Photo: Adrien H. Tillmann
Jazz Harpist Edmar Castañeda On How Spirituality, Injury & Love Inspired His New Album 'Family'
"My Favorite Things" is one of the most elastic songs in the American canon. You can sing it straight, as in The Sound of Music, twist it into a new form like Ariana Grande or blow it to high heaven like John Coltrane. When the COVID-19 pandemic made the world housebound, the song seemed to materialize in a whole new way in Andrea Tierra's house.
"My girl was practicing that [song in Spanish] last year for her music class," she tells GRAMMY.com. "I had all that there ready." But this new version of the song wouldn't just be in Spanish. Such communion with household objects that had special meaning, she thought, would be perfect for her husband, Colombian jazz harpist Edmar Castañeda's, album Family. Aiming to uphold the integrity of the original lyrics, she translated them as cleanly as possible into Spanish. Then, as the world went into lockdown and she spent more time at home, she switched out the objects in the lyrics to reflect her favorite things—and her family's.
This version of "My Favorite Things" closes out Family, which arrives May 21. Featuring Tierra on vocals, Shlomi Cohen on soprano sax and Rodrigo Villalon on drums, Family is a percolating new high watermark for the jazz harpist. The album mixes originals, like "Song for Jaco" and "Acts," with "My Favorite Things" and "Cancion Con Todos," a Latin American standard that nods to the couple's Colombian roots.
GRAMMY.com traveled to Teaneck, New Jersey to speak with Castañeda in his backyard. Eventually, Tierra joined him, and so did their two children, Zamir and Zeudi. It concluded with all of them together, reflecting how Family was a co-creation of the entire Castañeda household. Miraculously, the COVID-19 pandemic and three months out with a broken wrist due to a fall during the album's production didn't derail the creative process. Instead, it imbued it with new emotional dimensions and brought the family closer than ever.
Read on for the full conversation with the Castañeda family as they discuss the place of the harp in jazz, splitting the difference between Colombian and American influences and how all four left their fingerprints on the final product.
Edmar Castañeda. Photo: Adrien H. Tillmann
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Are there many jazz harpists out there?
Edmar: There are not many. I haven't met many jazz [harp] players. I know one, but he's in Switzerland right now. Brandee Younger, but she plays more soul music.
Did you play as a kid?
Edmar: I started when I was 13, in Colombia. Then, I came here when I was 16.
How'd you get exposed to the instrument in the first place?
Edmar: The harp is a traditional instrument from my country. In one part of Colombia, the way we play the harp is very [much] folk music. When I was seven years old, my mom took me [to this place] and that's when I met a harpist for the first time. I fell in love with this instrument.
And then, when I was 16, I came to this country, to New York. I [got into] jazz for the first time. I just fell in love with that music.
I generally think of the harp as being a classical instrument… Oh, hey! How's it going?
Andrea [arriving]: Nice to meet you.
Edmar: ... Yeah, it's one of the oldest instruments on Earth.
David plays it in the Bible.
Edmar: All the instruments come from the harp, you know? The piano comes from the harp. It was a very popular instrument a long time ago.
How did you realize jazz and the harp could intersect? Were you into people like Dorothy Ashby?
Edmar: Yeah, I think Dorothy's the only one who really plays jazz, for me. Alice [Coltrane] was mostly a pianist and singer, right?
Yeah, she was a bebop piano player. The harp shows up on the more glissando, open-ended material.
Edmar: It was more experimental music with jazz. But the harp is not a lead instrument like [with] Dorothy.
How did you make that connection, then?
Edmar: I started with folk music. Then, I met jazz with the trumpet—I used to play the trumpet. In high school, they put me [on the] trumpet—no harp for anything. That's when I learned about Duke Ellington, Miles—all these crazy-amazing musicians. I started getting inspired by that and tried to imitate it a little bit on the harp.
Edmar Castañeda. Photo: Adrien H. Tillmann
Andrea, what can you tell me about your musical background?
Andrea: I was born in Medellín and my dad is an improviser. An improviser of rhymes. He's a poet. So, I was raised [with] that kind of influence. That's where I started to sing. My siblings are musicians, too.
Edmar: We both come from folk music
Andrea: A folk music background.
What does Colombian folk music sound like?
Edmar: There's many, man. We have 1,000 rhythms.
I figured. Boiling it down to one sound would be like reducing American music to one genre.
Edmar: From my part, it's the harp and it's very flamenco and [mimics chugging train beat]. For her, it's more guitars.
Where do Colombian folk and Colombian jazz meet?
Edmar: For me, I never heard jazz in Colombia. There's great Colombian jazz, too, but when I was there, I was more into folk music.
Do you still play the horn?
Edmar: Nah, nah.
Andrea: He teaches our son!
Does he have some chops?
Edmar: Yeah, yeah! He's 10! He's getting there! He likes Clifford Brown and all these great jazz players. For [Andrea], we use more of her background in lyrics. She writes amazing lyrics and we mix them with folk and jazz and world music. On this album, we did a version of "My Favorite Things."
Andrea: We did it in Spanish. It's very, very attached to the real version. I did the translation the best I could. We added a pajarillo, which is …
Edmar: Traditional verses.
Andrea: Traditional-verses music. We mixed a lot of different things in the song.
Edmar: It's very flamenco.
Was it difficult to capture the cadence of the original in a Spanish translation?
Andrea: Yeah. Actually, my girl was practicing that last year for her music class. I had all that there ready. For me, the most important thing was to be so true to the song itself. To the lyrics. It's set the way it is, I fixed it the best I could in Spanish and then added my favorite things so the song would be respected.
It's one of those songs you can keep interpreting and interpreting and it never loses its elasticity.
Edmar: But we couldn't find any in Spanish!
Andrea: It also became so powerful because, during this pandemic, we've learned to live with our favorite things. Those little things you have at home are the little things that make you happy.
Communion with objects.
Andrea: Yeah. I think it's a great song for this time.
Where does Family sit in your body of work? How many albums had you done prior?
Edmar: Sixth. This is my seventh.
How did your recording career get started?
Edmar: My first album was maybe 15 or 20 years ago. It was different concepts with [clarinetist] Paquito D'Rivera, [drummer] Ari Hoenig and [flugelhornist] Mike Rodriguez. And then I did this same group with a trombone—Marshall Gilkes. Then, I did a duo album with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. He's one of the top piano players from Cuba.
Then, I did the World Ensemble, which was a nine-piece band, live at the Jazz Standard. Then, I did a live album with Hiromi, a Japanese pianist [called] Live in Montreal. Then, a duo with [harmonica player] Grégoire Maret. Then, we came to this Family album.
Edmar Castañeda. Photo: Alexandre Pinto
What was your artistic intent with Family as opposed to past albums? What did you want to do differently this time?
Edmar: This album I recorded before the pandemic—last November. I had an accident [in which I hurt] my hand. I fell from the attic and broke [points to wrist] this bone and this bone.
That must have been a nightmare.
Andrea: We had just recorded the first part of the album and everything. We had to take him to the ER, surgery, screws, everything.
Do you have your strength in that hand?
Edmar: Yeah, yeah.
Andrea. Robocop. That's what we call him. [all laugh]
Edmar: I got a second chance to play this instrument again. My fate was to believe that it was going to be OK. Then, when I was getting better, I said, "OK, I'm going to start playing and working again," and this pandemic kicked in really bad.
The whole year, I said, "I'm going to finish the album," and I pulled all the energy from what we learn as a family here. I record the harps here and I have a studio here, too, so I recorded everything here with that feeling of gratitude for life. To have my family, to be strong, to believe.
Andrea: He was so strong during the whole thing. All the time, he was smiling like this [makes blissful expression]. I cried more than him! When I sent the first picture when he got out of the hospital, my friends were like, "Is he coming out of a spa?"
How long were you out of commission?
Edmar: It was supposed to be eight months, but in two or three months, I was ready.
The tune that is titled "Family"—I was touring the whole year before with Hiromi and it was really difficult for me to be away from my family. I composed this tune [throughout] the whole year, little by little, everywhere, and when I came home one day, I finished it and played it for the kids.
I said, "Look! I've composed this! Do you like it?" And my kids were like [hushed tone] "Wow!" I said, "What would you name this tune?" My son said, "Family." They gave it a name. Everything was related to family.
What can you tell about the writing process behind Family?
Edmar: It pretty much is originals. We have, what, two standards? "My Favorite Things" and a beautiful tune from South America. [turns to Andrea] You can explain that more.
Andrea: ["Cancion Con Todos"] is about the power of America coming together. It's like a tour through the very important cities and [countrysides] of America. Calling people to be together, you know? To have all those things that make us better. It's a very old tune from Latin America. It's like a hymn.
Edmar: [As for] the rest, I did a tune inspired by Jaco Pastorius. I composed that before I went on tour with Hiromi. She liked it and wanted to record it, but I wanted to do my version with a trio, [which] I never did before. I did this tune inspired by his playing.
Andrea, can you talk about your vocal contributions to the album?
Andrea: I think it was important to bring that folk story or background to the music Edmar does. For me, the message is very important. Especially that it connects non-Spanish-speaking people to our culture, but also how I connect people from my background to jazz culture. The kind of music to which we're exposed [to].
I think that's my primary contribution. Also, as a woman, it's hard to pursue a career or keep on singing when you have two kids who are home-schooled since day one. They've never been to school. They're home-schooled by us forever.
Trying to keep up with all those things, women often have to divide themselves between those decisions. "Should I pursue my career and my dreams? Should I have kids?" For me, I just want to say, "Come on, you don't have to do that." It's probably harder—you probably have to work a bit more—but I think we are capable of doing both.
[Zamir approaches the table]
Come join us!
Edmar: I'll give you more of the tunes. There's one titled "Battle of Faith." That's the opening of the CD. It's just believing. Never giving up. There's another one called "Acts." It's inspired by one of the disciples in the Bible. I love his passion for the faith of Christ.
Paul's a genius.
Edmar: [blown-away look] The determination to believe it no matter what. He's a warrior, you know?
[Zeudi approaches the table]
Zeudi, what instruments do you play?
Zeudi: I play harp, ukulele and piano and I sing.
What about you, Zamir? I hear you're ripping on the trumpet. Like Clifford Brown.
Zamir: I don't really listen to him. I like more Miles.
What's your favorite Miles?
Zamir: "Tune Up."
The whole family's here!
Edmar: It's a family album.