Diego Urcola: Musical Ecstasy

R.J. DeLuke BY

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You might get to that musical ecstasy once or twice a night. Improvised music gives you at least that possibility. That's why you keep trying, every day. To get better, and to get to those rare moments where music takes off.
Jazz music, its freedom and emphasis on self-expression through improvisation, has always had a strong pull on its practitioners, its artists. As fans and listeners, those qualities are also treasured. The infectious nature of those qualities is why jazz fans are passionate and loyal. It's music, born and bred in the United States, that has a fan base that stretches across the globe.

In the case of a certain young musician in Buenos Aires, just a few decades ago, jazz music was a tractor beam that brought him to the United States. To be a jazz man.

"The feeling of what you do when you can improvise. It's a feeling you wanted. It's really hard to leave," says trumpeter Diego Urcola, who had been formally studying music from the age of nine in the Argentine city's Colegio Ward, a school where his father Ruben served as music director. "When you play other kinds of music, you like it because maybe some great writers or composers. But that thing about improvisation is so, so strong. The interaction with other musicians that are improvising with you at the same time. That's jazz. That conversation. That interaction. It's not about swing or Latin or whatever type of rhythm or elements. It's a concept of improvisation and interaction. Spontaneous interaction. That's what really attracts me."

At home, Urcola continued his studies and, in 1988, received the title of profesor nacional de música from the Conservatorio Nacional de Musica. He accepted a scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music, and soon joined the New York City scene, playing with all manner of folks, especially Paquito D'Rivera, with whom he still enjoys a fruitful association. He's been Grammy-nominated three times, and Appreciation (Cam Jazz, 2011), largely a quartet disk, tips his hat to some friends and heroes that have influenced him along the way.

Urcola wrote the selections, but the music doesn't showcase composition as much as it does interaction among the stellar band—piano monster Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Eric McPherson, with Yosvany Terry adding chekere percussion on two cuts. The cats are in great form; the man from the Land of the Tango has mastered the American art form.

"When I was in Argentina I was doing all kinds of different gigs. I was doing classical gigs, because at the conservatory I studied classical music. They weren't teaching any jazz over there," he says. He was playing some small jazz gigs when he got the chance. It just wasn't prominent enough at that time, though things are changing for the better in Buenos Aires, for jazz guys.

"When you can communicate that way [through jazz]—straight ahead, Brazilian, Latin, tango, whatever it is—it's such an amazing thing. The music, the way it elevates to unbelievable places. That's a great thing. I'm not talking about style. I'm talking about the concept of how you play. When you have that communication and interaction and you have a soloist and the other guys are playing with him and trying to make him sound as good as he can. It's an amazing thing, musically, when that happens. I think that's what every jazz musician is striving for, that moment of compete musical ecstasy."

Urcola's enthusiasm for the music is deep. "If you play a record date or a concert and you get to that [musical ecstasy] maybe once or twice a night, that's a complete success, a triumph. That's what every musician is trying to experience. Sometimes you get there, sometimes you don't. Improvised music gives you at least that possibility: it might happen. That's why you keep trying, every day. To get better, and to play with people where you have some connection, musically, and get to those rare moments where music takes off."

That purity of spirit is evident on Appreciation, his fourth outing as a leader. "The Natural (to Freddie Hubbard)" is bursting with energy, like the man who inspired it. The band is bopping and loose, with chops on display for all. Urcola is up to the task, his trumpet floating and darting through the changes. "Super Mario Forever (to Mario Rivera)" showcases Perdomo skating busily over the strong rhythmic support, before Urcola jumps in like an acrobat. It also has some room for McPherson's tight drums to step out front.

"Deep (To Astor Piazzolla and Miles Davis)" finds Urcola sounding introspective, using a mute, a clear nod to Davis. The tribute to Piazzolla, a legend among tango composers, is less obvious, but the song has a soft and sensuous feel, emotions the Argentine master could put into his music. "Senhor Wayne (To Wayne Shorter)" features Urcola on the valve trombone, an instrument he's played for about five years now. It gives him a fatter sound, but different than flugelhorn. Over a lilting Latin beat he shows outstanding dexterity on the instrument. Others to whom Urcola pays tribute are Guillermo Klein, D'Rivera, Hermeto Pascoal, John Coltrane, Woody Shaw and Dizzy Gillespie.

"It happened naturally," Urcola explains. "When I practice the piano, I start playing tunes that I like. Wayne Shorter tunes or other kinds of tunes. Usually ideas come out of that piano practice. So each tune has a different story. For example, 'The Natural,' dedicated to Freddie [Hubbard]. That one came out because I was watching a YouTube video of him playing a TV show with Quincy Jones. It was the '70s, when he was doing all those records for CTI. I think he played 'Straight Life.' A very simple melody on top of this two-chord vamp. I started to think about that kind of music, the way they played. A lot of those tunes he recorded in those days were simple, but there was a lot of energy. Groove-oriented. Very loose. Very open. I like that idea [so] I started playing with that. That tune came out of that. Very simple idea, but rhythmically complex."

Urcola says that when he started getting serious about the trumpet in Argentina in the early '80s, jazz records were hard to come by, but there were some around from the CTI label. "So for me, Freddie Hubbard was kind of like a rock/fusion player, which I loved. But I never heard, until I got here [the U.S.] in the late '80s, any of the Blue Note records or the Art Blakey stuff. That kind of sound [CTI] was the first thing I got from him. He was very powerful."

Davis was one of the first jazz trumpet players Urcola listened to, from Prestige albums his father had. "Miles was always there. Dizzy Gillespie was a guy I was listening to a lot. I remember having a duet record that he did with Oscar Peterson. Even though I never played with Dizzy, I've been working for years with a lot of people who had a strong association him, like Paquito, Slide Hampton and Jimmy Heath. So I feel a strong connection with him, musically. Also, he always wanted to do something with Latin American musicians and Latin music. So he's a big influence."

As for Shorter, "I studied his music all the time. He's one of my favorite composers. His music is very influential for me. All the things that I write have things that are influenced by him. Harmonically and also structures that he uses. The way he develops melodies. I love the way he writes. It's a very strong influence on me," says Urcola. Coltrane, he notes, is not a main influence, "but it's always there. Especially harmonically, the stuff that he did. As an improviser, more than a composer. The way he took improvisation to completely another level. Also his spirit thing. This tune ("Camita') is loosely based on 'Naima.' That kind of vibe. A very open kind of feeling. The vibe of that tune, the rhythm is an Afro-Peruvian rhythm called lando, and the melody is like a South American folk melody."

Adds Urcola, "Miles is a very influential musician—conceptually, and also [as] a player. He really developed a completely different way of playing the trumpet. It's hard not to use some of the stuff that he did. Before him there was a completely different way of playing the trumpet. He created a completely different style. A different way of thinking about how to play the instrument. He's a very important musician that I always think about. Astor is another guy who is always present when I write tunes. For us, [classifying] Argentinean music is kind of like before and after him. Especially for tango music. He's the one that opened a Pandora's Box. Tango music before him was kind of stuck. Everybody was playing the same stuff for the last 50 years. He started to use a lot of modern classical music like Stravinsky and Bartok and other stuff. Then he started to experiment with jazz too. He did some records with Gary Burton and Gerry Mulligan. He started to have improvised sections in his arrangements. It was very rare for tango music. He would improvise over some form or vamp. That was revolutionary for tango. That opened the door for a lot of other musicians. For us [Argentines], Astor is like Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. Guys who really revolutionized the music."

Urcola, too, tries to blends musical elements when composing. "When I'm writing, it's all about that. I think that's the best way to come out with something new and fresh. If you get lucky enough to make all the elements work well."

Urcola's band mates are people he has played with frequently over time. They know one another, musically, and it helped contribute to the feel of the album. "It turned out much better than I expected. My idea was to do a quartet CD where everybody could have a lot of space to play. The tunes were not that complicated. Simple tunes that allowed everybody to express themselves. That worked well. The last couple records I did had a lot of emphasis on composition with a lot of heavy arrangements and structures. I wanted to do something more focused on interaction and improvisation. With that you always have a risk, because you have usually a couple days to do it. If you put a lot of emphasis on those things. It might happen or it might not happen. When I listen to it, it's really good. I'm really happy with the way we played and the way the music came out."

The 45-year-old Urcola started playing trumpet as a youngster, and didn't look back. He played in an advanced elementary school that had a marching band, and more opportunities for musicians at the time than other schools in Buenos Aires. "I started with trumpet, but in the symphonic band of the marching band, I used to play a lot of other instruments, because I was one of the few guys who could switch around. Sometimes they had enough trumpets, but there was no guy to play the euphonium part, for example. In the symphonic bands, those were very important parts. My father used to say, 'In this tune you have to play euphonium.' Or French horn. Sometimes in the marching band I had to play tuba, or percussion, or whatever."

Urcola adapted well to switching instruments. He says a key to doing it is the proper mental approach. "If you think too much you're never going to do it. Because you start thinking, 'How am I going to do it?' It's true. If you have that kind of mentality: I'm going to do it. Maybe I have to practice a little bit every day. At the end, it's amazing how similar everything is. There is some technical stuff for each instrument. But basically, your music is inside you. When you overcome those technical issues, then it's the same.

"It's amazing how good you can get. That's what I tell my students, sometimes. In order to get better at your own instruments, or get better as a musician, the best thing you can do is to learn other instruments. For example if you are a trumpet player, but you have some rhythm problems, maybe practice drums. Your rhythm is going to get better if you practice a little on drums. Your ear is maybe going to get better if you practice on piano. It doesn't mean you're going to perform on those instruments, but I think it's going to help you with your main instrument."

He continued his music training at Conservatorio Nacional de Musica, graduating with a degree similar to a music education degree in the U.S. He was already working a lot as a professional musician in Buenos Aires, doing theater gigs, playing in some rock bands, doing television and studio recording jobs. Jazz gigs were harder to come by, usually early in the week and more for fun than for career. There was very little jazz on the radio, and the local scene was small. There were few jazzers his age, so when he got to stretch out, is was usually with much older players. But a jazz career was on his mind. "My idea always was to try to become a jazz musician. I was trying to save some money. I always had the idea to come and study here in the U.S."

He got accepted at Berklee School of Music and arrived at the school in 1988. It wasn't just the school that gave him more access to American jazz, but the popularity of CDs that was growing in the late 1980s.

"I remember when I started Berklee, a Tower Records opened a few blocks away. I couldn't believe it. I was spending all my money on CDs. All the Blue Note records I didn't know that existed. I kind of went crazy with all those. Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson. Can you imagine being a jazz music and not knowing that music? I discovered that music when I got here," he says with glee.

Among his classmates at the Boston school were Danilo Pérez, Mark Turner, Chris Cheek, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Geoffrey Keezer. "The great thing was not really the classes. I had some good teachers, but the main thing at Berklee was you could get rehearsal rooms from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. I was playing two or three jam sessions or rehearsals every day. That was when I really learned; it was a good generation of guys at that time. A lot of great musicians and great composers. A lot of them moved to New York, like me, and started careers. For a guy from Buenos Aires, who didn't have anybody my age that was interested in this music, to go there and see all those guys was amazing. It was like heaven for me."

Urcola stayed in Boston after graduating, continuing to adjust to being in America. He was doing Latin gigs and various other jobs and making money. Things were nice, he says. But musicians he knew were making the move to New York. "I figured why not give it a try. I had nothing to lose. That happened in '91. Twenty years after that, I'm still here."

In the Big Apple, "It was amazing because the scene was really good. There were a lot of great players, not only coming from Boston, but from all over the world. I started to get serious about getting some work. I had to pay my dues, but I was lucky enough." A break came when D'Rivera's trumpet player, Claudio Roditi, left his band. Some friends and he got the gig. The relationship has continued through to today.

"I still work with him. I don't do it all the time because I have other things. But Paquito is the main reason I'm still around," says Urcola. "Paquito used to work a lot at that time with a quintet. That was basically the only thing he was doing at the time. We used to work a lot. The first years, I wasn't playing that much in New York because I was playing with him on the road all the time. You need that. You need some kind of break like that."

Urcola was making other associations when in town, including those with Slide Hampton and Jimmy Heath; he toured with both. "There are a lot of musicians that got to know me because of Paquito. Steve Turre. I did some gigs with Joe Henderson before he died. And many other things." Other notable gigs through the years have been the Leopoldo F. Fleming Afro-Caribbean Jazz Ensemble, touring with (bassist) Avishai Cohen's International Vamp Band, and fellow Argentine Guillermo Klein's outstanding band. He started recording under his own name in 1999, releasing Libertango (Fresh Sound), followed in 2003 by Soundances (Sunnyside), which received nominations for the 2004 Latin Grammys and 2005 Grammy Awards. In 2007, Viva (Cam Jazz) also was Grammy-nominated.

It was D'Rivera's fondness for the valve trombone that got Urcola drawn into it. He says Roditi played it at first, when he joined D'Rivera, and the saxophonist liked how the horns blended. After a while, Roditi went to just playing trumpet. When Urcola got the gig, he suggested the valve trombone, but Urcola didn't bite. Not yet.

Then, "five or six years ago, he showed up to my apartment with a brand new Yamaha valve trombone," Urcola said, with a laugh. "He told me, 'Bring it to the Blue Note.' We had a gig at the Blue Note in a couple of weeks. I figured at least I would have to give it a try. It was hard at the beginning. But for me it was helpful in many kinds of ways. It helped me with my trumpet chops. I felt better after I started playing the trombone. I use it also with some other bands, like Guillermo Klein and the Caribbean Jazz Project. And with my own thing. It's a really nice instrument. It's not that popular in the U.S., but it's popular in Brazil and it's popular in Mexico. Even more than the slide trombone. Because it's an instrument that can move around. In Brazil, they use it a lot for the samba, the carnival bands.

"For me, as a trumpet player, the only thing you really have to work on is the embouchure," explains Urcola. "It's a completely different embouchure. It's a huge mouthpiece compared to the trumpet. You have to build up a new embouchure. But the technique is similar. After a while, it started to feel natural to play it and go back and forth. It's very complimentary for me, because the trumpet is kind of like a soprano register. The trombone is a tenor register. So it has a completely different register you have to play. The instruments are kind of similar, but it's not like everything you play on the trumpet works on the trombone. You have to play it and see what works for the instrument. For me it's a nice double. I use it on my own gigs. Maybe I get tired a little bit playing the trumpet. I just pick up the trombone."

Urcola and D'Rivera are thinking of doing a whole album using valve trombone. "I think it's an interesting idea, because it's an instrument that has been in the shadows. Paquito, he loves the sound of that instrument. Maybe this year we can throw together something. I actually contacted Bob Brookmeyer, to see if he was interested in doing something. He's the main guy on that instrument. Maybe this year we can do it."

In the meantime, Urcola is busy playing gigs with first-rate musicians, as well as pushing for his own group as much as he can. He says, "Usually, I do many projects at the same time. I'm trying to establish myself a little bit more as a solo artist. It's not easy, especially now. I have a family, and I need to make money. I'm not at the point that I go out with my band and make money, I need to work with established people to make a living. Also I'm teaching a little bit. That helps."

While it's difficult to get established as a leader, "I can't complain," says the trumpeter. "I'm working with well-known musicians. Nice gigs. I don't have to do commercial work. There's nothing wrong with that [commercial work], I did a lot of that. But the main reason for me being here is to play jazz. New York is maybe the only place you can do that. There are maybe a few guys that can do it somewhere else. It's what I told my father when I came here. 'If you want to be an astronaut, you can be an astronaut in Argentina.' If you want to make a living just playing jazz, improvised music, it's hard to do it in any other place other than New York. Maybe a few guys can do it in Europe after long careers and stuff like that."

So, this splendid trumpeter remains committed to his love of improvised music. He's an excellent major talent, with an exceptional, hard-driving band of his own, and his career is sure to be a long one.

Selected Discography

Diego Urcola, Appreciation (Cam Jazz, 2011)

Guillermo Klein/Los Gauchos,
Filtros (Sunnyside, 2008)

Paquito D'Rivera, Funk Tango (Sunnyside, 2007)

Diego Urcola, Viva (Cam Jazz, 2006)

Caribbean Jazz Project, Here and Now (Concord, 2005)

Bebo Valdes, Bebo do Cuba (Calle 54 Records, 2005)

Diego Urcola, Soundances (Sunnyside, 2003)

Avishai Cohen, Lyla (Razdaz Recordz, 2003)

Guillermo Klein/Los GauchosLos Gauchos III (Sunnyside, 2002)

Danilo Perez, Motherland (Verve Music Group, 2000)

Guillermo Klein and Los GauchosLos Gauchos II (Sunnyside, 1999)

Diego Urcola, Libertango (Fresh Sound, 1999)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Toeter Boef, Courtesy of Diego Urcola
Page 2: Diaz Duran
Page 3, 5: Lourdes Delgado, Courtesy of Diego Urcola
Page 4: Gabors

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