A Tale of Two Albas

It’s a pretty safe guess that there aren’t many jazz musicians who, while still only in their early twenties, can already look back on nearly fifteen years of experience performing jazz standards in front of paying audiences, at venues both large and small across a continent. But for those who are or have been members of The Sant Andreu Jazz Band in Barcelona for most of their childhood and all of their teen years, such a distinction is alsmot commonplace. Almost.

At the end of this year, two of the band’s “elder” musician-singers, Alba Esteban (baritone sax/vocals) and Alba Armengou (trumpet/vocals), will take their leave as regular members. Alba E. will turn 23 in December; Alba A. turned 21 this past July. They’ve been good friends with each other, and with their fellow musicians in the band, during their lengthy and eventful tenures — with too many highlights to mention here, dating back to when they were just kids.

Here then, based on recent conversations I had with each Alba, is a tribute to two extremely talented young women who, as they are about to leave the SAJB, can still look forward to a lifetime of keeping classic jazz alive, while also creating their own personal music, as inspiration may dictate.

Alba Esteban’s musical life began when “my parents wanted me to play some instrument. At music school [the Escola Municipal de Musica de Sant Andreu], I had to write down which instrument I wanted, but it didn’t matter to me.” As one of Joan Chamorro’s students, “I started on alto sax when I was 7. When I was 10, Joan told me to try soprano sax. That same year, I started playing with the SAJB.”

A few years later, when baritone saxophonist Edu Ferrer left the band, Chamorro asked Alba to give it a try. “Joan liked the sound when I played,” she says. But the unwieldly nature of the instrument, especially coming after playing the petite soprano sax, took some getting used to. “At first, I didn’t like it. It’s so big and heavy. I wanted something smaller.” In time, however, her reluctance eased, and, “I started to like it.” Her harmony teacher at the conservatory also encouraged her to stay with it.

So, in 2014, Alba and her baritone became the familiar anchor of the SAJB sax section, seated at the far end of the row for their concerts, providing what would be an unshakable dependability for the next eight years. She also began to immerse herself, with Chamorro’s guidance, in the recordings of the great baritone sax players, such as Harry Carney, Pepper Adams, and Gerry Mulligan. And, while the baritone doesn’t often enjoy the “glamour” of the alto or tenor in big band settings, Alba says, “I’m okay without too much attention on baritone.”

She is known to be quite shy — and she admits as much — but her shyness also goes hand-in-hand with her strict attention to detail. “When I’m onstage, I want that to be right. I’m a perfectionist. If something doesn’t go the way I planned, I don’t want to do it anymore!”

In addition to her playing, another of her talents that has continued to surprise and thrill SAJB enthusiasts is her singing. Again, becoming a singer wasn’t entirely her idea. “I think it was my mom who said, ‘You like to sing, ask Joan for you to sing something.’ ” When her friend Alba Armengou was assigned to sing “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” with the band, she asked Alba E., “Do you want to sing this with me?”

“I said yes. I was nervous at first, but I was doing it with friends.”

In recent years, her courage to take on a sometimes challenging vocal has paid off with wonderfully strong yet sensitive performances, as her voice — with a subtle yet perfect vibrato — reflects a touch of vulnerability that proves quite endearing. When reminded of the overwhelming positive responses to her singing, she blushes. “I still get nervous,” she says.

One of the many annual musical events around the world that was greatly affected by the Covid pandemic in 2020 was the “Essentially Ellington” music competition, hosted by Wynton Marsalis, director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Joan Chamorro submitted a clip of the SAJB performing Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” featuring Alba taking on Harry Carney’s baritone solo — which was followed by praise by Marsalis for her impeccable musicianship:

So indispensable had she become in the SAJB that, when she was due to leave last year, Chamorro asked her to put in an extra year, confirming that baritone sax players of Alba’s caliber are not so easy to come by.

And, as is the custom with most senior members of the band, she recently released her first CD, Joan Chamorro presenta Alba Esteban, including both live and studio tracks. As for her favorites, “One song I wanted one hundred percent was ‘Along Came Betty,’ and also ‘Lullaby of Birdland’.” For the latter, she made it a point to ask Chamorro if that track “could be more like the Sarah Vaughn version.”

Chamorro himself offered glowing words for his fellow baritone sax player: “In 2014, Alba became the orchestra’s baritone saxophonist and has since then filled that position brilliantly…

“She has been all these years a pillar in the SAJB and whenever, outside the orchestra, I have needed a baritone saxophone, she has been the ideal person. She has been an example of seriousness, work and perseverance. All this, together with a musicality and a capacity for improvisation that she has developed over the years, make her a brilliant musician.”

What lies ahead for Alba Esteban? She will be leaving for Switzerland to pursue her Masters at the conservatory in Basel, now that she has completed her studies at the Conservatori del Liceu in Barcelona, with this performance:

The style of music she hopes to continue performing should come as no surprise. “I would like to continue in a big band. When I play with a big band, I have a good feeling. There are lots of people, and I’m not the center of attention.”

Nevertheless, those familiar with her work agree that Alba Esteban deserves to be the center of attention.

The other Alba, who has spent considerably more time in the center spotlight with the SAJB is, of course, Alba Armengou.

Alba A. joined the SAJB in 2009 when she was 7 years old, and quickly demonstrated a great capacity and feel for learning her instrument. A year later, she was already performing her first solo in a public performance:

From there, she steadily rose among the SAJB ranks as both trumpeter and singer.

With over 1,000 SAJB videos on YouTube, dating back to the project’s earliest years, watching its first generation of kids growing into polished musicians can almost feel like viewing home videos of their childhood. Consequently, for Alba, some videos from those formative years can be a little embarrassing to look back on.

“Yeah, there are some videos I don’t love that much!” she says with a smile. “When I was 13 or 14 — when I listen to myself singing or playing, and I say, ‘Oh my god, take that away! I don’t know why Joan posted that video! I don’t want to listen, it’s awful!’ But with time, you get more confident, and you can listen — now if sometimes they put on a solo of mine, it’s not that bad. And sometimes, it’s like, ‘Oh, I played that! It’s great!’ ”

When asked if she has a favorite style, she says, “I like all of it, but yeah, I think with jazz music I like more traditional jazz, rather than contemporary right now. And I like listening to Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald — these two are my favorite singers. I like to listen to them and try, as an exercise, to sing like them. I learn to sing by listening to them and copying them. I started last year to take technical classes for singing, to put my voice in a better place.

“I play classical music too, so I have more of a technical background with the same trumpet teacher from when I was 8 to when I was 18, Joan Carles Bello. And he taught me a lot of technical things that are a very good background for me. So for improvising and soloing, I learn by listening, but I have the technical part.”

A brief sidetrack in the conversation addressed the question of why her younger sister Elsa — who is also an outstanding trumpeter in the SAJB, and who will be lead in the trumpet section — never wanted to sing onstage as Alba has done for years. “She sings great,” Alba says. “At home she’s always singing, and we’re always singing in the car and everything, but only when nobody listens to her — only when my mother and I listen, or my father. But onstage, she’s more like, ‘I’m going to express myself with my trumpet.’ She has the best sound. But singing is not her way.”

In any case, does Alba agree that it’s a bit unusual for such young people to enjoy traditional jazz? “I think it’s unusual, but I have a lot of close friends who are not in the SAJB that love jazz, and love Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and they’re young like me. So all my colleagues are jazz musicians, so it’s normal [for me].” She concedes, “It’s not a typical thing that everybody my age loves it, or has a poster of John Coltrane on the wall.” Which she does.

Her trumpet playing has grown into a different style for the most part than that of, say, SAJB alumnus Andrea Motis, who has demonstrated for many years her range of skills that can include producing aggressive, hard-playing solos that reach the sky. Alba’s way is considerably less dramatic by nature. She says she has found her own sound that she’s most comfortable with.

“Recently I discovered my way of playing, my sound, a little bit. I think its more mellow…For being lead trumpet in a big band, yes, you have to have this punch, and I can get that punch and go to the higher notes, but when I solo, I prefer more to be mellow. When I play a melody, I love that my solos remember the melody, more than a lot of notes going up and down.”

While many have marveled at her calm and seemingly natural, professional demeanor onstage as both singer and trumpeter, she admits, “Maybe onstage I can look more confident, but when people see me in the street or after the concert, I’m very shy.”

After taking part in The New Quartet with Chamorro, Elia Bastida, and guitarist Carla Motis (and guest Scott Hamilton for a live CD release), Alba began to expand her horizons beyond the SAJB in 2021 with her quartet, including SAJB alumnus Marcal Perramon, with Vicente Lopez, and David Munoz, and featuring a repertoire of — naturally — Brazilian standards performed with ease and fun, as they pay great respect to those classics.

The recent SAJB 9th annual Jazzing Festival, dedicated to Brazilian music/classic bossa nova, was perfect for Alba. She enjoyed the event, but confessed to being a bit tired by the time it commenced the first week of September. “All summer I’ve been non-stopping,” she says, possibly coining a new phrase. It had been a busy summer with musical performances and recording. She’s quick to add, however, “You know that I love Brazilian music, so it was great for me, with all the artists that were invited, all the concerts, and master classes.” One workshop she attended was led by guest Brazilian guitarist Juarandir Santana, who explained the fine differences between the rhythms of samba and bossa nova. Despite her already extensive knowledge of Brazilian styles, and the regions from where they originated, she is always open to new information. “I think I will never stop learning,” she says.

As for studio work, she has just completed recording a new EP of six songs; some are original compositions by herself and Vicente Lopez, one is a traditional Catalan song with Alba’s own arrangement, and one is a song by Brazilian composer/singer Djavan.

“We hope it will be out in the beginning of December. We’ve been rehearsing a lot, and it’s been the first time some of our songs have been played by real people. So, it’s very exciting, and I think it will be a very beautiful album.”

While some former SAJB musicians have been known to experiment with other styles that veer away from jazz as most of us know it, Alba is happy with proven success, but adds, “For me now, I don’t play as much traditional jazz, I’m more into Latin American music, boleros, Brazilian music, this is what I love the most, so on my EP are songs with a bolero background, some are more jazz, with soloing…”

Those familiar with the SAJB know that most of its musicians through the years have been multi-instrumentalists, including Alba, who can be seen on videos from several years ago occasionally playing in the band’s sax section. Does she still play sax? “I play soprano sometimes at home, but not that much. I’m trying to learn a little bit of guitar, but it’s a very difficult for me because I can’t coordinate the two hands. I don’t know how to do one thing with one hand and one thing with the other!”

With her time as lead trumpet for the SAJB winding down, curiosity prompts the question: Could it be that the band really is like a big, extended family? After witnessing Jazzing Fest in person, all indications say yes — but Alba points out that, as it is with many real families, age differences can limit the extent to which the older and younger musicians get to know each other personally.

“For me and for my family, now its different, because now because we’re older, and now there are lots of little kids [in the band], and sometimes we don’t know them as much as each other, like when we were little. We have a lot of complicity and friendship with Alba Esteban, and Joan Marti, Rita Payes, and everybody at the same age…I’ve known Alba Esteban for, I think, twelve or thirteen years. That’s a lot of time together.”

Although the November 25th SAJB concert is planned to be the last for both herself and Alba E. as regular members, “I don’t imagine doing anything else,” other than continuing her life in music.

Yet even at her age, she is already familiar with the rigors of being a jazz musician. “It gets tiring because I’m in different projects. I think I had twenty-five gigs in July.” That meant little sleep, and a lot of travel by car or plane.

It does pay off, though. She concludes with the reassurance, “When you are in the moment, playing a concert, it all goes away… but I love this life. I love it.”

Until next time…

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Read my previous articles about the Sant Andreu Jazz Band at the links below, and at the “Garry’s Blog” page on my website, www.GarryBerman.com.

“How a Kids Band in Barcelona Rekindled My Love of Jazz” https://garryberman.medium.com/how-a-kids-band-in-barcelona-rekindled-my-love-of-jazz-a20ea8873670

“Jan Domenech’s New Chapter as a Jazz Musician” https://garryberman.medium.com/jan-domenechs-new-chapter-as-a-jazz-musician-e1f0da8b19b9

“Joan Chamorro and the SAJB: Past, Present, and Future” https://medium.com/@garryberman/joan-chamorro-and-the-sajb-past-present-and-future-573eedcbff76

“Josep Traver: Guitarist of All Trades” https://garryberman.medium.com/josep-traver-guitarist-of-all-trades-608296f9d00a

“When American Jazz Pros Meet Spanish Jazz Kids” https://garryberman.medium.com/when-american-jazz-pros-meet-spanish-jazz-kids-25c7f5023571

“Claudia Rostey: The Life of an 18-year-old Bacelona Jazz Trombonist” https://garryberman.medium.com/claudia-rostey-the-life-of-an-18-year-old-barcelona-jazz-trombonist-d13b82c770a3

“The Magic of the Voice: The Singers of the Sant Andreu Jazz Band” https://garryberman.medium.com/the-magic-of-the-voice-the-singers-of-the-sant-andreu-jazz-band-208dfb629221

“Jobim is Alive and Well in Barcelona” https://garryberman.medium.com/jobim-is-alive-and-well-in-barcelona-d384b40d8c2e

“Did Someone Say Anastasia Ivanova?” https://garryberman.medium.com/did-someone-say-anastasia-ivanova-dd6f67277c64

“Struck by (musical) Lightning” https://garryberman.medium.com/struck-by-musical-lightning-6583ecb0de13

Sant Andreu Jazz Band CDs are available at: https://jazztojazz.com/ , eBay, and Amazon.com.

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Garry Berman

Garry Berman

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Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.