Super Ralph

A couple posts ago I mentioned that I would be involved in a two-week convention gig and I was anxious as I did not yet know which instruments I was supposed to play.

Well, we are a couple days into rehearsing and so far it is smooth sailing. I am playing tenor and baritone saxes, flute and clarinet. It is for a massive State Farm convention that will be in town next week and we will be performing an original mini-musical about insurance or State Farm, well I’m actually not sure as I haven’t heard the lyrics to the songs yet. As you can imagine, the potential for cheesiness could be pretty high. I have done musical numbers at these types of conventions in the past and they are usually an unimaginative re-wording of an existing song, something that I seldom like.

It makes me very happy that State Farm hired the great composer, Jason Robert Brown, to write this all-original show. Everyone involved in the production is of the highest caliber and we are getting all the rehearsing and putting together of numbers done faster and more thoroughly than I have found to be the norm nowadays.  The core band which I believe to be mostly from New York is excellent and really bring these fantastic songs and arrangements to life.

I’m excited to be part of this event and to be able to enjoy myself and be proud of it.

And I can’t wait to meet Super Ralph.

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Having fun at Lion King

I cannot even believe they let me into the room, much less the orchestra pit and even more unbelievable still, they let me play and broadcast my sound through microphones into the audience!

My self-deprecation is exaggerated of course, but only slightly. The regular flutist on this job, Alexander Viazovtsev, does such an amazing job that I cannot even aspire to match his performance as I usually do in such subbing circumstances.  I am going for good enough to not be thrown out of the theater, or blacklisted from all Las Vegas productions or hauled before a judge to be tried as disreputable citizen that is besmirching Las Vegas’  good name.

Despite all that, I am having a great time making music out of little warped pieces of bamboo that look like some high school wood-shop project gone wrong.

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Steeped In The Latin

I once approached an arranger that I had developed somewhat of a collegial relationship with and offered that I could help him with copying or orchestrating his work if he found himself in a deadline crisis. This is a common practice, I was not overstepping by offering. His answer floored me: “I’ll call you if I’m ever working on Latin music”.

On another occasion, I was involved in a concert organized by a local trumpeter. He wrote a mini-bio for me without consulting me that started with the phrase “Steeped in Latin Music, Miguel brings his fiery”… etc, etc

I know these are examples of “soft racism” and that there is not meanness behind their statements but they were illuminating to me as to how I am perceived by certain people. The only concern I have in this regard is whether people might be choosing not to employ me as their subconscious tells them that as a Latino, I am surely an inferior musician; or at least not familiar enough with “their” music to play it as well as a Scott, David or Randy.

As far as I am concerned, the only thing making me more Latino, (I prefer the term Hispanic) than other musicians is my name. I don’t entertain notions of some hot, Latin blood streaming through my veins and influencing my behavior. The strongest connection that I could have to Hispanic culture and heritage would have required great effort on my parents part to indoctrinate or illuminate me in that respect. This very seldom seemed a concern to them. (Although they did discuss sending me to Colombia for high school, which I vetoed since I barely spoke Spanish then!)

The point that I am trying to make is that I’ve never considered myself a prototypical Latin musician. Firstly, I think categorizations such as these can be deadly to your career and are only done to simplify people’s organizing how they are to think or feel about you. What I think of as a typical Latin musician is someone who is “steeped” in all the dance-hall styles and has primarily played nothing but these styles for their whole careers. There are many musicians like this, some virtuosic in their specialized way but I am still hoping that people don’t think of me as a musician of this narrow a scope.

Of course, growing up in Miami I did hear much Cuban music. Sometimes a certain song would catch my ear, but more often than not, I was not interested. I did not feel comfortable with the Cubans I went to school with, feeling no sort of Hispanic kinship. I also had a bit of a negative association with Colombian music as it reminded me of the holiday parties that were made awful by my shyness.

My first in-depth introduction to Latin music was when I was 19-years-old and had my first long-term playing job in the house band at a Colombian night club called El Abuelo Pachanguero. I had worked occasionally with Cuban bands before this, but probably did a terrible job as I was not familiar enough with the music to do it justice. At Abuelo Pachanguero I not only had the chance to learn much of the then modern and classic Colombian dance music, but I was also introduced to another side of Colombian culture that I was not familiar with, musicians and their unique vernacular. I learned not only to phrase the music as they did (extremely critical) but also how to speak and drink like them. I was also exposed to much a rougher segment of Colombian society  that was very much in contrast with the genteel Andean Colombians that were most of my relatives.

While working here I had the opportunity to back up many of the out-of-town acts that would come to the club which was a welcome relief from the monotony of dance music but also proved to be fascinating. These acts were predominately Colombian but occasionally hailed from other countries. I backed up Colombian Vallenato accordionists; male and female saloon-type bolero crooners from Colombia and Cuba; Peruvian joropo bands; a Paraguayan harpist ensemble, and several Mexican mariachis. My parents were very impressed by the fact that I was playing with these artists; unknown to me, but well known to people of my parent’s generation. Nowhere else since then have I been employed with such opportunities to play such a variety of music. It was a great introduction to the diversity that exists in the Latin American cultures.

This job, like most, ended too soon and ignobly but I was lucky in that I had the chance to play long-term in a couple of other good Colombian bands, where I always felt most at home. (Maybe there is something to this blood thing).  I did play much more with Caribbean musicians later, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican and even Haitian and paid my dues touring with pretty-boy Latin pop acts.

I am suddenly overwhelmed with where this post has taken me as I have never once sat and made an accounting of all the work that I have done. While I was busy denying the stereotype my whole life and trying very hard to become a jazz musician, the reality of economics seems to have trumped all else and led me to become quite steeped in Latin music. I think that trumpeter was on to something.

Posted in Colombia, Horn Sections, immigrant, Latin Music, Music, Uncategorized, Woodwinds | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Gig Anxiety

I am finding myself having too much anxiety about upcoming work, and having trouble dealing with the stress.

Most of the anxiety comes from the fact that I am having to play so many different instruments but also from rearranging an already jam-packed schedule. A more disciplined musician would probably not have a problem organizing the  hour and a half a day I now have to devote to maintaining not only the hardware (instruments in working order, safe amount of broken-in reeds) but also maintaining at least an adequate level of sound and flexibility on all instruments. Of course for much of my work”adequate” is not adequate; not only do I want to shine, I often am required to shine.

In September I will be doing my regular show position at VEGAS! The Show which is Alto Sax, Baritone Sax and Clarinet; a week of Lion King Shows where I am required to play Flute, Piccolo, various pan flutes (including Bass Toyos), various bansuri, dizi and irish flute. This is especially challenging as the bamboo instruments are very unreliable and it is a challenge to play them in tune enough. I am very excited that I will be playing tenor sax, flute and clarinet on Nathan Tanouye’s upcoming  big band concert, mostly of his original compositions; beautiful music that requires a high level of musicianship and adequate rehearsal time to bring the music to life.  For the last 2 weeks of September I will be involved in some massive State Farm trade show with many rehearsals and shows. We don’t yet know which instruments I will be playing or what the music might be.


Also very stressful to me is all the schedule juggling I have yet to settle. I have to find replacements for myself at VEGAS! which is currently running 14 shows a weeks. Luckily, I have enough subs trained and ready to cover for me. My day job is much harder to cover, especially with the current, inflexible staff we have now.

It might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. I am truly grateful that I am working as much as I am during these tough economic times and I relish the different work that helps to keep my mind and skills sharp. I just wanted to share how much anxiety this kind of work can cause me. Like I said earlier, this would be simple for a more disciplined person.

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I love playing in horn sections!

Even in seemingly simple music, playing with a rhythmically tight, in tune, in “tone” and expressively perceptive group gives you the opportunity to exercise so many physical and mental muscles and stimulate your emotive and pleasure centers.

The obvious joy of rhythmic synchronicity is probably the easiest for a layperson to grasp. Harder to describe is the feeling when horn players really listen and react to each other, changing timbre, volume and color of tone in such a unified manner that it almost sounds like one giant horn singing with it’s fat voice.

As a saxophone player, one has to learn to change your sounds in ways that you might not in a solo horn setting. Many of these changes must become somewhat involuntary as you must listen and react very quickly.

I will list some examples although such a list could be endless if other musicians chimed in.

If you are playing a more trumpet-ish, lighting-clap-type phrase, especially with quickly moving melody line you would change your sax sound to a tighter, less complex sound with fewer overtones and really let the trumpetness of the line speak.

Lower register parts are often warm, tromboney sounding sustained chords where you might want a rich or hollow sound, depending on expressive elements. Also, low brass-type jabs are common where you’d want a big fat tone, but with a very focused and strong attack.

It can be especially exhilarating when a saxophone lead comes around and you can sing out with your original sax-voice that you have worked so hard to develop and allow all the fuzzy, overtone-laden characteristics of your sound burst forth.

When I was younger, I used to believe improvising to be the most challenging brain exercise I engaged in musically but as I’ve learned to be a better horn-section player over the years and really thought about and developed the possible nuances, I have found the challenges and rewards to be close to equal.

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