Tuesday, February 14, 2012

David Valdez at Ivories Wednesday February 15th 8:30 PM

David Valdez

David Valdez is a seriously killing alto and tenor saxophonist. He lives in Lake Oswego, right outside of Portland, OR. I've been playing with Valdez quite a bit since I arrived here on the West Coast. Valdez plays on a very high technical and musical level, so I feel like he is helping me keep my chops up! We have a performance this Wednesday at the new jazz spot in Portland, Ivories Jazz Lounge And Restaurant
(1435 Northwest Flanders Street  Portland, OR 97219 (503) 241-6514). I interviewed Valdez recently so that my readers could know more about Valdez and also what to expect on Wednesday.

GC: What do you think about the current jazz scene in Portland?

DV: It seems to be picking up lately. Of course in a smaller scene like PDX just one or two Jazz clubs opening tend to seem like major improvements, same thing if just one or two great new players move to town. Having you relocate recently here has certainly added some vitality to the scene. When I first got here in 2000 there definitely were more Jazz clubs than there are today. In just a little over one square mile I’d say that there were at least nine different clubs that regularly had live Jazz. It reminded me of the East Village, where you could walk to a bunch of different clubs in one evening and listen to a lot of great music.

 There was a time a couple of years ago when the scene seemed to be losing ground. We lost a few key clubs and there wasn’t really a nice room to play creative music and still get paid. At that point I started to make escape plans, but when I started looking at other livable cities I realized that things had gotten worse all over the country.

 What usually happens for me is that my calendar looks bleak for the upcoming months, but then playing opportunities come up unexpectedly at the last minute. There are a lot of world-class musicians here, so that always manages to keep things interesting for me.

GC: Is it comparable to the New York scene?

DV: Portland has always had a history of being a good place for Jazz and I think for the size of the place it’s pretty hard to beat. All in all, I think it’s treated me very well over the last 11 years. Somehow I manage to keep getting work playing creative Jazz music with good musicians. I really think if I was living anywhere else I would probably have had to do a lot more commercial type gigs.

  I talk to my buddies in New York and many of them have to play a lot of more commercial type gigs in order to survive. I’ve known a lot of great players who have moved to the city only to get caught up playing nothing but club dates. The burning tenor player that moves to NYC to take over the Jazz scene only to end up playing Disco five nights a week. Kind of ironic really. I honestly have a hard time imagining how Jazz musicians with families manage to make ends meet living in New York. I guess sometimes they have to pick up the straw hat and suspenders or sit down and memorize all of the horn lines for the Donna Summer songbook. 

GC: Do you miss the New York scene?

DV: Of course. I miss my friends and I miss being able to go out and listen to incredible players any night of the week. Most of the guys I grew up playing with are still back in New York. The musical bonds with players that I’ve built up over many years are definitely the thing that I miss the most. Once in a while I try to bring a musician out here for a recording and/or gigs, but it does seem like I’m out in the boonies at times.

GC: What's the theme for the gig on Wednesday at Ivories?

DV: How about  ‘Latin-ish-Jazz’ ? I’d like to do as many originals as we can shoehorn into that genre. Weber Iago will be coming down to play some piano and he is a really great composer, so we’ll get a chance to play some of his compositions while you’re on trumpet. Weber grew up in Rio and his Brazilian thing is very deep. He kind of sounds like a Brazilian Keith Jarrett. Weber definitely has a very distinctive style, it’s just that he incorporates elements of modern Jazz pianists, as well as Classical harmonies, and  a solid understanding of Brazilian music. I invited a nice percussionist to sit in as well, so I’d say that there will be a fair amount of Afro-Cuban action happening as well as the Brazilian stuff.

GC: What "Latin" music has influenced you the most?

DV: When I was young I got a chance to hear groups like Poncho Sanchez, Eddie Palmieri, and Tito Puente, but I didn’t start playing Latin music professionally until I was in Boston going to school at Berklee. I guess you could say that I worked my way through school with Latin gigs. The first bands I started working with were Merengue bands with the Dominican Republic cats. I really think that playing that music had a big influence on my concept at the time. Rhythmically that music was so different from anything that I was playing at school. The time was so far on top of the beat and it was incredibly demanding chop-wise. The gigs were always five hours long and the horn montunos were insane. I had to learn to single tongue a lot faster. After doing the Merengue circuit for a while I did a lot of Cumbia gigs with Columbian bands and then worked with Puerto Rican Salsa bands. When I moved back to the Bay Area after school I did a lot more Salsa gigs

 I never really did any Latin gigs as a leader until the mid-90’s when I put together my first Afro-Cuban band together while living in northern California. The band became pretty successful locally and we built a large following of Latin dancers. It was a nice change to be playing for dancers who were having a great time on the dance floor. I felt like I had the freedom to really stretch out and there seemed to be a big audience for that type of music. It was a nice change from playing straight-ahead Jazz.

 Over the last two years I’ve been working with Weber Iago and playing a lot more Brazilian music than ever before. I’m quite comfortable with Cuban music, but it was kind of a steep learning curve for me with Brazilian music. The Brazilian rhythmic feels is much more elusive and elastic than the Cuban feel. I’m getting better, but it’s still something I’m working on and listening to.

GC: Do you think Latin Jazz is important for students to learn?

DV: I think it is a crucial part of a good Jazz education. Latin styles are a big part of modern Jazz, but most younger players do not give as much attention to them in school. Many players never really get serious about learning the fundamentals of different Latin styles and so they end up approaching Latin Jazz just like Bebop, with long strings of 8th note lines, totally ignoring what is going on rhythmically. I’m not saying every Jazz player needs to start learning every percussion part for every Cuban rhythm, but some effort should be made to approach Latin music with some amount of seriousness. I know a lot of rhythm section players who are great Jazz players, but if I try to call a Latin tune their shit just falls apart and they sound terrible. Drummers, bassists and piano players cannot just skate by like horn players often can, they need to have some grasp of what should be happening rhythmically and stylistically.

GC: Where would you start with a student who wanted to learn about Latin Music?

DV: I have all my students start by working out of piano montunos books. I make them pick out single lines from the piano montunos and repeat them over and over until the feel is right. Then I’ll have them change selected notes and rhythms while keeping the montuno going. I usually make them learn bass lines so they understand what is going on with the bass parts. Of course it’s usually a good idea to make them clap the different clave patterns (son, rhumba, 2/3, 3/2, ect) while listening to tunes. I have them improvise around the clave pattern. Then I’ll have them improvise sparsely, trying to fit in between the piano comping, as if they were comping for the pianist. The Latin Aebersold volumes are good for this (Bird Goes Latin, Salsa/Latin Jazz, ect). I’ll also have them try to create strong repeated montuno patterns with the Latin Aebs. Of course there needs to be a lot of listening of good Latin music that accompanies this process. Latin music is even harder to get experience playing than Jazz. I feel lucky that I got a chance to put in so many hours on the bandstand with a lot of different Latin bands, but a young player here in Portland would be hard pressed to find those kind of playing opportunities.

(Some books that I use for my students are: Latin Jazz Piano Technique by Oligario Diaz, 101 Montunos by Rebeca Mauleon-Santana, Salsa & Afro-Cuban Montunos for Piano by Carlos Campos)

GC: How did you get into blogging?

DV:  I have a friend named Darren Littlejohn who talked me into starting a Jazz blog. He thought that I should write down the stuff I was teaching my students. I finally gave in and soon got kind of carried away. I was writing a lot, more than I had ever written in my life. That started me writing for a monthly Jazz magazine and even a few liner notes. I began getting good feedback from the blog and made a lot of connections that I would have never made otherwise. I built up a pretty big readership in time and was able to get my music out there through the blog. It has really opened some doors and I think it has gotten my a level of recognition that I hadn’t had just by playing music. Now when I go to other cities like LA I’m usually surprised by how many people I meet that are regular readers of my blog. It’s been pretty cool, though it doesn’t always translate directly into financial rewards. It has gotten me students, some nice teaching gigs, and free gear however.

GC: Do you think that musicians who blog can change the jazz scene for the better?

DV: I feel like if I can offer some good educational material, whether it be harmony lessons, interviews or technical articles, then musicians will learn something and possibly get a little better. Not everyone can afford to go to a $40k a year conservatory, but they can still appreciate high level educational material. My goal is to offer serious players access to the educational materials that I wished I would have had access to when I was coming up. I think that this might be able to change the scene a little over time. We can’t control the economic realities of the music business, but we can do out best to pass on what we can to other players that are trying to learn this music. I really think your blog is gaining some momentum lately. We need more Jazz writers who are also players that are in the trenches getting dirty. So many Jazz writers have questionable qualifications when it comes to really knowing about the music. Who cares how many reviews and CD liner notes they’ve written, do they really have the understanding to accurately compare and assess musicians who are operating at a very high level? Hardly.

GC: Any other exciting projects coming up in the future?

       DV: Well, I’m excited about playing with your quartet and with Kerry Politzer’s quartet. I’m also looking forward to working more with the Chamber-Jazz project that I’ve been leading with Weber Iago ( http://www.davidvaldez.blogspot.com/2011/11/weber-iagodavid-valdez-chamber-quartet.html). That group has a very cool instrumentation, with a bassoonist,  a woodwind player (clar, flute, bass clar), and me in the front line. This month I’ll also be recording a CD with trumpet player/vocalist Robert Moore. On March 11th at the Blue Monk I’ll be doing the first gig with a group called Proto-Human, which is led by pianist/composer Andrew Durkin ( http://uglyrug.blogspot.com/). This group has been in rehearsal for months getting together some incredibly challenging compositions written by Andrew. The tunes are all over the map stylistically and are probably the most challenging stuff that I’ve had the pleasure of playing recently.  


  1. "The Brazilian rhythmic feels is much more elusive and elastic than the Cuban feel." Very interesting point, As a Brazilian I can say is very rare see jazz musicians playing the real Brazilian feel. George Colligan is one of those good ones, I had so much fun playing with him a couple gig's here in the Winnipeg. (I'm not saying this because is Colligan's Blog....seriously!) I have a cousin in Portland, I might go to visit her. And we can put a trio to play a Brazilian gig!

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