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Emilio Solla: The Chemistry of Music

Emilio Solla: The Chemistry of Music

Courtesy Fernando Solla

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It is the music inside of me that is trying to come out, and I try to organize it. That is the work of the composer—to organize what is already there. You are trying to take away the chaos and find order in a sound that is already there.
—Emilio Solla
Emilio Solla is an Argentinian, New York-based pianist and composer who mixes classical, jazz, and tango idioms. He has received two Grammy nominations and won a Latin Grammy Award for Puertos: Music From International Waters (Avantango Records, 2019). He has recorded eleven albums as a bandleader and more than forty music projects in different capacities.

Solla has performed all around the globe. After moving to New York in 2006, he has composed for, recorded, and toured with many marquee names, including Paquito D'Rivera, Arturo O’Farrill , Edmar Castaneda and Cristina Pato. He has played at such venues as Jazz Standard, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Birdland, among others. Solla's album Bien Sur! (Fresh Sound Records, 2010) was included in the Best of 2010 list by Downbeat Magazine.

In addition to composing, arranging, and performing, Solla is an engaging educator. His teaching philosophy is to give students tools and open their minds so that they can find different ways of arranging and composing to express their ideas in music.

"I try to always position myself in the place of the student when I teach. I think that creates good relations with my students. I try to teach so that they can make the best music that they can make, with their own universe, their own aims, and their own search as an artist."

Biochemistry and Music

Music was a frequent guest in Solla's family. His father was an amateur crooner and a bassist who played in a band but pursued another career. One of Solla's brothers played drums. At home, they often listened to jazz.

Solla studied classical piano but he was always curious about improvisation. He had perfect pitch and easily transcribed songs by ear. His teacher showed him that it was possible to play classical and jazz, without choosing only one style. That is how Solla got into jazz performance.

Initially, Solla went to college to study biochemistry because arts were typically not considered a viable career in Argentina. A couple of years later, he realized that his passion for music was too strong, but it would be impossible to keep working on both biochemistry and music.

"I remember that I sat with my mother at home and I explained to her my dilemma. I wanted to quit the university for one year, put all the time into music, and see what would happen. I could always go back to biochemistry. My mother was super supportive."

In 1983, Solla got his first paid gig as a musician, and everything changed in his life. Biochemistry became like something from another life. Six months later, he barely could remember a single thing from chemistry. He could not picture himself anymore in any other career but music.

"It is not that you choose something but are chosen by the music itself. It is probably like being a priest: you hear that kind of call that it is your mission in life. So, music is my mission in life. I cannot picture myself without music at all."

Moving Abroad

In 1995, Solla decided to leave Argentina and go to Europe. By that time, he was already an established musician and making his living out of music. He had also released a couple of albums by then. However, there was barely any government support for arts in Argentina. Solla felt oppressed staying in Buenos Aires.

Solla went to Denmark because his sister was living there. Later, he joined his friend in Barcelona to perform at the summer festival. That gave him some money and time to settle down in Spain. For a year and a half, he traveled back and forth between Spain and Argentina. Then, he finally moved to Spain and stayed there for ten years in total.

"I am always looking for things that are bigger than I think I can tackle. Then, I make everything possible to be at the level of what is required. I started touring Europe, did a recording for a good Spanish label, and made a quintet here. I was touring Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, everywhere. Then, it was like, what is next? Where are the tough guys? In New York."

Shortly after arriving in New York, Solla met with Paquito D'Rivera. He gave D'Rivera his album Suite Piazzollana (Fresh Sound World Jazz, 2001), an homage to Astor Piazzolla. The album featured Chris Cheek on saxophone, Omer Avital on bass, and Jorge Rossy on drums, among others. Shortly after, D'Rivera called Solla and asked him to arrange a piece from that album. Later, Solla got to work with O'Farrill's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra.

"[Working with O'Farrill] forced me to study, and study, and study. I always raise my hand. Who can do this? I can. But then I take it very seriously and I work hard to be able to do it at the best possible level. That is how I learn, that is how I get better."

Solla started taking lessons in big band arranging so that he could succeed in writing for O'Farrill. He made a lot of drafts and worked on them fanatically for two months. Years later, looking back at those pieces, Solla was pleasantly surprised to find out that they were good despite his lack of arranging experience at that time.

"That is the story of my life. I always raise my hand before they ask a question. I get myself into trouble and then I try to solve it."

Although living in New York, Solla still considers Barcelona his home. He feels more comfortable there in every way. He enjoys the quality of life and the size of the city.

Music Influences

Merging Argentinian music with influences from jazz and contemporary chamber music has become a signature for Solla. He uses jazz in a broader sense and meaning. Jazz is his tool to make the music that he hears.

"Jazz for me is expanded harmony. It is freedom, it is a sound, it is an attitude about performing. It is an attitude towards the creation of music. That is what jazz is for me."

When asked about his favorite jazz musicians, Solla replies without hesitation, "Three people: Keith Jarrett, Keith Jarrett, and Keith Jarrett." Solla considers that Jarrett "is just the music, in any language that you call it."

Solla's way of playing was much influenced by Jarrett. One of Solla's favorite albums is Testament (ECM Records, 2009), an album of free improvisation recorded at concerts in Paris and London. He thinks that this music comes from a different world. Created in real-time on stage, it is hard for even the finest players to reproduce it.

Compositionally speaking, Solla enjoys Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk. Performance-wise, he is a fan of Bill Evans and Brad Mehldau. He also likes Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. Yet, Solla considers that Jarrett is totally unreachable.

Beyond jazz, Solla was influenced by Astor Piazzolla, the greatest master of Tango Nuevo (New Tango). He had a chance to briefly meet Piazzolla and share his first project Apertura y Afines (PDI, 1997). He received compliments from Piazzolla on that album. Among other music influences, Solla names Egberto Gismonti, who merges Brazilian traditional music with jazz and contemporary chamber music.

Solla's Humor and Life Philosophy

Solla possesses a great sense of humor that at times can be provocative. A "very short bio" on his website says, "He studied. He composed. He performed. Currently, he keeps studying, composing, and performing." When asked to comment on this, Solla shares that the primary reason for this statement is his rebellious nature against the system of grant distribution.

"If you want to judge my music or want to hear what I do—just go to the music. Why do you read so much? What did I do? I studied, I performed, and I composed. What do you do now? I am doing these same things. Do not spend much time reading—just go to the music."

Solla says that oftentimes grant coordinators ask for an enormous amount of writing and do not look into the actual composing too closely. That gives funding opportunities to people who are good at grant-writing or who can hire a grant-writing assistant, instead of valuing music creators.

"Many institutions want you to be a grant writer. I am not a grant writer, I am a music writer. Is my music good enough? Is it better than the other guys that applied? Just give me the money. You have some guys that are better, give them the money. That is it."

As an example of another humorous attitude to life, Solla used to sign his emails as "Emilio Solla, a music student." People normally expect in the signature something like composer, pianist, arranger, educator, not "music student," and often get confused. Yet, Solla explains that he has been studying music for life, therefore, he is a music student.

"There is a paradox there about ignorance and knowledge: the more you know, the more ignorant you are. One of the main things that knowledge brings is the awareness of your ignorance. The more you know, the more aware you are of how much you still do not know. Thus, you are more ignorant because you are more aware of your ignorance. That is an interesting paradox, it has always been for me. Right now, yes, I am studying."

Puertos... and the journey to the Latin Grammy Award.

In 2016, Solla received his first Grammy nomination with Second Half (Self-published, 2014), recorded by his nine-piece ensemble, La Inestable de Brooklyn. That nomination was unexpected and also comforting, as Solla realized he was going in the right direction.

The second Grammy nomination was for the album Puertos: Music from International Waters(Avantango Records, 2019), for the best instrumental arrangement of "La Novena." Remarkably, the other nominees in that category were Vince Mendoza, John Williams and Jacob Collier.

"Of course, I lost. Jacob Collier took it. But it was a good picture to be in. John Williams, Vince Mendoza, Jacob Collier, and me [laughing]."

The idea of recording a seventeen-piece ensemble for Puertos came because Solla wanted to get a broader palette of orchestral sounds. His nine-piece ensemble in Second Half haf already brought him a Grammy nomination, yet he wanted to go for more. He put together a seventeen-piece orchestra, like a traditional big-band but with a bandoneon instead of a guitar. He called it The Tango Jazz Orchestra.

Working with The Tango Jazz Orchestra allowed Solla to use a broader palette of colors mixing his classical and jazz influences with tango. His writing was well-received, and he won a Latin Grammy for Puertos. Many acclaimed writers, like Vince Mendoza and Jim McNeely, highly commended the album.

Among the challenges of recording a seventeen-piece ensemble was securing funding. Solla made a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo and had the help of many sponsors. In addition, he had to take a small loan for the album. Yet, Solla never regrets this decision and considers that all the effort paid off. Releasing Puertos has opened many doors and resulted in opportunities, including doing residencies and workshops at universities and getting funding for other projects.

"I am never worried about money. I am crazy. I keep saying 'no' to things I do not like to do. In many things, I am still like a kid. Money is something that never worried me. I think if you do what you have to do, money will be there."

At the time of this interview Solla is about to release an album, Ritmo, on the Warner label. It is a symphonic homage to Chick Corea. Solla wrote arrangements for a symphony orchestra and played it with his trio. D'Rivera joined as a guest.

The Future of Jazz Tango

Although Solla is one of the inventors of jazz tango (or tango jazz), he has no idea about the future of this style. He says that he uses his musical influences because they allow him to express his music in the best way possible, not because he cares about inventing a new style.

"I am not a musicologist. I am an active composer. I am a music creator. Because I work out of tango folklore, and I have a jazz influence—that is what comes out, and people call it tango jazz. I could not care less about discussing the future or the past or the meanings. I just write music."

The blend of jazz and tango comes to Solla naturally. It is not something that he has planned or purposefully wanted to create.

"You took me back to the chemistry faculty, to the university. It is not like I will blend forty percent of tango and ten percent of Caribbean—I have no clue. It is the music inside of me that is trying to come out, and I try to organize it. That is the work of the composer—to organize what is already there. You are trying to take away the chaos and find order in a sound that is already there."

As always, Solla "keeps studying, composing, and performing." He considers his main responsibility to be a good "music organizer" and to let the music out.

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