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What is jazz nowadays and what can kill it

Aleksandra Line

Neff Irizarry on education, «Ventspils Groove» and detecting success in music

Vilma Dobilaite

Some years ago — was it a couple, or was it ten — most Latvian musicians and listeners noticed a new figure on the Latvian jazz scene. Not just a visiting guest musician — someone to return and, it appears, stay for longer. A Puerto Rican that grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia, a B.M. and M.M. graduate from the Berklee College of Music, an in-demand educator with over twenty years of experience in Europe as a teacher and clinician at such esteemed institutions as the Pop & Jazz Conservatory, Finland and the Royal Danish School of Music in Aalborg, DK — a guitar player and composer Neff Irizarry.

Neff has been performing with Eddie Henderson, Jimmy Haslip, Lonnie Liston Smith, Victor Mendoza, Seamus Blake, Martin Fabricius, Brian Melvin, and Anders Bergcrantz, is a friend of Deniss Pashkevich, teaches at the Jazeps Vitols Latvian Academy of Music, believes in the power of education and self-development. Has a Latvian wife — before he stated this on his Facebook profile, I found it out from Deniss Pashkevich I bumped into one summer day who proudly told me he helped Neff in finding a wedding suit. Long story short — after years of listening to Neff Irizarry’s recordings and live performances, right after this summer’s «Ventspils Groove» festival he’s been a part of, I decided to talk.

So a very typical question to begin with: what brought you to Latvia all these years ago?

As you know, I’ve been coming to Latvia since 2003 — many years, many experiences, and little by little I’ve been leaving a part of myself here, which I’m really happy about. I was chosen by the administration of the conservatory in Helsinki, where I’ve been teaching for many years, to represent the school at a guitar festival in Madona. So Madona was the first place to begin with.

And then you kept returning?

I had great guitar students, as people and individuals, they showed a lot of promise, were very open-minded and very receptive to what I was teaching them. One of them was Nora Bite, and she said — you need to meet Deniss Pashkevich. Then on the last day of the festival Deniss was playing, we came to some bar in the Old town to play, Raimonds Macats was playing the piano, I played a couple of tunes with them, and this started it all.

Do you move around a lot since then or do you call Latvia your home?

Well, Finland’s always my home, since my daughters are there, and Latvia is my home as well now, since my wife is here. You have to know something about me — I’ve always been a nomad, always traveling around.

Since you moved to our country with a small jazz scene — how does it feel?

Well, if you put it that way — we play music that isn’t very popular. I’m from a Puerto-Rican heritage and I’m used to not living in my home country. Although I’m American, as a kid I’ve always felt I’m not going to be there — my father has always been in the military and he always told me stories about Europe, India, Vietnam, I was always sold on these ideas about travels. The US is huge and there’s lots of opportunities, but I just always wanted to go and travel. I knew that lots of jazz musicians were taken in Europe quite well. I first went away because of love — I met my first wife at Berklee and moved to Finland because of work. I was young, blind and full of enthusiasm, and it worked out. It all depends on where you are in your growth, there’s a lot of advantages in many places if you’re open enough to see them. Music that we play is very small and you need to find places where this music is going to thrive — yes, it might not be in Latvia that you’re going to get to «Blue Note”..

There’s no «Blue Note» here, first of all.

Exactly. But on the other hand, it’s a good place to go out of. I’m very open-minded about it.

Have you noticed that people here try to mention the fact that you’re coming from somewhere else on the concert posters first?

Yes, I’ve noticed that, but I’ve learned a long time ago that we should not judge a book by its cover. I’ve always felt that regardless of what you look like you have to be a musician first. I think it’s human nature to say — wow, we’re gonna have this guy, and this is why popular culture sells, that’s why you see a great and incredible singer in front with the most outrageous outfit, because that would sell. I hope in my case they see how I play, as well.

What, in your opinion, does it take to be a good jazz musician overall?

Oh my goodness. I think that’s a difficult question. Well, if we look at Miles — he said, «don’t call me a jazz musician”. I can live with that one. I always thought that a jazz musician is someone that plays his style, plays it stylistically correctly and brings his own uniqueness to that. So, in my opinion, a jazz musician should be creative, take with the ideas, there should be development. A jazz musician should understand what the history of the music was. Jazz is a living art form. What kills jazz is people who expect it to be this way or that way. A jazz musician should be a good listener, be empathetic, be honest with himself, and admit it if he doesn’t know a thousand tunes. I think a lot of people call themselves jazz musicians but don’t understand what that really means. Maybe admit that his music is influenced by jazz but be honest and have his own voice.

And be a good ensemble player or be able to lead?

Well, being a jazz musician is being a good team player — that’s the main thing. In my opinion, jazz is all about shared accountability. About making each other sound great, when no one’s wrong. There’s so many pieces together — you don’t just become a great musician coming out of school, you have to play stuff and do stuff, transcribe, write, be a team player. Understand people you have to play with. Listen a lot.

What do you mostly listen to yourself?

I’m into contemporary jazz, modern, but I do have to admit I should listen to younger guys more. I’m just so busy composing, restudying with the older cats — it’s just not enough time in the day.

Do you attend concerts?

Yes, I do. But if I’m in a car on a long trip, I won’t listen to any music at all. I keep it silent — I have so much music in my head, and I very seldom go to jazz concerts, I’d rather go to some pop or funk concert. The last concert I went to was a jam session that I was at, but as a listener — that was in Spain, and I was at a flamenco concert. I like to listen to things that help me grow, not to things I already know how to play. It’s really hard for me to go and listen to someone without cutting off that part of me. If I go to a jazz concert, I’m already analyzing things, it’s a really strong thing.

So we’re talking right after this year’s «Ventspils Groove» festival ended. How did it go?

In fact, I think I was in Ventspils about ten years ago with my group for the first time. I think the new facilities are amazing now, and we have to give credit to Andris Grigalis for doing that in this situation. We did perform in the main hall to the audience. The line-up of teachers was stellar, all flavors, I was thinking — what other place in Latvia could call all those cats? I was lucky to be part of that, the students felt the vibe, they were motivated. Another great thing about Ventspils is that Renārs Lācis has a lot of wind players, which is incredible, so every band had a horn section. Even the lowest level bands were playing in 6/8, there were 14-year-olds singing interesting harmonies, they’re sponges, they wanted to work hard, each band had an ethnic part of the program and some part of a complex composition. I had a young 14-year-old alto saxophonist who was hilarious — I felt like he had the soul of a 30-year-old, and he played really well. Developing this improvisational language is a long process. There were some students from other cities, all over.

Publicity Photo

You’ve been teaching at the Latvian Academy of Music for a couple of years now. What does that feel like after working in Denmark and Finland?

I think in all places you have students that are extremely talented and students that still need some more polishing. Jazz is so young here, and I realize that — I try to be as objective as possible. When I was in Berklee, I studied with the greats there, that was a different type of pedagogical situation, and if you were good enough, they were still trying to push you. They told me some things that would have made me stop, but I always had a teacher who said — this is what he meant. So the teachers helped me to have thicker skin, to see past that, to keep on going. You need that, especially today, because of Covid, because of the way the business is — you need your mentors more than ever, you need to find your path, you cannot do it alone.

I recently had a discussion with one Latvian musician on this. So there are a bunch of teachers, which are tough and harsh and putting you down until you learn to grow, and the other bunch that is gentle in teaching if they think that student’s personality requires that. He asked me if I think that harsh, Soviet approach works with everyone. What do you think of it?

I think a great teacher is able to see what a student can handle. The student attracts a teacher, gravitates. If you can handle the toughness, then we’ll bring it up a little bit, but if you’re weak, it’s not right for me to keep it down. What I learned in Finland was that it’s better at times to be silent and to help them see what the truth is and show them when they can’t get it. Or course, all schools have the same issues, the same amount of those who succeed and those who don’t. Now, what is success in music? If we say that success is making five albums and playing in «Blue Note”, then I didn’t succeed. If it means I have to have a «Grammy», then I didn’t succeed. So you need to figure out for yourself what success is, and this is where the mentor comes in. Pushing all the time is the old way of thinking, conservative in a way — you don’t have to be brutally honest with the student unless the student can handle it and unless the lesson is about that. Some people are ready to accept, and some are not.

Have you ever rejected anyone as a student?

No. I have been unsuccessful with a student because the student’s goals weren’t the same as mine. But then I got the student again. This is a good story — I had a student, and this student never got what I was trying to get him. I was a young teacher, and I didn’t have the foresight to see exactly what the student needed. So karma was that way that I got another chance. I keep notes about all my students — what I did, what I didn’t do, what I could have done better. I believe in life-long learning, and I’m so happy I got back to school, I think the teacher should learn. Combining teaching and musicianship is hard, there’s no way you can cover everything, especially if you have 16 weeks and the objectives of the curriculum. The student has to complete certain tasks, and you have to help him excel in that. You can’t make a student sound like Miles, but I do believe that you can drill in certain things.

If we return to your personal musical career — do you have some tasks you want to achieve?

(Laughs for some time) Oh, there’s so much! I want to make a lot of records, I want to get my Ph.D., I want to publish, so many things! Write for a big band, of course, and get better.

When you compose, what is your music about?

It depends. The last things that I composed have been heavily rooted in my personal experience — that’s an emotional side. Then there’s a craft of composing, and all the compositional things I do are developed from everything I’ve studied.

If you’re technically good as a composer, do emotions play a crucial role in how you write music?

Absolutely! Indirectly your emotions do affect the harmony that you want to go to. I think, from the little that I heard, every composer is somehow attracted to a certain sound. Some composers are gifted, and they can see colors. I feel harmony in my face if I’m listening. Everyone has certain things, and you develop that. Emotion is important because it’s what normal people would feel. They won’t understand if you use some certain type of oboes or whether you modulate here, but they will feel.

So in case, you progress you have to also be able to accept criticism?

Yes, and criticism is good. Sometimes you don’t understand where the criticism is coming from, but if you’re courageous enough to ask — why not. Then that shows another level of proficiency and starts to open up the dialogue. That brings us back to what makes a good jazz musician. What improvisers are doing at the moment is dialogue, right?

There’s quite some advice for the musicians you’ve given. And what about listeners?

I’ve had some gigs with some incredible Latvian listeners that asked intellectual questions. And I’ve been surprised about it. The best thing for Latvian listeners is to support their local musicians and encourage more crossover types of music. I think there’s a job to educate the listener. I think it’s the job of the new generation to find a way of mixing things that have already been done with the national identity, and that will give a new breath to listeners. And hopefully, that will translate into some type of material success. And I think what helps the future is never to forget what you really love to do.