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Carlos Henriquez - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 9 / 2 / 2015

Carlos Henriquez - Interview


Lisa Torem talks to jazz bassist Carlos Henriquez anout Latin music, working with Ruben Blades and his forthcoming new album

Carlos Henriquez grew up in the Bronx where Latin music crept from every cul-de-sac, creating a strong bond between neighbours, but little did he know that legend, Wynton Marsalis, would one day become a mentor and father figure, or that he’d spend more than a decade playing bass, taking part in twenty-five recordings and nailing down business ethics with Wynton’s Orchestra. Carlos studied at the impressive Julliard Music Advancement Program, holds the position of resident bassist in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and has taught at Northwestern since 2008. He can be found, too, gigging in New York hot spots such as Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, and plans to release an album of original music in the very near future. When Carlos and his quintet. Michael (trumpet) and Robert Rodriguez (piano), Felipe Lamaglia (sax) and Ali Jackson (drums), debuted at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall recently they performed Henriquez originals drawn from urban innuendo, Afro-Cuban sounds recalled from his childhood and contemporary, classical and jazz colour. Carlos was especially excited to have opened for pianist, Eddie Palmieri, whose music he has admired and synthesized. In interview with Pennyblackmusic, Carlos Henriquez talked about Latin music, arranging and the challenge of playing his upright bass. PB: At what point in your career, did you decide to not just become a professional musician, but a bassist? CH: At about eleven or twelve. PB: Were you more inspired then by Latin jazz or other genres? CH: It was Latin jazz that inspired me. PB: Whom were you listening to then? CH: Tito Puente, Eddie Palmyra, Tito Rodriguez were being played a lot as I was growing up, but I started out on classical guitar so I was still playing that as a foundation, but listening to all this Latin music made me want to pursue it in a slightly different way. PB: You began playing with Wynton Marsalis after high school, recording about twenty-five albums during that time. What did you glean from that experience? CH: I was young, so the first thing I learned was professionalism: the rules of being a musician, being on time, learning music adequately, learning social skills on the road and then at the same time learning how to deal with your instrument on the road because it’s not the same thing as being at home and having time. So, you start to deal with all of the obstacle courses that the road and touring bring - not having time to sleep, not having time to be with your instrument. You learn that at a young age, and it’s so unbelievable how quickly you learn that because there’s no room to experiment, and to try to figure things out. You just have to learn it immediately because these guys are already professionals and they don’t need something holding them back so once you get on the boat with them you have to catch up fast. PB: What prompted you to start your own quintet? CH: I’ve always wanted to do my own stuff. Maybe over the last five or six years, I’ve been very interested in trying to pursue a career. When you’re so busy as a sideman, it’s sometimes hard to move out of that and pursue your own career. I had a voice. I was always writing. I was always coming up with different ideas. I’m so into this jazz world with Wynton. I’m learning so much about the history. I know so much about Latin music. I figured at a certain point there is so much I can do with these two genres, blend them and mix them with a different style so it doesn’t sound like a generic package. Hey, the Hell with it—I think I should push myself and do it. Recently I met Ruben Blades, the assistant director of the Lincoln Center Show, and I put everything together and did all of the arrangements. Ruben asked me, “Hey, do you have anything of your own?” I told him I had a lot of stuff that I hadn’t recorded. He said, “You should record something, man. You need to start documenting your own personal life.” When he said that I thought he was absolutely right and so I took the initiative and started pushing forward. I started calling people. It’s funny. There are a lot of people in the industry that I know and that I knew could help me, so once people knew I wanted to do an album, forget about it. Phones starting ringing and everybody wanted to help me, so it became very easy for me to put this album together. PB: What’s the title? CH: We haven’t finalised a title for it. I was going to call it ‘Brothers’ or ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ but I’m going to have to wait because the label that I’m trying to be in is a new label that Jazz at Lincoln Center is opening but they haven’t done the press conference to make it public yet so I’m just waiting for that to happen. PB: You’re doing the challenging part, which is writing and recording the music. CH: Now we’re at the final stages of mixing it. That’s the hardest part because I hate to listen to myself over and over again to try to get the real nuance out of the music, because every time you listen to it you find something that you could have done better or something that doesn’t sound right. I listen to it twice and. if it sounds good, I let it go and move forward. I can’t recreate it again. PB: You’ve played with Paco de Lucia, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Tito Puente. These musicians play such different styles. How have you switched gears? CH: Growing up I had many records so I understood already that when I got into the music really heavily you had to have a certain switch to move from one genre to another. Jazz is like the melting pot of America so everything kind of flows around that whole history: jazz, R & B, rhythm and blues. Most of these guys are coming from that background. Bob Dylan, as crazy as he can show people that he is, has an R & B background and knows what the blues is, so they have a fundamental knowledge. Eric Clapton is another guy who loves the tradition of American music. Willie Nelson is the father of American folk music. For me, it’s not rocket science. They might be perceived as different but their background and knowledge is fundamental. PB: You mentioned that you write in sections. CH: If I hear a song or melody, I try to put it somewhere. Most likely it’s not complete. so I’ll only have sixteen bars or eighteen bars and I’ll put it together, polish it and put it on my phone or a piece of paper and then I let it go. I’ll have something else in my head and then I’ll just write it down. At a certain point, I’ll look at both melodies and say, “Oh, that sounds good. I’ll put this as the first part of the song. I’ll make this the second half.” Yesterday I was in Jersey and there was a pile of black ice. I was stuck at home and I couldn’t even walk outside of my door so I wrote “Black Ice” because all I did was sit down at the piano and look outside my window. When you write, it’s always because of something that’s happened or a sound you hear. You have to write it down. Sometimes you’re sleeping and you hear music in your head and you have to document it because it’s hard to remember, and I’ve lost a lot of melodies that way because I don’t trust myself or I did trust myself thinking I could repeat myself and it never came back. PB: How does your band influence your compositions? Do you give them set parts or encourage them to improvise? CH: There’s a structure. Once the melody or the head is played, the solos come about and they create their own music when they’re soloing and play their own music on top of it. I always give them a structure in terms of the head and the outro. The middle is for everyone to enjoy and create because that’s the beauty of this music. Even though you have a structured format, the creating is so beautiful and so fun. I don’t tell them much unless there’s a certain type of genre that I’m trying to recreate. I’ll tell them I want to play, hey, Art Blakey, 1950. But most of the time they get it pretty quickly as soon as they hear it and they’ll figure it out. PB: You performed ‘Joshua’s Dream’ with a bow, playing it like a lullaby, and ‘Cuchifrito’. How did you translate the special bond between you and your son into music? CH: You kind of hit it right on the point there. “Joshua’s Dream” is almost like a lullaby. When I started writing it I was thinking about my son and the relationship I have with him now at age one. You understand there’s a limit to the relationship we have because I can communicate with him and he can communicate with me. but in a very limited way. That helps you create music in a certain way. You write stuff differently. There’s a certain melodic style, which is very noticeable to the human ear and that’s what I attempt to do when I write for a child or a love. You write songs the human ear can notice and identify. There are certain intervals in the human ear and in music, that when it’s played, it sends a certain reaction and your hair starts popping up and it happens in the pop world. There are certain things your fingers do, certain intervals and certain passages regardless of the genre; the melodic substance is unbelievable. It causes something to touch you in a certain way so I tried to hit that part of my writing in ‘Joshua’s Dream’. ‘Cuchifrito’ is the opposite. You take something very rugged, very street--we’re going to get our hands dirty, we’re going to get some fried food and play some baseball, we’re going to sweat, and you think of a song like that and then you think of Cachao. I think of Cachao, a Cuban bassist noted to be one of the guys who created the mambo, because of his music when it came. He also created the scenes of the jazz sessions in Latin music. In Spanish, they call it descarga. The chord progressions are very simple but what makes it so happy is they’re down home oriented people. The sound is a very earthbound sound. You can tell when they’re playing, “This is how I feel. This is who I am.” So when I wrote that song, I thought, I have to write something that catches that vibe, and I can also pay homage to this guy, who was one of the heavy hitters. Every Wednesday we go downtown and sometimes we see restaurants that say ‘Cuchifrito’, and I start laughing because it sounds so funny. These are places where they fry food and the food is great, but it’s really fried food. You’re not going to get a salad out of it. It’s fried food. This song sounds exactly like a Cuchifrito song. Things come to mind, and you relate them to a situation and try to form them into musical notes. I lived in the Mott Haven section. I played with Eddie when I was fifteen or sixteen. He was a big inspiration in my family’s life and the community. He had a couple records that meant so much because of who we were: Afro-Hispanic, Afro-Americans. Eddie touched a lot of people, especially the Hispanics and the black people in the Bronx because his songs were about cause, trying to survive during the Vietnam War, the street element of racism and trying to keep people together. They’re unbelievable songs. His music is so powerful and he has knowledge nobody else has. He understands Cuban music. He studied so much Cuban music. He used to take Cuban songs, whether they were folk songs or songs already recorded, and he’d re-record them in a different arrangement and they’d become popular in New York. A lot of these songs were Cuban or by Cuban composers. He played one at Orchestra Hal - he kind of snuck it in, ‘Pa’ Huele’. PB: You said ‘Nine ‘O’Clock’ had elements of bomba. Can you elaborate? CH: It was the indigenous style of music from Puerto Rico, which came from Africa. We call it bomba and plena; the two landmarks of Puerto Rico. The hardest thing about being a Latino and playing jazz is that I have a separate culture that is full of so much beautiful music that you try not to forget about it. When I started writing that song, I had to figure out a way of involving the music of my people, and so I started listening to the melody and I saw that the bomba would fit perfectly there. I also usually perform with a percussion player next to Ali Jackson, but that’s how I started to think about that. PB: Since the bass forms the framework of the band and requires so much from the player, what’s most important to know about technique and endurance? CH: The way I analyse it when I speak to kids is that it’s like lifting weights. If you want to be a good bass player, you have to learn how to build your technique and endurance and to do this you have to practice in increments and build that increment up and that endurance to last long. You have to play repetitive, muscular passages, so that your muscles start developing because a lot of bass players out there can play but their endurance level is very short and that’s because of lack of understanding of that concept. The bass is a hard instrument. There’s so much that you’ve got to do. You’re pulling these strings, and you have other instruments that are much louder than you in some situations. It’s not easy. I would tell kids that you have to log it. I did five minutes of this. Next week you build it up to ten and you keep logging it until at the end of the year you’re probably doing forty minutes or an hour. It’s hard. It’s tedious work. Sometimes you’re just playing three notes that don’t make sense, but you’re not doing it for the notes. You’re doing it for the muscles. Sometimes kids don’t understand. They think you’re trying to make music out of it. You’re not practicing to make music. You’re just trying to build your muscles up. That’s the real work. If you don’t do the real work, you won’t make any music because you’re tired or your muscles are fatigued. PB: With Cuba and the U.S. opening up, how will musicians be affected? CH: Chuco Valdes was always respected in Cuba and was always trying to bring music to Cuba. I went there in October, 2010, and was given the role of musical directing the tour and I needed to put the music together and host most of the shows. It was tough. I didn’t know it would be that hard. I learned a valuable lesson about how to put shows together and how to make decisions quickly. You can’t think about something for a long time. Once you make a decision, you move on. I think the process that is happening now with America and Cuba is a good thing when it comes to the musical aspect because Cuba has its political ways and throughout the ways of the Fidel Castro regime he made sure that whomever wanted to study music would study it completely, so there are a lot of musicians that are unbelievable. They might not have the infrastructure to maintain it, but they can really play. They know the history of American jazz—it’s going to be another melting pot. What’s going to happen if and when it opens? It’s going to be a trade of music that’s going to be unbelievable. PB: Is there a chance that America will turn the music into a brand, that the classic Cuban music will not be retained? CH: Well, that’s the problem. That’s always the issue. As beautiful as America can be, it also has this powerful monopoly that is just there. The branding has to come in because somebody has to make some money, and one of the issues that as musicians we fight against is all the commercialism of music that is based on brand and it’s not based on any of the substance. And the thing is, if you’re a musician who is starving and has not been able to succeed in the same direction, the chances are that you’re going to give in to this new world of branding and commercialism, doing all of this crazy stuff. That’s the biggest fear that all musicians have because it’s all been happening. You see it in the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s and where we are at now. It’s crazy how it became the actual craft of the culture’s music. PB: I listened to one of Chuco’s beautiful compositions that lasted about seven minutes and thought how tragic it would be to have to cut it down to three because of a label. CH: When I talk about the album, people tell me, “Don’t do anything past seven minutes. Keep the album under fifty-four minutes because the radio won’t want to play it.” It just becomes a drag. And then they start asking you who you have on your album is crazy. I just hope America learns from the Cuban culture. They love their music, but they’ve been suppressed in ways where they can’t be free about what they want to do. It’s going to be a weird thing but when the musical change comes about I hope it resparks the whole notion that we have a culture and we have a beautiful art form that is so valuable, so why are we letting it go to waste? America’s culture is unbelievably valuable, just with the American folk music. Then you have jazz and rhythm and blues. Eddie hit it right on the point. As crazy as Eddie can be, he said something very valuable. We’re playing music that is so great but at the same time it was the biggest disaster that’s ever happened amongst the humans. A bunch of slaves on ships were captives and they were shipped and suffering but these people brought to this new world the music that now makes us dance and do things, so it’s unbelievable that we take something so negative and think how can this be? But at the same time there’s this positive thing that comes out of it. You hear all of this music. It’s the same thing with the blues; the slavery, the singing, the Congo Square on Sunday in New Orleans. You hear all this negative stuff but then you see all this beautiful stuff that comes out of it and I just hate to see it go to waste with all this branding. Part of me understands because I know how business works. Companies need to make money, but not at the expense of the American culture. That has to be sustained in a certain way, which I believe has to be carried on to your child. I can guarantee that 80 percent of American children do not know one American folk song. It’s sad because that’s the formation of America, a melting pot of so much, but you get lost with the MTV and the ignorance in the hip-hop world. You want to be like them, but the reality is that the people, who are showing this on TV and are trying to live their life are not really living it. PB: Which artists do you believe we must study in order to value Afro-Cuban culture? CH: You call them the forefathers. You must listen to Cachao and Machito; you must listen to Tito Puente. You must listen to Eddie Palmieri; you have to start listening to where this music comes from. And in jazz, you must listen to Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. Most of the kids now say, “I don’t want to do that.” I went through that as a kid. You start thinking that this is old music, and I understand that it’s a dated style of music. Nobody’s telling you that you have to play this, first of all, but it would be important for you to study it and understand what’s happening, be able to mimic it and then move on to the next part of that history and continue moving because you’re going to start learning all these different ways of how these people created their music, and when you start forming your own music you’ll have a different style, and if anyone starts asking you why you did this, you can say, “I listened to a 1916 recording of so and so, and he did this with the tuba and I was trying to mimic it.” PB: What are you currently teaching? CH: I’m an adjunct professor. I teach bass and ear training. It’s been great. I’ve been doing it for about five or six years now. I travel from New York back and forth. The hardest thing is playing in between the gaps but this will be the year when I start pushing and making calls. PB: Thank you. Photographs by Philamonjaro www.philamonjaro.com

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Carlos Henriquez - Interview

Carlos Henriquez - Interview

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