Anibal Rojas’ Road to High-Profile Gigs, Plus His Method for Incorporating Melodic Shapes
Photo by Norm Johnstone
I remember first meeting Anibal at Rafael Navarro’s booth at the NAMM 2014 Show but had been checking out Anibal’s playing for quite some time beforehand. If you have not checked out his Altissimo Fingerings & Body & Soul video as well as his SAXREX Session Videos (Learning Jazz Standards Episode IX) I highly recommend doing so. You can hear Anibal’s playing from jazz to latin to pop as well as other styles with a wider variety of groups. He also produces and writes his own music with his new album, Cachai (Chilean Slang for “you dig it?”) coming out November 19th, 2020.
For those of you who have not checked out Anibal before now, here is some key details to get you up to speed before we kick off the interview:
- Born in Chile, Anibal emigrated to the U.S. in his early teens with his parents and brother.
- When he arrived in the U.S. his parents bought him a saxophone and signed him up for music lessons to keep him out of trouble.
- Anibal was awarded a full music scholarship to study music performance at the University of Iowa, and his audition was done on a horn that was held together with a variety rubber bands.
- As a classically trained jazz enthusiast, Anibal moved to the East Coast and found work with R&B and funk bands, who appreciated his altissimo range as well as big and colorful sound.
- Anibal spent a few years touring with oldies R&B groups like Cuba Gooding and the Main Ingredient as well as with funk bands like Skintight and New York Horns.
- While Anibal valued his work as a sideman, he was also very focused on creating and producing his own music.
- Many well respected “experts” advised Anibal to make a Smooth Jazz, Latin Jazz, Funk, Pop, or R&B record, but while in New York, Anibal spent some time with Latin Grammy winner, Nestor Torres, who advised him to “just write music that’s a reflection of who you are as a person.”
- Anibal has been a part of the East Coast music scene for 20+ years and has performed in major venues nationwide, including Carnegie Hall, The Apollo theater, The Greek Theater, and Universal Studios Amphitheater. He’s appeared on the television shows Access Hollywood, The Joan Rivers Show, Good Morning America, The Today Show, The Early Show, and The David Letterman Show.
- Anibal has performed and recorded with such artists as: Blood Sweat & Tears, Brian Lynch, Jeff Lorber, Sammy Figueroa, Bob Franceschini, Kelly Clarkson, Arturo O’Farrill, The Mason Brothers, Michael McDonald, Bruce Springsteen, Alicia Keys, Caro Emerald, Patty Griffin, Sheila E., Tony Lakatos, Bobby Martinez, Ralph Irizarry, Timbalaye, Nestor Torres, Paquito D’Rivera, Ray Mantilla, Cuba Gooding, Bobby Chew, and Stevie Wonder among others.
- Anibal’s last CD “Root Kinetic” was released to rave reviews from critics and musicians alike. He can be seen performing music from his CDs with his band ARQtet.
- Anibal is a highly sought-after educator with a very popular sax lessons series on YouTube entitled “SAXREX SESSIONS.
- Most recently Anibal just completed his C.D. Cachai which will be coming out November 19th, 2020.
ZS: How did you become interested in playing the saxophone and how did your playing change over time?
AR: I’m from South America and was born and raised in Chile. I really didn’t know anything about music and really didn’t care about anything besides the fact that my parents brought me to this country and I missed home, my family and friends. We came here to avoid political persecution, but my mom was afraid I’d get into trouble without a hobby. She wanted me to play violin since she was into opera and classical music, and my dad wanted me to play piano since he was a big Dave Brubeck fan.
We went to a music store, and I remember the sales guy showed me a bunch of different instruments, and I didn’t really like anything. But then he showed me the saxophone, and I was like “Oh my god, what is that?”. So that is what I chose and ended up learning. It was an interesting journey because it was something that I never dreamed of doing before; I was into rock and roll for most of my life up to that point. While I learned saxophone as a classical instrument, all of the 80’s pop songs either had a guitar solo or a saxophone solo. I started listening to all the saxophone solos, and that is how I got into improvisation and started seeing the saxophone as something besides a classical instrument.
I was 14 when I started playing on an alto Yamaha 23. When I rented the saxophone, I was offered three introductory lessons, but I wasn’t a fan of the teacher. Instead, I went to the public library to see what the saxophone was all about and checked out the method books as well as searched for saxophone recordings. The first record I found at the library was Two of A Mind by Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan. That became my saxophone bible and I thought it was the coolest thing.
In school, I joined the band. We were required to take private lessons once a week and I learned the material very quickly. I didn’t really have too many friends and couldn’t speak English very well, so practicing kept me out of trouble and was kind of like a therapy for me. Turns out that my mom was right about that! My band director was a trombone player but his son was a lead tenor player for the Jazz Ambassadors at the time, and I was able to take a lesson from him my senior year of high school.
At the same time, my dad took me to Clapp Recital Hall at the University of Iowa to see my first big band concert. It was the C, B, and A (Johnson County Landmark) big bands at the University of Iowa which was my introduction to big band music. By the time I was a junior, I started making honor band as well as all-state and by the time I graduated, schools were coming to me with scholarships to study music. Based on the scholarships offered, I decided to study at the University of Iowa because my dad went to Iowa, I lived in Iowa, and they offered me the best scholarship.
My freshmen year of college is when I switched from alto to tenor. When I was accepted, I had a lot of technique but not very good solo skills, so they put me in the bottom band playing lead tenor. Truthfully, I really was not a big jazz fan and would rather listen to horn bands like Blood Sweat & Tears, Tower of Power, Earth Wind & Fire, etc. The player that I really got into at that time was Mark Russo who I believe was playing with the Yellowjackets, and that was my thing because it was really rhythmical music. During this process, I ran into the album Steps Ahead and heard Michael Brecker for the first time. After that I literally became a Brecker clone for four years and that is all I did.
At the University of Iowa it was weird because I was studying legit French Classical music and the jazz program was controlled by the Advanced Music Department and what they pushed was music that was more atonal. So, I studied Ornette Coleman and the last period of John Coltrane, and for me jazz and classical music were similar with their atonal language. A lot of jazz stuff I heard was Coltrane and Parker, and at that time I thought both players had awful sounds because I come from a classical background which values perfection. For me Cannonball Adderley and Paul Desmond had a gorgeous sounds, so they were the only legit jazz players I would listen to. In addition, there was my love which was funk and R&B. I found Brecker could play an amazing jazz solo with sort of “pop-aesthetics” which was incredible and then play a great pop solo all of which was music to my ears.
After college, I moved to Chicago because I was in love with this girl. I realized I could not make a real living as a jazz musician. This meant I had to get a day job, which I really hated, but while in Chicago I would stop at the Green Mill or the Jazz Showcase to hear people play.
I heard David Sanchez for the first time at the Jazz Showcase. I thought he was amazing, and I started getting an ear for what I thought was grooving music and joined a few blues bands. During this time, I used to go visit my parents who were living in New Orleans and would listen to jazz there, which was a totally different language from Chicago.
After Chicago, I ended up moving to New York and met this guy named John Isley who was playing in a funk band (he had that Brecker sound) and I never went back to Chicago. I lived in Brooklyn first and really got into Bob Berg. For me, Bob Berg was another player I saw in New York who could play jazz and pop so well.
Also while in New York, I started studying with Ralph Bowen, and he got me listening to John Coltrane and Bird, and finally it clicked for me – the pain, struggle, and humanity embedded in the music, which for so many players I think is missing even though they can play well.
Still in NYC, I started to play Latin Jazz with Ray Mantilla . What I learned was the marriage between rhythms and jazz changes which helped me since I was a more rhythmical player at the time. I also started listening to the record Giant Steps which blew me away, as well as the great Steve Grossman, who, to me was a combination of John Coltrane, Bob Berg, and Michael Brecker all in one guy.
Before finally settling down in New York permanently, I spent quite some time in Philly, which has a scene that is completely different and very much a blend of blues, funk, and jazz mixed with a sound that none of these other cities have. Most recently, I have been living in Queens, and New York is just a different spot in terms of the music and talent you’re surrounded by. Within a 20 block radius I am surrounded by young talents such as Steve Kortyka, Sam Dillon, and Andrew Gould, just to name a few. New York is so unique in that, for example, if you need a tenor player that can play Indian raga with a sort of Moroccan feel, you will find that player.
ZS: Were you self-taught or did you study with private teachers? And if with a private teacher, what key lessons did you learn from those musicians?
AR: I have my own methodology, based on the assumption that anything complex can be broken down into smaller, simpler parts. You have to understand the building blocks, and music has to do with the feeling behind it. Originally, I didn’t get jazz because I didn’t feel it. The only way to play the things you hear is to break it down and learn its language. David Binney has the same ideology, and he plays everything.
For me, I owe it to David Binney, Ralph Bowen, and Paul Scea. Ralph Bowen introduced me to bebop. Paul introduced me to avant-garde and David Binney introduced me to more modern jazz and he told me to study with Donny McCaslin. Donny McCaslin is an amazing player and such a nice guy. One other player who blows me away is Ben Solomon from Boston. Ben hears and feels music at such a deep level that he is a free spirit which is something I am continually working to achieve.
ZS: How have you adjusted to COVID from a musical as well as business perspective and what do you think the “new normal” will look like?
AR: It is never going to get back to normal that’s for sure. I think it is about coming up with something and being first. Two houses down from me is Elliot Mason who is a trombone player who plays with Jazz at Lincoln Center and I was walking with him and his wife to drop off CD’s for reviews and radio play. Elliot was telling me a story how this guy made an app and he decided to sell it for $28 dollars a pop. All his friends bought it because they thought it was very cool and he made a couple of grand in just one week. In addition, some famous social media person posted it to their thousands and thousands of followers and this guy made an additional $100,000 in one week; so be first.
Guys like Greg Fishman, besides being great saxophone players, are amazing business people. This can be seen by their success with their teaching resources and classes and I applauded them for that. About 15 to 20 years ago I did these YouTube videos called SAXREX sessions which helped me grow quite a following, but I never really found a way like these guys or had the marketing mentality, since I was always about playing music the traditional way (playing and recording), like Seamus Blake. I enjoyed teaching by playing and touring, which was what I was always focused on. I am very fortunate that I have played and toured with amazing artists, which has allowed me the ability to focus on playing and writing, but I am worried at the same time in the next six months to a year what the musical landscape will look like.
Right now, I am working on a record with Chris Fisher and will soon be releasing Cachai which I think is the best record I’ve produced to date. It’s definitely jazz but with a bit of pop mentality. Although I live in New York, I have thought about moving to Europe due to the appreciation for jazz and a change of scene. Finally, I have been working with Rafael Navarro to play test and showcase his line of mouthpieces which I love.
ZS: When it comes to practicing, what is your process for honing your skills?
AR: When I practice, I don’t really practice so much as try to perform. When I was growing up, there were two Jamey Aebersold records I used, and trying to get the time to do that was difficult. But now, you have the iRealbook and a Drumgenius app on the phone, so it is very easy to practice. What I do is just run through some of my favorite standards and that is my warm up. I try to play and perform and say something meaningful.
I will listen to younger guys around me and what they are posting online. If I hear something I like, I will stop it, sing it, and then play it and make it my own. I will take a shape and try and move it however I can through a major sort of sound, whether that’s Ionian or Lydian. I will do the same thing on dominant, which will be a b7 or diminished kind of sound, and minors like melodic or Dorian. I feel every scale has a different color to it. What I will do is take an idea and try and put that shape on top of a color and try and move it around.
Besides that, I am always recording for people and get many requests for latin jazz or pop stuff. When recording, I am always paying attention to my quality of tone, and most importantly, playing in tune. I have found that your attitude or approach is everything. For me, my number one focus is sound first and then everything else comes second.
ZS: Is there something you would like to share that you believe many people don’t know about you?
AR: I love horror movies, hanging out with my friends and love to meet people from different countries and discuss the current state of affairs. Finally in addition to riding my bike, I really love dogs but specifically really like poodles because of their temperament and because they are hypoallergenic.
ZS: What current projects are you working on now?
AR: Cachai for me is my new album, coming out November 19th and I feel it’s a very strong personal statement. Everything was arranged and written by me except for the last tune which is a Crusader’s tune called “I’m So Glad I’m Standing Here Today” originally sung by Joe Cocker. It’s significant because I am still here with a career in music and doing my best to add to the musical community after overcoming many personal obstacles. I have seen musicians come and go, but I’m still standing, and that’s really how I view jazz, as freedom and the ability to be free.
Note: Cachai comes out on November 19th 2020
ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?
AR: Whatever is easiest to play. The Navarro mouthpieces with metal and hard rubber just feels very comfortable. If it doesn’t feel good quickly then chances are, it’s not for you. Always try mouthpieces with a newish reed, and see how it fits with your embouchure. In under a minute, you can tell if it’s a fit or not.
- Soprano: Vintage Yamaha 62R
- Alto: Selmer Mark VI
- Tenor: 2 Mark VI tenors. My first Mark VI 56,XXX plays more like a SBA and what they call a transitional horn. The other horn is a Mark VI 112,XXX which I just got and love.
- Baritone: Weltklang made by Julius Keilwerth.
- Ligature: Marc Jean Ligature for hard rubber but lately playing a standard $2 dollar ligature I found on eBay or the metal Selmer 404 bird cage.
- D’Addario 3S filed (Soprano)
- Vandoren blue box 2.5 (alto)
- D’Addario 3M filed (Tenor)
- Bari plastic medium star (baritone)
Mouthpiece: Rafael Navarro Mouthpieces. I started playing the Maestra piece and did so for a few years. Then Rafael wanted to redesign the Bahia to what he had originally envisioned, a powerful piece that could be used on all sorts of settings carrying an enormous tone with cleanliness but still warm enough to be played in small groups. We worked on having some of the Maestra qualities amplified but also on having a piece that would work for everyone. This is the piece I wanted and I got it. Anibal Rojas Bahia Metal Tenor (8) and a Maestra (7*). I also sometimes will play the Mintzer model (7*) or (8)
Neck-Strap: French neck-strap
For more on Anibal, click here for his website
Anibal Rojas’ Road to High-Profile Gigs, Plus His Method for Incorporating Melodic Shapes – Saxophonist.org
November 23, 2020 @ 1:00 pm
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