In Conversation with Saxophonist, Composer, Arranger Mercedes Figueras

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1908

From Buenos Aires to Nueva York

Interview conducted by Tomas Peña, October 2010

“If you really want to find a new and exciting saxophonist Figueras is a young musician ready to be discovered.” Doug Simpson, Audiophile Edition (October, 2010)

Introduction: Not long ago I received a promotional copy of the Black Butterflies debut recording in the mail. Intrigued by the striking cover-art, I downloaded the music onto my iPod and listened to the music on the way to and from work. Though I had never heard of the band, nor was I familiar with the artists, the music swept over me like a breath of fresh air. Shortly thereafter I contacted Mercedes Figueras via email and paid her my respects, which led to an exchange of emails and a meeting at a local “Starbuck’s” in Manhattan.

When Mercedes and I met in person the first thought that crossed my mind was, “How is such a small person capable of producing such a LARGE sound?” During the course of my conversation with Mercedes I received the answer to that and many other questions about her life and music. As a music journalist, it gives me great pleasure to lend my support to exceptional new artists who are “under the radar.” Meet Mercedes Figueras and the Black Butterflies, a fresh crop of artists who (I predict) you are going to be hearing a lot from in the years to come.

TP: You were born in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

MF: Yes.

TP: Are there any musicians in your family?

MF: No, my family is not musical, however, my brother and sister liked to sing. My sister took singing lessons.

TP: What prompted you to become a musician, more specifically a saxophonist?

MF: When I was about twelve I taught myself to play the guitar by ear. In the building where I lived there was a guy who played the piano and the saxophone. My sister used to go with his mother to take singing lessons. He didn’t know how to play the guitar, but he offered to teach me the piano or the saxophone. When I saw his saxophone I thought to myself, “Wow! That’s what I want to play!” He played the tenor, but he decided that I should play the alto because I was small and thin. When I asked my parents to buy me a saxophone my father predicted that I would give up in a month. Thankfully, my mother convinced him otherwise. After that I became very serious about learning the saxophone and I enrolled at the Berklee School of Music (Argentina).

TP: At the time how old were you?

MF: I was thirteen or fourteen years old. That’s where I met my mentor, Carlos Lastra, who asked me, “What do you want to learn?” I told him I wanted to improvise!

TP: Like a jazz artist, though I am assuming that you had little to no knowledge of jazz at the time.

MF: To me jazz was Frank Sinatra! Then Carlos gave me a copy of ‘The Very Best of John Coltrane’ and said, “Listen to this.” I listened to that recording so much that I can still sing (and remember) Coltrane’s solos, note for note.

TP: What attracted you to Coltrane’s music?

MF: Mainly his sound.

TP: One of the things that attracted me to the Black Butterflies is your sound. How did you develop such a distinctive sound?

MF: Carlos always told me that sound was the most important thing and I built my sound around that idea. When I perform, record or am in any kind of musical situation I just play myself. I play who I am, I don’t try to impress, I play my heart. In answer to your question, I don’t really know how my sound developed. Perhaps it is because I felt that I could not compete with the great musicians of the past, or even with many of the musicians of today, so the best way to go was for me to be myself. It is my art, my thing and some will like it more than others, but the fact is I am being true to myself.

TP: Getting back to your early years at the Berklee School of Music …

MF: When I started at the Berklee School of Music I listened to and analyzed a lot of jazz standards, however, I did not have a point of reference. I remember buying a Charlie Parker album and thinking to myself, “What do people see in this guy? He’s crazy!”

TP: Byrd was crazy. Crazy like a fox! Who else did you listen to?

MF: Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, Jackie Mc Lean, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus among others, but Coltrane is my main influence.

TP: After you graduated from Berklee you enrolled at El Conservatorio Nacional (Buenos Aires) where you studied classical music for four years. Subsequently you made your way to New York.

MF: In 2007 I visited New York. That’s where I was lucky enough to meet and perform with Wynton Marsalis at a party in the Hamptons. It was a great experience. The same year I produced and recorded my first album, Elefante (Elephant) with drummer, Martin Visconti.

TP: Tell me about “Elefante.”

MF: The recording consists of eleven free improvisations, all recorded in one take. The arrangements depart from a particular rhythm or melodic line. Martin and I developed our sound by rehearsing three to four days per week for a couple of years and I decided to document what we were doing at that moment. Thankfully, we had a lot of help with the recording, mastering, CD design and website.

TP: How was the recording received?

MF: Pretty good, but free jazz is not the kind of music that everyone understands. You really have to be into that kind of music to appreciate it.

TP: Tell me about the creation of the Black Butterflies.

MF: The process was organic. I met drummer, Kenny Wollesen, through saxophonist, David Binney. Kenny and I lived in the same apartment building on the West Side of Manhattan. When Kenny learned that I was a musician we became friendly. I gave him a copy of “Elefante” and he invited me to perform with the marching band, the Himalayas.

TP: I read that the band is made up of some of New York’s finest musicians.

MF: Yes, it’s a very cool band and their songbook is filled with compositions by some of New York’s most brilliant musicians: Frisell, Zorn, Bernstein Apfelbaum, Wilson, Mottel, Wieselman, etc.

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TP: You also performed with The Dramatics.

MF: Yes. Their music is Afrobeat (but not Fela). I performed with them for about a year and a half.

TP: There is a cool video of you performing with the Dramatics in the subway (see You Tube, Keyword: Mercedes Figueras). Where exactly did you perform?

MF: 42nd Street, Penn Station, Union Square … all over.

TP: Welcome to the “real” New York!

MF: I met saxophonist, Tony Larokko while playing with Martin (Visconti) in the subway. He saw us playing and he offered me a gig.

TP: Tell me about Tony.

MF: He has been everywhere. He teaches high school and has worked with (drummer, educator, acupuncturist, martial artist and shaman) Milford Graves.

TP: And the other band members?

MF: There is percussionists Fred Berryhill and Bopa “King” Carre; Nick Gianni, upright bass, he is a great musician, multi-instrumentalist (he plays saxes flute, piano); drummer Kenny Wollesen and keyboardist Levi Barcourt (keyboardist, Dan Tepfer appears on the recording).

TP: I am quoting directly from your press-release: “The Black Butterflies are individuals who come together from different cultural, ethnical and geological backgrounds, brought together by spirit to elevate the listener to a higher plain.”

MF: In the past music was communal. It was a healing source and it brought people together. Today it seems that the importance of music and culture has lost its value in our society. So that is also part of our message. When we perform we try to create a communal feeling, generate good vibes and get people together.

TP: In your experience, does the audience get it?

MF: I think so. The album has a little bit of everything, something for everyone. Depending on the listener’s mood or state of mind they can listen to a wide variety of music: Latin music, jazz, Latin American, African and Chinese rhythms, experimental music, chants.

As Professor Robert Farris Thompson wrote in his acknowledgements for the book: “Flash of the Spirit – African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy:” “One tree cannot make a forest.”

TP: Tell me about the making of “1 de Mayo.”

MF: Everything was recorded in one take. Actually, we did two takes of “1 de Mayo” but the first take made the final cut. The idea was to keep the music “fresh.”

TP: I like your interpretation of “Afro Blue.” One reviewer commented that the saxophones sounds strikingly similar to the exchange between Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. That’s quite a compliment.

MF: We performed that tune a lot with Tony and created a version that we liked and felt comfortable playing. Also, it is a tribute to John Coltrane. I love his version of Afro Blue.

TP: Another great track is the soulful “Pipi’s Blues.”

MF: When I composed “Pipi’s Blues” I was thinking about the recording as a whole. I knew that at some point in the story I had to include the blues. As I mentioned previously, I had the opportunity to meet Wynton Marsalis in the Hamptons. I gave him a copy of “Elefante” and he contacted me while I was in Argentina. When I came to New York I visited with him a couple of times. In between his writing (composing) and running back and forth to the piano we talked a lot. He gave me a lot of encouragement and I learned a lot from him by watching the way he moves. He is such a great musician, such a great person and he always repeated to me, “It’s all about the blues!”

TP: And “1 de Mayo?”

MF: This was the first tune I chose to record. It was written by Richard Marriot, a great friend and composer who I met while playing with the Himalayas. I chose the tune because it is a Tango and it reminded me a lot of home. Also, I have a lot of admiration for Richard as a composer and artist. Also, I just happened to get married on the 1st of May, so when the time came to pick a name for the recording I chose “1 de Mayo.” Actually, the title has a lot of meanings, not just for me but also for the listener. The title can be interpreted in many ways, however, the listener can interpret it any they choose and create their own story.

TP: Conceptually “Yah Yah” goes even further. The track begins with whistles and a wide range of percussion then segues into African chants, vocals and scorching saxophones. Although you recorded the album in a studio, it feels like a live recording.

MF: The first time Tony invited me to a gig we performed this tune and I found it so interesting. At one point everyone was chanting and we each took a (vocal) solo. When my turn came I was very nervous, however, I jumped in and sang the chorus of a Bolivian Huayno followed by the Tango “Volver.” I never imagined that I was capable of doing that but in the end it sounded great. Wynton had a hand in this, as he insisted that I sing for him. At first I refused but eventually I gave in and sang a Tango. Afterwards, he told me I had a nice voice and in the process I actually discovered that I could sing. Tony liked the fact that my singing added a feminine part (to the composition) so it all worked out perfectly.

TP: The recording closes with “Music Heals all Wounds.”

MF: I wrote it with a gospel feel in mind. Also, I thought that the story should end with a ballad.

TP: What is the band’s message?

MF: The purpose of the album is to have the listeners accept it as their own, imagine what they want to imagine and go wherever they want to go. That’s what I do when I listen to my favorite albums and depending on the mood I am in or how I am feeling at the time, it always feels different.

TP: Tell me about your relationship with Gato Barbieri.

MF: Gato is a friend. I am very good friends with his wife (Laura) and son. One of the reasons I came to New York was because Laura invited me to participate in a documentary about Gato’s life, which I did. It was an honor.

TP: What is your take on the current New York jazz scene?

MF: I think the jazz scene in New York is happening. If you really want to accomplish something the possibilities are there. I would really love to play at places like “Small’s,” the “Jazz Gallery” and the “Blue Note” but it is hard to get gigs if you don’t have a big name. I am focusing my efforts on bookings, jazz festivals and teaching opportunities.

TP: What’s in the future for the Black Butterflies?

MF: We recently performed at “Nublu” (New York) and “Dreams” (Rosedale, New York) and we are looking forward to performing at other venues. Right now I am focusing on getting gigs at jazz festivals and colleges. In terms of future recordings, I really don’t know what’s next. We want to keep introducing new music. When the day comes, depending on how we feel and the story we want to tell, it will happen. I don’t like to think things out in advance. I prefer to go where life takes me. Sometimes unexpected factors intervene and take you in an entirely different direction.

TP: As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you are making other plans.” Given the enthusiastic reviews and the buzz surrounding the recording, I have no doubt that we are going to be hearing a lot from you in the future.

For Additional Information on Mercedes Figueras and the Black Butterflies visit www.theblackbutterflies.com

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