In conversation with francisco mela

By Tomas Peña

                           Francisco Mela by Elio Solera

Francisco Mela is obviously a strong believer in the maxim, "Practice makes perfect." When I caught up with him via telephone, he was diligently practicing to the music of saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Aaron Parks. Later, he told me that when he's not performing, he's practicing--sometimes up to 12 hours a day. Such single-mindedness is obviously working, if the glowing reviews given his latest album—Cirio, on the Half Note label—are any evidence. Released in 2008, Cirio is Mela’s most important and heartfelt recording to date. He wrote six of the album's eight compositions, dedicating two of them to family members. Mela calls his music "Free Jazz Latin," yet he admits that, at the end of the day, he's basically "A Latino guy who plays jazz." Read on, as "Franciscito" Mela talks about his life, his music, and his plans for the future.

Cirio is dedicated to your father: a man who dedicated his life to both the arts and his family. In a recent interview you described the recording as a 'family object.'

Cirio is a very significant recording for me. While I was composing the music for it, my father was making a recording in Cuba. After he completed the recording, he called me and asked if I would listen to it and give him some feedback. He mailed the recording to my son, who was living in Cancun, Mexico at the time. To make a long story short, by the time I received the recording my father had died, so I wasn’t able to answer him. Cirio is my answer, and I dedicated the recording to his memory.

You also composed a tune for your mother ('Maria') and your newborn son ('Urick Mela').

As I mentioned before, when all of this happened I was composing the music for Cirio, so I decided to write a tune for my mother, who lives in Cuba. I didn’t want what happened with my father to happen again. At the same time, my wife was pregnant, so I wrote a tune for my son, Urick.

Given the circumstances, what prompted you to make a live recording? Wouldn’t it have been easier to record in a controlled environment?

I have a relationship with the Blue Note [the New York jazz club], so when Half Note Records asked me if I wanted to make a recording I said, 'Why not?' I had all of this material and I wasn’t signed to a record company, so I just did it. Tomas, I have to be very honest with you, it was a good experience, but it was very hard. In the studio you can fix a lot of stuff, but live, whatever comes out gets recorded.

How long was your engagement at the Blue Note?

We played at the Blue Note for two nights, but all of the material on the album was recorded on the second night. Prior to the performance, all of the band members were busy and we didn’t have time to rehearse, so the first night was a rehearsal.

Amazing. The recording sounds so polished.

I’m surprised that the recording came out as clean and good as it did. When I heard the takes from the first night, I didn’t think we were going to make it. But my band mates made it happen. I give them all five stars!

That would be pianist Jason Moran, bassist Larry Grenadier, saxophonist Mark Turner, and guitarist Lionel Loueke [who also contributed the composition 'Benes,' arranged by Mela]. No doubt you are aware of the fact that the recording has been receiving very favorable reviews. In fact, Cirio made National Public Radio’s Top Ten List for 2008.

I am really happy to hear that.

I have noticed that people seem to have a difficult time describing your music. Some call it 'Latin Jazz' while others call it 'Free Latin Jazz' and/or 'Jazz Latin?' How do you describe your music?

If you listen to the lyrics of 'Pequeña Serenata de Urna' [a tune written Sylvio Rodriguez and performed on Cirio], you will hear me sing, 'Viva Un Pais Libre,' which means that I live in a free country. My music is the result of my culture (Cuba) combined with the freedom I have here, so I call it 'Free Jazz Latin.' My music is labeled as 'Latin' because I am a Latino. But I am a jazz musician. If an Indian musician plays jazz, does that make it Indian jazz? Take Lionel Loueke; he’s an African guy playing jazz. Does that make his music African jazz? He’s a jazz musician.

We live in a society that's obsessed with stuffing things into categories.

I got out of that a lot a long time ago. When I was starting out, I talked with [saxophonist] David Sanchez and [pianist] Danilo Perez about the perception that Latin guys don’t swing. I never put myself in that category. From the beginning, I applied my own techniques to the drum set, and have always considered myself to be a jazz musician. When Joe Lovano and Kenny Barron first heard me play they said, 'Mela, you swing! I don’t know why they say that Latin guys can’t swing!'

When Joe Lovano and Kenny Barron testify that you swing, you swing! Let’s backtrack for a moment. You were born in 1968. You grew up in Bayamo, Cuba, a city full of culture, art and music. Tell me about growing up in Bayamo.

Oh my God, you are going to make me go out and buy a plane ticket! The political situation is … we don’t have the freedom that you have here, but everybody loves their country. Actually, before I got into music, I was a painter.

You painted the portrait of your father which graces the cover of Cirio.

My record company asked me if I planned to continue painting, and I told them that I am thinking about painting my own album covers.

That’s a great idea. It gives you more artistic freedom. Getting back to Bayamo …

I was a painter, but at the same time I played in little combos at the House of Culture in my hometown. We weren’t professional musicians. We played for kids, and at social events—things like that.

You played percussion.

Yes, percussion. Anyway, I went to Havana with my little combo for a festival, and we won the first prize. When I returned to Bayamo, I found out that I had missed the final exam and the school kicked me out!

That’s Escuela de Artes Plasticas, The School of Plastic Arts.

Yes. So I decided that I had to go elsewhere. I was always an artist, a painter, a dancer, and surrounded by music. My father suggested that I major in dance, but I told him that I wanted to be a musician. That’s how I ended up in El Yare music school.

Where you majored in Afro Cuban percussion …

Yes, but when I saw this drummer … Osmany Sanchez, the drummer for Pablo Milanés’ group, I said to myself, 'That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.'

He was a trap drummer, not a percussionist, correct?

Yes. After seeing him I stopped playing the congas and focused all of my energies on the trap drums. I am really happy with what I am doing, and I love my drum set and my music. In fact, right now I am practicing. I practice every day.

How did you become a member of pianist Emiliano Salvador’s band?

                                  Photo by Pavel Korbut

Playing with Emiliano was one of my goals, and I am happy to say that I made it! At the time I was teaching Afro Cuban percussion at the Bayamo Rafael Cabrera Conservatory of Music, and playing with my group, Mela Son, in my hometown. As part of the requirement for teaching at the conservatory, I had to go to Havana for three years and earn a degree. At the same time, I used to watch the Havana Jazz Festival on TV and see guys like Chucho Valdés, Emiliano Salvador and Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

I went to Havana and started playing at jam sessions. Carlitos del Puerto, who was the bass player for Emiliano’s band, heard me play and asked me for my phone number. He also gave me some music to memorize, and invited to me to a recording session. One week later, I went to the studio and met Emiliano and auditioned for the band. He asked me what I wanted to play and I said, 'Samba Conga,' which is one of his most difficult tunes. He just kind of looked at me and said, 'Are you sure?' As soon as he started playing the melody, I jumped in, and he said, 'Wow! That’s the drummer that I need.' Unfortunately, he died three months later, so I only played with him for a short time.

I can’t think of a Cuban pianist who was not influenced by Emiliano. He was way ahead of his time.

Emiliano Salvador is the father of every Cuban pianist. When Emiliano formed the new quartet, Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba used to stop by to greet him and see what was happening. A ton of people used to drop by.

After Emiliano’s band disbanded, you played at the Cancun Jazz Festival with pianist Gabriel Hernandez.

Yes, in fact I just returned from Mexico, where I played with Gabriel.

Tell me about your two bands, Mela Son and Mela Monk.

Mela Son was the first band that I created in Cancun, Mexico with [pianist] Chuchito Valdés. It was Carlos Alfonso on bass and Chuchito on the piano. Also, a conga player named Pupi; I can’t remember his last name. Anyway, I played around and performed at the festival in Cancun.

What about Mela Monk?

Mela Monk was a project that I created in Boston. I was so touched by Thelonious Monk’s music, that I put a quartet together and performed his music all over the world. It was a great project because it gave me the opportunity to travel and perform at international jazz festivals.

Speaking of Boston, pianist Danilo Perez was the person who suggested that you move there.

When I moved to Mexico, I heard about Danilo and someone gave me his phone number. So I called him and we hit it off. When he visited Cancun, he called me, and I invited him to come to come down and hear us play. When he saw my approach to the drums, he suggested that I move to Boston and attend Berklee or the New England Conservatory.

I read somewhere that Danilo gave you some rudimentary piano lessons.

Danilo always encouraged me to write my own music. In fact, he gave me a little keyboard. I composed the tune 'Melao' with the keyboard he gave me.

So you moved to Boston and performed at a jazz club called Wally’s, where you shared the stage with many of the musicians who passed through, including Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Roy Haynes … who just happens to be your mentor, correct?

Yes, Roy Haynes is my biggest influence, and I love him very much! Some of my other influences are Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, but Roy is the person I connect with the most.

How old is Roy now?

He’s 83. I just spoke to him last week. He said that he is going to come down to the Vanguard [in January] and hear me play. I went to see him perform at Birdland and sat-in with his band. I sang some Afro Cuban chants over his drumming, and he liked it so much, he suggested that he wants to record it on his next album. If he comes down to the Vanguard, I'm going to ask him to sit in.

That’s something I would enjoy seeing. What school did you attend when you moved to Boston?

I applied for the New England Conservatory, but things didn’t work out as planned. When I arrived in Boston, I was told that I would probably get a full scholarship. But it didn’t happen, so I stayed around and I became the house drummer for Wally’s and gigged with some of the professors at Berklee. One day, while I was on tour with Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana, I received a phone call from Berklee saying, 'Mela, this is the percussion department at Berklee, we are offering you a job.' The funny thing is, I didn’t understand what they were saying, so I handed the phone to Jane [Bunnett], and she confirmed the fact that Berklee was offering me a job! [Laughs]

I want to talk about an album that you made with bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and pianist Aruán Ortiz called Junjo (Ayva Music). It’s her debut album and sort of an underground classic.

I don’t even have that album!

Why didn’t it receive more attention?

Junjo and Melao, my first recording as a leader, were both released on Ayva Music, which is based in Spain. I don’t think they are around anymore.

That explains it, sort of. Hopefully, another record company will pick them up and re-release them at some point.

I have been thinking about that; I would like to see that happen.

When you're not leading your own group, you work as a sideman with pianist Kenny Barron.

Yes, I play with the Kenny Barron Trio, and Esperanza Spalding, and I am a member of Joe Lovano’s new quintet. In fact, we just recorded a new album with Joe Lovano, and I just recorded The Traveler with Kenny Barron.

I am curious to know what kind of music you listen to when you are not 'on the job.'

When I woke up today I took a shower, plugged into my I-Pod, put on a set of headphones and started drumming over Wayne Shorter’s Alegria and the new recording by Aaron Parks. I am also listening to the music of Charlie Hunter.

How often do you practice?

You should ask my wife! When I am not working I practice up to 12 hours a day, which is practically the whole day!

You have an upcoming gig at the Village Vanguard, running from January 27th to February 4th.

Yes. I invite everyone to come down and join us.

I look forward to seeing you there. Good luck with Cirio and thanks for speaking with

Thank you, and thank you, Tomas.

Visit Francisco Mela’s Web Site:

Suggested Listening:
Junjo with Esperanza Spalding (Ayva Music, 2006)
Melao (Ayva Music, 2006)
The Traveler with Kenny Barron (Sunnyside, 2008)


January 15, 2009 · 0 comments

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