In conversation with edmar castaneda
By Tomas PeŮa
What kind of a reaction do you get when you walk into a jazz club or a contemporary performance venue with your harp in hand?
I used to go to jam sessions with (tres player) Nelson Gonzalez. There were two places Ö one of them was Nellís. I used to go there and watch the musicians play, I really loved the music. So one day I went to Nellís with my harp and asked if I could play and I forget who the person was but they asked, ďCan you play another instrument, something smaller?Ē And I said no, no, no, if you donít like it, or it doesnít work I will go away and thatís it. Just let me try once.Ē I have been playing ever since.
As for jazz clubs, in the beginning people would say, ďHarp? I donít know if the audience is going to like it.Ē But after they saw us perform they usually changed their minds.
To what extent does the harp play a role in Colombian music?
In joropo, the harp is the main instrument, followed by the cuatro, maracas and bass. We share that tradition with Venezuela, itís the same music. The harp also plays a role in South American music but it used in a different context.
You started playing the harp at the age of thirteen. What prompted you to choose the harp?
I started dancing joropo when I was seven. My mother did not have anyone to take care of my sister (Johanna) and me, so on Saturdays she would to take us to music school to study folkloric dance. Thatís where I first saw the harp. Also, my father is a musician.
What instrument does your father play?
The harp, the piano and the cuatro. We didn't live together but he taught me a lot about music. He taught me how to play the cuatro. I always have a little bit of my father's influence.
Where did you study?
I have no formal training. I studied with my family and friends and learned a couple of folk tunes. Later I went to Medellin and learned other types of music. I didnít meet jazz until I came to this country.
Speaking of jazz and the harp, are you aware of the fact that Alice Coltrane played the harp?
You saw her?
Yes, I attended her last concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 2007.
Oh wow! How was it?
It was wonderful, her music was very spiritual. Did Alice Coltrane influence you in any way?
No, I never listened to harpists.
Really? Who do you listen to?
Right now I am listening to Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Brad Mehldau.
So you chose pianists over harpists. Who were your influences early on?
Percussionists as well as Danilo Perez and Chick Corea. I played the trumpet in high school (in Colombia) and graduated from college (in the U.S.) as a trumpet player.
Really? What college did you graduate from?
Five Towns College in Long Island. Thatís where I developed my jazz ďchops.Ē I applied everything learned to the harp.
I went to college during the day and performed at a restaurant called Meson Ole at night. Bascially, I played music all day (in school) then I would go to the restaurant and jam. I played solo so I was forced to experiment and play all of the parts.
That explains why you sound like a one man band.
Letís talk about your trio, which consists of a harp, trombone and drums. By any stretch, itís an unusual combination.
I know itís weird to imagine.
Why did you choose this particular configuration?
I really love the trombone. When I met Marshall Gilkes I really liked his sound, heís a virtuoso on his instrument. When I met Dave Silliman he was playing the cajones with a flamenco group. Then I found out that he also plays the drums (traps) so invited him to play on my first recording, Cuarto de Colores, which is a duo/trio project. When we were doing the initial sound check we realized that, wow, this really works! Thatís how the trio came to be.
Your wife, vocalist Andrea Tierra also performs with the trio.
Yes, she usually sings with us. We just finished her new album, itís called Melodia Verde. She also writes poetry. The repertoire consists of Latin American tunes and jazz. Itís really nice.
I look forward to hearing it. Whatís the status on your new recording?
We are still in the studio. The recording is in the mixing process.
What can we expect to hear?
Itís the trio with special guests, guitarist John Scofield on one track and vibraphonist Joe Locke and my wife Andrea.
What kind of material did you choose?
Conceptually, itís similar to my first recording. It contains some of the material you heard at the Jazz Standard.
Would you call it jazz?
Hmmm (laughter). Itís not jazz and itís not strictly Latin American Ö I call it Pan Americana jazz. It has influences from Cuba, Colombia and Brazil.
I ask everyone this question, whatís in your CD player at home or in your car as we speak?
Brad Mehldau and Maria Schneider. I am really into them right now.
Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual and/or religious person?
Iím a Christian.
I got the sense that you were very spiritual when you performed (the tune) ďJesus of NazarethĒ at the Jazz Standard. It was very moving.
This whole thing with the harp is because of him, the music is his creation and I am just doing what he tells me to do. I hope that my music plays a part in changing the world.
Him meaning God. No doubt you are aware of the association between trumpets (Gabriel the archangel) and harps (angels in general). That should give our readers something to think about!
Have you ever taught?
No, I donít have the time right now.
The reason I ask is because you are single handedly taking the harp in a new direction and there is no one else who does what you do.
I performed at a harp conference in Detroit a few weeks ago. Afterwards, I received an e-mail from an eleven year-old harpist who saw me perform. He said that watching me play was an amazing experience. I hope it changes the way he sees the harp.
No doubt it will. Is that your mission? To change the way the world views the harp?
My hope is that the harp will become a main instrument in all types of music.
From your lips to Godís ears. Thank you for speaking with Jazz.com.