On the eve of the Detroit Jazz Festival, Cliff Bell's will be host to an incredibly talented jazz drummer and composer, Gustavo Cortiñas. Snapshot, which he released in 2013, is his first album as bandleader and features his own compositions. The music on Snapshot incorporates several jazz traditions, from spang-a-lang swing to funky hard bop, all articulated with precision and soul.
As a young drummer in Mexico, Cortiñas' life changed the day he got the opportunity to attend a clinic by legendary drummer Dave Weckl. "I was like, 'I love what that guy does. I don't even know what it is, but I want to do something like that.'" Having lived in Mexico, New Orleans, and Chicago — all places with unique musical identities — Cortiñas culls influences from each place.
His extensive educational background, including a BM in jazz from Loyola University New Orleans and a MM in jazz from Northwestern University, informs the pristine musicianship and intelligent compositions on his album. At Cliff Bell's, Cortiñas will be joined by Justin Copeland on trumpet, Roy McGrath on tenor saxophone, and Kitt Lyles on bass, something Cortiñas calls "the chord-less quartet."
Metro Times: On Snapshot, there is very technical musicianship, but it's also very expressive and soulful. Is that something that comes from your compositions or the players?
Gustavo Cortiñas: Well, there's a combination of stuff. The concept of Snapshot is every tune captures a moment and a person and a feeling. I've done some compositions just for the sake of composing, and they're usually not very good. At least, I don't like them that much. I like to compose when I have a certain feeling and a certain person in my mind. Pretty much every tune that's on the record has a thought behind it, and the emotions that come from that thought are very much related to the emotions that you feel when you listen to the music. The first tune, "Timing Is Everything," was written when I was going through some really bad times, and I was trying to make things work with a lady, and long distance and being at different points of our lives did not allow it. There's a tune called "La Balada Del Leon," which I wrote for my dad after he passed away. "Skepticism" is my reaction to a lot of philosophical writings that after reading all that stuff, I felt like my flow was swept away from me. Also, everybody in this band has lives and feelings of their own, and we've grown together, musically and personally. So, it's a little bit of emotion that comes from the compositional aspect, and then there's a lot of emotion that comes from each and every one of the members in the band as we interact.
MT: What's surprising is how some of the tunes you mentioned come from very conflicting and heartbreaking places, yet the music is upbeat and joyful.
Cortiñas: It's very upbeat, but there's a lot of stuff going on over there if you listen to the melody harmonically, rhythmically, and melodically speaking, it tries to emulate all of those emotions. I don't want to say there's a certain precision in life, but for a certain thing to happen, there's a complete chain of events that needs to be lined up. More than that, a sad tune is reflective of that necessity for a chain of events to make something happen.
MT: Is it necessary to tap into the different layers of emotions that are affecting you when you compose?
Cortiñas: Yeah! I feel like that is the most productive [way] I can approach composition. Some guys can be — and this is very admirable to me — completely neutral and have no feelings either way and compose a very beautiful piece of music. But I find in my case, when I'm inspired by something that's happening in my life, my music comes out more honest, and I like the outcome a lot more if there's something to say.
MT: That's sort of an unconventional way of approaching jazz composition.
Cortiñas: Some people are very technical, and there's something to be admired about that type of music. I feel like some people are great at doing that. Unfortunately, I do not count myself among those people, so I try to write in this other way that I feel is effective for me, and it allows me to express myself at a different level that even my words can't. Especially in certain situations, like talking about my father's passing, there are some things you can't quite put into words, but when you put them into music it really conveys a certain feeling.
MT: Aside from skepticism, how has your philosophy background influenced you?
Cortiñas: Of course, I was influenced by Plato and Aristotle for the longest time, and that was a very happy time in my life, I must say. [Laughs] They hit on a lot of stuff that I grew up believing. I never really liked Descartes, but I read him and that opened a can of worms that I dealt with for a long time. Then I got into the skeptics like Hume, and I was depressed for a long time after reading that. Existentialism is the type of philosophy that I found more peace with. I read a lot of Nietzsche. I read a lot of Sartre and this other guy, Miguel de Unamuno, who is pretty amazing. I think those guys were my favorite existentialists. They really made a difference in my life. I also really like Ludwig Wittgenstein a lot. He was a very big influence on me. He was a very pragmatic guy.
MT: Would you say pragmatism connects your interest in philosophy and being a musician?
Cortiñas: I'm a strong believer that both philosophy and music give us, in very different ways, insight into the world and our surroundings, and in most ways can make our lives a lot better. I think philosophy and music have given me a different perspective of who I am in the world and what my mission is in the world. They have helped me understand myself and my fellow human beings. I don't know if it's pragmatic, but I definitely think they are beautiful and helpful to anybody brave enough to venture in them. Neither of those doctrines are easy paths, but they are great paths for someone to walk.
Gustavo Cortiñas plays Cliff Bell's on Thursday, Aug. 28. Doors at 7 p.m. 2030 Park Ave., Detroit. cliffbells.com. $10. mt