John Santos Finds His Groove
AAJ: At the same time this issue of All About Jazz: San Francisco will be out on the streets, you'll be doing a lecture and concert series at La Pe'a Cultural Center. Will you be discussing some of these same issues there?
JS: We certainly will, although that series focuses more specifically on Bay Area Latin jazz. We're going to be interviewing people who have played a role in the past as well as some of the younger, up-and-coming people who are really pushing the field and mixing Latin jazz with other styles: groups like Mingus Amungus and Omaya. We'll be talking about their experiences in the local scene. We will certainly touch upon these broader issues, but more than a overall history of Latin jazz, it'll be something pertaining to Bay Area Latin jazz.
Each week there will be a concert, with a panel discussion preceding each one. I'll be hosting the panels, and we'll have different combinations of musicians from the various groups that are playing. Jesse "Chuy" Varela will be moderating the first one.
AAJ: As a Bay Area native, how would you say the jazz scene here has changed in your lifetime?
JS: That's a good question. I would have to qualify it by saying that I don't feel I can speak for the whole jazz scene, because I work in kind of a specific niche as a Latin player and a percussionist.
From my perspective, the scene has grown a lot, just in terms of the musicians, and this is something that's not just specific to San Francisco. I think in general, musicians have opened up to the world. The Internet has a lot to do with that, the opening up of Cuba has a lot to do with that, people are starting to understand that there's a whole world of stuff out there that is fascinating and is very related to the world of jazz. So any musicians who are into jazz, want to know the history of jazz, want to become better players and improvisers, have better rhythmic understanding, all those things would lead them to expand into Caribbean music, into Latin American music, and into African music. In that sense the Bay Area has flourished; it's one of the leading areas in the whole world. A lot of people have come here from all over the world to live, and have brought their music, and have blended with the musicians who are already here. And so creatively and artistically, the whole thing has blossomed.
On the other hand, economically we're feeling the crunch as bad as anybody else. There's very few venues to play in comparison to the number of great musicians that are here, and that's a problem also that is not exclusive to our area.
AAJ: Getting back to Omar Sosa for a moment, you and he have a new duo album out. How did that come together?
JS: Well, starting with the group itself, Omar lived in Oakland for a few years; it was about six years ago when he moved here. And when he got here, he really did a lot to make people take notice, he's such a special player. He did a lot of collaborating with different artists, and just by chance he and I ended up on the same gig one day'we were both subbing for somebody else. But we enjoyed each other's playing, and then we both had the idea at the same time that we should get together and play, just the two of us. I had never done that before, playing in a duo, and he hadn't either. But for some reason we both felt that it could work, so we got together and soon we had booked our first gig. We had a great time, and we wound up doing that for about three years. We did a live album at La Pe'a Cultural Center at that time, and we also did a lot of touring: in Europe, and the Virgin Islands, and up the East Coast.
Now this second album, the one that just came out, that's been a work in progress for the past four years. Instead of doing a live album, we wanted to do one in the studio. So we did it piece by piece. I didn't have a label, so we got into the studios when we could. We used a couple of guest artists, some people visiting from Cuba, and Maria M'rquez, a wonderful artist who lives in the Bay Area. But we put it together little by little. Then finally, after trying to shop it around and waiting for a deal, I couldn't wait any more. So I released it myself at the same time as the Machete record.
AAJ: So what's that vibe like, with only two people?
JS: It's great. It's like being in a big lake, where you can swim in any direction you want, any way you want: on your back, or you can go under the water. You can do anything. It's much more free than playing with a large group. When you're one of ten people, you have a role to play. And that has its own beauty, but also its own restrictions. In the duo, there's no rules, there's nothing. It's like running out there naked. It's a blast, especially if you're with someone who you trust and feel comfortable with. We're just constantly jumping off the cliff, knowing that the other person will be there to catch us.