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Junos 2022: Esteban Herrera Quintet turned grief into magic with Juno-nominated jazz album, The Prophet

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On Boxing Day 2020, Fernando Clavijo passed away in Mexico. His nephew, Esteban Herrera, says the cause of death was likely COVID-19, but he isn’t certain.

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But he says his uncle, who was a pediatrician, was a father figure to him. He was the first person who inspired Herrera, now a jazz composer and pianist living in Calgary, to play music. His nickname was “The Prophet,” or “El Profeta,” not because he could tell the future, of course, but as a nod to his general wisdom, philosophical leanings and standing among family and peers.

“When I got the notice in the morning of Dec. 26, I was in shock because we are so far away,” Herrera says. “So I started composing a song called The Prophet. I went to my piano and I started playing and composing and trying to release all of these feelings that I had. I started around 9 a.m. and I finished it around 5 p.m. and I uploaded it to my YouTube channel.”

The beautiful, flowing 11-minute composition brought the musician a measure of peace – “It was like something magic,” he says – and became the first spark for  2021’s The Prophet and its centrepiece. While it’s the eighth album Herrera has released since 2013, it’s the first official release by the Esteban Herrera Quintet and the first of his to receive a Juno nomination for Best Jazz Album. Herrera received the 2021 ArtShare Grant from Calgary Arts Development, his first Canadian grant, and spent his COVID downtown time composing material that would later make it onto The Prophet. In between lockdowns, Herrera would play the odd gig. It had him connecting with two of the city’s top jazz players, saxophonist Mark DeJong and trumpet player Andre Wickenheiser, at a speakeasy-style Beltline jazz and cocktail club called Betty Lou’s Library. They were the first to be enlisted. Later, he reconnected with percussionist Luis Tovar and bassist Daniel Nava, long-term Latin-jazz collaborators in the city who had backed Herrera on his 2019 album Mil Veces Mas.

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The Esteban Herrera Quintet was born. But, in the finest jazz tradition, the five musicians rehearsed the new material only once before heading to OCL Studios outside of Calgary.

“It was not even a whole rehearsal,” Herrera says. “I love that about jazz and about these guys. It was one week before we went into the studio. I said ‘This is what I have in mind.’ So they were there, they were really focused. We did it and were like ‘Let’s stop right now. This is gold so let’s wait for the studio.’ ”

The Esteban Herrera Quintet, from left: Mark DeJong, Luis Tovar, Esteban Herrera, Daniel Nava, Andrew Wickenheiser. Courtesy, Esteban Herrera.
The Esteban Herrera Quintet, from left: Mark DeJong, Luis Tovar, Esteban Herrera, Daniel Nava, Andrew Wickenheiser. Courtesy, Esteban Herrera. jpg

The Prophet became one of those lightning-in-a-bottle projects that perfectly captures moments of perceptive and inventive interplay between five musicians at the top of their games, producing numbers such as the delicate White Desert, mournful October Rain and joyful Luz de Dia. Most of the tracks were recorded live-off-the-floor over a week-long period in one or two takes. The only overdubs came from Tovar, who layered his percussion parts to produce complex Latin rhythms.

“If you hear the music, you can imagine 20 percussionists,” says Herrera. “But it’s only him.”

Born in Mexico City in 1979, Herrera began his musical journey at a young age, partially due to the guidance of his uncle who played guitar and harmonica. He studied jazz at university, kickstarting a career that has had him playing throughout Canada, the U.S., Latin America and Europe for nearly 30 years. His immersion into jazz was helped along by a number of influences early on, including  Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett and Israeli double-bassist Avishai Cohen.

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Herrera first came to Calgary 11 years ago but eventually returned to his home country, where he recorded a series of jazz albums. He returned in 2017. Ironically, it was here that Herrera first became immersed in Latin styles.

“The jazz musicians of Mexico are not greatly influenced by Latin music,” he says. “In Mexico, they are looking for a completely different sound than Latin. That’s why it was weird for me. When I arrived here in Canada, I started playing Latin for the first time in my life and not just jazz but salsa and son (Cubano) and any other Latin genre. I liked it. I never looked for it in Mexico, I was doing my own research. But here, I met Luis and he has a salsa band and he invited me. I was really nervous because I had never played that before.”

Those influences can be heard on The Prophet, which came out in the summer of 2021. The Esteban Herrera Quintet performed the album in August at Asylum For Art. It was the first, and so far only, time the act has performed together live. His bandmates tend to be in high demand. Still, Herrera plays with all of them in various projects. He also leads Calgary’s 11-piece Latin Jazz Orchestra.

Herrera has released two more albums since The Prophet. Romero & Herrera Vol. 1 was recorded with singer Gisela Romero, who specializes in jazz and traditional Mexican singing, while Piano Solo Vol. 1 features a series of improvisational piano pieces.

Herrera will be going to Toronto for the Junos and has no plans of slowing down. He will record three new albums this year; one will fuse jazz with traditional Mexican music, the other will focus on regional Mexican music with vocals and a third will be “an electronic experiment.”

“I have three grants for this year to release three albums and I’m working on them,” he says. “So it’s a lot of work. I’m so excited and busy.”

The Juno Awards take place Sunday, May 15 in Toronto.

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