Too often, debut recordings in jazz suffer from the look-at-all-I-can do! syndrome. Tempos are fast and faster, the playing is gymnastic and the writing takes on a pretzel logic just because.
But in his 2007 Evolution/Revolution, his first album as a leader, pianist and composer, Miami-raised Martin Bejerano made clear that he had the technique, knew the tradition and had a personal sound to share — but not at the cost of the music or the audience. In fact, in the liner notes he says, “I like melodies that stick to my head. I like rhythmic things that people can latch onto. I like things that I could play for my mother-in-law.”
For Bejerano, who appears Saturday with his trio and singer Vivian Sessoms at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, relating to the audience without dumbing down the music “is probably the most difficult thing playing jazz.”
Since 2000, Bejerano has been performing and recording with Roy Haynes, one of the truly transcendent drummers in the history of jazz. Other experiences include working with old masters such as Jimmy Heath and the late James Moody, as well as contemporaries such as Russell Malone, Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett and Roy Hargrove, and performing with the likes of Pat Metheny, Dave Holland and Ignacio Berroa.
“People come to a jazz concert for many different reasons,” Bejerano says, “and it’s the musician’s job to try and connect with the audience. And it’s tricky, because you don’t want to play down to the audience. The thing is to play something you want to play in a way that relates to people.
“That’s what I try to do in my original compositions. I really try to find a balance between the more complex things that I like to play and improvise on [and] things that might be accessible to any listener,” he explains. “Maybe the groove is really solid and easily identifiable while the melody is abstract. Or maybe the groove is complex, in an odd meter, and then I balance it with a singable melody. The idea is that there’s always something that the listener can grab on to — that’s the music I like.”
Born in Miami to a Cuban father and an American mother, Bejerano recalls growing up with “a lot of different kinds of music around the house: classical, big band era music, salsa and the popular music of the day. Also, my dad liked to burst into song, Cuban style, now and then, and my mom played some classical piano.”
Despite his Cuban Miami background, Bejerano makes few explicit references to Cuban music in his work — something he addresses slyly in his composition Cubano Arrepentido (Repentant Cuban.)
“The title comes from an expression I heard from my family,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s a Cuban who doesn’t act like a Cuban. I thought it was a perfect description of myself musically. I draw upon a lot of [Cuban music] elements, but it’s not Cuban music.”
He began learning piano at home when he was 7 and studied exclusively classical music until he started at Southwood Junior High School (now Southwood Middle School). While playing trumpet in the school’s jazz band, he discovered jazz improvisation. “It was actually when I first had a chance to improvise,” Bejerano says. “I had played classical so much, and I love classical music, and I played it OK. But I never felt I was on my way to becoming a concert pianist, and I think I knew that early on. The thing with classical music that is so difficult psychologically is that you have to play every note perfectly, but in jazz you have freedom to create, and it made it so much more fun. The idea of creating music spontaneously with other people really appealed to me, and to this day, that’s the reason I love [to improvise].”
He went on to high school at the New World School of the Arts, where his skills and love of jazz were fostered by teacher J.B. Dyas, (currently vice president for education and curriculum development at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz), as well as older students — “fantastic jazz players like [guitarist] Jonathan Kreisberg, [pianist] David Siegel, [guitarist] Greg Fine, who were a great inspiration to learn jazz.”
He graduated from Florida State University and got his master’s degree from the University of Miami, where he now heads the jazz piano department at the Frost School of Music. In 2000, he moved to New York City, where a fellow New World alum, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, got Bejerano a successful audition with Haynes.
“It was surreal,” Bejerano says. “He’s just about my favorite drummer of that generation. He’s on 75 percent of my favorite records. To suddenly be playing with him was amazing.”
It was also oddly appropriate. Before settling on the piano, Bejerano wanted to play drums.
“It’s what really got me into music,” he says.” I ended up buying a drum set while in college and teaching myself to play. Even to this day I love to play drums, I think a lot like a drummer and love to play with great drummers. It’s been a huge influence in the way I play piano.”
Saturday’s show with Sessoms, an exceptional vocalist who has worked with artists such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, P. Diddy, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, will feature a wide ranging program drawing from the Great American Songbook but also modern pop.
“Vivian is such a great singer,” Bejerano says. “She can do Betty Carter and nail it, really improvise and swing and then turn around and do a Stevie Wonder song — and she has that R&B thing down. I’m really influenced by popular music so I love to take pop music from different eras and do our own take on it.”
If you go
What: The Martin Bejerano Trio featuring Vivian Sessoms
When: 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Ridge
Info: $25 in advance, $30 day of show at 786-573-5300 or smdcac.org