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Magos Herrera: Rebirth in New York

Gabriel Medina Arenas By

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New York City became the new jazz mecca during the 1920s, when many top jazz musicians from Chicago and the rest of the U.S. migrated to the Big Apple. Jazz musicians from around the globe moved there every decade, knowing New York has some of the top jazz venues in the world, a dozen jazz festivals, and numerous jazz record labels. Competition is tremendous, but "The City of Dreams" remains the best place for a jazz musician to gain exposure and build an international reputation.

Renowned Mexican jazz singer and musician Magos Herrera, knows that all too well. That's why she decided to move to New York in 2008. Last April, Herrera released Dawn, her eighth studio album, with the Spanish flamenco guitarist Javier Limón as accomplice and producer.

The so-called Cassandra Wilson of Latin America studied at the Musicians Institute of Los Angeles, then trained with opera singer Konstantin Jadan, and continued her studies at the New England Conservatory.

One of the most talented Mexican jazz singers of all time, Herrera talked about her new recording, the deep consequences of her migration to New York, and the impossibility of reaching international success from Mexico, even though the jazz scene keeps on growing there.

All About Jazz: Tell us about your collaboration with Javier Limón on Dawn.

Magos Herrera: Javier and I met about three years ago. He came to one of my concerts and then we contacted each other. We had a coffee and realized we had similar taste in music. One thing led to another and we decided that we wanted to work together. It wasn't something that we planned, it just happened. When he was in Boston I invited him to do some jams at my concerts. After these concerts we decided to do a duo project.

Javier Limón has worked with very talented musicians as of late Paco De Lucia, Wynton Marsalis, Bebo Valdes and Chucho Valdés. In your opinion which of his collaborations or productions are the most interesting?

He's an incredible producer, period. His clarity as a producer is amazing, so everything he has done is interesting, but personally Lágrimas Negras (a 2003 album by Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés and Spanish flamenco singer Diego "El Cigala") is something that we all love. On the other hand he worked with Paco de Lucía, what an honor! Javier Limón is definitely very talented.

AAJ: Dawn includes jazz standards, bossa nova, flamenco arrangements and Mexican folk music sung in English, Spanish and Portuguese. What did you set out to accomplish with it and was there a message that you wanted to communicate?

MH: I think you just express what is happening in your creative world at that moment. I personally don't think of music as jazz standards, Brazilian standards or Mexican standards. I relate to music as beautiful melodies, harmonic possibilities, rhythm and most importantly, the chance to tell a story. To me, what all these incredible tunes have in common is that they're beautiful songs. They all come from tradition, excepting the ones we wrote ("Dawn" and "My Love for you"). But they're all music that relates to the human soul. There's longing, passion, ambition, you know; all these human feelings that maybe at this point of our lives both Javier and I have felt. We have independent careers going on, and we just happen to be expressing what we feel right now.

AAJ: What is the significance of the album title?

MH: Funny you should ask because Javier just lectured about it. You know dawn is the end of a long and beautiful night, not the beginning of a day. Which is different, right? As jazz musicians we work mostly at night, everything happens at night. But also, to start a new day you have to let go of what happened the day before. So maybe it's a new beginning. When we had all the music together, in one way or another all the tunes somehow made us think about dawn, the feeling of a new day, a new beginning.

AAJ: How was it working with Javier Limón as a producer and as a player?

MH: I think Javier and I complement each other in many different ways. One of the most important things to me is that we gave each other the trust and space to express ourselves throughout the whole process. Javier is a very open minded musician. He's very inclusive and he respected my vision and perspective. So, I think it was a very nice, natural, organic process. Of course, knowing him as a producer I knew there were things and decisions that I preferred him to take. It was mostly vocal and guitar so it's basically a very naked album. Guitar and voice is a very Latin American thing, a flamenco thing too. When I was a kid, my father played guitar and I sang in the living room. I felt so comfortable; everything flowed naturally in this minimalist, voice and guitar format.

AAJ: There are flamenco jazz masterpieces like Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, Chano Dominguez's Hecho a Mano, and Michelle Camilo and Tomatito's Spain. Was it difficult to record an album that fuses jazz and flamenco in a different and new way?

MH: I think it would be very ambitious to say that we found a new way. I don't pretend to sing flamenco. I think the idea was to share my sound as it is with my vision towards music with a flamenco guitarist. So the concept was not to do a new flamenco jazz album. It was to find a repertoire that would fit this project. It was a long process, because flamenco guitar has different qualities than the jazz guitar and my voice has its own characteristics.

AAJ: Tell us about the compositional process of "Dawn" and "My Love For You"?

MH: I flew to Madrid to record the album and showed Javier a couple of verses of "Dawn" and he liked it. He said it should be the single and gave me another idea, so we finished the song right there. The story is about letting go, it's like a resurrection, the dawn of a new day. Then Javier showed me a very Mediterranean progression ("My Love for You") and at that time I was coming back from India, where I had a beautiful experience in the Ganges River at 5:00 AM when the sun was coming up. I realized that was the progression I needed to tell my story. It just turned out beautifully and naturally again.

AAJ: You mentioned the word resurrection, so would you say that you were in a resurrection phase of your personal life when you composed "Dawn"?

MH: I think so, yeah. I don't want to go very deep into the subject, but it's this part of my life. I'm working with new musicians, I have a new perspective and it's like a rebirth. I'm grateful to be here singing.

AAJ: Is that resurrection also related with the fact that you moved to New York City?

Yes, among other things. New York puts you into a position of accelerated growth. My music has been exposed to this incredible city. Being here put my life, artistry and human condition in perspective.

AAJ In a previous interview you mentioned how excited you were to move to the modern world's Jazz Mecca. So do you think moving to New York presented opportunities and opened doors that weren't otherwise possible in Mexico?

MH: Yes, definitely. It takes a lot of time to understand and get to know New York City. But the process is worth it, because every decision you take in your artistic career has an echo internationally. I'm very grateful I could make this decision. That doesn't mean it can't happen if you live in Mexico. Of course it can happen, but New York is like a showcase town. Here you're exposed to an international community and international industry. It's a very fertile infrastructure to grow and expand in.

AAJ: Do you plan to stay in New York permanently?

MH: I don't know. I used to think about that every day, but I don't anymore. Right now I'm just enjoying the time I'm here, and I'm thankful that I'm one of the artists of this community, in this space of time. But it's true that this is a hard city to live in. Especially coming from Mexico, you always compare. I miss my hometown, my people. I'm learning a lot while I'm here, I'm growing and I'm enjoying it big time.

AAJ: Do you think it's possible to achieve international recognition in jazz without leaving Mexico?

MH: Actually, I wrote an article for a book that is going be published by Contratiempo Jazz related to your question. I lived there (Mexico City) for fifteen years as a professional jazz singer and I think it's hard for so many reasons. Nothing compares to New York City in terms of industry and visibility. No other place in the world is like New York. You can be constantly present at international jazz festivals and venues. The jazz community is so cosmopolitan. Musicians from all over the world come here to showcase their music, build networks and learn from each other. Unfortunately, I think it's very hard to have an international resonance without leaving Mexico. I wish this could change with time, but it's hard because you have to be in the right circuits.

AAJ: Antonio Sanchez and you are two good examples of Mexican jazz musicians moving to New York and building significant careers in the music as a result. Do you keep in touch with him, and have you considered musical collaborations?

MH: Yes, we're actually good friends. Antonio was my husband's (Brazilian drummer Alexander Kautz) roommate in Boston, when they studied at Berklee [College of Music]. We met maybe fifteen years ago so I know him well. I really respect his work and I know what it takes to develop your career in New York City. I admire him and maybe in the future we could do something together.

AAJ: Returning to Javier... would you consider producing another album with him?

MH: As I said before, I always work very organically. It's been a beautiful experience working with him. We already started touring and have many ideas for another album. I'm sure we're going do more stuff together.

AAJ: You're scheduled to perform in Barcelona, Paris, London, at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and some years ago I saw your show at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Are there more festival performances on the horizon?

MH: I want to play everywhere, wherever they let us do it. We just want to keep on performing our music and making a living of it. When highlights arrive, you know these incredible festivals like Montreux and Montreal, that's part of this constant performing. The big festivals are beautiful, but I enjoy playing at Cornelia in New York or Lunario at Mexico City just as much. It's incredible to share my music with one person or a thousand people, as long as it resonates.

AAJ: You've taught master classes, and hosted radio and TV programs. Please tell us more about your new projects.

MJ: I'm thinking of recording my next album in New York, probably in the fall. We have some surprises next year with the Magos & Limon project, but I cannot tell you anything yet. Teaching is always in my list of interests, but I don't have any particular offers right now. I'm enjoying my radio show, "La Vuelta a la Manzana" (Thursdays on Mexico City's Horizonte 107.9 FM). I love it because I can share my favorite music from today's jazz scene in New York with the audience. There is also an idea to host a new TV show at Canal 22 (Mexico City).

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Magos Herrera

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