Mario Castro Quintet: A Preview and Interview

Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist and recent Berklee graduate Mario Castro will be bringing his quintet to The Rex Hotel on Wednesday, June 27th at 5:00P.M. The set will feature music from his debut album, Primavera, as well as some newer compositions. The line-up is as follows:

Mario Castro – Tenor Sax
Josh Shpak – Trumpet (subbing for David Neves)
KyuMin Shim – Piano
Tamir Shmerling – Bass
Jonathan Pinson – Drums

Don’t let the youth of these performers scare you away. Between their performance at the revered Newport Jazz Festival (2011), a residency at Wally’s Jazz Café (Boston), and the release of their first album, the group is well on its way to building a professional reputation.

I had the opportunity to discuss the group, the album, Berklee, and more with leader Mario Castro – who is very excited to be in Canada for the first time.

Q: Why is the album called Primavera (Spring, when translated)?
A: Well the album is named after the title track, a song dedicated to a situation of super-mega love with this girl. The relationship was bad. It was affecting my studies. I finished the song in the spring and decided to move on, to never get in that situation again. The album is about new beginnings…

Q: How has the cultural diversity of the players (hailing from Puerto Rico, Massachusetts, Korea, Israel, & California) in the group affected the music?
A: It wasn’t my intention to make a "world jazz group" or anything like that. I just really like these people. They were my closest friends at Berklee. Culturally, I’d say the music is influenced just by how we are. The cultural thing is included in the musical personality and in the actual personality of the players. When somebody plays, you hear to what he’s been listening to before and understand [part of their experience].

Q: Are you thinking specifically about the players in this group when you’re composing?
A: Yeah… I mean, this is my main project. I feel like the group has established a sound for now. I aim to write something that everybody will sound amazing on. I want them to want to play the things I write. I basically try to write film music with improvisation for quintet. Like emotional music.

Q: How important has "the hang" been to the development of your music?
A: The hang was really important. Tamir, KyuMin and Jonathan were my best friends at Berklee. We used to play the music at Wally’s every week, like really hang. We listened back to the recordings critically, rehearsing, kind of crazy you know. The more you’re friends with these people, the more you have the confidence to dig deep into what you think. Like, "Man, I really don’t want you to do this in my song. Just play what’s written for these measures." That’s a hard thing to say or to hear.

Q: With Jonathan in California, and Tamir in New York, what does the future look like for the group?
A: The group will continue. Pinson is my man, and KyuMin and Tamir know my music. They’re somehow responsible for a lot of this. I’m going to dedicate time to book as many gigs as possible to repay them for their hard work. Jonathan is starting at the Monk Institute in September, which makes it harder, but we’re going to try in winter and summer. I’m moving to New York in October… but I’m definitely going to be over on the west coast more as well.

Q: How did you get your residency at Wally’s with so many other music students from Berklee, New England Conservatory and Boston Conservatory vying for the same thing?
A: Since the first week I came to Boston, I started going every week to the jam sessions. It was really intimidating. The house band was evil. They made me cry once. These guys were bad. But it was good for me, because it made me tougher. I just kept going until I got respect from the older guys and felt like I was at their level. I didn’t want to get a gig there playing standards like I would at a jam, shedding tunes. I wanted to bring, like, a concept. And then we brought [Dave] Liebman once, and that was an amazing experience. That gig is my real bachelor’s degree.

Q: "The Mess" seems to have a very different vibe from the rest of the tracks on Primavera. Can you talk a little bit about that track?
A: "The Mess" was written by Tamir, inspired by a movie. I forget which one. The other guys were fans of the song, but he didn’t know what to do with it. So I said, “Let’s record like 30/40min of the mess, just like free and different things.” Gabo added the electronic effects. I told him, “Take these 40 minutes, and destroy it.” He’s truly an artist when it comes to designing sound. It was an honour for him to mess with this composition. As a group, we’ve had some struggles. Getting the gig was not that easy… the mess is about all of that.

Q: Is Berklee booking gigs for you, or are you handling everything yourself?
A: Newport, Montreux, Toronto are all gigs that Berklee got. The tours we’ve done in California and Puerto Rico are independent.

Q: I’m assuming you don’t have a tour manager then. How is it, dealing with that responsibility?
A: I’m learning to really be careful because friendship can really be affected. If your friend feels disrespected, you need to give that some importance. It’s like taking care of a family. It’s hard. They really set the bar high, the guys in the band. They don’t let stuff slide. They’re expecting a lot, but it’s good because it’s real. They dedicate their time and music to this.

Q: What is the most important thing you learned at Berklee inside the classroom?
A: I really needed to get better. I learned a lot about discipline when it comes to school. I actually discovered a lot about composition. Harmony, really connecting it to the melody.

Q: And outside of the classroom?
A: Just playing. Either you sound good or you don’t – who cares what scale you’re playing.

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