Home New York Report Photos by Andrew James

Photos by Andrew James


Cuban pianist, singer, songwriter Zahili Gonzalez Zamora at The Sidedoor Jazz Club in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Also, on Bourbon Street TV, with MIXCLA (3/14/16). Pictured are: Trumpeter, Ingrid Jensen, Bassist and Percussionist Takafumi Nikaido.

Artist Statement

A piano was just another member of my family during my upbringing. It sat in a corner, so still and so majestic. It never moved or spoke a word; and contrary to other non-moving objects around the house, this artifact (which I could not yet define as a kid), could produce sounds. How fascinating! By the age of six I was making brave attempts to play it, placing my tiny fingers on its keys, and producing one melody after another. I also enjoyed singing, which combined with my inclination for playing piano, drove my grandmother to enroll me in a conservatory.

By the time I was 14 years old, I was practicing classical music 10 hours a day. Although I was technically precise, I felt that I was missing something. One day, I asked a classmate if she could listen to me play a Hayden Sonata; maybe she could tell me what was wrong. She heard what I would understand was the result of overwork, and loss of connection. My focus was just on the technical aspects of playing. She encouraged me to take a break from that piece for a few days, and told me to use my imagination next time I played it. The results were miraculous, and for the rest of my life, I will have to know when to let it rest, and enjoy the process.

After graduating high school I began performing professionally. I expected to make my living in the music field; it never occurred to me that I would not. I started performing traditional Cuban music, and timba cubana in local clubs in Havana with a nine-piece female band. With them I toured Europe, Canada and the Caribbean. Ten years later I moved to Canada, and began performing with other ensembles. I was able to explore other styles of music: African fusion, traditional Ecuadorian, French traditional, even American Pop. During this period of working, collaborating, and jamming with many different musicians, I gained an interest in improvisation. This showed me the door to a different kind of musical expression. While still thriving on disciplined practice, and loving the structure of any given tune, I suddenly found another musical genre to explore. This was jazz.

My life went from Canada, to Southeast Asia, to the United States. While in New York City, I realized it was time for me to test my own potential as a jazz artist. I decided to create an EP with the financial help of Indiegogo, a crowd-funding site. With the funds, I was able to gather talented musicians from around the country, with whom I had already worked throughout the world. During the recording process, I played many roles. Not only was I the bandleader, pianist, singer, composer and main arranger; I was also the producer. This experience allowed me to gain a better understanding of logistic matters involved in a recording production. I also recognized the importance of being a bandleader and a team player at the same time. Finally, I figured out that it was jazz the genre that I felt more identified with. I began to study and analyze the likes of Bill Evans, Michel Petrucciani, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Chet Baker. When I listen to their recordings, I let their sounds penetrate my being until I am able to understand the lyrical language through which they communicated. Something I would like to call: the language of freedom. Musical phrases that feel like sentences connected by those familiar licks, all combined, telling a story.

After 15 years of professional experience, I realized I needed to become a student once again. Following that desire, I am now a freshman at Berklee College of Music, where I intend to immerse even deeper in the study and analysis of Jazz. I feel vulnerable once again, pushing constantly outside of my comfort zone. This frequent thirst for learning and experimenting has been the staple of my career. Following Music rather than leading it is without a doubt how I intend to live my life. Yet, if I had any control over it, this is where I see myself in a few years from now:

Lights are dimmed, and the space is crowded. There I come, along with the drummer, the upright bassist, and two horn players: a trumpeter and a tenor saxophonist. I will be on piano, of course. We bow to the audience, and they become silent as we position ourselves on stage. The lights now focus on us, and Music begins. An hour or so later, I realize once again that the so-called musical dialogue, was once more, made on the spot. In that future I envision, I have gained a full understanding of Music, to the point of spontaneously letting it lead me wherever it wants to take me. The beauty of it is that I get to share it, and cherish it with the whole wide world.





A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, 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.


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