Three weeks ago Juan Garcia-Herreros aka The Snow Owl was in town. Juan was on a whistle-stop visit in London before heading off to Paris to play gigs with his band as they tour through Europe. Now for those who are not familiar with Snow Owl, he is one of the top bass players on the planet, majoring on the six string contrabass guitar. Snow Owl has played with many of the top jazz and R&B musicians including James Spalding, Al Jarreau and Greg Osby. The Snow Owl also leads his own band and has released two CDs to date: Art of Contrabass Guitar in 2010 and Normas in 2013 (tracks from both CDs can be heard on Jazz London Radio). Snow Owl’s talents have been rewarded as this year he has been nominated for a Latin Grammy in the jazz category.
Snow Owl has an interesting background. He was born in Columbia and went to live in New York at the age of 9. He lived there until the age of 15 where he relocated to Florida. Whilst in Florida he began to get serious about music and started learning to play the bass guitar. As Florida is the home for many great retired musicians, Snow Owl was fortunate to learn music from some of the masters of jazz and also learned about the legend of Florida’s most famous bass player Jaco Pastorius. Presently, Snow Owl divides his time between the old world and the new (to be clichéd), spending time in both the United States in Vienna. This varied background has very much informed Snow Owl’s music; his music can be described as contemporary jazz but with a latin underpinning where the groove is concerned, the music is often intense and explosive, the antithesis of smooth jazz.
There is a dearth of this type of music presently on mainstream radio, and in particular, the great musicians who make this music are not always well known in the British Isles. However, you can also argue that there is a dearth of contemporary jazz musicians getting any exposure at all. This is something the likes of Jazz London Radio can hopefully address, by bringing to the attention of the public these great artists.
- How did you get into bass playing?
First of all I want to say thank you for the interview, and a huge hello to my London fans. Well first of all, I learned to play bass by accident (laughs). My brother was learning to play drums and he “bullied” me into playing bass which was quite funny,
He’s an older brother? Yes, he’s an older brother, typical! I thought the bass was the most boring instrument in the world when I picked it up and I started playing with my brother; and the first thing that happens when you put a bass around your neck is you get asked, do you know of Jaco Pastorius? He’s the local “matador”, he’s the man. I heard one of his CDs and it opened up a whole new spectrum for me when it comes to bass playing. Jaco extended the use of harmonics so he was looking to go higher on the instrument.
- What were your early influences?
Anthony Jackson came up with the concept of the contrabass guitar. When you look at the bass clef as a range, it extends over to the range of a cello. Anthony Jackson’s idea was he wanted an instrument that covers the entire range of the bass clef in the orchestral sense. For example low A to high E. So the whole process was started by Jaco and Eberhard Weber, Anthony was influenced by these people to say, wouldn’t it be great to have the entire range on one instrument? We are living in a renaissance of electric bass.
I left Columbia when I was nine years old, and landed in New York city, at the age of 15 I went to Florida and that’s when I started the bass. I am more or less self-taught. I found only one school which had a music programme. I went to talk to the band director, I asked her if there is a slot for a bass player, and she said come tomorrow we need a bass player, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. The next day they started fitting me for a Scottish kilt! I said, what did I get myself into here? This high school was called Duneadon high school, and had the most famous Scottish pipe band in Florida, I thought what the hell and played with them for three years! Thanks to them I learned a lot of great things. There was one class for jazz ensemble, music theory, the district (council) didn’t want to pay for that class. I went to the teacher and I said can I teach that class, she said ok and I did that as well.
- You’ve played with some of the top jazz musicians.
I played with James Spalding, that was extremely memorable because when you play with jazz elders who are carriers of the tradition, when you experience sonically how they are thinking, those are the real lessons. From James Spalding and Nat Adderley in Florida, I got to jam with a lot of the retired musicians from Duke Ellington’s big band. I fell in love with the blues thanks to their guidance, and if you don’t understand the blues then you will have no chance to moving up to jazz. You have to understand the function of the dominant chord that doesn’t resolve (laughs).
That’s fascinating because jazz is big in Europe but they have their own way of approaching it, as Bill Bruford said once, that they have their own backgrounds, they might use more classical or folk structures.
You have to look at it like this, there was the classical absolutely, and also baroque hundreds of years of music that heavily influence the way European musicians phrase, but in America, jazz was and sometimes still is the protest to the what they called the old world or what they considered the old harmony. For instance in Bach you can hear the turnaround on Autumn Leaves, but Charlie Parker, Dizzy (Gillespie), Miles (Davis) with Bill Evans reorganized it as if to say this is our new interpretation of it.
You have a lot of influence there from the elders, what about the contemporary guys?
I have had the honour of working with Miguel Zenón and Antonio Sanchez. Roberto Quintero, Hector Martingnon, Al Jarreau, Greg Osby, Charlie Hunter; there are so many people and you can’t remember everyone of course so I hope don’t offend anybody (laughter). I have also worked with Turkish pianist Tulug Tirpan and the great (percussionist) Trilok Gurtu.
- How did you get the nickname Snow Owl?
Snow Owl is not a nickname; it’s my real name from my Indian Andean routes. The Chief gives you the name, and then as a teenager you rebel but later on I came across two Shamans in America and both of them looked at me said they see a Snow Owl without even knowing my name. Since that moment I decided to refer to myself as Snow Owl and decided to use it for my band, my band is made up of different members but it’s with the spirit.
- What basses do you play. Do you play six string primarily?
I play a signature model I designed with Andreas Neubauer who is based in Austria, so people can order a Snow Owl bass. I play six, five or four string bass.
Do you play acoustic?
I played acoustic bass for four years but not anymore, I performed with a symphony orchestra but fell in love with the contrabass guitar and decided to dedicate myself to that.
There have been other guys over the years like Steve Swallow and Bob Cranshaw, who started with acoustic but switched to electric.
Yes, that’s true, I know Steve Swallow, he is a good friend and a great guy.
- Do you see yourself linking latin music with contemporary jazz?
We are living in a world that is so interconnected. Let’s say, my shirt is made in Turkey, my (leather) jacket is from London, everything we do is a world fusion, every aspect of our lives. There is no exclusive authenticity anymore. As a jazz musician, it is my duty to document that, this is my time to do it. That’s the best way to describe my music. The elements are all from different parts.
For example, Tito Puente played tunes written by Horace Silver because Horace had that clave (Spanish for key); Horace’s dad was from Cape Verde and brought different elements to his music.
- How big is jazz music in Columbia?
We have an amazing revolution or awakening for jazz right now in Columbia. I am so happy, I am seeing initiatives like the Cali Collective, and thanks to the things we have achieved, it is really celebrated in Columbia. I got a message recently from aspiring musicians in Columbia saying thank you for the inspiration.
What is the music of Columbia? We have 96 unique rhythms which belong to that country. We have an amazing Afro Caribbean, Afro Pacific and Andean, amazing possibilities for mixtures and finally they are coming out, I am so happy for that. In the recent Latin Grammy awards at the semifinal stage, there have been many Columbian artists; I was very excited about that. Now we have musicians like (harpist) Edmar Castañeda. In latin music we always had an amazing presence but now in jazz things are coming together.
- Which musicians past and present would you like to play with?
Bach, I would have loved to have a jam session with that guy! Bach on piano, Tony Williams on drums. Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Woody Shaw on trumpet, Eddie Gomez on acoustic bass or Eberhard Weber on electric upright bass; an arsenal of bass players! Billie Holiday on voice, Stephane Grapelli on violin. Oh yes, and Joe Zawinul on keyboards with Pat Metheny on guitar. And percussion? Roberto Quintero, he is such an all-round musician. He’s responsible for the entire crossover of Afro Caribbean and bata drums into jazz. That would be one hell of a band!
- Who are your favourite bass players past and present?
I don’t have an answer for that, my favourite bass players are drummers! Tony Williams, Buddy Rich, Billy Cobham. What are Sting’s bass lines without Stewart Copeland? I learned to play bass from the drummers because they are who I have to lock with. Look at a building, you have a concrete block, steel and the filling; bass and drums together are no longer a background instrument.
Fascinating answer. Your favourite rhythm sections?
I have to say John Bonham and Jean Paul Jones from Led Zepplin, the rhythm section for Brothers Johnson with Louis Johnson on bass and a Cuban band called La Banda NG.
Thank you Snow Owl for a really interesting interview.
Photo of Juan Garcia-Herreros by Gustavo Allidi Bernascon