Through both coincidence and intense determination, pianist Carlos Alberto Santana will be showcasing his own vibrant fusion of mainstream and Latin jazz at the National Arts Centre this Friday.

Carlos Alberto Santana's nuanced mix of Latin and mainstream jazz was a big hit at Merrickville's Jazz Fest this year. ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Carlos Alberto Santana's nuanced mix of Latin and mainstream jazz was a big hit at Merrickville's Jazz Fest this year. ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Four decades ago, few would have guessed that a young boy in Mexico City would end up in Ottawa leading a jazz quintet. But, as Santana explains, the path that led him to Canada was part by chance, and part by never giving up on his long-time love of jazz.

It all started with a bargain. “My father purchased a piano because he got a good deal, so I was playing that piano since I was maybe four,” Santana said. He began by playing randomly, but by age five was pressuring his parents for proper lessons.

He studied classical and traditional Mexican music on piano for many years, and then came the next chance encounter: “I listened to a long-play that my father bought by mistake by a great pianist Günter Noris. He's from Germany and he was playing classical music in a jazz way.”

That inspired him to listen to many more jazz records – including by Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Oscar Peterson. At age 11, Santana applied to the Conservatory in Mexico City, but was told that they didn't have a jazz program. “I asked for jazz and they denied that. You have to go somewhere else.”

But he kept going: “It was hard for me because there weren't many jazz teachers so I had to do a lot on my own, to listen and try to transcribe the music and learn from there. And I was like many musicians and just wanted to play!”

When he was 13, he visited an aunt in Cincinnati, Ohio, for a year, and attended the conservatory there, which did have some informal programs in jazz. “Then I went back to Mexico and I kept doing on my own. And then I started creating my own bands, so when I went to university at 18, I created my own jazz band and I was playing in different bands.”

His family insisted that he get a formal education in a field besides music, so he took a degree in electrical engineering at a university in Mexico City, and started working as an engineer. “I couldn't escape to be a full-time musician.”

"You have to find your own style": lessons with Juan José Calatayud amd Jan Jarczyk

Jazz wasn't very popular in Mexico at that time, Santana said, but one exception was renowned pianist Juan José Calatayud. Santana met him at a concert and asked if he could study with him – which he did for about two years.

“We had very interesting conversations. He was very deep into the chords and very colorful figures and my piano style is more percussive because I also learned a lot of things from Scott Joplin's music. So at some time I was trying to replicate what he was doing, and he said to me, 'No, no, you have to find your own style. You don't have to play like me. I can teach you; I can give you some tips. But I like the way you play, and I like your style. Don't follow me.' ”

Daniel Chavolla ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Daniel Chavolla ©Brett Delmage, 2015
But Santana was still looking to learn more, and again looked north. “My brother, by chance he came to Montreal. My brother is younger than me but [is] a very adventurous person. He told me that in Montreal there was a lot of jazz activity, and there was a jazz festival. 'Why don't you go to Montreal?' ”

Santana had already been attracted to that city by listening to pianists Oscar Peterson and André Gagnon. “So I quit my job! I quit my job in Mexico as an engineer and I came to Montreal for six months, because that was what my visa allowed. Mexicans could come for six months without any permission.”

At a jam session at Biddle's, he met drummer Bernard Primeau, a mainspring of Montreal's jazz community – and asked him if he knew someone who could teach him. Primeau introduced him to pianist Jan Jarczyk, a music professor at McGill University who was well-known as a jazz pianist and composer. Jarczyk agreed to take him on.

“He was great, but he was very tough. From the very beginning, he says, 'OK, so I'm going to give you these scales, this melodic series, and if you don't do these, don't come.' He's from a very European school so he was very strict. I don't want to waste your time and you don't want to waste mine.”

“I had to work a lot. For the six months that I was there with my piano and keyboard, I was studying at home and going to my lessons. I didn't have too much time to enjoy the city! But it was worth it. Basically, I got a lot of technique from him. It was a lot of studies and exercises.”

Santana said he was impressed at how hard-working and disciplined Jarczyk was – “but also very positive! He was a happy man. It was tough to do the stuff that he put to me, but it was in a nice way because he was a nice man."

Finding his feet in Canada - first as an engineer, then as a musician

The experience sold him on Canada. He and his wife emigrated to Ottawa in 1998. “It was relatively easy because it was during the boom of the hi-tech.” He eventually found work as an engineer: “And so far so good. I can't complain. It's going good.”

Then through work, he started to make musical connections. A co-worker at Zim Technologies invited him to join a rock band called “The Memphis Mafia”.

Over the last decade, local fans of Latin and world music would have likely seen Santana, his fingers flying across the keyboard, adding bright piano rhythms and melodies to groups like The Mighty Popo and Rimbombante, and backing flamenco jazz guitarist Servantes and Cuban vocalist Caridad Cruz.

Santana's entry to those Latin music circles came through meeting Chilean-Canadian percussionist Alvaro de Minaya, who will be performing in Santana's quintet on Friday. They played for several years as a duo and a trio in Ottawa clubs. “From there, I started to open my spectrum, and to know more people in the field, especially on the Latin side.”

Taking Latin jazz back to its original fusion of bebop and Latin rhythms

But Santana wanted a broader approach to music than most local Latin groups. He wanted to go back to the original idea behind Latin jazz: a fusion of bebop and other mainstream jazz idioms with Cuban and Brazilian rhythms.

Angel Araos ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Angel Araos ©Brett Delmage, 2015
“Latin music has a very strong rhythm section, and sometimes we tend to abuse the rhythm because it has an advantage and people as soon as they listen to some percussion they like to dance. But I think that you can do more than that. You can explore different harmonic structures or melody.”

While he liked Latin music and its rhythms, he said, “I also wanted to play something else and I enjoy traditional jazz, the bebop. So when I started building my repertoire, I tried to put more, not just to focus on Latin stuff. I like to go beyond that, mixing it in a fusion with classical jazz and classical music.”

At his NAC concert, for example, he'll be performing songs by George Gershwin.

He has also returned to the roots of Latin music: to composers from the second half of the 19th century, such as Ernersto Lecuona from Cuba, Ernesto Nazareth from Brazil, and Alberto Ginastera from Argentina. These composers created the basis for current Latin music, he said – and have influenced his own style.

In early 2013, Santana formed a jazz trio with local drummer Angel Araos and bassist Daniel Chavolla, both of whom he'd known for years. Chilean-born Araos has played classical, jazz, folk, Brazilian, and Cuban music; Mexican-born Chavolla studied percussion and double bass at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City. Chavolla and Santana are both engineers, too: “we studied at the same university in the same [engineering] program in Mexico – but we met here in Canada!”

He said he's pleased with how well the trio has developed and the commitment put into it. “Now there's a lot of communication when we play together.”

The trio has played at local clubs and in a show at GigSpace last summer. Their most recent show was at Merrickville's Jazz Fest in October – where they received a standing ovation.

At that hour-long show, all but one of the pieces were originals by Santana. Composing is something he started seriously working on at age 40 – eight years ago. In fact, one of his songs, “40 Ahead” celebrates that milestone. “Since then I would say I have been very confident in composing. I feel that every time it's becoming more easy for me to compose and to integrate that music I have listened to.”

Bringing less-known Latin composers to Canadian audiences

Alvaro de Minaya ©2015 Brett Delmage
Alvaro de Minaya ©2015 Brett Delmage
In his shows, he also likes to include music by Latin American musicians not known in Canada. For example, at Merrickville, he played the dramatic piece “El Vago” by Mexican jazz pianist Héctor Infanzon. Santana said he admired Infanzon, and regularly went to see his shows when he was in Mexico. “I think he's right now the best jazz composer and player in Mexico.”

At the NAC on Friday, he said he'll include songs by Brazilian composer César Camargo Mariano. “I try to include interpretations of these composers that I admire. Another purpose when I do my shows is to educate maybe the audience on things that aren't easily coming here, and to bring into the spotlight these great composers that existed in the past and now we can enjoy their music. So I'm trying to show my compositions, but also going back in the past to play some of this music.”

For Friday's show, the trio will enlarge to a quintet, with Alvaro de Minaya on percussion (congas), and Jasmin Lalande on saxophone and flute. The arrangements will expand for the quintet, and so will the set list. They'll play two 45-minute sets, with added songs, and Santana said he'll also play two piano solos: interpretations of pieces from Brazilian and Argentinian composers.

And he's already looking in the future, with the same determination he's shown all along. The trio recently recorded a nine-song CD, and he's about to mix and master it. He said he hoped to release it in the first quarter of 2016, and will be applying for jazz festival gigs next year as well.

Santana said that one important lesson he got from Juan José Calatayud was that, “if you want to become an artist, you have to have your own style. You cannot play everything like everybody. You have to play it like your own.”

It's a lesson he's taken seriously, with an individual repertoire and a different approach to Latin jazz. Jazz fans can hear the results at Friday's concert.

    – Alayne McGregor

This Carlos Alberto Santana Jazz Trio performs at the NAC Fourth Stage at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, November 13. Tickets are available at the NAC Box Office (no service charge) or via the concert webpage.

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