Drumming up the story

The forthcoming gigs here will partly be based on the music of modern jazz forefather, drummer Max Roach. Considering Cuenca’s early jazz learning curve, that seems perfectly natural.

SYLVIA CUENCA – jazz drummer here March 2-9. (photo credit: CHRISTOPHER DRUKKER)
SYLVIA CUENCA – jazz drummer here March 2-9.
As many a parent – often belatedly – learns, kids generally know what’s good for them. Sylvia Cuenca certainly did. The jazz drummer, who will be here March 2-9 on a nationwide seven-gig tour, began her musical life on a very different instrument. “I started on guitar. My father played guitar all of his life, not professionally, but it was a serious hobby for him. It was natural that he gave me lessons at a young age.”
Unfortunately for Dad, his daughter felt strongly about a more percussive means of making music. Then again, his love is worldwide jazz audiences’ gain. “I was drawn to the drums,” she notes. “As soon as I started learning the drums, I felt something special. It was a passion. I wanted to learn everything I could about drumming.”
Then again, maybe all is not lost, in terms of paternal influence, after all. “Recently I have been thinking about buying a nylon string guitar,” she laughs. “I’d like to get back into that.”
Considering her upbringing, it seems only natural for Cuenca to be open to the idea of spreading her instrumental skills as far and wide as possible. “I grew up in a musical family,” she states. “My father played guitar, my mother sang, my brother played bass and guitar. I guess I would say they were my first influences. Every time there was a family get-together, the guitars would come out, and everybody would sing – usually beautiful boleros [Latin music] in Spanish.”
The domestic musical net stretched far and wide. “There was also a lot of music on the radio,” the drummer recalls. “There was Motown and trip hop, and my father had a jazz collection. So I was exposed to a lot of different styles of music at an early age, which is really great.” She soon put some of that input into hands-on practice. “I played in a rock & roll band when I was a teenager. That was great too. To this day I still love all styles of music.”
But it was jazz that grabbed her the most. She built up her own jazz collection, and began immersing herself in the magic sounds produced by some of the iconic members of the jazz fraternity since the early days of the art form. A spell at a workshop not far from her home in northern California brought her face-to-face with one of the big names in her chosen line of musical endeavor. It was a formative encounter.
“I MET Victor Lewis at a workshop when I was a teenager. I learned so much from him – how to be a sensitive and tasteful accompanist, by listening.” It was just about music per se. “He taught me how to relax intensely. He studied tai-chi, and he taught me about the awareness of breathing in playing, and staying relaxed, and also about posture.”
Lewis also pushed young Cuenca in the right geographic direction. “He encouraged me to move to New York. He is probably one of my biggest influences, and we are still friends.”
Relocating to the Big Apple, naturally, afforded the young drummer with a multitude of opportunities for catching many of the leading exponents of jazz live. She also got to mix it with some of her seniors, both on stage and in therecording studio. Legendary trumpeter Clark Terry asked her to play in his band at a Grammy Award event, after she had sat in with his band.
“Clark called me for that Grammy date,” Cuenca recalls. “He could have called anyone, but he asked for me. What an honor. He never stopped calling me for 17 years.”
The late tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson was another pioneering jazz musician who took note of the young Californian-born drummer’s promise. Cuenca ended up recording with both Henderson and Terry – the latter had also mentored Miles Davis – and she toured with Henderson all over the world.
The forthcoming gigs here will partly be based on the music of modern jazz forefather, drummer Max Roach. Considering Cuenca’s early jazz learning curve, that seems perfectly natural. Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street, the 1956 recording headed by trumpeter Brown and Roach, was an important stepping stone for the teenager’s emerging jazz consciousness.
“My dad had that in his record collection and I remember hearing it for the first time, and just being amazed with Max Roach’s style of soling, and how he was kind of telling a story.”
Cuenca lent a keen ear to Roach’s approach to unfurling his thoughts. “He would start a solo with a clear simple idea, or statement or motif. It was always related to the melody. Then he was able to develop the idea. He would just tell the story on the drums, and he would incorporate different textures and pitches. He made the drum set such an expressive instrument.”
Cuenca has been following that line for over two decades now, and early next month, audiences in Ganei Tikva, Jerusalem, Herzliya, Modi’in, Tel Aviv and Haifa will have an opportunity to listen to Cuenca’s own percussive storytelling. Cuenca will be joined onstage by compatriot saxophonist Jeff Clayton, Israeli-born US-bred pianist Tamir Hendelman, Israeli bassist David Samocha and Israeli drummer Shai Zelman.
“There’s always more to learn,” says Cuenca. “I am really looking forward to being in Israel, and playing with these great musicians. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
For tickets and more information: 03-573-3001, www.hotjazz.co.il and cartisim@shamayim.co.il.