Musicians live a life filled with uncertainty, but one thing can be guaranteedthe journey towards musical fulfillment involves unexpected twists and turns. No one moves through their life on a straight road, but a musician almost certainly encounters a number of bumps along the way. Financial instability and the need for additional work can force a musician to re-evaluate their plans consistently. Cultural insights inspire reflection in an artist, often driving them to alter their creative direction. The ever-changing cast of musical peers exerts a strong influence upon a working musician, helping them reach new goals and find additional opportunities. Living life in flux presents several challenges on the surface, but after years of this existence, engaging and interesting musicians emerge.
After spending her life moving towards an artistic lifestyle, vocalist and songwriter Alexa Weber Morales experienced these life changes even as her musical career quickly accelerated. Her parents shared their love for music with Morales, inspiring her to sing at every opportunity. Her parents' record collection filled her with an early love for jazz, exposing her to influential vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald. While still in junior high, Morales moved to France with mother, solidifying her bilingual abilities and expanding her cultural awareness. She eventually landed back in the States and moved to the East Coast for college. Her school didn't hold many musical opportunities though, so she traveled across the country; the sights and sounds sparked an interest in songwriting. Back in the Bay Area, she dived into musical studies, which led her to a workshop with trombonist and composer Wayne Wallace. She balanced her studies with a day job at a local magazine that provided opportunities for her to travel across South America. During this time, she explored South American music and spent a short amount of time studying music in Cuba. As her musical knowledge grew, she headed into the studio to record her first album Jazzmerica
, with Wallace as producer. This lead to an ongoing musical relationship with Wallace, who hired Morales as a vocalist on several of his own albums. He also returned as producer on Morales' second album, Vagabundeo/Wanderings
, a stirring collection of contemporary Latin Jazz compositions featuring Morales' distinctive vocal flair. As she neared completion on Vagabundeo/Wanderings
, a lay-off left Morales as a full-time musician. Her path once again changed and Morales established herself as a strong performer on the Bay Area's Latin music and jazz scenes.
Morales' growth was a result of a shifting future, but this diversity gave her distinct insights into a number of artistic perspectives. She emerged as an intriguing artist with equal amounts of jazz complexity, funky soul, and Latin cultural relevance. In Part One of our interview with Morales
, we looked at her early explorations of language, her entry into songwriting, and some of the Bay Area musicians that influenced her. Today we dig into her musical experiences in Cuba and South America, the recording of her first album Jazzmerica
, and her outstanding follow-up Vagabundeo/Wanderings
.LATIN JAZZ CORNER:
You were working at a magazine doing some writing, and that job enabled you to travel through South Americawhere did you go and how did that inspire you musically?ALEXA WEBER MORALES:
It was an absolutely crucial experience. Every year I would go to Mexico CityI would go to see my husband's family in Mexico, but I would also do the conference stuff that I was supposed to do. I went to Brazil several times, as well as Argentina, Uruguay, and Peru.
When I went to Brazil especially, that was a big change. The company where I worked was launching a magazine in Portuguese, and they said, We're going to have to find an editor to do this in Portuguese." At the time, we were doing one in Spanish, and I said, Well, I think I can learn Portuguese." So I went off and took a UC Extension course and learned enough Portuguese. I got down there and I just loved it. For a while, my Portuguese was very good, I was very fluent in Portuguese.
I learned the music too thoughthat was one of the ways that I taught myself Portuguese. I learned a lot of Brazilian standards in Portuguese. I was inspired by a little bit of everybody. There was Jobim and the obvious things. Edu Lobo was an inspiration too. I listened to Guinga and later I met him. He's wonderful. I played my songs for him and he loved it. Then I sang one of his songs and he told me to never sing in Portuguese again!LJC:
Why was that?AWM:
When an American singer does the Brazilian repertoire for the Brazilians, they're not really impressed. What they love is the jazz stuff and the assortment of Latin Jazz things that I'm doing. There are some DJs down in Brazil that have been very supportive of my Kickstarter campaign. I'm extrapolating from one or two responses, but it makes sense to me.
Interestingly, I think that the Brazilians do get the hybrid concept and they love so many aspects of American culture. If you can try to bring that into Brazilian music, then they're cool with that. It's just if you try to do a really obvious, really simple approach, Brazilians may not be wowed by it. Americans will love it though, and people from other parts of the world will love it.LJC:
You also studied down in Cuba at one pointwhat was that experience like for you?AWM:
It was a life changing experience. It was short amount of time to change your life in, but it was huge. We went with PlazaCuba, which is a travel organization that puts together trips to Cuba. We went down and we studied at the Escuela Nacional De Arte, which is actually a high school. It's very decrepitthe pianos are being eaten alive by termites and many of the keys don't play. They have all these practice rooms with pianos that have been donated at different times, but they're all just in states of disrepair. But the teachers were amazing.
They had a curriculum designed for us, and we had a lot of great musicians on the trip. We were just soaking it in. It was Russian classicism mixed with African polyrhythms. Actually at the time, they were telling us that it had only been ten years that they had been allowed to study Afro-Cuban popular music at ENA. Up until then, it had been exclusively a Russian style conservatory. I was so glad that I at least had some basics under my fingers and in my ear. Some people had never been exposed, so they were going from the beginning. It would have been unfortunate to go there and figure out clave or tumbao.
You go to Cuba and you see these 16 and 17-year-old kids, and they adore jazz. They adore it. They play with amazing skill. I'm not saying that jazz is the most popular music in Cuba; there's a lot of modern stuff in Cuba as well. Still, it is pretty amazing to see a 15 year old kid that is an amazing jazz pianisthe'll love it and he'll want to talk about Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and stuff like that.LJC:
Not too long after that, you recorded Jazzmerica
what did you want to put out there when you were releasing your first album?AWM:
There were so many hard decisions to make. You're faced with choices like do I do all one style? I always thought about Randy Newmanas a songwriter, he has some basic things that he tends to gravitate towards, like the shuffle. Yet his whole thing is about finding whatever serves the song. That's always been my belief. If you write a song, then the arrangement should serve the song. If one song has to be a bolero and the next song needs to be swing jazz and the next song has to be reggae, then that's what serves the song. I definitely get tired of things just all getting swung. Now we're seeing more and more albums that are like what I did; not to say that I made them happen, but we are seeing a big assortment of styles on albums today.LJC:
Wayne produced that and you worked on a lot of his albums after thatwhat was it like working with him?AWM:
He is very prolific and productive in the studio. I'm grateful that he is, as I got to be on so many records. Most of us, if we get one record out every couple of years, that's great. But once he gets on a role, he can really keep it going. There's so many little details, good and bad. He'd be hard on me sometimes, but even that was good. I remember one time doing push-ups and thinking that I had to do it. He's a very interesting producer; he likes to explore things. It's like working with Confucius sometimes.LJC:
You continued a years later with Vagabundeo/Wanderings
, which was another great album, what do you think changed for you as a musician?AWM:
It was hard, you definitely are very afraid of the sophomore slump. I had learned some lessons that had to do with the studio. Wayne used to say, You have studio ears now." It was true; you could just start to hear things that you are oblivious to initiallyhow mixes are panned, parts that are extraneous and could be removed . . . there's just a lot of things that you start to hear. I was still super insecure and worried about how this would compare to what I had done before, and worried about the assortment of music. I told Wayne that I wanted it sound a little bit more commercial, so we put a little bit more synth on Wanderings. I liked what we did in that respect.
Then there's also decisions that you make and you question later. I had an insight recently though. I recorded an EP; I just did it myself, it was a duo thing. I was recording this, listening back to it, and wondering if it was good. Then I remembered, when my budget was thousands of dollars, I was asking myself those same questions. I've realized that some of that confidence just has to be there. I kind of feel like that right now with my new record that I'm working on.LJC:
Was this a point where music became a full time career for you?AWM:
Yea, that was right on the cusp of it. So many things were happening when I did Vagabundeo/Wanderings
. I was pregnant with my second child and then I got laid off from my job. They laid me off at Christmas after working for them for 10 years. Wayne was really sweet about that. The day that I got laid off, I called him and he came and got me. He was very supportive. I was trying to get this record done while no longer having a job. All these different things were hitting the fan. I just kept trying to push on, doing the album.LJC:
As a full time musician now, what's your perspective on doing Latin music and jazz in the Bay Area?AWM:
What is exciting about salsa in the Bay Area right now is that there is a really good circuit for Latin music. That's the fun thing about being in the salsa scene. You're going from club to clubeach month you play at one club, then the next one, and the next one . . . it's a circuit and you hit each club every month.
I wish that there was a good circuit for jazz in the same way. You can't do that type of thing in jazz. I am the last person to complain about jazz dying, but there is some economic truth to it. I still hold some hope and belief that my approach to jazz is going to convert enough people where it would be sustainable as a sole career. Not so much that one person can single-handedly support jazz.
It's frustrating when you're trying to get a gig. All these people are constantly talking about doing certain things for jazz like bringing in fresh faces and appealing to young people. Then you try to get a gig and it's impossible. It's like, I thought you wanted new people? I thought that you wanted fresh faces?" Nope, they hire exactly the same people that they've hired before.