Javier Zalba - Cuban Saxophonist from Buena Vista Social Club - 25
About Javier Zalba
Javier Zalba graduated from the National School of Art, in 1976, specialising in clarinet. Later he studied flute and the full range of saxophones in classical, jazz and Cuban styles.
His early training as a clarinetist helped to develop his love of chamber music and he later became interested in jazz. As a Cuban, the range of popular rhythms of the Island has been an important influence on him.
His arrival at the legendary Cuban Modern Music Orchestra in 1978, at only 23 years old, opened the doors to his extensive career. He has performed Concertos by Mozart and by Bach, worked with the Irakere group, Cubanismo, Afrojazz, Tropicana Cabaret Orchestra and perhaps most well-known internationally, the Buena Vista Social Club.
He works as a professor at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory and at the Superior Institute of Art
He has given master classes and workshops in Colombia, Denmark, Spain, England, and Switzerland and as a composer and pedagogical author, has published many books with Advance Music and Edition Gruber.
- Too old to study the violin.
- Getting starting with Enrique Pardo and Roberto Sanchez Lopez.
- An early career starting with Orquesta Cubana De Música Moderna.
- Doubling on woodwinds.
- The importance of playing in ensembles.
- Having respect for the audience.
- Listening to a wide variety of music.
- Getting my hands on the first jazz books to learn without a teacher.
- Meeting with Michael Brecker.
- Writing my first books for learning Cuban music.
- The importance of being published.
- Working with Buena Vista Social Club.
- Loving music books.
- Putting sound first.
- Finally having access to the internet.
Transcript of podcast episode with Javier Zalba
Please enjoy the transcript of this podcast episode. With thousands of words in each episode it might contain a few typos and may also have been edited for clarity.
Barry Cockcroft: So it’s really a great pleasure for me to be able to talk to you in your own country. So thank you very much for taking the time.
Javier Zalba: Thank you.
Barry Cockcroft: I would love to know how you got started in music.
Javier Zalba: I started the music study at the age of eight years. But I started with violin. And when I just start again, at the age of 12, the director of the Conservatorium, he said, “No, you are old to restart violin again. You have to choose another instrument.” And I chose the clarinet. And I start the clarinet study with my first professor was the first clarinet of the symphonic orchestra, amazing. The same teacher of Paquito D’Rivera, the same amazing professor and musician. I stay there four years. We changed the school to the National School of Art.
Javier Zalba: Ah, the name of the first professor was Enrique Pardo and the second professor Roberto Sanchez Lopez, bass clarinet of the symphonic orchestra. And I graduate in four years, in 1976. And then I start the superior studies, but I stop in 1978, because I had the opportunity to start as musician at the famous big band here, called Orquesta Cubana De Música Moderna, playing baritone saxophone. And I start the flute studies. And I graduated from the professional school here in 1986.
Javier Zalba: In that moment, I played baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, and flute. For me, was really a good experience to start as a musician with this orchestra, because a famous, amazing Cuban musician conductor recommend to the student to play in orchestra for the section. Because it’s very important for us to practise the music written in the orchestra. It’s very important to play in the section, in this case, the saxophone section.
Javier Zalba: When we play in orchestra, we have to play in right way, tuning, the diction, everything. Any style, classical, jazz, Cuban music. We need the young orchestra. We have one young orchestra. And, recently, the TV channel from here do a competition for the young musician. And it’s incredible. A lot of young musician, 16, 17 years, 18, playing really good, but as soloist. But the problem is to play in section. And I had a good opportunity, in my case, for starting my professional life as musician with a big orchestra.
Barry Cockcroft: So this must be a little bit unusual to already be invited into a professional group at such a young age, before even finishing your studies?
Javier Zalba: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: So that’s a great opportunity. So are most students working on being a soloist?
Javier Zalba: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Barry Cockcroft: How do you encourage them to get into the ensembles, into the orchestras, to learn these skills of playing with other people?
Javier Zalba: Because here in Cuba, our music school is academic, classical music. But in all of our music schools, we do popular music workshop, but we don’t have a popular music school. The musicians, for years we went to the Culture Minister, we ask why we don’t have a popular music school. When I teach with my student, I do the workshop in chamber music and popular music, jazz music, Cuban music, Brazilian music, especially with sthe saxophone section, five saxophones plus rhythm section. And, on stage, we are … for the audience, it’s like a show. It’s not just playing the music.
Barry Cockcroft: So do you think if we have respect for the audience …
Javier Zalba: Exactly.
Barry Cockcroft: … that helps the audience have more respect for the music?
Javier Zalba: Exactly, yeah. Because people appreciate our presentation.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, you started as a classical clarinettist.
Javier Zalba: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Is it very common to play multiple instruments?
Javier Zalba: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah. Because I see a lot of students, they specialise in one instrument. But, for you, you’ve made a career playing clarinet, flute, and saxophone. Is this very common?
Javier Zalba: I remember when I was a kid, my mother studied piano. And my auntie played … They are twins. And she played violin in the symphonic orchestra. My father worked at the print factory, but loved classical music. And he know my mother in one concert of the National Philharmonic. At the end of the 50’s, the name is Philharmonic Orchestra, after the 60’s, Symphonic Orchestra.
Javier Zalba: And I remember all the time at home listening only to classical music. But when I got into the National School of Art, I start to know the popular music, especially with the saxophone. In the 70’s, here in Cuba as you know it was really hard for us to practise jazz music. And we don’t have books. We only have the books from classical music, from the east part of Europe, Bulgaria, Russian, Hungary.
Javier Zalba: In my experience, to learn, to know jazz music, all the time listening to and transcribing solos. And asking a famous Cuban kid out in Miami, Carlos Averhoff, a famous Cuban sax player. He play with Irakere group, together with Paquito and Arturo. And he was a professor there at the school. And I asked him every time, about the sax player in jazz music, the phonetics, the diction, articulation and technical aspects. And I started to play jazz music.
Javier Zalba: But it was really hard for me, because I had nobody to teach me. And I remember I play it every night at the jazz club in Hotel Riveria. Not just a club but a piano bar, not a jazz club. A famous Cuban musician Felipe Dulzaides, pianist. And I remember when I went to play there the first night, Felipe, “Oh, hello, what would you like to play?” I don’t know in English. They say (singing). When I play the melody, he look at me and say, “What’s up?” No, he said, “Play.” And he go, “What, what?” I stop and beacuase I’m not playing, not improvising. Wow. When we finish, I remember I say, “Felipe, I don’t know how I to improvise. I don’t know it. I just read music and that’s it.”
Javier Zalba: And then I start to learn. Like I said before, listening a lot, transcribing solos, and later on, the first photocopies of the jazz books came. And I remember I copied all the book by hand. And then, after the Ramon Ricker book, other different jazz books, I made photocopies. And then when I start to travel around, I would visit the music shops, buy the books. Generally books were my information as jazz musician, or popular musician. My interest was to know how I can do that.
Javier Zalba: I remember I had to practise in the bebop style the phonetic, the shuffle, or the ghost notes. Because when I transcribe it, for example, the Charlie Parker solo, (singing), the ghost notes. Wow, how can I do in off beats? (singing) With a metronome, no? And then to practise the ghost note, (singing), no?. And when I play the jazz phrase, (singing). And, whoa, I practise before with the scale the articulation. And then when I do the jazz phrase, I can play it in right way.
Barry Cockcroft: So you’re working these things out by yourself?
Javier Zalba: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Without a teacher? So you’re very curious. You want to know how to do something. So you’re experimenting until you find the answer?
Javier Zalba: Exactly.
Barry Cockcroft: Are you still like this today? Are you a curious person? You want to know things. You want to learn things. So you just work it out.
Javier Zalba: Exactly. And when I teach, I teach in the same the same way. I remember when I had first time with Michael Brecker, I ask him how he practises his basic technique. He said, “No, first, practise sound. And then practise the technique, major and minor scales, arpeggios.” So I ask him because to compare if I am doing it in right way, not just my way.
Javier Zalba: Always at the jazz festivals, when a famous musician, very kind musicians, I would always ask the same, how so you practise your basic technique, to compare. When for us, for all musicians, James Aebersold created his books, amazing, amazing. But you have the possibility to practise at home, amazing musicians in the background, and you can practise repeating, repeating, repeating, to play jazz music. And to show the musicians, Latin musicians, how to play the popular Cuban music.
Javier Zalba: I wrote two books, one for saxophone and other for flute. The name is Sax Soneando published by Advance with CD included. The first part I play and the second part is like a play along. When I was a musician of Irakere in the 90’s, a famous Cuban bass player, Carlos Del Puerto, a famous Cuban, he wrote a book about the Cuban bass. And he told me, “Why don’t you write something like that for the saxophone?” I went, “Oh, perfect.” And start to write the different kind of Cuban rhythmic styles, examples, patterns, to practise the different Cuban rhythms, like a Cha-Cha-Cha, Mambo, Rumba, Songs of Muntuno.
Javier Zalba: When we play, for example, in Bossa Nova, how do we play the syncopation in a Montuno song? In Bossa Nova it is longer than the Cuban song style. In our music, the syncopation we have to play short, not longer. For example, (singing) in Bossa Nova, and in Cuban song, (singing). Interesting because the musician don’t know the correct way, no?
Barry Cockcroft: This book, or these books, they’re published by Advanced Music, right?
Javier Zalba: Uh-huh. (affirmative)
Barry Cockcroft: How did you make this contact with a German publisher in the first place?
Javier Zalba: I was a musician, I told you, I went away a bit. And the road manager in America was the same road manager of the band master for Michael Brecker. And I remember that I asked him, “Jerry, I wrote a Cuban book, but I would like Michael’s opinion about it.” And, a few months later, our road manager in France, he said, “So I have Michael’s email for you.” Wow, his opinion about the books. And not like this, no … It is good for the musicians and a good way to show the Cuban rhythm. Could you recommend me an editor to publish it? He asked Michael and he said, “Let me see. Let me see. I will. Don’t worry.”
Javier Zalba: I brought from Advanced Music, the Jazz Sonata of Ramon Ricker, the Phil Woods Sonata, and the Oliver Nelson Sonata. And the owner, Veronika Gruber, answered me. They say, “You will play close to my town and I will come to see you.” And, in few months, they published the book. The name is Sax Soneando, the name of the book. And, later on, the Flute Soneando. She sent to a copy to Michael Brecker, and Michael is, “Oh, congratulations.” I put inside the book the picture with Michael. For me, what can I say?
Barry Cockcroft: As a composer and a writer, how important is it for you to be published?
Javier Zalba: I think it’s the best way to promote our music. In general, the editor, the publisher pays 10% or 15%. It’s not too much. But it’s not the objective. The objective is that your work is known around the world. It’s the most important thing, I think.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think that having your book published then helped you to have other opportunities?
Javier Zalba: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Barry Cockcroft: For example, teaching at different conservatories and universities around the world? Do you think there’s a connection, that one opportunity can then lead to another opportunity? And maybe sometimes it’s a surprise. You don’t know what will happen.
Javier Zalba: Yeah, exactly. For example, my son studied at Guildhall School in London. I did my first workshop at the school. And I composed … I dedicated it. Advanced also published the One Danzon. Cuban Danzon is like a Rondo in classical music, the structure, no? I dedicated the title of the piece to Guildhall for five saxophone and rhythm section.
Barry Cockcroft: You started out in music playing classical music. And many students I see, if they start with classical music, and no improvising, they can find it quite difficult to improvise later. Whereas people who start with improvising, they’re okay. How did you really learn to improvise? You mentioned that the pianist wanted you to improvise and you didn’t know what to do.
Javier Zalba: Autumn Leaves! One example is very simple but are interesting. When you get in the theatre, it’s always black. You don’t see anything, always black. But little by little your eyes are opened, and then you can see. It’s just practising , listening every day, little by little, you will see. Little by little, you can create different phrases. At the beginning, it’s too hard, because we want it now.
Barry Cockcroft: You have had tremendous opportunity to travel. And you have been all around the world. Is that unusual to be travelling so much?
Javier Zalba: Depend. Depend if you have the opportunity, the contract to travel, no problem. My first time, in 1979, when I was in the west, Russia and Bulgaria with the jazz band playing Cuban music. I visit first time in New York in 1986 with a famous Cuban pianist, Jose Maria Vitier. The group was a string quartet, a rhythm section, and me playing the wind instruments. After that, I entered the Irakere group, to the most important jazz festivals and jazz clubs around the Europe and USA. I was a musician of the Cabaret Tropicana Orchestra, and we just were in Barcelona two times.
Javier Zalba: And then Cubanismo. Cubanismo was a trumpet player, Jesus Alemany. A Cuban band, traditional Cuban music, a really good group. And then Buena Vista Social Club, and all that whole year of travelling to Europe, USA.
Barry Cockcroft: Even Australia.
Javier Zalba: Even Australia. I have two cousins in New Zealand. And we play at the jazz festival in Newport also.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think the connection between the film, the Buena Vista Social Club, that was made, gave a lot of opportunity to the group to travel?
Javier Zalba: I think the film was an opportunity to open to the world the Cuban music. The first recorded session was in EGREM, a recording studio with Ry Cooder, because the principal idea was from the Juan de Marco Gonzalez, who played, he lives in US now. He played tres. The main idea was that Ry Cooder together made goal as producer. He had an idea, bring the African musicians to do a recording here in Cuba. But they can’t come to Cuba.
Javier Zalba: And then Juan de Marco started with Ry Cooder and made a goal. They say, “Why? We have a lot of famous Cuban musician here. Why not?” And it started. Recording is like a jam, a lot of Cuban music, old Cuban. I participate in the first recording session. I remember I play clarinet. And Compay Segundo, he said, “Oh, you remember me when I play clarinet in an other group… ” “Ah, you play clarinet.” “Yeah, I play clarinet before.”
Javier Zalba: But, in that moment, I start with the Cubanismo Orchestra, and Buena Vista gave the first concert in Carnegie Hall, and the film. And I think the film showed the world what was happening here in Cuba. I think it was a really nice idea.
Barry Cockcroft: When you travel, do you see a difference in the young students in other countries, compared to the students here?
Javier Zalba: I remember when I do the workshop in Denmark at the Copenhagen Rhythmic Conservatory. I ask, “Is this a private conservatory?” No, no, no. It’s for the government. You go, “Wow.” Because it’s really nice school with each classroom with recording equipment and stuff to record. Nice classroom. But, in Cuba, we have … Well, you know how our situation. It’s too difficult to get anything.
Javier Zalba: But the opportunity to the student here is you just need your talent, that’s it. Here in Cuba, it’s different. You don’t have to pay anything, just study and that’s it. If you want to study, you need your talent. But you have to give a big effort. Oh, at the Conservatory, a lot of countries came to Cuba and make a donation, instruments, supplies, and music books. The Cultural Ministry don’t have money to buy instrument or stuff, and this the difference.
Barry Cockcroft: Maybe this is a simple question, but is it difficult to get little things like reeds and mouthpieces?
Javier Zalba: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Saxophones even?
Javier Zalba: Yeah, yeah. We don’t have a music job here. When the musicians travel, we carry with us a supply and … For example, with all my students, say, “Professor, I don’t have reed.” “Oh, let me see. Ah, okay. Just great.” When I was a student, because no photocoping in the 70’s. Now it is more easy, but you have the opportunity to make a photocopy. It’s more easy. I love the books. When I travel, always I visit the music shops and buy books, because I love the books.
Barry Cockcroft: In your past, your father was in the printing business?
Javier Zalba: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you think you have this love of books because of that influence?
Javier Zalba: Yeah, maybe. I copied a lot of music by hand, or later on by photocopiers. I love the books. And put, when I play, there is an original score and no photocopy, nor a copy by hand. I love to put on my music stand the score.
Barry Cockcroft: Please have some more coffee. If you just had one hour to practise, what would you do?
Javier Zalba: Too complicated. No, because … Let’s see. I start always with my flute, because for the embouchure, I prefer to start with that. If I don’t have time to practise, I prefer to do the basic techniques. But I always start with sound. And when I feel good with my sound. Because, for me, the most important thing is the sound. After the sound, I practise the scales and the basic technique in general.
Javier Zalba: Normally, I start with flute and then saxophone, but it depends. If I have a classical concert with saxophone, I dedicate more time to saxophone, because I change the mouthpiece. I use the Vandoren V16, and to play classical A35. And, soprano, V16 S8. And, my baritone, I use Berg Larsen 105 2M. My Berg Larsen is from the 1980s. A friend of mine, sax player, he say, “Change the mouthpiece.” I’m like, “No, no.” I like my Berg Larsen too much, it’s beautiful.
Barry Cockcroft: If you just had one piece of music that you could play now forever, which piece would that be?
Javier Zalba: In saxophone, I love the Scaramouche by Darius Milhaud. And, in popular music, I love John Coltrane’s music, mainly for the ballads, for example, Dear Lord.
Barry Cockcroft: With the Scaramouche, what is it about this piece that you love so much?
Javier Zalba: The third movement, the Brasileira is … And that is the point. For example, the musician who knows only popular music cannot play the classical music. I think, in general, in musical education, you have to listen to all music, and practise all music, to get more possibility in your interpretation, no?
Barry Cockcroft: Could you give yourself a piece of advice that you would have liked to have heard? What would you say?
Javier Zalba: In general, some young musicians would like to improvise, to play notes without anything, no concept of the … just playing notes. First, you have to know the style. Listen a lot to the style. If you don’t know anything about what you want to play, you cannot play.
Javier Zalba: I remember we had a group. It’s two trombones, two saxophones, two trumpet, and rhythm section. Really nice group. And we are improvising. And I remember my other conductor, a very important musician for us. When we finished, then they said, “Oh, congratulations. You know the Lydian scale?” They go, “Professor, I know the Lydian scale. But I don’t know what I am doing.” And then, when I got the Aebersold book, where the first page appears all the scales, the blues scale. Wow. Little by little, all the scale with the arpeggios.
Barry Cockcroft: How important has it been for you to work with composers? Besides yourself, I know you compose. But how important has it been for you to work with other composers?
Javier Zalba: I like so much play the Cuban composer. For example, the Jorge Lopez Marin was a student of Khatchaturian. And he love the Bernstein’s music. And, in his music, he combined … You feel the Russian influence, American influence, and Cuban influence.
Javier Zalba: And, interesting, sometime I advise him, no? He dedicate to me a suite. In four movements, I play soprano, clarinet, alto, and flute. I suggest to him, in this part, you can make a loop and improvise. And in the score, for the musician who can’t improvise, you can play it as written. But if the musician likes to improvise, put the harmony. I said, “Do a solo.” For me, it’s very interesting. It’s specific with the Cuban composer.
Barry Cockcroft: Thank you very much for the CDs.
Javier Zalba: I hope you like them.
Barry Cockcroft: I look forward to listening to this. How important has recording been for you?
Javier Zalba: Well, I think we have to … most important thing. For example, when I play a concert, I like the programme. Because it’s the evidence. And a recording, because it is for life.
Barry Cockcroft: It’s like a documentation.
Javier Zalba: A documentation. It’s our documentation of our life as musicians.
Barry Cockcroft: Do you like listening back to your older recordings?
Javier Zalba: Yeah, I don’t like it. Ah, it’s a good question. Always when we play a piece, or recording the piece, we say, “I would like to do something.” If I have a chance to do it again, to record again, I would like to change the articulation, or some notes, I don’t like the song or vibrato, it depends.
Barry Cockcroft: You have some music published by Advanced and now also Gruber?
Javier Zalba: Yeah, yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Where else can we find more information?
Javier Zalba: youtube. I put some recordings, in general, of my saxophone quartet, or with my son in playing a concert on YouTube.
Barry Cockcroft: On YouTube?
Javier Zalba: Yep.
Barry Cockcroft: Okay. I will include the links, so people can find more recordings of you, and listen to you. And that’s always helpful. And if someone wanted to contact you?
Javier Zalba: Yeah, Facebook or Messenger or … No, Facebook.
Barry Cockcroft: Facebook? Yeah?
Javier Zalba: At home now I have an internet, but not like as in other parts of the world. Because the internet here, it’s difficult now. We have to pay. For example, you pay in your home a package for TV, internet. Not here. Only one service. But the connection is too slow. It’s not fast. For example, your website. I saw your beautiful website. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. But I got disconnected. Yeah, classic. We are in touch on Messenger. Okay, perfect, no problem. But not all the time. Yesterday, I saw your message. But yesterday in the afternoon I answered you. But you’re …
Barry Cockcroft: I didn’t get it. I will get it next week.
Javier Zalba: But it’s better than years ago, nothing.
Barry Cockcroft: Is it making a difference for you as a musician, to have more contact more easily?
Javier Zalba: Yeah, of course. We need to keep in touch. But, for us, for the musician, it’s for the … For example, I check the jazz on the YouTube. It’s different every day. They put different musicians. And I have a 10 minutes or 15 minutes checking there, but not too long.
Barry Cockcroft: There’s a limit?
Javier Zalba: Yeah.
Barry Cockcroft: Yeah. On Saturday night, you’re playing a live concert with the wind quintet. What do you do before you walk onstage, to make sure you play your best?
Javier Zalba: I need always, for everything, I need time. I have an old car, a small car, a Fiat 126 from Poland. Go to the venue early. I don’t know might happen. For instance, mainly with my car. It’s okay, the engine. Okay, perfect, no problem. And I stay at the venue, with time to relax, playing my instrument a little bit, to feel good.
Barry Cockcroft: Now, is there anything that you’re working on at the moment? You mentioned, in July, you’re recording a new album?
Javier Zalba: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Barry Cockcroft: Is there anything else you are working on at the moment, any writing?
Javier Zalba: I am composing. It’s a surprise.
Barry Cockcroft: Well, I won’t tell him.
Javier Zalba: I am writing now because in September I will do a concert at the Basilica in San Francisco, with a string orchestra. The first part of a concert I play with my saxophone quartet, and the second part I play with the string orchestra. I am writing also a piece to close the concert, the saxophone blues string orchestra. And I show you, and I show my wife. I said, “Listen to it,” because her opinion is very important, no?
Barry Cockcroft: Javier, I’d like to thank you very much for your time today.
Javier Zalba: Do you understand me?
Barry Cockcroft: Of course. I understand everything.
Javier Zalba: Ah. I think I say … My English I learn on the road.
Barry Cockcroft: I thank you very much for …
Javier Zalba: Thank you.
Barry Cockcroft: … taking the time to meet.
Javier Zalba: Thank you.
Barry Cockcroft: And, of course, doing this interview in English.
Javier Zalba: I hope that you can make understand it.