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Latin Jazz Conversations: Victor Garcia (Part 3)

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Most great musicians simply know that they will have a career in music, and that inner belief drives them into a fierce momentum. Even as children, they are drawn to their instrument consistently, spending more time playing music than any other activity. By the time they reach their teens, most driven musicians have found a specific passion to guide their musical focus. They eventually find their way onto professional gigs; whether through college or simple determination, they undoubtedly start finding employment. At this point, musicians either let their career ride along the path before them, or they carve their own way into their ideal scenarios. The truly passionate musicians won't wait for success to find them, they keep pushing forward until they find it.

Trumpet player Victor Garcia has made his way into fantastic opportunities through a combination of musical passion, optimistic perseverance, and old fashioned hard work. Initially exposed to a wide variety of music by his father, Garcia spent the larger part of his youth playing piano, guitar, and singing. A Dizzy Gillespie CD brought Garcia deeply into jazz trumpet, leading him to the Gallery 37 Latin jazz big band and The Merit School Of Music. His musical abilities grew substantially by this time, and shortly after graduation, Garcia began working on Chicago's salsa scene with vocalist Ricky Luis. He pursued collegiate music studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but found himself spending most of his time performing in Chicago. As his reputation grew, Garcia began playing in multiple Latin bands, so he relocated back to Chicago and enrolled in Northern Illinois University. He soon met pianist Darwin Noguera, another recent Chicago transplant, and the two musicians started working together frequently. They found a wealth of artistic common ground, spending time writing and arranging together with plans for the future. When Noguera booked a major gig in Miami, the two musicians brought their original music to a large ensemble, planting the seeds for their future big band. An opportunity to play at the Jazz en Clave festival back in Chicago allowed for the solid formation of the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble. Garcia and Noguera continued to book sporadic gigs for the group, but in the meantime, Noguera recorded a spectacular quintet album, The Gardener. This recording solidified a relationship with the Chicago Sessions record label, and as the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble expanded their original repertoire, Garcia and Noguera booked a recording session. They called upon several guest artists from a high profile concert in Chicago's Millennium Park that included trombonist Steve Turre, percussionist Paoli Mejias, and more. The resultant recording, Blueprints, showed amazing potential in the group and marked another step in Garcia's unstoppable forward motion.

Once Garcia connected with music, there was never any doubt that it would become a career. He didn't wait for it to happen though, he made it happen—that momentum carried him through to his current stunning work with the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble. In Part One of our interview with Garcia, we looked at the major presence of music in his early life, his love for jazz as a teenager, and his first steps onto Chicago's Latin music scene. In Part Two of our interview, we dug into the evolution of Chicago Latin music, Garcia's initial connection with Noguera, and the first Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble gigs. Today we finish our conversation with a focus upon the unique qualities of CALJE, the recording of the group's debut album Blueprints, and the future of the band.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: In this day and age, it's really hard to find places that will hire a big band. What challenges are you finding?

VICTOR GARCIA: It's about keeping the musicians really into it, because at the end of the day, it's a labor of love. They don't need us to survive. They aren't making a lot of money with us; they're doing it because they love to play and they want to play some quality music. I found that too with my own playing. When people say to me, “I've got this gig but it doesn't really pay that great, would you be willing to do it?" I always say, “Well, let me hear the music." If I like it, I'm like, “Man, I would love to be a part of this!" Even if I'm not going to make that much money, I'll do it.

We've created a really cool tag-team sort of thing. We get together and it's just so productive. We write some challenging stuff and we keep the players in mind. So that when they read the music, they will be challenged and they will enjoy the music. Then they'll stick around for the gig that pays twenty dollars, and they'll be there too when we get the gigs that pay three hundred. It's a beautiful thing to have that love from the musicians; it makes it into a family ordeal, not just a business.

LJC: Now you've got a great representation of the band with Blueprints. How did the recording come together?

VG: When we got an opportunity to play at Millennium Park, we decided to really push and do an all original set of music. We got together everyday and we just wrote all the music. We had a bunch of original music. At the time, Darwin had gotten a connection with a guy named Nick Eipers, who is the founder of Chicago Sessions. He went to go see Darwin play and he really dug him. He thought he was a great talent with a lot of potential and great music. Most importantly, Darwin had original music, and Nick only wants to record original music. He did not want any covers.

He gave Darwin the opportunity to record a quintet CD—The Gardenerby Darwin Noguera's Evolution Quintet. He wrote some great stuff and we put together some nice arrangements. After that, Darwin started talking to Nick about this project. He said, “We've got all this original music and it's on fire . . . but we don't know what to do with it." He said, “I'll definitely consider it, I'm really happy with the outcome of The Gardener. You guys know what you're doing musically." He decided to cover the cost of recording and studio time if we talked to the musicians and made it happen. Sure enough, we got the musicians to go in. We were able to get them all in the studio and they put out some amazing music. I feel so blessed to know these amazing musicians.

LJC: You've got some great guest artists on the CD. You mentioned your relationship with Ricky Luis earlier, but you've also got Steve Turre, Paoli Mejias, and Neal Alger. How did you get those guys involved?

VG: I met Steve Turre at Northern when he came to do a guest artist spot with the big band. I got his number and we kept in loose contact. I would check in with him and he would keep tabs on what was going on here. When we got the opportunity to play in Millennium Park, the promoter said, “You guys can make the call, but we could provide money for a guest artist. It would definitely help the draw." I thought it would be amazing. Steve Turre was one of the names that came up and I already had his number, so I gave him a call. I remember that conversation like yesterday. He said, “I would love to come out!" It was pretty awesome. We got him to come out for the rehearsal and he really dug the music. After the gig, he said, “Hey, if you ever record, give me a call. I would love to be a part of it." So sure enough, when we got the opportunity to record, I called him up.

Paoli Mejias was a connection that we made through the Millennium Park concert. Initially we wanted to have Giovanni Hidalgo, but that didn't work out. When we started talking about it again, we still really wanted to have a percussionist. Somebody in the office of cultural affairs said, “We just made connections with this young guy making some noise around the world with his own group and he's traveling with Eddie Palmieri." So we got Paoli's number, I got a chance to talk to him and extend an invitation to do this concert with us. He listened to the music and he was into it. So we got him.

We had Howard Levy at that concert as well. I had been subbing in Chevere, so by then I had already established a relationship with him. Howard really dug me. He has really helped me; he hooked me up with some recordings and he actually put in a good word for me to be teaching at Loyola University. What a beautiful human being as well as a monstrous musician. So we asked him if he would be a part of it, and he said, “I'll be there!"

Neal Alger plays with everybody; he's an amazing guitarist. We wrote this reggae tune, “Vuelvo a Vivir," and I thought, “It would be so nice to have a real guitarist on there." We asked him and he did the concert; he also did the recording. It was so great to have him, because he threw a really nice solo on that reggae tune. He made the vibe really cool and authentic.

LJC: It's really cool to hear a reggae tune on a Latin Jazz album. So much Latin Jazz is really focused on Afro-Cuban or Brazilian music, which is great, but it's nice to hear variety.

VG: Right, that's what we're all about. There's so many underexposed rhythms that people have never even heard about and don't even know. They're so beautiful too. There's some really great Peruvian rhythms, and some Colombian stuff. My friend from New York, Pablo Mayor (from the Colombian group Folklore Urbano) wrote a chart “Tierra" on the CD, and I was so happy. It was completely different than every thing else on the CD.

And that the whole point—to show the versatility. When the slaves came to Latin America, they brought their drums and combined it with what was already here. The marriages created in each distinct region made for a real exciting musical experience, seeing how everyone translated it into their own terms. It's not just what is pop music—salsa, merengue, and bachata—the only bit of Latin music that is making any bit of money out there. Cumbia for example, its beautiful stuff, and people just don't appreciate it for what it is. But we want to take it there. I've even been brainstorming about a mariachi sounding tune that would have jazz in it. I know that there has to be a way. The hemiolas that they use in Mariachi are great.

LJC: There's a few big bands out there today—what do you think is distinct about CALJE that shows something different?

VG: I think first and foremost, the thing is the variety of repertoire. A lot of groups stick to Cuba and that region of Caribbean music that is already popular and has been made popular since Machito, Beny Moré, and others started doing this. They're keeping that tradition alive, which is amazing, because not a lot of people are doing it. There's a handful of big bands doing it, and they're not eating from that plate either—it's a labor of love as well. So it makes me happy to know that we're not trying to reach millionaire, lucrative status or anything. It's about the music and that will always keep it fresh and new for us. Because we're doing it for the love, not for a paycheck.

We infuse the different angles that we come from. I'm not Puerto Rican or Cuban and Darwin isn't either, he's Nicaraguan. He grew up listening to a whole different bag of tricks. Same here, but at the same time, being infused in the salsa scene at such an early age, I got to appreciate all types of Latin music. I had already been listening to trio music when I was little and Mariachi. My dad loved to play some of those Sonora bands from Mexico; I didn't know at the time, but a lot of that was cha cha, influenced by Cuban music. I really got to hear a wide range and variety of things, even before I knew what they were. My dad would just call it musica tropical. We come from different musical angles that we bring to the table in compositions. It makes everything sound so fresh and new.

LJC: You've got the CD now reaching a wider audience, so what's the next step for the band?

VG: It's all about who you know and making connections with the people that move money and produce shows. Darwin is a go-getter, so I know it's just a matter of time before we do some other things. He's already talking to the Nicaraguan council to bring us to the next Nicaragua Jazz Festival. I was just playing recently in Chile and I made some really nice connections; I passed out the CD to some people that put together Viña del Mar Jazz Festival. It's just talking to people and trying to move this. We want to reach a wider audience, and especially an audience that will appreciate it. Unfortunately the classical music of America, jazz, is so underappreciated in this country, it's crazy. When I went to Europe, I remember playing in concert halls and even bars—you could hear a pin drop, people were really listening! It was a little intimidated, but isn't that what I want? Hopefully we'll get a chance to go out there. I know there's places even in the States where we would be appreciated. We've just got to make those connections and see them through. It'll happen, it's just a matter of time.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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