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Latin Jazz Conversations: Zaccai Curtis (Part 4)

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All musicians carry strong influences during their early development; the way that they build upon those influences and eventually move away from them defines their artistic personality. Young musicians generally drown themselves in their influences during their developmental years, soaking in every possible lesson from each recording. There's a period where the musicians emulates their influences as closely as possible; the length of this stage depends of the musician's desire to define themselves. A driven young musician will realize the importance of their influences, but eventually realize that more depth lies inside their musical vision. This starts a growth curve that exponentially rises upwards in a passionate search for artistic identity and new musical horizons. It's a long and thought-provoking trip away from your influences, but it's one that will lead to the evolution of an original musical personality.

Pianist Zaccai Curtis spent many years diving deeply into the music of his prime influences, but once he established himself on the New York jazz scene, his music resonated with his own voice. Raised in a family surrounded by music, Curtis found his way towards jazz through studies at saxophonist Jackie McLean's Artist's Collective and a Latin Jazz program run by local pianist Joe Velez. His hard work lead to extensive gigs around the Hartford area and performances in Cuba before he spent years earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees in music from the New England Conservatory. Studies at the conservatory with pianist Danilo Pérez, along with his own gigs throughout Boston built a solid professional foundation, leading Curtis to make a move to New York's jazz scene. Along with his brother, bassist Luques, Zaccai found a good deal of work in both straight-ahead and Latin Jazz, working with established artists such as Ralph Peterson, Cindy Blackman, Jerry Gonzalez, and Papo Vazquez. The brothers had the foresight to record an album showcasing their talents as they made the move, resulting in A Genesis. The album showcased Insight, a seven-piece ensemble, and the group's strong work caught the ears of listeners across the Latin Jazz world. Their approach to the music both respected the massive influence of musicians like The Fort Apache Band, but it also looked forward at a modern conception of the cross between jazz and Latin music. Although work started to come to Zaccai and Luques as band leaders, the challenge of finding venues for a large group remained the challenging. The brothers paired down to a quartet, established their own record company, Truth Revolution Records, and went back into the studio. The resultant recording, Blood-Spirit-Land-Water-Freedom, showed tremendous growth in all the musicians and reaffirmed their position as creative artists pushing Latin jazz into the next generation.

Throughout his work, Curtis shows a deep respect for his influences as well as the need to expand his personal vision. Both A Genesis and Blood-Spirit-Land-Water-Freedom showcase Curtis' strong foundation, built upon his knowledge of the past and his keen vision of the future. He started building this connection to music in his childhood, through work at Jackie McLean's Artist's Collective and gigs with a Latin Jazz unit, which we cover in part one of our interview. We look at Curtis' forward motion in part two of our interview, where we talk about his time at New England Conservatory, and more. In part three of our interview, we look at Curtis' early gigs in New York the recording of A Genesis, the establishment of Truth Revolution Records, and more. Today we conclude our interview with a conversation about Curtis' influences, his modern take on Latin Jazz, Blood-Spirit-Land-Water-Freedom, and more.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: The first time that I put on A Genesis, the one thing that popped into my head was, “This is the next stage of The Fort Apache Band." Not many people grab that vibe that they have, but you guys do--how was that band an influence on you?

ZACCAI CURTIS: They're our biggest influence. My brother just went on tour with them. He came back and he said, “It's so weird. I thought it was going to be hard. I thought it was going to be difficult. But I realized that I knew all the songs, I had them all memorized. It was the easiest gig that I ever did in my life." I was like, “Are you serious?!??" He said, “Yea." I was like, “What the? How can that even be?" He said, “I don't know!" When I first started playing with them, I thought it was going to be hard too. I was practicing and thinking, “Man, there's no way I can fill the shoes of someone like Larry Willis! It's not going to happen" When I went to go play with them, I had that same feeling--it was as if I had played with the band for so long already. When I played with them, all I would hear was, “What would Larry Willis play?" Everything made sense. I wouldn't say it was necessarily easy, I would say that it felt really good. It didn't feel awkward at all, it was like a dream to play with them. It always is, even when I play with them now, I think the same thing. Sometimes when I play with them, I think, “Man, I wish I could sit down if Larry was here and listen to them."

It's because we listened to the music consistently, since we were kids . . . and we still do. It's something that we've always really liked. We knew all the solos, how Steve Barrios played--we knew how they all played. Those guys are very magical; Jerry is very magical, Andy is magical, they definitely have some sort of magic that goes on when they play. I've never heard a band like them. I was playing with Steve Berrios the other day at Fat Cat with Peter Brainin's group, and we just talking about Jerry Gonzalez. No one is really continuing what he has done. It's very difficult to find someone that can even come close to how he plays.

LJC: Your group has really evolved; if you set A Genesis side by side with Blood-Spirit-Land-Water-Freedom, you hear a major growth. How do you think the group has grown and what things are you still striving for?

ZC: It's something to get really tight as a quartet. Even though we've been playing as a quartet for a while, we've definitely done more playing in the last year or two than we've ever done. We are working on a second album for the quartet, and that's probably going to be a lot more difficult. At the same time, it's going to be so much more fun becuase we've been playing with each other for so long. It's gotten to a point where we've gotten so tight with the music that we've been playing, that now we want to expand that into a whole other arena oand possibily bring in music from all around the world. We're probably going to do something like that.

As far as going back to Insight, I think it's going to bring so much more to the band. That band is not done, we have a whole other CD ready to go into production. The band is not done yet, it's just how we work our projects. The next project that the Curtis Brothers will be coming out with is a swing project with Ralph Peterson and Brian Lynch. Joe Ford is on it, Donald Harrison is on it; it's a really strong band. Hopefully we can do some touring with them. After that project, hopefully we'll go back to the Insight project. There's a few things happening.

But we're always going to be together. It's not like Rey or Luques or Rickie is filling the position, it's their band. So that quartet is not going anywhere--we have forever!

LJC: You have a more modern and free approach to playing Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms in jazz than the things someone more traditional like Tito Puente would do. How do bring all those elements together and what do you do differently?

ZC: We're probably playing it wrong! That's what I think sometimes--that would provide a lot of answers! Me and my brother have a lot of influence from Papo Vazquez and what he does with the Bomba jazz. I have to put that out there. We have our influence from Jerry Gonzalez and The Fort Apache Band. Then we have all the other music that we love to listen to. Those are kind of like our basis and then we have all this music that we love to listen to and incorporate. Songs like “Maria Cervantes," we've played that forever, but we had never recorded that or even thought of recording that. So it's like we had a little arrangement, which is now very different from the one on the recording--it just evolves. A lot of it is just evolution of playing songs over and over again.

Our conga player brought in some music--he has some of my favorite songs on the albums, I'm glad that we got to record those. He's a great composer, and especially composing Puerto Rican music, bomba and Plena stuff. Even with Cuban music, he's a complete master. So when dealing with his music, it's a whole other aspect. Richie, who we grew up playing with, studied a lot of Indian music. So he brings in a whole other element. Sometimes he'll have a drum set with all different types of sounds on there, involved in the music. We're going to get into that on the next album for sure. Bringing that element into the group and then figuring out how we can use it.

I always have the idea where music is music. I've heard recordings where clave is completely flipped, ignored, or disregarded, and I love it. It's like amazing. One of my favorite albums is Medianoche from Don Grolnick. There's so many songs in there where you're like, “What is that clave doing?!?" Even if you ask somebody like Andy Gonzalez and other people that were on the album, they're like, “It is what it is!" It sounds so amazing and it really comes from the fact that he really knows how to make music. That superceeds everything--as far as jazz is concerned. If you're playing Cuban music or something like that, you have a whole different thing happening. If we were going to do something traditional, we wouldn't mess with any of that, but as far as our stuff, we dont' really do too much traditional.

And if we do do traditional music, a lot of times it's because it's hard to be categorized. If we did music where there weren't too many Latin Jazz songs on the album, it wouldn't be accepted in the Latin Jazz community as Latin Jazz easily. It's also something that's a little different. I like to say that you have commercial jazz and commercial Latin Jazz; it's really the music that you listen to when you're in a restaurant and they have jazz playing on the radio. They have Pandora streaming easy listening jazz. If you don't have something that resembles something that people can gravitate to, it's hard to categorize. Unfortunately, you actually have to; I'm learning that more. Here's another thing that I'm learning by doing my own music. I learned that if you have something uncategorizable, you are going to run into certain problems. Of course it's artistic freedom, and it should be. You do have to think ahead and you have to think about making money. Especially when you have bills to pay and loans to pay. We're learning all of this as we go along.

LJC: Something that set you guys apart from most groups is family--you're playing next to your brother that whole time. What do you think that relationship brings into the music?

ZC: It's great. There are downfalls though--he doesn't listen to me! We'll have arguments. I remember I had conversation with Luques before this rehearsal with Marcus of the Strickland Brothers, I said, “Listen, don't argue with me, man. Marcus is coming here, I just want to run the charts. We only have an hour with him, don't argue. If you think you're going to argue with me, just hold it until after and then we'll discuss it." So we were arguing back and forth and then we stopped. Marcus walks in to the door and we do this rehearsal. Near the end of the rehearsal, Marcus says, “Man, I can not believe how you guys act as brothers. Me and my brother, we're fighting all the time!" He didn't know that we just had this conversation. So we all just start dying laughing.

Every brother is going to have their arguments. We can kind of express our feeling more openly than if you weren't a brother or weren't family. Sometimes you don't want to jeopardize the relationship that you have with the preson. Luques doesn't have to do that. He can do whatever he wants and he know that I'm still going to be his brother tomorrow. I think it's great for music, because then you can get honest opinions about music and about decisions. It is a great thing.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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