Back Home: Composer Socrates Garcia Fuses Jazz and Dominican Music

02 Feb, 2017

Fusion has been an integral component of jazz music from its conception. After all, jazz itself is a fusion of African and European musical traditions. The European musical tradition gave jazz many now-standard jazz instruments (trumpet, trombone, saxophone, clarinet, tuba, drums) and their conception of harmony. The percussive approach in which jazz artists may use these instruments borrows from the African musical tradition. The African musical tradition also contributed syncopation, “blue” notes, and “call-and-response” figures to jazz music. This is, of course, a simplification of a very complex socio-historical process in which jazz became a recognizable genre of music, but the idea remains. In the 1940s, Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo introduced Cuban elements into the music of Dizzy Gillespie. The 1970s saw groups like Weather Report fusing elements of jazz with funk and rock. The advent of the digital synthesizer around the turn of the 1980s took this to another level when jazz artists like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock began utilizing these instruments in their music. In more recent years, bassist Avishai Cohen has introduced musical elements from his homeland of Israel to jazz. Fusion thrives at the very core of what we identify as “jazz.”

“heavy drumming, singing, and usually large amounts of alcohol”

“What new things are you bringing to the table compositionally?” composer Socrates Garcia recalls teacher Jamey Simmons always asking him. Garcia was very heavily influenced by the compositions of Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely, and Fred Sturm, who later was to become his mentor. But to write music in the style of those composers would not bring anything “new” to the table. After a few years of pondering the question, it finally dawned on him. Garcia decided to combine elements of his Dominican heritage with elements of the contemporary big band jazz idiom. The compositions that followed grew into his debut album Back Home. The album features a jazz big band, accentuated by artists from the Dominican Republic, playing authentic Dominican styles, including the bachata and merengue.

Garcia knew that he needed certain artists with certain musical backgrounds for the recording to be a success, as there was a certain complexity to the compositions. While some of Colorado’s finest jazz artists make up the horn sections, the rhythm section and percussion section included many artists from the Dominican Republic. For one, he knew he needed Manuel Tejada on piano. Garcia worked in Tejada’s studio in the Dominican Republic, and Garcia knew that Tejada had an ear for both jazz and Dominican music. A trusted colleague had suggested Helen de la Rosa to be his drummer. Garcia remembers her attending various clinics he had given in the Dominican Republic. Now she’s a 24-year-old Berklee graduate whose profile is growing rather quickly. Given the logistical complexity and expense, Garcia initially recorded just the big band here in Colorado, and later overdubbed the four-person percussion section in the Dominican Republic, where all four percussionists reside. Garcia had complete trust in these percussionists, noting that after hearing the big band, they would intuitively know how their instruments were to fit into the texture.

So what does it sound like? In an All About Jazz review, Jack Bowers says that “[n]ot only is Back Home a near-perfect blend of Dominican and American music, it stands tall on its own as a superlative example of big-band jazz at its best” (full review at https://www.allaboutjazz.com/back-home-socrates-garcia-mama-records-review-by-jack-bowers.php). The pinnacle of the album is Garcia’s three-movement Dominican Suite. The first movement pays tribute to saxophonist Tavito Vasquez, also known as “the Charlie Parker of the Caribbean,” who fused elements of the bebop tradition with the Dominican merengue. Garcia had the privilege of meeting him in the 1990s while he was still alive and Garcia harmonized one of Tavito’s solos for the entire sax section, in a manner reminiscent of a sax soli. The second movement is slower and more introspective, a Dominican bachata with lush harmonies, dedicated to Garcia’s wife Wanda. The final movement is inspired by a genre of Dominican folk music called palos or atabales, which Garcia describes as including “heavy drumming, singing, and usually large amounts of alcohol.” From his childhood in the Dominican Republic, he recalls a big woman playing gigantic drums in this folk genre. This final movement has a prevalent rhythmic drive to the album’s conclusion.

Socrates Garcia celebrates the release of Back Home on Tuesday, February 7 at Dazzle Jazz. In addition to Helen de la Rosa on drums, the performance will feature some of Colorado’s first-call jazz artists, including trumpeters Greg Gisbert and Brad Goode. This is a one of a kind musical presentation not to be missed!

Michael Schreier is an avid jazz fan, board game fanatic, and cocktail enthusiast. He currently serves as Music Director for Dazzle Jazz.

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