A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Román Filiú at The Village Vanguard (via

Román Filiú at the Village Vanguard (via

This Friday and Saturday, July 18th and 19th, 2014, will conclude The Jazz Gallery’s 2013-2014 Residency Commissions series. These two nights will feature original music from Cuban-born saxophonist-composer Román Filiú and the septet that he convened for the occasion. Filiú assumes the final chapter in the series storyline—this year focused on saxophonists and reed players—outlined by Ben WendelGreg Ward, Ben van Gelder, and Godwin Louis earlier in the season.

Since 2011, Filiú has successfully embedded himself in the engine of New York’s contemporary jazz scene, firing with cylinders like Matt BrewerMarcus Gilmore, Dafnis Prieto, Adam Rogers, Yusnier SanchezDavid Virelles, and Craig Weinrib, among others. Prior to landing in New York, Filiú was based in Havana for eight years while heavily involved with Chucho Valdes‘s “Irakere” band and also in Madrid for six years, often working with David Murray and Doug Hammond. A frequenter of our stage and our blog, the saxophonist will call upon Ralph Alessi, Dayna Stephens, David Virelles, Matt Brewer, Craig Weinrib, and Yusnier Sanchez to present his new material. We caught up with him by phone this past week:

The Jazz Gallery: Could you tell us a bit about what you’ve been working on in your residency?

Román Filiú: When The Jazz Gallery presented the opportunity to me, I wanted to do something that drew on inspiration from the music I grew up with—music that I heard in my hometown. As Santiago de Cuba was a very musical town, with traditions across conga, bolero, and sonCarnival music—I was inundated with it all of the time. Aside from my father being a musician, my brothers were violin players so I was trying to compete with them, trying to play violin music because I was the only one that played saxophone.

Aside from Cuban music, we were listening to a lot of classical, things like Bartók or Zoltán Kodály. I didn’t know anything about jazz; I wasn’t listening to it at the time. So it was an interesting mix of classical music, Carnival music, Cuban folkloric music, and popular music in Cuba that was on the radio. This residency was about considering this whole musical environment: how all of these styles converged in my head, opening up my mind to more advanced music and helping me find my own voice. I tried to reproduce these themes in the songs that I’ve been working on and frame them within the context of jazz improvisation.

I am grateful to The Jazz Gallery for the opportunity to make this music. I’m very fond of everyone else who has participated in this series, so it’s an honor.

TJG: What has the compositional process been like for you?

RF: I’m very happy with how it’s turned out. During my time at the Pocantico Center for this project, I sought to apply a different approach to each song. For example, I would write a song at the piano, then on the saxophone; sometimes I’d just improvise or build material by singing. I also like to sit down with a design, drawing notes that I then work to apply to a specific rhythm or sound. I really tried to diversify my approach as it keeps me inspired.

I came away with much more music than I will be presenting at the Gallery. This music is different than what I’ve put out before and, more than ever, I think it really reflects who I am. I’d like to keep developing it, playing it live, and hope to record it soon.

TJG: Tell us about your approach to composition: how has it changed over time? Who has influenced you in this regard?

RF: When I started writing music I wrote more from a harmonic context, building pieces through chord changes. I would often write at the piano or sing. Since I’ve moved to New York, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of great musicians and check out a lot of shows, both digging into what everyone else is doing and trying to do different things myself. These days sometimes it’s even just a sound that I have in my head—not a harmonic idea, per se; I just try to follow my leading voice.

Sometimes I like to play with systems when I write: I’ll derive influence from geometric figures or puzzles like tangrams; I’ll imagine a house with different rooms and hallways that share a specific relationship to one another. I’ll try to piece my ideas together that way. Sometimes it’s about building a melody and then applying it to chords; sometimes it’s playing with the summation of melodic values.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of books and checking out a lot of Olivier Messiaen, particularly “O Sacrum Convivium” and “Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum.” I’ve been paying close attention to his structural approach in composition. I’ve also been talking a lot about composition with Muhal Richard Abrams. I’ve been listening to his records and Henry Threadgill’s records, trying to see how they go about it. It’s not about copying them or anything, but trying to understand how they got to an original place themselves.

TJG: You’ve been in NYC for three years now: how has the transition been coming from Madrid? How has the city changed you?

RF: It’s a definitely been a big transition. I loved Madrid; it’s beautiful place, but while the scene there is active, it’s different from the scene here in New York. In New York there are so many things happening every day—so many different musical styles at your disposal. While you really have to be active all the time here, there is such a wide spectrum of music to get involved with. It’s a bit more conservative in Spain.

When you live outside of New York, you think about this music in the context of the records that you have, but living here affords you the opportunity to go out and see so many great musicians and composers. For me, that was a huge discovery. I’m still surprised every day by what is happening here. And, most importantly, the people are open to sharing their knowledge with you; they’re interested in what you have to say and willing to share, too.

TJG: What is your favorite part of New York City?

RF: I love Brooklyn. I used to live in Bed-Stuy. I don’t live there anymore, but my wife and I used to take long walks in Brooklyn from our house to the Brooklyn Bridge and back, just talking and seeing different people. I really like to walk at night and talk. That is my favorite part of the city.

TJG: Do you see yourself in New York for the long run?

RF: I feel settled here. It’s incredible. It’s the best place for musicians. I really like the interactions that musicians have here. You go to a venue and talk to each other; you’re learning everyday. I can’t see myself in another place at the moment.

Román Filiú will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Friday and Saturday, July 18th and 19th, 2014. This performance features Filiú on alto saxophone, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone, David Virelles on piano, Matt Brewer on bass, Craig Weinrib on drums, and Yusnier Sanchez on percussion. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $22 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here.