Interview with Kemuel Roig: Between the technical aspect in music, and the listening part in music: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz pianist Kemuel Roig. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Kemuel Roig: – Hello Simon, I born in “Camaguey, Cuba”, but grew up till I was seven years old in Santo Domingo, Cuba. My parents are church pastors, and at the time they were asked to live in this city of Santo Domingo, which is a very small city village in the country side of the island.

My interest in music began at a very early age, at the age of 4. My mom tells me that every time there was music in the radio I loved to get the cooking pans and create a little drum set, and play along the music that was sounding in the radio. This desire to play drums made my mom want to ask the drummer from our church if he would be willing to give me some drums lessons, even though I was only four at the time, to which he agreed to do so. With this drums teacher I began learning the basic rhythms of drums, and helped me a lot to fell in love with this amazing instrument. At the same time, when I was four, my mom decided it would be great if I knew a little bit about piano as well, and we were so lucky because my mom found out that about two blocks away from our house lived a piano teacher, which was not very common in the little village of Santo Domingo, but thankfully she also agreed to begin teaching me the C major scales on the piano and give me a few piano lessons. Later on when I turned eight, my parents, because of the Church again, were asked to relocate to one of the bigger cities in Cuba, Ciego De Avila, (about 2 hours away from Camaguey where I was born), and in this city there was a National School of Music (ENA – Escuela Nacional de Artes) where to our surprise, at our new church assisted one of the piano teachers from this school. After this teacher saw my interest and passion for music, she mentioned my mom right away about the idea of auditioning me for ENA. So after auditioning, I began my formal studies, at the age of eight, in classical piano, drums, and later on theory as well.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

KR: – At the age of 12 my family moved to United States, and at this time I was already playing a lot of classical music, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, Bach. Because we were moving to United States, a new country, I personally found challenging, and was very worried about my progress in my musical education. But, I was extremely blessed, since at the High School were I attended there was a piano teacher, who graduated from the University of Miami (Frost School of Music) in Music Performance, her name was Martha Cortina, and Martha was such a blessing for me because with her I was able to keep learning and practicing all my classical repertoire throughout all my High School years.

Later on, at the age of 16, a friend whom I met in High School, Hery Paz, mentioned me about all these recordings he was listening to at the time, and he offered to lend me a cd of John Coltrane, A Love Supreme. After I heard the spiritual, sublime, amazing sound of Mr. Coltrane, and the unbelievable playing of Mr. McCoy Tyner, I instantly felt in love with this album and music genre, and right away it became my number one recording on my cd player.

After this, my investigation for this amazing genre, which I deeply love, known as jazz began growing up on a daily basis, and I remember spending hours after hours listening and analyzing all the recordings of Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarret, Bill Evans, Red Garland, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Joey Calderazzo, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Brad Mehldau, Michael Petrucciani, Fred Hersch, John Coltrane, Brecker Brothers, Lee Morgan, Freddy Hubard, Dizzy Gillespie, Yellow Jackets, among many others, but at the same time I began listening and learning from all the recordings of the Latin Jazz, or Afro-Cuban jazz language, such as Chucho Valdez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Emiliano Salvador, Michel Camilo, among others.

During this time I also began to find out how the jazz scene was in the city where I lived, Miami, and began meeting all these amazing jazz musicians during jam sessions, and performances. So in other words, I began to submerge myself as much as possible with this amazing and deeply expressive musical genre, and tried to learn as much as possible how to understand and play it.

A year later, at the age of 17th, I began my studies in college, Miami Dade College, and my friends Hery Paz also was in this college at the time. And he mentioned he was taking these jazz classes with the ensemble from the school, which he was very kind to present to me the musical director, Mr. Michael Di Liddo, whom welcomed me to the band, and gave me the amazing opportunity to start performing jazz with them on a weekly basis, and start learning all the jazz standards, and repertoire of bebop. With this group, a year later, we were invited to perform at the Umbria Jazz Festival, and this was the very first time I stood up in front of thousands of people to perform jazz. A day I will never forget!

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

I still practice on a daily basis, and train, as a classical performance would do every day. I believe, that even though jazz involves a lot of improvisation, there is also a lot of practice, and control of the instrument that should be done prior to the moment of improvising on-stage. I practice on a daily basis a routine of different exercises in order to keep my fingers up to the task, as well as all my classical repertoire, probably something I will never ever perform in public, but helps me a lot to develop deeply my understanding of melodies, timing, phrasing, harmony, dynamic, among other. To this, I also need to add my endless desire to bring the percussion instrument, and all the knowledge I learned while studying drums to the piano. Something that I personally find very fascinating is the rhythm of the Cuban Bata, and how they talk among each other, and I am always trying to bring these kind of ideas to my improvisation, and my solo piano practice for my performances.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

KR: – I sincerely believe, and I say this with all my hearth, that there is something great to learn from every genre of music, and every artist. I listen to all kind of music, classical, jazz, opera, bebop, cool jazz, smooth jazz, modern jazz, free jazz, afrocuban jazz, tango, pop, country, christian music, rock n’ roll, boleros, salsa, merengue, bachata, etc, and I always find something interesting in each one of these genres or performances. It might be a melodic pattern, or a specific rhythm, or pattern of guitar, I don’t know, something. But I have found myself time over time singing in my head a musical phrase I have heard from one of these recordings, and eventually, they develop into a more elavorated composition of mine.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

KR: – Every day when I practice at home, I practice with the mentality that I have a concert the next day. As I mention before, I believe a daily routine of practicing my instrument is very necessary, in order for me to play totally relax, and be able to express in the piano all the ideas that I am receiving at the time of improvising. I also do practice the process of improvisation, and how to be able to create a story, each day a new one, totally improvised at the moment, a story that makes sense from beginning to end.

The very first thing I always do every time I seat in the piano, before every practice session, live performance or recording, is put my hands together, say thanks to my Lord, Jesus, for giving me the opportunity of spending this time playing piano, creating music, and doing what I deeply love. Then, I turn up my metronome, and do all my practicing with the metronome. I believe the metronome is every musician’s best companion, and it surely helps us understand how to play in time. The metronome also challenges us on a daily basis to be more accurate, and play with more precision. I remember when I joined the band of my mentor Arturo Sandoval, which whom I toured for eight consecutive years, one of the jewels of music which Arturo always performs is Cherokee at 360bpm, and some days it the band was in such a fire that we would all challenge ourselves, and bring the tempo up to 400bpm. I used to record on my phone this tune in every performance to later on get the metronome and see at what time was performed that night! And when I joined the band, I couldn’t really play over the changes of Cherokee at this fast tempo because this is something I had never practiced before. And after talking with Arturo, he recommend me to practice with the metronome, and after a short period of time, I began noticing how my strength and precision began to develop, till I was able to play all the changes at this very fast tempo.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

KR: – I have been extremely honored to tour worldwide with many musicians, and there is always something new I learn from each experience. It might be how to play more melodic, or how to play more rhythmic, or how to play with more energy, or simply how to talk to the audience while in front of thousand of peoples, but from each performance I have been able to learn something new. Musically speaking, all these experiences has also shaped my musical language and teach me how to prepare my musical speech while improvising, or comping behind another musician. After all, music is a conversation, and should be treated this way, with a lot of respect, carefully choosing each phrase which will be spoken (musically speaking), or note which will be performed. I personally have noticed my sound in general evolving and changing over time, after each presentation performing either with my band or with another musician. I believe this is simply the reflection of all these new experiences you acquire after stepping in the stage in front of an audience, opening your hearth, and offering your real self, who you really are to this audience. Over time, you start thinking different, and this makes you make another musical choices, and hopefully, the audience will understand these choices.

I do believe music is a conversation after all, and if you are in a conversation and someone in the group does not understand the topic being exposed it is more difficult to express the idea you are trying to share. For this reason, for this album of  I carefully chose the three other musicians who are part of the rhythm section, and whose are part of my band on every performance. On drums, Hilario Bell, someone whose I have known for the last 15 years, and we not only have traveled the world together performing around the globe, but also we are best friends till this day, and we understand each other musically speaking to a level beyond imagination. On bass, I wanted to have an upright player on this album, because I like the space and air this instrument brings to the music, and I remember when I was doing my Master in Music from the University of Miami (Frost School of Music) that I jammed a few times with this amazing musician, a little bit younger than myself, but his musicianship was extremely deep, and someone I knew I wanted to create some music with eventually later on. So this time seemed as the right time and I called my dear friend Lowell Ringel, which even though he is born in United States, and did not born listening to the music we portrait on this album, sounded amazingly and as authentic as any Cuban bass player would sound while performing this type of repertoire. On percussion, I called someone whose I had the honor to play with a few times here in the city of Miami, and I was always captivated with how musical he was on percussion. He has shared stages with many musicians around the world including Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Oscar De Leon, and his magic touch on this recording brings all this composition to a whole new level, and I am talking about the great Jose “Majito” Aguilera.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

KR: – Simon, this is a very interesting question. I do believe that it is extremely important to keep a right balance between the intellect and the soul. Between the mechanical part of the instrument, and the music itself. Between the technical aspect in music, and the listening part in music.  I personally try to spend a lot of hours, even nowadays, listening to new music simply to keep myself learning and researching new information on all the recordings that has been released. I believe there is still so much information to learn, that I think there is no lifetime to do it all. Also the technical part of the instrument, if we don’t prepare ourselves, then it seems impossible for me to seat in front of a piano, and in front of an audience and even play a single note.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

KR: – I believe the career I have chosen is called entertainment, and by this I don’t mean that we go to the stage and try to be a clown jumping around, or standing up in the piano, or to diminish the art portion of the performance, because after all, music is the most important thing, and the one thing I love and respect the most in life. But I do believe that what we play, or perform should be interesting enough not only to capture the attention of the musicians in the concert hall, but also to capture the attention of those many in the audience whose probably doesn’t know anything at all about music. Maybe there is a lady or gentlemen whose just had the worst day of their life, and maybe they came to my performance trying to forget for a few minutes all their problems. So my vision in my music is to speak with the language of jazz, portrait my personal speech, but also to lift up the spirit of everyone in the audience and let them have a great time. This is the reason why I personally try to compose, perform, arrange, and keep all my live concerts in such a way where we welcome the audience into the experience and story I am trying to tell. I know it is impossible to please everyone at once, however, I do try to keep the repertoire balanced so everyone leaves the concert hall with a sweet flavor on his or her mouth from the performance, and hopefully will tell their friends about it. Yes, I believe the relationship between artist and audience is very important, and in fact I really love getting to know the audience that comes to my concerts, and simply hold their hands and say thank you, as well as communicating with all of them through my social media. Nowadays with Instagram, Facebook, YouTube it is easier to make the Artist-Audience connection, and this is something I personally like to take a lot of advantage of. This makes me extremely happy and is something I love doing.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

KR: – One of the best and more fulfilled experiences of my life as a musician was the very first time I performed at the Umbria Jazz Festival. This is an experience I will never forget, because this was one of the first I stood up in front of an audience with many, many thousand of people in the audience and performed jazz. This is a festival I would sincerely love to come back, this time performing with my band and this repertoire of

Another amazing experience, and one that lives within me is the first time I stepped into the Blue Note in New York. I was going to perform there with Arturo Sandoval and we had 6 days in a row, 12 concerts, you know, two sets each night, and I had spent so many hours listening to so many recordings that had been recorded live on this room, that for me to step inside this building was a moment I could not believe. I remember seating in front of the piano, playing one note and simply listening to the how the room, the walls, and the acoustic sound in this jazz club. I was so happy because with Arturo I was extremely blessed to go back once or twice every year, and now, I would love to go back with my band and share my repertoire and my compositions with all the jazz lovers from Blue Note.

Talking about the studio recording, the day when we recorded this album of there was such a positive energy in the studio, and the whole band was playing with the same mindset, and I think this can be heard on this album of …

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

KR: – There is something special about jazz, and I think it will never pass away, and it is the beauty of improvisation, and freedom aspect of this amazing musical genre. I remember my teacher and friend Michael Di Liddo used to tell me, if you have someone that has never listened to jazz before, simply put the recording of Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, and see their reaction. Once you explain to the other person all that is improvised, composed at the spot in front of us, then the other person begins to respect more and more this musical genre. I always think about this, imagine if we would have been able to see in front of us Michaelangelo working on the famous sculpture “David”, and then the next day start working on a new piece, and start sculpting another amazing masterpiece. This is exactly the way how I feel every time I get to listen to a live performance, or recording of one of my heroes, since they composed, created something new on the spot, and improvised new music based on chords changes for all of us, and we were lucky enough to be there listening at the time this live or recorded music. Once we explain this process, and how meticulous the notes are chosen for each solo, then the audience, or person who has never heard to jazz previously begins to admire more and more the process of improvisation.

I do love jazz standards, not only for their amazingly beautiful melodies, but also because of the lyrics of these compositions. Something I find many musicians not paying quite attention to. But if you read the lyrics, and learn what the song is all about you begin to get a deeper understanding of the standard you are performing. For example, I always loved playing the standard “The Song is You” at a very fast tempo, but once I read the lyrics, and read “I hear music when I look at you, A beautiful theme of every dream I ever knew….” and I understood what the song was about I understood that it was a love letter, and now when I perform this piece I played with this passion in mind, and kind of singing the lyrics inside of me, even when improvising. I believe jazz standards contain the most beautiful melodies and lyrics ever written.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

KR: – I believe that God created music as one of his most beautiful and most caring creations. And this is a deep theological subject, which I would rather not get into at this moment because it would take some time to explain. But yes, I do believe that in music there is a lot of spirituality involve. We all do music, even if we think about this or not, we all do and create music dedicating it to something, a God, a love, a thing, or something, but music has always a meaning for its existence.  John Coltrane is one of the most important examples we have when It comes to bringing spirituality to jazz, and we can see a clear representation of this on the album A Love Supreme, an album which I mentioned before was the one album whose changed my mind and feed my desire to learn and analyze more about this amazing genre of music we know as jazz. If you pay attention there is really music everywhere, and music has been involve in every single way of spiritual activity in history. So yes, I do believe music and spirituality goes hand to hand.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

KR: – Jajaja, this is a funny question but at the same time is VERY interesting, and challenging to answer jajaja. I think, I would chose to make us all have the same level of understanding to understand music to its more pure, deepest, and more intellectual way. If we analyze the music of Bach, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Monk, Melhdau among many other composers, wow, this music is so deep, and I love to spend hours learning from their music. And yes, I think I would like for all of us to have a deeper common level understanding about music in general.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

KR: – I listen to all kind of music in general, and I believe there is something special to learn from each genre all the time, but nowadays I have found myself listening a lot of Brazilian music, and I am dreaming about recording a future project with musicians from brazil, this is something I would love to do. Another thing I find myself listening to is revisiting some recordings I have spent many years without listening to, specially recordings by Monk, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Charlie Parker. There is so much information that you might put these albums to a side for a few months, but then I need to come back and revisit them, and I find myself understanding all the information much better. I do also like to listen a lot of jazz singers, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Porter, Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

KR: – I choose to bring through my music a message of peace, joy, passion, dedication, respect. I intend the audience who listens to my music to enjoy, maybe dance, but have a great time while listening to each note I chose to play over any of my arrangements or improvisation.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

KR: – Wow, yes! I would really love to go back and seat in a hidden spot while Johan Sebastian Bach was performing and composing, or improvising all the majestically pieces we have and study nowadays. Would love to hear him perform The Goldberg Variations or the Well Tempered Clavier for the very first time. Wow! Thinking about this I get goose bumps jajaja. Only to think about how complex, and deep musically speaking all this music is makes me want to be there and see the way he was coming up with all these amazing ideas.

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

KR: – Jajajaja, ok, Yes, I would love this album to reach to every corner of this universe, bring a lot of blessings to the life of every person listening to this music. But most importantly, I would love to have the opportunity to come to all of you, and perform this music live to the audience and music lovers around the world, and come in front of you all, say thank you for listening, and have a great experience sharing my music to the audience. This is my most honest and deepest desire at this very moment.

Dear Simon, I would like to say, thank you so much for taking your time to do this interview. I cannot express how grateful I am for this opportunity of sharing about my passion for music, this album of …, and my experiences and believes. This has surely been a very interesting interview and all the questions are amazing! Thank you so much!!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Arts Garage: Kemuel Roig Quartet | Miami Art Guide

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