Interview by Irina Echarry
HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 26 — A composer, arranger, educator, pianist, conductor and music producer, Alexis Bosch is one of Cuba’s most versatile musicians. He has ascended in his career as a jazz musician performing on major national and international stages. At the same time, he is a permanent judge for the JoJazz competition, which is currently holding its fourteenth edition.
Alexis has a regular venue where he’s presented along with his group Proyecto Jazz Cubano: it’s the ACDAM courtyard, where there’s room for everyone who wants to relax and enjoy.
Anyone would think that it would be impossible for him to have time for anything except work, but it turns out that for Alexis, work and enjoyment is the same thing. Despite being focused on mixing a disc, he quickly and kindly agreed to answer a few questions for readers of Havana Times.
HT: Is there such a thing as Cuban jazz, or Latin jazz made in Cuba or by Cubans?
Alexis Bosch: There’s no official category of “Cuban jazz,” but I’m convinced that it’s very different from Latin jazz, at least the standard type, which I feel is nothing more than the model that the jazz industry in New York imposes on the rest of the world.
HT: What’s the difference?
AB: In my opinion, the difference is in the selection of the rhythmic patterns. Like salsa, Latin jazz uses rhythmic cells that are less evolved. Cuban jazz uses rhythmic cells that are more evolved in their mixture with rumba and other internal and external influences.
This evolved and mutated phenomenon could only occur in its creative source, in its country of origin: Cuba – and it’s no more than modern Cuban dance music. This mixture has a bolder, louder, more open and sometimes invasive sound that’s much stronger than traditional Latin jazz. This is something analogous to what happens between salsa and “timba.”
This is only talking about this kind of mixture with jazz. If we consider the enormous range of Cuban rhythms, these even further personalize the Cuban concept of jazz. In my group, I work on compositions mixed with pilon, guajira, changüi, danzon, quadrille and other styles from the vast harvest of rhythms that we’re fortunate to have on our island.
HT: Do you think that there are important differences between the jazz made in Cuba and that of Cubans living outside the island?
AB: In my opinion there aren’t any essential differences. Maybe those who live outside the island at some point become outdated in relation to things happening here, but this depends on the individual’s interest in preserving their roots and keeping them nourished on our national culture.
Sometimes other cultures and customs relating to the places where someone lives are seen in their work. In terms of this, there are those who rate some artists as good and others bad or contaminated, but I think it’s completely subjective and has to do with the taste and concepts of each individual.
HT: When did JoJazz emerge and why? Do you think it was a necessity?
AB: JoJazz emerged 14 years ago from an idea of ??Alexis Vasquez, who at that time was the director of the Centro Nacional de Musica Popular. Alexis — an artist at his core — realized that the Jazz Plaza Festival didn’t provide enough room for all the young people who were being trained in music schools. Somehow it ended up as a competition, but the original idea was to find another framework for jazz musicians.
HT: How important has the event been for Cuban music?
AB: It’s of great importance. Jazz musicians are generally musicians of high technical levels. But usually, for economic reasons, these musicians get involved with other styles of music. Musicians who have come out of JoJazz have gone on to join dance music groups or pop artists or have gotten into romantic music, but they’re able to contribute ideas from their point of observation. I think it’s a great help for the evolution of our music.
HT: We know that you’ve been serving on the JoJazz jury for many years. How would you say the competition has evolved in terms of its organization and the level of the participants?
AB: I’d like to talk about the level of the participants first.
In the early years they were very strong. Some great musicians were presented, and even some of the ones who didn’t win any prizes or only received honorable mention or third place are today important musicians in jazz. The quality has gone down. My opinion is that young people have lost some respect for the competition. Now they participate in it to the detriment of the quality of the event and their own integrity as future artists.
HT: Currently, can we speak of a Cuban youth jazz movement?
AB: The Colibri recording company has been working a lot with young Cuban jazz artists. It’s a tremendous boost if we consider that what’s always expected from Cuba are sequin-light shows with the same sounds: guarachas and congas, traditional Cuban music or dance groups.
If there now exists a young Cuban jazz movement, much of that is owed to Colibri (Gloria Ochoa and Martica Bonet), to JoJazz (Alexis Vasquez) and strong system of music education on the island. But none of this guarantees the learning of jazz; it only provides a strong technical foundation that facilitates training in this style.
I have the satisfaction of having worked as a music producer and as a pianist on several projects with Colibri.
HT: Despite the number of musicians who are interested and passionate about the genre, students complain that schools aren’t teaching jazz. Do you know why not? What do you think of opening a jazz academy?
AB: I think they feel the need to learn this music within the system and I think that’s because they realize it’s a style where you need a high level of training to play it. They have this, and it — coupled with a clear individual vocation and interest — raises expectations in that respect.
Opening a jazz academy is something I consider a brilliant idea. Let’s hope God hears us…and pays us attention.
HT: When someone wants to know about JoJazz, they have to go to the official site of the Jazz Plaza Festival. Do you know why JoJazz doesn’t have its own website that provides information about it, especially since it’s supposed to be a separate event?
AB: I don’t know why. In my opinion it should be completely independent. It is an independent event. In fact, the festival isn’t competitive and it’s on a different date. The only link between the two is their focus on jazz. Hopefully God is also hearing this.
HT: We know that Colibri records some of the younger musicians. Do you think there’s any chance that other Cuban labels will record the work of young jazz musicians?
AB: Colibri is basically the one taking on this work with young and not-so-young musicians, but there are other Cuban labels recording jazz. Bismusic is one of them; maybe they don’t have the younger ones in their catalog but they put out a lot of jazz records. To cite just a few CDs that have been Cubadisco award winners in the jazz category, there are:
– the CD Amor & Piano. A tribute to Frank Emilio with 10 young pianists from two or three different generations
– the CD Andante Cesar Lopez y Habana Ensemble
– the CD Delirium de Ernan Lopez-Nussa.
I had the pleasure of participating on two of them: on Amor & Piano as a pianist and the arranger of the song I played, and on Andante I was the pianist, arranger and composer of two songs as well as the music producer.
HT: What are the requirements for the JoJazz contestants?
AB: I’m not very good at remembering the basics of the program, but like all competitions there are age ranges. There are three categories: minors (16 to 20 years of age, as soloists), young adults (21 to 30 as soloists), and instrumental formats (with no limit on the number of members). Those in the performing category have to play three compulsory styles: standards, Latin and free. Those in the composition category range in age from 16 to 30, and can have up to two works in the competition.
HT: Is something special planned for this year?
AB: We’re hoping to be surprised by some young intellectually and naturally improvising virtuoso, something that JoJazz hasn’t enjoyed for some time. Hopefully that will be what’s special about this edition…so let’s hope God is continuing to listen.
HT: Finally we would like to know if you have a definition of jazz?
AB: A definition is a big commitment, even more for me, as I’m not an analyst or musicologist. In fact one of the things most difficult and valuable in a dictionary is to come up with a clear and sufficiently brief definition that gives a concrete idea of a meaning. I can answer by giving my opinion: jazz is my perspective, my effort, my fantasy, a dream and my life itself. Jazz is freedom, invention, utopia and imagination. You feel free playing it, and that’s priceless.
HT: Can you tell us anything about your participation in Jazz Plaza, which starts on December 15?
AB: In Jazz Plaza I’ll be present with my group Proyecto Jazz Cubano. I’ll be playing at the Casa de Cultura, which — while not the main site of the festival — is the site of the historical creation of the festival that came from an idea by Bobby Carcasses more than 25 years ago. It has always been the main site in that sense, and I really don’t understand why it isn’t designated as such.
By the way, I’d like to comment that it’s a shame that after 27 years our Jazz Plaza Festival continues to have such a low level of organization, and that now — after more than a quarter century of existence — we’re still at the point of not being able to maintain a web page with all the information throughout the year. We’re unable to do something as basic as providing the programming for the upcoming festival no less than six or eight months in advance.
HT: Thanks for your responses, Alexis. It’s been a pleasure.