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Courtesy of Mario Castro; design by Lydia Liebman.

Courtesy of Mario Castro; design by Lydia Liebman.

Saxophonist Mario Castro is on a roll. The 26-year Puerto Rican Berklee graduate performed a series of shows with Miguel Zenón this past summer as part of our Mentoring Series, and he returns to our stage this Thursday, November 13th, 2014, to make his début as a leader alongside his quintet plus string quartet.

Mario’s sophomore release, Estrella de Mar (Interrobang Records), came out in September and features guest appearances by Dave Liebman, Casey Benjamin, David Sanchéz, Emily Elbert, and others, as well as the aforementioned string quartet. Videos of complete tracks from the album are available on YouTube, and the album is now available through Interrobang Records, CDBaby, Amazon, and iTunes. We spoke with Mario about this new project, the seeds of which were planted during his time in Boston a couple years ago. It’s not every day that we have strings at the Gallery, so we hope that you’ll join us on Thursday to hear Mario perform this carefully crafted music live.

The Jazz Gallery: Is there a story behind the title track, “Estrella de Mar?”

Mario Castro: The translation is “starfish,” but what it means for me is “star of the sea,” a literal translation. Basically, the concept for this name for me is that there is a star from space, and the star lives with a family of stars that lives in space.

One day, one star decides to come to Earth, and the star is a little bit unhappy with how things are in terms of nature and all that, so she finds herself a little out of place. She keeps on trying to find peace on Earth, and then all of a sudden her family of stars sends her a map to the sea. She enters the sea and becomes a star of the sea.

TJG: You recorded a version of “Storyteller” with strings back in 2012. Did you know then that you were going to record an entire album with strings?

MC: No, absolutely not. I decided that I wanted to write for strings for my recital [at Berklee], but that didn’t happen because it wasn’t the right time. I decided when I finished school that I was going to write for strings, so I just went in for this one song.

It took me a long time to just figure it out, even like one chord, thinking, “Why does this sound so ugly or so weird?” and then just getting together with other piano players and people who know more about harmony.

TJG: Many saxophonists have recorded with strings over the years. What drew you to doing this project?

MC: Obviously Bird with Strings is a complete masterpiece and “Just Friends” is incredible, but I also love Debussy: his orchestral work and his string quartet. I like the sound; there’s just something magical about strings. Anything can sound so beautiful, as simple as a major chord.

I’m also definitely interested in expanding my writing instrumentation and my palette. I love the sound of the French horn, the harp. I’m just trying to take what my heart likes and learn about it and incorporate it in my music.

TJG: In your playing, I hear a distinctly romantic strain; at times, your sound reminds me of Josh Redman and Joe Lovano. Who are some of your favorite saxophonists? 

MC: Man, just a lot. When? I always have a different one. I have to say, in terms of sound: Dexter Gordon and Joe Henderson. They’re almost opposites, but it’s the combination of both of them for me. Dexter has such a huge, fat tone, and Joe has this, I don’t know, cloud, so that’s what I go for in terms of sound. And then I love Joshua Redman, I love Miguel [Zenón], I love Davíd [Sanchez], I love Casey Benjamin, like his stuff with Kris Bowers. A lot of guys, you know. I love Joe Lovano, too.

TJG: Some of these songs, the way they’re laid out, really remind me of pop songs; they’re carefully conceived in terms of how they unfold. Do you listen to much music outside of jazz?

MC: Definitely. My playlist of music that I listen to has a pretty good variety. It’s whatever I feel like listening to, and I listen to a lot of modern Cuban music like timba and a lot of Brazilian music. I’m definitely trying to straight up make music that just feels really good and sounds really good, so that you don’t got to think about anything—in your face good.

TJG: And there’s the indie cover of “Coffee” by Yuna on the record.

MC: I listened to that song when I was living in Boston the summer that I moved there, around 2009. Around that time, Jackie Sanchez, a good friend played that for me, and it was just too much. I had it on repeat; my roommate at the time was like, “Yo, can we take a break?”

TJG: Aside from the music itself, the album design is stunning. Who did the album art?

MC: The album artwork was done by this artist from Puerto Rico, Ricardo Cabret, who has been a friend of mine since I was 15. Ricardo also did the artwork for my first album [Primavera]. I had taken a picture and he painted all these flowers on top of me, and for the second album I had another idea.

I was trying to replicate the woman that was coming from space, like the actual star, but he told me he’s not interested in painting faces anymore—not interested in the human body unless it’s the hands—so he told me, “I’m going to try to replicate exactly how it feels to see the sea for the first time.” That’s what he did, and it’s amazing.

When I saw it, I was completely in shock. He’s a great artist, man. He’s my friend and everything, but he’s a hard, hard-working dude. He paints absolutely every day, draws every day, draws on his lunch break at work, and he has really interesting concepts. His style changes so quickly, it won’t last more than two years; every two years he’s painting something different.

TJG: Listening to Estrella de Mar, I also noted the attention to production throughout, like on “Cry of a Gypsy,” which starts with some crackling sounds to simulate an old record.

MC: This interlude specifically was written by my father, and the only recording of this was a rehearsal he had once at school. It was written for string quintet and was recorded on a tape, which goes out of tune, but we used to listen to this tape in the car. He had this tape full of original music of his, and I always wanted to play music by my father because I think he’s a great composer.

I wanted to grab that feeling of something that symbolizes something that is not a CD but comes from somewhere else, so instead of popping in a tape, I said, “Let’s put something that sounds like a record player.” I like messing with production and I like messing with reverb and panning. Sound is music, so why not use it if it’s there?

Mario Castro Quintet/Strings performs this Thursday, November 13th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The quintet features Castro on tenor saxophone, Josh Shpak on trumpet, KyuMin Shim on piano, Tamir Shmerling on bass, and Jonathan Pinson drums; the string quartet features Kailey Shaffer and Leonor Falcón on violin, Allyson Clare on viola, and Brian Sanders on cello. Sets are at 8 & 10 p.m.; the first set is $15.00 ($10.00 for Members) and the second set is $10.00 ($8.00 for Members). Purchase tickets here.