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Alexis Cuadrado: A Bassist in New York

Franz A. Matzner By

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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 and Billie Holiday. Miles Davis 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 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.

AAJ: A lot of artists who approach one form through another don't do it in the same direct, complete way that you did. For example, often taking the complete text of the poem. A lot of other folks talk about "distilling" a work or presenting the "spirit" of a work. They stay a little more removed. You really stuck very closely to the flow of the poems. It's almost like the lyrics to an opera. How did you accomplish this, what was your method?

AC: It was a very systematic process but very intuitive at the same time. Once I find a way, once I can see what the composition will look like in the block of marble, then I go for it. Every poem was its own, had to have its own personality.

At the beginning, the first two or three, I didn't really edit anything. But as I went further along I really did edit quite a lot. Some of the poems are so long it would be almost impossible to write what to me was musically interesting and keep the emotion of the poem at the same time. So I had to edit. I still have a big folder with all the poems, scratched up. But as soon as the third or fourth were done, I started seeing connections between all of them and started using compositional elements in the first one and the fourth one, so it does have this more classical composer approach [like] in an opera where there are motifs that repeat.

AAJ: Could you choose one of the poems and walk through how you took that piece from composition, to arrangement, to performance?

AC: We could choose "Dance of Death" which is one of the more critical ones. The lyrics speak of a monster that will come down to Wall Street and destroy everything. There was this idea of an African mask taking back what's been taken away from it. Or if you want, an analogy of a proletarian revolution. I'm not very keen on communism per se, but that was still the center of the idea.

So it had to be a strong piece. It had to have an African element to it. I felt it had to have a repetitive element for the part that says "the mask, look at the mask, how it comes from Africa to New York." I am translating by memory. So that had to be a strong chorus.

There are three basic elements that I used musically. One, there is a lot of repetition, but used in a minimalist way. Two, all these repetitions are written technically in voices that move in contrary motion. I made the parallel that contrary motion could be contrary movement, [like] Occupy Wall Street is a contrary movement. Now, whether that translates into what you hear or not, I don't know. But it's a great excuse to do something.

Then I used a lot of percussion. For the recording I used South American percussion, Brazilian percussion, African percussion, flamenco. There were like 50 tracks for that piece and something like 27 of them are's a chorus of voices. I wanted to give it this multi-national chorus impression. So that is how abstracting the ideas from the poetry and translating them into musical elements happens.

Here is another example: "The Dawn." This is perhaps the most famous poem from "Poet in New York." For this, I had an image of Lorca at the beach seeing the sunrise and being at the beach I had an image of a crab crawling. So I had the idea to write a crab cannon in the middle of the piece. What sense does that make? How does that connect to Lorca in any possible way? But as I was saying, it's an excuse to start something. And I did. I wrote a crab cannon which made me go into Bach and study crab cannon for a month until I could figure it out.

This is the process for me. I go into my studio and it's like going into a playroom. I have all these legos and I have to build something with them. It is really fun. You have to try and eventually something works. Maybe 1 out of 10. It is a lot of work. It is painful. But when something starts to work, it almost happens on its own. The process of thinking about it for so long, it unlocks the door. I do not know how I wrote all this music—did I do that? It's crazy.

AAJ: The collection "Poet in New York" is quite large. How did you choose the pieces to compose?

AC: Well, first of all I had permission to choose nine. So I could not use more than nine. I chose eight, because for one I combined two poems. I read the book I don't how many times—twenty or thirty times—and started making a list of the ones that I thought worked and the ones that didn't. They almost self-selected in the end.

AAJ: It was more a choice of what you thought could be translated musically, as opposed to one from each section of the book? Or by theme?

AC: Some of them I chose because I thought they would work musically and some I chose thematically...I geared it more toward social commentary because there are some that don't really have much of a social commentary. They are more like still life photographs. And there were some where I had no idea how I was going to put it into music, but I had to do it... like "New York Office and Denunciation." That is the seminal protest one. That is the most hard protest, the most intense. And so many lyrics I thought Claudia was going to need an oxygen bottle!

AAJ: Can you explain what the term "duende" means and why it is important for Lorca?

AC: Lorca wrote an essay explaining what "duende" is. It is something inexplicable, like many things in life. "Duende" is the magic that happens when something artistically beautiful just happens to be. It is a flamenco term. When a singer, or guitarist, or dancer is really happening, they say he or she has "duende." They have that spark, that magic.

AAJ: My loose understanding is that at least from Lorca's perspective it has an element of beauty and sorrow coming together. Similar concepts come up in certain cultures, Japanese has one, Fado has one. There seems to be a commonality there. It seems to be an important element of Lorca's style. How did you bring it into your work?

AC: I see what you are saying. It is kind of like the blues, in a way. It is kind of like when you hear an old Delta blues musician, maybe not trained in any way, but it has that raw soul to it. "Duende" is exactly that. For me, the music that I write, in general not just for this [project], has to have that element. I am very demanding with that. It has to impact me emotionally because my hope is that it will impact the listener emotionally too. I almost use this emotional filter: is it hitting me enough? That is what I strive for.

AAJ: Are there specific formal elements—either from flamenco or other traditions—that you use in a setting like this to achieve that goal?

AC: For me the concept of "duende" goes beyond flamenco. I think of it like this: the film maker Werner Herzog has this thing that he calls the ecstatic truth, which is something that you see which you can't explain but it hits you emotionally. That is what I am after. "Duende" is just a representation of that..."Duende" is one more way of describing what you were saying, this Japanese form, or the ecstatic truth.

AAJ: The colleagues you worked with for this project were clearly a critical choice. How did you put the ensemble together?

AC: For the rhythm section, I've played with Mark Ferber forever. Ever since I came to New York 15 years ago. We have almost a telepathic communication. We rehearsed all the music in 40 minutes, and that was it. I just told him a little bit, this is the vibe here, this is the groove there, and that was that.

Dan Tepfer is someone I really like because he is kind of like a classical musician and a jazz musician in one. In this work the piano has a very important role. The saxophone and the voice are the two voices, the drums and bass are the rhythm and the energy, and the piano is the glue that keeps it all together. I think the piano part is super challenging in this work and he did an amazing job.

I chose Miguel Zenon because he has a very strong voice...and a lot of the music is written for two voices. And the way that Miguel blends with Claudia is just incredible. I think it is really unique and I could not be more grateful and happy he was in the project.

I chose Claudia Acuna because she is simply the one. I could not think of anyone else who could do it. I heard her voice and I just asked her and she said yes.

AAJ: Her contribution to the final result is immense. She's at the top of her form. Had you worked together before?

AC: No, we knew each other a little bit, but I had never worked with her before. The two of us worked really hard at it, almost phrase by phrase. I actually demoed every single piece singing myself, which no one is every going to listen to that! And she listened to the demos a lot—and we got together often and worked almost on every inflection of every verse. Tried things, technically, let's change the key. She was very helpful to me.

AAJ: It sounded like it went beyond a technically masterful delivery of the music to a shared understanding of the poems themselves.

AC: Yes. I bought the books for everyone so they could read them. And when I got together with Claudia we really tried together to understand what the poem meant, what it was about. She stayed very faithful to what I wrote. Every time we went to a new piece she would call [and] tell me I was crazy. But we tried it and didn't really change that much. It was challenging. It is more than just reading the music. What was amazing is she made the music a part of herself. That is why she can do what she does. It's unbelievable. She really made it hers.

AAJ: Do you have any closing thoughts about the piece or advice for listeners who are approaching the album?

AC: There are different levels of involvement that you can get into. I don't think either are good or bad. Someone can put it on and not understand any of the lyrics and just like the music and I think that is great. Or you can read the linear notes, read the book, find out more about Lorca, about myself, try to dive into it. I kinda enjoy both approaches myself! Sometimes I go to see a concert or an exhibition and just enjoy—it is eye-candy or ear-candy. It is very hard for me to say how it should be listened to or perceived. I just hope people like it—or not. Just react to it. You can hate it to, that is also good.

AAJ: Going back to your original statement, though, that you felt a moral obligation to put this forward as a protest, does that translate...

AC: I can't answer your question. I know where you are going. I don't know. Here it is, it is out in the world. I felt it was a good decompression for me to do this. I felt an obligation to voice my protest as an artist and as a human being, as a musician. And I did. That is that. What happens after that, happens. If Occupy Wall Street takes it as their anthem, O.K. I have no idea what the mission of this is. In a way, it is a very selfish thing. This is what I feel I have to do, and I did it, and that was that.

AAJ: But there is a long tradition of that in jazz—as you reminded us at the beginning. Of combining that personal artistic moment with the personal moment of protest.

AC: Yes. I think protest music is important. That is why I did it. I can't judge it beyond that.

Photo Credit:
John Rogers; poem provided courtesy of artist


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