Musical Identity

Looking for a Sound Between Two Oceans

By Carlos Averhoff Jr.

A portrait of Carlos Averhoff Jr. Photo by Delio Regueral. 

Frankly, I’m not used to talking about myself, and even less writing about myself. My way of expressing myself has been through musical notes, whether the buoyant Cuban clave rhythms or the equally ebullient American swing. 

I’m a Cuban saxophone player, composer and teacher. Ever since I was a kid, music has been my reason for living. Maybe even before. If it’s true that babies hear things from inside the womb and absorb those sounds, my dad’s saxophone playing formed an integral part of that gestation. Carlos Averhoff Sr. is a Cuban saxophone player who played with Irakere, the prestigious jazz band of Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés.  From early on, my dad ingrained in me the tenacity, discipline, unflagging rigor and the conviction that only long and tireless hours of study could help me achieve musical excellence. 

But as life and Cuban reality would have it, my father left the island when I was barely a teenager. In his absence, I became a man. I became a musician while he was in a faraway place—in a world unconnected by Skype and Internet. But even so with his help I discovered the American jazz greats through the cassette tapes he sent me from Miami with people traveling to the island. I analyzed them in an almost scientific manner in great detail, dissecting each note, every arpeggio and every phrase. Like me, many Cuban musicians educated themselves in the language of jazz a fuerza de guataca—by the sheer effort of listening.

My pedigree, if you could call it that, was involuntary. At home, I grew up imbued with music, for reasons beyond my control. One could almost call it inertia. The country of my birth also shaped me, since Cubans can hardly escape from the all-encompassing music of the island. Music forms us, shapes us, gives us our identity. My musical training, academically speaking, took place in Cuban state-run schools: the Manuel Saumell Music Conservatory, the Amadeo Roldán school and for a short time, the Higher Institute for the Arts. My initial training focused on the classical genre and I began playing  the alto saxophone. 

I remember that period fondly. It’s well known that artistic training in Cuba is outstanding. But  perhaps it’s not as well known that the dynamics between teacher and student is one of respect and rigor—at least within the arts. The student is a faithful devotee of the words and instruction of his or her teacher, and the effort made in and beyond the classroom is unquestioned. Cuban teachers of this period—Juan Felipe Tartabul, Francisco Javier Lara,  Javier Salva and Jorge Luis Almeida—made me shed a lot of tears, but evoked just as many smiles. 

Through another stroke of luck, at the age of 19, I held in my hands a tenor saxophone. My school had been invited to Canada on a cultural exchange and they needed a tenor saxophone player. And although I play other types of saxophones, this was the moment of truth for me. I found myself, my voice, in the tenor saxophone. It brought together everything about who I am, my temperament, my voice, my personality, my identity. And precisely in search of that identity and voice, I left the island a little more than a decade ago. The desire to study the language of American jazz in its purest and strictest essence brought me to Boston, where I received a scholarship from Berklee College of Music. I finished up my studies there with honors and continued the following year to study for a Master’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC). These were years of sacrifice and challenges, but above all, years of constant discovery.  

During my classes with renowned teachers in these institutions, I began to understand that without doing the homework of studying the underpinnings and the fundamental keys of the language of American jazz, one could not even begin to create fusion. Without understanding history, one could not generate new sounds. It would be like constructing a building without cement. At Berklee, great teachers and friends like Ed Tomassi, George Garzone, Frank Tiberi, Bill Pierce and one of my greatest influences, Greg Osby, led me to explore the genre from the essence of swing to improvised jazz or so-called Free Jazz. Later, Jerry Bergonzi, whom I had admired from a distance in Cuba, was one of those teachers who, while I studied for my Master’s degree at NEC, consolidated my inspiration and knowledge, enabling me to search and develop my own sound.  

Undoubtedly, we’re all products of our early years—the experiences of childhood and adolescence shape our routes. But what defines us? At home, there was always the hunger to study pure jazz that led me to explore beyond Cuban music and to look, across other waters, how to create my own musical language. 

My music emerges from my lived experiences as a Cuban, as an immigrant, as a student of American jazz and as an admirer of Afro-Cuban traditions. With my ensemble iRESI—named after a Yoruba word that means the spirit of each human being—I try through musical notes to develop a sound, a focus and a distinctive identity. The compositions in my first album—also entitled iRESI—have been nourished by an amalgam of influences: contemporary and vanguard jazz, classical music and Afro-Cuban rhythms, as well as the timba, a dance genre that emerged in the 1990s. Together, they make up a musical knowledge that reflects the very essence of my creation and artistic expression. 

Asking myself how to fuse elements of the two cultures—the Cuban and the American—I’ve developed a new musical technique, Melodic and Rhythmic Independence (M.A.R.I.), bringing together an interactive and percussion technique to my composition and performance. To execute it, I play a percussion instrument with my left foot, while at the same time I interpret melodic phrases on the saxophone.  Through M.A.R.I. I attempt to blend the colors and traditional sound of the Cuban clave and other African rhythms into my music without distorting the typical sound of a jazz quartet. 

How does a musician create when his own identity has undergone the process of emigration? How did I find my musical identity? I believe that discovering one’s own identity is a matter of perseverance and patience. Jazz critics say that my music navigates between two waters—that it fuses traditional Cuban music with contemporary jazz. They describe my music as ingenious, passionate, mystical, daring, visionary, visceral, expressive and majestic. Those are their words. I play what I feel, and what I have created as a result of this long process of blended identities. When you hear my music, you can form your own opinions. I invite you to listen.  

Carlos Averhoff Jr. is a Cuban saxophone player, composer and teacher. He graduated with honors from the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. His first album as leader of the musical group iRESI received critical acclaim. www.carlosaverhoffjr.com