INTERVIEW: Dave Gleason of Sensemaya

Dave Gleason

The first (and last) time I saw Sensemaya was when they played Riverfront Park in Troy back in 2005. Mind you, I haven’t “stayed away” from the band; as I recall, I enjoyed their performance very much. It’s just that the band and I haven’t crossed paths since then. That’ll change on Friday night at A Place For Jazz, when I attend the CD-release party for the group’s new disc “Havana Before Dawn.”

Pianist Dave Gleason is the band’s leader, as well as someone who’s actually living his education: He studied the folk and popular music forms of Puerto Rico and Cuba while working on his M.A. in Music at Tufts University. He also studied ethnomusicology and composition while playing gigs and jam sessions around the Boston area. So when he was gracious enough to give me a few minutes as he prepared for the drop party, I knew what question I’d ask him first:

Q: What the heck is an “ethnomusicologist,” and when did you know you wanted to become one? 

A: It just means someone who studies world music. You could also say it’s a anthropologist who focuses on the relationship between music and culture. An ethnomusicologist does field work and participant observation. They live in the culture they study and learn their music by playing it. Many ethnomusicologists focus on Africa, India, China, etc., but my focus was Cuba and Puerto Rico. I knew I wanted to study ethnomusicology on about the second day of my freshman year at the Crane School of Music. We read about it in an Intro to Music Studies class. I remember calling my parents that afternoon and telling them that I knew this was going to part of my future. Dr. Marsha Baxter at Crane is an ethnomusicologist, and she helped me get my start; later I pursued it in graduate school.

Q: Your bio says you studied the music of Puerto Rico and Cuba while you were working on your Masters degree at Tufts. Does that mean you spent time in the countries themselves, or did you just surf the ‘net like everybody else?
A: I traveled to both places, and I have the pictures to prove it! I was fortunate to be part of an artistic and cultural exchange between Tufts and Cuba in 2001. That experience really changed my life. It was the first time I really experienced such a different culture. The sounds of the music got into my head and never left. At that time I was really interested in the Cuban son, but when I got to Cuba, I discovered timba on the radio and in the clubs. Timba is a style of cuban music that incorporates son, rumba, jazz, funk and soul. At that time, Los Van Van’s album “Llego” was constantly on the radio, and it’s still one of my favorite albums. I would have liked to do my fieldwork in Cuba the following year, but that would have presented legal complications. The first trip was completely legal, but a second trip in two years would not have been approved. I was lucky that I had also inroads to the Puerto Rican community in Boston. For my master’s thesis, I turned my attention to Puerto Rican folk music and spent part of the 2002-2003 academic year in Puerto Rico interviewing musicians, going to concerts and playing with bands.
Q: Tufts is outside of Boston. Boston’s jazz scene takes a lot of pounding, that it doesn’t have the quality and the players of cities like New York and Chicago. What was your experience like in Boston, both as a listener and a player?
A: No one could ever claim that Boston tops the New York jazz scene, but Boston has a flourishing jazz scene of its own. I used to hear Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone quite a bit, and that was a treat. Boston really has several different scenes: There’s the one that is centered on Berklee, and that’s experimental and educational. But there’s also a scene of older, mostly black jazz players that’s more down-to-earth. When I first came to Boston, that was the group I used to play with. They had tremendous weekly jam sessions at a French restaurant in the Financial District. Later I joined up with some salsa bands and briefly with the Either/Orchestra. We played some great clubs they have there, like the Reggatabar in Cambridge and Johnny D’s in Somerville. Danilo Perez used to come and sit in with the salsa band I played with. I would bring two keyboards, and one of us would play piano and the other would play organ – kind of like Eddie and Charlie Palmieri used to do.

Dave Gleason
Q: What was your first exposure to the piano, and when did it become “the thing” for you? Also, who are your biggest influences, in Latin jazz or otherwise?
A: I didn’t take piano lessons until middle school, but I seem to have always had toy keyboards as a child. I used to teach myself songs from books and off of the radio. By the end of eighth grade, things really started to “click” for me and I think I knew then that I wanted to play piano professionally some day. Thankfully, I had good teachers: Rose Reed, Sue Lavigne, Lee Shaw and Dr. Gary Busch at Potsdam. I think I barely got into to Crane as a pianist. I worked really hard my senior year of high school to get my classical chops together. Once I was there, I worked hard at playing jazz and classical and learned a lot.  When I went to Boston, I kept a pretty intense practice schedule; I think that’s when I started to sound like a real pianist. I’ve been influenced by lots of great pianists from many styles: Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, Glenn Gould, Eddie Palmieri, and Bebo Valdes are some of my favorites. I draw a lot of influence from non-pianists as well. My favorite musicians of all time are Tito Puente, Astor Piazzolla, Ravi Shankar and Miles Davis.
Q: In addition to Sensemaya, you’ve also played in straight-ahead bands like Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble and Joe Barna’s Sketches of Influence. What do you get from playing in those bands that you don’t get from Sensemaya, and vice versa?
A: The difference in those bands is in a word, swing. I love playing clave-based rhythms, but I also like to swing hard. In the Big Soul Ensemble and Sketches of Influence, I have the opportunity to play with Lou Smaldone on bass. Lou has a joyous swing that makes everything I play feel right. For me, swing and Latin are two sides of the same coin. They both have an African polyrhythmic element that leads to musical conversations among the parts. It’s really fun to play the same jazz tunes over either groove… or even funk or samba. The Keith Pray big band is a special experience. There is nothing quite like a good big band. I love the idea of seventeen musicians working together to bring to life a composition full of thoughtful orchestration and improvisation. What’s missing on those jazz gigs is the authentic Latin grooves. Most straight-ahead jazz bands play jazz-Latin; Sensemaya plays Latin-jazz. There’s a difference.
Q: How did Sensemaya come about, and what were the growing pains like?
A: When I moved to Troy from Boston in 2003, I wanted to keep playing Latin jazz. At that time, there were no bands to join up with, so I started my own. Initially, I called up Ryan Lukas, Tim Williams and Ben Acrish. We all went to Potsdam together, and played in a jam band called Mojive. Come to think of it, Mojive was a major influence on Sensemaya. It had the same instrumentation and had a hybrid style that sometimes included Afro-pop and Latin feels. Pete Sweeney and I had played together in the Joey Thomas Band, and I met Walter Ramos when I was researching Puerto Rican folk music. I did some initial arrangements, and we recorded a demo at Cotton Hill. We got some good gigs pretty quickly and played the local jazz spots. Eventually, we were playing Justin’s and Chameleon on the Lake every week.

At some point, Walter shifted from congas to vocals and Tony Garcia Jr. joined up on congas. With Tony came his father Tony Garcia Sr. on bongos. At the same time, we brought in Erik Johnson as a frequent sub. During that time, we had the opportunity to play many of the regional festivals and concert series. Eventually, Ryan and Ben Acrish moved away from the Capital Region. That was a bit of a growing pain for us, but now we’ve recovered a permanent line-up again. Over the years we all delved deeply into the different Latin styles, and our concept grew together. There has definitely been a shift from mostly instrumental to mostly vocal tunes, as well as a growing focus on timba.
Q: It took five years for Sensemaya to record their first disc “Shake It,” and then only a year to come with “Havana Before Dawn.” Did the new music come together that fast, or did you guys just decide after “Shake It,” “Hey, that was fun, let’s do another one”?
A: There’s a lot of reasons “Shake It!” took five years. We started by recording four salsa tunes with the original version of Sensemaya and mixing them. Then there were some personnel changes and we set out to record eight more Latin jazz instrumentals. It was a lot of material and mixing, mastering, art and design all took substantial time. There was no real deadline, so Rob Aronstein and I spent a lot of hours doing detailed work. Next think we knew, we were releasing it five years after the first session. One of the things I like about “Shake It!” is that – because it took five years – it represents the progression of musicians and material from many of the years we played together.
“Havana Before Dawn” is a completely different concept. We set out to record a specific group of our tunes that made sense together as an album in order to achieve a certain mood. Four of these were tunes we had been playing for years, but we updated the arrangements. The others were brand new for the album. We focused on the music of Walter Ramos because it expressed the classic night-time mood we were looking for. Since we had the experience of doing “Shake It,” we knew what needed to be done and we got all of parts of the process in motion together.  Pete Sweeney deserves a lot of credit as the initiator of this album. He pushed us to get it going and introduced us to Malcolm Cecil, the engineer. After we set our goal of a fall release, we composed, arranged, rehearsed, recorded, overdubbed, mixed, mastered and produced on a compressed time line. I think because of that focus, “Havana Before Dawn” has a lot more unity than “Shake It!”
Q: The liner notes talk about Havana before dawn as a real thing. “Samba de Aviaco,” for instance, could have been a field recording from Carnaval. Can this be considered a “concept album” for you – that is, did you have a single vision in mind for the disc?
A: Yes, exactly. I’m glad that’s coming across to the listener. We wanted the album to have a nocturnal feel, like one long night out in Havana. The ideas behind the songs could be conversations, experiences or realizations along the way. The songs have varied subjects, but they all retain some nocturnal aspect like a darkened vibe, deep groove and in many cases minor keys. This long night comes to an end with the last track “Amanecer,” the rhythm of the sunrise.
Q: Two of Ryan Lukas’ compositions – “A Donde Se Fue El Fuego” and “Ya Se Fue” – appear on the disc, but Ryan himself does not. Can you talk about that a little?
A: Ryan is a superb composer, and he was Sensemaya’s first bassist. For many years, Ryan and I had a bit of a John Lennon/Paul McCartney relationship. About five years ago, he moved to Berkeley, California. Now he tours the U.S. with his creative power trio called the Real Nasty. We’ve been playing his tunes for years, and we felt they very much fit the mood of the album. We considered sending him the unfinished tracks and letting him record the original bass parts he used to play, but that would not have fit the concept of the album. We were going for an old-school “everyone playing in the same room” type of feel. Besides, Erik Johnson sounds outstanding on the album; he really nailed it!
Q: What’s a bigger rush for you – people listening to Sensemaya (that is, getting the history as well as the musicianship), or dancing to Sensemaya?
A: That’s a tough question. I think we like both kinds of responses to our music, but if I had to pick one, I prefer dancing. I think there is something ancient that is tapped into when there is dancing and music together. Initially, the dancers respond to the music, but eventually the dancers inspire the musicians. It creates a positive feedback loop and definitely heightens the mood.

Interview and story by J Hunter

Dave Gleason and the other members of Sensemaya celebrate the release of their new CD, “Havana Before Dawn,” at 8pm on Friday (October 28) with a special concert at the First Unitarian Society’s Whisperdome in Schenectady, as part of A Place for Jazz’s 2011 concert series. Tix are $15; students $7; children under 12 FREE.

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