With the release of his debut recording Just Practice, we thought we would catch up with saxophonist Rocky Yera and talk to him about his background, his influences and the concepts he has learned and applied to his music.
Can you talk about being born in Cuba and what your initial introduction to music was? Was there music in your house, were your parents musical etc?
I was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba in 1983. I don't remember much unfortunately since my family moved to Madrid when I was 3 and soon after to the U.S.A. when I was 5. However, my father was an English professor at a University in Cuba an love listening to American Top 40 radio. Even though I was rarely aware of the artists on the radio, I was always exposed to great American bands and tunes since he was always playing the American radio hits of the day on his radio, which are now classics. I'm sure this help form my taste and the way I piece together and personally define what is musically natural, beautiful, sad, happy, etc.
How and when did you come to the United States?
At age 5, while living in Madrid, Spain in 1988, we had some family in the U.S.A. that helped us transition to America.
How did you first get interested in saxophone? Who were some of your early influences?
I was never truly interested in playing the saxophone. I simply picked band as a fun school elective. I first picked the oboe and took it home. My dad suggested for me to swap it out for a more popular band instrument such as the trumpet or saxophone. The trumpet chairs were taken, so alto saxophone it was.
Who were some of your main influences that helped to motive and inspire you as you learned how to play? Musicians, teachers, parents etc.
I have been blessed with a tremendous amount of people that have motivated, supported, and guided me as an artist. These people include my parents, family members, teachers and friends. However, my main musical influence has been multi-Grammy winning producer Richard Aspinwall. We have had a long friendship. He has always guided and inspired me, helping me with nearly every artistic and musical challenge and question I have faced throughout my career. Richard has also given me guidance in all areas, not just in music.
A large portion of my music is influenced by his teachings. I have also been greatly influenced by the music of countless saxophonists and musicians. Some of those include: Stan Getz, Joshua Redman, Ed Calle, Jeff Coffin, Paul Desmond, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen, and many others...
You attended Miami Dade Community College and Florida International University. Why did you decide on those schools and what experiences did you have in college that helped shape your concepts and playing?
I had no plans of going to Miami Dade Community College or Florida International University. I was not sure whether I was going to continue my musical studies at the time. I made a last minute decision to continue studying and those schools offered me full scholarships, which was very helpful. I learned a great deal performing in Michael DiLiddo's jazz combo ensembles at Miami-Dade. Mike is a great jazz educator and it was a joy to learn and work with him. There were endless concepts that I learned while in jazz school. It took years for them to become a part of my playing, but eventually certain patterns, concepts, jazz arranging theory, and other teachings stuck and became a part of my vocabulary and style over time.
Tell us about what experiences you had after college and how you came to live and play in Chicago?
During my last semesters in college I met my wife and we got married soon after I graduated. My wife's family is from Chicago, which is one of the main reasons that led me here. Prior to coming to Chicago we moved to New York City and lived there for about a year and a half shortly after getting married. Being a jazz musician, I always dreamed of living in NY to experience the vibrant music scene. I learned a great deal while in New York since it was the first time I had ever been out of school and married. While in New York, my friend, pianist Darwin Noguera, informed me that he had the tenor saxophone chair available in his Chicago based band, CALJE. He co-led the band with Chicago trumpeter, Victor Garcia. I was excited about playing with them. My wife was also excited about the idea of returning to her hometown, so we moved to Chicago and have been here ever since. Chicago is a vibrant town with lots of venues and live music every night, which provides a large palate for working musicians and allows them the opportunity to create and experiment.
You just released your debut recording entitled Just Practice. The new recording I believe features all original compositions? When did you get interested in composing your own music and what is the process you go through to take an idea from your mind and bring it out in the music?
Just Practice features all original compositions and arrangements of mine. I have always been taught and believe that original compositions are by far the best tool for a musician to share and communicate the feelings felt from within. Original compositions are arguable an artist's best contribution to the art...so naturally, I have always wanted to compose original tunes, and in a way that I feel reflects my feelings, moods, and taste in music and life in general. I try to make my tunes reflect, as much as I can, the things I love and value in life. It is hard to get it to work out for every song for the entire length of the composition from beginning to end; but I try as much as I can to keep the tune's content reflecting my passions based on the way I understand and experience the feelings each chord and phrase brings to me. I love and try to implement this approach when I compose because I have found that music without emotional attachment to the chords, phrases, melodies, and lyrics doesn't inspire me.
You have a mix of styles on this new recording, from funk, Latin, swing, etc. Talk about the concept of including such a mix of styles on the new recording and the significance of the title Just Practice.
The main reason why I chose to record a broad range of different style is because I love playing and listening to many different styles of music and have trained to be able to perform them. Frankly, I get bored with any given style after a while, and changing up the styles helps everything stay fresh and exciting in my experience. Here is a bit from the album liner notes regarding the title track, Just Practice: Just Practice. This was the first tune I ever wrote and for many years was simply called “Rocky's First Tune.” I was thirteen at the time and was playing with a group called “The Miami District Youth Band.” We played weekly at churches within the Miami District and also had the opportunity to tour the United States playing different Churches and Christian conferences, spreading the gospel. This group was led by producer Richard Aspinwall, who became a life long mentor and friend. His musical guidance inspired me to write Just Practice, which I wrote the first year I was with the band. Richard has had a tremendous influence on me and my music. Throughout the years, whenever I faced challenges, he was very supportive and would offer me advice and consolation, always concluding with the phrase “Rocky, Just Practice.
Who are the other musicians joining you on the recording?
The album was recorded, produced and mastered by multi-Grammy winning producer Richard Aspinwall (Garth Brooks, KISS, Emmylou Harris). Richard has one of the most discriminating ears I've ever encountered and his amazing work reflects it every time. It was an honor to have him do the recording and post production of Just Practice.
Just Practice features an immensely talented crew of musicians, including:
Alto Saxophone: Jeff Coffin (multi-Grammy winning saxophonist...(Dave Matthews Band, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones) Trumpet, Cowbell, Guiro, Clave: Victor Garcia Piano, Wurlitzer Electric Piano: Darwin Noguera Organ: Pete Benson Guitar: Aaron Lebos Bass: Josh Ramos Drums: Juan Pastor Drums: Xavier Breaker Conga and Timbales: Jose Gregorio Hernandez
I have enjoyed working with Victor Garcia, Darwin Noguera, Josh Ramos, Juan Pastor, Xavier Breaker, and Pete Benson for many years in many different settings and it was a joy to have them all on this recording along with the rest of the wonderful musicians that shared their talents on this recording. Mr. JC and the Baby Maker was inspired by Jeff Coffin and his music and features him playing the Alto Saxophone solo, as well as the counter line to the melody.
What performances do you have coming up in the next few months and where can people get a copy of the new release?
I will be performing with my group at the Jazz Showcase on Tuesday October 9th. I will also be performing on November 29th at Victor Garcia's CD Release Party at SPACE in Evanston for his debut album as leader, “The Grind/The Groove”. I plan on having a release party soon for “Just Practice”, which will be advertised on my website and social media.