In conversation with andrea brachfeld
By Tomas Peńa
I don’t think I have ever seen you in public without your flute. Wasn’t it pianist Barry Harris who said, “If you can’t carry your instrument you shouldn’t be playing it”?
Yes, he always said you should carry your instrument with you.
I understand that you grew up in an environment where it was “mandatory” to play the piano. Define “mandatory.”
It was a suburban thing. You know, your parents would say, “you have go to dance class; you have to study the piano …”
Ah, the suburban mentality!
You started out playing the piano then switched to the flute at the age of ten.
But I continued taking piano lessons until I was thirteen.
Did you take up the flute because you had an affinity for the instrument or because you could skip the regular classes to take music lessons?
I think it was a little bit of both!
After grade school you attended The High School of Music and Art …
Actually, after grade school I went to live in France for one year.
Did living in France have an impact on your music?
It had more to do with broadening my life. My father was a professor and he’s from France.
When you returned from France you attended The High School of Music and Art and some of your classmates were (the late) Noel Pointer, Dave Valentin and Nat Adderly Jr. among others.
Also Buddy Williams, Earl McIntyre. There were so many people there.
I have fond memories of Noel Pointer. His artistry left a lasting impression on me.
Yes, he was a great musician.
Looking back, what do you remember most about Noel?
It’s interesting. I haven’t thought about this in a long time. Noel, (drummer) Paul Kimbarow, Hector Cente?o, Frankie Cente?o, and I used to get together at Gregory Coverdale’s house and jam until all hours of the night.
What kind of music did you all play?
I don’t know, we just jammed and played. That happened all through high school. I have no idea how my mother allowed me to do that … it was a house with three of four floor and people were just strewn about (laughter).
Sounds like fun!
Noel came from a very high-class, learned African-American family who really valued education. He was a classical musician and the first musician to sign with GRP Records (Dave Grusin’s label). Then he got (vocalist) Angie Bofill signed and she got (flutist) Dave Valentin signed. In any case, there was a lot of music going on at the time.
Unlike the music scene today.
You know what? It’s all good. It depends on your outlook. If you think that there is a lot of work, it comes to you. If you think there isn’t a lot of work, then it doesn’t. I truly believe in the law of attraction. Maybe I am not gigging all the time but I am always busy doing tons of things, I am diversified in what I do.
Do you manage your own career and handle your own publicity?
Yes, I also have a deal with a publishing company and I have all of my copyrighted material with them. Do you know Dave Weckl?
Dave Weckl, the drummer.
Right. He has diversified like a mother, he is all over the place with what he does and I really respect him. I use him as a model because he is always into something, writing a new book, or teaching online or whatever it is. It’s probably something that more musicians should do. There are a group of artists in the Latin jazz and salsa realms who manage themselves and are like that . . . Willie Martinez, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel, Jimmy Bosch, Ray Vega, we are all doing the same thing.
Kudos to all of you.
It’s not hard, it’s just time consuming.
Early in your career the Jazzmobile and the Jazz Interactions Workshop played a role in your musical development. Unfortunately, these programs are not as prevalent as they once were.
At that time they didn’t have jazz in the universities so those were the jazz universities of the street.
And a great way to pass down knowledge the old-fashioned way.
But it wasn’t one-on-one, it was a group situation. It was the beginnings of jazz education.
Today there are universities and colleges teaching jazz but where do the musicians go to woodshed and how do they get gigs?
That’s the part that a lot of people don’t really understand. Trying to get gigs and stuff like that . . . if you sound like everybody else you are dispensable.
The other day I went to The Iridium to see Jimmy Heath, one of my mentors. When I arrived, there he was standing right in front of me. When he saw me he said, “Hello Andrea, what are you doing here?” and I said, “What do you think?” (Laughter) Then he invited me to sit with his family, it was so sweet. So I heard Jimmy’s band and it was great. Afterwards, Antonio Hart came up to me and said, “You are Andrea Brachfeld, aren’t you?” and I said “Yeah!” Then he said, “Jimmy talks about you all the time, he thinks you are a great flute player,” and asked if he could study with me.”
What’s wrong with that?
I guess I was just a little taken aback.
I am always amazed by the fact that many musicians are so humble. I can’ tell you how many times I have said to a musician, “Man, I really dig your music, or “I can’t stop listening to your CD,” and invariably they reply, “Really?” Two people who come to mind are (percussionist) Daniel Ponce and (saxophonist) Paquito D’ Rivera. That was years ago but it stills happens today.
Well, the thing is for me everything happens so fast. I am such an intense person and my life is so intense and I am growing every day. I will play something and think to myself, “You know I could have played that much better.”
I can relate to that. I often feel that way about my writing.
Though in the past six or seven years I have felt really good about my playing, but I think that has a lot to do with the fact that my spiritual life has deepened.
Do you belong to a particular religious group?
No, not particularly, I am into world peace.
Ah, an optimist!
It starts with the person. I think I have always known that when I play it’s not me playing per se; I mean I am playing the flute but the music is coming through me. When you come to understand that you are part of a bigger spectrum . . . you become very humble.
You are not the first musician to say that. Pianist Omar Sosa told me the same thing.
So getting back to your life… I find it very intriguing that you would pick-up and move to Venezuela based on the strength of a phone call (in Spanish) that you didn’t understand. Which led to your living and performing there for two-and-a-half years, right? Has the situation for women improved?
When I got the phone call I really didn’t understand what the guy was saying but eventually I came to understand that he wanted to build a band around a woman flute player, so I committed to going there for one month.
Long story short, I was with him for a year then I played in the only jazz club in Caracas for eight months. It was wonderful getting into the jazz thing. Anyone who passed through Caracas would pass through that club because it was the only on in town. I got to meet all of these wonderful musicians.
Obviously that is where you learned how to speak Spanish.
I actually learned it in the street. I would walk around with my dictionary and ask, “Que signifca eso?” (What is that?)
So have things improved for women in Venezuela or no?
I’m not sure. I haven’t been there for a while. I was pretty oblivious to the situation before I got married to my first husband. Here (in the states) I am considered a rebel so in Venezuela I was off the charts!
What prompted you to leave Venezuela?
I left for medical reasons. I was pregnant and I couldn’t find a doctor I liked. Also I was very concerned about “La Cola,” do you know what that means?
“La Cola” is a traffic jam. I was so concerned about getting caught in a traffic jam and not being able to make it to the doctor on time.
In Puerto Rico we call traffic jams “Tapones.”
By then I had had enough. Interestingly, I had a feeling about the country. It was a new money oil country and people were not appreciating that. I had a funny feeling that something was going to happen with the economy and it wasn’t good for me. A few months after I left the economy collapsed.
Let’s talk about your Afro Cuban/Latin influences.
I was playing at this place called the Tin Palace in the Bowery (New York). I went to sit and (the late flutist) Mauricio Smith asked if I was working and if I knew how to play charanga music and I said no. Anyway, he turned me on to Mike Perez from the Charanga band, Tipica New York who is not the violin player for Orquesta Sublime. Felix Wilkins, a Panamanian flutist who was playing with the band was leaving so he took me on as his apprentice. So I played with Mike’s band and I had no idea what I was doing. I was really into jazz but I needed the work.
Still, you went on to perform with quite a few charanga bands.
From there I played with The Benito Sextet and Charanga ’76. I have to say, I was pretty unaware. . . . It’s almost as if some force had carried me along in my life.
Looking back on that period in your life how was it?
It was great. I hung out with Frank “Machito” Grillo and he would talk about Charlie Parker. I sat in with Tito Puente. They wouldn’t hire a flute player, but I sat in with them anyway. Everybody knew each other. It was wonderful.
When I was with Charanga ’76 we were doing about nine gigs per week. At the time I was going to The Manhattan School of Music and it provided the budget I needed to live. So it was a real blessing. I also played with Conjunto Libre for awhile …
Did you record with Conjunto Libre?
They offered me a recording but it didn’t happen because of me. It’s a long story. It’s probably one of the few things that I have regretted in my life but it’s OK. Anyway, I played with Tipica Ideal, Charanga America, Tipica Novel and I had my own jazz group.
So jazz has always been an important part of your life …
Absolutely and that is the direction I am going in now.
Which brings us to your new recording: Into the World: A Musical Offering. What was the concept going in?
It was very important for me to make a recording with my original music. My intention is to broaden the scope of my music, my audience and my fan base, thus the name Into the World. When I started writing the music I had a purpose but most of the time I don’t, it just sort of comes out. When I started writing “Passing Friends” my intention was to write a piece of music with the Kalimba (African thumb piano) and then it just developed and turned into this whole other thing.
On “Mambo Yo” I wanted to specifically use the congas as a melodic instrument and it kind of evolved into this mambo, Latin jazz kind of thing. You know it’s interesting. My intention has changed from the time that I wrote the tune to now. At first, the intent was to reach a wider audience but now it is a real conscious process of healing people. That’s where my head is at. I am learning how to play the Indian flute and ragas and I have collected a bunch of spiritual moral fables with the intention of performing healing music at yoga meditation centers.
Vicki Sola (Producer/Host of the long-running radio show, Que Viva La Musica) mentioned to me that you are a very spiritual person. Interestingly, when I hear the music of [your band] Phoenix Rising that side of you comes through.
Wow, thank you! People have come up to me recently and said “your music is so healing.” I just didn’t know that that was happening but since I have gotten into yoga and meditation it has become a very strong and pure intention. I got into doing yoga at my house about eight years ago and I found an incredible teacher who lives five minutes away. About six months ago I was driving by an Ashram that is twenty minutes from my house. Mind you, I have driven by the Ashram a thousand times before but this time I went in. Now I am studying the Bhagavad-Gita. I try to reinforce that everyday so that I can keep that vibe happening. Sometimes it’s really hard!
On another topic, I am a big fan of the group Sakesho. I like what you did their tune, “Karawak Dreams.”
I love that tune. Two of my favorite records are Sakesho and Maferefun by Tony Martinez and the Cuban Power.
Speaking of great music, the late Cuban flutist, Richard Egues was one of your mentors. . . .
He was a big influence. I went to Cuba in 2003 and he sold me a five key flute.
A charanga flute.
Yes. I have a workshop that drummer, educator Bobby Sanabaria help me put together that talks about the origins of the Cuban flute.
Tell me more.
I put it together awhile ago and every once in awhile someone is interested. This week I am doing a workshop with the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra. They have a jazz camp.
So you present the history of the Cuban flute. How do you go about it? Do you demonstrate as you go along?
It’s actually a multi-media presentation. I have DVD’s and sound-clips.
So there is no live music in the presentation?
I perform when the budget allows for it.
That sounds like a presentation that would go over well in the public school system.
You know that I am an ESL (English as a Second Language) and Bilingual teacher.
Yes. I understand you have earned six certifications.
The things that I could be during the day I am unable to do because I am teaching. The summer is when I do most other things.
What are you listening to at home, or in your car?
Classical Indian flute, Jimmy Heath and Frank Wess.
What’s in the future for Andrea Brachfeld?
At this point I am concentrating on my Latin jazz group, Phoenix Rising and my meditation and devotional music.
I find it interesting that your presence is low key but you are always present. Do you know what I mean?
I guess so. I try to be consistent with my life. Maybe that’s what you mean. I just keep plugging along.
Is there anything you would like to add before we close?
I also invited Mike Long and Paul Wess to appear on my recording. I studied with Mike and Paul was one of the directors of the Jazzmobile. I thought it was pretty amazing that they agreed to play on the recording, it was such an honor.
Like coming full circle. . . .
Yes. Beyond that, my dream has always been to write music and have wonderful musicians play it and that started to happen ten years ago, so anything that happens in addition to that is just gravy! Just amazing!
Thank you Andrea and good luck with your recording.
Thank you for doing this!