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Luis Bonilla: I Talking Now

By Published: March 8, 2010

Latin Jazz

AAJ: Let's circle back to your introduction to Latin jazz. Since you first started playing it, much of your music has been labeled Latin jazz. How do you define Latin jazz?

Luis Bonilla (right) with Dave Douglas (left) and Brass Ecstasy

LB: Latin jazz is still a term that is so vague and ambiguous...but Latin jazz for me is as simple as anything that isn't straight ahead: the feel of the eighth notes—which isn't swing, which is much more even—the addition of playing more percussively. True Latin jazz players are well-steeped in not only manipulating harmonic progressions, a.k.a playing changes, but also the ability to implement the percussive language as well. I don't hear a lot of people doing that.

AAJ: That is an interesting way to define it. Obviously, there have been a lot of Latin influences on jazz, people incorporating pieces of Latin tunes, instruments, perhaps only for one or two tunes on an album. But then there is someone like Paquito D'Rivera, who uses Latin jazz to explore Latin musical traditions, including classical composers. That seems the further extreme: taking a whole musical tradition and using jazz to explore it. Could you take a minute to give us the historical development of Latin jazz? You could probably go on for 20 minutes on that!

LB: Or 20 seconds! It becomes a little tricky. In some ways, it goes back to something as simple as the Duke adage: there's good music and bad music. There are good compositions and bad compositions. ... Latin jazz is probably a category built up to market it a little differently than jazz itself, especially since it did start to catch on in the late '80s and '90s when it became a staple in and of itself in terms of a kind of jazz music. ... It becomes kind of murky in terms of what I want to call Latin jazz. Even if you take the music of Piazzolla— great compositions, melody, harmony, rhythm—I don't know if you take it just as it is. Is it Latin jazz? It's Latin American music, certainly, if jazz is defined just as improvised music. Some want to call it Afro-Cuban jazz, but there's music from Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico—the list goes on and on.

AAJ: It feels, though, that the interest in Latin jazz, however you define it, comes in cycles and that we are in an upsurge right now, perhaps because of ever-growing exposure to those cultures.

LB: Sure. Definitely. A lot of my friends have spent time overseas just to study, but now with the added invention of the internet you hardly need to hop on a plane to get culture by proxy, as an option for submersing yourself in a culture. The need to express yourself is always the same kind of drive, but you can sew it through the fabric of so many cultural fabrics. Just think, at this point we can investigate so many different types of music just from the African sections from each of the Latin countries itself. Puerto Rico, that's one thing. Go to Cuba. Go to Colombia. It goes on and on. There is definitely an upswing just because so much more is being documented and is now available immediately. We are still experimenting with that kind of music; it is reaching out globally.

AAJ: That experimentation is clearly something you enjoy participating in.

LB: It is always fun to do something interesting, something new. I remember playing with a group from the African part of Colombia. [They] were playing a club and a friend of mine asked me to join, so we popped in to play. Everything was written out, pretty normal. So there I was playing through it and having fun. Then, on the last tune of the night, a bunch of guys pulled out a bunch of folkloric instruments—these drums and a variety of instruments—and they put out this music written in 6/8 time, and let me tell you, I just had to guess. I could not feel where one was. I could not tell. I could feel where the music was, but I could not find one. I'd start to play, and the guys would look at me: "No, no, no, no."


"No, no, no, no."

[Laughs.] All right, I'll just start singing it, and it'll be sorta close.


AAJ: You have won two Grammy awards for your work with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Afro Latin jazz Orchestra. When you get those types of awards, what does it feel like?

LB: I have so much invested in the Vanguard orchestra. I have already played with them for a little over 10 years. I'm very close to the people and the music, and have been part of the new music that's been commissioned and part of its development. So it brings a great sense of pride. With the Afro-Latin jazz Orchestra as well, even though I am fairly new there, it has also made some considerable headway.

Luis Bonilla / Dave Douglas Brass EcstasyAAJ: What makes the Vanguard orchestra such a special band to play with? LB: I've never played in any other organization where each member had the ability to be such a profound improviser, for one. Two, [they] have such great musical skills to be able to make the unit sound as one. That's the orchestra that I play with that has the highest proficiency from top to bottom. Everybody plays extremely, extremely well.

AAJ: It must also be fun to play in the Vanguard on a regular basis.

LB: I sit behind Dick Oatts, and then I have John Riley to my right and John Mosca to my left. It is not gonna get better than that. Then Jim McNeely on one end of the band and Gary Smulyan on the other, David Wong. It's very deep in every chair and everybody has their own voice. Nobody sounds like anybody else in that group. You play in other groups and, "Well, he sounds like Freddie Hubbard. Oh yeah, he's playing like Sonny Stitt."

Now, I'd like to play like Sonny Stitt, sometimes. Who wouldn't? But that's not the goal. That is an extension of the idea that was ingrained in me: you are not only encouraged to play your own thing, you are expected to, because that is what really makes it happen.

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