Felipe Salles’ ‘Home Is Here’ Draws Inspiration from Immigrant Improvisers

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Salles says his music “is a combination of being from Brazil and living in the U.S. as an immigrant.”

(Photo: Courtesy felipesalles.com)

Like most composers of programmatic music, Felipe Salles based his first big band album — the well-received 2018 release The Lullaby Project And Other Works For Large Jazz Ensemble (Tapestry) — on personal experience. But in conceiving and executing its widely praised 2020 followup, The New Immigrant Experience, and this year’s Home Is Here, Salles drew inspiration from the testimonies of others.

To be specific, on New Immigrant Experience, the 50-year-old São Paulo-born saxophonist-composer scored nine works for his 19-piece Interconnections Ensemble around five-minute video testimonies culled from long interviews with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients about their lives and aspirations. For Home Is Here, which features the same band, he spoke with eight distinguished improvisers, each a U.S.-based immigrant (Paquito D’Rivera, Melissa Aldana, Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Yosvany Terry, Nadje Noordhuis, Chico Pinheiro, Sofia Rei and Magos Herrera), creating bespoke pieces from the conversations.

“I talked to Felipe about my path to moving to the U.S. and my difficulties adjusting to the culture — even the musical culture — but also my love for travel and adventure,” said trumpeter Noordhuis (from Sydney, Australia) of the chat that gestated “Wanderlust,” her feature on Home Is Here. “I love rock and metal, and he incorporated a bunch of those influences. When I heard it, I thought, ‘This is awesome.’”

Herself a regular member of the orchestras of Darcy James Argue and Maria Schneider, Noordhuis noted Salles’ ability “to move seamlessly from section to section, and change up the feel — the time signature or the groove — in a very natural way.” She continued: “He voices instruments melodically and emphasizes polyrhythms and countermelodies, so there’s a lot going on, but it’s not too much for the ears to grasp. I would be surprised if he wrote anything in 4/4 for 16 bars. It’s got to have a little flavor: a bar of 2, or a brief line that leads into another section in a different time signature. But he isn’t swapping around time signatures for the sake of it. It’s always to serve a musical purpose.”

Tenor saxophonist Schwarz-Bart — a native of Guadeloupe who frequently interacted with Salles in Boston during the ’90s, when he attended Berklee and Salles attended New England Conservatory — solos on “Polymorphous.” “I spoke to Felipe about the need to accept and embrace transformation and all the hidden gems we have within us, and letting them reveal themselves and speak in a polymorphous way, in symbiosis, with one aspect reinforcing the other,” Schwarz-Bart said. “He translated the concept with a rotating theme over the bar line that obscures where the downbeat is, and a chord progression that never settles on a tonal center. He exploited the concept of multiple angles and multidimensionality in a manner that takes the listener through a journey, and creates interesting moments of interaction between soloist and orchestra. He knows that people on the scene tend to not give you that many chances, especially when you speak English with an accent. So you have to be able to do a lot of different things in order to sustain living — really, just to be seen.

“To me, Felipe’s music is truly a beacon that is open to all that humanity has to offer. I can hear classical music. I hear South American music. I hear jazz. I hear African music. It’s blended very harmoniously and effortlessly, with a lot of emotion and expression. The writing is flawless. I’ve followed his work over the years, and when he called me, I said yes before he finished his phrase.”

Veteran Havana-born maestro Paquito D’Rivera, who uncorks inspired clarinet and alto saxophone solos on “Re-Invention,” cosigned Schwartz-Bart’s sentiment. “I was honored when Felipe called, because he is such a great writer,” D’Rivera said. They met at a 2017 concert by D’Rivera’s quintet in Northampton, Massachusetts (where Salles is Professor of Jazz and African-American Music Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, his employer since 2010), when Salles, backstage to greet his friends in the band, gave the leader a CD of The Lullaby Project. D’Rivera listened and responded with a Facebook post that he’d enjoy doing a collaboration. His remark, “I don’t worry, because we’re jazz musicians, and we have an ability to re-invent ourselves,” inspired the song title. “What Felipe proposed in the theme was inspiring and easy to answer, like a dramatic or complicated narrative that gives you enough material to respond,” D’Rivera said. “It was very rhythmically and harmonically creative. Felipe has internalized the philosophy that jazz, originated mainly by African-American musicians, is a multinational language because it comes from a multinational country.”

Salles was experiencing what he calls his “immigrant midlife crisis” when he began to conceptualize The Lullaby Project in 2016. “I realized I’d spent more time in the U.S. than in my own country,” he said. We spoke on the shaded patio of the Juma Opera Hotel in Manaus, the equatorial capital city of the State of Amazonas, which sits 1,500 miles up the Amazon River and adjacent to Brazil’s immense rain forest, 2,400 miles northwest of his birthplace. Across the street stands Teatro Amazonas, the four-tiered, 800-seat, 127-year-old French Revival opera house where the government-sponsored 2023 edition of the Amazonas Green Jazz Festival transpired during the last 10 days of July.

Salles, who’d taught a three-week class on improvisation in Manaus in 2022, was there to play reductions of repertoire from Home Is Here with a sextet, sharing the front line with Noordhuis and trombonist Natalie Cressman, propelled by the Boston-based rhythm section of pianist Nando Michelin, bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa and drummer Bertram Lehmann that plays on all three of his big band albums. As the week progressed, Salles presented another five numbers culled from different points along his timeline with the world-class Amazonas Big Band. He admirably fulfilled the Michael Brecker function on a Randy Brecker-fronted program of Brecker hits fueled by the band’s distinctive samba-funk groove. He subbed for the regular alto saxophonist in Ellen Rowe’s Momentum Octet, eliciting a bright David Sanbornish tone on a borrowed horn.

“I decided to extricate himself from my identity crisis through somehow turning it into art,” Salles continued. Towards that end, he decided to interrogate the lullabies that his first-generation Brazilian mother sang to him, that his Ukrainian immigrant grandmother sang to her and that he, in turn, was singing to his two small children. “Then I thought about how to celebrate this journey musically, how to transform something so rooted in African and Portuguese traditions into modern big band writing. That opened me up to looking at my music, which is a combination of being from Brazil and living in the U.S. studying this, as an immigrant.”

As Salles composed, rehearsed and recorded those pieces, radical anti-immigration forces were permeating the U.S. body politic through the Presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump. “I didn’t know how to explain all this rhetoric to my children,” said Salles, who had become a U.S. citizen. “I’m just a musician. What can I do?” He remembered an old friend, a classical pianist he knew from postgraduate years at Manhattan School of Music in the middle ’00s. “She was the original Dreamer: the person who wrote Senator [Richard] Durbin a letter asking him to help the undocumented people born in the U.S. who are in this limbo,” Salles said. He asked her blessing for an extended work based on testimonies of different DACA recipients, and applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship to pull it off.

In April 2018, Salles received a $50,000 Guggenheim stipend. He hired a producer to find and coordinate interviews with Dreamers of various ethnicities and nationalities, and a small crew to film and help him edit the interviews that are the core of The New Immigrant Experience. “Parts of the pieces are based on words and people’s names,” Salles said. “I have a system to connect letters and pitches as seeding for harmonies and melodies. Certain rhythms and tempos and even melodies come from speech patterns. I grew up listening to Hermeto Pascoal do that.”

The New Immigrant Experience, which received a 4½-star DownBeat review, was released just in time for the COVID-19 lockdown. “All our album release concerts were cancelled,” Salles said.

While pondering his next project, he recalled his interaction with D’Rivera. “I called Paquito about the idea, and asked if it would interest him to be interviewed,” Salles said. “We had several Zoom conversations about his experiences, how ending up in the U.S. shaped his musicianship. He’s played classical music, tangos, Brazilian music, Cuban music, jazz. So the idea of reinvention triggered this idea to take a motif and make it sound like a Bach Invention, then moving that motif through all the different styles that Paquito has played in his life to create a suite. That little motif starts as almost a classical piece, then goes into a weird tango-ish thing, then into a Brazilian thing, then becomes a salsa vibe, then explodes into these almost contemporary classical harmonies, and then back into an almost Baroque thing. As a joke, I put a Picardy-third resolution at the end, just like Bach would do it.”

Meanwhile, Salles continued: “I started thinking of musicians I love and respect who are immigrants I want to write music for and know more about their experience. We all live here, and had different experiences in getting to the point of being citizens or residents. I’ve always had a sort of anthropological curiosity about things. So, again, I decided to interview them and write music based on what they told me.”

As an example, Salles recounted his conversation with Magos Herrera, who generates inspired vocalese on “Two Worlds Together.” “We spoke about the constant dialogue involved in being from two different places,” Salles said. “Magos said, ‘I have learned to be Mexican and New Yorker; it’s like there are two worlds together.’ Then I looked into the notes I wanted to assign for her name. The first thing that came out was a tritone, from which I built her whole piece. The melody is quite weird if you listen to it separate from the harmony, but the harmony makes it all sound less weird and more emotional.”

I asked Salles how he would describe his aesthetics and intentions when he applies for his next sizable grant. “I’m a Brazilian musician who deeply studied jazz, who loves classical music and also studied the modern classical tradition, but also got a chance in New York and Boston to experience all these different, incredible musics from around the world with Argentinian musicians, with African musicians, with musicians from all over Latin America, Cuba — and, of course, from Brazil. I even played classical stuff. All these elements that I experienced as a player inform my music into this very pan-American thing. That would never have happened anywhere else. I wouldn’t have written the music I write now if I had stayed in Brazil.”

His next project? “I have some ideas,” Salles said. “I want to write something connecting a jazz quartet with a chamber group with strings and woodwinds. I’ve been hearing that sound in my head for a long time. But it takes a little courage — and funding. Normally I have the idea, and it brews and brews, then I look for funding. And the funding happens — boom — and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God; now I have to start writing.’ I write the music when I can’t run from the project anymore.

“This chamber project is a bit more philosophical and less political. We’re in a really complicated place, where people have completely lost perspective and cannot talk to each other. So I’m thinking of different ways to show perspective through music. For example, there’s the perspective of putting yourself in somebody else’s place. But there’s also perspective in taking a picture or painting a painting. It’s not all clear to me yet, but I have some ideas to explore.” DB



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