To call Deborah De La Torre (aka “La Cocodrila”) a Latin Jazz musician is to sell her short. While she most certainly plays jazz piano, and she most certainly makes the most of her Cuban heritage, that is but a mere hint of what lies beneath her musical surface. This Crocodile possesses a much deeper bite.
De La Torre does what the best jazz musicians do: rather than take root in the previously defined parameters of her genre and pursue the obvious, she uses those sounds as a jumping off point, pushing her music beyond its preconceived limits, bringing other influences and thought processes along for the ride.
On her debut album ¡Coño! (But with a Swing), De La Torre shifts time signatures, rips off odd chords, burns through trippy single-note runs, and adds the deft touch of a classical pianist to a marvelous musical stew. This is not to be confused with a soup, which blends all the ingredients into one defined outcome. Rather, each element De La Torre brings to the table can be distinguished while being part of the greater whole.
The Denver, Colorado-based musician has spent her life preparing for this moment, a fact not lost on CirdecSongs when first reviewing her album. From the sound of things, this is just the beginning. When she’s not composing or performing, De La Torre is teaching, spreading her wisdom and enthusiasm for music to the next generation of aspiring musicians.
La Cocodrila was kind enough to take some time out of her day to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: What led you to jazz?
Deborah “La Cocodrila” De La Torre: While I was in elementary school in sixth grade, famed composer/arranger/ clinician and trumpeter Victor Lopez, who wasa band teacher at the time, brought his junior high school jazz band to play for us. I recall they played a couple of jazz standards and a Latin tune or two.That event shocked me, because up until that point I had only seen adults perform jazz in movies on TV andIhad never seen children play in a band. That night at home, I begged my parents to let me join the band next year, and convinced them to buy me a flute and pay for lessons.
I did get to play in Mr.Lopez’s middle school jazz band for a while, but my parents kept me firmly on the classical track due to their traditional views on a “proper” music education for young ladies. The closest I could get to jazz or Latin rhythms was when I was able to study Lecuona, Ginastera and some Gershwin, or when I taught myself how to play every TV jingle, cartoon and movie theme, everything on the radio, Latin songs, holiday tunes, etc. all by ear. Looking back, I think my life would have been different had my parents known of a private teacher who specialized in jazz piano, especially since I had been writing music since I was very young, and even won a few contests.
Meanwhile, my classical piano lessons were sometimes at my teacher’s university campus studio on Saturdays. I could hear the university jazz band rehearsing upstairs and was blown away by how thrilling and exciting that music was, but it might as well have been happening on the moon. During my lessons, as I dutifully worked through my Bach or Chopin, I would pretend that the jazz students upstairs could hear me playing, and that they would come downstairs and knock on my teacher’s door, and ask me to join them. Quite the fantasy, I know, but I sat through many piano lessons playing out this exact scenario in my mind, week after week. I eventually played keyboard in my high school jazz band, and the jazz rhythms and Latin melodic structures that had been within me all along began to emerge as I studied music composition in college in that same university, in the building next door.
Explain how your influences impact your compositions.
Stravinsky’s music was another strong influence, and I admit that I am impatient with staying within one time signature for too long, because I get restless and feel that meter can operate as a restraint. My construction, my architecture, and my improv are all very intentional. Change, randomness, control, rhythm and melody are how I build my music. I would describe my melodies as jagged and even straining at times, maybe “acute” is another good word. They are not at rest, and they are not at peace, and even in “El Sudor,” which is a slow and sensual song, there is a great deal of tension.
Basically, my melodies are all straining to move forward or to get to another place. Lecuona’s lush chords and Cuban charm are always with me, but then I wonder about the musical career of his sister Ernestina who taught him how to play piano, and his cousin Margarita who composed “Babalu Aye” — made famous by Ricky Ricardo – who were these women and why don’t we learn about them as well? I also love Ornette Coleman’s thought-provoking interval constructionin his song “Peace” for example. However, my intervals and melodies are admittedly not as sweet, they are harsh, more vicious.
I think about Phineas Newborn Jr.’s career and life story quite often, and his astonishing technique, a true genius. Had I known about him, or Nina Simone, as a small child, I know my career would have been different. Her courage inspires me, but I also think about the difficulties she faced throughout her life, what she said with her verbal words and through her musical words and phrases. Keeping all of the above in my heart, I want to be as honest as I can in my music, and I have a lot more to say, musically.
What would be the most important aspect listeners can take from your new album?
I hope that the listeners enjoy the music, but I would also like them to hear the construction, how the melodic threads and rhythms worked together or in contrast, basically the craft of the compositions, the tools and techniques used in building each song. Maybe someone will say, “ah! I see/hear what you did there!” But mostly I hope that the listeners will get to know me, who I am musically, and what I’m trying to say through my music. I’m hoping they will “get it” and “get me.”
What are you looking for when you choose a band mate?
This is harder to talk about, as it’s deeply personal, and involves relationship-building. Great musicians are super busy, so locking-down a project is tricky. Also, my charts are on the thick side, so we need to spend time working together, and being professional goes without saying. I believe that someone who is strongly rooted within a Caribbean/Latinx musical tradition, someone who is deeply passionate about it, will hear what I’m trying to say through my music. I also think there has to be some chemistry between the musicians too!
Also, they need to be willing to keep pushing their own boundaries because my musical expression will continue to evolve, develop and change, and I’m hoping the same for them. As I said, I’m restless and have a lot more to say and do. The ideal band members would be interested in building new things with me, but I also love hearing what they can bring to the music.
As structured as I sound, what I typically say in rehearsals are things like, “explore that some more, keep on going,” or “go ahead and break out of the box and do your thing, go for it.” I appreciate it when the other musicians respect my work, but I also want them to be themselves as much as possible. If we can do this together, then it’s amazing.
Putting this first record together was thrilling but also intimidating, overall.However, I’ll never forget how wonderful it was. All the musicians on the album were great to work with. Thomas Blomster on percussion and Ron Bland on bass brought their extensive knowledge, virtuosity, and professional history into their work, and were extremely sensitive and dedicated to the integrity of my compositions. The studio staff was also great, and I’d like to think we’ve all become good friends from this experience. Those were some of the happiest and fulfilling days of my life and I can’t wait to do it all over again (soon!).
The number of female jazz bandleaders continues to increase. How have the politics of gender within the music industry affected your work?
This is a very important topic, and I just taught a master class at the university where I teach titled, “Latinas in the Commercial Music Industry,” and it was interesting to see how the students, visitors, and colleagues wanted to share their experiences after the talk.
I believe it’s true that the topic of gender has been at front and center at every turn in this business. For example, women working their way up in the music industry have learned to be careful even when they confide in someone, as well as whether or not to report receiving inappropriate behavior or treatment because of the risk of retaliation, demotion, or lost opportunities at the hands of powerful gatekeepers. I’m also aware of how being a Latina bandleader has the potential to impact how I’m viewed and even treated by other musicians and industry people, an aspect I’ve kept in mind when developing my brand (“La Cocodrila”)!
There is some great academic research being written on the politics of gender in music, which explores how people are dealing with associations and expectations about music and musicians, which can be subsequently impacted by the listener’s or observer’sgender, race, ethnicity, cultural context, religion, and even politics. When I was growing up, girls were expected to either sing or play the piano and boys learned the trumpet or drums. Girls were less likely to grow up to be composers, music directors, conductors, or bandleaders. They were more likely, however, to be a private piano teacher or lead a children’s choir.
Today, recording studios are still mostly owned and operated by men, senior-level executives are mostly men, club owners are mostly men, and all-female bands are still considered a novelty. Rolling Stone magazine just published an article (April 29, 2019) describing how “diversity in radio ownership is vanishing” with 7% of radio stations being female-owned, and 3% minority owned.
What are your feelings toward the digital forms of music distribution (streams and downloads) versus the classic forms (LPs and CDs), particularly where the distribution of royalties are concerned?
First of all, (May 5th) is the seven-month anniversary of my record release! I’m so proud and amazed that my music is becoming known and I’ve been very fortunate and very grateful to have received such positive reviews! I’d like to say another BIG THANK YOU to everyone who has taken the time to review my work and write about it. I am not taking any of this for granted! Throughout the past seven months, I’ve been continuing to send my CDs out into the world and am very fortunate to be getting spins on the radio and to be included in podcasts.
Regarding digital distribution, it is clear that the top artists are doing well on digital platforms while “the rest of us” will have to work really hard to swim upstream. As I was gearing up to release this record, I had to put my learning curve into overdrive to read everything and anything I could find on this subject. What I kept reading was that for emerging artists, building up the audience is key, so one should get the music out there on every platform possible, which honestly becomes expensive.
CDs are more practical than vinyl, and download cards are easier to hand out if you meet someone on a plane or overseas because disc drives and CD players are disappearing. People want to access the music on their phone first, and they’ll let me know how they listen, but many peopleI’ve spoken to will dig around to find a free version to listen to before they are forced to pay for it, such as a station or podcast that plays their favorite genre and, if they have to, pay a subscription, but ideally not.
The metrics from digital distribution are very useful and important from a business standpoint (i.e., planning a tour, a marketing campaign or designing merch).Regarding ROI (return on investment), commercial music is a business, and one doesn’t typically expect to make a profit the first three years of any business. The word out there is that the money comes from shows and merch sold at or after the shows, and licensing is another way to see some profit.
You are the leader of your dream band. Which musicians are playing behind you? Choose whomever you like, from any era.
My dream would be to play as a trio with two current superstars: the amazing Sheila E. on percussionand the brilliant Esperanza Spalding on bass. I don’t know if they have ever worked together before, but being able to work with both of them at the same time would put me up in the clouds!
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