Raquel Cepeda and her Latin Jazz band, Passion, performing as a septet at Discovery Green Park. Photo by Helton Mendes.
Last Friday I gave a concert at Discovery Green with my Latin Jazz band, Passion. It was a very important concert which came as an invitation from Da Camera, one of the greatest jazz and chamber music promoters in Houston.
Their invitation came as a welcomed surprise, and luckily I was ready to respond. They wanted to have a Latin Jazz Night, and I have been doing some Latin Jazz since last year. It started with my involvement as a singer with Jorge Orta's (Cro-Cro) Latin Jazz project, "Jazzismo", and it was well infused also with a fair share of Brazilian music with my other out-of-the country band, Brazil Samba Jazz, with Marvio Ciribelli.
But Passion is a project entirely led and promoted by myself, and is Houston based, and in its early stages it came as a response to the demands of a good friend, Melissa Noble, who kept insisting that I should do a Latin Jazz show.
It happened just fall of last year in 2017. Up until then I was happy doing American Swing with my Jazz Quartet and of course Brazilian music, and never considered carrying an exclusively Latin Jazz repertoire that included Cuban, Caribbean and Afro rhythms. For me it was fine to be invited to play with Jorge's band on occasion.
But my friend Melissa kept pushing and went farther along to go and talk to the owner of Mucky Duck, a legendary concert venue in Houston, and told him about me. Within a few weeks a date at that venue had been crystalized, and I felt that I had the responsibility and the challenge to make a Latin Jazz show happen as Melissa kept insisting and found the date to do it.
Choosing the repertoire
For the repertoire I wanted to find off-the-path boleros and Brazilian songs that had the harmonic and melodic complexity of jazz music. But even though I grew up in Venezuela listening to Latin music, after doing so much American Swing for the past years, I didn't really have a widely extensive list of new Latin songs off the top of my head.
I had to sit down through many sessions of research time on Youtube trying to get ahold of music that had what I was looking for: that harmonic and melodic complexity, and the room to mix the Latin rhythms with some swing elements. I also went through my list of American Swing repertoire looking for songs that had the capability to be spiced up with Latin rhythms in an elegant and tasteful manner. Not to mention lyrics that were eloquent and well though out.
Finding the right team
Playing Jazz is already an art in itself, and although there are incredible jazz players in this city, I felt that when it comes to playing Latin Jazz, or Brazilian music, there is an extra something that only comes with having lived or spent good amounts of time in Latin America or Brazil, or having tons of experience playing with natives of those places. I knew that If I wanted to make the right sound, I needed to find not only highly skilled jazz players, super well versed in American Jazz, but they had to have that background of Latin heritage or experience. Luckily Houston is such a diverse place, and soon I was able to meet other musicians that seemed to have what I was looking for.
The first one was young Cuban drummer Orlando Fuentes. He seemed to be well rounded not only at swing but he could spell out Latin rhythms skillfully. Young and energetic, when I told him about the project he was happy to get on board, and he has proved to be a great and super dependable musician.
I needed a pianist who was preferably Latin and that could help me with the arrangements. Initially I though I had found one, I explained the project to him, and he seemed to be on board, but one month before the show he cancelled, and no arrangements had been done yet. I felt disappointed and angry.
Luckily at the time I had been running a jazz series with many musicians rotating to play with me, the "Mascalzone Jazz Nights Series". It was during that time that I was able to meet Barry Sames, a transplant form Philadelphia into Houston, and not only he was a monster musician when it came to American Jazz, he seemed to do very well too in Latin and Brazilian, and he also seemed like someone that I could depend on to get things done.
With 3 1/2 weeks left to the show I talked to him to see if we wanted to help me write the arrangements and he agreed, and that's how we embarked in this project together. We started meeting to craft out the sounds, the rhythms, the structure, and the intention of each song.
And it turns out, working with Barry was the best thing that happened. Barry, although is not from Latin America, is super creative when it comes to arranging and had a wide experience playing Latin Jazz, as well as other world rhythms. The arrangements started to take shape and they were great. He added very interesting melodic lines for some of the intros. We experimented with different sounds and styles for each song, and he could translate all my ideas and sentiments into the sheet of music paper.
Barry Sames and Raquel Cepeda backstage overviewing the music before the Discovery Green show. On the far Left, drummer Orlando Fuentes, followed by trumpeter Felix DeLeon in the distance. Photo by Santi Pinzon.
Through my residency at Mascalzone running the jazz series I was also able to come across Houston bass player Thomas Helton, who proved himself well versed with Latin and Brazilian, and who furthermore impressed me because of his creativity and his sensibility. I found out later that he does a lot experimental music, and I was able to attend one of his concerts while visiting New York with my husband one day. Interestingly, regardless of the dissonant aspect of experimental music, his performance was very nice to hear, and right there I could see where some of that creativity and sensibility was coming from. Because of his work with experimental music Thomas didn't have any reservations with his instrument. He was able to squeeze any sound imaginable eloquently. He would tune into a sentiment and spell it out in a way that it would end up dripping off your skin. I wanted that.
Thomas Helton (right) soloing during the Passion concert at Mucky Duck. Raquel Cepeda left, and Barry Sames back.
Then percussion. I wanted to incorporate Brazilian rhythms in addition to Latin rhythms, and I knew exactly who to call: Cassio Duarte. A Brazilian percussionist based in Houston with an incredible trajectory, has recorded, played, and toured with important Brazilian figures including Gal Costa.
Cassio Duarte (front) and Orlando Fuentes (back) during the Passion concert at Mucky Duck.
That was the initial ensemble. Five of us at Mucky Duck. The concert happened on November 21 of 2017, and it was great, in spite of the intense effort in getting it all done and rehearsed in such a short amount of time.
When I started this project I only focused in doing something worth showing for the invitation at Mucky Duck, and honestly didn't know if there would be a follow up, or didn't expect any further repercussions. But neither I knew that the final product was going to end up being so much fun and that at the same time that there would be such a high demand for Latin Jazz by the Houston community.
Ever since we did the show at Mucky Duck I've kept getting requests for Latin Jazz performances. That's why the invitation by Da Camera to play at Discovery Green came as such a pleasant surprise.
For the concert at Discovery Green we did a septet, incorporating Ernesto Camilo Vega, amazing Cuban sax/clarinet/flute player, and Felix DeLeon, Houston Trumpet player. Barry and I sat down again to draft out ideas for the horns. The final arrangements turned out to be explosive.
When I talked to Brandon Bell, the organizer of the concert for Da Camera, to thank him after the performance at Discovery Green, he told me that the set was exactly what they were looking for.
I couldn't feel more honored to hear those words.
Naming the project
How do you choose the name for a band? You may ask.
I call the project Passion.
It was the first thing that came to my mind ever since our fist show at Mucky Duck. And sometimes as an artist you have to trust those gut impulses, even if your brain questions why, or tries to convince you that is silly or that it won't work.
And in the end, passion is what Latin music and Latin culture is all about. Latinos love and express their love intensely. And this music has that intensity. In its lyrics. In its rhythms. It's dark and yet is light. Is deep and yet it makes you want to move. It's all heart. It's all sensual. Yet it has the elegance and poise of Jazz music.
Raquel Cepeda during the Passion concert at Discovery Green. Photo by Helton Mendes
What comes next?
I will continue with my other projects doing American Jazz, Brazilian music, and who knows which other interesting projects continue to come about as a challenge to take upon, in parallel to this. Life is an ever ending process of reinventing yourself, evolving, learning, growing. No need to fall into categories.
But what comes next in this project is to keep incorporating new repertoire and new arrangements, responding to commitments, and recording this material at the studio. More importantly, finding the funding to do the recording, which in my case is never a cheap endeavor. I tend to be a perfectionist, and that costs me money, but in the end it also gives me wonderful rewards. Once I have a funding plan in place I'll be setting up a date to get this wonderful material documented.
And from there on, wherever Passion takes us.
Lots of love.
Passion Septet at Discovery Green. Photo by Helton Mendes