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Marialy Pacheco: A Sunshine State of Mind

Ian Patterson By

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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."

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