Jazzitalia - Interview With Gendrickson Mena
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Interview With Gendrickson Mena
Blue Note, June 8th 2007
Eva Simontacchi
Pictures: Mario Livraghi

Fai click qui per leggere la versione in italiano

Eva Simontacchi: You've been living in Italy for 12 years now. How has your music evolved since you left Cuba to come to live and play here in Italy? You have surely been influenced by different musical languages here in Europe….
Gendrickson Mena: I have obviously been influenced. Sometimes you look back, and you think: "Oh! I haven't improved in my playing, my music hasn't evolved" (as I believe many musicians happen to think), so I believe that it is very important to look back and be aware of one's progresses. I believe that these past 12 years in Europe have been very important for my studies and evolution. I arrived on July 1st 1995. I always look back, but I also look ahead. I have kept on learning and studying, studying the technique, the language, the phrasing. I also took advantage of the possibility of having all the information I wanted here. In Cuba we don't have a great possibility to follow many artists and their projects as we do here in Europe. So I had the chance to study the evolution and the progress of very many artists, because I had the possibility to have their records and to listen to their music. Many of the artists whose music I had listened to when I was a child, I had the chance to see them live here in Europe.

E.S.: Who for example? Which artists did you have the chance to know better through wider information and means?
G.M.: For example, I listened to the music of George Benson, Earth Wind and Fire, Petrucciani, Freddy Hubbard (trumpet player), Oscar Peterson – I remember that when I was a child my father used to play his records – Ron Carter, Miles Davis, Coltrane, etc. I also owe a lot to my father, Pedro Mena, guitar player, arranger, composer, multi-instrumentalist. I learnt very much from him when we were in Cuba, but also when we came to Italy because I went on playing with his orchestra during the first years in this country. He has always been a very important point of reference in my life. I realized I had evolved conspicuously in these past 12 years. What I understood up to a certain point in 1995, I understand much more in depth and completely now. I am also talking about the languages and the different ways of playing. For example, I understand much better and in detail any one of Coltrane's solos now. I understand what he meant to do, musically speaking; I understand when he's playing atonally, I understand on which scales he worked, the phrasing, so I thoroughly enjoy every single solo I listen, and every single artist. Many years ago I couldn't divide the instruments or the arrangements when I was listening. Now I listen to a record and I can make out every single instrument, and I can hear everything. I don't want to seem presumptuous, but I realize I have really worked a great deal on this in the past 12 years.

E.S.: You have sharpened your ear!
G.M.: Yes, I can make out all the chords even when the soloist, over the piano, plays these harmonic passages, I understand the game passing from one chord to the next. Sometimes they do these wonderful things and phrasings, that not everyone can understand them. Many people love the sound and say: "Oh I love jazz!", but it's wonderful if you can understand what an artist does when he expresses himself, both melodically and rhythmically, and also as far as colors are concerned. For example, a trumpet player, in order to add color may hold a long tone that may be a note which is shared by four or five different chords that follow one another, and holding it for four or five chord progressions he may attain a beautiful color and sound, even for fast phrasings. So I had this great opportunity, and I thank God for having spent all these years in Europe because I had the chance to deepen my studies and learn much more. I am still studying very much, and watching many videos of many different artists and listening to many records. When I arrived, in 1995, my playing was a bit less profound and a little more elementary. My phrasing was a little simpler. Now I realize my phrasing is more interesting. An artist's phrasing should evolve and mature as time goes by. I realize my playing has changed also because of the flugelhorn. Many people think that the flugelhorn is like the trumpet, but it's a totally different instrument. The flugelhorn has overtones, it is mellower. In my opinion it is very important for a trumpet player to learn how to play the flugelhorn too, because it engages you in a different way, but this way – and this is interesting – also affects the way you play the trumpet and it enriches your playing both ways. These instruments are two different planets that help each other evolve in both directions. Since the sound of the flugelhorn is darker, you really have to change your way of playing. I bought my flugelhorn in the year 2000, and the first year while I was trying to get used to it, I remember that it was a disaster because it's so different! You have to use more breath because the mouthpiece is wider, and the change from one mouthpiece to the other is not so simple. Moreover, the way you hold the two instruments when you are playing is different. During the first year I kept making mistakes because I couldn't master the sound. I had to work a great deal and study a lot. You know, I studied technique and improvisation on the trumpet, but - this is quite funny – I never technically studied the flugelhorn. I played for countless hours on the jazz minus one tracks. After my daily exercises with the trumpet I used to work with the flugelhorn in this way, and used to play it for a couple of hours. I think that this is a way you can learn how to play it…. Without studying it as a technical instrument, but rather playing it, and experiencing it directly. So, I am certain that the study of the flugelhorn also contributed to my evolution. In the year 2000 I still played with Tony Martinez, and they immediately realized that my playing had changed and evolved.

When I started playing the trumpet, and I started working on the standards, I used to listen to a great trumpet player, Freddy Hubbard. I loved his sound. He used to play the flugelhorn a great deal, and I guess that his sound and his way of playing still dwell in me today and has surely affected me even though I listened to many other trumpet players in my life. When I started working on jazz improvisation, I didn't know where to start, so I started transcribing all of Freddy Hubbard's solos and learning them. I started studying my instrument at 10 years of age, but when I started studying jazz and improvisation I was 15 years old, and that's when I started learning Freddy Hubbard's solos. I also love to listen to other musicians and other instruments. For example, if you listen to a guitar player, many things change: the phrasing, the concept, the sound, so I have learnt to listen to guitar players, piano players, drummers, and all the other instrumentalists. Many people, when listening to a drummer's solo, experience a more visual approach, but if you really listen to a drummer's solo, you can find a melody, and the logic and meaning of a solo. Sometimes a drummer has a message that he wishes to convey, but very few really understand him. Even among percussionists, with the congas and the timbales, you can have melodies, as with singers. So, I went on working not only on melodies but also on rhythm. So even if this is an interview, I would like to suggest to all jazz students or musicians not to dwell only on their instruments thinking "I'm a vocalist so I'll listen only to vocalists and voices", because this way of reasoning won't give you a complete concept of music and of the way you can express yourself. I believe that if any musician listens to all the instrumentalists, from the sax player to the trumpet player to the trombone player, everything he will listen will enrich him more and more and will give him new ideas. Another good suggestion is that of listening to very many music styles. If a jazz player also listens to funky music, reggae, rock, Chinese music, and so on, apart from the fact that he will surely be personally enriched by all these different sounds and moods, he will also develop new ideas when composing and arranging, because all that you've listened to becomes part of your experience, and it becomes so much easier and natural to create different sounds, moods or colors. Sometimes one studies a lot, for days and months, and doesn't experience a great change at the moment. But even though it might not happen immediately, it will happen as the years go by. The results will show, and that's when a musician realizes he has evolved. Sometimes you may happen to think: "Wow, I did this without even realizing!"

So, in these 12 years I really worked on all these aspects. I am quite a curious person, and in these years I also had the possibility (that I didn't have in Cuba) to see many of the artists I admire live. I went to countless concerts even outside Italy, and these have been very important and very strong experiences that dwell with you all your life. I am a researcher and I love to explore and experiment, and I love to listen to great musicians that really move me and inspire me. In these 12 years I experienced a lot, not only studying and listening, but also playing with very many artists and projects. I have been lucky because I had the opportunity to play in so many different projects. Sometimes these projects were not exactly what I was wishing to pursue, but they have enriched me all the same, not only musically, but under a personal and human point of view too.

When I worked with Vinicio Capossela and other great artists, I learnt a lot from them on stage. I observed how these big leaders behaved on stage, what they said, how they moved, how they behaved in different situations, and this is also very important. One should not only go on stage and play all the notes he's been studying for a lifetime. One has to know how to behave, how to organize the concert, how to convey a message. It's not only a question of playing. Many musicians just play and stay still, but in my opinion it is also wonderful to have a bit of show going on, creating atmospheres. I learnt all these things, and I'm still learning, and I saw many great artists such as Miles Davis, Santana, and others do it.

I am not saying it with presumptuousness, but I realize I have evolved quite a lot since my arrival 12 years ago, even though I know that I still have to go on improving and evolving. So I'll go on working because I know I have much to give but I also know that I still need more experiences, I need to know new people, new projects, because this is the only way to grow. I believe one should play many different musical styles and experience a lot, from the music of the Balkans to the Chinese, Indian or Russian music, for example. These are all sounds and influences that will come out later in life in the compositions of an artist. With Capossela I learnt the music from Macedonia and the Croatian countries, and the way you play the trumpet in this kind of music is so very different, it's not at all similar to the jazz trumpet. By the way, it is very very difficult. So, I believe he passed on to me this way of playing that sometimes comes out spontaneously when I play, but I don't decide it rationally. It's an experience that has become a part of me. This tipe of knowledge just comes out now and then and it's very interesting, so my advice is to experience different types of music, playing African music too, even though there might not be harmony in the music! Go and play with 20 percussionists and 3 brass instruments! You may also do things like this! Can you just imagine how much you could be rhythmically enriched by such an experience? I tell you, a great deal! And you can use it when you're playing bebop! Do you know that tune, "One Note Samba"? Well, if you pay attention, there's one note playing; that's Africa! You are working on one note and the chords shift, but you're still on that note that is working rhythmically. And to me this is a good idea, rather than playing many notes that have already been played. You can mix, and play a game with notes and rhythm. So, I am very happy with my European experience, because I made very different experiences and learned a lot, and when you happen to go to places where there's people that appreciate this music, you can be there with a greater knowledge and be a step further.

E.S.: We talked about the past. Now we'll talk about the future. What are you aspiring after? What are your musical dreams?
G.M.: I would like to go on developing this music, because being Cuban, of course, I cannot abandon my origins. Even if at times I don't feel like playing salsa, these origins pulse in my veins. So, this comes out even when I'm playing jazz, so I'm a little more powerful, I have a little more energy that comes out in my playing. So I aspire after going on with my music which is latin jazz, with Caribbean influences, you know, Cuban music, and adding other influences such as bebop, funky, fusion, acid jazz, jungle, and mix all these influences together. I think that it is always possible to create something new and original, some new sound. So my idea is that of modernizing Cuba's latin jazz, because I know many groups that play latin jazz, but they play it the traditional way with 3 percussions, piano, double-bass and wind-instruments. But I believe that latin jazz may be played with keyboards, rock guitar, effects, always with this particular underlying rhythm. But it is possible to work on an evolution of latin jazz, because I believe it should evolve. Why play it as Poncho Sanchez or Mongo Santamaria or Tito Puentes? It should evolve and be renewed, it should be updated by adding all these jungle, acid-jazz and world-music influences; in my opinion it will become more interesting. I would love to bring this music around the world, and record many albums… I would love to find somebody who could follow me and who could help me realize these dreams and to bring this huge project – because it won't be only instrumental, there will be voices too, because I believe that with vocalists and with lyrics it will reach the audiences far better – around the world. I am also thinking about starting to sing myself, so I'll start studying and taking voice lessons. I am also going on with my piano studies and exercises to keep in good shape and on my arrangements. I would also like to realize a record with a big band, but not with the traditional big band. I would like a big band record with a totally different sound, making the saxes or the trombones work in a different way, with other rhythmic patterns, with a different overall sound, something more interesting. You can also change the way of playing the trumpet on a latin jazz funky tune. The only problem is that it is very difficult to find someone that can understand this concept. Some people just say:"hey, you're not playing right, this is not traditional!" But it's not true. Probably this new concept will create some thing new and different in the future. Sometimes the people who criticize don't stop to think that it might be something new, and it takes years, normally for something new to be appreciated and accepted. So, when you're still living, very few people understand what you're doing. So, this is my dream. I would love to be listened by audiences round the world, make good music with beautiful arrangements, meaningful lyrics. I am not interested in ordinary commercial music. I love beautiful music with a powerful and meaningful content, pleasing to the ear, and I would love the people to go away feeling happy and enriched after the concert.

E.S.: A personal question now… What are your strengths?
G.M.: I've got a strong will. I never get tired of pursuing a goal that I have in my heart. Sometimes I might get a little weaker and seem to be losing my will in difficult times, but I still go on studying and working. Luckily these moments never last too long. I think that all the experiences in life, good or bad, but especially the bad ones, help you go on with an even stronger determination. Another strength I've got is that I know what I love to do and what I would like to become, so this gives me a lot of will and determination too. Just like at times I feel a little insecure, there are times in which I feel very strong and creative because I realize I've got new and very personal and innovative ideas. This at times causes me to be misunderstood by people that are more inclined to accept the traditional and more common or ordinary ideas. But of course I realize that since I'm not a big international name, I cannot be easily understood and appreciated. If I were as famous as Quincy Jones with his same age and experience, and I proposed the very same idea, probably people would listen to me and I would be more credible and reliable. So I guess the will is my n.1 strength. Sometimes I don't even know where it comes from. Even when I don't feel like doing anything I still go on! I'm not lazy. I don't like to work with lazy people who lack in creativity and that wait until the very last moment to do things. I worked with this kind of people quite often, but I don't like it, and I will try not to work again under these circumstances.

E.S.: What about your weaknesses?
G.M.: One of my weaknesses is that I tend to not listen to my inner voice when I'm asked to do things. Sometimes I realize I'm going against my will doing things that I don't really want to do and that don't belong to me. I tend to say too many yeses, but I really have to learn to say no. At times I'm a little to weak and undecided. This is a weakness I have to strengthen, and I'm working on it. Sometimes I'm a little selfish, like when I insist on doing an arrangement like I feel it should be done, but I realize that this may be a slightly presumptuous attitude, because the other person's idea could be ok too. My idea could even not be the best one. Another weakness of mine is that I accept suggestions from everybody, and sometimes these suggestions or criticisms might not be totally constructive. I have my own ideas on what I would like to do, so I should not listen too much to what everybody says. I'm also working on this.

E.S.: Ultrasound released your 2003 album "Asi Son Mis Sentimientos", but I know that you have other album projects which are ready, both as a soloist and as a group (Gendrickson Mena & The New Cuban Experience). When do you think they may be issued?
G.M.: As soon as I will find someone who is interested in producing me, either a recording company or a producer. Even though I'm not known at an international level, I'm not known around the whole world, I would love to be produced internationally, because this is the objective of creating an album. My first record was issued thanks to this producer and musician – Stefano Bertolotti – who loved my music and believed in me. He has a very small recording company, and he produced my record. But it is very difficult to find it in the shops, and this doesn't help at all a young musician that aspires to be known. It is important to be well distributed, because people who don't know you get the chance to listen to your music and to buy your CD. In this way an artist could start having fans and being appreciated more widely. I really hope I will find someone who will produce me. I have two or three self-produced recording projects that are ready, so I'm looking for a recording company or a producer. Recording companies and producers should give young musicians an opportunity, and I'm not only talking about myself. There are plenty of talented young musicians out there, and they deserve the possibility to have their say. Of course Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock are truly great, they are giants, but it is also right to start working on the young and still unknown talents that might make important changes in music.

E.S.: Could you tell us something about your group "Gendrickson Mena & The new Cuban Experience"?
I am really happy I am working with these musicians. They have given me so much! There's a wonderful energy between us. Part of what I am now I owe it to them all, to their contributions during the rehearsals, the arrangements, the energy, the will of working even when the economical situations were not so promising. They always gave their very best with enthusiasm. We have recorded this first album, and we will very soon record another album, and we will produce it. So I really thank them with all my heart. My idea was that of playing latin jazz not only with Cubans. This is what makes my project special, because it has an American, European and Cuban sound, because these Italian artists have brought their cultural contribution to this project. My energy, mixed to theirs, with Jorge and Hidelvis on percussions leads to a very interesting sound. It's not the latin jazz of Tito Puentes or Ed Palmieri. When I will have produced 2 or 3 records this will be clearer. In my opinion we are creating a very personal and particular sound. I think and hope I will play with them for a long time, because we had an amazing evolution since we started. I think that this is the objective of an artist, no matter whether we're talking about a singer or a trumpet player: to keep a project for a very long time, which might span up to 20 or even 30 years, because then there's going to be an amazing evolution both as a group and personally.

Related articles:

Pure Ecstasy (Eva Simontacchi)


Gendrickson Mena & The New Cuban Experience at Blue Note: "...the audience is totally immersed in a warm and embracing atmosphere, loaded with energy and rhythm...the talented group-leader allows us to enjoy the warm voice of his flugelhorn, performing a virtuoso solo..." (Eva Simontacchi)

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Publishing Date: 09/12/2007

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