From Layers to Simple – An Artist Statement
Artist Statement Recording Project 2015-16
One year ago, I had the idea for a record called “Layers.” With nine songs and a story, I had envisioned working on this new record with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra (a 30-piece classical orchestra), along with my 13-piece band and Special Guests on vocals and percussion.
Then, on a day off in November 2014, I realized that I was thinking about music differently. I was at the end of a 10-concert European tour with Vibraphonist legend Gary Burton (who is also known for his 50- year association as administrator, teacher, musician, bandleader with my alma mater, Berklee College of Music).
The main thing I learned playing on that tour was to deliver clear sentences, clear ideas — to play for the audience and always have them in mind, but also to be as creative as possible. I started making things “simpler” or thinking “simple.” Everything around me was very sophisticated but at the same time it was simple. I had to trust myself and all my experience to create simple ideas that were not pretentious or off- focus. Those musical ideas needed to be as sophisticated as Gary’s playing – or at least close to that – but so simple everyone could enjoy and absorb them as a collective, and this included Gary Burton – who was watching and listening to every note I played.
On that day off, I had also started to think about going to Puerto Rico over the Christmas holidays, and realized that the “Layers” project I had been working on – with its complex arrangements of musicians, rehearsals, adaptations to a smaller ensemble – it was too much.
I began to work – with just keyboard and computer, and thought about a small ensemble with two guitar players , electric bass, the Bomba Barril and drum set. I started writing very simple ideas that were like jams with only one or two sections. I wanted musical lines that worked together, sounded good, had a groove in them and needed very little rehearsal or reading.
If something felt good, I would loop it and try to dance to it and visualized it being played in Puerto Rico. Instead of judging the idea, I left it there as it was. I was detached completely from trying to impress or “change the world” or creating something that was a masterpiece. My focus was on feeling good, on how the musical parts worked together, and how I danced to it. I was not focused on writing stuff that needed hours and hours of rehearsal or that was too complex. I visualized myself playing the material I created in Puerto Rico. I wanted people to enjoy it and make them feel like dancing. I also wanted musicians in the band to enjoy themselves playing it.
In a few hours I had five different ideas that I really loved. They all had titles and stories behind the titles, and all of them were experiences from Puerto Rico, memories from my childhood, or inspired by people I was into those days, like athlete Kobe Bryant, during the tour.
“Biol – La cancion de mis hermanos” – is written for my band- mates, Beto Torrens and Bryant Hufman, and also for the people I miss and I love but don’t get to be with very often.
“Escapandome al rio” — is inspired on my trips to the river when I was a kid. I saw in my mind Rio Grande de Añasco, Gozalandia in San Sebastian and other rivers. I remembered the sound of the water, the rocks and the trees, the sound of nature.
“Paseo la Costa” is about my frequent trips to see my family when I was a student in San Juan — from East to West over the North Coast of Puerto Rico and down the South Coast until arriving in Mayaguez or Añasco.
“Kobe Bryant” –is about the inspiration I found in him, especially in an article when a journalist once told him he had broke the record for the most missed points. Here he was a star athlete, working hard, and the media focused on something so negative. I’m not a sports fan, but when I made those simple, strong grooves on my computer, I played “Air Basketball” and was as good as Kobe!
“Consciente Consistente, Libro y Flor” — this song is a reflection on things that make me feel whole, and remind me that it was I strive to be at all times. Conscious, Consistent; a book and a flower.
When I created these songs, I felt as I was playing a concert and after each song ended, it would tell me what I needed next and so on.
I thought these jams were good vehicles to explore the communication between the drums, my experiences, and the crowd in Puerto Rico.
By the end of November 2014, I finished Gary Burton’s tour and flew from Poland to New York, stayed for a few hours and then flew again to Chicago to play with the Alfredo Rodriguez Trio. That was a different gig and a different discipline. I already had a different perspective on playing music. I was more centered and focused on making something hard become very easy.
The next day I flew back to NYC and soon after arriving, I started a week long run at the Village Vanguard with The Miguel Zenon Quartet. Here again was a different world of music and muscles. The Quartet had been playing for three weeks and I was trying to step right were they were and even push a bit. On the first night the Quartet complained I was playing light and not so crazy like always. I had a different focus, but the day after I found a way of matching the “wild” with the “centered/make it simple” playing.
During that week I got together with a friend who plays tenor saxophone and tried to write melodies for the jams I’d written. After a few hours I knew that I didn’t have the notes or melodies yet in my mind, I did have a clear idea and a feel of what I wanted to express , so I started trying to write some melodies myself without any pressure. Most of the time I would loop 4 bars, find a scale that gave me a texture I like and then stand up, dance and sing melodies until I could sing something I liked. I wanted to speak from the heart but also I was thinking very simple and trusting my instincts. Using that method I wrote the first melody. I loved it, and then I wrote another and another and in the process, I was learning to compose music. I discovered new “tricks” and methods for orchestration and finding new ideas.
I actually got a lot of ideas while washing dishes.
Over that week, I played intricate music at the Village Vanguard every night, and then I’d get home from the gig and sit at the computer and write more melodies. I was waking up at 5am to write more melodies until I had to go to the Vanguard at 7pm. Sometimes I wore the same clothes from the night before until
it was time to change for the next night. Every day I had the same process – I sang, danced and discovered how I wanted to compose music.
I also started going to the gym every day and there, I’d come up with more ideas. I would get home and write more songs. On one of those days at the gym, I listened “Espiritu Burlon”/Diablo” – one of my favorite songs from Ray Barreto’s album Indestructible. I decided to make an arrangement – my second ever. In doing so, I taught myself about orchestration and came up with musical ideas for the horns and rhythm section. I was studying but being creative at the same time and having so much fun.
After I finished the arrangement of “Diablo,” plus six more songs, I literally could not stop writing music. I felt as if I was in a trance of creativity and also as if I was on a spiritual journey. I was full of inspiration, energy, purpose, I was playing live concerts every day with the most amazing musicians, to the most amazing audiences and venues. I found an inner groove that nothing could stop.
I went back to the material I’d written for the original orchestral project and tried to adapt it to my new ensemble with two guitars and horns. I realized that even while these songs were more complex to play and needed much more rehearsals, they were not as good or as complete as the new simple songs I was writing.
The music for orchestra was “complex” because of the instrumentation and finding the special famous guests, and the 30 piece orchestra, five percussionists, etc , but the new music expressed more. It had more soul, stories, scenarios. To me, they felt like songs without lyrics, they were easy to play and to sing. They sounded interesting, full, plus they were dedicated to my friends, my land and the things I miss when I’m away from my roots, away from the coast of Puerto Rico, the feeling of not having to rush and not feeling stress at all, just joy. They were also charged with a new energy I’ve found in books, ideas and personalities I was studying and having conversations with through my songs.
Writing for a simpler group was harder. It was a scary challenge but in creating this work, I learned one of my most important lessons.
After I realized that I needed to think simple in order to make things happen, I took this approach to everything that came after the music was written. If the musicians I always used were not available I opened myself to discover and try new “cats” and in doing so I came a cross two amazing talented musicians from Puerto Rico (years before, if I could not get the musicians I wanted then I thought it meant that I couldn’t play the music!)
Then I booked five concerts knocking on their doors myself. Four of them were door gigs. Against all the opinions of the other professionals, I decided to play even if no one came because my purpose was simple — to play and share the new music. All of the sudden there was a mini tour! When people saw that we were going to play, they started giving us lots of support by blogging, writing articles and telling everyone about the concerts. We had an audience that was happy we were playing. All of this from thinking simple and just wanting to share and play the new music,
We ended the mini tour playing in Old San Juan for a great crowd that included the mayor of the city. From that concert we got an amazing review in the main newspaper from Spain ,“El Pais.” I also ended that tour with a new band rehearsed and ready to play more gigs, I meet amazing new musicians, bloggers, journalists and club owners, My soul is filled with amazing experiences from those concerts — all by thinking simple.
Thinking “Simple” never meant working less or putting less energy or giving less. I think it’s more about trust. Trusting who I am, who we are, our instincts, the work we had put over the years into our art and to substitute the excuses for options, the obstacles for solutions.
I compared this way of thinking to when we throw a rock in the water. The firmer and stronger that first throw, the clearer you’ll see the small waves that come after that first “down beat,” The stronger your 1 is the clearer you’ll see your 2, 3 ,4 and so on.
I want to dedicate this music to the act of thinking SIMPLE.