Marialy Pacheco: A Sunshine State of Mind
The Montreux award was something of a kick-start for the careers of both Lopez-Nussa and Luna. Lopez-Nussa has gone on to record with saxophonist David Sanchez, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and trumpeter Christian Scott on Ninety Miles (Concord Picante, 2011), while Rolando Luna contributed to pianist Bebo Valdes' beautiful soundtrack to the Fernando Trueba/Javier Mariscal animated film Chico & Rita (2010), and he currently holds the piano chair in the Buena Vista Social Club. Pacheco is well aware of the leg up that winning Montreux can provide, especially as First Prize means a week's studio time in Balk Farm Studio, in Switzerland's Toggenburg region. "It means so much for me," she says sincerely. "I think this is the most important thing I've done in my career, so far. We're going to record there pretty soon."
That Pacheco even entered the Montreux Piano Solo Competition at all is down to the encouragement of Lynette Irwin of Pinnacle Records, a tireless supporter of Pacheco and the other artists on her label: "I have to thank Lynette because she was the one who encouraged me to go this year," acknowledges Pacheco. "I was a bit afraid because last year I went to the Bucharest Jazz Competition, and it wasn't that much of a good experience for me there. I got into the final, and I didn't win, and I think it was a bit unfair. I felt like I was done with piano competitions, and I didn't want to do any more. I was a bit depressed when I came back from Bucharest. But Lyn said to me, 'You have to go to Montreux. You have to go.' So I'll have to thank her forever for pushing me."
Pacheco's romance with jazz began far from Montreux or Brisbane, in her native Havana, Cuba, and she speaks glowingly of that rather special island. "Cuba is very exotic in many ways and very crazy. It's unbelievable, the things that happen," says Pacheco. "One of the amazing things is that in Cuba, the music touches everybody's way of thinking. On the streets, you always hear Latin jazz and salsa, traditional Cuban music. It's really hard not to fall into it. Our folk-music culture is still strong. It's who we are. It defines us as people."
Pacheco had the fortune to grow up in a musical family. Her mother is a choir conductor, and her father studied opera in Russia. Pacheco herself studied classical piano throughout her childhood and teens. "There was always music playing in my house," recalls Pacheco. "I was familiar with music the whole time." A defining moment came when Pacheco was 18, after 13 years dedicated to playing classical music. "I realized I needed a new way to express myself, a little more than just playing Bach," she explains. Pacheco is in no way dismissive of classical music, as when she talks about Bach or Chopin she does so with an obvious love and a deep appreciation of the skills and sacrifices needed to master this music; but jazz offered the pianist new horizons. "It can be stressful playing classical music because everybody knows what is going to happen before it even happens. There are things you have to do in this particular way or that particular way. I needed something that gave me more freedom to express who I was and to play without being worried about hitting the wrong notes."
Pianists Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis have all been widely quoted when it comes to the subject of wrong notes, but perhaps Monk's pithy comment, "The piano ain't got no wrong notes," best sums up the infinite possibilities of jazz, which the young Pacheco felt at age 18. For Pacheco, jazz offered her little short of a musical lifeline. "The essence of jazzimprovisationgives you freedom," Pacheco affirms. "It gives you the freedom to play from your heart and be creative. I feel that with classical music you are very limited. Somebody else wrote the music already."
As Songs That I Love (Pinnacle Records, 2011) amply demonstrates, Pacheco can only play from her heart, whether on her own striking originals, on interpretations of Jerome Kern standards or immersed in the Cuban music that inevitably lends so much color to her voice. Historical Cuban heavyweights such as trumpeter Mario Bauza, pianist Frank E. Flynn and singer-songwriter/guitarist Guilermo Castillo have all made a lasting impression on Pacheco, but perhaps nobody more so than pianist Emiliano Salvador. "When I was in Cuba, my mum got me this album called Pianissimo (Universal Latino, 2002), which is a compilation of old recordings of his," explains Pacheco. "It's so amazing. I still listen to it because I can still learn so much from Emiliano. He really inspires me."