Photo: Adrien H. Tillmann
Jazz Harpist Edmar Castañeda On How Spirituality, Injury & Love Inspired His New Album 'Family'
While making his new album, 'Family,' a fall put Edmar Castañeda in the hospital—and then the pandemic hit. But recuperating with his wife and kids gave the album its heart and soul
"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.
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Photo: L. Cohen/WireImage
10 Record Store Day Releases You Need This Year: Taylor Swift, Nas, Dolly Parton & More
Celebrate Record Store Day this April 22 by stocking up on new, exclusive LPs from Taylor Swift, Björk, The Rolling Stones and more at your local participating record store.
From Post Malone to Peppa Pig vinyls, record stores around the world are stocking up on limited exclusive releases for Record Store Day 2023.
Held annually every April since 2007, the event honors independently owned record stores and the unity of fans and artists. This year, many stores will globally welcome more than 300 limited, exclusive records ranging from rock to jazz to rap on April 22.
With former official ambassadors including Taylor Swift, Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Jack White, Chuck D, and St. Vincent, Record Store Day celebrates music of all genres. And that's exactly the case with this year's lineup of special releases, spanning from Miles Davis to Beach House.
In honor of Record Store Day 2023, get excited about these 10 limited, exclusive releases dropping in your local participating store.
The 1975 — I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it: Live With The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Serving as the official Record Store Day UK Ambassadors this year, the 1975 take us back to 2016 with their second LP, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it — this time, along with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Available for the first time on double clear vinyl, this orchestral version of the British rock band's second studio album also features a version of their breakout hit, "Chocolate."
Miles Davis — TURNAROUND: Unreleased Rare Vinyl from On the Corner
Miles Davis' album On the Corner celebrated its 50th birthday last October, and its innovation takes yet another turn on Record Store Day. Titled Turnaround, this sky-blue vinyl features four cuts from the expanded 2007 album The Complete On The Corner Sessions, also offering appearances from Herbie Hancock, Dave Liebman and Bennie Maupin.
Björk — the fossora remixes
Fill your record collection with some flora and fauna — natural, eccentric scarlet and green patterns adorn each vinyl sleeve of Björk's exclusive the fossora remixes. The release features two dynamic songs: A1 Ovule featuring Shygirl (Sega Bodega remix) and A2 Atopos (sideproject remix).
Beach House — Become
Fourteen months after psychedelic pop duo Beach House unveiled their eighth studio album, Once Twice Melody, they continue the story with a new EP. Titled Become, the five-song project — which is available on crystal-clear vinyl on Record Store Day — features five formerly unreleased songs from their 2022 LP.
Nas — Made You Look: God's Son Live 2002
Just over 20 years ago, Nas gave a spectacular performance at Webster Hall in New York City, further solidifying his status as a legend of East Coast hip-hop. The spirited 20-song concert now appears on vinyl for the first time, with familiar artwork calling back to its original DVD release in 2003.
Dolly Parton — The Monument Singles Collection 1964-1968
More than six decades into her career, Dolly Parton joins the Record Store Day fun with a celebration of her early years. The country legend's remastered singles from the 1960s are hitting record store shelves, and the special first-time collection also features liner notes from two-time GRAMMY nominee Holly George-Warren.
The Rolling Stones — Beggars Banquet
As the Rolling Stones sang of "a swirling mass of grey, blue, black, and white" on "Salt Of The Earth," the rock band's upcoming limited vinyl for Beggars Banquet will be pressed with a swirl pattern of the same four colors in tribute. The group merges classic rock with their blues roots on Beggars Banquet, and the vinyl of their 1968 critically-acclaimed album features the original artwork and window display poster.
Taylor Swift — folklore: the long pond studio sessions
In September 2020, Taylor Swift's GRAMMY-winning album folklore was reimagined at New York's Long Pond Studio with a pair of the singer's closest collaborators, Aaron Dessner (The National) and Jack Antonoff (fun./Bleachers). And in November that year, fans got to witness those sessions in a Disney+ documentary. Now, more than two years later, the serene album's acoustic studio sessions are available on vinyl for the first time, including four sides and bonus track "the lakes."
'Ol Dirty Bastard — Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
ODB's memory lives on in the vinyl rerelease of his iconic 1995 debut album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. Featuring the 2020 remasters of 15 tracks, this drop is the first posthumous release from ODB since 2011, but not the first time fans have heard his voice since then: SZA's SOS track "Forgiveless" concludes with a previously unreleased verse from the late rapper.
Donna Summer — A Hot Summer Night (40th Anniversary Edition)
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Donna Summer's momentous Hard For The Money Tour. This exclusive vinyl celebrates the Queen of Disco in all her glory, capturing her live concert at Costa Mesa's Pacific Amphitheatre from August 1983. The vinyl offers performances by special guests Musical Youth, her sisters Dara and Mary Ellen, and her eldest daughter Mimi.
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Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Remembering Wayne Shorter: 7 Gateway Tracks From The Jazz Titan's 1960s Run
The pioneering composer and tenor and soprano saxophonist passed away on March 2. His influence and legacy spans decades and permutations of jazz, but for the uninitiated, here are seven highlights from his 1960s leader albums.
When the world learned of the pioneering saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter's death on March 2, it did so partly through a quote from the maestro itself: "It's time to go get a new body and come back to continue the mission."
This evocation of reincarnation not only speaks to Shorter's elaborate psychospiritual universe — he followed Nichiren Buddhism for half a century — but his multitudes as an artistic behemoth. In his 89-year life, Shorter irrevocably altered so many sectors of jazz and related forms that he seemed to inhabit many bodies at once.
To trace the 12-time GRAMMY winner's artistic evolution is to tell the story of the music as it evolved and propagated through the latter half of the 20th century. He was a member of two of the most crucial groups in jazz history: the brilliant, hotheaded drummer Art Blakey's unofficial jazz academy the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis' so-called Second Great Quintet.
But even that's just the tip of the iceberg. After an astonishing run of leader albums on Blue Note — including all-timers like JuJu, Speak No Evil and The All Seeing Eye — Shorter formed Weather Report, a fundamental group in '70s and '80s jazz fusion. Along the way, he also collaborated with AOR legends — Joni Mitchell on a slew of mid-period records, and on the title track to Aja, Steely Dan.
In the 21st century, he continued hurtling forward as a composer, and work only seemed to grow more eclectic and multifarious, arguably culminating with (Iphigenia), an expansive opera co-created with bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. At the 2023 GRAMMYs, he won Best Improvised Jazz Solo alongside pianist Leo Genovese for "Endangered Species," a cut on Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival, which also features Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.
In 2015, the Recording Academy bestowed upon him a Lifetime Achievement Award. "Wayne Shorter's influence on the jazz community has left an indelible mark on the music industry," Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy, said in part. "It's been a privilege to celebrate his contributions to our culture throughout his incredible career."
As bandleader Darcy James Argue put it, "There isn't a jazz composer today who does not owe an absolutely immeasurable debt to Wayne Shorter. Whether you assimilated his harmonic language, or consciously rejected it, or tried to thread a path somewhere in between, his influence is as unavoidable as the elements."
But with this vast cosmology established, how can Shorter neophytes find their own way in? To traverse the universe of the self-dubbed Mr. Weird — from a line about person or thing X being “as weird as Wayne” — one need not enter it at random.
Arguably, the gateway is Shorter's aforementioned '60s run as a leader; from there, one can venture out in a dozen directions and be rewarded with a lifetime of cerebrality and majesty.
So, for those looking for a way in, here are seven essential tracks from that specific period and component of Shorter's culture-quaking legacy.
"Night Dreamer" (Night Dreamer, 1964)
Shorter was terrific as a leader from the jump, but he arguably came into his own with his fourth album under his own name, Night Dreamer. Much of this had to do with paring down his compositions to their haunting essence. "I used to see a lot of chord changes, for instance, but now I can separate the wheat from the chaff," Shorter said at the time.
Immerse yourself into the fittingly crepuscular title track, which Shorter crafted for a nighttime brood. "The minor keys often connotes evening or night to me," he wrote in the liner notes. "Although the beat does float, it also is set in a heavy groove. It's a paradox, in a way — like you'd have in a dream, something that's both light and heavy."
"Juju" (Juju, 1965)
Night Dreamer and Juju feature a rhythm section closely associated with John Coltrane — the classic Olé Coltrane one, composed of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones.
As a tenorist influenced by Coltrane, Shorter invited comparisons to his inspiration. But alongside Trane's accompanists, he had developed his own style — with the raw, unvarnished quality of said legend, but a barer tone and more elliptical sense of articulation. Juxtaposed against his accompanists' dazzling, shattered-glass approach, the side-eyeing Shorter is enchanting.
"House of Jade" (Juju, 1965)
After the rainshower of piano notes that initiates "House of Jade," Shorter demonstrates his inimitable way with a ballad, hung on Jones' weighty swing and sway. As jazz author and columnist Mark Stryker put it in an edifying Twitter thread compiling the best of Shorter at a gentler pace: "The ballads are everything. It's all there, now and forever."
"Indian Song" (Etcetera, rec. 1965 rel. 1980)
Featuring bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Joe Chambers, and harmonic mastermind Herbie Hancock — Shorter's lifelong ride-or-die — on piano, Etcetera was recorded the same year as Juju but remained on the shelf for a decade. Better late than never: it stands tall among Shorter's Blue Notes of its time.
All five tracks are fantastic — four Shorters, one Gil Evans, in "Barracudas (General Assembly)." But regarding its final track, "Indian Song," one reviewer might have hit the nail on the head: "At times the rest of the album seems like a warm-up for that amazing tune."
Across more than 11 minutes, "Indian Song" expands and retracts, inhales and exhales, on a spectral path into the unknown. Want an immediate example of how Shorter and Hancock twinned and intertwined their musical spirits to intoxicating effect? Look no further.
"Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" (Speak No Evil, 1966)
As per compositional mastery, evocative interplay and plain old vibe, Speak No Evil represents something of an apogee for Shorter — and many in the know regard it as the crown jewel.
The majestic, mid-tempo "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" is just one highlight of this quintessential, classic-stuffed Blue Note. Hear how Hancock's elusive harmonic shades and Shorter's simple yet impassioned approach just gel — with support from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Elvin Jones.
"Wayne isn't playing the changes, but plays around the composition—he's creative within the composition," saxophonist David Sanchez once explicated. "[It's] distinct from a lot of other Blue Note recordings of the period on which, generally speaking, people would improvise on the changes once the head or theme was over."
But you don't need to know what's under the hood to hear how this classic thrillingly pushes and pulls.
"Infant Eyes" (Speak No Evil, 1966)
"Infant Eyes" is a Shorter ballad of almost surreal atmosphere and beauty: on a compositional and emotional level, it's difficult to compare it to much else. It's "doom jazz" decades before that was ever a thing.
Down to Shorter's sheer note choices and the grain of his tone, "Infant Eyes" will make your heart leap into your throat. As per Stryker's Twitter litany of enchanting Shorter ballads, the combination is stiff — but if one is supreme, it's difficult to not pick this one.
"Footprints" (Adam's Apple, 1967)
This loping waltz-not-waltz from 1967's Adam's Apple is one of Shorter's most well-known tunes; even without close analysis of its sneaky rhythms, it's downright irresistible. And talk about gateways: it's a launchpad for any young musician who wants to give his tunes a shot.
"Footprints" continues to be a standard; it titled his biography; the Facebook post announcing Shorter's death bore footprint emojis. Shorter may have transitioned from this body, but his impressions are everywhere — and we'll never see the likes of Mr. Weird again.
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Photo: Rodrigo Simas
Jeff Coffin On His GRAMMY-Nominated Album 'Between Dreaming And Joy,' Constant Education, Playing With Dave Matthews & Béla Fleck
Jeff Coffin’s legacies with Dave Matthews Band and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones are more than enough to hang his hat on. But his solo career is a kaleidoscope of ideas, connected to musical traditions from all over the world.
Hanging out with Jeff Coffin is a bit like listening to his music. Engulfed in a whirlwind of musical references, you’re never lost. Music seems dizzyingly limitless when he describes it, like the fractals in the cartoon eye on his new album's self-drawn cover.
For a three-time GRAMMY winner with bona fides in two household-name bands, Dave Matthews Band and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones — Coffin has zero airs and a whole lot of music knowledge.
Our conversation left me to check out Albert Ayler's rip-your-heart-out gospel album Goin' Home, Van Morrison's country-breezy Tupelo Honey and Charles Mingus' warped masterpiece Oh Yeah.
Understanding Coffin’s background enhances the listening experience of his inspired latest release, 2022's Between Dreaming and Joy, which is nominated for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Read More: 2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List
Featuring "Middle Eastern frame drums, Brazilian percussion, Moroccan vocals, a turntable artist, multiple horns, an ice cream truck, a Hungarian tárogató and an African ngoni" — as well as modern greats like guitarist Robben Ford, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Chester Thompson — the album feels jubilant and companionable.
It’s surprising to learn the album was recorded completely remotely.
"It was crafted in a way that I've really never crafted a record before," Coffin tells GRAMMY.com in its New York Chapter Office, ahead of DMB's sold-out Madison Square Garden gig. So, to him, this GRAMMY nomination is extra sweet: "it's a recognition of the process, but also a recognition of the work. Not just in this record, but the 19 others before it."
If you're familiar with Fleck and/or Matthews but not so much Coffin and his musical universe, let Between Dreaming and Joy act as a gateway to all 19 — with the Mu'tet, in co-billed LPs, all of it. And read on for an in-depth interview with the musician, clinician and searcher.
Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Congratulations on your nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs. What role has the Recording Academy played in your career over the decades?
You know, when I was in the Flecktones, we were nominated a number of times; I won three GRAMMYs with Béla. It's always kind of been interwoven with the things that I've done.
The Flecktones were a hard band to pin down. We won for Best Pop Instrumental Album [for 2008's Jingle All the Way; we were nominated [that same year] for Best Country Instrumental Performance [for "Sleigh Ride"].
It's interesting; I remember the first time we were nominated was for Left of Cool [at the 1999 GRAMMYs]. I remember it being my first time there, and just being like, "Wow, this is unbelievable." We didn't win, and I remember thinking that I wasn't disappointed: Oh, it's OK, it's not a big deal that we didn't win. It reaffirmed that this is not why I do what I do.
You know, it's funny. [With Dave Matthews Band], it's a machine. We have like 90 people on the road with us, of course, and the band is really all about the music. We've talked about it a lot: how the music has got to come first.
I think that music is a service industry. I think that first, we serve the music. Then, we serve the other musicians we're playing with, and then we serve the audience. So, we're at least fourth on the list. But by serving those others, we get served.
I talk to my students about this all the time: how important it is to recognize that circle. I think about management, and I'm thinking, Well, they're just thinking dollars and butts in seats. Which I understand: that's part of it. But I feel a disconnect sometimes in the way they approach things, as opposed to the way we approach things.
So, for me, with awards and accolades and things like that: I've had my fair share, and I'm very honored and grateful for that. But that's not why I do it. I'm not like, I'm going to do this record and submit it for a GRAMMY.
Read More: Béla Fleck Has Always Been Told He's The Best. But To Him, There Is No Best.
At this point, you've won three GRAMMYs. How does it feel to earn another nomination for Between Dreaming and Joy?
It's big for me. It really is. There was a ton of work put into it during the pandemic. Most of the record was remote, although you'd never know listening to it. It was crafted in a way that I've really never crafted a record before. So, it's a recognition of the process, but also a recognition of the work. Not just in this record, but the 19 others before it.
I've got six others in the can that I'm working on, that are basically ready to go. It was a very prolific time for me during the lockdown. So, this material on the record was culled from a lot of other stuff I had recorded also.
I wrote about 30 or 34 new tunes, and they were all over the place from the standpoint of genre or style. So, when I put this together, I had to decide which tunes I was going to put into this pot. There are a couple that I was on the fence about initially, but I'm really glad they're on there because it kind of diverges, and then comes back into a particular space.
So, yeah, I'm just thrilled about it, and the GRAMMY Foundation <a href="https://grammymuseum.org/national-reach/grant-program/">now the [GRAMMY Museum Foundation] has been part of that. I love what they do educationally; I want to be more involved with that, because I do a lot of education work outside of touring. I've done 325-plus clinics over the years, and I've been teaching at Vanderbilt now for eight years.
Tell me more about your teaching style, and how it's in dialogue with the other parts of your career.
I've looked at people that have kind of been DIY, like Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer, Bobby Shew, these kinds of people. I don't try to do exactly what they did, because that's how they see things. But I've been able to kind of muddle out a career [incorporating] certain aspects of what they do.
The books that I've written are all for my students; they have nothing to do with the things that I'm working on, because I've already done it. So, the method books, the etude books — I have something called The Road Book, which is all the things you do before you leave the driveway. These are for students that are just getting out there and doing this stuff, to help them along the way.
I really respect what [The Recording Academy] has done educationally around the country and the world. I think it's awesome, and really makes a big difference. You know, music is an essential part of education on every level — not just in higher education, but deep in the schools. A lot of those programs are being cut, and it's categorically unfair.
Let's talk a little more about Between Dreaming and Joy. You mentioned that you pulled these songs from disparate sources. So what was the throughline, or thesis? What made these songs swim together in the same tank?
When I was with Béla, one of the things I remember him talking about was the sequence of a record, and talking about how it really makes or breaks a record. It's really the flow, now that I think about it.
I put a lot of effort into putting sequences together. The middle tune, "Spinning Plates," is just me — all me, all horns. I think there's percussion on there, and it's sort of the place where you would flip the record over. It's a breath between the first and second section of the record. I did it that way on purpose.
It's kind of the spirit of the tunes that [make them] work. "Vinnie the Crow" wouldn't have worked in any other place except for opening the record.
It's very strident. It has that swagger in it.
Yeah, and it has the only co-writer on the whole record: a drummer named Alex Clayton, who was living in Nashville and a Belmont student. He's turned me on to some really great s—. He was the first person who ever told me about Anderson .Paak and Donald Glover. He's really got his ear in these different places.
He's a very, very dear friend. We were just hanging out and were like, "Let's write a tune." He had a groove, so I put some stuff down, and just kind of went from there.
But coming back to the sequence: I want it to be a journey. I don't want it to be the same tune written seven or eight different times. I wanted to touch on the different influences and interests I had musically, but not be so removed from the other tunes that it doesn't connect.
Because there's a bunch of stuff that I also wrote that's very global music-oriented. There's this one tune written off this traditional Peruvian folk melody that wouldn't have fit on this record. It's this really elaborate thing. I've got Brazilian percussion on it. There's some Afrobeat stuff that I did with Chester Thompson.
There's a lot of pretty esoteric stuff, too. [Turns to publicist Lydia Liebman, Dave Liebman's daughter] Stuff your pops would be way more into than this kind of thing.
Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas
I remember something Béla said to me years ago: "I'll never be an Indian musician. I'll never be an African musician. But I can bring those elements into what I do, and have them inspire the music that I make."
And it's the same with Dave Matthews. He's from South Africa, and he went back in his early teens and grew up there for a number of years. His music is very influenced by that music — by those dances, by that structure of music, and there's a hybrid of things that are going on there. So, to me, using the term "jam band" for a group like that doesn't do it justice at all. I don't have any idea what you'd call it.
I love when they asked Miles about his music. They said it was jazz, but they said, "What should we call it?" He said, "Call it music." I'm totally down with that, and that's how I look at it. It's just music.
It's coming from different places I'm influenced by. Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, et cetera, et cetera: they're all the same spirit. That's what I'm looking for in the music that I make, the players I play with, the way I'm putting something together. I like art that is mysterious — that I don't totally understand.
We first spoke for an article about Yusef Lateef. Given the sheer range of ethnic instruments you play on Between Dreaming and Joy, it seems like you're in his lineage. Can you talk about your ongoing process of learning new instruments and weaving them into your work — choosing what's appropriate and what isn't?
Here's the thing, too: I know a lot of people who play a lot of different instruments. Michael League was playing Moroccan frame drums, but everybody knows Michael from playing bass with Snarky Puppy. And the ngoni on "When Birds Sing" was played by a Moroccan woman named Sarah Ariche, who also sang. The title is kind about her, also: what she's doing is this angelic vocal stuff.
I'm really interested in a lot of different sounds. Some of this is also coming from people like Roland Kirk. This gets into a whole other tangent, but the idea of string theory is that everything is a vibration; therefore, everything is sound.
I have the tárogató I bought from Charles Lloyd; my bass flute is Yusef Lateef's. I feel like I'm just the curator of these instruments, because I'm always like, "This is Yusef Lateef's bass flute." I don't ever say, "This is my bass flute." [Same with] the tárogató. There's kind of a spirit imbued in the instruments.
You're calling out a spirit, even when the musician is alive and well — in Lloyd's case.
Right, yeah. I bought Yusef's main tenor and bass flute after he passed. The first time I played the tenor, I recorded it; I was like, I want to hear what happens the first time. And this tune came out. I called it "Yusef." And as I tell people, he left the tune in the horn. It's a very powerful tune. My hands were off of it.
For those who might know Dave or Béla but not be familiar with your solo work, with the Mutet or otherwise: how do you conceptualize it in relation to these household names? What's the nature of that isthmus between these two massive entities?
Let me take a step back.
So, people ask about my influences. My main influences are people like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Ornette. Then there are the people I played with all these years, having spent 14 years with Béla, Victor Wooten and Roy Wooten — Future Man. And now, 14 years with Dave, [bassist] Stefan [Lessard], [trumpeter] Rashawn [Ross], [violinist] Boyd [Tinsley] when he was in the band, [drummer] Carter Beauford, [guitarist] Tim Reynolds, and now [keyboardist] Buddy Strong.
I mean, we are creating every single night for three hours a night — playing some of the same music, but recreating it nightly also. So, there are no more profound influences on me than those players: the people that I play with at home, that I've had in my bands, where we're digging deep in a way that is proactive.
So, when I'm listening, I'm active in that process, but I'm not participatory in that process — in the sense that I'm not making music when I'm listening to a Coltrane record or whatever. But when I'm making music, I'm participatory; even if I'm being silent, I'm still part of what's going on. To me, that changes everything.
Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas
Can you connect this to your experiences with Matthews and the Flecktones?
I remember that when I first started playing with Béla, I was like, "I don't know any of your music; your audience knows the music better than I do." Which was the same thing when I joined Matthews: "The audience" — they still do, actually — "knows all the words."
With the Flecktones, one of things that was an epiphany for me was that I would look out and see people dancing. We'd be playing in 13 or 17 or some crazy s—, or moving time signatures throughout the piece.
But what it made me realize is that it's all on up or down. It doesn't even matter. Like, even on the Matthews stuff, there's a tune called "Rapunzel." I remember the first time we heard it, when I was with Béla because we were doing the opening dates.
We couldn't figure out the time signature. You have four great musicians who are listening to this and just going, "What is going on?" It's in five, but if you listen to it, you would not know that it's in five, unless you're really tuning in and going, "OK, I've got to figure this out," or watching somebody's foot, given the way Carter's playing polyrhythmically over it.
But, again, we joke about this: everything's in one. Just one-one-one-one-one-one. If the pulse is there, than it's going to feel good. It's going to make a mixed meter not feel like a mixed meter, because it's going to be all pulse.
That's why I love African music so much; it's all pulse. You can feel it in six; you can feel it in two; you can feel it in three. You can also put different groupings; you can do sevens over the top. It all works, as long as the pulse is there.
It seems that you've conceptualized your solo work as an ongoing investigation of your influences.
I think that's a great way to put it: an ongoing investigation of my influences. Not only my immediate musical influences, but my historic musical influences also, and trying to see it from above. Not just the immediacy of it, but the things that are in the periphery also.
I'm kind of going, I wonder what would happen if I did this, and drop this in there. I wonder what the sound of bass flute and bass trumpet is. The tárogató was on the new Dave record also, and it's a Hungarian instrument, It's a wooden soprano, basically. It's like an English horn.
Sometimes, I'll also give myself parameters to work within. I was doing a livestream every Friday all the way through the pandemic. There were nights when I would be like, I'm going to start writing a song at six o'clock because my livestream is at seven. I'm going to get it done within an hour, play it for them on the livestream, and maybe play along.
I tried to bring them into my process of doing what I was doing. It was really fun. It was really, really challenging. And I didn't have any idea what the f— I was doing.
So, it's really just about exploring and trying things. There's an element of randomness to it, but also an element of focus and "Let's try this and see what happens." I've always been really into pedals, envelope filters and harmonizers. Doing double-horn stuff. I've got this triplicate flute with one mouthpiece. I've got singing bowls and bells and gongs. I'm a total bell freak. Anything I can get my hands on that I can make music from, I'm going to try it.
Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas
You've mentioned, like, 15 musical traditions and 150 instruments in this interview. Do you ever feel like you're still getting started in learning about all the music the world has to offer?
I do, actually, yeah. I feel more creative than I've ever felt in my life.
But here's the thing, too: I play for a different reason now than I used to. I think that's partially because I'm able to articulate my own feelings better — not only verbally, but musically. When I was younger, I was playing from a different emotional place. Today, some of the reasons for playing are the same; some are very different. But I feel like I can make decisions based on experience.
I'm still wrong a lot, by the way, which is really interesting to me. I'll listen to a couple of tracks with some people, and I'll think: OK, I know the one that I like. I'll say, "What do you guys think?" and they'll both pick the other one. I'll be like, Oh, OK, great. Let's use that one. Good thing that wasn't up to me.
A year and a half ago, I went down to New Orleans and did a record with [drummer] Johnny Vidacovich, [saxophonist] Tony Dagradi and [drummer] James Singleton [of jazz quartet Astral Project]; Helen Gillet was on the cello on one tune. It's very, very different than this record. It's open and free.
I'm trying to mix it myself, and I've been working on it for a while. I think it sounds pretty good. But I'm not a mixing engineer, and those guys are wizards. So, I'm sitting around with some people, and I'm like, "Look, man, I want your brutally honest feedback. If it doesn't sound good, I want to know, because I'm trying to mix it."
I still second-guess myself on certain things, which I think is great, because I think that's how we learn also. You've got to keep making mistakes, because after a while, you find those successes in there. I think it's Vic Wooten who says something along these lines: "The only reason you don't succeed is because you eventually stop trying."
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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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