Interview: John Santos, My Music is Who I Am

John-Santos
By Don Macica –

“My experience totally comes from the folkloric tradition. My grandparents on both sides were musicians. My dad’s family is from Cape Verde off the coast of Senegal while my mom is Puerto Rican. I grew up in that environment so I was listening to and playing traditional Cuban, Puerto Rican and African music at an early age.”

I’m speaking with San Francisco Bay area percussionist, band leader and educator John Santos via phone from Washington, DC, where he is making several appearances in connection with the Smithsonian Institute’s Folklife Festival. From there he’ll travel to Chicago for two Latin Jazz Festival appearances this week: A lecture and demonstration entitled My Music is Who I Am at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and leading the John Santos Sextet at the Humboldt Park Boathouse. Both events are presented by the Jazz Institute of Chicago.

Santos had led several bands over the course of his four-decade career. The best known of them was the Machete Ensemble, which lasted for 21 years but dissolved in 2006. That’s the group I caught at HotHouse, the South Loop venue that closed its physical doors several years ago but continues as a still vital organization with programming in various locations around the city. As it turns out, that’s the last time Santos played in Chicago until now.

“The economics of that group were really difficult,” says Santos. “It varied from 12-14 members, and a group of that size is very hard to take on the road. It was hard to get decent paying work for that many musicians. I downsized to 9 members, but even that was hard to support.”

After Machete Ensemble broke up, Santos started a quartet, which has gradually built up to the sextet that will visit Chicago this week. Besides being a top-shelf performing Latin jazz ensemble, they specialize in educational presentations from lecture/demonstrations to detailed clinics focusing on any number of relevant subjects such as composition, arrangement, rhythmic development, stylistic interpretation, studio performance, etc. Their repertoire consists of arrangements from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the US, as well as original compositions.

The conversation turns back to the importance of tradition in Santos’ music. “After my experiences playing with my family and during my development as a professional musician, I studied all sorts of African influenced music. As a percussionist, I was drawn to the conga and batá drums, and from there to Congolese and Nigerian music. I started collecting instruments and vintage recordings. That folk tradition became a driving force in my career.”

Santos continues, “Those folkloric traditions form the basis of what I do, but then we apply that to original music using contemporary jazz harmonies and themes that talk about experiences that are relevant to what we’re living through.”

With that, our conversation moves to Santos’ educational efforts and programs, one of which he is presenting this week in Chicago. “Workshops, lectures and classes are nearly half of what I do, with performing and composing being the other half,” he notes.  “I took the title My Music is Who I Am from a dissertation by the great Latin jazz bassist Andy Gonzáles.  That title really resonated with me, so I created this presentation that talks about Afro-Latinos like myself and the way music is intertwined with our identity, history and culture. The music is an almost sacred document that tells our story in our own voices and the voices of our ancestors.” He continues, “I’ll be using a lot of historical recordings from my collection to illustrate certain themes of who we are, in our own words, and I’ll show how those same themes are relevant to our lives today. It will show how connected we are to these older traditions, but at the same time have contemporary examples that play the same role.”

It is mid-afternoon, and Santos still has one more Smithsonian Folklife panel to attend. As we are saying our goodbyes, Santos remarks, “I’m really looking forward to coming back to Chicago. I’ve done events before with Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center at the old location. I’m honored to be presenting there again and of course I’m excited to be performing at the Latin Jazz Festival. It will be great to see old friends and make some new ones.”

My Music is Who I Am, Thursday, July 14, 7:00pm at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4048 W. Armitage, Chicago. Free admission, but registration is requested. srbcc.org

10th Annual Chicago Latin Jazz Festival, Friday-Saturday July 15-16 at the Humboldt Park Boathouse. 1301 N. Sacramento, Chicago. John Santos headlines Friday at 9:00pm. Free admission. jazzinchicago.org

Review: Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, Intercambio

By Don Macica

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The landscape of Latin jazz is, of course, an ever evolving one. The current crop of jazz artists that are the acknowledged as among the best, such as Miguel Zenón, David Sánchez and Danilo Pérez, shy away from labeling their music, preferring instead to cite their Latin American heritage as a means of informing a highly individual approach to the art of jazz, capturing the soul of what it means to be Panamanian or Puerto Rican rather than building their compositions around standard, recognizable forms. Even in Chicago, the Dominican violinist James Sanders, who has led a very good Latin jazz ensemble for nearly 15 years, prefers these days to integrate Afro-Caribbean essence into a totally improvisational approach, forsaking charts for an open ended conversation.

It’s refreshing, therefore, that the San Francisco based trombonist Wayne Wallace so warmly embraces the term, putting it right there in the name of his ensemble. And maybe that’s because he’s African-American, not Latino, and thus free to explore a sound and style without the added significance of it being his heritage. However, saying that Wallace plays Latin jazz is not to say he is being conservative. Quite the contrary.

Wallace is no newcomer. He was a founding member and co-musical director of John Santos’ Machete Ensemble, and before that he worked with Conjunto Cespedes, a Bay Area folkloric ensemble, and before that he played with Pete Escovedo. In addition to being a player in the Bay Area Latin scene, he’s also a bit of a proponent and documentarian. His created the record label that he records for, and it recently released two terrific Salsa de la Bahia compilations featuring the cream of the local scene, with a companion film in the works.

For Wallace, Latin jazz is still a music of discovery, one in which he can be both a teacher and disciple. His approach is anchored in that jazz process in which one listens, learns and creates anew. His new recording, Intercambio (Patois Records), is founded on the idea of cultural exchange. In this context, jazz has as much to give to Caribbean folkloric music as the other way around. While firmly committed to the idea and forms of Latin jazz, Wallace still remains an explorer. There are several moments on the album that coax a smile out of the listener by doing the unexpected.

Four of Intercambio’s ten tracks are Wallace originals, and the balance is drawn from jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and fellow trombonist J.J. Johnson. By and large the album smolders, the Latin rhythms underpinning arrangements that feature Wallace’s beautiful and buttery tone. Three tracks are reminiscent of Kind of Blue-era Miles, with Wallace’s trombone gliding over the shifting rhythms.

Rhythmically, the albums ports of call go beyond San Juan and Havana to also include Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Trinidad. There are a couple of burners, led off by the first track, the Wallace original Casa del Sol, which is dedicated to Eddie Palmieri. On this song, the quintet is expanded to 7 pieces to include violin and flute, referencing Palmieri’s legendary La Perfecta ensemble. Another Wallace original, Guarachando, kicks into high gear with a comparsa carnival rhythm, throws in steel drums for good measure, then brings back the flute and violin to trade fours in its mid-section before they all come together, only to be followed by a hot solo from Wallace himself.

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The two remaining Wallace originals are quite nice as well. Como Vai alternates cha-cha-cha and samba rhythms in a way that brings to mind a pair of Stevie Wonder classics, You’ve Got It Bad Girl and Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing. Finally, Timbázo is built for grooving, funky trombones in conversation with the rhythm section, colored once again by Trinidadian steel drums, which return yet a third time on Dizzy Gillespie’s Woody n’ You along with a pronounced bomba feel.

John Coltrane’s Equinox is the standout among the covers, building off of Trane’s exploration of African roots with batá drums and güiro. The Hoagy Carmichael standard Heart and Soul is given a smooth salsa treatment that would satisfy any dancer while leaving room for some nice soloing and ensemble playing, especially when Wallace overdubs his trombone into a 4-piece section a la Manny Oquendo y Conjunto Libre.

Mile Davis provides the thematic centerpiece of the album with Solar, reimagined into En el Solar de Miles by Wallace, tying together Miles’ interest in African culture to the Cuban solares, Cuban fraternal organizations formed during slavery to maintain African cultural practices. Another Davis composition, Circle, closes the album, a moody number enhanced by a string quartet and featuring some of Wallace’s lovliest playing.

As noted earlier, Wayne Wallace is no conservative, despite working in a genre that’s been around for nearly 75 years. Intercambio gently but firmly moves Latin jazz forward. That’s no easy thing, but it is an essential one to a good jazz musician. In doing so, Wallace demonstrates that there is much still to be found inside of Latin jazz.

Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, Intercambio.
Patois Records, available July 7

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.