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Latin Jazz Conversations: Chris Washburne (Part 4)

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Once a musician matures into an intelligent and experienced artist, they have several choices about the purpose behind their music. Their musical output could simply be a way to connect with the public, making them dance or causing an emotional reaction. They might dig deep inside their identity and creatively blend together musical pieces, constructing an artistic reflection of their inner personality. They could look at the world around them and see a need for action, turning their music into a modern and potent social commentary. Any direction holds relevance to the musical world, but a musician needs to be aware of these possibilities and move in one direction.

Standing upon the experience of a solid musical background, trombonist Chris Washburne continues to make bold artistic statements about music, culture, and more. After spending his youth involved in music, Washburne indulged his love for both classical music and jazz at the University of Wisconsin. While pursuing a master's degree in The New England Conservatory's Third Stream program, Washburne discovered Latin music and soon became a permanent fixture upon Boston's salsa scene. A move to New York found Washburne establishing himself as a strong part of the Latin music scene, playing with the world's best artists while earning his doctoral degree in ethnomusicology at Columbia University. As his career moved into high gear, Washburne was diagnosed with terminal cancer in his face, effectively ending his career as a trombonist. He refused to give into the disease though, and after surviving the cancer, he made a miraculous return to trombone performance. His group SYOTOS landed regular gigs in New York, allowing them to develop material for their first two recordings, Nuyorican Nights and The Other Side (El Otro Lado). Following the attacks on September 11th, 2001, Washburne recognized the disturbed state of New York, and reacted with a statement about the city, Paradise in Trouble. In the years following the September 11th attacks, things didn't get much better and Washburne once again made a political statement with his next release, Land of Nod. Today, Washburne has chosen to reflect upon his role as a father, focusing upon the softer side of SYOTOS with Fields of Moons. A combination of original material, arrangements of classic jazz material, and more, the album cleverly brings down the dynamic while turning up the creativity. Constantly developing himself musically and socially, Washburne continues to deliver challenging and creative music that says volumes about the musician and the world around him.

From his early releases with SYOTOS to Fields of Moons, Washburne has consistently emerged as an artist with strong musical skills, creative compositional approaches, and loads of integrity. The strength of his creative energy shows no sign of stopping, with his outstanding musical voice being a consistent piece of the Latin Jazz scene. In Part one of our interview with Washburne, we looked at his musical beginnings, his dual love for jazz and classical music, his discovery of Latin music, and more. Part Two of our interview dug into Washburne's early days in New York, his first gigs with SYOTOS, his interest in ethnomusicology, and more. Part Three delved into Washburne's life threatening battle with cancer, his first albums with SYOTOS Nuyorican Nights and The Other Side (El Otro Lado). Today we conclude our interview, catching up to speed on Washburne's politically charged albums Paradise in Trouble and Land of Nod, as well as his current release Fields of Moons.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: In 2003, you released Paradise in Trouble. Was that related to the September 11th attack?

CHRIS WASHBURNE: Oh, damn straight! During the writing of that music, September 11th happened, and it basically just killed the downtown scene for music. I still don't think that the Nuyorican has recovered from that. I was in the city at the time that it happened, and it was a pretty messed up time for all of us. I had to come to terms with the feelings that I was having about that. The Nuyorican was shut down because it was downtown, but Smoke was happening. The last thing that any of us wanted to do was play a gig, but just a couple of days after the attack we were playing at Smoke. We got there and no one wanted to play, but the place was absolutely packed. And it wasn't packed with tourists; it was only packed with locals. It was like New Yorkers needed to come together and just be together. I was like, “Oh, this is the role of music in society right now. I can't be down in the pile helping out. I'm not a doctor--what can I do to contribute and help recover from this attack? This is my role." It was one of the best gigs that we've played in our entire lives. The music was just so charged. The audience was so into it and so appreciative. It was just this communal experience that I've rarely had playing music. We went into the studio shortly after that and I just wanted to try to capture that feeling with a wide range of grooves and a wide range of styles. I started writing some music that attempted to capture some of the feelings that we had at that time--there's a lot more dissonance on that record. The title comes from that feeling that New York is a type of paradise in a variety of ways, and it was definitely a paradise that was in trouble.

At The Nuyorican, we were having lots of people from all over the world sit in with us, and we'd do these kind of cross-cultural jams. The intent was to write music that highlighted some of their playing. So we had Bernard Woma from the Ghanaian National Dance Troupe on that record as a guest artist and Valerie Naranjo, the great percussionist who plays Ghanaian music and different African styles. Even the artist that did the cover art, Kevork Mourad, he actually used to sit in with us and improvise painting while we were playing. The painting on the cover is inspired by a performance and an improvisation that he did while we were playing.

LJC: That experience with Paradise in Trouble was connected directly to Land of Nod, which was the next step, reflecting the political events after September 11th. How did it all inspire the music on Land of Nod?

CW: That's right. So many things changed in our society after 9/11 and I just felt that politically what was happening, our government just seemed to be disconnected. We were really at the sympathy of the world. At that moment after that attack, it was such a great opportunity for the entire world to come together. Everybody was with us and we totally blew it. I travel all the time and people are not happy with us. They are not happy with our government--they're still not. It's because of the way we operate in this world. We operate in many ways--and I'm speaking in very generalized terms, mostly about how our government works--we are very unsympathetic to local concerns, to local ideas, and to the strength of diversity in coalition. They use the world coalition and it's pretty loose, not much of a coalition going on.

When I saw the power of music after 9/11, I was just like, “You know what? I can't shut up anymore." So all the music that was written on Land of Nod, is really a political critique. There's no vocals on it, but the sentiment is there. It's like the idea was, why is everybody asleep? Why aren't more people speaking out? Why aren't more people protesting? Land of Nod is a biblical expression, but it's also from Jonathan Swift. His version of it is a place where all the citizens are asleep and therefore the rulers can do whatever they want, because everybody is in this slumbering state. It's a wake-up call.

LJC: Land of Nod was instrumental music, which leaves meaning open to interpretation. Do you feel like your meaning got across to people?

CW: I don't care if it did. I hope it did, but ultimately, I just want people to enjoy the music. I did want people to know that there was sentiment behind this, and that's why I wrote in the liner notes what I did, explaining things in loose terms. That's the value and the beauty of instrumental music--the interpretation is in the eye or ear of the listener. You can ignore those liner notes and listen to it as whatever you want. You can listen to it and you can try to hear the intent of the composer. I think either way is equally satisfying. I personally don't mind if someone just says, “I just like the grooves. I just like the tunes." That's fine, but I also want people to be aware that I feel very strongly and committed to trying to make a difference. If this music can make a little bit of a difference and make the world a more positive place, all the better.

LJC: I wanted to ask you a little bit about NYNDK, it's outside the Latin Jazz world, but it's great music. It certainly holds a cross-cultural element. Could you tell me a little bit about that group and how it came together?

CW: I'm the kind of person that gets bored if I just do the same thing over and over again. I like change. There's more to me than my Latin Jazz work. Musically, I want to do more stuff. I needed a band that I could go in different directions with that wouldn't necessarily forsake the identity of SYOTOS. So I didn't want to do this with SYOTOS, I wanted to do something different.

I was playing in Europe a lot as a soloist. I was trying to get SYOTOS over there, but everybody was always saying, “the band's too big for travel with a new band coming up." So I thought, if you can't beat them, join them! I hired a bunch of Europeans that I liked playing with and I was already playing with anyway. I said, “Let's get together, write some music, and do a record." So we started to do that and that's how that group came about. It's been very satisfying because it gives me an alternative voice and a way to express myself that enriches my SYOTOS playing. It's a different kind of accent to play jazz with.

LJC: Does that group work a lot? How has that group progressed over the years?

CW: We work mainly in Europe. We do some of the major jazz festivals and do a couple of tours a year. So it's actually kind of nice. It's a different model than SYOTOS, which is working every single week. That's the kind of band I don't think I'd want to play weekly with. It takes time to think through the compositions. It's fun when we do tours and things get tight, but it's less of a workshop. It's where I sit back and think a lot and compose a lot, come up with various ideas and then really spend time writing. With SYOTOS, there's a lot of time spent composing, but it's like, “Uh oh, we have a gig Sunday and I don't have any new music." So I throw together something that's really a sketch. There's no pressure--we can play it and it can be a total disaster and I can throw it away. Or it can be the seed of something big. It's a different compositional and creative process.

LJC: When I first read the description of Fields of Moons as a quieter album, I wasn't sure how it was going to come together. What inspired you to do in such a different direction?

CW: In a word, fatherhood. It's kind of like SYOTOS has been a reflection of my own personal development and my ideas of what I like to do. I'm really more inclined to play loud with a lot of high energy and really rock out. That's my rocker coming out--and SYOTOS definitely does that! When I had my son and my daughter, I wrote them lullabies. The first two songs on the album are their lullabies. I was just like, “You know what? We've got all this high energy, I want to take a time and see if we can actually do a quiet record." Not necessarily SYOTOS for lovers, but I guess it could be! Something that shows our quieter side. When we play live, we actually do have a pretty big repertoire of quiet stuff. Maybe we'll include one of those tunes on each of our records, but we haven't really done it fully. A lot of that music that's on there, we've been playing for years, from way back in the Nuyorican days. We just never recorded it, because it just didn't fit aesthetically or for whatever reason on the recordings. This was the opportunity to try and capture that. I think that we played “Obsesion" on the very first gig that we ever did.

LJC: The first two songs write recently then?

CW: One I wrote six years ago and one I wrote two years ago!

LJC: One of the songs that really stuck out to me was your version of “When Lights Are Low." For me that song always reminds me of the version that Miles Davis did in the fifties, but you made this great transition into a Latin setting--what was the story behind your version?

CW: The groove we use on that is danzon, which was the national dance of Cuba back at the turn of the century and a little later. It's kind of a combination of early jazz, habanera, and various Latin rhythms, so it comes closer to swing than anything probably. It works really well at a slow tempo, so instead of doing something like a cha cha cha, which kind of squares things out, the danzon helps you round those rhythms out a little bit.

Also, Miles Davis screwed up when he recorded that tune! He forgot the bridge--they were in the recording studio and they could not remember Benny Carter's bridge. Benny Carter's bridge is beautiful--the chords are really hard, they're two-five-ones that go around a cycle of thirds. So what we decided to do both versions. If you listen to that carefully, we play the Miles Davis bridge, which is not that interesting off the melody. When we solo, we're actually soloing off Benny Carter's original chords, which are much more complex. For the background figures behind the horn solos, we're actually playing Benny Carter's original melody. So if you want to know the original, that's it and it's a much hipper bridge than what Miles remembered.

LJC: That's great how you link all the history together.

CW: Yea, that's the academic jazz scholar coming out!

LJC: Another tune that I really like is the version of the Mingus tune, “Duke Ellington's Sound Of Love."

CW: That's a beautiful song. I've just always loved that song. I've been playing that with jazz groups for many years. I was in a group for a while called The Boston Art Quartet. We have one record out, and we have another one in the can that we recorded ten years ago. The group broke up and it never came out. We recorded a version of that tune. It was one of my favorite ballads of all time. I really wanted to do it again, but I just couldn't figure out when to do it. All of a sudden when we decided this ballad record was going to come out, I was like, “Ah hah! Now I can make this my own!" Of course, I did my own arrangement of it; it's very different from what I did with the other group. It's just because I love Mingus and I love that tune.

LJC: There's one song on there--"Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?"--I'd never heard that song before and I'd never heard you playing tuba so out in front. Where did that tune come from?

CW: That's a very old tune from the 1930s by Louis Alter. It is a standard; one that isn't played that much . . . at least up in New York, it's played a lot more down in New Orleans. It's lovely. Basically, we started playing that right after Katrina, kind of as a tribute to our New Orleans brethren, all the musicians that were having so much trouble and suffering. This record is not apolitical--that is our little call out to them, saying, “Hey man, we haven't forgotten you. You're still very much with us. Your city is not built up yet and that ain't right."

LJC: Do you play tuba much?

CW: Yea, I play tuba in Bobby Sanabria's big band actually. I play bass trombone and tuba in that. I've been playing tuba for about fifteen years. I actually played in high school. I don't have an opportunity to play it too often. I played it on a couple of SYOTOS records in the past, but not in a pronounced way. I also play it in Walter Thompson's avant-garde improvisation band. It's kind of a different musical personality that I bring out in certain musical places.

LJC: The album cover is beautiful -what's the story behind that?

CW: My sister is an artist. She used to own a jazz club in Champaign--Urbana called Nature's Table. But she's an artist and she's done all my record covers in the last five years. She did Land Of Nod as well. She basically listens to the music and paints to it intently. She's also a jazz DJ out at small radio station in Champaign--Urbana.

LJC: SYOTOS is one of those rare things in the jazz world--you don't have groups as much today as individuals. When you think back on the group's twenty years, how has the group evolved and where is it going?

CW: We've all matured musically together. It's really been wonderful to be a part of that development with so many musicians. I can see and hear the benefits that SYOTOS has brought to so many of them, even the ones that have moved on and had other careers. The idea with SYOTOS is developing a creative space for other musicians to shine. It's not just all about me; it's always been a group concept like that. We've all musically matured and at least from my perspective, we're all playing on a much higher level than when we started. I don't think it would have been possible to develop the way that we did without the opportunities that we had with these weekly gigs. It's been very fulfilling that way. It's also been very fulfilling getting to know other musicians so intimately and the levels that you do by playing so much together. It is such a rare experience. That intimacy can really lead to music being playing on a very high level, in a way that cannot be accomplished without that intimacy.

In terms of where we're going, we're going onward and upward! I've got a lot more music that I want to write. I've got a lot more places that I want to explore musically. That's where we're going--we're traveling stylistically and we're traveling musically. We're already starting to work on the next record. We're going to really rock out--way more than in the past, in a way that we haven't done before!

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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