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Posts Tagged ‘The Paul Carlon Octet Bio’

How it all began

In the Spring of 2002 I was approached by visual artist Joan Carlon (aka my mom) regarding writing some music as a kind of accompaniment to Where is Home?, a visual art project she had been developing. The project revolved around the themes of immigration and the way it disrupts, reshapes and redirects the lives of people who come to the United States from all over the world. I put together a group, somewhat randomly I have to admit in terms of instrumentation, and recorded the Where is Home? suite in May 2002. The Spirit Calls is one of the movements from the suite. The recording was intended to be played during the exhibition of Where is Home? Over the next couple of years, the project grew into a multimedia performance piece featuring the Octet, Rumbatap dancer/body percussionist Max Pollak, and an installation of tapestries hung onstage around the band. The tapestries, made from long strips of clear vinyl, were painted with testimonials my mother had collected from various immigrants in the Syracuse, NY area describing their experiences, either in leaving their home countries or in adjusting to their new lives in America. Here’s a couple of examples:

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We (the Ocet + Max, with the installation) performed an extended version of Where Is Home? in 2003-2004 at Small’s jazz club and El Taller Latinoamericano in NYC, and at the Delavan Center in Syracuse, NY. As Where is Home? was being developed as a performance piece the Octet also began playing on its own in club and concert settings in New York City. For some time I had been thinking about writing for a group larger than the quartets and quintets I’d primarily been composing for, so once the ball got rolling with the Octet it just seemed to pick up steam.

The Plot Thickens

My early writing for the band involved a combination of original pieces and adaptations of things I’d written for smaller lineups like Grupo los Santos. Over time I moved towards performing material written exclusively for the Octet. I like to include arrangements of other composer’s music as well when something really grabs me, though if we cover another artist’s material I try to reinvent it to give it our own sabor. For the first couple of years of the group’s existence it was more of a side project for me as I went through the process of working different musicians into the group and trying different musical ideas out for the Octet format. I’d been heavily involved in Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music and salsa since the formation of Grupo los Santos in 1998, so those influences were always there in the kind of material I was putting in front of the group. The Cuban influence was present as well in the two-trombone lineup I employed and in the heavy use of the flute. In 2005 I added vocalist Ileana Santamaría to the group as a special guest. Ileana, daughter of the legendary Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría, had been putting together her own group, a timba-influenced, high-energy Latin band that I had the privilege of working with as musical director and saxophonist.

First Recording and Tours

Ileana is a featured guest on the Octet’s 2006 debut CD, Other Tongues, along with my longtime creative collaborator, Max Pollak, and one of my mentors on the tenor saxophone, jazz veteran Buddy Terry. The regular Octet lineup by this time was Dave Ambrosio on acoustic bass, William “Beaver” Bausch on drumset, pianist John Stenger, trombonists Mike Fahie and Ryan Keberle, alto saxophonist/flautist Anton Denner, and trumpeter Dave Smith. The CD was recorded and mixed by a good friend of mine who also happens to be an incredible sound engineer, George Petit. The majority of the songs on this recording are originals; listen to Extraordinary Rendition for a taste of what the band was doing. The only exception to the all-originals format was Billy Strayhorn’s “Smada”, which I reimagined as a combination Cuban danzón/Colombian porro.

Other Tongues Cover

Artwork by Meg Carlon

In conjunction with the release of Other Tongues, we traveled to Hudson, NY and the Hudson Opera House to play our first show outside of New York since performing Where Is Home? in Syracuse in 2004.

HOH octet 1 cropped

The PC Octet featuring Ileana Santamaria at the Hudson Opera House in 2006; photo by Tina Chaden

The HOH has been our home-away-from-home ever since. Less than a year later, we were on the road again, performing in Boston and in several central New York venues. By this time Ileana had left the band, to be replaced with Afro-Caribbean vocalist Christelle Durandy. Christelle brought to the group a familiarity with Cuban rumba and the tradition of improvising coros as well as a deep knowledge of Afro-Cuban Orisha chants and an extremely honed musicality. Her instincts onstage are right on the money and she has a natural charisma and energy. Bassist Edward Perez also became a regular in the group during this time. Over the next couple of years, the group traveled and gigged together, working up material for our next recording, and developing an extraordinary cohesion and group identity. We performed in upstate and central New York, Boston, and Vermont, including gigs at Cornell University, Hunter College in NYC, and at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, NY. These experiences of playing live in front of a variety of audiences, and of traveling together, have been formative ones for the band’s creative core and performance style.

Elliot Spitzer’s Good Works

We’re all aware of how his tenure as governor of New York State came to an end, but I’ll bet you didn’t know this about Elliot Spitzer: without him my Octet’s second CD would not have happened when it did, nor would it have been recorded as well. While he was the Attorney General of the State of New York, Spitzer brought a payola suit against several large music companies; the subsequent settlement payments were used to create the New York State Music Fund, a granting resource used to “benefit the residents of New York State through music education and appreciation programs.” Through the grant-writing efforts of Lesley Tillotson and the Central New York Council for the Arts, my Octet received a generous grant from the NY State Music Fund in support of the Sabor Latino project, which presented a week’s worth of performances in the Utica school districts with my original compositions used as units of study by the program’s teaching artists. Go Elliot!!! The income from the school gigs helped to fund my Octet’s second recording in NYC, and the mixing sessions in Brazil. Say what??? That’s right, Brazil. Remember my good friend and incredible sound engineer George Petit? Well, I brought George in to record our second CD. George arranged for the Octet to record at New York City’s Legacy Studios, one of the finest live rooms in the states. It turns out George was also developing a relationship with Na Cena Studios in São Paulo, Brazil which included him flying down from time to time for recording sessions. George hooked up an amazing deal for mixing time, and I had the necessary grant funds to pay for the deal and an excuse to go to Brazil again. Add Max Pollak’s network to the mix, and voilá! — we had not only mix sessions for the already-tracked Octet tunes, but recording sessions in Brazil for myself and Max to collaborate on a couple of new tracks, and Pollak/Carlon dance/music workshops in Fortaleza and Rio. Gotta love it when the stars align!

RP cover

Artwork by Meg Carlon

Roots Propaganda

Thus was born our second CD, Roots Propaganda. This album featured Christelle and Max as special guests, and included a few more covers than the first one; songs by Baden Powell, Skip James, and Jimmie Cox made the cut, as well as a couple of traditional Yoruban chants. The rumba-driven Backstory features solos from Edward, Ryan, and Dave Smith, as well as a soulful vocal from Christelle. Launched in August 2008, we had a great run with Roots Propaganda; it garnered stellar reviews as well as airplay around the country, including on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. In August we played one of our biggest shows to date, as guests of Max Pollak’s Rumbatap at Summerstage in New York’s Central Park. In October we toured again, this time hitting Springstep in Medford, MA; the Vermont Arts Exchange in North Bennington, VT; and the Hudson Opera House in Hudson, NY.

Fall '08 Tour collage flattened

And to top it off, on election night 2008, my sister called me to tell me she’d heard Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, from Roots Propaganda, being played on NPR as an interlude between interviews with voters leaving the polls.

Recent Happenings: Hawaii and Japan

More recently I’ve been writing material for the Octet’s next recording. I’m mulling over several ideas for themes for the project; actually there’s at least three different CDs I can see myself wanting to record: the first is a Billy Strayhorn tribute record, the second a tribute to Baden Powell, and the third involves music based on experiences my father had as a U.S. Marine fighting in the Korean War. A fourth idea would combine some elements of all of these as well as other new music I’m working on, which would make it more like the Octet’s first two releases. I’m open to suggestions on this, so feel free to comment below!

Most recently I took the Octet book with me to Oahu and for the first time played an Octet gig without my New York regulars. On October 14th, 2009, the Honolulu edition of the Paul Carlon Octet took the stage at Gordon Biersch beneath the Aloha Tower, and in a beautiful setting right on the water we shared some New York Afro-Latin sounds with an amazing and appreciative Hawaiian audience. Click here to go to my blog about the Hawaii trip.

And hot off the presses is this news: Clave 66, a track from Other Tongues, will be included on a Japanese compilation CD called Samba do Mar, to be released by Mar Creation in the fall of 2009.

The Paul Carlon Octet: Personnel

Though various musicians have performed with the group, I’ve been extremely fortunate in maintaining a stable lineup of some of New York’s finest jazz musicians for the last four or five years. Drummer William “Beaver” Bausch and trumpeter Dave Smith are both founding members, holdovers from the original Where is Home? suite recording. The rest of the Octet’s current lineup includes pianist John Stenger, bassist Edward Perez, trombonists Mike Fahie and Ryan Keberle, alto saxophonist/flautist Anton Denner, and vocalist Christelle Durandy.

PC Octet drawing

Artwork by Meg Carlon

Our next show: This Thursday October 29th at Drom in NYC as part of The Deep End!

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