First things first: please listen before reading. I think this is bold, exciting, spark-filled music that initially should be heard free of introduction or explanation. Let it play, let it blast. It speaks for itself; the ideas and information that follow here are to add to the appreciation, and expand the experience. Meet you at the end of track 11…
OK, now let’s begin. This is Alex Terrier’s fourth album, and his first with one of his favorite ensembles, the Alex Terrier Franco Cuban Project—an eight-year old, on-again-off-again, Paris-based collective that the saxophonist established after visiting Cuba for the first time, and falling under the sway and drive of the sounds for which the island has become legendary.
I always was interested and curious about Latin music in general but never really studied it, not nearly as much as I did with jazz. It was my friend Aldo Salvant, a Cuban sax player who now lives in Miami, who got me started. My first real connection to the music of Cuba was a quintet gig there led by the pianist Roberto Fonseca in 2010—actually just three club dates, playing some standards and some salsa.
As any musician will attest: studying is one thing, immersion another.
The experience was amazing. Fonseca is a fantastic musician and a great composer, really fusing traditional Cuban elements with straight-ahead jazz and with a mastery of classical music. I like to hear the connection with the folklore—with the history of the music. Joel Hierrezuelo was the percussionist in that group and he just killed me. Later I created the Alex Terrier Afro Cuban Project with him.
Upon his return to Paris, Terrier “asked the best Cuban musicians in Paris to play with me—Joel plus Felipe Cabrera on bass, Lukmil Perez on drums, Leo Montana on piano—and that’s how it happened.” The group was born in late 2010 as the Alex Terrier Afro Cuban Project, and debuted at the city’s historic New Morning club. In the ensuing years, Terrier, who now resides in New York City, developed the group’s sonic identity and repertoire, finding ways of exploring the overlap of modern jazz and Cuban forms and rhythms, a mix that demands a familiarity with both. He ran the group as a collective, learning as much as leading: “If anything I’m actually the student,” Terrier says. “I’m listening to them, especially Felipe and Lukmil who have been playing together for a long time. They really are what made that group work.”
Eight years passed as Terrier simultaneously pursued other paths—performing and touring with the Mingus Big Band, leading other groups (like his New York Quartet, his Organ Trio, and The World Citizen Band), and recording three albums, including the critically hailed quartet recording in 2014 featuring pianist Kenny Barron. Then in 2017, an old friend called.
I’ve known Gael Hedding since my days at Berklee [College of Music] in 2004. He’s an excellent recording engineer with great ears and we came up studying together—we worked on some recordings together when I was still at school, some big band tracks that were never released but still sound great. Gael called me up and said, Listen, I have this opportunity with a studio in Monterrey. I’d love to record something with you—do you have something?
Victoria Records is a Mexican music label and management company based in northeast Mexico boasting a recording studio that has become popular with a number of major Mexican and American pop artists (Korn, The Strokes, Pedro Fernandez) as it offers living quarters along with the recording facilities. It’s an old idea—recording in relaxed, comfortable isolation—reborn in the shadows of the Sierra Madre mountains.
It’s a studio in a big mansion so we would have rooms and could live there for a week. Of course I said yes, and found a time everyone could make it—everyone except Joel who recommended Roberto Vizcaino to play percussion. He actually studied with Felipe, so it was perfect. Plus he lives in Mexico.
For a jazz group in 2018, it was a welcome change from the standard studio experience.
A whole week in a studio: that was the first time I had that luxury. Usually you go in the studio for one or two days, you do one or two takes of each tune, and that’s it. This time we were in the studio all day long, taking some breaks, having time to listen and relax and record again and change things. Then we’d finish the day and have some drinks and we’d go to our rooms and all slept under the same roof and started again the next day. My partner Mar—she’s a chef and a nutritionist who grew up in the Yucatan Peninsula—came down and took care of us, cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She also came up with the idea of renaming the group “Franco Cuban”, originally called “Afro Cuban Project”. So she gets credit for being a big part in the success of that week.
The opportunity to finally record the Franco Cuban Project presents the band as one might hear it on an especially inspired night, performing tunes that have been part of their repertoire for a while—almost all original.
I brought some of my tunes, Felipe and Leo both brought some tunes, Felipe re-worked a great Wayne Shorter tune from Miles’s Nefertiti album, and that’s what we did. There’s one song I wrote specifically for the album—“Oxun”, a ballad with a nice rubato intro with a very John Coltrane feel. It’s one of my favorite moments. I’m cueing everything: the atmosphere, then the F minor pedal which goes into a bolero bass line. The chord sequence actually comes from another song of mine I had recorded on another album and Felipe said, Oh man, remember that song? Those chords were really nice…and so and I just wrote another melody. That’s how that tune came together. That’s what having a week together made possible, being relaxed and not having to rush.
Asked to name a few other choice moments from the music, Terrier mulled over his answer carefully.
I think the title track has to be one because it’s a composition by Felipe and it was one of the first tunes we ever played together. It’s both very Cuban and very jazz at the same time. It sounds easy but rhythmically it’s actually very challenging because the way the downbeats have been moved around—it demands a certain mastery of rhythmic cycles. Another favorite of mine is “Nocturne”, which comes from my love of Chopin. I still play a little bit of piano at home, that was actually my first instrument, and this his melody “Nocturne in F minor”. I wrote this arrangement specifically with this project in mind. I think this track, played with a Cuban feel, really brings out the jazz flavor in his music.
I could add a few favorite moments of my own but, as you prepare to listen to this musical program again, I prefer to point to something that humility would prevent Terrier himself from identifying: his own saxophone sound. It’s the mortar that connects and holds these eleven tracks in place—ripe with emotion and jazz history, giddy or gentle depending on the music at hand, with coherence in the stories it tells. For me, the test of musical maturity can be found in how a seasoned musician handles a slower tempo and a basic structure and melodic line. “Simple Song” is that idea played out in a soprano sax-piano duet—so deceptively basic yet so effective in revealing the musical spirit Terrier carries inside.
“As with every album, my first goal is to just document what I do,” Terrier says. “It helps move me forward—sharing the music with the world, and of course, getting work and keeping us in front of the public.” I would add that it also serves to deliver a sense of future promise. Camina Tù (a rough translation would be “start walking” or “get moving”) is ostensibly an album of Cuban jazz; its real story is marking Alex Terrier’s continuing progress as a player, composer, and project-creator of vision.
—Ashley Kahn, April 21, 2019
Recorded at Victoria Records.
Producers: Alex Terrier, Victoria Kühne, Gael Hedding
Executive Producers: Alex Terrier, Eduardo Morales
Audio Engineers: Gael Hedding and Jaime Cavazos
Assistant audio engineers: Marko Zavala
Studio Personnel: Jose Luis Valero, Rafael Sanchez, Ivan Elizondo, Luis Carlos Hernandez
Mixing: Gael Hedding at Sandia Sound
Mastering: Jaime Cavazos
Comfort Logistics Manager: Mar Garcia
Photos and cover: Pepe Molina