Marcus Rojas: Finding the Sound World
“ The big thing about any group is finding that sound world, that balance, that place--if you never heard that world before then you have to create a paradigm for it ”
It's a familiar scene for the 44-year-old, who's been riding the resurgent interest in tuba for more than twenty years, appearing on more than three hundred recordings. From his early days with trumpeter Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy and saxophonist Henry Threadgill's Very, Very Circus, to his work in the Les Misérables Brass Band and the collaborative Spanish Fly, Rojas established his credentials and reputation as the premier tuba player in creative music.
He's also a first-call musician for mainstream situations: contemporary classical and orchestral performances with the Metropolitan Opera, New York Pops and New York City Ballet; contributions to some sixty film soundtracks and innumerable commercial jingles; and gigs with pop stars like David Byrne, Michael Jackson and even Rosie O'Donnell's Christmas album.
"I want to be playing everywhere, with everyonebecause how cool would that be to play the tuba with everybody," animatedly says Rojas. Unapologetic about this range of gigs or following the money at times, he recognizes the reality of being a professional musician in New York City. The consummate sideman, Rojas brings his artistry to all situations even enlivening notated pieces. "I play the tuba and I've figured out how to do it in a lot of different places and I don't discriminate," he says.
Despite his prolific output and earning the esteem of his peers, Rojas hasn't led many projects or recorded under his own name. With a little more of the serendipity that's guided his life in music, he is beginning to assert himself as an artist, not just a hired hand.
Rojas was born and raised in Red Hook, Brooklyn among his mother's large Puerto Rican family. The music of Latin masters like Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colón filled the air, mingling with the great James Brown. His uncles, a percussionist and trombonist, taught the youngster about rhythm and making music feel good. A chronic asthmatic, Rojas missed the first week of third grade when all the band instruments were assigned, except the tuba. He was fascinated by the big, shiny brass instrument, though later switched to trombone, "because going to Brooklyn and playing a tuba was absolutely not cool at all," he jokes.
In junior high the band lacked a tuba player and its director insisted Rojas change back or leave. After a week in art class missing the music, he came back. The same teacher recognized Rojas' talent and encouraged him to audition for the famed High School of Music and Art. When Rojas demurred, the director came to his home at 7 AM and took him to the audition, which got him into the school and out of the boroughs.
Rojas realizes he was fortunate to receive encouragement and guidance and to have gone through the city schools when music programs were still active. He laments their loss and performs about thirty children's workshops and classes each year to give it back. Dedicated to music education, he also takes private students, gives master classes and teaches at New York University, SUNY Purchase and Brooklyn College.
He attended New England Conservatory around the time that notable musicians like trumpeters Frank London and Dave Douglas passed through. The atmosphere was full of creativity and experimentation, he recalls, as classically trained players wanted to improvise and play diverse music. In Boston, he hooked up with London's Les Misérables Brass Band and cites the trumpeter as an enduring influence. After graduating NEC and still playing with Les Misérables, Rojas moved back to NYC and began garnering attention.
"When you're a musician or artist, if you can hook someone's attention with the thing you do, it's very gratifying," Rojas says. "Obviously, if you play the tuba and you do it even half-ass well, you're going to get people's attention."
Tubaist Bob Stewart called and invited Rojas to a rehearsal and then to a recording session. Rojas was interested in the tuba's role as a bass instrument, not as a soloist and had built up stamina working in classical ensembles. Stewart was impressed and started recommending him for gigs, including a radio drama with Threadgill. In his mid-twenties, everything happened quickly: gigs with the Metropolitan Opera, a week with Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra in Cuba, a movie date here and a jingle thereall of it was exciting. He'd often finish a gig uptown then rush downtown for a late set at the old Knitting Factory, still wearing his tuxedo.
When Threadgill called about his band of two tubas, two guitars, saxophone, trombone (later French horn) and drums, Rojas was intrigued by the instrumentation and jumped at the opportunity. "The big thing about any group is finding that sound world, that balance, that placeif you never heard that world before then you have to create a paradigm for it," he says. Very, Very Circus developed into a powerful ensemble capable of surprise, daring and humor. Rojas toured the world with Threadgill and Bowie's Brass Fantasy, learning from these veterans the business of music and leading a band. With Threadgill using two tubas, Rojas could move away from strictly playing bass lines and developed a wider sonic range.
"Basically I think of myself as this sound machine," Rojas says. "The thing about the tuba that's cool is that it's basically a hollow tube, it's just an amplifier." Rojas pushes the boundaries and expectations for the tuba's role in contemporary creative music, capable of playing melodies in the upper registers that sound like trumpet or French horn. He's developed a range of extended techniques, like using the body for percussion and vocalizing through it and often dances with the instrument as if to exhort more sound. The results can mimic beat-boxing, Tuvan throat singing, whispers and growls. Despite his apprehension that these techniques would be taken for a gag, they are now vital for his self-expression.
The otherworldly soundscapes conjured with trumpeter Steven Bernstein and guitarist David Tronzo as Spanish Fly demonstrated that the tuba was no novelty and, like a synthesizer, Rojas could offer a spectrum of possibilities. "Marcus is basically one of the most important musicians in my life," Bernstein says, crediting Rojas for teaching him to move air more efficiently. It's an enduring musical partnership, and Spanish Fly has reunited to perform and is set to release a new CD: their musical homage to Lester Bowie from 2006's Festival of New Trumpet music. The two also recorded together as part of Kamikaze Ground Crew for a spring release and recently played a rare duo at The Stone.
"What art does and music does, it's a transformative experience. And more and more that's what I'm looking for," Rojas says. He's becoming more selective and focusing on a few groups or specific players, including saxophonists Tony Malaby's Tuba Trio and Michael Blake's Hellbent. He's also an integral part of Douglas' Nomad, still performs with London, often explores with multi-reedist Ned Rothenberg and guests with guitarist Matt Munisteri's Musette Explosion.
"He seeks the opportunity to create music in a spontaneous, totally inspired mind-meld type of environment," Blake says. "And he believes in that and to play with him, you have to believe in that." Blake has used Rojas on gigs for a decade and was honored to be included in the rare gig Rojas led at Cornelia Street Café's Low Brass Festival in 2006. Rojas' ideas about musical structure and expression were so successfully translated and matched his expectations that he is seriously considering that elusive recording as a leader.
"Things are changing a little bit for me now; now I want to go a little bit deeper," Rojas says, with faith that things work out. "I don't know why it is, but I think I'm just blessed, really, in the end. I think we all are."
Dave Douglas, Mountain Passages Green Leaf Music, 2004)
Roberto Juan Rodriguez, El Danzon de Moises Tzadik, 2002)
Spanish Fly, Fly By Night Accurate, 1995)
Thomas Chapin Trio Plus Brass, Insomnia Knitting Factory Works, 1992)
Henry Threadgill Very Very Circus, Spirit of Nuff...Nuff Black Saint, 1990)
Les Misérables Brass Band, Manic Traditions Northeastern, 1988)
Courtesy of Marcus Rojas