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Marialy Pacheco: A Sunshine State of Mind


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It takes courage and self-belief to up sticks and try your luck in another country. There is, after all, no guarantee that things will work out, and some hard times are almost assured. The language barrier can leave you feeling utterly isolated, and until you gain fluency it is not possible to be truly yourself. It's essential to pack a good supply of hope before embarking, and equally important upon arrival to maintain the ability to laugh at life's sometimes cruel jokes. Musicians, of course, have an advantage, as their primary means of self-expression is arguably the universal language. Still, migrating musicians also have to face and deal with culture shock—climate, pace of life, prejudice, social mores—and the acclimation can be hard. Pianist/composer Marialy Pacheco left her native Cuba in her early 20s and has made a successful go of it as a jazz pianist, first in Germany and then in her current home, Brisbane, Australia. These moves point to Pacheco's sense of adventure, her inner strength and determination. Her path, though, has not been without its trials.

With five albums to her name—including the critically acclaimed solo album Songs That I Love (Pinnacle Records, 2011)—and a working trio that she is genuinely excited about, Pacheco's decision to leave Cuba has clearly been vindicated. In July, Pacheco took another significant step on her way to the wider recognition that her talent deserves when she won the 14th Montreux Jazz Festival Solo Piano Competition, beating 33 entrants from 22 countries. Significantly, Pacheco is the first woman to win this prestigious prize.

Pacheco, classically trained and steeped in the Afro-Cuban rhythms that are ubiquitous in her country of birth, is a passionate convert to jazz; her fluid playing embodies all these languages. With a new recording due later this year and a tour of Europe to follow, this exciting pianist seems poised to reach a wider international audience.

Pacheco is still coming down from the thrill of winning first prize at the Montreux Solo Jazz Piano Competition. "It's pretty surreal," she says. "It was the best feeling in the world to win. I'm still in the clouds." Pacheco's delight in swaying the jury with her music is understandable, given the work involved and the strong field of international talent that the competition draws. "It's really hard," says Pacheco, with just a hint in her voice of all the stress and effort that went into competing. "You have to send a demo CD with three different tunes—no longer than ten minutes of music. You have to think carefully about what music to put on that CD because you only have ten minutes to show what you are able to do."

Ten minutes was enough to convince the judges that here was a talent with something to say, and Pacheco was duly selected to be one of the finalists. In the semifinals and the final itself, contestants had to play one song from a list of eight by trumpeter Miles Davis. "Of course, you try to make it your own," says Pacheco. "It was stressful; I'm not going to lie. I really practiced more than I've ever practiced in my life. I even hurt my hand, and I had to put on a splint so it couldn't move, and even with that I kept practicing through the pain. But it doesn't matter now," she says, laughing.

In the final, where there were just three contestants, Pacheco played one of her own tunes—"Metro," which she composed while still in Cuba—a compulsory blues and Davis' "Four." There was more pressure for Pacheco than during a normal gig, but she kept her composure. "I decided I was going to play like I normally play," says Pacheco. "This is me, and I'm not going to pretend that I'm somebody else. I'm just going to play from my heart and not try to impress anyone. If I don't win, I don't win. That was my thinking from the very beginning."

"I couldn't believe it when they announced I had won. I can imagine it was tough for the judges because the other two contestants in the final were very, very good. I'm happy it was me, actually." she says laughing. The jury was presided over by Polish pianist/composer Leszek Mozdzer. "He presented me with the prize," relates Pacheco. "He came to me afterwards and told me he thought I was really good." High praise, indeed.

Although Pacheco is the first woman to have won the Montreux Solo Piano Competition, she is not the first Cuban, as Harold Lopez- Nussa won in 2005 and Rolando Luna in 2007. "Oh, I know them all. They play really well," says Pacheco, with a mixture of fondness and admiration. "Rolando is a bit older than me, but Harold is my age. I know Harold very well. They both have beautiful voices."

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 aTunde Adjuah 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 jazz—improvisation—gives 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 Emilio 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."

The aforementioned musicians represent the Cuban tradition from the 1930s to the early 1990s, but a newer generation of Cuban musicians, more specifically jazz inspired, has made its mark on the international stage and on Pacheco. She cites pianists Chucho Valdes, Roberto Fonseca and Gonzalo Rubalcaba as major influences. "Gonzalo still inspires me today. I have to be careful that I don't play too much like him," she says, laughing. Fonseca, Pacheco relates, was one of the people who guided her most when she started playing jazz, and his influence has left an indelible stamp. "I was very much inspired by him," says Pacheco. The close relationship Pacheco developed with Fonseca provided her with a source of inspiration, but it also posed a musical obstacle. "At some point, I got the feeling that I was starting to sound a little bit like him," she admits. "I think that when you start playing a style of music which is not what you've been used to, then it's really hard not to sound like those people you admire. But I always try to be honest and try not to sound like anyone else."

Pacheco formed a trio in Havana with bassist Ruy Lopez-Nussa (Harold's brother) and drummer Damian Nueva Cortes, but it was short lived, as the pianist left Cuba in 2004 for Germany. "I became more of a professional musician outside of Cuba. It was hard in Havana, but I think it was harder outside Cuba," says Pacheco. "In Havana, I had my family there. I had the comfort of having my mum and dad there to support me, and the little money I made in the jazz clubs I could put in my pocket. I didn't have to worry about rent or bills. I only had to worry about being brave and playing. When I went to Germany, it was a totally different world. You really have to think not only about playing but about getting enough income to support yourself. It was really hard, and I had bad times in Germany where I had no work at all. There were no gigs. People were telling me, 'No, we're fully booked. No, we can't. No, no, no.' I had no money at all," she says, laughing. "But it's like that; there are good times and bad times."

Pacheco however, toughed it out, and good times followed bad: "I thought I'd maybe stay for a year or two, but I ended up staying for five years." In that time, Pacheco recorded two trio albums, a solo album and a Latin jazz/pop album, Agua (Sony Classical, 2008) with Cuba Nova, which Pacheco describes as "a really beautiful project." As she looks back on her time in Germany, the balance for Pacheco is positive. "I miss it," she says. "I had bad times, but I also had really good times."

In 2009, Pacheco swapped the cold winters of Germany for the year-round sunshine of Brisbane, Australia, perhaps a surprising move on the surface. "I know, I know, everybody asks me why I'm not in New York. They don't like my passport there," she says ruefully. "I came to Brisbane because my partner is from Australia. We met in Germany, but he wanted to come back home, so I came here. It was a big risk, because he came here for work, but when I came here I had nothing, and I didn't know anyone."

Just prior to her move to Brisbane, Pacheco played a gig as guest soloist with guitarist Tommy Emmanuel in Hamburg. Pacheco recalls the great guitarist's advice. "Tommy said, 'You really need someone in Australia, because no matter how good you are you have to play, and if you don't know the right people you're going to stay at home." The early days in Brisbane were tough. "Oh boy, it was hard," recalls Pacheco. "The first six months, I had no work. I just stayed at home and practiced. Once I got in contact with Lyn [Irwin], it started to get easier because she knows so many people. She's highly respected here in Australia, and she's really helped me a lot to go ahead. It's getting better, and I love it here. It's beautiful.

Pacheco feels at home in Australia and finds many similarities between the Aussie and Cuban characters. "They are similar in so many ways. Cubans are very relaxed and easygoing as well. I think it comes from the sun. Both countries are hot the whole year, and this influences the character." Aussies are well known for their forthrightness and telling it like it is, a trait shared by the Cubans, but when it comes to music, Pacheco explains, there's a hard-edged honesty about Cubans, which may seem rather blunt to Aussies. "In Cuba, we have no fear about telling someone, 'You're not good enough.' I think that's why we're so good—because we're hard on ourselves as musicians. In Australia, the same as in Germany, they are more: 'Don't say that. Don't be too hard on the kid. He's not good enough, but he's a really nice person.' I'm there thinking, 'No, he sucks! He might be a really nice person, but he's not a good player.' That's it," Pacheco says, laughing.

"That's why in Cuba it's so tough. If you're really good, you get to play with the best musicians, but if everyone knows you're not good, there's nowhere to hide, and they're not going to be polite about your playing," she says, laughing again. "Maybe I need to learn to be more subtle about those things, but for me how you play and how you are as a person are two different things. There are some musicians who are not nice people, but when they play their instrument, out comes this amazing music."

Pacheco has led a trio for two years in Brisbane, with brothers Pat and Joe Marchisella, bassist and drummer, respectively. It's a trio that excites Pacheco. "They are two of the best musicians I have had the pleasure to play with. I am really happy with my trio. We have a new CD coming out in December, and some of the tracks are inspired by Joe because he's such a good drummer. The boy can play absolutely everything. I thought, 'I'm going to write some really cool stuff for him.' With my first trio in Germany, I had to adapt to them a little bit because they weren't familiar with Cuban music and Cuban rhythms, so I had to change the way I played and adapt my songs. But here in Australia, with the boys I can push the boundaries as far as I can, and they'll play it, whatever it is. It's really amazing to have players like that."

Talented jazz musicians, it seems, are almost as common as 'roos in Australia. Pacheco agrees. "There is amazing talent here. And not only musicians but dancers as well. I had the pleasure to work with one of the best contemporary dance companies here. They did a project called Romeo & Juliet with original music written for the show, and I was part of the ensemble that played with them. They called me to play the piano because there was some improvisation involved, and they needed someone who could improvise just like that. It was a beautiful experience to be able to play live music for these amazing dancers. I remember at rehearsals making lots of mistakes because I couldn't take my eyes off them," says Pacheco, laughing.

Pacheco's first recording on Australian soil, Songs That I Love, features several compositions that she had never performed outside of her practice room, and the experience of recording and subsequently playing live Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight" and "The Song is You," plus Salvador's "Danza Para 4," has had a liberating effect on Pacheco. "It was about time," she laughs. With the standards, I was a little bit afraid because when you hear [pianists] Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson or Brad Mehldau playing these standards, you think, 'OK, what can I do?'" Pacheco says, laughing again. "But in the end, I thought, 'I'm just going to play them my way and not over-think it too much. I'm going to play them from my heart and not worry about what Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau would do.' Now I'm playing many more standards."

Enter the album name hereTwo of the most striking compositions on Songs That I Love are Pacheco originals. "Sunshine State" is a tribute to her adopted Brisbane and the state of Queensland. "I will never forget when I came here from Germany after five years there, and I arrived at Sydney Airport, and it was 35 degrees," recalls Pacheco. "It was sunny and so bright, so warm. And I'll never forget the feeling I had, which was: this is just like Cuba. It does feel like being in Cuba, in many ways, especially in summer here. I wrote that song as a tribute to Brisbane because it's very beautiful, and the people are beautiful as well. They're very relaxed. There's no stress, and everything can be done tomorrow," Pacheco laughs. "And if so, why not?"

The rhapsodic "Bremen" pays tribute to Pacheco's home in Germany. "I love that city very much, and when you listen to that song, you can hear the love. It's also a bit nostalgic. I get very emotional every time I play it; it's amazing. I cry, sometimes," says Pacheco, laughing, "and I think, 'Jeez, Marialy. Stop it!' It brings back all the memories of the really great times and all my friends. It's very honest, I think. Even though I always complained about the cold—it's so cold—but when you look through the window and everything's covered in snow, it's so white, so peaceful. It was an important part of my life. Now, the Sunshine State is another part of my life."

Pacheco plays with a lovely sense of freedom on Songs That I Love and seems to be very comfortable in the studio. "I do feel comfortable in the studio but more when I play solo than when I play in the trio, which can be stressful. I think it's because I not only want perfection from myself, I also want it from the boys. There are so many little details that we have to be aware of. I hope that one day I can go into the studio with the trio and record in one take, but for that, you need to be in a trio that's been together for a long time. When I play solo I know what I'm going to play, and I get to practice at home. I know which order I'm going play the songs in, how I'm going to play, and then I just sit at the piano and do it. It's much easier solo, in many ways."

There's a natural flow to the order of the compositions on Songs That I Love, and for this Pacheco credits pianist Gwilym Simcock. Simcock had come to Brisbane for a concert, and Lynette Irwin played Pacheco's recording in the car. Simcock was impressed and was keen to meet Pacheco. "What was interesting was that we come from very different countries, very different cultures, and yet we are so similar," relates Pacheco. "We have the same concepts when it comes to music, about how to approach and play a piece of music. We love the same musicians: Keith Jarrett, [guitarist] Pat Metheny, [pianist/keyboardist] Herbie Hancock and all those guys. We really connected.

"When Lyn played him the album, he suggested that the order maybe wasn't totally what it should be. Lyn said that we would welcome all suggestions, especially from an amazing pianist and composer like Gwilym. So he sent us the track list as he thought the order should be, and we thought it was fantastic. We decided to do it like that, and I'm totally grateful to Gwilym." Pacheco attended Simcock's concert in Brisbane and was bowled over. "There were moments when I wanted to scream. I thought, 'Oh my God, how can he do that?' He would melt my heart. It was a beautiful solo piano concert."

Jazz has become Pacheco's life, and there's no room for a simultaneous classical career as well. "I haven't played classical music for a while, though I do play it at home. I play Bach and Chopin, and it makes me feel so good. But I haven't recorded, because if I decide to record classical music then I'll have to stop playing jazz for a bit, because they are different worlds. It would be a big challenge, and I'd say I'd need between six months to a year just to concentrate on practicing."

Making such a commitment in the future is something Pacheco refuses to rule out. "I think I might," she says. "I think sometimes as well that in concert it would be really pretty just to play some Bach as an encore, just like that. People definitely don't expect to hear a classical piece after a solo piano concert of jazz and Cuban music."

Pacheco also talks of her desire to arrange music for dancers one day, but for now, promoting Songs That I Love, preparing the launch of her upcoming trio CD and touring are taking up her time. "We're very busy in Australia now. Later in the year, we have some concerts coming up in Melbourne and Sydney for the album's release. I'm also playing the Women's Jazz Festival in Sydney. There's one in Melbourne every year, but there's also one in Sydney now. Some things are in the air, like maybe going to Japan, then Europe again next year. I hope to play Montreux again with the boys; that would be fantastic. So, yeah, big plans. I hope everything falls into place. I'm excited. I like to be busy, and I like to be doing things. I love writing music and playing music. I think I'd be really sad if I wasn't doing that," she says and peals away in the sunny laughter that has carried her through the good times and the bad.

Selected Discography

Marialy Pacheco, Songs That I Love (Pinnacle Records, 2011)
Marialy Pacheco, Tocando Dentro (Colibri, 2009)
Marialy Pacheco Trio, Destinos (Timeless Records, 2008)
Cuba Nova, Agua (Sony Classical, 2008)
Marialy Pacheco, Mi Azul (Weltwunder Records, 2006)
Marialy Pacheco Trio, Benediciones (Weltwunder Records, 2005)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 2, 4: Elena Schak

Pages 3, 5: Francesco Vincenzi



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