At the age of 36, Zaccai Curtis is already a seasoned veteran in the world of jazz and Latin Jazz. He often performs as The Curtis Brothers band, with his younger brother, bassist Luques Curtis, but for the Dangerous Rhythms series Zaccai has put together a new band to pay tribute to the music of legendary composer/pianist Noro Morales. Recently, T.J. English, curator and host of Dangerous Rhythms, spoke with Zaccai about his upcoming show at Zinc in the heart of Greenwich Village.
Your current quartet, who is it and how did these musicians come together?
Willie Martinez is going to play timbales. I first did some work with him when I moved to the city (in 2005). I used to go see him play at the Nuyorican Café. Willie’s a phenomenal drummer. He knows all the history. For this specific style, it’s really hard to find a drummer or timbale player who is comfortable in that style and knows everything. He’s a percussionist and it’s a blessing to have him on the gig to carry that feel that you need.
And that feel with this music is what?
Well, specifically, with Noro, we’re going to play a good amount of his compositions. So it’s very specific to his style. You wouldn’t play the same way around a piano solo as you would a sax solo, as far as the drummer’s concerned. I feel that the drummer is kind of the pinnacle of the band, the sound at least grows from the drummer. So you have to choose your drummer wisely. For this, if the drummer is not familiar with the style, he’s going to do whatever he wants. He can be a phenomenal drummer, but if he doesn’t understand the style it won’t allow me to do piano quartet style. Because we’re going to do some Noro stuff, the drummer would have to know, oh, this is the style and, by the way, actually feel content doing it. A lot of drummers, they want to do everything, and that’s great too, I love it. But at the same time, with this I want to do something very specific. They have to know this, not necessarily through rehearsal but through experience.
When you get somebody like Willie, who has the experience of playing behind the best for years and years, it makes it easier as a piano player. And that’s what you look for when you’re playing in this style. I mean, Noro is all over the place, he’s not a ‘part’ player. He’s going to play everything – melody, and all of that. In some cases, the more that happens, the less the band has to play.
OK, who else do you have?
On percussion I’ve got one of my best friends, Reinaldo “Ray” de Jesus. He’s playing congas and maybe the guiro. I’ve been playing with him since 2000. He’s like a brother. We have our other band, which is myself, Luques, Ray, we all grew up together. But that band is not this sound. So with Ray, we’ve experienced so much music together. He knows what I’m thinking, he knows what to do. So it’s going to be a lot of fun. As for the bass player, I’m still working on that. It’s who I think would work best with this group.
When I’m doing a gig with my set band, it’s easy. But for something like this, which is a project, I like to seek out musicians who are right for the project. Plus, I like to have fun with my musicians, so they have to be people I like to hang out with. All that’s included. It’s complex.
When you play a classic tune like ‘Maria Cervantes,’ a glorious piece of music by Noro Morales, is it just nostalgia, you wanting to simply play it the way it was played back then, or are you seeking something new in the music?
You know, it’s different. Because with that specific tune, my first experience of it wasn’t with Noro, it was with Tito Puente playing it on vibes. Now we’ve played it so much, so many times, that we start to naturally alter it.
It’s a hard thing to analyze the metamorphosis behind how some of these arrangements come about, especially with that quartet. I’ve never thought about it, sat down and wrote it out. I’ve never seen a written copy of that song. Never read it. So a lot of it is improvised. I mean, the melody is there, but Noro was such a genius that it’s not like a classicalized piece. You wouldn’t play it the same way twice. I heard a couple other renditions of it from great pianists, and I kind of put my own spin on it. But I didn’t do it thinking I wanted it to be different. It’s just that we were playing it so much on the road, touring around the country, around India. We were playing this song every day. This was just our take on it. It was more of a take rather than an actual arrangement.
So you’re saying built into the composition by Noro, it invites a lot of inventiveness.
It’s funny, because I don’t notice it, I don’t notice it at all. There are things that I’ve changed, yes. But it’s like, I don’t want to claim any of that as my own. The truth is, I don’t know where I got a lot of the stuff from. What I would do is maybe take an intro I heard Tito doing on something else, and I’d use it on this. Something that another pianist did with one of the bridge sections, and I’d do that. And then I’d think this is how Noro starts it, and I would include that. So it ends up being a collage.
Well, the version I listened to is on the CD. And I don’t sense any deliberate altering of the tune. What I get is you breathing into it in a certain way. In those moments where there is soloing and improvisation, you’re doing your thing, giving it a kind of flavor and personality that is unique to the way you play the piano, how you feel it. That’s always amazing to me when you get an old tune that you’ve heard a million times, and somebody does that with the music. It makes me think this music is always alive. It’s not nostalgia. We’re not trying to go back to preserve some version of something in its original form. You’re constantly breathing new life into it.
During the improvised sections, we do open it up. We do our own thing. I think that band (from the CD) is not the best band to play in the classicalized style. The band we’re going into Zinc with is more that kind of band.
Are you going to play that tune at Zinc?
If you had to categorize your influences, where would you say your approach to the piano comes from?
I still consider myself a student, of course. I haven’t done my own writing, my own recording. I’ve been waiting until I feel comfortable with ideas that are my own, concepts that are my own, that I have, but I’ve been waiting to go in that direction yet because I’d like to make that a permanent thing. So I feel that I’m still in my discovery phase. A lot of the stuff that I’m playing is things that people that hire me want to hear.
Currently, my mentor, without a doubt, is Eddie Palmieri. Not only am I a student of all music, but I’m also clearly a student of his. I try to make sure I’m following that, to open myself up when I’m ready to play my own ideas. But right now, I‘m just trying to hone my skills. I’m still focusing on that.
Has Palmieri always been a primary influence of yours?
Oh yeah. Always has been. Since I was a kid. Now, when I go see Eddie, see what he’s doing in his 80s, it’s unreal. One of a kind. Genius. I’ve never seen anything like it. I wanna be like that.
Are there other influences that you can cite?
In the jazz world and the Latin jazz? Everything? That‘s a long list. Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner are tops on that list. Wynton Kelly. Charlie Palmieri, a very big influence. Peruchín. I don’t have anyone that I’m not influenced by, really. I mean, I’m throwing out these names, but there’s a ton more. Bobby Timmons. Was on my Bobby Timmons phase for a while. Absolutely love that guy. Bill Evans.
Of course, being here in New York there’s your salsa legends – Papo Lucca, Ruben Gonzalez. And I’ve always been listening to Arsenio Rodriguez and a lot of the older stuff. Because Andy Gonzalez [of the Fort Apache Band] was a mentor of mine and my brother’s when we were kids. He dropped off records on a regular basis. So we had a lot of homework every week. A lot of listening. We were lucky to be pointed in the right direction in that regard.
How did you and the Gonzalez brothers, Andy and Jerry, first become musical brethren?
I grew up in Jackie McLean’s School for Young Kids in Hartford. It’s called the Arts Collective. I was there for all my early stages. So I knew how to play jazz. I was in the big band. Then Jackie brought as guests a lot of great musicians like Andy and Fort Apache. Larry Willis. And also Hilton Ruiz. He opened up a lot of things for me. He was very encouraging. So I developed in Hartford with local musicians there but was really lucky to have the outside influences from Jackie. Billy Taylor, got to meet him and know him. It was like a golden age in Hartford. There was a guy, Joe Valez, who really started the whole Latin Jazz thing for us. He was teaching at the conservatory in the summer program, my dad put us in there. Ed Fast had his own Latin jazz band. He would write out these charts and bring them to us when we were young kids.
I didn’t really grow up in the salsa culture, Latin culture, at all. It was definitely an outside thing that everyone seemed to be interested in at the same time.
This was not the music of your generation. What was it like being dedicated to this music when everyone else in your generation was listening to hip hop and pop music?
I listened to hip hop as well. I listen to a lot of music. But the key was that my dad had a record player at home, and you could also put in his tapes. He had a computer where we’d burn records to CDs and create mix tapes. I’d have my Coltrane mix tape. Thelonious Monk. And McCoy Tyner with John Coltrane, that was my favorite.
My older brother played piano. So he’d bring home what he was learning, and I’d learn that. And Luques was playing bass. He was already more advanced, playing with the school band. At the time I was developing, he was already developed. We were all into it together. Also, I was a student at the Performing Arts Academy in a band led by Gene Santoro. So there were a lot of fellow students into this music.
When did you start to think this was a career choice, that you could make your living doing this?
I remember my first professional gig, I was in high school. There was a great bass player named Charles Flores, playing with Michel Camilo before he passed. That was the first time I got paid. But honestly, I never really thought about it, never had time to think about it. My dad was focused; he would drive us to the rehearsals. We didn’t really have much choice. So I kind of fell into it. Later, when I got into college, I had my first tour with Donald Harrison. We went to Germany, went to Spain. That kind of led me to say, ‘Hey, here it is, you can do it.’
So you were a working musician before you really had time to think about it.
Right. In a way it was more of a cultural thing than something that was planned out. For me, a lot of the music is subconscious. I let the music guide me.
Even though you’re young, you’re a veteran in this business. You’ve seen many changes, the biggest one being the death of recorded music as a business model. You used to be able to produce CDs and build up a fan base, which guaranteed that you’d have people at your live gigs. How do you go about doing that now?
Well, they want you do playlists for places like Spotify, the pay services, and of course you don’t make money doing that. The problem is that now we’re in direct competition with pop music. Everybody’s getting paid the same rate. But, with streaming, pop musicians can make a hundred thousand dollars where a jazz musician is making four or five dollars. Luckily for us, jazz fans are still buying CDs at shows. Not so much at stores or online, but at shows, they show up, you can sell maybe 10 or 15 CDs. But it’s rough. That’s why we’ve all moved towards education. I don’t know where it’s going to go from here. I think there’s going to be more music schools. All the great musicians, they’re doing their teaching thing.
I compose more than I do anything else these days. Challenging myself musically and mentally. I have a lot on my plate. It’s more of a science to me than anything. I mean, It’s definitely an art, buts it’s also about the experiments.
Yes, but I would imagine that doing live gigs is something that feeds the soul – the joy of being able to make whatever kind of a living you can from performing live music, utilizing what you’ve dedicated your life to learning and sharing it with an audience.
Yes, at this point, I’m committed to creating new music with different sounds, different bands, orchestras. And I’m presenting that music in different ways. In August I’m doing a big band thing at Litchfield Jazz Festival. I’m doing a big band performance coming up at Dizzy’s in September. At the same time, I have a whole bunch of music that I’ve arranged, and the different bands have a different accent playing the same type of music.
This gig at Zinc will be a part of that; there will be some experimentation. But mostly I want to pay homage to Noro Morales, to experience his genius. I’m really looking forward to the show.
(Come see and hear the Zaccai Curtis Quartet at Zinc Jazz Club, at 82 W 3rd St, in Greenwich Village, NYC, on Thursday, June 28. Sets are at 7 & 8:30 pm.)