Home Interviews In Conversation with Reed Player, Composer, Arranger, Bandleader Jay Rodriguez Sierra

In Conversation with Reed Player, Composer, Arranger, Bandleader Jay Rodriguez Sierra

Tomás Peña: Congrats! On MUTHAFLOWER, a breathtaking two CD-Set containing 26 songs spanning the musical spectrum. As you eloquently write in the liner notes, Muthaflower “envisions a place where Debussy, Webern, and Ravel meet African and Indigenous people, and healing, empowerment and truth exist.”
Jay Rodriguez Sierra: Thank you, Tomás. Muthaflower represents 3 1/2 years of work. I approached the concept like a Hip Hop artist that creates extended albums and uses samples. It could have been shorter, but the project developed organically. 
TP: It’s a musical feast! Before we go further, I would like clarify the following issue. Most people (listeners) recognize you as “Jay Rodriguez.” What prompted you to change your name to Jay Rodriguez Sierra?
JRS: Rodriguez Sierra is my mother’s maiden name. To make a long story short, I was unaware there are so many Jay Rodriguez’s on Spotify and other music platforms. Regrettably, Spotify puts names in one bucket so you might see my picture with someone else’s music or vice-versa. Rather than make the argument and avoid confusion, I changed my name to Jay Rodriguez Sierra.
TP: In a past interview, you mentioned that, as a child, you suffered from a “stuttering problem.” For a time, you preferred playing the clarinet to speaking. Could you elaborate on that period in your life?  
JRS: I still have a language barrier, and I still stutter. When I tried to speak English as a child, I felt like the other kids were judging me. It was traumatic. It affected my nervous system and caused me to stutter. Music and sound became my haven. Also, singing in my mind helped me not to stutter. Yes, I stopped speaking for a while and just practiced the clarinet. I had a fantastic speech therapist named Ms. Golup who saved me. 
TP: Your parents migrated to New York City from Barranquilla, Colombia when you were three. At seven, you were introduced to the clarinet. Shortly after, you expanded your studies to include the saxophone and flute. At fourteen, you were playing around town. Afterward, you attended the High School for the Performing Arts (now known as La Guardia School for Music and Art and the Performing Arts), where you graduated with honors, followed by the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. In your biography, you write, “I was playing gigs constantly. I would come home at six a.m. and then go to high school. That was my childhood. I don’t regret it. Sometimes I do but life informs the music and not the other way around.”
JRS: It was a psychological thing. I attribute my behavior to being an adolescent, raging hormones, and wanting to belong. At fourteen, I played saxophone with the Dominican singer and percussionist Vicente Pacheco. The repertoire was mainly Merengue and Salsa, but they played everything: Boleros, Latin jazz, you name it. We played at a lot of small dives in Newark, New Jersey and performed songs such as “Night in Tunisia,” “Compadre Pedro Juan,” and “La Negra Tomasa.” Vocalist Herman Olivera, bassist Pucho Matos, and Jessie Rodriguez were part of the scene. Then, totally by chance I met the classical saxophonist Tito Rivera, Paquito D’Rivera’s dad. Tito entertained his son with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman records, sold musical instruments, and was Paquito’s first teacher. 
TP: How did that happen?
JRS: I lived in Weehawken, New Jersey, and Tito Rivera lived a few blocks away. One day, he heard me practicing and offered free music lessons. He mentioned his son often, but, at the time, I didn’t know who Paquito was. However, my brother did, and he assured my parents that Tito was legit. One day, my parents invited Tito to dinner, and he showed up with Paquito. I studied classical saxophone with Tito every day, and, at times, it was torturous because I just wanted to be a kid. Also, unlike Paquito, a prodigy, I was talented but had to work hard. Later, Paquito would say, “Vamos a tocar jazz!” and take me to venues such as Mikell’s and The Village Gate’s Salsa Meets Jazz series, where we sat in with whoever happened to be playing. That was around my first year in high school. Another time, I remember going to a Tito Puente gig and jumping on the bus, and Tito Puente said, “Who is that kid?” Someone replied, “He’s playing alto,” and Tito said, “He should be playing stickball!” Pianist Marco Rizo and Chicano bassist Victor Venegas were also mentors. Victor took me to jam sessions in Harlem, and he would say, “We are Latino; we play music!” Returning to your question, I was a kid around many adults who were talented artists and had issues. As I got older, I realized taking care of your mental health and having a life is important and informs the music.
TP: That’s a great description of what it was like for you as an emerging musician in the 70s. Today, seems to be a stronger emphasis on education and fewer opportunities for emerging musicians to learn on the job and in front of live audiences. Would you agree?
JRS: It gives the music meaning.
TP: When was your last time you visited Colombia, and how is your music received there? 
JRS: I can’t get arrested in Colombia! 
TP: Why is that?
JRS: In Colombia, the class distinctions are enormous. My family comes from a working-class background, and my grandparents are Afro-Colombian. Also, I love and embrace Afro-Colombian music, but in Colombia, Salsa (dance music) is all the rage. I grew up in New York City’s Puerto Rican community.
TP: Congratulations on the release of Muthaflower, an ambitious and breathtaking recording. Let’s start with the title.
JST: Muthaflower is a play on the words “Motherf…” and “Flower.” Motherf … as in, “that Motherf… can play!” a term commonly used in the 70s and “Flower,” a healing and rejuvenating force.
TP: MUTHA” (VOLUME 1) consists of 14 original songs and covers. The repertoire includes (Bob Dylan’s) Blowin’ in the Wind, (Billy Preston’s) You Are So Beautiful, (Procul Harums) A Whiter Shade of Pale, (Giacomo Puccini’s) Nessum Dorma and (Bill Withers) Hello Like Before, among others. Also, you play woodwinds and sax and are joined by Alex Blake (acoustic bass), Victor Jones (drums), Marvin Sewell (guitar), Fred Wesley (trombone), Julie Patton (spoken word), and Ehab Omar, Chris Andrew, Misha Theberge and Giovanni Hidalgo on percussion.
FLOWER (VOLUME 2) consists of twelve original, exploratory compositions you describe as “A deep spell and an incantation from the God within me to the God within you and a sonic and sacred space.” On Flower you play bass clarinets and flute alongside Xavier Hill (drums), Henry Jeria (piano and keys), and percussionists Giovanni Hidalgo, Chris Theberge, Misha Theberge and Andrew Theberge.
JRS: Muthaflower was made possible by a grant from Chamber Music America. In terms of influences, working with guitarist Mark Ribot, trombonist Craig Harris, Chucho Valdés, Victor Jones, Alex Blake, David Murray, Ornette Coleman, the Gil Evans Band, Prince, Hip Hop artists, and the Groove Collective exposed me to jazz, Latin rhythms, funk, and soul. All of which impacted Muthaflower’s concept, sound, and repertoire. Also, the record was made towards the end of the pandemic, and the repertoire reflects that vibe. Regarding the covers, I like melodies and songs that attach themselves to the listener. I heard Whiter Shade of Pale when I was a kid, and even though I didn’t understand the lyrics, I liked the melody. Also, I like Bach. Originally, Muthaflower was supposed to be one record.
TP: It sounds like you were bursting with pent-up creativity and emotion. Mutha and Flower could have easily been two separate records, but the double-length package is a feast for the ears and soul. Are you planning a CD Release event?
RS: Yes, I hope to celebrate the release at Joe’s Pub or Nublu (NYC) in November on a date to be announced. The performance will feature a double trio, and the audience will experience a remixed version of Muthaflower. It is going to be an experience!
TP: As I write this, you will tour with Fred Wesley and the New JBs (formerly James Brown’s band). How and when did you become a member of the New JB’s?
JRS: I have known Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker for many years. Over the years, we ran into each other at sessions and became friends. Towards the end of the pandemic, they invited me to be a permanent band member, and I thought to myself, “What a legacy! Let’s do this!” Fred has led the band for roughly 40 years and was very open and inviting. Also, I saw that it was a family thing, and I thought, “If I am going to spend time on the road, this is how I want to do it.”
TP: Tell me about the repertoire.
JRS: The repertoire is the music that Fred co-wrote with James Brown. During the 70s, Fred recorded his music, and James Brown featured many of his compositions. Fred was also the JBs Musical Director, and he co-wrote or songs like “Damn Right, I Am Somebody, “Hot Pants,” “Funky Good Time” and “House Party,” among others. I turned Fred on to Manny Oquendo & Libre, and he flipped out!
TP: Talk about a hip sound and and killer trombones. At various times Barry Rogers, José Rodrígues, Papo Vázquez, Jimmy Bosch, Reinaldo Jorge, Dan Reagan, and Steve Turre held down the trombone line, not to mention bassist Andy Gonzalez, flutist Dave Valentin, pianist Óscar Hernández, the list goes on. Libre was ahead of its time.
JSR: Many people don’t know I am Colombian because I grew up in New York City. One of the running jokes with the New JBs is, “Thank goodness we finally got a Mexican in the band!” Kidding aside, performing with the New JBs is an honor, a privilege, and very cool!
TP: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with Jazzdelapena.com. It’s been fun and enlightening. I look forward to the CD Release. 
JSR: Thank you, Tomás.


Jay Rodriguez – Live at the Fez (2003)
Jay Rodriguez Featuring Chucho Valdes – Live in Italy (2007)
Jay Rodriguez – Your Sound: Live at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola (2018)



Paquito D’ Rivera and Jay Rodriguez Sierra at The Village Gate’s Salsa Meets Jazz series courtesy of Jay Rodriguez Sierra (Year Unknown).
Jay Rodriguez Sierra and the New JB’s in Madrid, Spain courtesy of Jay Rodriguez Sierra (Facebook).


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