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.
TJG: Do you end up treating the strings as an effect or texture, or do you see the quartet as one instrument? How do you see it together with the quintet?
MC: Sometimes I see the quartet as the main voice. On the album, we have a song called “Coffee.” On the interlude, there’s a string part with rhythm section, and they build up the melody. Viola, then first violin, and builds up to the third verse of the song. Sometimes I use the quartet to make textures. Sometimes I like to use it with everybody doing counterpoint, very rhythmic and melodic counterpoint. Something through-composed, with many differences, but where there is a collective melody. I really like that stuff, when that happens. I also like using the strings to just give a different texture, to just give a break or to enhance the normal sound of the quintet. The quintet sounds cool by itself, but I like to try everything I can do. For example, I was listening to some music which made me want to try to have the quartet play tremolo, like a mandolin. I would love if each of the quartet members had pedals, and they all worked out different backgrounds for stuff. I would love it if they could contribute their own artistry to the music in that way, but that’s a process that takes time.
TJG: Speaking of pedals, I believe I heard you using effects on “Amor y Soledad,” a video from your last show at The Jazz Gallery. How typical is this for you?
MC: More and more typical. I’ve always loved when guitar players just go crazy, and it sounds like a complete disaster, very noisy. A while ago, I bought a whammy pedal, then delay and volume, then distortion. I have a little dream rack in mind. If you’re listening to a completely acoustic group, and you hear a sound that’s completely out of the ordinary, it makes you listen. If I’m playing a phrase and I use echo, it can really enhance the music. And in terms of being live, it gives the audience a breath of new sound. If you’re seeing a movie and you are introduced to a new scene or character, it’s really interesting. I’m doing a recording session for someone else, and they said they wanted the saxophone to not sound like a saxophone. At first I was like, are you serious? But yeah, I’m using octaves down, distortion, delay, and they’re like “perfect!” It’s funny that someone would ask me to not sound like a saxophone player.
TJG: How did you meet KyuMin Shim, your pianist?
MC: We met at Berklee. We would do a session where we would try to learn albums, and try to play them and transcribe everything. He was one of the guys. We would do Sunny Rollins and Clifford Brown’s Plus 4, and a few others. It wasn’t a tradition we kept up, but we did other fun stuff as well. He’s an amazing musician and amazing talent. Great memory, he can remember chords, he has a crazy ear. Everyone in the group has great musicianship, really. That’s something I feed off of. I love when people can tell what is what quickly, learn quickly, and create together.
TJG: So you formed your quintet in 2009. Did it have all of its current members back then?
MC: The only personnel changes have been the trumpet players. We’ve had three trumpet players. The first one was Aaron Kleinstub, who’s now a full-time producer. He went from playing solo transcriptions in twelve keys to producing Eminem. Also an amazing talent, super gifted. Second was David Neves from Juilliard, also super gifted. We played a lot together. And now, Josh Shpak, a cool dude, sweet guy, great composer, and wonderful musical friend.
TJG: How did it come to pass that you released your first album on Greg Osby’s label?
MC: At that time, the group was playing at this spot in Boston called Wally’s. That’s why, I believe, the group developed a special sound and a certain way of playing together. We played absolutely every week, and we would invite Greg Osby to check us out. When I finished Berklee, he wanted to give me some advice about New York and being a musician. I showed him the roughs of what we’d recorded. I knew we were going to record an album anyway, but I knew we had come across something special, whatever might happen from there. The sound of the group is different than it was, even from a production standpoint, but the point is to explore and change. Anyway, I got together with Greg, and he was down to help us out and release it on his label.
TJG: To take it back a little farther, what was it like growing up as a musician in Puerto Rico?
MC: It was all super great. I love where I came from. My musical childhood, everything. I started at a music public school, like an arts program. In my city, it was an after-school program. So there, I got to study with the local saxophone teacher, and sometimes they’d be playing dope gigs, or be knowledgeable in classical music, or other unexpected things. They teach these little kids who just run around and don’t know what’s what, and I was one of those kids and it was great. Having my dad as a musician around the house too, I was so blessed. The CD collection alone that my dad has is crazy. Eventually I’d play with my dad at bars. At the beginning I didn’t want my dad to hear me practice. But I used to love when he would play.
When I was fourteen or fifteen, I felt like I could play a little bit and solo over a few keys, and I played with the city or governmental youth band. We would open for public events, like inaugurating a new park, we’d play the anthem, at 2pm when nobody else could. We could play a lot of salsa, a lot of mainstream popular music, it was all dope. It was perfect, a great balance of learning stuff for myself and school, because I also went to some Berklee summer camps. [Berklee] would come to Puerto Rico to give weeklong classes, and I got a scholarship to go to the five week program and got to meet all of these amazing jazz musicians. I was listening to jazz in PR, and love traditional bebop and hard bop and the Messengers. But when I went to Boston and saw it all in person, played by these next-level guys, I wanted to constantly absorb what they did. I loved that I played gigs from an early age, whether it was a restaurant or a challenging musical or logistical situation, I’m so happy to have lived all these situations. I have street smarts, so to speak, and lot of appreciation for my upbringing.
TJG: Well Mario, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Looking forward to the show!
MC: Thank you. We’re definitely very excited for this gig and for sharing this music with everybody.
The Mario Castro Quintet + Strings plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, April 29th, 2016. The group features Mr. Castro on saxophone, Josh Shpak on trumpet, KyuMin Shim on piano & keyboards, Michael Olatuja on bass, Jonathan Pinson on drums, Tomoko Omura and Leonor Falcon on violin, Allyson Clare on viola, Brian Sanders on cello, and Ziarra on vocals. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.