The Curtis Brothers, Zaccai and Luques, have forged interwoven yet independent paths through the jazz world. Amidst a shared upbringing in Hartford, Connecticut, shared musical mentors and education in Boston and New York, and in many ways a shared musical path, Luques and Zaccai maintain separate careers, playing and touring independently with all manner of jazz musicians. In August, The Curtis Brothers released Algorithm, featuring a host of their musical mentors—Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Ralph Peterson. Their upcoming show at The Gallery will feature saxophonist Nick Biello, trumpeter Josh Lawrence, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. We spoke with the brothers about their upbringing and their thoughts about the upcoming show.
TJG: Many people have mentors, and some have the good fortune to play with them, even work with them in their own bands. What has it been like to grow up with a musical sibling and work with your shared mentors together?
Luques Curtis: It’s basically a dream come true. It definitely makes some things more comfortable, which allows for more freedom on the bandstand. We approach the music similarly. These legends were artists that we grew up listening to and studying: To name a few, we had the great fortune to work together with Donald Harrison, Ralph Peterson Jr., Brian Lynch, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, and Eddie Palmieri.
Zaccai Curtis: There’s a lot of “brother programming” that gets in the way, but after a while, you grow out of it, and a ton of musical progress can begin. Having someone with the same musical roots as yourself is always an advantage. You don’t have to be actual brothers… brothers in music should be enough to make things easier. But my brother and I don’t just share the same parents: We share most of the same “musical parents” as well.
TJG: I know you’ve both toured (independently and together) as sidemen for tons of prominent jazz musicians. Was there a time where you learned something apart from each other that made you say “Yes this is a lesson that I want to share with my brother and use it in our work together as Curtis Brothers”?
LC: We were very fortunate to go on the road pretty early in our career together. First with our group Insight, then we did some extensive traveling with our mentor Donald Harrison. The first real band where I started to travel without Zaccai was Gary Burton’s Generation Band. With Gary, I learned a lot about organization, tour planning and, when it came to music, how to shape sets. He would also talk with us about shaping our solos, to be similar to what was on the recording we did. Gary was always very conscious about the audience’s experience and liked to plan specific sets depending on the crowd. I thought that was a great lesson to bring into our group.
TJG: You’ve released a number of records together. What’s the news now, and what’s coming up for you?
ZC: This particular band from Algorithm is a blessing because it’s comprised of the best of the best. Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Ralph Peterson are the factors that make this project what it is. I feel that without any of them, it would be a different thing. We look forward to developing the live performance and this particular sound. We also have Curtis Brothers projects that are part of our other expressions, like Insight and our quartet that will continue to move parallel to this project.
LC: Alongside all of that, we are working on a new Cubop release featuring Camilo Molina on congas, Reinaldo DeJesus on percussion, and Willie Martinez on drums. We are also working on a joint release with Uprising Music called Sonido Solar.
TJG: Tell me a little bit about the band you’ve put together for this show, including Nick Biello, Josh Lawrence, and Mark Whitfield Jr. How’d you meet them, and what’s it like when you work together?
ZC: We met Nick while we were in middle school or high school. He blew us away then, and he is still a monster player. Josh Lawrence is a New York connection who hired me for some of his amazing projects. We share a love for the hard bop idiom and his trumpet playing has a ton of maturity. I first met Mark Whitfield Sr. the same day we me Nick Biello many years back. Mark Whitfield Sr. the guitarist was such an important figure to us: My brother and I appreciated when he encouraged us and blessed one of the tracks on our record. I had always heard of his sons–Davis and Mark–and to see their progression is something else. Mark is a student of Ralph Peterson and with his talent he brings a level of Ralph, Blakey, Williams and himself to the musical table, making him a force on the instrument.
LC: We’ve known Nick Biello probably the longest. We actually met at the Litchfield Jazz Camp in Connecticut, and we all immediately became great friends. I met Josh Lawrence through Orrin Evans, because we play in the Captain Black Big Band together, as well as his quintet. I knew he was going to be a great fit with our music and family atmosphere. We’ve known Mark Whitfield Jr. forever as well. I’ve been playing with Mark for a while with the Sean Jones Quartet and Orrin Evans’ Trio.
TJG: As musicians, do you think you’ve experienced your Afro-American and Latino culture in the same way, or do you think you have different perspectives on your shared cultural roots, now that you’re older and more independent?
LC: I think we’ve experienced them in the same way. Our early up bringing and schooling was pretty much the same: We were exposed to a lot of the same music, and throughout college we still shared our musical experiences with each other. To this day, Zaccai sends me things to check out, and I also send him songs or recordings to listen to.
ZC: Our Caribbean culture has always been close to our Black roots. Having a heavily mixed family comes with a unique experience. But with exception of the food, our Caribbean culture has been muted quite a bit, since we grew up in Hartford and don’t speak Spanish—yet! I like to think I’ve learned a bit more Spanish since being in NYC, but I think I’m just fooling myself [laughs]. Cultural differences are hard to notice until people start pointing things out, but working with Eddie Palmieri, Papo Vazquez, and Los Pleneros Del La 21 has helped me connect to Puerto Rican culture through music.
TJG: Zaccai, tell me a bit about your time at New England Conservatory, your thoughts about your career as you can remember them when you graduated (as in, what was on your mind back then?), and how things have evolved for you since those days.
ZC: I was very much into bebop then. I think the school presented me with a ton of work and ideas to grow, but I just wanted to swing and learn Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, Red Garland…NEC expanded my mind to sounds and ideas that I had never heard of in Hartford. The school does let you explore on your own and I appreciate that. I did spend quite a bit of time at Berklee though [laughs].
TJG: Luques, same question to you—how was Berklee for you, what was on your mind when you were graduating, and how have things evolved since then? Did your Masters Degree help you with the kind of education and work you were hoping to get?
LC: I absolutely loved going to Berklee. My first day at school I met up with Christian Scott and from then on we were best friends. Zaccai was already in Boston, my cousin Joel Gonzalez was already at Berklee, and my high school teacher Dave Santoro was teaching at Berklee as well. It was an easy transition. During my time there, I met so many great musicians and technicians. I still run into people constantly that I made friends with there.
When I graduated, I was in a great spot. I knew I wanted to move to NYC and my brother was graduating at the same time with his grad degree from NEC, so we decided to move down to NYC together. At this time I was also touring pretty regularly with Gary Burton so it made the financial situation stable.
The thing that evolved the most since then—about 15 years ago—are my priorities. I was very fortunate to receive the Ralph Bunche Fellowship to attend the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers in 2017. I always wanted to go back and get my Masters degree but figured it was getting too late in my career to take the time off. After talking with Prof. Conrad Herwig, he gave me the encouragement I needed to pursue my degree. It was great being back in school again. It gave me the opportunity to relearn and appreciate the information that was being taught whether it was composition, history, or improvisation. When I was young and in college, I didn’t pay attention the way I should have. It was also perfect timing because my second child was due and my goal was to be around as much as possible with my family. The school gave me motivation to stay actively studying, practicing, and playing while being home.
TJG: Tell me a bit about Truth Revolution Records, how you split up your responsibilities behind the scenes, and what the label has done for your careers.
ZC: I feel like the Collective is something that has been a part of me from the beginning. I love working with other musical minds on solving issues we all have with the business. I was given my start by working with Hilton Ruiz and I’ve asked everyone questions on my journey to the present. Luques has been an important part because he was an original partner. As the business grew, demands have changed, and he has his own business he’s been developing.
TJG: Any final thoughts or things you’re excited about, regarding the Jazz Gallery show?
ZC: People will hear the musicians who workshopped this music and helped in the development process. We couldn’t have done it without Josh, Mark and Nick, and you will see why on Thursday night. We’re looking forward to bringing this project to NYC for the first time at the Jazz Gallery.
LC: It’s aways exciting to play our music in NYC. It’s been a while since we’ve been at The Jazz Gallery, and Rio is family. Looking forward to it!
The Curtis Brothers play The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, February 27, 2020. The group features Zaccai Curtis on piano, Luques Curtis on bass, Nick Biello on saxophone, Josh Lawrence on trumpet, and Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.