The Miles Davis of mariachi | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The Miles Davis of mariachi 

A conversation with Calexico's Jacob Valenzuela

Tucson-based Calexico have been boldly blending jazz and alt-Latin sounds into the international indie rock scene since 1996. That makes all the sense in the world, since co-founders John Convertino and Joey Burns had previously joined forces in Giant Sand and Friends of Dean Martinez, two alt-country bands with a southwestern feel. On Calexico's 1998 Europe tour, they even brought a hometown mariachi band to back them up--Mariachi Luz de Luna, led by their good friend Ruben Moreno. That tour eventually led to the permanent addition of their own "mariachi Miles Davis" to the band: a young, gifted trumpet player studying with Ruben at the time named Jacob Valenzuela. Valenzuela became the first Latino (not counting Convertino's half-Italian ancestry) in the band, but you wouldn't know it to listen to their records, which have always played with the rhythms of Mexican ranchera and son jarocho, as well as country, rock and jazz.

Calexico will be at Cat's Cradle Wednesday, Oct. 15 promoting their latest Quarterstick release, Feast of Wire.

Reached by phone while on tour in Canada, singer and guitarist Burns says about the origins of Calexico's Latin-flavored eclecticism: "It strikes a chord in me. My parents would always bring records back from their trips to Mexico or down to New Orleans, and moving to Tucson from Los Angeles made a big impact on me. I started noticing a lot of similarities between mariachi and some of the spaghetti western music that Ennio Morricone had made, and music from Europe, like Portuguese Fado, or Spanish flamenco. You can see this progression as people made this journey out west in South America and North America; they brought these different influences with them. I'm interested in that kind of ethnomusicology and world music, and finding that at home in the music around me."

Then Burns handed the phone to Jacob Valenzuela (as their tour bus passed some spectacular waterfalls in Quebec) for this recent interview from the road.

The Independent: Tell me about your musical background.

Jacob Valenzuela: When I was younger I joined this small Tex-Mex band from a local Spanish church that I used to attend. Eventually I ventured into jazz and classical. I love jazz a lot and studied that all throughout high school and at the University of Arizona. My latter years of college I really started getting into mariachi, and I've been immersed in that quite a bit. It's a different art form and style in itself. It's a whole new way of playing trumpet.

What's the difference between jazz and mariachi trumpet playing?

There's a lot, as far as your approach to the horn, what you're trying to get across, and your ideas and everything. Even in mariachi there's improvisation, but there's a certain way of doing it. I couldn't do the same kind of mariachi improvising that I would do in jazz; it wouldn't fit, so stylistically there's those differences. And also playing trumpet is the way you act, the way you use your tongue and your lips and your breath, and all that makes that mariachi sound. With jazz it's different, you're not required to cut the notes so short, or have such a wide vibrato, and all these little nuances of how players acquire a certain sound.

In Calexico, do you switch back and forth, or do you blend those two styles together?

It's all about blending. If the song is very Spanish-sounding and has minor chords, then you approach it with more of a mariachi attitude. But a lot of the songs allow for improvisation and putting in your own ideas, so then you add your own twist to it. Sometimes you might decide to put a jazz lick, even though it is a mariachi or Spanish-sounding tune. It depends, really, on each song.

What records do you listen to and how has that influenced your playing?

Lately I've been listening to a lot of Rock en Espanol, a lot of Cafe Tacuba and Control Machete. One of my favorite bands is Manu Chao. For a long time I would listen to Cuban music, or salsa, like Irakere, Afro-Cuban All Stars, Buena Vista Social Club, Ruben Blades, Arturo Sandoval. When there were groups in town, sometimes they'd allow me to sit in with them and I would just blow over some changes and do some solos, it felt so natural and so comfortable, and I always wondered where that came from. Calexico in a way offered me that as well, I can do jazz and also perform a little bit of the Latin jazz influences.

"Valenzuela" was also the real name of Ritchie Valens, the first Latino to make it in rock. Have you thought about that coincidence at all?

I remember thinking when I'd seen the movie La Bamba that I didn't know that was his name, and then I realized that he had changed his name. That was kind of funny to me. Now, I think, you realize where your family's from and your roots and your culture. That's who I am, that's my name. I don't think I'd ever want to change that. EndBlock

Slyvia Pfeiffenberger can be reached at spike@duke.edu.

  • A conversation with Calexico's Jacob Valenzuela

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