Author: by Dr. Juan Álamo
Back home in Puerto Rico in the early 1990s, I used to listen to a jazz radio show called “En Clave de Jazz” where the DJ played music by artists such as Tito Puente, Cal Tjader and Bobby Hutcherson. It was through that program that I discover the marimba! At the time, I had no idea what that instrument was or where I could learn it but I immediately felt in love with its sound. Then in 1994, I started taking marimba lessons at the Escuela Libre de Música in Caguas, Puerto Rico; from there I went to the Puerto Rico Music Conservatory and eventually to the University of North Texas. It was at North Texas, where in addition to my classical percussion studies I also started studying jazz improvisation. Furthermore, it was around this time that I started to lay the groundwork for my Marimjazzia project.
Marimjazzia is a hybrid musical concept in which I am constantly experimenting and blending the different musical traditions that I have studied and performed through my career: Latin music, classical music, contemporary classical marimba music and jazz. My goal is to find new musical possibilities, combinations and structures through which I can build my own musical sound, style/identity. It is also a project through which I aim to foster an awareness and appreciation for the marimba as a solo instrument in jazz. Even though it is very common nowadays to hear a marimba in movies, documentaries, commercials and even ringtones, most people don’t know the instrument or confused it with a xylophone or a vibraphone. Additionally, contrary to the vibraphone, the marimba is not as popular or well known in jazz.
The origin of the marimba comes from the African Balafone. However, its development into a chromatic concert keyboard took place in Latin America and then the United States between the late 1800’s and early 1900s. Contrary to the xylophone, the marimba has a much lower and resonant sound and a larger range (5 octaves). Also, contrary to the vibraphone, the marimba does not have a pedal or motor and its keyboard is made out of rosewood instead of metal.
In 2012, I moved to North Carolina to start my tenure at UNC Chapel Hill as a music professor. Since my arrival at the Triangle area, I have been very active as a classical marimba soloist and with my jazz quintet. I have presented master classes and concerts at public schools, universities, private events, hotels, jazz clubs, jazz festivals, percussion festivals, radio and TV shows. With my quintet, I perform regularly at local jazz clubs such as Sharp 9 Galley and Irregardless Café and music festivals. In addition to that, I have also traveled to South and Central America, the Caribbean and Europe to present concerts and master classes at prestigious universities, music conservatories and music festivals.
In the fall of 2013, I went to the Sound Pure Studios in Durham to record the music I have been developing since my time at North Texas. The album was called Marimjazzia and contained a mixture of jazz standards and original compositions in which I combine different musical traditions, styles and concepts. For instance, in my composition Memories of an Unforgettable Love (based on the Latin standard Besame Mucho), one can hear the influence of Japanese marimbist and composer Keiko Abe – there are some references to her composition Marimba D’ Amore. I also used flamenco rhythms and techniques (hand claps & foot stomps), Brazilian rhythms, as well as blues and jazz. Finally, in the accompaniment (performed by the UNC percussion ensemble) you will hear a wide range of instruments from the symphonic tradition (timpani, glock, snare drum etc.) and the world percussion tradition (pandeiro, surdo, bongos etc.). The audio for that piece is available here:
In the fall of 2015, I decided to expand the concept of Marimjazzia and turn it into a Latin jazz quintet: marimba, piano, bass, drum set and percussion. This new configuration enabled me to take my music in a new direction and to write compositions with more complex harmonic, rhythmic and melodic structures. For instance, I wrote pieces in which I mixed Puerto Rican folk music (Plena & Aguinaldo) with jazz harmonies or used classical music compositional techniques like counterpoint in conjunction with an Afro-Puerto Rican rhythm called Yuba. I also wrote cadenzas in which I incorporated concepts from the classical contemporary marimba music repertoire. Additionally, I wrote lyrics allusive to the socio-political crisis that the people of Puerto Rico have endured during the last decade. These ideas formed the basis of my 2019 album Ruta Panoramica (Panoramic Route). The album has been listed in the top fifty jazz CD’s charts as one of the most played on radio for the past four weeks.
In addition to my project Marimjazzia, I have also continued to present classical music recitals nationally and internationally. In fact, this past July I went to Cali, Colombia to perform the premiere of a concerto for marimba, percussion and orchestra that was for me written by my UNC colleague Dr. Steve Anderson. The piece was premiered at the Tamborimba International Percussion Festival with the Cali Philharmonic Orchestra. I will be playing this piece with the UNC symphony orchestra on April 23, 2020 and part of UNC Festival on the Hill. Here is the video of the concert in Colombia:
If you want to hear us live, please come and join us on October 29th at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History – 150 South Rd Chapel Hill, N.C. 27599. We will be playing the music of my latest album Ruta Panoramica. The concert starts at 8 p.m. Free.
About the Author
Juan Álamo is an internationally known performer, composer, and educator. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, and Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees with Jazz as related field from the University of North Texas. He is an Associate Proffesor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Music.
Originally from Cidra, Puerto Rico, Dr. Álamo has presented solo recitals at universities and percussion and jazz festivals throughout the United States, Europe, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. He has been featured as a soloist and with Jazz ensembles in television and radio shows in Puerto Rico, México, Venezuela and the United States.
Dr. Álamo has recorded and shared the stage performing in collaboration with renowned artists such as Keiko Abe, William Cahn, Ney Rosauro, Orlando Cotto, Steve Shick, Tito Puente, John Wooton, Dave Samuels, Michael Spiro, Alfredo Naranjo, and Ted Piltzecker. He has performed and recorded with the San Juan Pops and played the classical orchestral repertoire with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra.
More information about Dr. Álamo’s artistic career, compositions, recordings and performance schedule is available at www.juanalamo.com.