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Photo by Esther Cidoncha: http://ecidonchafotosdejazz.blogspot.com/

You may not have heard Román Filiú’s name yet, but you shouldn’t be surprised to hear it frequently soon. Although the saxophonist moved to New York a few short months ago, he’s spent years working closely with several leading lights of improvised music: Chucho Valdes, Paquito D’Rivera, David Murray, and Doug Hammond, among others.

Román was born and raised in Cuba. He comes from a musical family, and has been “surrounded by music since [he] was born”:

My father is a musician and teacher – he plays piano and teaches music theory – and all of my brothers and sister are musicians, so it was natural [for me] to go to music school.

I started on piano. Then, because I had asthma, the doctor recommended that I take up the saxophone. I kept up with playing both for about two years, but it was too hard for me! So I had to decide between the two, and the easy choice was the saxophone (smiling).

Although resources were abundant for his classical studies, Román had to look elsewhere to learn about improvisation:

In Cuba, we had Russian teachers, so nobody taught us about improvisation. We just got to improvisation through…In my case, my grandfather used to hang out with us. He wasn’t a musician, just a funny guy who bought himself some instruments. He had a trumpet, and he’d say to us, “okay, let’s play!”, so we would play with him in the back yard for fun.

My grandfather was the one that introduced me to jazz music. Every night, he would play for me a radio station from Miami that opposed the Cuban government. They had a program, which I can’t remember the name of, but I do remember that it starts with John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”, which was the theme song. Because my grandfather also opposed the Cuban government, this was the radio station he liked. So every Saturday night he would tell me, “Come on, Román!”, and we would listen together.

Román may have honed his spontaneous composition skills outside of the classroom, but the school’s infrastructure helped foster lifelong relationships with excellent musicians, some of which he still plays with today:

The good thing about the system in Cuba was that the music school was a boarding school, so all of the musicians are like family. I’ve known Aruan [Ortiz] since I was like eight years old, all my life. David [Virelles] is younger – I met him later – but David’s mother was a teacher in my school. We spent a lot of hours practicing and playing, discovering music together.

School also afforded Román an opportunity to dive into the European classical tradition:

I wanted to improve my technique and I like a lot of the classical saxophone repertoire. I love Jacques Ibert, I love Claude Pascal. There are also composers who wrote only one or two pieces for saxophone: Henri Tomasi, Paul Hindemith. I found that harmony reminded me of jazz. The piano parts of the songs were very modern for that time. The chords were very adventurous; they had the influence of jazz, and Ravel and Debussy too.

After completing his studies, Román moved to Havana to begin his career as a professional musician. He was based there for eight years, recording frequently and traveling internationally with a variety of projects. After working steadily for four years as a member of a salsa band, Román began playing with Chucho Valdes’ “Irakere” band, a renowned group whose roster included such luminaries as Paquito D’Rivera.

After eight years in Havana, Román packed his bags and headed for Spain. His time in the country was “a beautiful experience”, and he began to play with several musicians across Europe and abroad. One of them was David Murray:

I met David back in Cuba because he came to record a project with a big band. We talked a little bit, and he took me on tour, and then asked me to conduct his string record. I had a demo with a string orchestra that I had made, because I wanted to try it. I took some popular Cuban songs – Boleros, romantic songs – and arranged them for a string orchestra. I showed the demo to David, because he wanted to help me [find support to record it]. When he heard it, he asked me to conduct his orchestra for a recording. So we made the record, and then we kept in touch, and I’ve been playing with him in a lot of his projects.

During his time in Spain, Román also began working regularly with Doug Hammond, who he met through saxophonist Steve Coleman:

When I was living in Cuba, I used to hang a lot with Steve, because he used to come [to town]. We used to spend all day until midnight talking and playing. It was very important for me. He helped me to understand a lot of things.

So I met Doug through Steve, and we played a lot in Europe and made two records. One of them, called Rose/Sister, was some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever played, not because of my contribution but because of Doug’s writing. It was a live recording from a tour we did with Kirk Lightsey on piano, Jean Toussaint on tenor, Dwight Adams on trumpet, Wendell Harrison on clarinet…it was very fun. I got to meet all of these older musicians and listen to their stories.

We also have done a lot of other projects. We did a quartet, we did a trio. One of the last things we did was with two cellos, piano, and flute; that was really challenging, and beautiful too.

Spain, like Havana, was a fruitful experience for Román, but he always kept an eye on New York. Even when he was living in Havana, he would often think about moving here:

There were a few times where I was here on tour, and I would think to myself, “maybe I should just say here this time.” But, for some reason, I would always get on the plane and come home. But, every time that happened, when the plane was landing in Havana, I’d think to myself, “Oh no! Why didn’t you stay?!”

Román finally moved to New York on September 25th, 2011. Although he’s only been here a short time, he’s quickly becoming a part of the city’s vibrant music scene, and enjoying all that life here has to offer:

These four months have been like a whole lifetime for me. I always knew that this city has something with regards to music that no other city has. I’m practicing, I feel inspired. You can go to a lot of shows and hear a lot of people, and whether you like it or not, everybody has a sound! Everybody. And then you talk to people, and you find that they have the same hunger for music [as you do], and that they are open to share knowledge and to learn and to teach. That’s something that I really appreciate.

On Thursday, The Jazz Gallery will present Román and his quartet. The lineup will include the pianist David Virelles, the bassist John Hebert, and the drummer Marcus Gilmore. They plan to perform several pieces that Román recorded two years ago at Bennett Studios (he plans to release those sessions soon on Dafnis Prieto‘s label Dafnison Music), as well as a few newer compositions.

To get an idea of what you can expect to hear on Thursday, stream “Dark Room” below: