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One on One with Drummer, Composer, Educator Marlon Simon

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Drummer, composer, educator Marlon Simon

DN: Hi Marlon, welcome back to the musical scene, we at latinjazznet.com are very excited about your return and avid to know more about your upcoming projects. At the same time, we’d like to share your thoughts with our followers. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

MS: Greetings Danilo, I hope this message find you well and in good spirits. First of all I would like to thank you and the entire team at latinjazznet.com for the opportunity and all your support towards the Latin Jazz fans and musicians. I believe you do a great job for a good cause. Yes, after some years away from the music scene I feel ready to come back. I say ready because I have learned through the years that to keep the clarity of our intentions on any field, sometimes we need to distance ourselves from the daily life routine and do some internal search. I believe this is due to the fact that we do not live in the right environment as humans, this is causing much discomfort and suffering nowadays in our society. Keep in mind that this is my personal point of view, I cannot speak for everybody. Most people “go with the wind” without hesitation and are pleased to do that because that’s all they need to go through life. However, when you are able to reach a point that allows you to perceive above all mental patterns, society rules, ideologies and belief systems, only then, you realize that “every human, every town, every country and the entire universe is exactly where it needs to be at in its evolution process”. With that said I can say that I am now ready for a fresh return to the scene with new musical ideas and concepts that are coming to my mind at this time. I am writing new music that includes a wide spectrum of styles. If we need to label it, it will be a blend of elements of classical musical, African rhythms and Jazz improvisation.

Drummer, Composer, Educator Marlon Simon
Drummer, Composer, Educator Marlon Simon

First of all, tell me about your band The Nagual Spirits, with which you recorded several albums. It was a tremendous ensemble, with top notch artists, masters of their instruments and experienced, seasoned performers.

After working as a side man with various Latin Jazz artists that I feel I should mention, not to build a resume but to let you know that all of them in a way helped me discover The Nagual Spirits. I say this because I feel that artists like Hilton Ruiz, Jerry González, Charles Fambrough and Bobby Watson among others had an influence on me towards awakening the initial desire to do my own project. Please allow me to elaborate more on this. As a side man, you have the responsibility to give the leaders what they want plus, and most important, the essence of what you have to offer to contribute to their music, and during that process you come to mature and perceive that there is part of you that need to erupt musically, that is who you are in essence and when you reach that point you need to create your own musical project. It is a process that includes the performing for others that moves you. That’s how The Nagual Spirits was born in 1997. Yes, my first record came out in 1998 for the K-jazz record company. It was after a recording with Charles Fambrough where I was able to give some positive input to improve the session that Dennis Sheppard, the executive director came to me one day and said, Marlon…. you should make your own record. I had just obtained my BA in Jazz and contemporary music and had some fresh musical ideas in my mind. So, I surrounded myself with some of the musicians that moved my spirit when I heard them play, like Bobby Watson, Brian Lynch, Jerry González, John Stubblefield and my brother Edward Simon, giving birth to my first record, The Music of Marlon Simon and the Nagual Spirits. It was a learning experience for me… I did the best I could with the tools I had at that time. This record was the seed that planted what later on became the core group of The Nagual Spirits. I believe the universe is always moving towards perfection attracting people that share a common frequency. The following musicians are an example of the result of what can be accomplished when you become conscious of what is important and what is not. These musicians sacrificed many things, they were there for me for the sake of music and nothing else, and I am always grateful for their contribution to The Nagual Spirits message.

YouTube Audio – Heidy – The Music of Marlon Simon and the Nagual Spirits

Who were the members of The Nagual Spirits when you formed the band?

Tenor Saxophonist Peter Brainin, one of the most important Jazz musicians in the New York scene for the past 30 years. Trumpeter Alex Norris, he will play anything you put in front of him with the highest level of maturity. Pianist Edward Simon, brother Edward has his own voice that was discovered by Kevin Eubanks and Bobby Watson at an early age, making since then a huge contribution to Jazz music, as a sideman and leader. Pianist Luis Perdomo, another example of what I call natural talent, in full command of his instrument in all aspects. Bassist Boris Kozlov. It’s amazing what a strong desire to learn an authentic music style can lead you to, Boris is “the Only Russian with clave”. Bassist Michael Boone, one of the most important figures in the Philadelphia jazz music scene for the past 30 years and an unconditional friend and nagual supporter. Percussionist Roberto Quintero, from San Agustin del Sur, Caracas, Venezuela. Roberto is one of the most solid conga players today. Percussionist and “tamborero mayor” Román Diaz will bring the essence of the sacred spirit to any music style. It’s a good felling when you accomplish something with the people you admire. After a couple of years our efforts gave birth to the internationally acclaimed Rumba a la Patato, opening doors to other paths, and I could say it was the beginning of a search for a new voice as a band. The Nagual Spirits earned the responsibility to present international concerts representing the excellence and integrity of the musical art forms born in the USA, a program sponsored by the Department of State, and then we recorded Live in La Paz, Bolivia, traveled to Canada and The Netherland Antilles.

What are the plans, let me paraphrase this, what is the vision you have in mind for this new phase with The Nagual Spirits?

The vision is a work in progress. I am trying to stretch the limits as a sextet with some more adventurous concepts and elements of surprise but always saying a story through the music. To create new music with some substance nowadays I believe you have to isolate yourself from what’s going on commercially out there. One thing is music for sale, and another is music as a way of creative expression. These are two very different concepts and I feel that we as artists and musicians have no choice but to create if we want to grow, but be aware that this creation must come in an spontaneous way, at least in my personal experience I learned to perceive when the proper moment comes to channel those ideas and be able to put them on paper. That’s a phase of the process, then comes each musician responsible to express himself as part of the entire creative process, to me is an esoteric magical expression and that’s the vision I have of The Nagual Spirits… actually to put this in words is not possible, since our vocabulary is limited to our thoughts and this creative process is not a product of thoughts. Sure, you can apply musical theory and rules that require some thoughts and learned musical forms, but the essence of creative music has nothing to do with thoughts.

YouTube Audio – Home Coming – Marlon Simon and the Nagual Spirits: Live in Bolivia

You will also continue working with your brothers, Edward (piano) and Michael (trumpet). You call this project Simon, Simon and Simon: Evolution of a Dynasty. Tell me more about this family project.

The Simon, Simon and Simon project is the result of a dream from an extraordinary spirit in the body of a man called Hadsy Simon, our father. It was back in the nineties when we first went to Curaçao supported by the Curaçao Jazz Foundation and the initiative of our father… We owe this project to him, his legacy, Hadsy was an advanced soul in this planet, and he had a vision of the future, he took the proper decisions for him and us at the right time. He was a Nagual on his own right, many times misunderstood by the average minds that are predominant in today’s society. To know more about his message I suggest you to read his book “Consciousness is all there is”. The day I got that call from my sister Heidy Simon saying he had departed… I felt my life would change forever and it did. I now live based on his values, principles, not only because he was my father, but because I feel is the right way to live. So Simon, Simon and Simon came to be as a result of this honest, humble, lovable man of knowledge, Hadsy Simon. When the three brothers get together to perform, I perceive a peculiar musical substance, a legacy of three genuine musicians who had devoted their lives to this form of art. A good example of this is my younger brother Michael Simon’s record entitled New York Encounter (Fresh Sound Records 2009). To me one of the best authentic Latin Jazz albums recorded based on modern compositions of the highest caliber. Listen to it and no more words will need to be said.

Left to right: Edward Simon, Michael Simon, Marlon Simon
Left to right: Edward Simon, Michael Simon, Marlon Simon

I would like to know a bit more about your latest two projects, which you developed in Europe, specifically in France, where you lived for some time: the Marlon Simon French Venezuelan Project and the Marlon Simon Latin Jazz French Project.

Somehow percussionist Marc Glomeau was able to buy the record Rumba a la Patato in France, and he liked it so much that he ended up contacting me, seeking the opportunity for me to come to France specifically to offer some workshops to his band on Afro Caribbean rhythms and to further explain the Nagual concept of Latin Jazz and compositions. Marco concentrated his efforts on this project and was able to get some funds. I really admire him and the entire band called Black Chantilly for their vision and dedication. I traveled to France for several years offering classes and instructions to their band until we reached the level to be able to record some of the nagual music. It was an intense experience that gave birth to the Marlon Simon French Latin Jazz Project album, recorded live in 2004. We recorded tunes like “Ericka”, “Blues pa’ Changuito”, you can hear an honest spirit on their interpretations. Later on Marco came with the idea of making a record that would combine French and Venezuelan Folkloric music. He proposed the project to several arts organizations in France and once again was able to get some funds from the government and private supporters of creative projects. I had to do some research on French Folkloric music discovering some similarities with Venezuelan music that led me to create a new repertory utilizing Gilles Chabenat’s Hurdy-gurdy (a stringed instrument that produces sound by a hand crank-turned, rosined wheel rubbing against the strings ) at the core of the musical pieces and arrangements, creating a unique style in which jazz merges with the colors of two popular cultures largely unknown to the general public. The French Venezuelan Project “Racines” (Raíces) challenged my limitations as composer and arranger at that time, resulting in a recording charged with different expressions of emotions and unique musical messages. I am very proud of that album. You can still get those records online.

YouTube Audio – Blues Pa’ Changuito – Black Chantilly & Marlon Simon: AfroCuban Live!

You are a distinguished, recognized and awarded educator, and I understand you are following that path, side by side with your work as a composer and performer. Please elaborate on this aspect of your career.

I came to the USA for a second time in 1987 at the age of 27, with the purpose of obtaining my musical degree and being able to make a living performing jazz music. I took my first formal drum lesson at the age of 28, it was not that easy… After graduating from school I had to take all kind of day jobs, I loaded and unloaded trucks, worked in factories, landscaping and construction to be able to pay my rent, keep a roof so I could practice my instrument after a ten hours day job. This went on for several years as I started to play locally in New York and Philadelphia. I had to find a way to legally stay in the USA and I became associated with AMLA, Latin American Musicians Association in Philadelphia. They sponsored me to get my permanent residency, in exchange I created a guide for percussionists and started to teach musical notation at the organization located in North Philadelphia. The executive director at that time, Mr. Jessy Bermúdez was one of the guys who motivated me to teach and we created the most important musical movement in North Philadelphia at that time. He was able to get me a grant to go to Cuba to do research on the influence of Cuban music in American Jazz. I was able to study with top scholars in Cuba. I have always been a Cuban music admirer and the way they support and represent their culture and values across the world. Coming back to the USA I created a percussion ensemble for AMLA and performed around Philadelphia. That was my initial spark to start working with larger organizations as an instructor of Afro Caribbean rhythms, giving hundreds of workshops, residencies and master classes at numerous high schools, colleges and universities in the Tri-State area. I was awarded with a medal of honor from the governor of the state of New Jersey for my contribution to music education and then the list grew on with awards in composition, education and other prizes in the field.

Your albums with The Nagual Spirits have been praised as innovative and very creative, delving deeply into the realm of Jazz, Latin, Afro-Venezuelan and Afro-Cuban jazz. We recently published a review of Rumba a la Patato in our section of Essential Albums Revisited. This is a recording that many of your followers consider a classic Latin Jazz album, a “must-have” in a jazz library. Do you agree with this recognition?

Well, I knew Rumba a la Patato represented a big step towards finding my own voice and a voice for The Nagual Spirits. I was definitely more mature and had been doing gigs with other jazz greats. I had the opportunity to play and record with Chucho Valdés and that forced me to see the long road I had ahead as per concept to develop. On Rumba a la Patato I had one of my musical mentors, bassist Andy González, on the band, and having this caliber of bassist on a Latin Jazz record just takes the music to another level. To this I must add having the compositions of my younger brother Michael, “Humble and innocent” and “Tranquil mood”. These compositions also changed the direction of this CD to a more sophisticated Latin Jazz at that time. Sometimes people with the right ears made comments that would make you think about it. It was my friend, follower of The Nagual Spirits and jazz critic Fósforo Sequera, who also produces a jazz radio program in Venezuela called “La Caja de Fósforo” who once told me: “Marlon… the record Rumba a la Patato is a classic… I did not know what he meant at that time but later on I thought about those words and departing from what a classic means, I judged over a period of time that it was one of a kind, outstanding recording. I tend to agree but I definitely value more the opinion of some critics and historians than my own on this case. For example on his recent Rumba a la Patato review, jazz writer Raul Da Gama made some interesting comments about my composition “Songo Pa’ Monk”, showing that he knows what he is talking about since this composition has a complex harmonic progression that requires of a knowledgeable jazz improviser to solo on top of the changes and understand the Latin rhythms on the percussion section. I often wish there were more people with those ears so we could have more supporters of this type of music.

YouTube Audio – Songo Pa’ Monk – Marlon Simon and the Nagual Spirits: Rumba a la Patato

Do you have a preference for another of your albums with The Nagual Spirits?

Do I have a preference for another Nagual album?… Well, from my point of view, the album In Case You Missed It is my best work so far with The Nagual Spirits. I believe the combination of the string quartet and the batá drums opening arrangement to the Orishas is a beautiful tribute. One of my all times favorite jazz tunes “In Case You Missed It” composed by Bobby Watson, performed in a Nagual style gives you a perfect example of how jazz and Latin music come from Mother Africa, and the intelligent arrangement to my composition “Root Medley” made by my brother Michael just took that record to another level. However, I prefer to leave those comments to the scholars and critics who have the ears to be able to perceive the Nagual message.

YouTube Audio – In Case You Missed It – Marlon Simon and the Nagual Spirits

Once again, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and with our readers. Is there anything else you would like to add to conclude this conversation?

I would like to take the opportunity that latinjazznet.com is giving me to express my gratitude to all Latin Jazz supporters. It is a hard path to produce high quality music nowadays. I really admire and appreciate the support of all musicians and fan supporters of this art form in a society invaded by the idea of consumerism of average to low quality music. I encourage you all to follow the path that has a heart… to me the only path worth following in life.

Founder, Editor, Webmaster: Latin Jazz Network, World Music Report, That Canadian Magazine. A passionate and committed communicator with a sensibility for the arts based in Toronto, Canada.

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Interviews

In Conversation with “Drum Poet” Pazcual Villaronga

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Pazcual Villaronga

PAZCUAL VILLARONGA was born and raised in Spanish Harlem, New York. He attended Haaren High School and New York City Community College and graduated from Hunter College, earning a degree in Communications and a Master’s Degree in Bilingual Education. 

Known as the “Drum Poet,” Pazcual recites poetry while accompanying himself on the congas (often joined by other musicians), creating an innovative fusion of poetry and discussion that takes his verses to a new level. 

Pazcual is the recipient of the Golden and Silver Poet Awards in California and placed third in La Canción Bilingüe – The Bilingual Song Competition in Washington, D.C. He has read poetry at Columbia University, Teachers College, Hunter College, Hostos Community College, Manhattan Community College, and Connecticut’s Housatonic Community College. 

His published works include the highly successful “Caracol” (Poems For The Children), “By The Music Inspired,” “Poet,” “Fire From Hell,” “Compendium,” and “Stereotypes and Cycles.” His most recent collection of poems and CD is titled “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens To Fall.” Pazcual’s work has also appeared in “Around the Mulberry Bush – An Anthology,” “Windfall – An Anthology,” and “Fahari.”

Now retired after over three decades of teaching, Pazcual is preparing several collections of poetry and a children’s book and performs with The Lehman College Latin Jazz Ensemble, directed by Victor Rendón. 

Pazcual Villaronga and the New Drum Poets: On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall
Pazcual Villaronga and the New Drum Poets: On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall

TOMÁS PEÑA: Welcome, Pazcual! Tell me about the project. 

PAZCUAL VILLARONGA:  “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” is my salute to the musicians and their creative souls. Also, to the percussive rhythms and melodies, they share with us each and every time they perform. Also, it is my way of sharing with the world, through poetry, how they inspire me and the power and beauty of their musical creations.

TP: Thank you for sharing an advance copy of the book and CD with me and for taking me on a fascinating bilingual literary and aural journey. Before we delve into the project, I’m curious to know what drew you to poetry and the spoken word.

PV: Growing up, I was shy and introverted. Poetry was my way of expressing myself. When I was in high school, my friend Jose showed my writings to a teacher (Dr. Richstone) and the teacher replied, “There are better things you could do with your time.” Undaunted, my friend showed my writings to another teacher (Mary Lamboss), and she said, “You are the Poet Laureate of Harren High School!” Later, I formed the “Drum Poets” and began reciting poetry with percussion and music.

TP: How did the project come about, and why did you choose this title?

PV: It began with Víctor Rendón’s “Fiesta Percusiva” (2008), where I recited the poems “Soy Chicano” and “In the Pocket.” Shortly after, Victor appeared on José “Joe” Massó’s “Con Salsa!,” who played selections from the album on the air. He encouraged me to “make more music like this.” Shortly after, Víctor asked if I was interested in pursuing the project, and I immediately said, “Yes!” Victor Rendón agreed to produce the record with the following conditions: Trust him implicitly and don’t breathe a word about it to anyone until the project is completed. The rest is history!

The title, “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall,” is inspired by trumpeter John Walsh, who composed the song “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall” (the tune appears on Chris Washburne and the Syotos Band’s “Paradise in Trouble”) and whose philosophy is, “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall, musicians must answer the call and give their all.” Walsh’s philosophy resonates with me because it applies to poets and creative souls who must be in the moment when the muse appears.

The New Drum Poets: Paz Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzó, Victor Rendón and Wilson "Chembo" Corniel
The New Drum Poets: Pazcual Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzó, Victor Rendón and Wilson “Chembo” Corniel

TP: The recording contains a collection of your poems set to music: Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, Jazz, and Latin Jazz and features an impressive lineup: Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel, Louis Bauzo, Yasuya Kimura, Mike Viñas, Amy Quint Millan and José Luis Armengot. Additional guests include Andrea Brachfeld, Henry Brun, Ariel De La Portilla, and Roman Diaz (see below for specifics). Tell me about the poem, “Right Pocket/Left Pocket.”

PV: My mother was concerned about my dad, who drank excessively and played pool at a local social club. She asked me to check on him and bring him home. When I arrived, my father was intoxicated and staggering. Shortly after, a neighborhood hustler and “aprovechao” (exploiter) named Chano challenged my father to a game of pool. My father immediately asked me, “How much money do you have?” And demanded I give it to him. Then, miraculously, he took a breath and straightened up. After that, it was “right pocket, left pocket!” Long story short, my father and I left the social club fifty dollars richer! When Victor and I arranged the tune, he had just acquired a set of “timbalitos” (9-1/4 and 10-and 1/4 timbales), which have a very distinct sound. If you listen closely, you will hear Victor mimic the sound of the cue ball striking the billiards.

TP: Your words conjure up images. I felt like a fly on the wall! I also enjoyed the poem, “El Chembito,” where percussionist Wilson “Chembo” Corniel masterfully accompanies you. 

PV: The poem was born while listening to Chembo’s solo on the tune “Lagos” which appears on Victor Rendon & the Bronx Conexion Latin Jazz Big Band’s “True Flight” (2016). I realized that in Chembo’s hands and in the hands of the masters, you feel and hear the connections between past and present and are privy to a glimpse of the future. Chembo has a way of taking you along for the ride as he time travels between rhythms, feelings, and emotions! His hands never falter, and his ideas are always fresh!

TP: The poem, “I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)” talks about a unique experience you shared with trumpeter José Luis Armengot onstage.

PV: Yes, Jose was standing to my right, and he was soloing on the tune “Fragile.” I turned to Jose; he was wearing dark glasses and leaning back like Miles used to, and I saw Miles! At the time, I was not aware that Jose idolized Miles. Later, I read the poem to Jose and I said, “You are Miles!”

TP: Tell me about the poem, “In the Pocket.”

PV: The poem is inspired by Omar Castaños, who said, “Some musicians express themselves and don’t say a lot. But every once in a while, you will find an artist who sits in the pocket, and everything is pushed away. I saw it happen when the masterful Luis Bauzo took a solo at “Gonzalez y Gonzalez” (NYC) in front of a packed house and stopped the room. The poem was born at that moment!

TP: The poems mentioned earlier are examples of what listeners and readers can expect. There is much more to savor! The CD and book will be released on December 1, 2022. Is there a CD Release Party or a live performance in the works? 

PV: We have yet to set a specific date, but, yes, it is in the works. 

TP: “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” will be available at: http://amazon.com via https://cdbaby.com, and all the major digital streaming, and download sites (iTunes, Spotify, etc.). Also, readers can listen to and download the CD on Pazcual Villaronga’s Website: http://conceptovillapaz.com.

TP: Closing thoughts?

PV: If I have touched you with one word, phrase, or poem, I have done my job as a poet!

TP: Indeed, you have! “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” recalls the writings of the Nuyorican poet and playwright Pedro Pietri, playwright Tato Laviera, activist, journalist, media personality Felipe Luciano, and Latina poet Sandra Maria Estevez, among others. Rarely has the spoken word, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, and Latin Jazz come together as organically and beautifully as it does on this exciting and innovative project. Highly recommended!

The Original Drum Poets: Jorge Alicea, Davis Alicea, Roxanna Rodriguez, Pazcual Villaronga, Ray Alicea, and Omar A. Castaños
The Original Drum Poets: Jorge Alicea, Davis Alicea, Roxanna Rodriguez, Pazcual Villaronga, Ray Alicea, and Omar A. Castaños
TRACKS

1. Drummers Prayer
2. By the Music Inspired
3. In the Pocket
4. What Do You Do?
5. El Chembito
6. How Many of Us Listen?
7. Bongo Habla Otra Vez
8. Que No Se Te Olvides
9. Right Pocket/Left Pocket
10. On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall
11. I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)
12. Alma Jibarita
13. Puerto Rican Trilogy
14. Puerto Rican Trilogy
15. Puerto Rican Trilogy
16. Speak Easy
17. Soul Riffs
18. Entendian Voz
19. Another Night in Tunisia
20. En Las Manos de Los Maestros
21. Afro, Is That You?
22. Now and Then

THE NEW DRUM POETS

Pazcual Villaronga – Executive Producer, Poetic Voz, Conga and Shekeré
Víctor Rendón – Producer, Drum Set, Timbales, Pailitas, Shekeré, Batá (Okonkolo), Coro
Wilson “Chembo” Corniel – Congas, Batá (Itótele), Guataca, Coro
Louis Bauzo – Bongos, Congas, Barril (Primo), Batá (Iyá), Bonkó Enchemiyá, Güícharo Puertorriqueño, Coro
Yasuya Kimura – Congas, Bongos, 1st and 2nd Cajón, Maraca, Coro

SPECIAL GUESTS

Michael Viñas– Bass
Amy Quint Millan – Piano, Coro
José Luis Armengot – Trumpet

ADDITIONAL GUESTS
  • Andrea Brachfeld – Flute
  • Henry Brun – Conga, Shaker
  • Ariel de la Portilla Acoustic Bass
  • Roman Diaz (Batá and Various Percussion)
  • Diego Lopez (Batá and Various Percussion)
  • Allan Molnar First Marimba
  • Yumi Suehiro Second Marimba
FEATURED PHOTO

LEFT TO RIGHT: Pazcual Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzo, Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel.

POETRY BY PAZCUAL VILLARONGA
  • COMPENDIUM (1991)
  • POETRY (1995)
  • BY THE MUSIC INSPIRED (2002)
  • FIRE FROM HELL (2004)
  • CARACOL – P0EMS FOR CHILDREN (2009)
  • ON WHATEVER DAY SATURDAY HAPPENS TO FALL (2022)
ARTIST WEBSITE
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