Since the release of his album Estrella de Mar in 2014, saxophonist Mario Castro has been deeply interested in augmenting the sound of his working quintet with a string quartet. He has presented this project multiple times at The Jazz Gallery and has recently been releasing new videos of his project on YouTube. Check his live performance of “Tidal” at The Jazz Gallery below.
This Friday, April 29th, Castro returns to the Gallery to showcase the next step in his project’s evolution. Castro will be joined by special guest vocalist Ziarra, and as you’ll see in our interview with him, Castro has some other sonic surprises in store as well.
TJG: Could you tell me a little bit about the project you’re bringing to The Jazz Gallery?
MC: Sure. Basically, we’re bringing my quintet, with string quartet, so there’s nine of us. We (the quintet) have been playing together since the college years at Berklee. I started writing music for string quartet to accompany the quintet, and we recorded an album called Estrella de Mar. Now we’re releasing new live music videos from our last concert at The Jazz Gallery. But the different thing about this upcoming gig is that we’ll have special guests, including vocalist Ziarra. We’ll be playing some of her music and some of her adaptations of my songs. So it should be fun.
TJG: How did you decide to have her on the show?
MC: I collaborate with her a lot, and we’ve been writing a lot of music together. Recently, we did a trip to LA and I said “Hey, let’s do one of your songs.” So I quickly wrote a string arrangement to one of her songs called “Song With No Name.” Basically, the sound of her voice with the whole string quartet and entire group is a sound I want to explore. Vocals in general are such a powerful outlet for musical expression.
TJG: Yes, they say that bowed stringed instruments, specifically the violin, get closest to the expressiveness of the human voice. How did you meet your string players? Did they go to Berklee as well?
MC: Some of them did. I met the cellist, Brian Sanders, through a recommendation from a friend. The violist, Allyson Clare, I heard playing at the Union Square subway stop. I thought she had beautiful tone, so I introduced myself and got her number. Leonor Falcón I met at a gig in Queens. I’m not sure where I met Tomoko [Omura]. But the whole ensemble is great. Great people, great musicians.
TJG: How does it look when you’re writing string arrangements for them? Do you write charts for quintet or sextet, then embellish them with strings? Are there ways that you strive to integrate the ensemble more?
MC: I basically learned how to do it myself. I took one class in string writing, and didn’t really like the course. Anyway, when I’m writing, I try to find what I think sounds the best. Or what would take the music to the next level. That’s my constant research in music. When I’m searching through music, when I’m listening in order to get ideas, that’s what I’m looking for. There are certain things in music that are power-ups or special powers that accelerate to the next level. It collectively feels like it works, do you know what I mean? For example, we’re going to play a song from Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. If you listen to the arrangement, try to focus on the strings, and listen how the string arrangement takes the melody to another level. It’s not like the strings are the main voice, but the accompaniment really takes the melody to the next level. I take notes of things I want to do. For example, I want to do something where the strings are mysterious. Or, I want to do something where the bass and drums are doing a rhythmic vamp, but the saxophone is an arpeggiated beautiful melody, and the strings are more like block chords. That’s how I write. It’s very much putting different things together, in search of specific sounds that mean something to me.