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Alexis Cuadrado: A Bassist in New York

Alexis Cuadrado: A Bassist in New York
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Bassist, bandleader, and innovative composer Alexis Cuadrado has made a name for himself over the last decade with a series of ambitious albums that push the envelope of jazz composition. His latest work A Lorca Soundscape (Sunnyside, 2013) may very well represent the most challenging piece yet to emerge from his restive mind. As thought provoking as it is musically stirring, the album puts to music the poetry of Federico García Lorca's seminal collection "A Poet in New York," finding in its intoxicating imagery and potent social protest the inspiration for a modern work of great lyricism and humanism.

All About Jazz: For those who are not familiar with Lorca or his poetry collection "A Poet in New York" could you start by providing a brief introduction?

Alexis Cuadrado: Lorca was a very progressive writer, playwright, poet, novelist, and musician. He was a renaissance man and part of what is called the Generation of the 27, meaning that he came up with a group of intellectuals in Spain who were very liberal and progressive. Among [them] we find Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, who went to school with [Lorca] and they were really close friends. In 1929, Lorca was barely in his 30s. He was already a celebrity in the Spanish intellectual and literary world. He was also a man of the people so his work interacted a lot with, lets say, the general masses.

So he took a sabbatical to come to New York in theory to study English at Columbia University. But he didn't study much English. Instead, he was able to grasp the last part of the roaring twenties and party like an animal. On the other hand, he wrote a collection of poetry called "Poet in New York," in which he makes an intense and strong social commentary on what he saw.

AAJ: Of course, he's a seminal writer beyond Spanish poetry—a widely recognized writer with broad influence.

AC: Absolutely. "Poet in New York" is perhaps his most socially engaged work. And his most surreal. He really uses the type of surreal imagery that we see in Dali's paintings and Louis Bunuel's films. You can really see he comes from that school. At the same time I would say the impact of this work is perhaps a prophetic work. He is such a liberal and progressive thinker that when he goes back to Spain he gets assassinated in 1936 by the incoming General Franco government.

AAJ: How long have you been drawn to Lorca's work?

AC: I've known it forever. It is part of the culture in Spain. You study it in school—elementary school, high school. We have all read Lorca. It is part of who we are growing up in Spain. However, for me there was this epiphany when the economic crisis exploded in 2008. It seemed like a lot of what was happening was a photocopy of what was happening in 1929. I made the connection...what is happening now is the same as what Lorca was describing. [I thought] it would be interesting to do something that connects both events, the literary work of 1929 with the musical work of 2013.

AAJ: You unabashedly refer to the music as a protest. What are you protesting?

AC: It was almost a philosophical question. What is my role in the world when something that I see is happening that I think is very unfair? I almost felt like I had an artistic obligation to do something about this. That was my protest. To write this music with Lorca's text. I dare to call them protest poetry.

There is a serious tradition of protest music and songs in jazz. Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
and Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
. Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
protested without lyrics. I wanted to provide an angle of social protest out of a moral obligation to voice my concern.

AAJ: Is it the economic disparity that is driving you?

AC: It is everything. How much has it really changed? On the surface a lot has changed between 1929 and 2013. But indeed, has it really changed? We still see racism in different forms—Trayvon Martin—we still see social inequalities—world wide and right here in New York. I see this. I taught as a teaching artist in public schools in New York. I don't do that anymore, it was years ago, but I've seen social, economical, cultural placement really mark how people grow up. And it's bad. It makes me angry. This piece is a way to channel my anger.

AAJ: You've said this was your first time adapting poetry, or even writing for vocals. Were you ever nervous taking on such a seminal figure as Lorca in this way?

AC: Yes! I was terrified. I was freaking out completely. Its one thing is to have the idea, but...

Also the poems in "Poet in New York" are very prosaic. I did a lot of research for this. I studied poetry metrics. It's very free form...free flowing ideas, almost this subconscious text that is flowing out. To put that into music was definitely a challenge. It's kind of like you are taking someone else's art and you go in with your scissors and pencils and erasers and, oh boy, what am I going to do here?!

So at the beginning, the first two songs I wrote were very short poems. I thought that was a good way to warm up. And the last one I wrote, I was just chopping away all over the place. I combined two different poems into one song. I was completely fearless. It became this process where I thought, this is what I am doing I will just go for it.

It was a terrifying experience that became a cathartic experience in the end.

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