The Marimbist from Puerto Rico

                       Image courtesy of juanalamo.com.

The marimba rang as the swift mallets of Dr. Juan Alamo cascaded down the aluminum bars.  His skill and prowess with the mallet instrument is apparent now, but this was considered an oddity growing up.

Born and raised in Cidra, Puerto Rico, Alamo gained interest in rhythm and percussion.  Listening to various CDs, he discovered that he loved the versatility and range that marimba had to offer.  While not a popular instrument in Puerto Rico, Alamo’s teacher instructed him in the art of mallet playing, as this was required for admittance into the Music Conservatory of Puerto Rico.  After graduating Magna Cum Laude, he relocated his talents to the University of Northern Texas, where he continued his education with some of the best musical minds of their time.  Several years later, an invitation to interview for a teaching position at the University of North Carolina moved him to where he now resides.

Classical, rock, jazz, Latin, ethnic, all of these styles hold a special place in Alamo’s heart.  While no particular style stands out above the others, Alamo thoroughly enjoys performing solos, where a higher level of intimacy can be felt with the audience.  The wide grin on his face as he performs demonstrates his adoration for music.  “The entire room feels more comfortable when he’s there,” said fellow percussionist, Dan Davis.

Dr. Alamo has written many instructional books for beginner and intermediate mallet instruments.  He is also an instructor and advocate for numerous jazz workshops.  His interest in teaching began as somewhat of an accident.  He was thrown into a teaching position, and he discovered that the best way to improve as a player was to help others improve.  He learned that he loved helping the musicians of tomorrow.  “I feel blessed that I can do what I love,” said Alamo.  “My students don’t just learn what I teach them.  Through teaching, I learn as much from them as they do from me.”

–Lucas Popp

Interviewed: Juan Alamo (percussion), Dan Davis (percussion), Kennedy Crawford (vocalist, student)

Scott Sawyer FAQ

Image courtesy of scottsawyer.net.

How has moving as a child affected his music?

Scott Sawyer began his life in the bustling city of Chicago.   The center of jazz after the Great Migration in the early 1900s, Chicago continues today to inspire musicians.  While his time in Chicago was fleeting, echoes of its New Orleans-style culture can be found in his music.  He also lived in Dallas, Texas, a region influenced by the jazz of Kansas City—blues, ragtime, swing, and bebop.  After a brief period in Auburn, Maine, he finally settled in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he was exposed to southern roots music and blues.

Who were some major influences in his study of music?

Scott Sawyer’s father owned an extensive jazz record collect that eventually influenced his growing interest in the genre.  He enjoyed listening to the works of jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Lou Rawls, Bola Sete, John Coltrane, and many others, but it was the music of Jimi Hendrix and various rock and blues musicians that truly fostered his love for music.  Jim Hall, a leading guitarist of this era, sparked his interest in jazz guitar.

Who did he learn from?

Born to a prominent jazz guitarist, Scott Sawyer was immersed in a world of jazz.   Without under-emphasizing the effects of musicians to whom he listened and performed, he spent much time studying under some very prominent artists.  He partook in several lessons in New York City with the great John Scofield, who has performed with many of the elite jazz artists of today.  A few more pivotal lessons came later when he travelled to Boston to study under Mick Goodrick, who helped develop Sawyer’s post-bop skills. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

What style of music does he play?

Scott Sawyer emerged as a prominent jazz guitarist focusing on jazz-fusion and straight-ahead jazz.  Jazz-fusion mixes funk and R&B rhythms with the electronic effect sand amplification of rock music.  The style is also known to comprise of complex time signatures and extended group improvisations, which allow his prowess in the rhythm section to shine.  Straight-ahead jazz, in slight contrast, is a style heavily influenced by bebop, and is characterized by a walking bass, a 4/4 swung time signature, and syncopated chords on the piano.  While not the limit of his ability, these two styles seem to represent him and his groups.

What groups does he perform with?

Scott Sawyer can be found performing in many groups and combos across North Carolina and its surroundings regions.  I comprehensive schedule of his performances can be found here.

360° Jazz Initiative CD release concert for students.

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The Kenan Music Building hosted 360° Jazz Initiative tonight for their “Distracted Society” CD release concert.  Dozens of students in attendance for the 2015 Summer Jazz Workshop, along with many other spectators, listened intently as the group opened with an upbeat opener.  The band was met with roars of applause as the horns launched the performance.

An original by tenor saxophonist Dave Finucane, “Bent” got the recital hall moving, with Jason Foureman rocking the walking bass part and Juan Alamo going to town on the vibraphone.  In contrast, “Grey Blue,” another tune by Finucane, changed the mood of the room with a beautiful tenor saxophone feature with Stephen Anderson on piano accompaniment.  Other members of the group include Jim Ketch (trumpet), John Parker (trumpet), Scott Sawyer (guitar), and Dan Davis (drums).

Made up mostly of UNC faculty, the members seemed eager to pass on their musical wisdom to the developing musicians in the audience.  These students ranged from middle school to college, covering all instrumentation.  The love of jazz could be felt throughout the recital hall, with nodding heads, feet keeping time, and the looks of awe on the students’ faces.

“Distracted Society,” released by Summit Records, is the first CD release of 360° Jazz Initiative.  It will begin national radio broadcasts next week.  The group aims to maintain their innovative outlook on jazz while jointly respecting past styles.  “The old standards were new at one time,” said Stephen Anderson, piano.  “We like to keep an eye on the past as we look to the future.”

–Lucas Popp