A Jazz Perspective on Mexico City

In this installment of Space is the Place, trombonist and composer Brian Allen, who grew up in Texas and now lives in Mexico City, reflects on why he has chosen the Mexican capital as his artistic home base, and how the city has changed his outlook on life and music-making.

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Mexico has made my art blossom. I have been given the opportunity to travel, perform my music and realize projects that I couldn't do elsewhere. This process began in 2007, when I received a Meet the Composer grant to perform my compositions in Merida, Yucatan with a trio of Mexico-based musicians: guitarist Armando Martín, bassist Arturo Baéz and drummer Hernán Hecht. I was completely taken by the experience. The band was amazing; the audience warm, sincere, enthusiastic, supportive; the culture and country rich in feeling and nature. Here is a culture where art is part of life, I remember thinking to myself.

Soon afterwards, Hernán organized a week-long tour for us in Mexico City. Again, we had a tremendous response and played in great venues. I was surprised at the interest in creative music. Diverse audiences---families and people of all ages and backgrounds---filled these small art spaces, clubs and theaters; many purchased recordings without necessarily being familiar with jazz. Judging from my observations and interactions, musicians only composed a small percentage of the public.

The Brian Allen Mexico Quartet plays "La La Land"

After my first visits to Mexico, I began traveling and playing in Europe and Japan, getting to know different cultures through playing and participating in the local scenes. Everything from my global view down to my little Texas hometown benefited from a widened perspective. But I kept returning to Mexico.

In my seven years visiting and living in Mexico City, I have been able to do almost anything under the umbrella of creative music that I wanted. I have been playing my own work and the music of friends, which encompasses everything from experimental, improvised, free jazz, standards, contemporary classical, rock and electronic music to music/poetry collaborations, without dipping a toe in the enormous stream of commercial or popular forms. And this goes on in nice jazz clubs and cafes all over the city, in nearly every corner of the country, from lovingly run jazz clubs to the dozens of festivals which are produced with passion.

Being a central magnet, Mexico City attracts jazz musicians from all over the country. Each city and state have such distinctive musical traditions, food, languages and tempos. It's fascinating how this sounds in the music. For example, Gustavo Nandayapa, a brilliant drummer from Chiapas with a strong marimba band tradition, puts his unique sense of rhythm and color in bands and solo concerts. How people work with one another, from different cities and places like Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Cuba, Canada and Europe is fun to see. Hernán, with his deep knowledge of Argentinean music, South American ethnic, folk, pop and rock traditions, has another way into music and brings something very individual and strong as well. Here's a track of a recent duo collaboration between the two of us:

Like most jazz scenes, there are musicians realizing their voice through composition and others who support. There are veterans, beginners, extremists, and people in the middle. There are young ones listening to the same records and watching the same YouTube videos as their peers in other countries, obsessed with the complex and technical. Here I find everyone mixed together and connected: poets, video artists, dancers, soneros jarochos, filmmakers, experimental theater actors and puppeteers. Mexico City is a surreal combination of the traditional, indigenous and international. It's vibrant and chaotic. There is a lot of possibility. And there are more things happening than one could possibly digest.

As someone from more or less a rural background and a bit introverted, I have never found big cities to be very appealing or easy. There are usually quality of life, economic or social issues that I can't reconcile with my creative pursuits. But here I have found a place. There is a wonderful community of musicians and artists with whom to collaborate and a situation where I can focus on my individual work. The overall sense of freedom is exciting.

For a few years I've had an apartment in Portales, a nice, relatively low-key neighborhood of working class families, professionals and young artists. Money goes further here, which gives me more time and space than I have ever enjoyed. Great markets are nearby. Most necessities are available from small specialized and artisanal shops within walking distance. There is an abundance of fresh food. Taxis are inexpensive. Although at times crowded and intense, public transport via bus or subway is very inexpensive and can be easier and faster for getting around the city for a rehearsal or concert. I have yet to feel unsafe. Maybe more than anything else, it's the easygoing, good-natured spirit of so many people that makes living and being here so enjoyable. As Hernán told me on my first day here, "Mexico is your friend." And I feel that way. Certainly I've received more than my fair share of kindness from strangers, including supposedly "dangerous" and "untrustworthy" people like taxi drivers and people on the subway. I mention these things because are an important part of my art making and how I see and think about the world and my part of it. Places are a collaboration for me. Time in Mexico has inspired me to return to writing, visual art and other creative interests which had been forsaken for one reason or another.

Perhaps my most important collaborator has been Guadalupe Galván, whom I met five years ago. Guadalupe and I have a book of poetry, Vals, in English and Spanish. We have self-published and produced a number of other projects: books, calendars, postcards, poetry and music events, radio shows and clothing for which I helped write and design. The biggest project is our cafe, Cafe Aurora. Everything on and off the menu is handmade, from the tablecloths, bookshelves and lampshades, down to the bread. It's a tiny, cozy place, but allows the chance to use all of my interests. I design plates, cook and do honest work directly for people. It's like composition and orchestration with all the elements and senses.

Guadalupe Galván (left) and Brian Allen

I still travel internationally to perform and teach, and often return to Texas, less than a two hour flight away. There I have family and good relationships with schools and colleges. Texas music education is healthy and blessed with incredible educators and hard-working students. It is a joy to be a part of that.

Fortunately, when morale became low playing in the United States, Mexico appeared. To step into a venue feeling welcomed, wanted, part of something essential and necessary; feeling trust, openness and support with an audience, all of this allows magical things for the music. That does magical things for people. It's powerful and also gives one an affirmation about our work. "My house is your house," people say.

Preview of Allen's solo multimedia work Obscure Relatives and Prepositions

Brainkiller has thrived in Mexico, too. [Editor's Note: Brainkiller's latest album, Colourless Green Superheroes, was reviewed here in July.] We originally formed in 2000 as a duo with Phoenix-based pianist/composer Jacob Koller, who has since relocated to Japan. Hernán joined in 2007 and has helped shape and focus the music into a special and specific place. We have toured Mexico annually, playing at Vive Latino Festival, among others. Mexico has become our biggest audience and fan base. A fortunate part of this upswing in activity is our relationship RareNoise Records of London, a supportive and innovative label with whom we have two albums.

"Last Mask," music video for Brainkiller's 2011 album The Infiltration

Yet Mexico remains off the radar for most of America, it seems. Many jazz musicians don't think much of coming here or they see it as a kind of vacation. Many have played here but performances are not listed on musician and record label websites, or given much international press. Musicians from other places appear to take very well and enthusiastically to the country, with less fear and prejudice. It can be nice to see the pleasant shock of people who come and don't want to leave.

Mexico is a beautiful improvisation: endless, imperfect, confounding, dramatic, endearing. People are ingenious improvisers, full of humor and patience, always in the moment. Time is elastic. Ideas seem to fall out of the sky, if one can trust and not take anything too seriously---at least, this is my experience. Mezcal, please.

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Brian Allen's work encompasses the musical, visual, literary, educational and culinary arts. His solo multimedia piece Obscure Relatives and Prepositions is a film of original photos, drawings, animations, texts, travel movies and music with trombone, melodica, harmonium, toy piano, percussion and field recordings. For more, visit his website and facebook page.

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