Where Are the New, Young Jazz Stars Coming From? Would You Believe Barcelona?
I am not a musician — I’m a writer, but I’ve been an avid jazz fan for about 45 years. And, once in a blue moon, I discover a musician and/or singer — either current, or from decades past — who somehow captivates me instantaneously, for reasons not always easy to explain. The exact date of the latest bolt of musical lightning to strike me is affixed to a post on my Facebook page: October 11, 2019. That morning, while sitting at my computer and desperately stalling before beginning some writing or research, I decided to wander to YouTube to watch one particular video of the brilliant Brazilian jazz pianist/singer, Eliane Elias (as one does…and if one doesn’t, one should).
While enjoying one of Eliane’s typically amazing piano solos on the Jobim classic “Chega de Saudade” (I’m also a lifelong Jobim fanatic), I noticed something in the right-hand column of my computer screen, where screen grabs of similar YouTube videos are displayed. One image in particular caught my eye, of what appeared to be a young girl — playing trumpet, no less — in a video performance of another Jobim classic, “Meditation” (or “Meditacao” in Portuguese).
Intrigued, I bid adieu to Eliane for the moment, and clicked on this other video. The girl, whom I had never seen or heard before, was Andrea Motis. The video captures her singing in a jazz club, called the Jamboree, with a quintet of musicians — one of whom, to my amazement, was none other than world-famous tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton. And there she was, this stunning girl, singing with such poise and quiet confidence, like a musically wise and seasoned pro, and playing her trumpet solo with outstanding skill and sensitivity. What in the world was I watching? Who is this girl? I clicked on another video of her in performance, then another, then several more (including her own rendition of Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade”).
I spent the next thirty minutes or so delving into this instant addiction of mine, losing all track of time and place, before finally taking a breather, and posting about my discovery on my Facebook page, on which I described myself as “gobsmacked” by the videos of Andrea I had seen so far — of her singing in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and who knows what else, covering time-honored classics from the Great American Songbook, with a good helping of bossa nova from Brazil, and — most impressively — playing trumpet and saxophone like someone years beyond her obviously young age. It was clear that I was watching a true musical prodigy. Jazz seems to flow through her as naturally as the rest of us breathe. I somehow managed to ascertain that she was just shy of 18 at the time of that “Meditation” performance at the Jamboree club, and was even younger in many of the other videos that had blown me away throughout the previous half-hour.
With just these few miscellaneous scraps of information, I felt determined to further piece together what this was all about.
I found still more random but fascinating facts, such as that Andrea recorded her first album of jazz standards in 2010 when she was 15, and has built a loyal following among jazz fans across Europe, South America, and Japan. I confess I felt like a fool for having been ignorant of her existence until that October 11 morning, and for arriving so late to this party (unfortunately for Americans, she has made only a handful of brief visits to the U.S. so far).
Andrea is a native of Barcelona, and, I discovered, the double-bass player seen onstage with her in virtually every video (he’s bald, usually wears a hat, and offers a variety of amusing facial expressions while performing) is actually her mentor, Joan Chamorro. My curiosity grew stronger still, as I continued my effort to see, hear, and learn more about all of this.
In 2006, Chamorro was an accomplished Barcelona musician (proficient on several instruments, but most-often seen playing bass or baritone sax), and a teacher at the Escola Municipal de Musica de Sant Andreu, when he founded the Sant Andreu Jazz Band there, for the purpose of teaching the area’s most promising young musicians the art of classic, big band-era swing. Most of the students had enrolled in the school to study classical music, and weren’t even much aware of jazz until Chamorro introduced the art form to them.
“Since then,” he says, “it has gradually developed into what it is today: a large, open musical group that is constantly evolving.” He has led the band himself since its inception, unflinchingly dedicated to teaching his students the music of a bygone era (he counts about 60 students who have played in the band at some point since 2006). They range from as young as 8 years old to about 21, and are taught virtually everything about playing and singing American jazz/pop standards, Brazilian bossa nova classics, and, occasionally, traditional Spanish or French songs. The kids are not separated by age, but rather learn, rehearse, and play together, with the older, experienced band members taking on the more complex arrangements and tasks, while the younger kids get the basic ensemble work down pat as they learn. Divas are not to be found, or tolerated — but that doesn’t seem to have ever been an issue. The musicians happily encourage each other, from their rehearsals to their polished performances in front of appreciative audiences.
In 2012, the project separated from the School, becoming its own self-contained entity, without any government or private support. Chamorro points out that “the young musicians do not pay anything for their classes, for their rehearsals, or their CDs, within the framework of the SAJB…The project can exist and continue because we have concerts that allow us to do all the work we do (cd’s, videos, bring great musicians from outside, and be able to personally, fully dedicate myself to it).”
Andrea began playing the trumpet at the school when she was seven years old. Three years later, she began studying jazz under Chamorro, who later recruited her for his band. “He introduced me to jazz music,” she told an interviewer, “starting from New Orleans Jazz, Dixieland, etc.”
Singing is also emphasized at the SAJB, especially for the girls, even for those who may not have initially thought of themselves as vocalists. Jazz singing techniques that have become somewhat endangered in past decades — such as vocalese and scat — are learned and perfected. The singers learn the English or Portuguese lyrics to the songs they discover from listening to countless original recordings (the native languages of that particular region of Spain are Catalan and Spanish, although multi-lingual skills are, of course, commonplace), or as the songs are introduced to them by Chamorro.
The repertoire is ever-expanding, and classics originally recorded by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and other legends are drawn upon for fresh versions sung by the SAJB teens. Andrea didn’t begin singing until after joining the band. “The trumpet will always be my first instrument,” she says on her website. “Playing the trumpet is like meditating; it’s such a part of my life. But I never want to choose just one side of my artistic sides because I love doing them all.”
Lest you might expect the kids of the SAJB to sound somewhat akin to a ragtag high school band squeaking and honking its way through a Spring Concert assembly, put that notion to rest. Chamorro, with his boundless energy and enthusiasm, has them learning creative and challenging arrangements that are both thoughtful and exciting, and he presents his band to audiences with equal degrees of respect, fun, and justifiable pride, giving ample room for most members to step forward from their ensemble playing to shine with individual solos and/or vocal performances. Close your eyes, and you would think you’re listening to the Count Basie or Duke Ellington bands of the 1930s and ’40s. As one viewer posted in reaction to a video of the band, “I swear these are old musicians in young bodies.”
“The Sant Andreu Jazz Band is a dream come true,” Chamorro says, “It is the result of sharing my passion for jazz with its members…of believing that they can do as well or better than me, of feeling like the most advanced student rather than the teacher, and of not putting limits on their abilities.”
Chamorro has also had the foresight, from early on, to have hundreds of performances and rehearsals professionally filmed and recorded in a wide variety of indoor and outdoor venues, from jazz festivals in Spain and throughout Europe, to concert halls, street performances, and sessions in a music room he added to his own home, which he named “The Jazz House.”
YouTube has proven to be a remarkably effective platform for him to introduce jazz enthusiasts all over the world to the outstanding abilities of his student musicians. He explained the impetus to do this in his comments for a 2009 video he himself posted on YouTube, of the band performing at Barcelona’s Cafè Vienès Jazz Club in the Hotel Casa Fuster: “Last year, the band performed various concerts in prestigious Catalan jazz festivals and clubs, and received very good reviews from the audiences. Consequently, I thought we needed some kind of record of the band. The best way to do this was to make a CD-DVD, in which the girls and boys would share the stage with excellent jazz musicians.” Indeed, Chamorro has supervised and released all of the numerous albums of the band (mostly recorded live, often with guest musicians), as well as the series of showcase albums introducing the more prominent individual performers who have risen through the ranks (more about them shortly).
As older band members reach the age to leave the band, younger musicians are recruited as needed. Chamorro has no strict modus operandi for finding new students. A good number of them play more than one instrument proficiently, and many sets of siblings have thrived under his tutelage together. And, some have emerged as true stars in the relatively young life of the school — the first, of course, being Andrea.
Those initially drawn to Andrea’s videos (like myself), will quickly discover the talents of her fellow Sant Andreu musicians. Realistically, not every SAJB band member is destined for a long and thriving career upon leaving the school. And, while there have been excellent male instrumentalists to shine as they’ve gained experience and skills in the band, the girls in particular have exhibited an especially undeniable charisma and stage presence as singers, to go hand-in-hand with their almost frightening array of musical talents. The success rate so far has been uncanny.
The first generation of SAJB student “stars” — along with Andrea, who is now 24 — have included Rita Payes, now 20, who can’t be much more than five feet tall, yet is a genuine phenom on trombone, often getting on her tip-toes as she plows ahead with a solo. The daughter of classical guitarist Elisabeth Roma, Rita began playing when she was 8, at the School of Modern Music in Badalona. Six years later, she joined the SAJB, where she progressed in leaps and bounds. Her husky singing voice is uniquely her own as well. Saxophonist extraordinaire Eva Fernandez began playing at age 7, and sings in an impressively mature manner for her 25 years, and bassist Magali Datzira, 22, is never less than compelling as a musician and vocalist, and who, like Rita, possesses a distinctive singing voice and phrasing style — one that has been compared to that of Billie Holiday.
As far as their most loyal followers are concerned, these girls became the “Fab Four” or “A-Team” of the SAJB, having recorded an album of standards titled La Magia de la Veu (The Magic of the Voice),on which they play and sing lead vocals evenly divided among them, as well as dazzling crowds at the Jamboree Club and other venues. It’s not an exaggeration to already describe them as legends, both collectively and individually, among Europe’s jazz fans, especially those who have followed the SAJB since its early days. It’s also satisfying to see that these former stars of the band have often returned as guest performers for the current and ever-evolving line-up, and have continued to occasionally perform and record with each other in various combinations (Rita and Magali, for instance, have recently announced work on a new album together).
As these superbly gifted young women left the school as students to pursue their careers, younger talents have regularly emerged to offer their own skills, adding still more “wow” moments to the band’s performances and recordings. For instance, Alba Armengou can be seen on video giving her first public (and note-perfect) trumpet solo at the age of 8. She is now 18, a superb trumpeter/saxophonist, and has matured immensely as a singer.
Her smooth singing voice is every bit as crystal clear as her musicianship, as she continues to gain confidence and command with each performance.
Elia Bastida, that rather rare creature known as a jazz violinist (and who also sings and plays sax), recently graduated from the SAJB after seven years in the band, and Andrea’s younger sister Carla just completed eleven years as the band’s ever-steady guitarist. Like their fellow top-tier SAJB musicians, they each have already recorded their own introductory CDs, and now work together with Chamorro as “The New Quartet.”
In addition, one would be wise to keep an eye out for Joana Casanova, 21, sax player and singer with a unique, deep tone to her voice (and a cheerfully confident presence onstage), to be featured on her upcoming first CD, likely available by the time you read this.
Lastly (for now), it would be negligent not to give special mention to the outstanding group of professional musicians who have been present at the SAJB from Chamorro’s earliest days as the band director, and who have formed the nucleus of Andrea’s band, even before she completed her years with the school: the brilliant, innovative pianist Ignasi Terraza, guitarist Josep Traver, and drummer Esteve Pi (and, of course, Chamorro himself), have accompanied Andrea on her album recordings and musical tours all over the world, including their recent tour of Israel for the 2019 holiday season.
Andrea is also the subject of a new documentary by Ramon Tort, titled The Quiet Trumpet, which was completed partially via a Go-Fund-Me campaign. As for her musical heroes, she has many, putting legendary trumpeters Bobby Hackett and Clifford Brown at the top of her list of those past masters who’ve inspired her musicianship the most.
I like to think I’ve demonstrated that it’s never too late to join this joyous bandwagon, so I heartily recommend a visit to YouTube to see firsthand how the young musicians of the SAJB, with Chamorro bringing out the best in each of them, have been taking jazz in Europe by storm for the past 13 years.
If I were to attempt to offer even a brief list, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop adding to it. It’s safe to begin with virtually any of Andrea’s performances, as I did — ranging from when she was only 15 or so, to the present day — and you’ll most likely find yourself bouncing around YouTube among the hundreds of videos featuring all of the other young musicians and singers I’ve mentioned here, as you discover the talents of the SAJB past and current members. As addictions go, it’s both safe and vastly entertaining — and best of all, there’s still more great music to come.
You can find all of the SAJB and individual artists’ CDs at www.jazztojazz.com, and, of course, at www.Amazon.com.
So, indulge, and enjoy the addiction!
Until next time…