In conversation with zaccai curtis

By Tomas Peña

                           Pianist and composer Zaccai Curtis

How’s this for a coincidence? My fiancé (Nilsa) knows your parents. In fact, she attended one of your performances, when (as she put it) “you were just kids!”

Oh, wow!

More important, she mentioned that your parents were very supportive. Did they facilitate a music program for children in Hartford (Connecticut)?

Actually, there were a few parents that were involved. I think the program you are talking about is a Latin jazz program that was run by a guy named Joe Velez. He used to bring in his charts and have us rehearse simple tunes like "Oye Como Va" and "Sofrito."

After a few years the program was canceled so we continued to rehearse in our basement. In time we formed a group called Latin Flavor. We performed locally, opening up for other acts at The Hartford Center for the Arts and The Artists Collective

How old were you?

We were pretty young, probably about twelve or thirteen. It was me, my brother Luques and Joel (the trumpet player). We also participated in programs at The Jackie Mc Lean School and a salsa program called Guakia.

Did you start out playing the piano?

I started out playing the congas and classical piano. Luques also started out on the congas and my eldest brother, Damien plays the piano.

What is Damien doing now?

He’s a producer and the leader of his own band. He goes under the name, King Solomon.

Then it was off to the New England Conservatory, where you formed The Rhythmic Prophecies Quartet and were chosen to participate in Lincoln Center’s American Music Abroad Program. That must have been quite an experience …

It was awesome. We traveled to Bangladesh, Mumbai, India, Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Just to clarify, the members of the Rhythmic Prophecy Quartet were you, Luques (bass), Richie Barshay (drums) and Reinaldo de Jesus (percussion). How was your music received over there?

The audiences were very receptive, the venues were packed and the musicians were great. They were really open. I have some video clips from the trip the trip I am going to post on You Tube.

Some time ago I received a copy of Richie Barshay’s recording, Homework (2005). I was amazed at his command of North Indian percussion. Now I “get” the connection.

Actually, Richie was studying North Indian percussion before we went to India! But he was really glad to go on that trip!

Do you and Luques still perform with drummer, Ralph Peterson’s trio?

We still perform with Ralph. We performed at Cecil’s in New Jersey, and Smoke and Sweet Rhythm in New York.

How did you hook up with Ralph?

Through my brother Luques … I will never forget the first time I played with Ralph. I was completely blown away. In my opinion, and the in the opinion of many others Ralph is Art Blakey’s protégé. He is one of the greats.

Let’s talk about The Curtis Brothers. In the liner-notes for Insight, A Genesis you mention that your music is African-based with influences from Puerto Rico, Cuba, South America, Central America, Europe and Asia. In other words, influences from everywhere!

We grew up listening to all kinds of music, everything from Fela Kuti to John Coltrane. Lately, I have been exploring Afro-Puerto Rican music. I am looking into the connections between the slaves in Puerto Rico and West Africa.

You recently participated in Papo Vazquez’ recording, Marooned/Aislado (Picaro Records). Speaking of Afro-Puerto Rican music, no one does it better!

Papo has taken Afro-Puerto Rican music to another level. He has always been a big influence …

So that’s going to be your new focus?

We are going to go straight to the roots! By the same token, if someone wants to bring something new to the group I am always open. We are constantly changing the music and keeping it fresh for ourselves.

In the liner notes you state that, “The world is in need of a wake-up call.” Also, tunes like "Sudan" and "Darfur" are a clear indication that the group has a political conscience.

It’s funny that you would mention that. I was talking to Damien yesterday and we noticed that a lot of young artists are starting to speak up. Check out Erykah Badu’s Amerykah. Change begins with the artists.

True. The artists generally sound the call …

For the record, I am not trying to push my political views on anyone. But if I don’t speak out who will? That is one of the reasons that we choose to not get involved with a record label. I don’t want anyone telling us what we can, or cannot do. We want to create music that feels real. I am really lucky that everyone else in the band feels the same way. We are lucky to have each other.

Overall, Insight, A Genesis has received very good reviews. I particularly like Chip Boaz’ commentary: “By taking a challenging and original road towards a musical statement, Insight has created a personalized performance style that pushes Latin jazz on a journey towards the future.”

It’s a great compliment because Latin Jazz is the music of Andy Gonzalez, Hilton Ruiz and Eddie Palmieri and we learned everything from them.

Eddie has influenced everybody. It must have been a thrill when he said, “Give these guys a couple of years and they are going to blow everyone off the stage!”

When he said that I was like, Wow! Eddie has always been my hero, my number one cat. Just meeting him and having him listen to the group was a great experience. Luques is a member of Eddie’s salsa and jazz band.

Who are some of the other artists you have worked with as a sideman?

I’ve worked with Donald Harrison, Brian Lynch, Bill Saxton, Charles Flores, Kendrick Oliver, Sean Jones, Christian Scott, Jimmy Greene, Albert Rivera and Will Calhoun among others.

Before we conclude, where do you see the music going?

There’s definitely a split. A lot of the young musicians are frustrated by the fact that the big corporations literally “own” the jazz festivals and the venues but no one is talking about. That’s why we have chosen to remain independent.

So when can we expect another recording from The Curtis Brothers?

Right now I have enough material for four recordings! The only thing standing in the way is money!

Where have I heard that before? {Laughter}. Congratulations on a fine performance at The Jazz Gallery and good luck with your upcoming gig at The Nuyorican Poets Café.

Thank you Tomas.


June 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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