UI Latin Jazz Band's director teaches his students roots, 'danceability' of musical genre
URBANA – Six nights a week in the 1980s and '90s, saxophonist Carlos Vega played in salsa bands in his native Miami. So he finds it discombobulating to be part of a Latin jazz ensemble here in central Illinois.
That would be the University of Illinois Latin Jazz Band, one of the newer groups formed by Chip McNeill after he took charge of the Jazz Studies Program.
"It's a great ensemble," Vega said. "A lot of charts are self-generated in the band. There's lots of chances for creativity. It's coming along nicely."
And, Vega said, the Latin Jazz Band director, Tito Carrillo, is a really good teacher as well as great trumpet player.
Carrillo, who joined the UI School of Music faculty in January 2006, took over the Latin Jazz Band last fall after having co-directed it with percussion Professor Ricardo Flores. Flores still helps out.
The band – which will perform during a free "Traffic Jam" concert at 5 p.m. Friday at Krannert Center – was the only group from the UI selected to perform at the recent International Association for Jazz Education conference in Toronto.
Association board members selected ensembles through a blind audition process of listening to CDs. When board member Ronald Carter, director of jazz studies at NIU, heard the UI Latin Jazz Band's CD, he commented that the band had to be from South America, he later told Carrillo, his former student at NIU.
"When he found out it was my band, he said, 'You made me proud,'" Carrillo related.
Carrillo said the UI Latin Jazz Band aims to perform authentic Latin jazz by some of the greatest big bands as well as artists in the idiom. Among them are Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Paquito D'Rivera and Mario Bauza. (Carrillo himself has performed with Puente and D'Rivera, both giants of Latin jazz.)
As a teacher, Carrillo feels it's important for his students to learn the roots of Latin jazz. "No. 1, so we would expose the students to this kind of music. There is a general lack of exposure to Latin jazz in collegiate jazz. And No. 2, so that our students can learn the style and be able to contribute their own arrangements and original compositions in the style."
So how does he define Latin jazz, which Carrillo said encompasses a rich history of music from many different cultures? Carrillo, who is half Puerto Rican and half Tejano, describes it as danceable jazz that incorporates the rhythms known as salsa.
"There's a dance element that in jazz can sometimes be lost," he said. "The danceability factor is returned. Oftentimes, the vocals are removed, and the instrumentals become the leaders of the melody. Often in Latin jazz, people take jazz compositions and rework them to fit Afro-Cuban rhythms."
The 16-piece UI Latin Jazz Band, though, does have a vocalist – Holly Holmes, who specializes in Brazilian music. The graduate student in jazz vocal music contributed to the group her arrangement of "Ponteio" by Brazilian musician Edu Lobo. "It's one our best charts," Carrillo said. "We will perform the piece at the Traffic Jam concert."
The band also will perform at that event one of Carrillo's arrangements, of "Bomba Mundo," created by Timbalaye, a New York Latin jazz group. "It's a little fresher and urban sound, you could say," said Carrillo, who also plays trumpet with the band on a piece or two.
Like many other UI music faculty members, Carrillo, an assistant professor, has an impressive performance career.
In Chicago, he played with varied artists in jazz and Latin music, among them Willie Pickens, Bobby Broom, Kurt Elling, the Woody Herman Orchestra, Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Chicago Jazz Orchestra and Smithsonian Masterworks Orchestra directed by David Baker.
He also has played with pop music greats Quincy Jones and Phil Collins and has blown his horn in some of the most prestigious venues in the world, among them Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and Royal Albert Hall in London.
As a young boy in Austin, Texas, he really wanted to play sax – like Kenny G. "As a kid, I thought he was really cool," Carrillo admitted. His older sister, though, played the cornet. When she went to high school, she gave it up for volleyball. The cornet was in the closet, and when it came time for Tito to join the school band, his parents made him play cornet.
By the time he was 16, Carrillo was playing trumpet and knew he wanted a career in music. He majored in trumpet and classical music performance at the University of Texas. Wanting to leave home for the wider world, he transferred to Northern Illinois University, where he got his bachelor's degree and got to play with Puente, D'Rivera, Clark Terry and Claudio Roditi, a "wonderful Brazilian trumpeter" who just hired Carrillo to perform with him on March 12 and 13 at Andy's Jazz Club in Chicago.
During his last year at NIU, Carrillo was gigging regularly. After graduating, he moved to Chicago. He called everyone he had worked with and told them he was now in the city. He gave them his number. In three weeks, he had his first gig – playing with the orchestra onstage at the National Democratic Convention in Chicago.
He never looked back. His motto: "Luck is when opportunity meets preparation."
"That kind of describes my story," he said.
The 35-year-old Carrillo, who with his wife, Sara, and their three young children lives in Champaign, continues to travel to Chicago to play, including with the Tito Carrillo Quintet and Latin jazz group Rumba Urbana, which will make its debut April 18 and 19 at Andy's Jazz Club.
Carrillo continues to perform with the Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, too. It opened the Allerton Music Barn Festival this past summer.
This Sunday, Carrillo will travel to the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest to play with jazz guitarist/composer John Moulder and jazz/rock drummer Paul Wertico, longtime drummer for Pat Metheny.