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

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

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Tomás Peña: I just wanted to congratulate you on the release of MUTHAFLOWER, a unique two-CD set that features 26 songs covering a variety of musical styles. I was impressed with your liner notes, where you beautifully describe Muthaflower as a place where the music of Debussy, Webern, and Ravel comes together with the music of African and Indigenous people, creating an environment of healing, empowerment, and truth. Well done!
Jay Rodriguez Sierra: Thank you, Tomás. Muthaflower represents 3 1/2 years of work. I approached the concept like a Hip Hop artist who creates extended albums and uses samples. It could have been shorter, but the project developed organically. 
TP: It’s a musical feast! Before going further, I want to 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 that 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 an interview, you mentioned having a stuttering problem as a child. You preferred playing the clarinet over talking during that time. Can you share more about this period in your life?
TP: When you were three, your parents migrated to New York City from Barranquilla, Colombia. 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, not vice versa.”
JRS: During my adolescence, I had a psychological issue where I strongly desired to fit in with others. My hormones exacerbated this. I played the saxophone with Dominican singer and percussionist Vicente Pacheco at fourteen. We mainly played Merengue and dabbled in other genres, such as Boleros and Latin jazz. Ourly at small clubs in Newark, New Jersey. I had the privilege of playing alongside some fantastic musicians, such as Herman Olivera and Jessie Rodriguez. One day, I had a chance encounter with Tito Rivera, who happened to be a classical saxophonist and Paquito D’Rivera’s dad. Tito was Paquito’s first teacher and used to play Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman records for him. One day, I had a chance encounter with Tito Rivera, who happened to be a classical saxophonist and Paquito D’Rivera’s dad. Tito was Paquito’s first teacher and used to play Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman records for him. He was also a musical instrument salesman.
TP: How did that happen?
JRS: I lived in Weehawken, New Jersey, a few blocks from Tito Rivera. One day, he offered lessons after hearing me practice. He often talked about his son Paquito, whom I didn’t know then. But my brother, who knew Paquito, assured my parents that Tito was a legitimate music teacher. One day, Tito and Paquito came to dinner at my house, and that’s how I got to know Paquito. I studied classical saxophone with Tito every day, and at times, it was hard to keep up because I was just a kid who wanted to play. Unlike Paquito, who was a prodigy, I had to work hard. Later, Paquito introduced me to jazz and took me to different venues such as Mikell’s and The Village Gate’s Salsa Meets Jazz series, where we played with whoever was performing. This happened when I was in high school. I also remember going to a Tito Puente concert and jumping on his bus, and Tito Puente asked, “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 my mentors. Victor took me to jam sessions in Harlem, and he would say, “We are Latino; we play music!” Looking back, I was a kid surrounded by many talented adult artists who had their own issues. As I grew older, I realized that taking care of my mental health and living outside music was essential and influenced my music.
TP: It’s a beautiful description of your experience as an emerging musician in the 70s. Nowadays, there appears to be a more significant focus on education, and there seem to be fewer chances for budding musicians to learn while on the job, performing in front of live audiences. Do you concur with this viewpoint?
JRS: It gives the music meaning.
TP: When was your last visit to Colombia, and how is your music received there? 
JRS: I can’t get arrested in Colombia! 
TP: Why is that?
JRS: Colombia is a country with substantial class distinctions. My family belongs to the working class, and my grandparents are Afro-Colombian. I immensely love Afro-Colombian music, but in Colombia, Salsa (a dance music genre) is king. I grew up in the Puerto Rican community of New York City.
TP: Congratulations on releasing 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) is a collection of 14 songs, including originals and covers. The album features classic tunes like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful,” Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Giacomo Puccini’s “Nessum Dorma,”s’ “Hello Like Before,” among others. In addition, you play woodwinds and sax. You are joined by a talented group of musicians, including Alex Blake on acoustic bass, Victor Jones on drums, Marvin Sewell on guitar, Fred Wesley on trombone, Julie Patton on spoken word, and Ehab Omar, Chris Andrew, Misha Theberge, and Giovanni Hidalgo on percussion.
TP: FLOWER (VOLUME 2) is a collection of twelve original compositions that are both exploratory and unique. You have described them as “a deep spell and an incantation from the God within me to the God within you.” On Flower, you play bass clarinets and flute along with Xavier Hill on drums, Henry Jeria on piano and keys, and percussionists Giovanni Hidalgo, Chris Theberge, Misha Theberge, and Andrew Theberge. sacred space.”
JRS: Muthaflower was made possible with the support of a grant from Chamber Music America. My experience working with renowned musicians such as 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 had a profound impact on Muthaflower’s style, sound, and repertoire. I was exposed to various genres, including jazz, Latin rhythms, funk, and soul, which influenced the concept of Muthaflower.
The album was recorded during the pandemic’s later stages, and the songs reflect the mood of that time. As for the covers, I prefer melodies and songs that resonate with the listener. I first heard “Whiter Shade of Pale” as a child, and although I didn’t understand the lyrics, I loved the melody. I’m also a fan of Bach. Initially, Muthaflower was meant to be a single album.
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: When did you become a member of the New JB’s, formerly James Brown’s band, with whom you are currently touring, led by Fred Wesley?
JRS: I have known Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker for many years. We used to meet at sessions and eventually became friends. Towards the end of the pandemic, they asked me to join their band permanently, and I was thrilled to be a part of their legacy. Fred has been leading the band for almost four decades and is very welcoming. Moreover, I discovered it was a family affair, and that’s exactly how I wanted to spend my time on the road.
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 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 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. 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: Thank you 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.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

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)

ARTIST WEBSITE

PHOTO CREDITS

Paquito D’ Rivera and Jay Rodriguez Sierra at The Village Gate’s Salsa Meets Jazz series courtesy of Jay Rodriguez Sierra (No Date).
Jay Rodriguez Sierra and the New JB’s in Madrid, Spain courtesy of Jay Rodriguez Sierra (Facebook).

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