Alexis Cuadrado on Film, Flamenco and Winter Jazzfest

(Photo: Sue Kwon)

This year’s Winter Jazzfest, now in its 15th edition, promises to showcase improvised music across the entire jazz spectrum, along the way issuing a new commitment to gender equity.

The 2019 edition runs Jan. 4-12 at multiple venues in New York and includes a “half-marathon” on Jan. 5 (intended to coincide with the Association of Performing Arts Professionals conference) and closes with its signature event, a two-night marathon on Jan. 11 and 12.

Bassist, composer, producer and Barcelona native Alexis Cuadrado has showcased at Jazzfest in at least five editions of the event since 2012, including three times as a leader. This year, he’s set to present a new live score for the 1916 silent film Shoes, directed by Lois Weber. It’s a follow-up, of sorts, to Cuadrado’s 2018 festival appearance, when he conducted a performance of his original live score for Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant.

In a recent chat with DownBeat, Cuadrado shared how the evolution of his work came to encompass scoring these films, as well as how he developed a flamenco-imbued vision of improvised music.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

This is the second Winter Jazzfest in which you’re presenting a score you composed for a silent film. How did these film projects come about?

I teach at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music here in New York; in 2015, the New School commissioned a live score from me—-they had started a series called “Unsilent Film Nights” and they wanted to have an original score for the 1917 Charlie Chaplin film.

For Shoes, I wanted to do something fairly different. That’s one of my mottos as an artist—whenever I embark on a creative project, I have a hard rule that it has to be significantly different than what I’ve done before. I would like to do a third one next year or in a couple of years—some sort of trilogy. I see it as a global kind of work, with a global theme, which would be social justice.

How did you choose the film for this new score?

I have twin children, and my daughter, she’s been a very gender-conscious child since she was verbal. At some point, when they started coming out to see me play, one day she asked, “Papa, why do you always play with men? Where are the women?” I was like, “Oh dear, you’re so right!”

“Where are the women?” was the question she raised many different times. Like, we would go to Washington D.C., and she’d say, “Where are the monuments for the women?” or “Why are there no construction workers that are women?”

So, Shoes is the story of a woman, and the film is directed by a woman. It’s kind of like a Greek tragedy; the cinematography is unbelievable—it’s a very artsy film. And Lois Weber, who is the director, was a very powerful woman in Hollywood around 1910. It’s been a wonderful experience to learn about her and to learn about this whole other world of female filmmakers that were there at the turn of the 20th century.

I also saw the connection between a story from 100 years ago and what’s happening now. It was a good dialogue through time—like, how much have things changed in 100 years? This element was there in The Immigrant. You see how immigrants are so poorly treated, and here we are almost in 2019, and we see that we have the same issues with the immigration crisis and the Dreamers and the wall and the caravan. That’s what these works are for me—they’re open reflections about how we’re in the same place and yet so much more advanced.

So, connect these newer projects back to your earliest influences.

As a young teenager and a young adult, I was crazy about jazz in a very interesting way; I started backwards, first, listening to “electric” Miles and Weather Report. I saw Miles play in 1989, when I was 18 years old in Barcelona. And then I started pulling the thread back, when I was going to jazz school, playing jazz fusion in the ’90s then switching to playing electric bass to upright bass. Then going through all the more modern jazz and bebop and beyond—and then bouncing back to the more contemporary jazz.

And your musical relationship to flamenco?

I moved to New York in 1999 and started to really get into flamenco music. I had an epiphany moment—like, I really have to crack the code of flamenco music. So, I spent three years actually not writing anything and just studying flamenco music in an almost musicologist kind of way, trying to be very analytical and to understand what the emotional aspect of it was. And why it’s such an intense music and how it has so many relationships to the blues and other folkloric musics, and its relationship with Indian music. And then its relationship with more contemporary minimalist musics.

And then, at that time I received a commissioning grant from Chamber Music America, and I did this project called Noneto Iberico, the recording came out in [2011]. That was like the first statement where I think my voice is more developed—that’s who I am today. So, with all these elements, contemporary classical music and folkloric music, especially flamenco, and all the background in jazz—the intersection of those three things—it’s what really has shaped my voice.

In the last four or five years, I’ve also started to write for a lot of other people. I just wrote a few pieces for Pablo Aslan, an Argentinean bassist who plays tango. I played with Angelique Kidjo’s band for a few years, and then I could see the connection between flamenco rhythms and West African rhythms. I used to play with a lot of Brazilian musicians, and of course Afro-Brazilian music has a lot of African rhythms, and they have a relationship with flamenco rhythms. It’s all these Hispanic and Latin American elements and African elements—there’s this whole circle that goes from India to Latin America through Africa and Spain that is connected. I feel like my music can have a connection to all of that, and with a jazz spirit of improvisation.

So it’s this hybrid thing, it’s what I do. It’s what it’s become. DB

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