Yasek Manzano doesn’t considered himself a jazz musician who has a unique style when it comes to music. He is convinced that art is a sequence of creative impulses that can yield favourable results when there is tenacity, dedication and study.
For many he represents one of the most successful young musical talents. For others, he should manage his talent more wisely in order to better relate to a far wider audience.
Independent from any considerations, it is certain that he has known how to make his art a way of life that pleases his followers and often leaves a definite mark on any Cuban or international stage.
As a child he began to venture into the world of sound and moved through several art schools in Havana, where he became a trumpet player. At 17, he had already played professionally with various Cuban groups in a range of cultural centres.
One day at the Zorra y el Cuevo, as fate would have it, his maestro Bobby Carcasses presented him to the renowned American jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. The meeting was a real surprise for the young man since American artists were punished for visiting Cuba. That day he had the chance of playing with the Marsalis, and a relationship began that would last up and until the present day.
Not long after, he travelled to the USA to hone his knowledge of jazz at the Juliard School in New York. Although he feels happy with the knowledge that he acquired there, he thinks that in other colleges – like Manhattan School of Music or New England Conservatory – with a wider musical appropriation, he could have found an approach that was more in keeping with his interests as a Latin American.
Yasek told OnCuba that his experience there had been incredible because the school was very demanding. He was well received from a musical point of view, but English became his overriding difficulty.
“Nonetheless I really tried hard because work was really very intense. I also had private classes with Marsalis and I got to know other important Americans,” he said.
For Yasek, his presence in Juliard as a Cuban was much admired. However, he confessed that on occasions he felt a bit segregated because he was the only Latino in this jazz programme.
“Furthermore, the other students had a very conservative idea of jazz, and I come from a country where this genre has been fused with the Latin, African-Cuban melodies and other rhythms. I was interested in studying the music’s origin, but I was also interested in developing a language that was more linked to my roots.
“Juliard gave me a vision of what music was in general, but for example, what I wanted was to see how they made Latin jazz in the USA, which is very different to how they do it in Cuba. However, I received a very good musical and organisational preparation, which is fundamental for composing or studying the techniques for an instrument,” he stressed.
According to the young musician, Marsalis is a great educator who has a very peculiar way of teaching: he makes his students reflect on their cultural origins so that they are able to express it through their music.
“With him I learned to be very honest with myself and with others. I am convinced that the most important thing for a musician is to be honest,” he said.
Upon returning to Cuba the artist managed to create his own group: Yasek Manzano and his jazz quartet, with whom he began to play traditional American music until it evolved into progressive jazz.
On the Amnio 1407 record, which received the accolade of best jazz CD in the Cubadisco 2010 awards his way of making art really stands out. It blends different Cuban genres, Brazilian rites, rock, and African music.
“Now I’m using electronic music with the In Transit project. This type of sound had a huge audience in Cuba and I wanted to tap into this because many young Cubans do not like jazz, they find it too complicated or it has traditionally been just for the minority.”
“With these new mixes I am getting really pleasing results. For example, last February I did a concert in the Museum of Fine Arts with various invited artists and the theatre was full. I’m hoping to make a DVD of the event. I’ve also taken this project to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano and I’ve had a really great response because people dance to it. That’s really comforting.
“I’m also preparing a concert of three movements, it’s a type of fantasy, a children’s story that’s related to my childhood. I use Cuban music and modify the traditional keys. That will be on the next album,” he said.
With regards to jazz education in Cuba, he opines that there should be a formal school for the genre, with clear characteristics and freedom so that the artists can develop their works.
“An academic programme should be created that allows the students to understand the origins of jazz, and of our music as well. Currently jazz produced here has a marked influence from New York, with a very Cuban touch.
“The jazz players of the island always look to return to their origins. This hasn’t been lost, although the language used is more modern. However, music is still pure creation. I am really happy with what I do, despite of how difficult it is to have a jazz project in this country.
“Up until now I’ve done well. I can live off of this, but jazz isn’t a profitable genre. I think that the people need to be educated so that they listen to it more. We have a very educated population in many sense, but a commercial music abounds which obscures people’s minds because it’s so easy to consume. A consequence of this is the implementation of a vulgar and cheap subculture, which does not favourably contribute to the development of Cuban culture,” he concluded.