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Photo courtesy of the artist.

If you haven’t heard Roman Filiú’s name, you certainly know the people he’s worked with, including Chucho Valdés, Omara Portuondo, Steve Coleman, Pablo Milanés, Michael Mossman, Roy Hargrove, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and the Buena Vista Social Club. Filiú has released two albums under his own name, including Blowin Reflections (2006) and Musae (2012), the more recent of which featured David Virelles, Adam Rogers, Reinier Elizarde, Marcus Gilmore, and Dafnis Prieto.

With support from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Filiú returns to The Jazz Gallery this week, leading his band Musae in new project titled Okàn: El Libro de Las Almas. The lineup will again include Adam Rogers and David Virelles, with additions of Maria Grand on saxophone, Matt Brewer on bass, Craig Weinrib on drums, and Mauricio Herrera on percussion. We’ve spoken with Filiú before, about his influences and upbringing. This time, we spoke further on his compositional techniques and the thematic underpinnings of his work.

TJG: At The Jazz Gallery, you’ll be premiering a new work, funded by the Doris Duke Foundation and Chamber Music America. Can you talk a little about the work?

RF: I always try to work on a theme. This project is based on an imaginary book, written by a fictional writer, on the people who have helped me in my life. Important people pass on or leave your life, you don’t see them anymore, and when you’re a kid, you say, “Well, that’s life.” But when you have a kid, you start to think about the people who supported you and never asked anything of you in return. I imagine a book where all the people who have helped me have their stories there. I love science fiction, and have been reading a lot this year, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, books by Orson Scott Card and Ursula K. Le Guin. I similarly try to link my music to something unreal, to create something different. I’ve been trying to imagine an alternate universe where all these people who helped me still live. Sometimes you never had the opportunity to say thank you. So this is a kind of tribute, in a way.

TJG: I think I understand the concept of the theme. Could you talk about how, for you, it translates into the music?

RF: It depends on the personality of the person on my mind, the specific things they did, our ages, our relationship, or where we met. I build the music around those ideas. For example, when I was a kid, there was an old man, eighty-something years old, from Haiti. He never said a word, but when I was little, with my big saxophone, he would always help me carry it. He was slower than me, man: To walk a block with him was like one hour. But he saw my saxophone and he came by my side to help me. That happened for two years straight. I was thinking of him, of the specific slow walking pace that he had, almost like an invalid. Something like that is how I link the music and the form with the personality.

TJG: Do you know what happened to that man?

RF: Never found out. I moved when I was fourteen, to go to boarding school, and I think he moved to another part of the country around that time, or right before. I didn’t see him any more.

TJG: Would you say this is the most personal project you’ve ever done? And is it new for you to write in this way?

RF: I always try to make things relate to personal experience, but with this, yes, because it’s very intimate, the people I’m portraying in the music. The songs aren’t linked to the names of the people, but they have to do with their actions, the situations. It’s very personal. I always try to do different things when playing music. I don’t just sit at the piano. I pull from different sources. I sing, I improvise, I write without the piano. I try to make it fun, to come from different angles. It’s difficult, you know? Your personality shows up in every song, so your music can end up all sounding the same. I have different tools that I can use with this in mind.

TJG: Did you discover any new tools in putting this work together?

RF: I tried something based on a poem. I made a Dada-ist, nonsense poem, with verses and a form, a kind of make-believe thing. I tried to do counterpoint between the words and the music. After writing the poem, I translated it to music. So that’s something new that I tried with one of the songs, for example. For me, if I don’t come up with different approaches, I’m not gonna like the work at the end. I won’t be satisfied. The music is usually a compromise anyway, as it often is, but my curiosity for different tools is what makes me enjoy process, the adventure. Consonance, dissonance. That’s the real secret for me. I’m happy when I play too, because you get people bringing their sound, exploring your music, the sonic element. But the creative process is a really happy moment for me.

TJG: That seems uncommon, actually. I think a lot of artists torture themselves when they’re trying to be creative.

RF: Sometimes you’re tired, sure, sometimes you have pressure. But when you have the freedom, you get to link themes together, imagine patterns. They don’t have to be musical or rhythmic. You can go on adventures. Maybe you spend hours trying things and end up with nothing. But you keep trying, you keep developing. I’ve learned that it’s the same exercise as practicing your instrument. You try new techniques, new voices, and maybe you don’t write it the way you like it. But you keep going every day.

TJG: You’re giving a true composition masterclass here, Roman. I can’t wait to hear the new music. I recently interviewed Maria Grand; you played on her last album as well, right?

RF: Yes, that’s right.

TJG: What’s it like to work with Maria?

RF: I really like to play with her. She’s been lucky in that she’s had great mentors, and has been working so hard. I met her when I came to New York, and she was an excellent player and composer back then. Now, her voice is coming out. I feel she’s going to be one of the players of the future, you know? She’ll be someone to recognize. She’s very confident when she plays. The music is tricky and beautiful at the same time. She has a curious mind.

TJG: You’ll also have Mauricio Herrera (percussion) and Craig Weinrib (drums) on the bandstand—have they played together before?

RF: I can’t remember. But because I’ve played with both of them, I know they’ll be a good pair. I’ve been playing with Craig in different formations, with David Virelles, with Henry Threadgill. Craig is a perfect match for Mauricio. He has a thirst for music, so he’s always exploring, asking, developing. It’s going to be a good thing to have them together.

TJG: Roman, thanks so much for taking the time to chat, we’re excited to hear the new music!

RF: Thank you. I’m grateful for the support of Chamber Music America, the Doris Duke Foundation, and The Jazz Gallery in putting this new work together, and I hope you enjoy the new music.

Roman Filiú and Musae present Okan: El Libro de Las Almas at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, October 13th, 2017. The group features Mr. Filiú on alto saxophone, Maria Grand on tenor saxophone, David Virelles on piano, Adam Rogers on guitar, Matt Brewer on bass, Craig Weinrib on drums, and Mauricio Herrera on percussion. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.

This project is made possible in part with support from Chamber Music America´s 2016 New Jazz Works program funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.