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Edmar Castaneda

SPAC Little Theatre
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs, NY
May 29th, 2008

by Randy Treece

"Jazz cannot be limited by definitions or by rules.  Jazz is, above all, a
total freedom to express oneself." -- Duke Ellington

Few modern jazz groups epitome more of Ellington's eloquence than the extraordinary, incomparable, and adventurous Edmar Castaneda Trio, with special guest Joe Locke.  At first blush, it is difficult to conceptualize the probable voicing about to flow from such an eclectic and exotic ensemble, comprising of a Colombian Harp (Edmar Castaneda), flute (Itai Kriss), vibraphone (Joe Locke), and drummer/percussionist (Dave Silliman).  But let me assure you that  the music and presentation were rapturous and riveting, and the evening nothing short of enchantment.

The harp's apparent contribution to the jazz lexicon is elusive, at best, although we are reminded of Alice Coltrane's foray into the avant gard realm with this iconoclastic jazz instrument.  Castaneda has launched the harp from relative obscurity into another stratosphere and to greater popularity.  He has taken the Colombian Harp from its cultural relevance to Colombia's indigenous music to a wider international audience by cross-pollinating South American traditional music and its various Latin rhythms with jazz to produce a magical and captivating sound.  An instrument that has been associated with women with long flowing dresses and angels is now an instrument that "parties with the angels."

The Colombian Harp is not based upon the chromatic scale but rather the diatonic scale which has seven rather than twelve notes, and because of this dynamic, it requires this phenomenal musician to stretch his imagination to find other tones within the whole and half steps.  In addition to its string augmentation, the harp demands continuous tuning in order to meet the contours of the individual song.  It appears that the strings are pulled and bent in such a manner to achieve  a multi-layer of notes.  With magical fingers that literally dance across the strings, Castaneda unleashes a rhapsodic and pulsating music.  With the left hand Castaneda plucks exceptional and palpable bass lines; exquisite melodies and harmonies are aroused by the right; and fantastic percussion flourishes in both.

Matching Castaneda's incandescent flair is the master musical craftsman, Joe Locke, on vibraphone.  Locke has an extensive jazz biography of more than twenty-five years in this art form and has recorded on more than 100 albums and, on this evening, that enormous experience was evident.  Locke's mallet style is rhythmically smooth, impeccably refined, always tuneful, and meshed perfectly with the Trio. He is demonstrable and passionate.  Dave Silliman, "the man with the four hands," is an engaging and versatile drummer/percussionist who often projects like multiple drummers.  His unique set up includes a drum kit, a vast array of percussion instruments, and the Cajon, a.k.a., the box drum, which allows him to flow smoothly amongst the  them.  It is a sight to behold when Silliman plays the bass drum and the Cajon simultaneously.  Itai Kriss, who hails from New York, is a very credible flutist who deserves wider appeal.  He has a flawless sound, amazing technique, and I did not detect one errant note or phrase.

From the beginning to end, passion was the essential element. The band kicked off the evening with Castaneda?s "Cuarto de Colores."  This song erupted with a poly-rhythmic introduction from Castaneda and when joined by his musical cohorts, it settled into a Brazilian beat that continued to simmer intensely.  Interludes of a flamenco-like guitar sound percolated alongside the melody.  Both Kriss and Locke rendered solos, which were intimate yet vivid.  Following in a similar vein was, "Three-Thirds," a profoundly rhythmic and playful piece of music. Witnessing Castaneda's remarkable technique was something to behold - mysterious and mesmerizing.

"Hope" was inspired by a tragic movie about disaffected children and their inexplicable and interminable suffering.  Castaneda had sketched the skeleton of a song which he envisioned would engender hope and then sat down with Locke to add further substance and context to his musical idea.  Within fifteen minutes or so, the corroboration produced a marvelously beautiful song, akin to Thad Jones's "A Child is Born."  The song was delivered as a duet with prodigious interplay between Locke and Castaneda.  The song was distinct and tremendously harmonious. Locke's subtle playing was very comforting, almost soothing, and definitely mellifluous while Castaneda's voicing was ethereal rendering the overall texture of the song without comparison.  "Hope" was the highlight of the evening.  Next, Castaneda cast a resplendent spotlight upon himself when he performed a solo on "Jesus of Nazareth."  His performance was spellbinding.

Locke delivered an elaborate prelude to "Looking Forward" that evoked notions of Chick Corea's "LaFiesta" or "Crystal Silence."  The introduction built to a crescendo as the other musicians joined to produce a unique, intoxicating, and beautiful selection.  "Flamenco" followed a similar path but with a more subtle Moroccan and flamenco shadings.  This was a tour de force composition.    "Autumn Leaves" started with a samba line than shifted into a high-powered flamenco elan.  Kriss introduced the melody as the volume and the tempo exponentially  increased.  The entertainment value of this jazz standard swelled when Locke, Kriss, and Castaneda traded riffs, in an attempt to mimic each other.   Kriss confirmed that he was a master of his instrument and deserved to be on the same stage with Locke and Castaneda.  There were so many sounds emanating from this group and even the rhythms had unique variations.  "Sabrson," which was the encore, held tight to the magical ride and sent a memorable cascading  sound over the audience whom, I submit, traveled home with a sense of glee.

After the show, I was able to conduct an extensive interview with Locke and Castaneda which was cut too short by the late hour and the need for the musicians to pack and get to New York City for their next gig. There was so much I wanted to explore.  Locke is a fascinating, engaging musician who reveres this art form and loves to talk about it.  Locke has played in a broad spectrum of musical groups and his own music is all-embracing.  Locke attributes his broad musical palette to FM radio, where his young ears began to focus upon every genre of music. Although he is the senior member of this group, he feels that he does not hold any special position, or entitlement, or any sway over the direction of the music.  Rather, he believes that he is in the most enviable position since he is still learning and growing.  At this stage of his career, he has immersed himself into the study of Latin rhythms.  Notwithstanding all that he has accomplished, for him the best is yet to come.  The tale as to how Locke and Castaneda met is as magnificent as their music.  While both were playing at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy, Locke came upon the Castaneda Trio and he was literally blown away by that encounter and mused how splendid it would be to play with Castaneda.  Later in the day, Castaneda heard Locke's quartet and reacted similarly.  The common thread was passion and the die was cast.  Later during the concert they met, talked, and thus the genesis of their wondrous corroboration and friendship; audiences worldwide have since been blessed as beneficiaries. When we discussed the infusion of European and South American folk influences into the jazz mix, both Castaneda and Locke hold steadfastly to the roots of their musical heritage, which connects them firmly to the terra firma.  For them, it is about being anchored to their own cultural experiences yet they zealously acknowledge that the modern jazz vocabulary has embraced and been enriched by folk and traditional songs from multiple traditions and cultures, least we forget that the blues is originally folk music.  Because of the unique makeup of the ensemble, I asked Castaneda whether he looks for a particular sound when he assembles a group.  Rather than search for a special sound, Castaneda?s measuring rod is a particular artist's passion for the music and, after making that observation of such an artist, he then invites them to join his ensemble.  Any combination of instruments suits Castaneda well as long as "there is passion for the music."  As an example, a passionate commitment to the music is the reason why Itai Kriss and David Silliman were invited to participate in the Trio. Locke will tour with his new group Force of Four, an eclectic contemporary group.  Addressing his unusual jazz instrument, Castaneda explained how hard he has to work to find the right sounds because of the diatonic scale and the missing half notes.  In this struggle, it is his, as well as Locke's, opinion that the best notes come out.

Each of these musicians is stamping their indelible imprimatur upon a redefinition of modern jazz.  Both Locke and Castaneda will be touring internationally together and independently.

The music was shimmering bright and effervescent. The group was perfectly engaged and nearly hypnotic at times.  All you need to do is suspend your stereotypical reckonings about the music and art, and you may become awash with a diverse and captivating cultural awakening.  If you are searching to be entranced this summer, you should check the Trio with Joe Locke when they play at Tanglewood in August.

Randy Treece is an avid and ubiquitous fan of jazz music, especially on the local scene. For many years he has contributed jazz artist reviews for "A Place For Jazz "and has written album reviews on request by jazz artists. Randy resides in Albany.