Oscar Noriega's Play Party: Luciano's DreamLiner notes for Luciano's Dream (OmniTone 12004)

Luciano's suicide was unexpected and traumatic. He was Oscar Noriega's brother-in-law-to-be, filled with the world and evidently weary with it. "For me, it's hard to see people die at a young age, and he was 28 years old. I mean, that's young. We'd have these talks about life and how we're still young, that there's so much to look forward to," recalls Oscar.

"I try to focus on positive things... I'm always working on staying grounded. I'm a Libra; I search for balance all the time," explains Oscar. "Sometimes I get dark, but when that happens ... I need to just let some steam out."

Oscar had ample opportunity to let off steam as a kid. Growing up as the middle son of five in a Mexican household in Tucson, "I was always fighting with my brothers," recounts Oscar. "My older brothers were too old for me to hang out with, my younger brothers were too young."

Starting at age 10, Oscar also vented by playing cumbias, ranchettas and boleros at church festivals, parties and weddings with Hermanos Jovel, a ranchera band formed with his four brothers. "I soloed a lot, because when we were starting out, we didn't have four or five hours of tunes, so we'd stretch the tunes. I loved soloing: you just close your eyes and play," he recollects.

Oscar's tricky relationship with his brothers drove him to spend a lot of time practicing saxophone. The repetitiveness of practice —and of playing the same tunes gig after gig —offered near-Zazen opportunities to observe and absorb the world around him. As an early teen, Oscar had already learned responsibility. He was gigging, buying his school clothes and books, contending with his brothers, practicing his horn and learning from his supportive parents and sage grandmother.

Then it hit him at one local community center gig, as he watched 200 people dancing to Hermanos' music. "I felt different from the other people," recalls Oscar, on realizing his true calling to music. "All these people looked happy, and it made me feel good. I remember telling myself, 'I want to do this all the time.'"

Despite his reservations about college, a friend at the University of Arizona secretly scheduled an audition for Oscar, leading to a full-ride scholarship. A year later, he continued at Arizona State in Phoenix, knowing he was headed toward New York, but realizing he needed to "go through the process."

Oscar headed to LA, where two of his brothers were living, and checked out a lot of great live jazz, mostly from New York musicians passing through Hollywood. His stay in a place he says now "feels like Mars" was short-lived. On the advice of an Arizona friend studying music in Boston, the 20-year-old plunged into the Beantown scene, living with three students in a neighborhood near Berklee and the New England Conservatory of Music.

Oscar never formally enrolled at either school, but he got to know students and, more importantly, security guards at both institutions, becoming such a familiar face that everyone thought he was a student. Says Oscar, "people asked me to play sessions, so I was in that scene a little, doing sessions, and then playing recitals. I was around all these musicians. That's where I learned." Thereafter, Oscar moved into a suburban house with ten musicians where all-day, all-night jam sessions ruled. "We drove the neighbors mad —they hated us. But we were young, we didn't care. It was like, 'this is more important than anything!'"

In that fertile, comfortable environment, Oscar began composing, something he still says is challenging, though the wealth of his rich, polished pieces —including those on this album —belie the insecurity he battles when composing. His works encapsulate, enrich and transcend his life's challenges and diverse experiences. They retain a primordial drive ingrained from his earliest days, which Oscar now brings to his current New York ensembles. Living in Brooklyn since 1992, Oscar performs with Play Party, the Oscar Noriega Quartet, Sideshow (a collective which reinterprets the music of Charles Ives), and Unit X, a collective quartet.

Oscar wrote "Kashikoi Hito" (Japanese for "old wise man") for bassist Stomu Takeishi. Says Oscar of Stomu, "He's got this 'old' soul, and we have this connection. He's great to be with and hang out with. He's a positive person. I learn a lot from him."

"7 of 9" and "Funky Number 5" are two fruits of Oscar's love for complexly metered Balkan and Turkish music. Beyond the rhythmic foundation, these musics remind Oscar of the music he first started playing —dance, wedding and party music, full of emotional content. "The Z" was first performed with The Scarlet Z, a trio in which- "we play old folk tunes ... just straight down," including Italian, American, Spanish and original pieces.

"Back to Back" refers to the grooving bass line that is played then repeated in retrograde. "I try to write as a set for a gig," explains Oscar. "I try to write a group of tunes as the listener would want to hear."

Oscar wrote the somewhat ethereal "Skimcoat" as a mournful ode to a waning friendship, and the strikingly simple and rich solo piece "Canción para Cecilia" for his mother. "It's an easy tune," admits Oscar, "but I spent a lot of time on it because I kept trying to develop it —make it go somewhere else —and I always came back to my original melody. Simple, leaving it alone."

Which leads back to the title tune, "Luciano's Dream." Oscar wrote the piece while visualizing Luciano in the process of preparing to take his own life. "The composition I wrote was trying to imagine being so sad that you'd want to do this and actually going into the other side ... which is the unknown," reveals Oscar. "There's that aspect to the tune. It was written for Luciano, but there were some other friends of mine who had passed on when they were young."

Luciano's Dream is an affecting elegy for those who die too young. Possibly more important, this debut album expectantly heralds a young man bursting forth with promise ... and with much to look forward to.

—Frank Tafuri

[Read complete interview with Oscar Noriega.]

©2013 OmniTone