Profession: Jazz pianist and composer
Location: Emeryville, California
As a native of Venezuela who first came to the US at the age of 12, how were you first drawn to Buddhism? Maybe 20 years ago I realized that I could try to become the best musician in the world, but it would never truly satisfy me as a human being. I got to a point where I was feeling a great deal of dissatisfaction in my life, and thanks to that, actually, I found my way to Buddhism.
The four immeasurables—lovingkindness, compassion, rejoicing for others’ fortune, and equanimity—were very inspiring for me. You start to spread lovingkindness toward others and acknowledge the fact that we are all seeking the same basic human desire to be happy and free from suffering. It helped me connect on a very basic level with other people and other beings.
How has it influenced your musical career? The way Buddhism began to influence my writing and composing was very unintentional on my part. I realized that if you want to be better at what you do—no matter what that may be—you want to start by being a better human being. Once I found the Buddhist path, I began wanting my music to bring more joy into people’s lives, which I hadn’t been as consciously aware of before. Of course, you can’t expect everyone to like your music; everyone has different tastes. But as we learn in Buddhist practice, intentions are very powerful—if they are good, they’ll have a positive effect on those around you.
Related: Mark Turner’s Musical Middle Way
You’re known for combining jazz and classical genres with Latin American music. How do you do this? What do you take from each genre? For me, musical composition has been developed to the highest degree of sophistication in the classical genre. On the other side, the art of moment-to-moment improvisation has been developed to the highest degree in jazz, where a conversation takes place at a very high level between performers. Over the years, through both playing and analyzing the compositions of great classical composers, you learn how to develop the notational skills in musical form to convey your message in a clear way. When you have both a tune that’s well-written and skilled improvisers, then you have the best of both worlds, classical and jazz. The result is quite wonderful.
“Once I found the Buddhist path, I began wanting my music to bring more joy into people’s lives.”
Latin American music is like the heart: it’s where emotion comes out. The feelings are there and ready, and we let them pour out. In that sense it’s very connected to the body. I’ve also continued to draw from this genre’s sense of rhythm, which, with its African influence, is rich and infectious.
You feel those rhythms with your body as opposed to the intellect? Exactly. Our music in Latin America—particularly in Caribbean nations like Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela—is very much connected to dance; that connection has never really been lost. It was there in the beginning stages of classical music and jazz, but as these genres evolved they developed into something else, and the dance aspect was no longer as important.
Who are some of your musical idols and Buddhist mentors? The Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh continues to inspire me. I’ve learned from his books and had the great opportunity in 2013 to attend a Summer Opening retreat at Plum Village in France, Thich Nhat Hanh’s main center. That was an amazing experience; I don’t even know how to describe it. “Amazing” isn’t the proper word. You just really felt like you were with someone who truly embodied the teaching in every moment.
In music I continue to idolize Miles Davis as well as some of the musicians who surrounded him, like the saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter and the keyboardist and composer Chick Corea. I think Shorter and the pianist Keith Jarrett are two of the greatest jazz improvisers of our time.
Related: Listening to Philip Glass
I’ve heard musicians talk about having out-of-body experiences or states of complete presence while onstage that sound very similar to certain meditation effects. Have you experienced anything like this? Yes, I sure have had experiences like that. One concert comes to mind with the American jazz flutist Herbie Mann. I think this was at a jazz festival in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, when I was in my early twenties. I just remember feeling like the whole self disappeared while I was playing. I felt like I was so connected with the moment and the music that I was one with it; it was like I was not there at all, yet I was fully there. It was very joyous.
Did you try to replicate that experience? Back in those days I would. Every so often we would have a night where everything just flowed naturally and organically and we were all connected as a band. Everything happened exactly as it should have, with a sense of effortlessness. There was the natural tendency to want to replicate that on the following night or in the next concert, but of course it never actually happens. In fact, in the effort of trying to do that, you lose it.
It sounds like a form of attachment to a singular experience, with craving and grasping for more. Absolutely. Over time you learn instead to just let go—to let that evening of music be whatever it’s going to be. But early on it would be a cause of suffering, because I would end up comparing the second or third night to that one night that was so incredible. I’d think, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t like the way I played tonight,” or that the music didn’t sit on the same level. The comparison is really inevitable, particularly in an artist’s early stages of development, but it left me with a bad feeling.
You grow through that stage, though, and you learn that there’s no use in trying to replicate that one night. That one night was then and there, and it’s gone. What’s happening now is what we have here in this set of circumstances; you’d better just make the best out of it.
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