with Oscar Noriega
Tafuri: I've noticed in jazz, a lot of really amazing players who are very creative come out of what I'm afraid to call a "party band" thing. Some of the greatest drummers I've known played weddings and bar mitzvahs and parties for years and years, and then eventually got into jazz; all of them have told me what great experience that is. From the little bit we chatted about your beginnings, I think you're kind of out of that bag too, aren't you?
Noriega: Definitely. Without a doubt. I started with my brothers, playing wedding gigs —it's all dance music, playing ranchettas and cumbias. That was my first experience, and we played a lot —every weekend, two gigs at least. I was in the eighth grade, the ninth grade, and this was every weekend.
Tafuri: Where was this?
Noriega: This was in Tucson.
Tafuri: What kind of band did you have?
Noriega: This group with my brother was called "Hermanos Jovel" —it was the first initials of all my brothers: Jaime, Oscar, Victor, Elias, and Lazaro. We started playing songs, you know —we'd play at these church festivals, parties, weddings, one gig led to the other.
Tafuri: What kind of music were you playing?
Noriega: It was Mexican music. That's what we did. That was my first experience —it was music for the sake of a party, people being festive, people dancing. That was my first experience of gigging. I'll never forget playing at the Community Center in Tucson —it was packed. I had this feeling of being onstage and watching these people, seeing everybody dance —
Tafuri: —to your
Tafuri: And how old
Tafuri: Where did you fit in the range of Hermanos Jovel?
Noriega: I was the middle brother —I'm a Libra, I'm in the middle. I have two older brothers and two younger brothers. It was interesting, because I was always fighting with my brothers. My older brothers were too old for me to hang out with; my younger brothers were too young. Not being able to hang out with my brothers, I would practice harder because I was alone.
Tafuri: But musically you got along?
Noriega: No. I mean, I fought. I played in this band until I was eighteen —and finally I was burnt out with this music. I mean, I love the music, but we were playing the same tunes. I was at the point where I wouldn't even read the music, I just knew all these tunes. I would start embellishing on the tunes, which wasn't a good thing for my oldest brother, who was the leader. I was always moving them to a different direction by that time. I wanted to play jazz, I was studying classical alto. But, that was my first real experience with working, with gigging and playing for people, having people dance to the music. Before we started playing music, we grew up around it —I grew up with Norteño music, northern Mexican music. It's basically polka music.
Tafuri: Your parents
played it on record, or you heard it on radio?
Tafuri: Like my mother. My mother did the same thing.
Noriega: I forgot about that, but it came back. My parents listen to a lot of Norteño music, a lot of bolero music, but they also like new music, they like hearing something different. To them it's interesting.
Tafuri: So was there classical music too, or not?
Noriega: They didn't play a lot of classical music. My mom took us to the symphony once. Which is a funny story, because we didn't have a lot of money at the time, and my mom walking in with five little boys to the symphony where everybody was dressed up —it a weird experience. This big hall, people walking around in tuxedos —
Tafuri: Do you remember what you heard?
Noriega: No, I don't.
Tafuri: Just curious.
Noriega: What I remember the most was the environment, and how in tune everything was. [Laughs.] I couldn't believe they had an orchestra playing and they were in tune. Like, "How'd they do that? How can everybody listen like that?"
Tafuri: So what instruments were you playing at that time?
Noriega: The alto saxophone, and tenor.
Tafuri: And you played both in the band?
Noriega: I actually played alto, mainly, and sometimes tenor, because my older brother played tenor too, so we'd share that tenor. I would play bass, electric bass —we'd switch around sometimes...
Tafuri: Did you have lessons to begin with?
Noriega: My oldest brother started playing trumpet in grade school, in fifth grade. Victor, the second oldest, started playing guitar; they were playing together, and I wanted to play, and we all decided to play instruments. "Hey, let's have a band." I knew I wanted to play saxophone. It was interesting to see this shiny instrument that I'd never seen, which you hear in Norteño music —it had all these buttons, it was just fascinating to me. I didn't understand it, and I wanted to know something about it. We started, and we had this teacher who would come to our house. He would come, and he would teach us one tune until we had it memorized. I remember the first tune we learned was "Spanish Eyes," as bolero.
Tafuri: I know the tune....
Noriega: In B flat, too. We rehearsed it over and over until we had it memorized. He would come over every weekend with new music written out, that he would transcribe for us. We had maybe two tunes in C or B flat. Everything was in E or B, you know, or E flat, A flat —we all learned to play in different keys really fast. That was a good experience, because when you're in grade school, they teach you to play in C and B flat, C and B flat, you know, blah blah blah.
Tafuri: They teach you the easy keys, right.
Noriega: I was playing in all these other keys —
Tafuri: —before you knew any better [laughs] —
Noriega: Also, because we were gigging and performing for people who're dancing - you don't want to play in the same key all the time.
Noriega: All these little things that I didn't know, he just showed us. He'd come over every weekend, and we'd get faster at learning tunes. He'd bring two tunes we'd memorize that week...
Tafuri: But it was the whole band he was working with?
Noriega: The whole band. And, he was an alto player. He had a humongous sound —he was a big, heavy guy —he always came in a suit, had his handkerchief hanging out. He would scream at me in Spanish, telling me "Key signature, key signature! Watch your key signature!" He was on me all the time because he was an alto player. This was my biggest lesson —studying from this guy, starting to learn music for the sake of playing music, gigging and working. When I was twelve, we were paying for our school clothes, which was great. Also, my father was like "You have a job now, you're gigging, you pay for yourselves." We had to pay for our schoolbooks!
Tafuri: You learned responsibility early.
Tafuri: While you were playing all this music, was it just something you were doing because it was fun, did you have aspirations that you wanted to "grow up" and do something, like have a profession unrelated to music?
Noriega: This comes back to that gig at the community center, watching these people. I'll never forget that moment. I saw 200 people dancing, and my brothers and me were up on stage playing. I felt different from the other people, and I saw them enjoying themselves; they were enjoying themselves because we were playing. It was a new experience, and I realized that. All these people looked happy, and it made me feel good. I remember telling myself, "I want to do this all the time." I felt like I was doing something positive, something good. My mom and my grandmother, when we were kids, were always saying "be good"; they were always telling me that because I was fighting with everybody, I was a pain in the ass. I remember, it just hit me —"this is what I want to do."
Tafuri: That's good, when you know early, and it's that clear. I think for a lot of people it takes a long time to figure out what you want to do. It's really like a vocation for you —you were "called," it sounds like.
Noriega: I think I was just open to what was happening. I didn't know better, to judge or be afraid at that time. When you're a kid, you don't think too much —
you're thinking about other things —
Tafuri: There's a certain intrepid nature that kids have. I guess it's sort of an innocence in a way —you just don't know what all the consequences can be ... you do what you do. I just saw a kid this morning, a little kid who was no more than three feet high, running to catch up with his mother. He approaches this big plastic garbage can that was on the ground, and he ended up doing a hurdle over it —he leaped over it, and he looked like a natural. The reason why he did it, and why he looked so natural, was that nobody told him that he might get hurt —he didn't talk himself out of it. And he was beautiful doing it.
Noriega: Kids, that approach that they have, they don't think about consequence —they see what they like and they go for things...
Tafuri: Well, they're living in the moment, which a lot of adults try to get back to.
Noriega: Did I know I wanted to be a musician? When I was older, as a young adult was, I would meet these people in colleges, searching for what they want to do, or not knowing what they wanted, or musicians who had quit, and I was fascinated by that, because I knew what I wanted to do. I was discouraged a lot of times, because it's a rat race, it's hard sometimes —but I knew I didn't have a choice, this is what I wanted to be.
Tafuri: I was thinking about it when you said that. I would be really interested to know how many people are actually doing what they got their degree in in college. In other words, I'd like to know what percentage of the people that go to college and major in something are actually directly using that degree.
Noriega: I'd be interested in finding out. Most of the people I met going to school (not that I was in school for a long time), a lot of the kids I met, their parents put them in school, and they were going for these degrees that their parents steered them towards. Knowing that, you meet them and they don't have any passion for this —they'll finish their degrees and then move on to something else.
Tafuri: Right, right. I mean, obviously there are other things you get out of college; there's the liberal arts aspect. But speaking of school, that's where I wanted to go: How do you go from playing in these bands and having the big alto player with the suit and the handkerchief giving you lessons and knowing what you want to do to NEC [the New England Conservatory of Music]?
Noriega: Well, first of all, I didn't attend NEC —
Noriega: From the band
with my brothers, at the same time I was playing in the
high school bands, concert band, jazz band, etc, etc,
and I would play those competitions, regional competitions. I
was interested in learning classical music. It was
also a different type of music to get into —it kept
me interested. I would get bored easily, so it was
always nice to get into another direction.
Tafuri: Really! Wow, that's hard to turn down.
Tafuri: Especially when you come out of a background where you're paying for your own clothes growing up. That's a good feeling.
Noriega: I'm grateful to my friend —his name's Carl McCurry, he's a teacher now, a band director in Tucson. You know, if he didn't set that date up, I don't know what would have happened.
Tafuri: So you ended up going to school there?
Noriega: I went there for one year, and then I transferred to Arizona State. I had another scholarship there too —when I was in my junior year in high school, I auditioned for the all-state concert band in Arizona; I placed second, and the professor who auditioned me was teaching at Arizona State, and he offered me a full ride there. He didn't really come out and say it —he kind of nonchalantly said "you should go to school here..." For me, I was thinking, "oh, it's too expensive, I can't afford it." To me, school was a lot of money. I already had enough. I just finished paying off my saxophone, paying for school clothes, etc, etc. Why did I want to go back into debt?
Tafuri: What did you study when you were in school? You were in a program?
Noriega: I was in the jazz program, which was why I transferred to Arizona State —they had more musicians there. At the time, this was going from one step to the other —basically, I was headed to New York, but I needed to go through the process, you know? I left Tucson and moved to Phoenix, two hours away; I was there for a year —two years —
Tafuri: And you knew you wanted to go to New York?
Noriega: Well, this is where I landed. But what I was doing was just moving —getting away. In search of a better place to live and play. There was nothing happening at the time in Tucson.
Tafuri: At that time, then, you were playing mostly jazz —you weren't playing classical music at that point?
Noriega: I was studying classical music for alto, but then I realized —alto classical music? I mean, how many pieces are there? You've got Pictures at an Exhibition —Mussorgsky —and who gets the gigs, when those pieces are performed? They usually go to the university and ask the teacher to do the gigs. Or you join a quartet, but there isn't much work. I realized that all these people were becoming teachers —
Tafuri: —and you're a performer.
Noriega: I have taught in the past, and I like it, but it's not my passion.
Tafuri: Now, were you playing any bass clarinet at that time?
Tafuri: Not yet, just strictly alto?
Noriega: Yeah, it was strictly alto. After Phoenix, I moved to California, because I was going to check out the West Coast. It was a bigger city, there was more music happening —
Tafuri: I'll move there, argue with them there...
Noriega: Well, yeah. [Laughs.] I lasted a week at one brother's house —they kicked me out. They love me, it's just that I was a pain in the ass. I still am to some extent. [Laughs.] The nice thing about LA is there are musicians passing through that you can go listen to. Which was great —I could check out these great musicians. Most of them were from New York, just passing through Hollywood, playing at the Carolina Bar and Grill ... but I didn't like the whole scene. Music in LA wasn't to my taste. I didn't like having to have a car —you drive everywhere —and everything was spread out. It's like another world.
Tafuri: It is.
Noriega: Now when I go back, it feels like I'm on Mars or some foreign place. [Laughs.] I called a friend who I grew up with, Sarah Smith, who's from Arizona and moved to Boston, and was attending Berklee. I called her up one day, I was depressed and said "I'll give Sarah a call." I was telling her about the scene, and LA, and I didn't feel like I belonged, and you had to drive everywhere just to play a session, and it just didn't feel right. My gut was telling me this isn't the right place. She said, "move on out. There's so many people here, they're all young, you hear all these great players. You have to hear this guy George Garzone..." We were kids, it sounded fun, so I called the airline that day. I called her back the next day and said "I'll be there in three months, can you find me a place?" And she found me a place. That's how I landed in Boston.
Tafuri: How old were you then?
Noriega: I was twenty. Nineteen or twenty. I wasn't twenty-one, 'cause I had a fake ID.
Tafuri: Good —the authorities are still looking for you...
Noriega: When I landed in Boston, it felt like a new world, the East Coast [did].
Tafuri: Yeah, I'll bet.
Noriega: There were four seasons —it was snowing at the time, and I'm not used to snow. It was great. It was freezing, it was all this new experiences.
Tafuri: Stuff that a lot of people up there would probably complain about, but for you it was cool because it was something different.
Noriega: I remember, I had a tan. All these people were looking at me, thinking I'm coming back from Florida.
Tafuri: So whom did you play with up there? What happened when you got there? How did you get involved?
Noriega: I moved into a neighborhood that was next to Berklee and NEC. I lived with three roommates who all went to Berklee. That kind of put me into the scene. I was planning to go to Berklee when I landed there. I remember, I walked into the lobby of Berklee. (At that time you could smoke indoors.) I just saw these people hanging out in the lobby. It's snowing outside, everybody's in there smoking. I smoked at the time, so I didn't mind that. But it was just this scene of all these men hanging out, another institution of music. My gut feeling said No. I was burnt out with school at the time —I wanted to play, so that's what I did. I went there and I played. I played sessions —the security guard was used to my face, so they'd let me in without an ID. They just assumed I went to school there, because I'd sneak in with all the other musicians. I always made a point to meet the security guards, say "hi" to them, get their names, so they never questioned anything. People would check out rehearsal rooms for me, practice rooms, and after a while people just assumed I went to school there. They'd ask me to sub for them, or ask me to play a recital.
Noriega: Yeah. I was actually taking what I wanted from the school and not having the bill, paying back the loan.
Tafuri: And not having to deal with all the other didactic stuff that maybe you weren't that interested in or accustomed to. You started as a performer very early on. That's where your head was at, it sounds like.
Noriega: It was great. I'd wake up in the morning and all my roommates would go to school. I'd have the place to myself, I'd practice, then go play a session. But that got old after a while, too. I moved into a house with ten musicians. At the end of that year, these people asked me to move out to Somerville —it was a house with ten musicians, there were sessions all night.
Tafuri: In the house?
Noriega: In the house. 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!" And it was, at the time. We had so much fun. It was a great scene. After the Berklee thing, I went to NEC and did the same thing. Actually, 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. I absorbed by being around good musicians, by seeing good music, by hearing good music. I was finally in a place where I felt I was around people I could relate to. Not only musically, but just how they viewed life.
Tafuri: You're talking now, in Boston in general?
Noriega: Yeah. When I arrived in Boston, it felt like, "I'm here." I remember telling myself within the first week "I can see myself staying here for a long time." Not so much Boston, but the East Coast. It was another world I didn't know, it was faster, which I like. I get impatient sometimes. Being in Tucson, it's more laid back.
Tafuri: So we've been talking a lot about playing, about performance. You haven't really mentioned anybody in particular in the Boston area that you recall working with, but when did you start composing? You write a lot of music too...
Noriega: I started writing, composing in Boston. Another example of being in the right environment, and around people —I was around people who were writing music. I was around people who were bringing tunes to a session.
Tafuri: And then you started realizing, "Gee, I can do this?"
Noriega: Yeah. In retrospect, I realize all those things that I didn't do at an early age was fear. I was afraid of writing music, because I was afraid of people not liking it. Mainly myself. I played other people's music where it sounds good to me; they're having problems accepting what they wrote, and I like it —it's like, "Well, I'm in the same situation, so why don't I take a chance?" At least try it —if it doesn't work, it doesn't work —it's still better than not writing at all for the fear of fear.
Tafuri: That's really what it gets down to, I think, when you're playing and when you're writing. It gets down to taking that chance. Having the faith in what you do or what you write...
Noriega: But it's really, really hard for me to write. For me to compose, it's fun when I'm not thinking about it, when I'm just writing just because I have these ideas —I want to put them on paper, I want to see what they sound like. Sometimes I'll think about how they'll sound with this group, like for instance, this group Play Party. Some of the tunes I wrote, I had this concept of how it would sound. Not sure, just an idea —that's exciting. But the moment I start thinking about, "Are people going to like this tune?" or "Is this tune not challenging enough?" or "Am I doing the best I can do? Am I being lazy?" You start thinking about that, and —
Tafuri: —You psych yourself out.
Noriega: You psych yourself out. It's like "I suck, my music sucks, etc, etc" It's not only music. I meet so many people, they're not doing what they want to do. "I really would love to do this, I've always wanted to do this," and you ask them why and they say "I can't." "Why?"
Tafuri: "Did you ever try?"
Noriega: Yeah. You meet those people, and I think a lot of people, including myself, we have that. You don't have it when you're a kid, because you're taught not to jump over that bucket, that can, because you can get hurt. Your brain starts playing tricks on you.
Tafuri: Well now you're doing it. You're working with a lot of different individuals....
Noriega: I do a lot of meditating.
Tafuri: Oh yeah? You mean in between gigs?
Noriega: In between everything. I try to focus on positive things, and I'm grateful for things that I've envisioned that are actually happening, like having a band, writing music. Just life being happy —my marriage, for instance, or seeing my family growing. Those kinds of things, if I focus on those once in a while, it helps me stay grounded. I'm always working on staying grounded. I'm a Libra, I search for balance all the time. It's true. Once I accepted that, I realized, what's so bad about that? Why don't I use it to my advantage? Before, I didn't want to know anything about it. For me, that works —being positive. Sometimes I get dark, but when that happens I need to do it —I need to just let some steam out. If I stay there for a long time, it's not going to get me anywhere —it's not going to help me grow as a person. It's not going to help me do good things.
Tafuri: Well, musically what you do is so sort of transcendent —the only way to do that is to keep that balance, keep your feet on the ground. I used to have a philosophy teacher who said "feet on the ground and a flair for what's in the air."
Noriega: I have to remember that.
Tafuri: That's how
he put it. This group on the album is really different
instrumentation, the tunes are really different and interesting. Not
having a bass player in this group, allowing for freedom —the
tunes have a groove to them, have that kind of grounding,
but at the same time both the instrumentation and the way
they're written leaves a lot of space for things to happen.
Noriega: He hung himself.
Tafuri: Oh, my God!
Noriega: He had this 'Italian shop' that he and his father opened up; he was a chef, so he'd make pasta and other things. So, he hung himself in his shop. He used a thin rope and a six-inch penny nail. It was unbelievable that it held him. It's a little weird because it was like he almost didn't expect it to work. It was a tiny nail. He just bent it up. His helper came in and found him, and then went to a friend who came, and it was too late. The paramedics came —they tried reviving him —but he was gone.
Tafuri: How long was this after he visited you, and how long was he here?
Noriega: Four years ago. He was here a couple of weeks, but we connected immediately. He was a great billiard player, and I fancy the game. He was depressed when he went back because his girlfriend broke up with him.
Tafuri: And how soon after he left did it happen?
Noriega: You know, I can't remember. Maybe six months. At the time, Valerie would go back because of her visa. Every three months, she would have to go back. And she was there at the time when it happened.
Tafuri: So, you weren't married at that time?
Noriega: No, we weren't married. And she was stuck there, at the time, because she couldn't get back. So, she had stayed there for a couple months. I remember because I got a call from her friend to 'tell me about bad news,' and my heart stopped. I thought something had happened to Valerie, because it was a sad message. And then she said there was an accident with Luciano, and he had died. Then I went over, and that was the first time I met Valerie's parents.
Tafuri: So, you went to Paris?
Noriega: I went to see her, and everybody was shocked [about Luciano's death]. Like they had no idea.
Tafuri: You said you connected with Luciano immediately, at least, initially, because he was a great billiard player, but what other things...
Noriega: I remember I picked him up at the airport, and he showed up with all his cues. He was speaking Italian, I was speaking Spanish, so it was hard at the beginning. We spent a lot of time together, all our days. Valerie was working at the time when he came to visit, so we hung out. He was a great cook; I love to cook. We had this appreciation for food and wine. We were the same age, so I was dating his 'older sister' at the time. And I remember that he told Valerie that I was "happenin.'" That's what he said, that she had found a good guy. He was happy to see what we were together. And it was also good because he went back and told the parents 'he's great,' 'I can see why they're together,' etc, etc.
Tafuri: You mention cooking, you mention billiards, you mention the challenge of finding a method of common verbal communication. In what non-concrete ways do you think you connected with Luciano? In what, in other words, "non-externalized" ways? I sense there was a deeper connection.
Noriega: Sometimes when you meet someone - you know that connection one has, like you've known someone forever - we had that kind of connection. We hit it off right away.
Tafuri: It's a soulmate kind of thing.
Tafuri: You said that when you heard, your heart stopped. What kinds of things did you think about?
Noriega: My heart stopped because I thought, at first, something had happened to Valerie. And then [Valerie's friend] said [Valerie's] okay, so I was like "Whew!" and then she said there's been an accident and Luciano died.
Tafuri: How did you feel when it was clarified that he had actually taken his own life? What kinds of things went through your mind?
Noriega: Well, the first thing that went through my mind was Valerie. I talked to her, and I was shocked. For me, it's hard to see people die at a young age, and he was 28 years old. I mean, that's young. And we'd have these talks about life and how we're still young, that there's so much to look forward to. That was the hardest part, because we connected; he was a good friend.
Tafuri: Quickly [a good friend].
Noriega: Quickly. And then it was gone. I was looking forward to having him as a brother-in-law and hanging out with him. It was great because he'd laugh a lot, too. I had fun with him; we would laugh.
Tafuri: I'm feeling like this album is, on one level, a bit of an homage and somewhat an externalization, a coming-to-terms with what happened. This was something that was terrible and, perhaps, you grew from it, but now you're moving on. So, this is a sort of adieu, in a way.
Noriega: When I wrote the piece, I was actually thinking about —I was actually visualizing —his putting the rope around his own neck. 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. 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. Cynthia Albam, who I also dedicated the album to, was a photographer who lived here in The Slope [Park Slope, Brooklyn]. She was a journalist-photographer who went to Chechniya and was beheaded by a missile. Quick, young, 28 years old (again).
Tafuri: The piece itself is very evocative, and it's very deep. It made me think about the space one has to get into to do something like that, and that's a pretty dark and foreboding place. I don't think it's so much to 'step to the other side,' but to 'step out of' here.
Noriega: I think for Luciano, it was to step out.
Tafuri: Well, I wondered how you felt.
Noriega: The other thing was: I watched their family. It was Valerie's only sibling, so now she's the only child. Her parents —they're Italian —you know, their boy's gone. That's heavy.
Tafuri: Well, moving on to happier things, tell me a little about the other tunes on the album. For example, "Kashi Koi Hito."
Noriega: I wrote this tune for [bassist] Stomu Takeishi. We had a gig at Tonic, and Tom [Rainey] couldn't do that gig. I decided to keep the gig to keep this band going, so I subbed them out. It was Stomu on bass, instead of guitar, and [John] Hollenback on drums, which, incidentally, sounded great. Completely different. Some of the same tunes; not all the same, because I wrote some new tunes for this album. And I wanted to write this tune for Stomu.
Tafuri: So, you had a tune you had written?
Noriega: No, I wrote it before the gig with him in mind.
Tafuri: And what had you called it?
Noriega: "Old Wise Man" which is kashi koi hito. Same thing with Stomu [as with Luciano]; he's like a soulmate. He's got this "old" soul, and we have this connection. He's great to be with and hang out with. It's always positive; he's a positive person. I learn a lot from him.
Tafuri: Grounded. It
gets back to keeping yourself grounded. "Feet
on the ground...
Noriega: Exactly. And the whole piece normally features him, but on this recording, I liked the piece. I played another shortly after [working with Stomu] where Brad [Shepik] and I played the same tune. I explained to Brad the concept of the tune, and it sounds great.
Tafuri: How about "The Z." What is "The Z"?
Noriega: "The Z" is The Scarlet Z, a trio with Ted Reichman, Curtis Hasselbring and myself. Curtis plays guitar, trombone; Ted plays accordion, organ; I play the saxophone, bass clarinet and snare drum (on some tunes). We play old folk tunes ... just straight down.
Tafuri: What kind of folk tunes?
Noriega: We play an Italian piece, American pieces —whatever. And we write for it, too.
Tafuri: No Mexican folk music?
Noriega: Actually, we play one Spanish tune, a bolero, and Curtis wrote a norteño tune for the group. It varies. It's a fun group. This tune that's on the album, "The Z," was a piece that I originally wrote for Play Party. I wrote it for the band, but I was having problems figuring out what to do with it with the band, so I didn't just want to come in and bring it in and hash it out. So, I brought it to The Scarlet Z, and we played it. Actually, it developed with that group. Then, right before we went into the studio, I realized I could play this as a duet with Brad playing guitar. And Tom came in and played on it. He came in to play, heard it, and said "This sounds good, I wanna play on it." So, that's how that happened. Once I decided not to have the trumpet, it made more sense for me. I realized that Cuong didn't have to be on every tune.
Tafuri: How about "Back to Back"?
Noriega: The title is the bass line; it's a groove. It's a bass line, then the bass line in retrograde; it's forward, then it's reversed. So, it's "back to back," the line. This was another tune where I wanted to have a "groove easy," medium tune, written for the sake of the album's continuity. When I write —and I don't always do this —but I try to write as a set for a gig. Say when I'm going to write new music for Play Party, I try to write a group of tunes as the listener would want to hear. I think a lot of times we [musicians] get caught up in what we want to do, and it's good to think about the people who are listening.
Tafuri: So, that way, the pieces are in context.
Noriega: The album is really different for that reason. Then we have "Funky #5" where, actually, the tune's in 7. It sounded to me like a funky tune; it goes in that direction, but not like relaxed funk. I love playing this tune, and I love doing the intro with Cuong, because it's where we can just let ourselves go. He and I are just playing, then the band comes in with this line, fast, tippin'.
Tafuri: Where did the idea for the tune come from?
Noriega: As I was writing "7 of 9," I was writing "Funky #5" at the same time. " 7 of 9" goes into different sections. "Funky #5" was the tune that, after I got frustrated with [working on writing] "7 of 9," I'd start playing saxophone. Most of the tune on "7 of 9" was originally meant for bass clarinet, actually, from beginning to end. So, I would pick up the saxophone and just play. I was practicing with the metronome just playing up, fast, and I did it every day, but ["Funky #5"] was kind of a release of "7 of 9." I came up with that first line, then I went into 7 groove; it grooves in 7. For me, it was fun to play over that line; it was a release of everything while I was working on "7 of 9." The title "Funky #5" was that it was just the funky tune that was the fifth tune that I was writing.
Tafuri: [Laughs.] Cool!
Noriega: I mean, I spent time thinking of a title, but, when we were rehearsing, I just said "Let's play the funky tune #5," so it turned into "Funky #5." And the tune's in 7, so it was fun to call it "Funky #5."
Tafuri: It's like Chinese "Five Spice" powder that is actually seven spices.
Noriega: The first two don't count.
Tafuri: It's interesting that you have two tunes that are in a so-called "irregular" meter. How much of the music you were playing growing up in the ranchera band was —or is any of it —in irregular meters?
Noriega: No, most of it's waltz [time] or in 4.
Tafuri: Or polka [time].
Noriega: Cumbias and boleros. For me, the odd meter comes from listening to a lot of Balkan music and different music, Turkish music —from all over that region. For a couple reasons. For me, that music reminds of when I first started. If you listen to that music, it's of wedding bands —the Bulgarian Ivo Papasolf or King Mustaf (who's an amazing alto player). Their music is lively; it's celebratory. It's wedding for three days, you know. It's a serious thing; it's a big part of the wedding. You have a wedding, and the whole town comes. I've never experienced it, but, just from what people say, I hear it in the music. And I was fascinated by the odd meter, how they play like we play in 4.
Tafuri: They play on these meters which, to us, are such difficult meters, and they play on them with such ease.
Noriega: And you watch them dance over it, and it's so laid back. You know, they push and pull and rush. Well, I don't know this for a fact, but it's not so much the technique, it's the emotion they bring. Klezmer music's the same way; they have these competitions of who can sing with the most emotion. To me, that's an important part —not to necessarily play with happiness, just emotion.
Tafuri: Color and spirit. It sounds like the early bands you played with didn't necessarily start off with a helluva a lot of technique. It was a lot of emotion, a lot of feeling, a lot of getting into the mood.
Noriega: It's all I had. After three or four months of playing, we had a gig; it was on the spot. It didn't sound too good the first four gigs.
Tafuri: People still had fun.
Noriega: I think they had fun 'cause they knew we were giving all we could give. We were young, we were kids, you know?
Tafuri: There's a lot to be said for that. And back on "7 of 9," why is it [titled] "7 of 9"?
Tafuri: The piece is in 7...
Noriega: Actually, the piece - at the beginning —is different grooves that keep expanding. It's a line where there are four different things. You know, where the drums and bass clarinet are playing? The first four are different lines that are repeated. It sounds like the same thing, but there's always another beat or couple beats added. It kind of throws you off. It's interesting just to play over that. Then it goes into 7, and then the guitar solo that we play at the end is in 7 and then 9 [sings line] which is 9 then 7 really and 7 of 9.
Noriega: Also, the Star Trek woman. She's fine, and her name's 7 of 9. Yeah.
Tafuri: And "Skimcoat"?
Noriega: It was written for a friend —her name's Kathy Brennan —and she lives in this neighborhood. She's a plasterer; she does skimcoats. When I first moved here, I worked for her for a little while, and we became really good friends. She was really cool. She knew what I was here for, and I could just come and work if I wanted to. She was cool.
Tafuri: You mean, she knew you where here for the music? That you needed to make a couple bucks.
Noriega: Yeah, especially when I first moved here with no money —a hundred bucks. And we became really, really good friends —tight —as hot as you can get. We just started partying because she wanted more from me for her business or life or whatever. She was going through some hard times then. It was just we got to the point where we had to part ways, and I saw this happening before it happened. I wrote this tune because I was sad. I was bummed out because I knew our friendship would prevail in the end, but we needed to just take time [off]. Now we're friends again, and it's great. But I also knew [then], it was a time for me to get away from that whole scene, that whole vibe, and just let time tell.
Tafuri: And it's hard when you see that comin'...
Noriega: I saw that coming before it happened, and it was painful because I knew this is when you have to go this other direction. And, because there was a lot of love, it was hard. It you know, it's fine; we had no choice, it was going to happen. And she did a lot of skimcoat. And it [the piece] has that kind of vibe.
Tafuri: It sure does. And how about "Canción para Cecilia"?
Noriega: I wrote this song with my mother in mind. It's an easy tune, 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. I love my parents, they were great, always supportive in their own way. It didn't matter what we did as long as we did what made us happy. That's what my mom always said; it was amazing. She'd always say, "You can do whatever you want ... as long as you're happy; that's what counts. It doesn't matter if you're not rich." Of course, every parent would like to see their children successful, but her thing was 'just be happy.' My father was the same way; he'd always say, "Money isn't the most important thing in the world. You can't take it with you." I miss them, because I live on the East Coast now. I don't spend much time with them. When I go home, it's for three days ... max. And they came to New York for the first time for the wedding, but they're busy. We talk every week, but I don't see them. If I'm lucky, I see them once a year. And we [Valerie and I] went back, and it'd been three years since I'd seen them, and I miss them. It's great because now I have family here: friends, like a second family for me, where we talk, fight, hang out, and I grew up around that. I wanted to thank my mom, one, and, two, I missed her a lot —really missed her. So, I wrote this melody ... and I started the melody three years ago, and I just put it away. Before the date —maybe a month or two —I started working on it, and then I played it.
Tafuri: It took some time. It took some time for it to come together. It's hard to summarize emotions you have for someone who's been so important in your life —and continues to be important, in a different way —simply.
Noriega: She's very positive. I think I get a lot of that from her —all of it, actually. It's amazing, because of what they've gone through. And to see them still change...
Tafuri: And, as you said, still so much in love after all these years...
Noriega: Yeah, it's
amazing. That blows my mind.