Mention the name Dave Samuels to any contemporary jazz aficionado and his legendary association with genre superheroes Spyro Gyra is the first thing that’s bound to come up. While the vibes/marimba great started jamming with the Buffalo based group in 1979, his official membership ran from 1982-97.
In the midst of those glory years, he launched a little side ensemble, the Caribbean Jazz Project, playing a one off Central Park gig in 1993 with Andy Narell and Paquito D’Rivera which led, with an evolving cast of band mates, to a Grammy winning recording and touring stretch that’s now lasted exactly as long as his time with Spyro Gyra. The original philosophy was to explore and test, via boundary-busting compositions and arrangements, the so-called limits of Latin jazz. “We’re always bringing new music and influences to the fold and expanding our scope all the time,” he says. “The music is always shifting. I like to say it this way: Are we Latin Jazz or Jazz Latin?”
A couple of years ago, somewhere between the releases of the Grammy nominated Here and Now – Live in Concert (2004) and Mosaic (2006), Samuels and CJP did some gigs in the Washington, D.C. area (including The Kennedy Center and Smithsonian) with the Annapolis Navy Band, which included three members of the Afro Bop Alliance, an Annapolis-based Latin jazz septet. Like CJP, the Alliance, which has a substantial fan base in the Mid-Atlantic region, was created from the desire to dig into and transcend just what Latin Jazz is.
Sensing a match made in Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, Caribbean, salsa and samba heaven, Samuels immediately saw the possibilities in taking his own project to the next creative and rhythmic level. He enlisted the group’s trombonist Dan Drew to re-orchestrate some of CJP’s “greatest hits” — including a batch of Samuels originals (“Rendezvous,” “Five For Elvin” and others penned by Coltrane (“Naima”), Dizzy (“Soul Sauce”) and Monk (“Bemsha Swing”) — that were originally composed for a small group setting. Beyond the core group, Samuels was thinking even bigger and more vibrant, ultimately jamming with a total of 18 musicians, including 13 horns on the dually self-titled album Caribbean Jazz Project: Afro Bop Alliance featuring Dave Samuels.
“Dan very cleverly and artfully took these songs and orchestrated them for a big band,” Samuels says. “It seemed like a natural progression to try and record them and see what would happen. So the idea evolved from the music outward as opposed to the usual notion of the massive concept coming before the music. For me, it’s been a whole new sonic world. The kinds of interactions you can do when a band goes from six or seven pieces to nearly twenty are endless, yet the setting also requires more set parameters. It’s a much more elastic environment, and there’s an incredible energy and power there. I can start soloing and then cue in the background, but the solo doesn’t have to have any specific length or shape.
“Repackaging something that had been played in a more limited setting was a way to experience it in a whole new light, and of course people will react differently to it both on disc and in the live setting,” he adds. “I can take more liberties, but the new vibe still captures my core mentality of trying to capture not just specific notes but the deep, emotional feelings behind the notes. It would be easy to get all technical about how CJP with Afrobop’s help became a much more intricate, complex entity, but in the end all that really matters is, ‘what does it sound like?’ and ‘how does it affect you as a listener?’”
For Samuels, his desire to inspire an emotional response rather than simply impress with perfectly micromanaged musical details — and his lifelong philosophy that 90 percent of life consists of one long solo - extends to his incredible, quarter century dual career in the field of musical education. A Yamaha clinician for 23 years, he has been teaching at Berklee School of Music for 14 years, dividing his time between the ensemble department, small groups and private percussion, vibes and marimba lessons. He was elected to the board of directors for the Percussive Arts Society three times, a stint that runs through 2009, and he has also taught at William Paterson College, the Manhattan School of Music and NYU.
On the product front, he has published two vibraphone method books with accompanying videos and seven percussion ensemble arrangements of original tunes. Working with legendary music educator Jamey Aebersold, whose 120-plus play-a-long instructional books and CD collections are an internationally renowned resource for jazz education, Samuels created Latin Quarter: The Music of Caribbean Jazz Project. Samuels is excited that Alfred Music is putting out a play-a-long CD of Afro Bop Alliance, complete with full band tracks and others without the lead instruments. He says there are very few big band-oriented play-a-longs, and he’s excited to give budding percussionists a crack at being as feisty and creative as he was when he launched the new project.
“The truth is, even though vibes and marimba are part of the curriculum of every conservatory on the planet, not many people who play them learn to improvise properly,” he says. “A lot of students learn how to read notes but never learn how to write them or improvise their own. It’s always been a goal of mine to get them to open their eyes and ears to the fact that improvisation and composition are pretty much the same thing. Improvising should not be limited by genre, and it’s definitely not limited to traditional jazz. It’s the player who determines his or her potential to do it right. Going to music school to learn dots on the page is like attending college for four years to learn to speak a foreign language phonetically. You need to learn the vocabulary and the feeling behind the sounds, speaking through improvising. If they learn to interpret and create like it’s a language, it will help them fulfill their dreams of communicating through music.”
Saxophonist Jessy J has been winning over smooth jazz audiences since she began playing in producer/guitarist Paul Brown’s band on Valentine’s Day 2006 — a period that’s most recently included an unprecedented three weekends at 2007’s Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival and being a featured performer on The Smooth Jazz Cruise 2008. Her mix of coolly exotic Latin balm and silky tenor on “Tequila Moon,” the debut single from her Brown-produced Peak Records debut, has been getting loads of love at first listen from smooth jazz radio, quickly reaching the Top 20 on Radio & Records’ airplay chart and consistently being among the most added and most played tracks during its first month out. Aside from the cool beats, likeable melodies and swirl of Latin and samba sounds, Tequila Moon also establishes the 26-year-old as a strong vocal interpreter of classics like “Mas Que Nada” and “Besame Mucho.” Her sultry look and soulful composing and playing style will take her far, but fans will also be impressed with her sidewoman resume. After graduating from USC with a degree in jazz studies — she was named “Most Outstanding Student” in her class — she did recording sessions with artists like Michael Buble and toured with The Temptations, Jessica Simpson and currently, Michael Bolton; she’s also got ongoing gigs with two of Mexico’s most popular artists Gloria Trevi (aka “The Madonna of Mexico”) and Armando Manzanero (whom Jessy calls “the Mancini of Mexico”). Even more impressive, she’s played Carnegie Hall as part of the Latin Jazz Project put together by one of her heroes, Paquito D’Rivera. Consider that show a significant passing of the Latin jazz sax torch.
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