Marialy Pacheco: A Sunshine State of Mind

Ian Patterson By

Sign in to view read count
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."



Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles