Although she’s never played the event before, no artist represents the spirit of the Riverview Jazz Festival better than Rebeca Vallejo. Her live performances lead with their exuberance — a natural match for an annual celebration of music at its most freewheeling. She loves jazz, but her understanding of the form is broad and inclusive: Vallejo’s songwriting takes inspiration from flamenco, Brazilian samba and bossa nova, Cuban salsa, and American soul and funk. And although she’s won fans all over the world, the Madrid native is always proud to represent Jersey City. She’s a perfect fit for a homegrown event that’s firmly grounded in the musical culture of a community as polyglot as Hudson County.
Vallejo will be a featured performer at the flagship event of a music festival that has grown explosively since its 2013 debut. What began three years ago as a modest afternoon of live outdoor music in Riverview-Fisk Park in the Heights has now become one of the indispensible events on the cultural calendar. Will Tatz and Bryan Beninghove the organizers of the Riverview Jazz Festival have programmed 9 days of varied musical events all over town from June 3 through June 11, including a set by area favorites the Gully Hubbards at the Lincoln Inn (June 4) an appearance at Porta by Japanese jazz guitarist Nobuki Takamen and his trio (June 5), a jam session starring drummer Winard Harper at Moore’s Lounge on Monticello Avenue (June 10), and a show by the Hangmen, Bryan Beninghove’s “surf-noir” jazz outfit, at the Fox and Crow that same evening. (The Hangmen will also celebrate the release of a new CD May 26 at a show at the Citizen that isn’t part of the festival, but I strongly recommend it.) And for the first time, there’ll be Riverview Jazz Festival events outside the Jersey City limits: there’ll be music at the Pilsener House and Maxwell’s Tavern in Hoboken, a concert in Sinatra Park, and a Thursday night performance by the James Austen Trio at the Musto Cultural Center in Union City.
But the big finale hasn’t budged. It’ll be at Riverview-Fisk, just as it has been since the inauguration of the festival. This year, there’ll be two stages of music in the park, and Rebeca Vallejo, who plays at 2:30 in the afternoon on June 11, will be joined there by (among others) the sizzling Cuban charanga act Tipica 73, the gypsy wildmen in Slavic Soul Party, a quintet from New Jersey City University, and an appearance by Donny McCaslin, who led David Bowie’s band on the Blackstar album. It’s an impressively multicultural lineup, and Vallejo, who usually sings en Español, might be the brightest tile in the mosaic. Azucar, Canela, her 2013 album, was a smart, sharp, assured fusion of musical traditions from Europe to South America to our own backyard. Azucar is an ambitious jazz record, but it’s an inclusive, approachable one, made by a charismatic singer and writer with an offbeat style of personal expression. Vallejo promises material from Azucar at the Festival, but if the past is any guide, you can expect a few curveballs that’ll demonstrate both her erudition and expansive musical imagination.
This is your first time playing at the Riverview Jazz Festival. Did the organizers approach you, or was this something you’d always wanted to do? You’re always travelling — how aware were you of the festival’s growth?
I’ve known Bryan Beninghove for over 10 years. A couple of years ago, when I found out about the existence of the festival, I approached him about it, but the date conflicted with a tour I was doing and I couldn’t be part of it. This year, Bryan reached out to me with a date that suited my calendar and I gladly said yes. It’s an honor as a longtime Jersey City resident to be part of a such a great event.
What’s your set going to be like? Who is playing with you?
My faithful band will be beside me: George Dulin (Kenny Werner, John Scofield, Chris Potter) on piano, and David Silliman (Cassandra Wilson, Edmar Castañeda, Al DiMeola) on the drums and percussion. My set will be original material — mostly from Azucar, Canela — but I will incorporate surprises from the next album I’m working on.
Do you enjoy playing outdoors? Or is it a sonic challenge?
Are you kidding me? I’m a Spaniard! I love anything outdoors!
Azucar, Canela was a tough album to classify — you and your group made many brave and unorthodox musical choices, which paid off aesthetically but probably threw some purists for a loop. Looking back on the set three years later, are you still as excited about it as you were in 2013? You worked with John Seymour, who has produced and engineered for Dave Matthews Band and Bruce Hornsby, among others. What was that experience like?
Azúcar, Canela is one of the artistic projects I’ve done that I’m most proud of. It was a beautiful collaboration between the members of our trio under the incredible direction of John Seymour’s musical ear. Making a flamenco-Brazilian-jazz, bass-less trio, concept album was a recording challenge that John gladly took on, and he gave it the grunge and the punch that, in my opinion, most jazz albums lack. I wouldn’t change a thing about the album or the process. To me, the songs still feel fresh, exciting, and surprising.
Nonetheless, artistic juices are always brewing in my mind and I’m currently working on another album which we hope to start recording next year. The only thing I can say about it is that it pays tribute to one of the pillar bands of my music foundation — The Police. It will be a head scratcher for some — especially my flamenco version of “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.”
Does the monolingual nature of modern American popular music frustrate you? Some of the best pop and jazz in the world gets ignored in the States because it’s sung in Spanish. How’s it been for you? Has language been an obstacle for you, or an opportunity? Or both?
When I came to New York City 16 years ago, people — including most of my teachers at the City College jazz program — thought I was crazy for wanting to make a career in this country singing in Spanish outside the “Latin circuit.” But although I place a lot of importance on the art of lyrics, ultimately I believe that it’s the sentiment of music that prevails. As a teenager, I didn’t have to speak English to be deeply moved by Nirvana, Ella Fitzgerald, or Led Zeppelin. One doesn’t necessarily need to know Italian to thoroughly enjoy a Puccini opera. The power of music is a language itself.
What does jazz mean to you? As someone born in Spain and who has lived in Brazil, do you find that your view of jazz is different from that of most of the musicians you’ve encountered in New York and New Jersey?
Jazz has been a freeing tool of communication for me. It gives me a foundation to build on, and an excellent source of inspiration. It inspires me: I never cease to want to perfect the technique of my instrument. I am always in search of new ways to express its colors. Inevitably, the way I perceive jazz will always be filtered by my cultural background. It took me awhile to be able to embrace this concept as something to my advantage rather than my detriment, but since this, I always encourage jazz musicians from other countries to incorporate their cultural roots into their jazz approaches. At the end of the day, jazz is a product of America — a “nation of many different nations” and a blend of cultural heritages.
There’s been much more live music in Jersey City lately — more places to play, more opportunities for musicians. Would you agree that things have accelerated over the last twelve months? Are you optimistic about the future of music here?
I’m very excited about and appreciative of the direction Jersey City has been heading in the past few years. There’s been more space dedicated to arts and more recognition of local artists. More and more activities have been happening, and the budgets allocated to those activities have gotten bigger. The presence of great institutions like Art House and Mana Contemporary has raised the city’s profile. Jersey City is beginning to understand that community art and professional art can live happily together, and that residents shouldn’t necessarily migrate to Manhattan, or even NJPAC, in order to find high-quality arts programming. I’m optimistic, and proud of all of our evolution. It can only get better.
Keep up Rebeca Vallejo at rebecavallejo.com, Facebook, and Twitter @FlamenkitaRV.
The Riverview Jazz Festival begins on June 3 and concludes on June 11. Multiple events are planned at different venues each day. To enjoy 9 days of jazz in Jersey City check out the full week of events. The main event happens Saturday, June 11, from noon-8 pm, at Riverview Fisk Park (Palisade Ave., between Griffith Street and Bowers Street). Admission is free. For more information, visit riverviewjazz.org.
Top photo courtesy Rebeca Vallejo, all others JCI file photos
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