Home Interviews IN CONVERSATION WITH BASSIST, COMPOSER LUQUES CURTIS

IN CONVERSATION WITH BASSIST, COMPOSER LUQUES CURTIS

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Luques Curtis
Before I met or had a working relationship with Luques and Zaccai Curtis, I was a follower. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed getting to know them and watching them grow personally and professionally. The interview’s inspiration came from a conversation with Luques about making the leap from sideman to a leader. At the time, he was hesitant, slowly warming up to the idea. Luques is one of the hardest-working and most popular bassists in today’s music scene. Also, he and his brother, pianist Zaccai Curtis are the co-founders of the Truth Revolution Recording Collective. In this intimate, one-on-one interview, Luques shares his insights on his career, the music business, and the future.
Tomás Peña: Is there anybody you haven’t performed with?
Luques Curtis: (Laughs) I seem to be with everybody!
TP: Congratulations on being selected as a Rising Bassist on Downbeat’s 64th Annual Critics Poll (see Downbeat, August 2016).
LC: I’m honored and thankful for the recognition. I’m especially grateful to journalist Ted Panken and the photographer Guinara Khamatova.
TP: You started as a drummer.
I wanted to be the drummer in my brother Zaccai’s middle school band, but the spot was taken. The director, Mr. Hooper, a great teacher, and mentor, knew that my dad owned a bass. He invited me to join the band as a bassist. My dad, Ted, was taking bass lessons, and I accompanied him. At first, I was reluctant (to take up the bass), but after one week, I surpassed my father, who had taken lessons for one month.
LC: I was eleven.
TP: Did your father continue his lessons?
LC: No, he quit. He says he took up the bass to inspire me!
TP: You have an elder brother, Damian.
LC: Damian did everything first. He’s a pianist, producer, and bandleader. He paved the way for me and my brother.
TP: Your parents – Ted and Abby – are very supportive. In a past interview, Zaccai said: “My dad was a big fan of music in general. I still remember, everywhere we went, there was music playing, or we went to concerts. My dad was always a fan of jazz and R&B, funk, or whatever. He didn’t have any borders; he wanted us to listen to everything.”
LC: That’s true. On Saturday’s my dad woke us up early and drove a bus full of kids (members of the band, Latin Flavor) to see The Jazz Mobile. Also, he ran errands, drove us to our lessons, took us to shows; you name it. My mother was always there too. She played the tambourine in church.
TP: I’ve often heard you say you have been, “blessed by the elders.” How so?
LC: It’s a reference to a long line of teachers and mentors such as (saxophonist) Donald Harrison, who played a significant role in our development. I joined his band in 2001; it was the first time I traveled with a group. When Donald learned that Zaccai is a pianist he invited him to sit in. Shortly after that, Zaccai joined the band. Donald taught us things on the road, life lessons, stage etiquette, things that every musician should know.
TP: He “schooled” you in the jazz tradition.
LC: He graduated from, “The School of Art Blakey” and The Jazz Messengers and paid it forward. After Donald, I toured with vibraphonist Gary Burton. His methodology was entirely different. He is very professional, structured and detail-oriented. He gave us itineraries! I learned a lot from him. Next, Zaccai and I joined drummer Ralph Peterson, who is arguably Art Blakey’s successor. He “subbed” him when he couldn’t make a gig.
TP: I had the pleasure of catching the trio at Dizzy’s (Jazz at Lincoln Center) earlier this year. Ralph comes from a long line of drummers, including the late, great Art Blakey. Also, he knows his way around a trumpet. Great show.
LC: It was a lot of fun. Later, I hooked up with (trumpeter) Brian Lynch, who introduced me to Eddie Palmieri when he was seeking a bass player. I auditioned for Eddie. Afterward, he said, “I’ll call you” and I thought to myself, “Yeah, whatever.” Shortly after that, I got the call. The rest is history (Laughs).
TP: You grew up listening to Palmieri’s music. Does it feel surreal to be performing with an artist whose music you revered as a child?
LQ: All the time! The tune, Café (with La Perfecta) was one of my favorite songs when I was a kid. I don’t speak Spanish, but the vibe, the swing, and the pulse of the tune. In answer to your question, yes, to be on stage with “that guy,” night after night, is mind-blowing.
TP: Chucho Valdes also took an interest in you and your brother at a young age.
LC: Chucho brought us to Cuba twice (1998, 2000), when I was fifteen and seventeen.
TP: Other influences include Andy Gonzalez and Joe Santiago.
LC: I met Andy when he was a guest artist in Hartford with a local band. Afterward, he came to my house and we talked for hours. He gave me advice on how to play the bass, suggested records I should check out and what path to follow. After seeing (bassist) Joe Santiago play with Palmieri, I took lessons with him.I also studied with Carlos del Puerto from Irakere, who hooked me up with Cuban rhythms and told me what music to check out. I was young and I absorbed everything. I didn’t know what instrument I wanted to play, or how to incorporate what I learned. Also, I was playing mostly straight-ahead jazz.
TP: Truth Revolution will pay tribute to Andy at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center) in September (2016).
LC: I’m looking forward to it.
TP: Many artists of your generation grew up listening to and playing Fela Kuti, John Coltrane, and Kendrick Lamar among others.
LC: That’s true. Back in the 50s and 60s, the music was straight-ahead swing. Today everything is mixed.
TP: You’ve reached the age where aspiring artists look up to you as a role model and a mentor. Do you teach, give private lessons?
LC: Zaccai and I teach at The Litchfield Jazz Camp. Also, I have private students. I’m too busy to teach on a steady basis, but I am always open to answering questions and sharing knowledge.
TP: Congratulations to you and your wife on the birth of your daughter, Zeni Bea. How has becoming a dad changed your outlook?
LC: If my daughter had been born four years ago, it would have been a bigger challenge because I was on the road a lot. Today, my main gig is with Eddie (Palmieri), even though I rarely turn down a gig! Actually, the lack of time helps me focus on my playing. Now, when I get to practice or learn something new, I get to the point quickly because I feel a sense of urgency to get it everything in before my daughter wakes up! (Laughs). Also, it’s good to be home with my family and to dedicate time to the record label (TRR).
TP: TRR is more than just a collective; it’s a movement.
LC: That was and still is the goal. Some time ago, Zaccai and I noticed we had a voice and it was being heard. Wherever we traveled people would ask us questions about the industry, etc. So we thought, why not form a collective of like-minded people aware of what’s happening around them? An artist who signs with a label should know what’s happening in the industry and society. TRR is a way of doing that while bonding with artists, who haven’t signed with a label or received the recognition they deserve.
TP: What services does TRR provide?
LC: We produce records, distribute, advise our peers on how to put their music out, and deal with the music industry.
TP: I extracted the following quote from TRR’s website: “Truth Revolution Records is not about money or becoming a large industry. Our first order of business is to base our label around the fact that the artists own their music. TRR promotes partnerships, truth, respect, love, and integrity. If you support free speech, free art, and the continuation of high art, we need you in the movement.” This year, TRR will celebrate its 10th Anniversary. Congrats!
LC: Thank you.
TP: Tell me about Insight. When was the group formed?
LC: About 2000. I was in high school when we made the record. It all started when my brother formed a band, and we did summer gigs. Eventually, it evolved into a group. It’s a good album; we are talking about re-mastering the recording and re-releasing it at some point.
TP: Also, the group released three highly acclaimed recordings: Completion of Proof (2012), Blood, Spirit, Water (2009) and, A Genesis (2007). Your followers will be happy to hear that you just completed a new recording titled, Szyzgy. What does the title signify?
LC: It’s an astronomical term. Zaccai comes up with these words (laughs).
(Szyzgy represents the alignment of three celestial objects, such as the sun, the earth, and the moon and (or) any two things either alike or opposite). Source: Dictionary.com.
TP: What should the listener expect?
LC: The title track is the only original composition. The rest of the repertoire is standard’s, songs we love to play and tunes we picked up on the road such as, Betcha By Golly Wow, What’s Going On, Afro Blue, Bebop and others.
TP: In a previous conversation, you talked about the possibility of making a recording as a leader. Are you any closer to making it a reality?
LC: I’m composing. I’ve written tunes for my daughter. Also, Zaccai and I have been discussing producing each other’s albums. It might be cool, but first, we have to get along in the studio (Laughs).
TP: What’s your take on the current state of the music industry and where do you see the music going?
LC: CDs aren’t selling like they used to, but the independent movement is growing because it gives artists creative control and artistic freedom and you don’t have a record company breathing down your neck, telling you what to do, or how to play. As I said earlier, independent artists should be informed, aware, and stand up for themselves; it’s the wave of the future.
TP: It’s good to know the music is in capable hands.

SOURCES

Downbeat Magazine – Pursuing Positivity by Ted Panken
Truth Revolution Recording Collective Website
Interview with Zaccai Curtis (2008)
Featured Photo: Martin Cohen
2017 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.

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