By Jeff Cebulski
Chicago guitarist Alejandro Urzagaste is celebrating the release of his new recording entitled Subject to Change with his band Flow at SPACE in Evanston on January 10th. We talked with Alejandro about his background, his new release and his upcoming performance.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did your attraction to guitar begin, and how did jazz become a preferred genre for your playing?
Alejandro Urzagaste: My father played and sang South American pop songs to my mother. He had a Yamaha classical guitar my grandmother purchased and taught himself. I saw myself playing guitar, liked music as a child (Billy Squier’s "Everybody Wants You" was a favorite of mine), and did not have the discipline to follow through early. I ended up on alto saxophone in 5th grade, which did not last long. That same year I saw my first concert. I traded a friend my Panasonic stereo for a Harmony guitar and small amp in sixth grade.
My mom liked jazz. She had Jeff Lorber’s Water Sign, Dave Valentin’s Pied Piper, Gato Barbieri’s Caliente, among others, when I was child. We differed because I was into rock, had a brief break dancing phase, but did not like what she was listening to, most of the time, that was exclusively hers, especially the Kenny G record Songbird, but that Dave Valentin I kind of dug.
St. Charles High School has a strong Jazz program, which at that time was led by Jeff Childs. My mother convinced him to give me an audition my freshman year because she saw some talent, and so did he. I was accepted, and she then contacted Fareed Haque at NIU to get me private instruction.
Looking back at it I always liked jazz, just didn't know that word until I learned the names Basie, Monk, and Pass. George Benson's "Turn your love around" and Grover Washington's "Just the Two of Us" were two of my favorite songs as a kid, I just didn't know what you called that. To us it was pop but looking back and listening now...
Improvising seemed like such a high concept and those tempos like "Rhythm a Ning" from Thelonious in Action, the swing from [Basie’s version of] "Muttnik," and how Joe Pass sounded like two guitarists, walked a bass line, and not miss a beat mystified me to the point where I decided if I was going to do anything musically it would have to do with or attempt to be on that level.
Visit www.auguitar.com to purchase Subject to Change and Tickets to the January 10th Performance.
CJM: You seem to be part of a jazz-historical phenomenon—a Midwest youth who becomes attracted to jazz expression and, eventually, to Chicago as a way to further that attraction. Any insights into why/how that happens?
Urzagaste: Early on, the name Von Freeman resonated respect to me, I could not tell you why. Reading his name in the paper I thought, that's where it's at.
After graduating from St. Charles High School I moved to Minneapolis to play with a rock act. Our plan fell apart while I was at Minneapolis Community College learning guitar from Jim Ouska and Steve Haskin. The University of Minnesota permitted me to play in their combo program and a big band. I went to local jam sessions and heard music at the Dakota.
I formed a group, the No Filter Quartet with two saxophonists, the drummer from the rock group, my friend Corey, and me playing a Charlie Hunter-styled instrument molded from a Gibson ES120T. Hearing John Scofield (on the Quiettour), Nicolas Payton (for Payton's Place) and later Gonzalo Rubalcaba in concert at the Dakota was paradigm shifting.
Then, Fareed Haque came up with a group, Deja Vu, gave me a private lesson and offered me a half scholarship to NIU. That led me to DeKalb, and as you know everybody starts going into the city to play. I found my way to hearing Bobby Broom at Pete Milers's in Evanston on a weekly basis.
Another friend, a pupil of Fareed's, had me checkout a guitarist he heard at NIU and put "No Hype Blues" on cassette for me to listen to. The Electric Fetus, a legendary Minneapolis record store, had Waitin' available from Bobby Broom on compact disc, I purchased it and learned from that record, Kenny Garrett’s Pursuance and Wes Montgomery’s Smokin' at the Half Note preparing for school.
Bobby Broom and Pat Martino have influenced me a great deal for their sense of tone, time and language. The Scofield show I saw was important. His band was Seamus Blake, Kevin Hays, Larry Grenadier and BIll Stewart, incredible. I'm still trying to play guitar the way I heard it then, free.
When I moved to Chicago in 2000 I worked in the 58 Group, a dance/music collaboration led by Ginger Farley and Cameron Pfiffner on the recommendation of Tim Fitzgerald whom I met at the New Apartment Lounge where I was going every week to hear Von and his group.
I saw myself on the five-year year plan, going to New York after that.
CJM:You mentioned Von Freeman. Ever get a chance to hear or meet him?
Urzagaste: Mr. Freeman was accessible at his Tuesday night session at the New Apartment Lounge. He was very nice and had me play with him several times. One time he had me show up at the Cultural Center for a "jam session with Von" type concert. I was one of the "horses"—that was what he called the young musicians—and he offered to pay me after, actually made me take the money. I counted it and let him know he had accidentally put a hundred dollar bill in the middle of twenties. He thought that was hilarious, and we laughed every time he brought it up. Magic happened when I played an entire month with his group while Mike Allemana, his guitarist, was in Brazil.
Chicago needs someone like Von Freeman.
CJM: Really interesting that two of Chicago's elite guitarists, Bobby and Fareed, would have a significant role in your development. What kind of teacher is Fareed? I will assume you and he were able to forge an effective mentor-pupil relationship.
Urzagaste: Fareed and I both have Chilean mothers, that was part of our initial connection. I looked up to his ability to demonstrate any style of music, almost breaking my perceptual barrier. We did studies in jazz and classical guitar. At first it's a bit much meeting someone who knows "everything" about notes, chords, rhythm etc. After a while we settled into groove, I think it was "Tres Canciones Populares" by Manuel Maria Ponce where it made sense. I was busy trying to play all this stuff he could play by Augustin Barrios and finally listened. To me, Fareed did not want the teacher/mentor relationship; he asked a student to work and listen. You know, learn your lesson and maybe we will talk about other things.
CJM: How did you and your trio mates evolve into a unit that keeps going?
Urzagaste: George and Dennis started working with me over the years. I think Dennis and I first played together in Taku Akiyama's group. George was someone Dennis called first, and when I started a project with Jodi Christian, George was the natural choice.
As a group we recorded my first recording "Urban Intervals" and Marc Pompe's "Hi-Fly." Those two recordings and the supporting gigs allowed me to find a place of comfort with the rhythm section, all under the watchful eye of Mr. Christian. He was an artist in the truest form. We all revered him and his ability to effortlessly create. Most people don't know this but Jodie was ahead of all the 'game'. He had a catalog of over 100 standards on midi files from the early 2000's with orchestrated parts. He believed in keeping things fresh, like the first time.
CJM: What was your thinking behind having Bill Carrothers as the latest fourth member?
Urzagaste: Bill Carrothers was first revealed to me by listening to Bill Stewart's "Telepathy" recording. His version of 'Little Melonae" and “Rhythm-a-Ning" without a bassist floored me. That recording had an impact on the young music scene of the day. "Happy Chickens," "Mynah" and "Dwell On This"—all "killing" as the lingo was then. Mr. Carrothers started showing up in Chicago playing with Pat Mallinger's group at the Green Mill. I was there to listen and had a chance to hang with Bill. What a nice person.
I had written material and worked it out with a trio and then quartet I was calling "Focus Group." We couldn't settle on a pianist and then there was scheduling to care about, etc. We did a few gigs and the project fell apart.
I emailed Bill looking for some direction and trying to give a good faith effort at seeing if one of my favorite pianists would be open to recording with me. That's when he said yes.
Flow was not planned, it was more a chance that worked out. In my mind, I had a pianist playing in the quartet for the material I had written. When Bill joined it changed everything. He really empathized the freshness and live recording. His influence had us recording all in the same room and not using headphones. It made for the best results with tracking.
My outset was to showcase the band, not just me and my material. I believed the songs to be useful in hearing the group together.
There are more songs I wrote but it wasn’t only about my idea with that group because they are such strong musicians to perform with. The evolution is natural as exhibited by Dennis and George's playing on the material. We as a group try to create music alive. I am glad you heard the interplay as we discovered what we could offer each take. The rhythm sections’ underpinning allows Bill and I to take off. It's a concept I have worked with for quite a while, playing good time versus playing with good time.
CJM: The piano player on both your albums had a significant role in the material and sound of them. Can you explain or describe the key differences between Jodie and Bill, and then how you think the albums differ because of their influence?
Urzagaste: I really enjoy the quartet setting with the interplay and harmony. It's difficult to compare Jodie and Bill because they are very much alike.
One immediate difference is the song selection or programming. Bill was very generous and offered five songs to record, which is unheard of. We recorded three of them, "For Better and For Worse," "Snowbound," and for the first time "Colleville-Sur-Mer." Bill's music gave Subject to Change a very personal touch and allowed me to have my material recorded. At the date we rehearsed the tunes as a group before we recorded them and moved on after we got a take.
The Urban Intervals date was totally different. Jodie and I played together on gigs and at his home. He taught me a few songs although we did not record one of them. I had one song of mine "Minor Setback" and Neil Hefti's "Girl Talk" in mind to track. The rest of the songs were called on the spot. I think I learned a couple parts to some of the melodies at the date from Dennis and George while we listened to Jodie perform. With Jodie we captured what we could and kept it fresh because he wanted it that way.
CJM: On both albums, it sounds like you are playing the same guitar. Is that true?
Urzagaste: I am endorsed by Hofner and have played a 2005 Hofner Jazzica for 13 years. It’s a full hollow body with a violin finish, which gives the instrument more decay and percussion. I own only one guitar and that’s the one I’ve had for a while. It's my only lasting long term relationship.
CJM: What does the future look like?
Urzagaste: I am planning a new recording this year with Flow and will put news out as soon as it is available. We are looking to perform more in the area and travel throughout the states. I'd hope to perform at a few festivals in 2019 with this group.
Visit www.auguitar.com to purchase the new recording.