Modern music students diving into the world of Latin Jazz need to integrate more ideas into their studies than ever before. With decades of history behind us, the genre has developed its own collection of standards, a notable list of influential musicians, and a distinct approach to improvisatory phrasing. The use of Caribbean and South American rhythmic traditions found its way into jazz fusion, popularizing the music among both jazz and rock audiences; the resultant unique stylistic combinations have become another required topic for students. In the past decade, artists have attacked Latin Jazz from outside the traditional comfort zone of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms, integrating musical tracks from Peru, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and more. This opens a whole new world of rhythmic traditions, phrasing concepts, and folkloric songs into the mix. The modern Latin Jazz student has a lot on their plate – in many cases, teachers are playing catch-up with all these ideas, and students are fortunate to get exposure and awareness.
The students in Stanford University’s Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble are getting that diverse experience this semester, under the guidance of their instructor, pianist Murray Low. Formed in 2008 by Low, the Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble has grown into an incredible opportunity for students to delve deep into the style. Low brings a wealth of experience to his instruction, based upon extensive performances with Bay Area Latin Jazz artists such as Pete Escovedo, John Santos, Wayne Wallace, Kat Parra, and more. The students benefit from Low ‘s experience this semester, as they study the music of his long time collaborators, the VW Brothers. Drummer Paul and bassist Marc share many performing credits with Low, but they also bring influences from their native Netherlands and a heavy dose of funk fusion. Longtime sidemen in the Bay Area, Paul and Marc recently emerged as bandleaders on the 2010 album Muziek, a collection of exciting compositions that approach Latin Jazz from every possible angle. Low’s students in Stanford’s Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble have been digging deeply into compositions from the VW Brothers, exploring the ways that Latin Jazz can expand through the use of outside elements. The students will share the fruits of their labors this weekend in a concert at Stanford, entitled, “Latin Jazz: Beyond The Americas.” They’ll be looking at Latin Jazz from a different perspective, anchored by the works of the VW Brothers. Pushing the experience even further, the VW Brothers will be performing with the students, giving them an authentic connection with the music. Not only will they be walking away from the concert with exposure to great music, but they also get the chance to internalize it on a very real level. With the challenge of exciting music, professional guidance from the VW Brothers, and smart instruction from Low, the Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble should deliver a memorable show.
The unique nature of the compositions, along with the opportunity to perform with professionals, makes this an unforgettable experience for the students and it holds the potential for a great concert. Low’s insightful instruction, along with his vast professional connections, is helping give the Stanford students a performance opportunity that is far too rare in the modern world of jazz education. In anticipation of this exciting event, Low answered some questions about the concert, Latin Jazz education, and the importance of the VW Brothers on the San Francisco scene. Check out his responses below and if you’re in the Bay Area this weekend, don’t miss Latin Jazz: Beyond The Americas!
LATIN JAZZ CORNER: This concert touches beyond Cuba and Brazil, the standard traditions that most people associate with Latin Jazz. What types of musical influences are included in the music that you’ll be playing?
MURRAY LOW: Actually, it’s the “North of the Border” influences that are somewhat different. A big part of the VW Brothers sound is due to funk and fusion influences. The songs have many sections and go through a number of transitions. There are melodies that are reminiscent of the Weather Report sound, grooves that allude to Herbie Hancock’s funk period with the Headhunters, and also to the Bay Area’s own Tower of Power. Additionally, there’s a section that was written for a classical string chamber group on their CD, which we have adapted to wind instruments for our performance. Of course, the music has the traditional jazz, Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian influences as well.
LJC: For the modern student musician that wants to play Latin Jazz professionally, what types of musical elements do you think they need to have in their toolbox that they might not suspect?
ML: Students should learn the rhythmic foundations of the music regardless of the instrument they play. Minimally they need to understand clave phrasing and the directions of a samba or bossa nova. Beyond that, they should be recognize and understand the specifics of the vast array of rhythms, even learning the specifics of the various percussion parts.
I also encourage students to listen to as many older recordings as possible, so that they can hear how the music sounded in its original form. That way, when they hear something in a more modern piece, they have a deeper understanding of why it is so. And finally, they are able to apply those concepts in their own playing and writing in such a way that respects the tradition of the music whilst putting their own stamp on it.
LJC: The VW Brothers have been an essential part of the Bay Area music scene (Latin Jazz and beyond) for decades now – what unique qualities do you think that the bring to their performances?
ML: To me, the VW Brothers represent the notion that music is truly a universal language. Despite being from Netherlands and having virtually no exposure to Latin music early in their lives, they’ve become indispensable members of the Bay Area Latin Jazz community. They’re living proof that anybody can become a master at any type of music, regardless of race or ethnicity. All one needs is passion, dedication and discipline. Additionally, they’ve extended the idiom in a unique way and have their own instantly identifiable sound.
The sum is also greater than the parts, as the old saying goes. I’ve been fortunate to share the stage with them countless times – Marc will start a totally hip bass line from out of nowhere, within seconds Paul will be locked into something that matches, and I’m left struggling to figure out something that will fit.
LJC: What are you hoping that your students walk away with after working with the music of the VW Brothers?
ML: Again, that anyone can attain a high level of proficiency in this music if he/she is sufficiently dedicated and interested. Also, that “Latin Jazz” is everywhere and can take on many forms; it’s not just present in your standard salsa tune, “mamboized” version of a jazz head, or traditional bossa nova. I am hopeful my students will be able to take the concepts they are learning and apply them to their future musical endeavors in a meaningful and substantive way.
LJC: This also provides another perspective on Latin Jazz for young people; do you feel that music students have a broad view of the style initially and how do you think that this type of experience changes their understanding of the music?
ML: Initially, most students have a very simple understanding of what Latin Jazz is, as mentioned above. It’s rare that an incoming freshman expresses interest in joining the band. One usually has to hear the band play in order to get a sense of what it’s about. I am careful to pick a varied repertoire so that they can see just how vast this idiom is, and throughout the year, I try to illustrate each as many of the fundamental concepts behind the music as I can. Having seen the growth of some of my longer-tenured students, I think it’s working!
Working with the VW Brothers serves to expand this even further due to the non-traditional nature of their music. They are able to see how some of the things they are learning can be applied to other idioms, beyond the traditional merging of Cuban, Brazilian and North American Jazz influences.
Finally, one of my missions is to raise awareness within the larger institutional academic community, not just the members of my ensemble. It’s the least I can do to help insure that this music stays alive.
LJC: Over the past couple of years, you’ve created some amazing opportunities for your students to play with some of the best musicians on the Bay Area’s Latin Jazz scene – what do you think the Bay Area Latin Jazz scene has to offer that stands apart from other regions?
ML: The Bay Area has long been a community that encourages the blending of multiple musical idioms, races and ethnicities. It’s never been cliquish, and never will be. One is never typecast as a particular type of musician tied to a specific idiom. All one has to do is bring his/her talent and enthusiasm, and there will an opportunity to play.
It’s this environment that allowed the VW Brothers to flourish and have such a tremendous impact on this music, upon their arrival from the Netherlands in the early 80’s. This sort of musical blending, acceptance and tolerance probably exists most everywhere in this day and age, but 30 years ago that wasn’t the case.
On an artistic level, there is definitely a Bay Area sound, and the VW Brothers are a large part of that. In particular, we’ve been mixing funk, fusion, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian influences for a number of decades now.
LJC: Other thoughts on the concert and the ensemble?
ML: Please join us for an interesting and fun evening! Hopefully the group’s enthusiasm will rub off on you, and of course, the guest artists will knock you out.
For my group, the repertoire represents some of the most difficult and varied music that we’ve attempted to date. I’m proud to say that the group has really risen to challenge of tackling it. I really enjoy being around such fine young musicians.
LATIN JAZZ: BEYOND THE AMERICAS
The Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble Directed By Murray Low
Special Guest Artists Marc and Paul Van Wageningen
Due to health issues, Paul may not make it — if so, another fantastic drummer, Phil Hawkins, will be in his place.
WHEN: Saturday 3/5/11
WHERE: Campbell Recital Hall – Stanford University
471 Lagunita Drive
TIME: 8:00 p.m.
Check Out These Related Posts:
Latin Jazz Photo Album: The VW Brothers
Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix: John Santos
Latin Jazz Photo Album: Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble
Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix: Andrea Brachfeld