Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Fest: CD Review & Interview with Edmar Castaneda


Review and interview by J Hunter

See below for info on how you can win a pair of free tix to Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at SPAC this weekend…

Edmar Castaneda returns to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs on Sunday (July 1), kicking off Day Two of the 35th annual Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival. Here’s a review of his new CD and a short interview:

“Double Portion”
(Arpa y Voz Records)

It was my favorite game of 2009. I’d play the opening track of “Entre Cuedas,” Edmar Castaneda’s debut disc as a leader, to various unsuspecting people and then say, “Okay, guess the instrument!” Guesses included guitar, banjo, mandolin, and even hammered dulcimer. But never a harp – and not the kind Paul Butterfield played. We’re talking the instrument that’s usually played with symphony orchestras, and never in the ground-breaking, transcendent Latin jazz Castaneda made on “Entre Cuedas” with such genre heavy hitters as John Scofield and Joe Locke.

On his sophomore effort “Double Portion,” you might expect the artist to go bigger on his vision; instead, Castaneda chose micro over macro, splitting tracks between solo pieces and duets – no drums, no bass and (seemingly) no interest in expanding the territory Castaneda had already claimed. For a devotee of “Entre Cuedas,” this development was a disappointment… until I figured out what Castaneda was doing and realized the depth of this music’s intimacy.

The opening title track is less a tune than it is a conversation with pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The two bounce off each other like puppies playing in a pen, eager to act and react. And as the piece goes on, you see that not only is Castaneda an equal to Rubalcaba in the virtuosity department, but the harp is equal to the piano in its abilities to express any emotion and make any declaration. And that’s when you see Castaneda’s goal. Rather than show what else he can do within the Latin genre, Castaneda wants to expand people’s understanding of everything a harp can do, and the best way to do that is keep any obstructions or distractions to an absolute minimum.

Although there’s no “guitar army” on “Double Portion,” beautiful strings abound. Rubalcaba’s work on the title track and on the suite-like “Quitapesares” is absolutely riveting, and his aggressive playing style would make any rhythm section seem superfluous. Castaneda and mandolin virtuoso Hamilton de Holanda lull you into a beautiful dream on “Poem of Strings” and then they make Astor Piazzola’s “Libertango” literally get up and dance. “A Harp in New York” works because Miguel Zenon’s alto sax gives the piece Big Apple attitude, as well as a sense of hustle and bustle that Castaneda easily adopts, even as he makes it a little more beautiful.

But again, “Double Portion” is all about the harp, and Castaneda’s moments on his own are simply breathtaking. Whether it’s soft passages like “Zendi,” dramatic points like “Ocasa de Mer” or head-bobbing smile-makers like the closing “Samba for Orvieto,” Castaneda takes his instrument to the edge of where it can go and then leans his head way, way out. The sheer bravery of going out on the wire with almost no backup makes “Double Portion” worth a listen right off… but it’s the beauty and intimacy that will have you coming back for future listens.

Before I go, let’s hear from Castaneda himself – both about “Double Portion” and his upcoming appearance at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival:

Q: You worked with a full band on “Entre Cuerdas.” Why did you decide to make your second disc a mix of solos and duets?

A: I always wanted to record a solo harp album. This time I’m playing the classical and the Colombian harp – both great harps, but very different. I wanted to compose for the instrument, and an album was the perfect opportunity to show what could be done in the harp.

Q: Even though only three other people appear on “Double Portion” besides yourself, they’re still amazing people! What was it like playing with Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Miguel Zenon? Had you worked with either of them before?

A: I never played with them before, and it was an honor and an amazing experience to play with them. We all share the influence of our countries in South America mixed with jazz, as well as the love and passion for music and life. It was a blessing to record with them.

Q: The music you make with Gonzalo and Miguel is wonderfully organic. Was all the music composed beforehand? Did it all come out of improvisation? Or was it a little of both?

A: I composed the music, but they added their own flavor. “Quitapersares” is based on a very old and traditional tune from Llanera music, and it was great to see what Gonzalo could do with the song. “A Harp in New York” is a very funky song where Miguel was incredibly dynamic with his sax.

Q: The only non-original piece on Double Portion is “Libertango”, which you make into a beautiful duet with Hamilton de Holanda. What’s your opinion of Astor Piazzola’s music? Is this song an old favorite of yours?

A: The first time I heard Astor’s music was with Paquito D’Rivera. They played “Libertango,” and it changed my life. I’ve admired Astor’s music since then, and “Libertango” is one of my favorites.

Q: You’ve been through Saratoga Springs before: You played the Spa Little Theatre with Joe Locke, and you played the Gazebo Stage at SPAC with your wife Andrea Tierra. Do you remember anything about those shows? And are you looking forward to coming back for this one?

A: Saratoga Springs is an amazing town! Actually, I celebrated my first wedding anniversary at Saratoga. Then I went to play with Joe, and later with Andrea. I have great memories there, and I’m always looking forward to going back.

Q: What can the audience expect this time around? Will it be solos and duets? Or are you bringing a full band?

A: I’m bringing the quartet: Sax, drums, harp and my wife as a guest. We want people to leave full of God’s love through music.

Edmar Castaneda and his band will be kicking off Day Two of the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs on Sunday (July 1). They are scheduled to perform on the Gazebo Stage at 12:15pm on Sunday. Single-day amphitheater tix for Sunday are $50, $65 & $70; children 12 & under $35, $50 & $55. Lawn tix are $55; children 12 and under FREE.

BUT WAIT… Have we got a deal for you! We’re giving away a pair of FREE TWO-DAY LAWN PASSES to the festival to two lucky Nippertown readers! To enter the contest, just go here… Good luck!

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