May 18, 2024

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Interview with Santi Debriano: This recording was a labor of love: Videos, new CD cover, Photos

Jazz interview with jazz bassist Santi Debriano. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

Santi Debriano: – I was born in Panama but grew up in Brooklyn, NY. My family immigrated here when I was 4 years old. I’m a product of the NYC Public Schools, specifically a special program that was in my area named IGC, which targeted me as gifted in music when I was in the 3rd grade. From 4th  until the 6th grades I had academic classes in the mornings and music and art classes in the afternoons. 

I played in the youth orchestra, playing upright bass on a ladder at first. Thats when I was introduced to the music of Bach and Mozart. At home, my mom and dad both were involved in Panamanian culture; my dad was a composer and pianist, mom was a dancer and listener of traditional Panamanian music.

My dad had a small but significant record collection, and he played basically the same music every day all day for years: albums from Nar King Cole, Ahmad Jamal live at the Pershing, Miles Davis Round Midnight, Dave Brubeck Time Out, Bill Evans Live at the Village Vanguard, George Shearing, Johnny Smith Moonlight in Vermont, Dakota Staton. I learned to play from listening to those records, trying to catch the bass lines and figure out the melodies.

I realized I was good at music when I was invited to play in the local band for playing dances.  I was 14, actually too young to play certain gigs the band was doing. I began to love playing for audiences and getting better on my instruments.

Even though I was doing gigs from early on for spending money, it wasn’t until I graduated from college that I fully decided to try to survive only off music. Basically the decision was made for me already- there was nothing else I’d rather do. So I applied for New England Conservatory and was accepted, happily.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time?  

SD: – When I entered the conservatory I was already listening to the right people for my ambitions on bass- Ray Brown, Israel Crosby, Miroslav Vitous, Dave Holland, Eddie Gomez, Stanley Clark, Scott LaFaro, Paul Chambers, Buster Williams, Ron Carter- all were household names. So I began by moving my technical skills toward being able to do the types of things these players were  able to do on the bass: familiarity with the full range of the instrument, playing scales, arpeggios and bebop lines.

As I’ve developed as a bassist I’ve consciously incorporated more advanced techniques into my vocabulary, like use of harmonics and different types of right hand strumming and left hand fingering techniques. There’s still a lot more I want to learn and incorporate; bass playing has come a long way over the last 50 years.

JBN: – What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound? 

SD: – My biggest asset for my sound is my bass itself. I have a very good ⅞ size German made hardwood bass, made by Meisner.

Also important for me is bowing practice. It centers my sound, especially practicing long tones throughout the various registers of the instrument.

Then there is my choice of strings to use. I use Presto strings which are made of nylon wound on gut.

I chose early on to go for a fat “thump” sound, especially when I walk a bass line, like the sound Ray Brown got. That choice has stuck with me through the years.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?  

SD: – My exercise routine on the bass has always included octaves exercises played slowly with the bow throughout the various registers of the instrument. This helps get me in tune with myself, physically, and mentally as well. The exercises have a calming and centering effect on the mind. 

Otherwise, my practice still involves scales and arpeggios, etudes, transcription of grea jazz solos, and composition. I also play guitar and piano, so my work is cut out for me for years and years. On guitar and piano I tend to focus more on harmony.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why? 

SD: – I think I’m still basically the same artist as I was when I entered the conservatory, but much more developed. By then, I pretty much knew what I wanted to get out of a music career, and what I wanted to achieve. I am now further along that path and closer to my goals.

At the same time I’ve come to realize that the biggest rewards are personal ones. This I didn’t know or understand when I was younger.

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

SD: – I’m constantly writing new music. Now, with Arkestra Bembe, we get together for a Bembe gathering at least once a month, sometimes more. 

The idea of the Bembe describes what we do at the gatherings. We commune, and the music adds a spiritual element that’s not religious. Food is sacramental to us; it’s become a part of our gatherings to break bread together and socialize. Bembe is much less formal than a rehearsal, less pressured. And much more experimentation happens at bembe. We’re always trying new music.  

I’ve always felt that my jazz music is the expression of relationships, not soloists with strangers accompanying them as if in a vacuum, which is often the way jazz has presented to the public. Our Arkestra is not a group of with star soloists; we all play well, and we play best as a community.

Our gatherings have helped me maintain my musical stamina. At the Bembe I can hear my new compositions, pieces from others in and outside the band, and work on concepts like conduction and free improvisation.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: Santi Debriano & Arkestra Bembe – Ashanti, how it was formed and what you are working on today. 

SD: – I love most that you can hear the familiarity we have between us on this recording. People have told me that they can hear that this recording was a labor of love.

We were well prepared to record this project when we entered the studio. I was able to record some of my most ambitious writing as a result of the bembes. The bembes have continued, the Arkestra has grown. Now we’re ready to record even more ambitious work.

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album? 

SD: – The way it happened was by organic process. I began by inviting a small group of great players to come over my house. It was at the start of the pandemic, when everyone’s gigs were falling through and schools were closed. The musicians were available.

Then people started inviting and recommending people to come. I began writing and arranging for larger and larger ensembles. It’s been fun. 

I started receiving invitations for the Arkestra to perform, and when we did we knocked the socks off the audiences!

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul? 

SD: – Music is the expression of the soul. Intellect sometimes gets in the way of expression by making the setting more difficulty to navigate than necessary. However, an interesting intellectual challenge can generate expression in music and elevate it to profound levels. So I like intelligent musical challenges that I can follow and anticipate so that my participation in them will be expressive of my abilities as an instrumentalist plus I can use my intuition to even play above my abilities. That happens when my soul is speaking.

It’s the composer’s job to find that balance you’re asking about, and house it into a fresh structure that a capable jazz soloist can comprehend. I use the blues as a familiar ground to help the jazz musicians relate to my music and readily digest my more abstract creative ideas.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

SD: – That’s what I want to do. People get what they want from music, and often they get what they need from it. Music expresses emotions that are otherwise inexpressible in language. Love does that too.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years? 

SD: – I began playing on the international jazz scene with Archie Shepp. I’ll be forever grateful for the four years I spent in his band, playing large festivals, concerts at the grandest concert halls in Europe, and the most famous jazz clubs in the world.

After Archie I played with Sam Rivers’ trio for 3 years. In that band I got to see how people were using music as a sort of rallying cry for change in a political sense. This was especially true in East Germany and Poland. It was before the iron curtain fell. We could understand why those people in those hard situations loved the high energy free jazz that we were making for them.

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

SD: – I believe some of the best tunes that jazz musicians perform were written by jazz musicians. Those have been the most compelling for me to listen to, so I always perform them. Standards like “La Mesha” by Kenny Dorham, “Til Then” by Bobby Hutcherson, “Portait” by Charles Mingus should be more widely known and performed. These songs are rich in the harmonies that stimulate jazz improvisers and they’re not corny, they’re still fresh even though they were written some time ago too. They should be standards. We have our own standards, and those standards are very cool tunes. Young people love them when they hear them. Often listeners appreciate hearing a song by a jazz musician that they’ve heard of but hadn’t heard their compositions.

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

SD: – Everyone’s course through life is distinct. We share a precious long moment on this plane together, then we go our separate ways. Understanding that, we each get to decide what we’ll do with that time. I choose to look at life as precious, and time as of the essence. I say make the best of it, don’t get deluded into wasting time. I’m trying to be as creative and productive as possible.

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

SD: – If I could change people’s use of the popular music from a type of commercial drug to a source of inspiration and personal empowerment, I would do that. Then more people would discover modern jazz music for the inspiration it gives.

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

SD: – I’m enjoying the music of Immanuel Watkins a lot. I also like Etienne Charles very much. Of course, I love Christian McBride. I love the guitar and compositions of Nguyen Le.

I also listen to the older generation players all the time. All the greats.

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

SD: – My message is positive. Find music that loves you back like my music does, and listen to us! Its not complicated, but you have to set you standards high.

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

SD: – I’d love to have seen Buddy Bolden play in front of the boy Louis Armstrong! I’d love to see the Storyville section of New Orleans, and hear Louis playing on steamboats.

I’d love to see Louis playing with King Oliver in an Al Capone owned club in Chicago during prohibition. That must’ve been wild!

I always thought the story of 20 year old Jimmy Blanton coming to New York to play with Duke Ellington from Chattanooga, Tennessee was super interesting. I’d love to be a friend of his, going along with him to the Cotton Club, sharing in his excitement about NY in the late thirties, watching him develop his groundbreaking bass work, and meeting thirty-something Duke Ellington. That really must have been the high life!

JBN: – Do You like our questions?

SD: – Yes, but there are a lot of them!!!

JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself… 

SD: – Is anyone gonna read all this?

JBN: – Of course, many people, our interviews work very effectively, individual people follow their favorite questions. Above is the view count, you can see it, right below the photo above.

JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?  

SD: – I went to Africa in 1985 with Chris MacGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. We gave a free concert in Maputo, Mozambique in a sports arena. So many hundreds of people were there. During my bass solo you could hear a pin drop. I felt like a priest.

No expectations. I hope people do enjoy what I’ve said here, but mainly, I hope the folks will go out and buy the Arkestra Bembe record. Its out on vinyl, and can be found at www.jojorecords.com

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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