pursued this creative path as a saxophonist?
JS: My challenges were more about growing musically and not staying static for example I always knew I wanted to play improvised music even when I was playing in the dance bands. I had a Caribbean dance band by the name of Los Caballeros de Colon when I was fourteen years old and I was arranging and composing for that band because I was already hearing things differently from all the other bands around. My band performed quite a bit but was not in the popular trend because our sound was very different and distinctive. The instrumentation was three male singers, alto saxophone and two trombones. Sometimes I would add a trumpet to the mix. The band had a radio hit a very popular song called “Pan de Coco” (Coconut Bread.) We sold a lot of records and performed on national television. Also, I played with a lot of Calypso bands and before I moved to Spain, I made a record with a great Calypsonian by the name of Lord Panama. After that I realized that I had to travel.
JI: Talk about your departure from Panama and your move to the United States.
JS: [See prior answers]
JI: Could you discuss how exploratory saxophone players Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman influenced your sound, musical vocabulary and style?
JS: Well, there are so many ways of being influenced by other musicians but for me it was always the rhythmic approach – that is the first thing that captures my attention. There is also transcription but that has never been my approach. In the case of Dolphy, it’s mainly his rhythmic approach. There are some 1/8 note rhythmic things that came to my inner ear by just listening to him throughout the years. His intervallic ideas are very different because he’s coming from years of intervallic studies where he worked out his ideas and integrated them into his own personal vocabulary. I heard some of those rhythms and incorporated them into my own approach which I think is less dissonant – it’s subconscious with me, I just hear it that way. I don’t think Eric Dolphy’s approach was a process that came about through thought out harmony, in other words, working out lines or licks by way of using every line based on every chord change. That was more John Coltrane’s approach. My thing is to make up my lines right on the spot at any given point during performance so if anything Dolphy’s influence is reflected in my improvisation because of his rhythmic approach that initially attracted me and that I absorbed into my subconscious. Sometimes my students ask me, “Where do I play this – on what chord does this work?” I tell them to practice the line until it becomes part of them, because if they can’t hear it, they aren’t going to be able to play it.
In the case of Ornette Coleman, it is more a melodic/rhythmic thing. I don’t think he has influenced me as much as Eric Dolphy. His influence is more with regard to composition. When I was at CMS, there was a possibility to study with him through a Master Program that Karl Berger was creating but it didn’t happen. We did touch on some of his harmolodic concept through composition which I use on and off. My playing is always changing and the Dolphy thing today doesn’t come out as much as it used to, it also depends on the composition but I would like to be able to sound different every time I’m improvising.
JI: Talk about the dichotomy between the process of developing your own musical voice versus the limitations of imitating influential artists and hoping for validation.
JS: That is a very interesting question because it has so much to do with the history of this art form that we call jazz. Before I came to New York for the first time in 1980, I saw George Coleman perform with an incredible quartet with Hilton Ruiz on piano, Herbie Lewis on bass, and the great Billie Higgins on drums. It was one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. They were smokin’. They played at the Baboa Jazz in Madrid and George Coleman played “Giant Steps” in a really fast tempo and then he went through the whole 12 keys. It was killin’ so after they finished the set I went up to him and I told him that I was planning on coming to New York to study at the CMS and I would like to take some lessons with him. He told me to look him up through the Musicians Union. So when I got here I did. He gave me the lesson free of charge and up till today it was a worthwhile lesson that I pass on to my students. It was a combination of II, IV, I exercises and a 12 bar Blues study that he wrote right off his head. The reason I mention this is because the music came to me in many different ways – forms and directions.
I, for example, did not hear Bird back home in Colon. I heard a lot of Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Rollins. I remember when I went to play the Panama Jazz Festival in 2007, I visited my parents and spoke to my father about this. He went through all of his recordings and there was only one collection with Charlie Parker and a lot of other players like Dexter Gordon. In retrospect, I realized that my bebop thing was coming mostly from listening to Sonny Stitt. In fact, my father took me to see him perform live at a club by the name of the Esquire, this was in Colon. That was my first time seeing a live performance by an American Jazz artist. All of this to tell you that for me the process has been a transformation from influences to personal and conscious development. I never really tried to sound or imitate any of these masters. I think it’s because of where I was born and how my music developed. I have always been different since the beginning and was very conscious of it because it was pointed out to me many times by other musicians and I used that as an advantage because I did not want to change. I really don’t subscribe to the idea that you must imitate in order to find your own voice. Maybe that works for some musicians but I can assure you that’s what they want. It may work but history has proven that they are other ways to go about it. That is the reason I went to CMS. I was already playing at age 23 when I went there and I knew I was looking for something different. I think in the end the work of developing your own musical voice is the way to go because that is how this art form was created.
JI: Could you share some of the wisdom or advice you received from one or more of the following artists with whom you studied: Dave Holland, Oliver Lake, Steve Lacy, Marion Brown?
JS: Dave Holland has us playing individually on the spot and creating a solo piece which had to have an intro by using any thematic idea and a finale—ending. I think that was great. Also he was clear like a bible when it came to jazz harmony. He recommended many books on composition and orchestration. His emphasis was on ear training and being original. That to me was the way to go.
Oliver Lake would bring in some of his compositions and have us play them. I analyzed them and also learned from them.
With Steve Lacy, I learned that you could play changes in two different ways; one was by ear and the other was by learning and memorizing the changes. But the best way was to learn both. We played Monk’s “Epistrophy” and many of Lacy’s own compositions always in unison. He said it was more challenging to play in unison and in tune.
I hung out quite a bit with Marion Brown and we became good friends. His emphasis was to use your knowledge of jazz theory as a tool to develop and focus on your own voice, not copying or imitating anyone. Years after, I had the pleasure to feature Marion Brown as a guest soloist at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music with the Next Legacy Orchestra, a band that was formerly the David Murray Big Band but after he moved to Paris, tenor saxophonist, composer, Benny Russell and I took it over.
However, my biggest influence at CMS was violinist, composer, mathematician, former member of Cecil Taylor’s Unit, Ramsey Ameen. His concepts on composition led me in part to create my ACE Trio/Collective.
JI: What is the The ACE (Afro-Caribbean Experimental) Collective and what are your visions for it?
JS: The ACE Collective is one of my main projects wherein I use a large spectrum of Caribbean rhythms as a vehicle of inspiration to create new rhythms by way of experimentation. This concept came about in 1980 but is actually a calling to research these rhythms on a very large scale. Finding their connections in other countries, like Ireland, India and Spain. The history of the Caribbean is very broad and composition is also a very broad subject primarily because the composer is in charge and also because there are so many ways to approach creation. In any case, I’m really approaching this from a very personal and organic perspective.
My vision is to have this group with the same musicians for a long time and develop a situation where the direction of the music is constantly changing within the Afro-Caribbean spectrum. I have heard these rhythms for years in different contexts since I have been playing them all my life and they come quite naturally in various forms and sometimes I use them as part of my improvisational statement. There are a lot of people including some musicians that don’t relate to the source. That is why the Afro-Caribbean-Experimental stands as an umbrella for this music. The idea is to educate the audience and to spread the word worldwide.
The musicians that I have in this group are World Class A musicians. In the case of Nora McCarthy, I had been looking for a singer, composer, poet and also arranger for a long time. She is the principle element because we have been working together for 12 years. The reason I wanted a singer is because I always thought that the voice was an essential component to the melodic and harmonic lines I was writing and was also an essential texture within the orchestration. Her voice with its pure raw tone and soulful sound and her ability to think outside the form and improvise like another horn within my various groups, plus her ability to read the arrangements inspired many new compositions and opened up the ones that I had previously written, especially with regard to the literal content – she is an incredible poet and she just simply “got” my underlying intention of the music. Her particular tone has its own place within the overall sound of the groups and her poetry and lyrics deliver the message in a very profound way.
I grew up performing with singers and I think they are an integral part of any project, it all depends on who is the singer and for me Nora McCarthy is the best out there. When I first met her she wrote lyrics to one of my compositions that I performed with The Next Legacy Orchestra, “Nimbus” and her interpretation of the music was extremely insightful and spiritual – it was just very special. Her lyrics gave an added dimension to the piece that it seemed to have been waiting for. Today, “Nimbus” is part of the repertoire of the ConceptualMotion Orchestra which is one of the many projects we collaborate on as well as our voice and saxophone duo, A Small Dream In Red.
I’ve known Waldron Ricks since the ‘80’s when I first came to New York. When I first heard him back then, he had that sound like Booker Little. He’s another great asset to the Collective.
Pablo Vergara was recommended to me by a musician friend from Columbia. He’s been playing with most of my projects since 2000. His colors and knowledge of harmony is what contributes to the unique sound of the Collective.
Donald Nicks, I have played with for years, first with the ACE Trio and he knows my music inside out. He also has the soul of what this music is all about.
Kenny Grohowski was recommended to me by Pablo and he ended up being the best choice of drummers in my opinion because all of the drum parts in my compositions are notated and Kenny can read all of them with excellent sight and on top of that he orchestrates what’s on the paper and you can’t go wrong with that type of percussionist. He also plays in a very open way, which is what the music demands.
JI: How did your association with the World Saxophone Quartet develop? Could you talk about some of the highlights of your experience with that group?
JS: In 1995, Panamanian alto saxophonist, Carlos Ward, told me that I should go to the Knitting Factory and talk to David Murray about playing in his big band. David used to play there every Monday night. I rehearsed with the band before the performance and later played with the band after that.
During that time everyone would come out and play with the band. He had various guest artists like Lester Bowie and sometimes Butch Morris would conduct the band with his unique conduction method.
Back then I met all the cats including baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and trombonist, composer Craig Harris. In 2006 I received a phone call from Craig Harris and he told me to contact David Murray’s management company 3D Family because the World Saxophone Quartet was looking for an alto saxophonist to tour Europe and Israel. So, I followed up and that’s how the association happened. They had recorded a CD featuring the music of Jimi Hendrix. Initially Craig was supposed to also be on tour with the band but that didn’t happen. Craig had much of the arrangements and was featured on the CD as a guest artist. The band was myself on alto and soprano, Oliver Lake on alto, David Murray on tenor and bass clarinet and Bluiett on baritone. There was a rhythm section that included Jamaaladeen Tacuma on electric bass and Lee Pearson on drums. We toured for a month and our base of operations to rehearse the music was in Paris where David lived.
Overall it was an interesting tour; especially some of the acoustic performances without the rhythm section. One in particular led me to compose “Paulina’s Prayer" for the ConceptualMotion Orchestra and later on I re-orchestrated it for the ACE Collected which is included on Spirit Driven.
JI: Talk a bit about your performance at Stone with Karl Berger and your relationship with the Creative Music Studio.
Karl Berger is an amazing creative force in this music that we are blessed to have and the founder of The Creative Music Studio along with his wife, singer and poet, Ingrid Sertso. At the CMS Studio, Karl taught a concept called Gamala Taki which is a way of counting odd meters and grouping them into combinations of 3 – “Gamala,”and 2 – “Taki.” It helps the students to hear the pulse of the music. I remember doing a concert at Cooper Union Square, in 1981, and it was a great thing because it was my first opportunity to perform with the CMS Orchestra which was mixed with great musicians including the drummer Ed Blackwell, trumpeter Leo Smith, violinist Ramsey Ameen and trombonist George Lewis. The performance at the Stone earlier this year was comprised of playing some of Karl’s compositions that were rehearsed directly before the performance and some of Ornette Coleman’s – the former artistic director of CMS – concepts.
JI: Some believe that in order to be able to play and improvise masterfully in what is called open form, or free form or avant garde music, it is advantageous to have developed one's musical skills and understanding of playing inside, playing harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated music that demands masterful intonation, articulation, and comprehensive musical vocabulary. Coltrane was the archetypal example of getting it so together inside, that when he played "outside" he imparted his own structure where there might not have appeared to be any. Along those lines, some believe that musicians who play "outside" are in some cases merely trying to pass off as art their explorations, to compensate for their less than masterful instrumental skills. Could you share your views about the relevance of developing comprehensive musical skills and how that relates to playing in open form or free form?
JS: I personally have seen and heard both sides of this equation. I have played with and heard some very high quality musicians that could do both – play free and inside. For me at this point in time, it’s all about rhythmic phrasing being either inside or outside. If it doesn’t make any rhythmic sense and has no harmonic context and continuity, it doesn’t make any musical sense. You can call it art or whatever you want, but it’s not music. In order for the art to be in the music it must contain a certain level of understanding and proficiency of absolute musical terms. When I listen to someone like Eric Dolphy, Sonny Simmons, Jackie MacLean, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Jimmy Lyons, George Adams, or Cecil Taylor, you can hear their lines and textures and above all their rhythmic and harmonic intelligence in a very clear context. In other words, it has to swing, be it “in” or “out.” I’ve heard some cats that mostly play “outside” or “avant-garde” trying to play changes and they just stay in a diatonic cycle or circle that is very limited. Some of them don’t even have the concept of sound. Then you think about it and you wonder if maybe that’s all the information they have harmonically and they are limited. Then you hear some other cats who come from playing changes and can also play “out” because they have a better understanding of harmony. So the whole thing to me is about balance. Now when you hear someone playing who doesn’t have a good tone, that’s just ABC, stuff; they have to go back to the drawing board. Tone is everything. John Coltrane IS – all of that and then some – I say IS because that’s just the way it IS.
JI: Let's talk about the performance in Austria at the Brucknerhaus in 2010 and the recording of Spirit Driven what was that like?
I understand there was some drama, please elaborate. It has got to be an agony no musician wants to experience, but what would you advice other artists who may find themselves in a similar situation.
JS: Let me preface it by saying, I’m past the drama let’s talk about the performance. The performance was amazing. We had a full house of enthusiastic and responsive listeners who gave us a ten minute standing ovation.
My advice to other artists is always to stay true to the music and your integrity as a professional. Jazz musicians have been dealing with BS in the business from disingenuous and unscrupulous pretenders, and I call them pretenders because they are not rooted in any truth that I can relate to, since the beginning of this music and the so-called producers that I prefer to call “reducers” are just another annoyance and unfortunate obstacle we have to overcome – however, maintaining awareness, honesty and again integrity, focus and tenacity keeps the mongooses from raiding the henhouse.
JI: Could you discuss your association with fellow Panamanian Danilo Perez with whom you played at the Panama Jazz Festivals?
JS: I met Danilo at Bradleys years ago. He’s from a different generation so I didn’t know him in Panama. Later on I saw him perform at the Village Gate and we spoke and that led to my being contacted by his manager to participate in the Panama Jazz Festival with the All Star Panamanian band in 2007 that included Carlos Garnett on tenor saxophone, Renato Thoms on percussion, Santi Debriano on bass and my cousin, Billy Cobham on drums. It was a great performance and great time, especially to be able to see my family. We did two concerts and a workshop. I think Danilo is doing a wonderful work by producing this annual festival and shining the light on the great musicians that come from Panama – because there is a lot of Panamanian musicians all over the world and nobody knows about them. I would like to see Danilo put some of those musicians in the festival but like I said, it is a huge undertaking and has benefited the country and the music, especially with regard to education, immensely.
JI: How has life in the United States benefited your creative pursuits and the business side of the music for you?
JS: That has happened in many different ways because being in the U.S. and close to the music is a definite plus for my creativity, especially New York City. In 1985, I was living in the Bay area of San Francisco and I had the opportunity to play with some great musicians there. Later, I moved to New York City and because I am here, it has made me more creative than ever.
After having been in the business for as long as I have, I have witnessed the changes it has gone through since I started, but it has always been a “business” – like it or not and I have come to understand that it requires several key things in order to get the music out there so it can be heard, i.e., publicity, marketing, promotion and the like. When you have all of those elements working for you, it gives you an advantage. Let’s face it, in this fast moving, ever changing technical world we live in, the way we do business as artists has to comply in order to be heard and to remain vital. I do not let it affect how I approach the music or my musical integrity and I want to emphasize that point but I believe there is a way you can have a foot in both worlds and achieve both, artistic integrity and success, without playing politics and without having to spend a fortune. You have to do the research, enlist the services of reputable people to help you, and keep the faith. This requires a lot of patience and timing – knowing when to make your move and having your game plan in focus. I think if you can do that with the understanding that nobody owes you or your music anything and if you stay positive and on point and not get caught up in competition or what the other guy is doing or not doing – you know – focus – it will come around.
JI: What have you discovered about the music business - through your experiences with managers, record labels, publicists and others?
JS: I learned the hard way, like most musicians that it is all about money over quality of service as well as quality of musicianship, that it is all too often about the wrong things like being part of a “clique.” BUT, that having been said you can stay stuck or you can figure out a way around the mess and it doesn’t end with it being enough to have made a CD….whether you see that as unfortunate or fortunate is part of that change I was talking about – a change I had to get with. That’s why, THE most important thing you can do and MUST do, is thoroughly vet the people you entrust your music, your product and your career, with. There are some good people out there who have your best interest at heart. However, I still anchor myself to the principles I know and believe to be right with regard to the music and that’s how I deal with the other side of what we do as independent artists and I quote Ramsey Ameen, “The market value has nothing to do with the creative value your work has for you, and also nothing to do with the value that experiencing your music will have for each listener. I think that in general the logic of the market has very little to do with the direct shared experience between a truly expressive artist and a truly receptive audience member.”
JI: What is your opinion of the way the business of music is conducted in 2012 and how does it differ between America and Europe.
JS: I pretty much covered that in the previous question but I do think that while Europeans embrace the art form more, they are becoming more like America in the way they do business and there are some tricksters there and funny business that goes on that you must be aware of or you can get screwed because unless you have a lawyer who is familiar with their laws, which are different than ours in some very important ways, or you have a European lawyer, you can get in trouble and not know where to begin to resolve it and you can also be without a resolution so be careful.
JI: You are 59 years old. You have been playing music since you were 7. You have seen a lot of life and lived a lot of history, all the while you held on to your roots and your musical dream. That’s a lot of endurance one would say. You never played politics, you never did what was the "correct" thing to do but rather always went by your own instincts and sensibility of right and wrong. Most of the drama, escaped your scope of vision. You've made the music the foremost objective. In so doing you have maintained an uncompromising integrity and focus in the face of all of the temptations and music business challenges and "peripheral noise". How have these experiences contributing to solidifying your character and identity - and what would you advise others?
JS: Well, all I’ve done is maintained my focus, it’s all about that – working on your craft. As far as advising others, I would say the same thing. I never drank nor did drugs, I never allowed the struggle to get the better of me, or disrupt my equilibrium. I’m a pretty simply guy and I like to keep it like that. I stay away from controversy and drama as much as possible that’s why you don’t see me hanging out or wasting my time making the so-called scene. Of course I’m older now, but I just don’t have the time when I can be working on music, it doesn’t get you anywhere. I also don’t believe in being a part of any kind of scene that deals with falsehoods and “personalities.” I’m aware I’ve been labeled at times as angry, or negative, because I speak my truth and yes, there are things I feel strongly about, but I don’t believe in being falsely positive for the sake of selling your soul or tolerating injustice. You have to stand for something. If you don’t believe in anything then how can you have anything to say musically, it all translates into music for me.
JI: How have you been able to survive all these years and continue to sustain the music.
JS: It hasn’t been easy, I won’t lie. I teach when I can as often as I can. I just did a couple of workshops this year, one at LIU one at City College and I teach privately. My workshops are about experimenting with Caribbean rhythms, a concept that is based off of my ACE Trio and the Collective and the students love it. I’ve presented this workshop at Oberlin Conservatory and I’m looking forward to doing more. I am relentlessly looking for performance opportunities for my various groups and I work as a side-man in other people’s groups, such as, John Mason’s project – we just did a performance at Bam, Lucian Ban’s Asymmetry and in the past with Oliver Lake's big band to name a few offhand. I have some gigs coming up. I’m going to be at Smalls Jazz Club on August 15 and the orchestra will be playing on June 4th at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn and again on August 7th at the Baha’i Center. I’ll also be making a couple hits with Nora’s group, The HeartStrings Project on June 20 at The Metropolitan Room and also very much looking forward to our record release on June 22 at DROM.
JI: What kinds of suggestions do you have for musicians and industry participants in their activities in the business?
JS: For musicians, I just say to keep on pushing and working on their craft – don’t give up. As far as the industry participants, put the artist and the music first and let the music breathe don’t try and control it.
JI: What kinds of understandings have you discovered about people and or cultures in your travels and performances?
JS: People are the same everywhere in terms of their humanity. There is difference among cultures obviously but I have found that all differences are bridged through the music. That is the miraculous healing power and uniting power of music. If you are asking me about the appreciation levels for this music, I would have to say that pretty much everyone outside of the United States seems to appreciate it more or at least understands its importance in the world. European audiences are very receptive and listen to the music with open ears and an open mind. Also, there is more opportunities to play and in venues where the music is given its respect as is the musician; a way different vibe than here. I have been extremely well received in Europe at my performances and it’s very affirming for me personally and as an artist because that is how it’s supposed to be. Here in New York, it’s hard to find an audience first of all and secondly one that “gets it” or one that isn’t so brain washed by the industry that their taste is very limited and uncultivated – they can’t discern the good stuff from the commercial stuff because they can’t hear beyond what is passed off as “jazz” – they have very little information to develop their own taste for the music mainly because it isn’t being played on the prime time airwaves and the various educational institutions pander to one ideology over another as do certain high profile musicians that represent the music and have created niches for themselves off of the music. Many great musicians can’t fill a room and can’t get hired in the top jazz venues because they don’t play tourist jazz music. That’s what I mean about control.
JI: Talk about what you've learned about leadership from one or more of the jazz artists with/for whom you have worked.
JS: Leadership? The sign of a good leader is someone who knows the caliber of the musician they have in their band and knows how to use them without altering or watering down their performance and who aren’t afraid of being overshadowed by their sidemen. It should always be first and foremost about the music and never about the ego but that is seldom the case. But look for example at the great John Coltrane, since you brought him up. He was great and he made opportunities for other great musicians such as Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown and Archie Shepp. I have found that the cats that are the most humble are the real leaders like, Joe Henderson, Sam Rivers, Victor Boa, Henry Threadgill, Craig Harris, Ramsey Ameen, Carlos Ward, Mauricio Smith, Joe Bowie and poet Sekou Sundiata.
JI: Your music isn’t easy to play because of the way you phrase your melodic line, it is also a challenge to read. However, once embodied it is transforming. How did you arrive at your method of composition and what are some of your methods and some of the sources of ideas that have played a role in your inspiration?
JS: First of all, I work with ideas that come from within my spirit and heritage. It isn’t easy to play for some musicians, not all. It has to do with understanding the rhythmic concept and the ability to sight read – which I would like to add, should be a skill that every musician possesses.
My compositions are mainly coming out of a rhythmical structure that I always use. Sometimes I hear things and I write them down in a little book and I store them away. It could be days or years later that I come back to them and add more ideas – like a sketch book. My phrasing one hundred percent has to do with interpretation. For example, in the ConceptualMotion Orchestra I use lines that are a combination of Caribbean Rhythms and jazz motifs. The musicians who can’t play my music are the ones who can’t feel those rhythms that are natural to those of us from the Caribbean. They have to be able to phrase those lines with that feeling and they can’t because they were raised on a whole different way of hearing and placing the accent of the one. I always knew that jazz music or so-called “straight ahead” is really in cut time and not in a 4/4 meter, why? That is because it is dance music – that is how it is felt, and that’s how it was played back then. That correlation with Caribbean music is there but the problem is the source of information that some musicians have doesn’t include that experience. In fact, those jazz musicians who reject the notion of anyone dancing to their music simply don’t understand the history of the music. Jazz has been relegated to a thinking man’s music or “cerebral” music as it were and I think that that impression has done it a great disservice, what about the soul?
JI: Could you share any humorous or dramatic moments in your career that might respectively provide readers with either a laugh or a gasp?
JS: Well, one moment in particular sticks out in my mind. I was very young at the time about 20 years old still very innocent and naïve. I had a weekly gig with a drummer by the name of Harold “Zaggy” Berry who was the drummer with Victor Boa’s band at the time. Zaggy was an older crazy dude that looked like a beatnik – he was a real character. Anyway we would fly every Friday from Panama to do this gig on Contadora Island and the band would all stay in the same hotel. One afternoon before the Saturday performance, Zaggy called me to his room to pay me. So, I go to his room, knock on the door and when he answered, both he and his wife were standing there stark naked. He said “C’mon in, I’ll go get the bread, don’t worry about us, this is how we are!” Like it was nothing - it was pretty out there. In the meantime his wife is walking around the room talking to me normally like she isn’t butt naked and I couldn’t think of anything to say except, “you guys are pretty fit for your age.” It was just a funny experience that I never forgot and later seeing them at the club, was of course, a bit uncomfortable. I have laughed about it many times since over the years but never told anyone until now.
JI: You have got to have a philosophy that you live by, what is it?
JS: Believe in yourself no matter what.
JI: If this is relevant, what is the connection between music and spirituality for you?
JS: For me that is what music is, spirituality. Only when you are connected to your spirit can your music project its fulfillment through improvisation.
JI: What do you do to decompress when you're not making music?
JS: Watch politics on the tube. I am very interested in politics because it affects the music business and I learn a lot. I think it is important to be aware of who’s running things and how they are being run. I like to keep informed on what’s going on in the world I live in.
JI: Is there anything you'd like to talk about that I haven't prompted you about?
JS: Probably, but I’d really just like to thank you for your great magazine, your hard work for us musicians, for meeting me in the rain to take my picture for the cover, and for giving me this opportunity to talk about my music and my life. It’s a real honor for me.
Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Jorge Sylvester
An interview by email in writing
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Jorge Sylvester: – I grew up in the country of Panama, on the Atlantic side, in the City of Colon, Republic of Panama. Colon is considered the First City. My first exposure, and introduction to music was at 7 years old, in Elementary School, when in my home town, the City of Colon, I was selected to participate, in the creation of the very first Music Band ever in that school, and city. My interest in music was almost accidental, because before I was selected, they had asked to all the students to raised their hand if they will like to be part of that school band, and at that point I did raised my hand without knowing what was going to be the outcome…Did I was going to like it or not?… It was a process that involved a lot of studying for a long questioner of music theory, and you had to study, and therefore past the test, before been selected. Consequently I did pass this test with very high points, because during the time I was studying for that test, I did realized how much I was likening, and enjoying all of the information about Music Theory. From that moment on, I new music was my calling.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophone? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the saxophone?
JS: – After been in my school music band, I’ve always knew that I wanted to play the Alto Saxophone. In the beginning of Elementary school, my music teacher Mr. Santamaria had picked me to start on the Eb Clarinet, but listening to, and seen the Saxophone in my Elementary School had always made me think about playing that horn. I did played the Eb Clarinet all the way, but when I entered into High School and beyond, I started to play the Alto, Tenor, Soprano, and Baritone Saxophones. I played the Tenor and Bari all the way until 1980, the Soprano until the year 2003, (and one month in 2006) when I decided to just focus only on the Alto Saxophone, wish I’ve always wanted to do, but because of different working situations I had to play those other horns….just like in 2006 when I was hired to go on tour with The World Saxophone Quartet, and they needed me to play Alto and Soprano Saxophones for the Music of Jimmy Hendrix. At that time I did not owned a Soprano, but I borrowed one from a good friend.
My very first Alto Saxophone teacher was a gentleman by the name of Euclides Hall. He taught me everything I know today about this instrument. He was my foundation for the years to come. I studied with him privately in my home town 3 times a week. He was also a Jazz performer, and could transport in any key. He used to take me on to some of his Cabaret gigs accompanying various International singers and shows, and he will sit me right next to him, and show me how to read Syncopated music. I will also go with him to local Jam Sessions in Colon, and listen to him cut other players down. He was very competitive, and knew Music Theory Inside Out. He loved the challenge. He taught me tone production, sound, all about grouping, in terms of reading music and improvisation … connecting each notes, be it 8th notes all the way into 32nd notes. He thought me Voice leading, how to approach Rhythm, and very much importantly, having a Big sound on the Alto Saxophone. For him everything was about the Sound…If you didn’t have a sound, you had nothing. His model was “You have to know what You’re doing”. My second teacher was Efrain Castro, at the National Conservatory of Music in Panama. He was very much about Sound and Interpretation. He was the 1st Oboe at the National Symphonic Orchestra and he travel all over the world as a guest Artist. He also had a Big Sound on the Alto Saxophone. I study Classical Saxophone with him. I also took some other classical Saxophone training in Spain at the Madrid Royal Conservatory of Music, during the time I was living there, (1978), and that was mostly about embouchure technique.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
JS: – Development of sound comes within years of playing the horn. I think I was very lucky to have a decent sound, from the time I put my hands on the horn. That doesn’t happen with everyone. I worked on it by putting in the work, and that means days and days, and moths of very slow long tones. I study a lot out of the Sigurd M. Rascher’s Top-Tone for the Saxophone book, the famous Klose Saxophone book, and many other Etudes for Saxophones. I used these In conjunction with my own made exercises. I think as an artist you have to know what kind of sound you want, what kind of sound you hear, what is Your Voice?…What does it sound like?……In this Art Form, to me It’s all about having your own voice It’s about Individuality, and Expression.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JS: – Rhythm is who I’m … It’s all about the Rhythm. Rhythm, Melody, and then Harmony … Mr. Euclides Hall used to say: Music Is just Scales, Chords, and Intervals.
When it comes to Improvisation, I will say It’s all about Rhythm. Because I grow up listening to Caribbean Music, for me, my Rhythmic approach comes very easy, and naturally, but I still work on it, by listening, and analyzing every situation when I’m composing or Improvising. The drum is my model, and practicing Intervals within a rhythmic framework has helped me focusing when I’m “In the zone” during any improvising situation.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
JS: – I work a lot on a Rhythmic-Melodic Intervallic Harmonic direction……At this point I don’t think “Changes”- I think “Textures, Sound and Rhythmic-Melodic Lines”= Harmony. I’ve practice your regular II V I patterns in every 12 keys. In 1980 when I first came to New York City, I took one lesson from Master Saxophonist George Coleman. It was a study of the blues, and a study of II V I saxophone patterns that serves me still today in terms of Ear Training and Technique. Very valuable information for Saxophone student.
JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?
JS: – Unfortunately I haven’t listen to much of the 2017 CD releases, but I’ve played on a 2017 self produced, re-released CD by Vocal Artist Nora McCarthy entitle blesSINGS Nora McCarthy The People Of Peace Quintet, wish I’ll definitely considered one of the best.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
JS: – I personally think that It’s goes Hand In Hand. You have to have both. The balance has to do with everything, from Sound, Taste, Conception, and most of all: You have to Say something, It has to connect and It has to be meaningful, in other words you have to tell a story, you need to have your own voice. It’s like when you talk to someone, you have to be yourself, you don’t sound like anyone else.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
JS: – One memory that comes to mind, was opening for a group in Sevilla, Spain: I was playing with a pianoless Quartet (Alto, Tenor, Bass and Drums) opening for The Timeless All Stars ( Alto Saxophonist Jackie McLean, Pianist Tete Montoliu, Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, Bassist Herbie Lewis and Drummer Billy Higgins), and after Jackie McLean heard me, he said…. Man, you could work in New York City, you should go there…Now this was in 1983, right after I left New York, and went back to Spain, So I told him, man I was just there, and I left…He later said to me, man you have to go and stay..
My other memory, when I was at The Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY, was playing with drummer Ed Blackwell and Driving with him to the apartment where Charlie Packer Lived in Manhattan, NY.
JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
JS: – The only advice I can offer is to just stay focus on what you’ll like to accomplish as an artist, do all you can to be heard, and used all the possible promotional tools available to stay current in the mix. This means going to all Jam Sessions, and keep on playing regardless.
JBN.S: – And furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
JS: – In my opinion It is a Big Business, specially today much more than ever. Just the name “Jazz Education” makes it a Big Business. Furthermore all of the Institutions, and Corporations that are controlling this music today makes it a big business, but Jazz was first and foremost and always will be an Art Form….albeit and exploited Art Form, and wish some may think negatively in packs It’s essence.
JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?
JS: – Working with Vocal Artist Nora McCarthy. We have a wide range of different projects from a Voice and Alto Saxophone Duet, to a 20 Piece Orchestra.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
JS: – Great Works of Arts and Compositions never gets old…History endures the test of time, and so is art and music. Jazz Improvisation is in every aspect of our daily lives, even when It’s not noticeable by non musicians. It’s the magic of Imagination that is the key in bringing the young into this art form.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
JS: – Creation … And that is they way I approach my music and life.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
JS: – I expect to keep on creating, composing, and performing. At this point there’s no fear, but fear to not be able. Is the law of life and if we’re aware, they should be no fear or anxiety.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
JS: – It would be guaranteed paid wages for Creative Jazz Musician, equal visibility in The Grammys for Jazz Musicians, and more Jazz Radio Stations that will play Avant-Garde Jazz on Prime Time.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
JS: – The next frontier presents itself, when the time is right…
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
JS: – Yes there is. Jazz, World Music, and Folk Music are an entire family in many different ways. They’re all music coming from a common thread that is rhythmic pulse, and harmonic influence. What we called “world music “ and “folk music “ is nothing more than music developed by a people, coming from their cultural, and folkloric history. What we now called “jazz” is music that was developed by a people, coming from their cultural, and historical experiences. All of these similarities lies in the blues form, song forms and so on. In all different parts of the world there’s a similar aspect, or feeling of the blues.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JS: – Composer, and Multi Instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, Composer Ernst Toch String Quartets, and music by American Composer Charles Ives.
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
JS: – I play a Selmer Low A Alto Saxophone with an SR Technologies Mouthpiece Alto Legend L-85, a Vandoren V16 Read #4 with a Roberto’s Alto Sax wooden Ligature.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
JS: – I’ll like to perform in Senegal, because of the richness of the cultural, and musical tradition, and also because of the direction that I’m taking with my music in experimenting with Afro Caribbean Music and Rhythms.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself …
JS: – Do you play a musical instrument, if you do so, and what made you want to do a jazz interview of Jorge Sylvester?
JBN.S: – Thanks very much for answers. I don’t play musical instrument, with the musician wanted to do an interview when was his birthday and got acquainted with the musician and his music.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan
Arts For Art Published on October 28, 2014
Latin FreeJazz Festival, 2014 Jorge Sylvester Interview
Arts For Art
Published on Jan 13, 2016
Jorge Sylvester Talks about the theme and music at this years Evolving Series:
Not A Police State/Justice is Compassion.
Jorge Sylvester Interview for Jazz Voice Media June 2021
Check Out Jazz Voice Media Podcast at