Next in my Life Builders series es mi compadre Cesar Morales, perhaps the most virtuosic saxophonist I have ever met. Although we work together only rarely anymore, I worked more with Cesar in the 90’s than I did with any other sax player. The first time I ever wrote about Cesar online was in my “First Impressions” collection of stories on my old website. In that story I recalled the first time we met. I had heard so many wonderful things about Cesar and he said he had heard good things about me. But when we met, I was wearing tights and Cesar was dressed up like an elf! Ha! We’ve been having lots of laughs ever since.
In the early 90’s, Cesar and I worked together with Angelucho and his Copa Cabana. The following is a video from one of our gigs together with that band. This was taken at the Houston International Festival. The horn section is Ed Lowe on tombone, Cesar on sax, Luis Juarez and I on trumpet.
Soon after I started working with Angelucho, I also began working with Cesar in the Ricky Diaz Orchestra. This was the first big band in Houston to call me on a regular basis. I still work with Ricky occasionally and had the pleasure of recording a CD with him this past summer. It was actually a recent gig with Ricky Diaz that inspired me to write about Cesar for this Life Builders post. Every time I work with Ricky, it feels like a family reunion.
Later, Cesar and I worked for several years with a band called Salsamerica. This was a variety, top forty band that did half Spanish music and half English. Working steady with Cesar in this band was a very important learning experience for me.
I remember before I met Cesar, people used to tell me that he was a walking encyclopedia of tunes. Guess what…they were right!
Most of my students know that I place a lot of importance on expanding repertoire. I emphasize this with my students simply because I value the idea of having a vast collection of tunes in my own career (See one of my earliest posts titled “What Defines Us?”). This is true regardless of whether you want to be a soloist or someone who just enjoys playing in band. The more literature we know, the more of a blessing we can be to those who we serve through our music. And my desire to know so many tunes is directly inspired by Cesar.
As I said, Cesar and I worked together for most of the 90’s. With Salsamerica we did everything from jazzish dinner sets, to Motown, to Tejano, to Salsa. Working with Cesar in this context, where we were called upon to perform music from such diverse genres, I got to experience his wealth of repertoire first hand. I saw just how many tunes this man has bottled up in his head and I was inspired.
This inspiration has been the driving force behind that part of my pedagogical approach. It was Cesar who taught me that it is our repertoire that defines us as musicians, and that when we know more tunes, more solos, more compositions, we then become more valuable as working musicians. It may be different in academia, but in the streets, our repertoire is our most valuable commodity as musicians.
What a Difference a Day Makes
I remember one gig with Salsamerica when Cesar motioned to me to take the lead on “What a Difference a Day Makes.” I shook my head and told him, “I don’t know it.”
Afterward, Cesar pulled me aside and asked, “How could you not know this tune? We play it on almost every gig with Ricky Diaz.”
My response to him was not satisfactory. I told Cesar, “I don’t play the melody on Ricky’s gig.”
Cesar pointed out that I should be paying attention to the melody on every tune I play, regardless of what part I am playing. He was right. I have tried to take his correction to heart ever since. Just because I don’t play the melody does not mean I should be ignorant or unaware of it.
One of Cesar’s amazing talents is that he can solfeggio anything he can play. And when you hear how fast he can play, that is just short of miraculous. The only other person I ever knew who could do anything even close to this is Curt Warren. The difference between the two is that Curt uses movable “do” (if I remember right) and Cesar uses a more European fixed “do” that he learned as a child in Mexico. So Cesar uses “do” for all the C’s, regardless of the key. And he also uses “si” instead of “ti.”
Before I ever met Cesar, a good friend of mine, Jessie Duran, said that he was going to take solfeggio lessons from Cesar. The stories Jessie used to tell about Cesar seemed too fantastic to be true. But every bit of what he told me was right on.
This too had an impact on my playing. Cesar established a musical truth for me that I may have learned too late in my career if I had never worked with him. I learned from him that ear training and technique go hand in hand. Technique is not just a matter of wiggling your fingers. Your technique can only be as useful as your ears. If you cannot hear what you are playing, then your technique is nothing more than “pyrotechnics.”
A Transference of Technique
Cesar plays so fast all the time, and working with him several times a week for many years meant that I got to hear him use that technique in a musical manner. I remember a long time ago, Tony Campise said in a clinic that he played the way he did (lightning fast) because that’s what he was hearing in his head. Well, after working with Cesar for so long, I realized that this was contagious. I began to hear things that way as well. I went through a period when almost everything I played in an improvised solo was fast.
When I moved to Houston, I had very little speed at all. I remember being intimidated by how fast everyone here was playing. But working with Cesar for those years, I began to hear “fast.” I began to speak that language.
Granted, I don’t play like that so much anymore. Okay, well, sometimes I do, but not as often as I used to.
But the point is that Cesar showed me how to take all of that stuff I was practicing and make it sound good in a solo. So I have him to thank for pointing me in the right direction.
Thank You Cesar
As always, I have typed several pages of text about what Cesar means to me and I know it’s time to stop and close this post, but there is so much more I could say. I have touched on the main musical points. There are many other ways that Cesar contributed into my life. I am so grateful to be able to call him my friend.
I know Cesar doesn’t do the internet thing, so I won’t end the way I normally do. I just want you all to know that Cesar is very dear to me. I miss working with him. We had so much fun together and I only hope that I can touch other people’s lives the way he has touched mine. You know….spreading the love around a little.
I want to close this post by encouraging everyone who reads this to acknowledge someone who has contributed to your life. That’s what these Life Builder posts are all about. Yes, I want to acknowledge these people who mean so much to me. Yes, that is the most important thing. But I can do that privately (and I actually do it privately more often than I do it on this blog – now that I’m trying to be better at that). So I want everyone to use this as an example so that you can tell the people who made a difference in your life that they are important to you.
Mother Teresa once said that the poverty in America is the poverty of loneliness. When you tell people that they made a difference in your life, it makes them feel more like life is worth living. So please, take my example and do something with it.