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Gilbert Castellanos is shown in profile, playing trumpet, in a black and white photo with a black bacground. Out of focus in the background, other musicians look on.
Chuck Koton
San Diego jazz trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos is shown in an undated photo.

A new album and profound joy for Gilbert Castellanos

The hustle is back.

After the overlapping crises of the pandemic and a series of serious, life-altering dental procedures for jazz trumpeter and Young Lions Jazz Conservancy founder Gilbert Castellanos, he is firing on all jets again, and he is deeply, unflinchingly grateful.

"Every time I play, I treat it like it's my last day living. I treat it like it's the altar. When I step on that bandstand, that's the altar — I call it the altar of joy, because it's a privilege to do what I do," Castellanos said.


"My whole attitude has changed when it comes to music," Castellanos said. "Who knows if I ever get to play music again? And I want to make it count, every time I play."

'I feel bionic'

At the start of the new year, he'll face the final surgery in a years-long battle to save his jaw and teeth (and, therefore, his trumpet-playing abilities). This weekend, when he celebrates the release of a new album — his first in nearly a decade — he likely won't perform again until March.

"But honestly right now, I feel better than ever. In a way I feel bionic," Castellanos said.

"Espérame en el Cielo" comes out Dec. 17, with two album release concerts: Saturday (sold out) and Sunday at the Copley Auditorium at the San Diego Museum of Art. The Young Lions will perform a pre-show set at 7 p.m.

The title, which is a name of one of the tracks on the album, translates to "wait for me in heaven." Castellanos said the album speaks to what he's gone through the last three years. And despite appearing on hundreds of albums with other artists, this is his fourth album as a leader.


"For me, it just takes time to really have a concept, and it has to feel organic for me to say, you know what, you're ready, it's time to go back into the studio and do another record," Castellanos said.

Gilbert Castellanos stands, leaning against an ornate fireplace and holding a trumpet. The photo is in black and white. A mirror above the fireplace reflects a huge crystal chandelier.
Michelle Zousmer
Gilbert Castellanos is shown in a 2016 photo.

On "Espérame en el Cielo," there are no originals. This album features the songs that helped him survive the last few years, including many that were texted to him by friend and frequent collaborator, local jazz pianist Joshua White while he was unable to play.

"When I was just having a hard time recovering and I couldn't even touch the horn — completely frustrated with life, [White] would send me these messages and say, 'Hey Gil, you should check out the song. When you're ready to play again, we should play it. I think you would sound great playing this tune,'" Castellanos recalled. "I filed that stuff in the back of my head like, you know what, When I'm ready to play, I'm going to play all of this music with Joshua."

White produced, arranged the songs and plays piano on the album. Also appearing on the album are young bass phenom John Murray, drummer Tyler Kreutel and alto saxophonist Christopher Hollyday.

Singing through the instrument: 'Bilad as Sudan'

The opening track is "Bilad as Sudan." After a chaotic drumroll intro, the opening moments of the song are slow and somber, almost beguiling. Arpeggiated, truncated trumpet lines float in and out like fragments of a sentence.

Gilbert Castellanos plays the trumpet against a stark black background. A mute is attached to the trumpet's horn, and it's against a microphone that seems to disappear into the background.
Grant Brittain
Gilbert Castellanos plays the trumpet in an undated photo.

These early, wispy summons call to mind Castellanos' approach to creating a sound, something he tirelessly imparts upon his students: to not just play the instrument, but to sing through the instrument.

Suddenly, the introduction is over, and the song picks up.

"It's just like a sucker punch and we go into this hard bop melody that's just kind of in your face," Castellanos said.

The track is an explosive showcase for each musician, high-speed and full-throttled, without being unrelenting or distracting — a powerful opening statement.

For his roots: 'Espérame en el Cielo'

The title track, "Espérame en el Cielo," is a mournful Latin-American tune, with a low, understated sound from Castellanos for the first half, until it swells into a more adorned but still subdued melody.

"It's a beautiful bolero. To this day it brings tears to my eyes," Castellanos said.

The original has vocals, crafted as the trumpet melody on this album. When Castellanos first heard the piece and read the lyrics, he was captivated but the only arrangements he found were fairly generic. He needed to make it his own. Despite its simplicity compared to the more technical and ornate songs that make up the rest of the album, it's the one he spent the most time working on.

Castellanos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and wanted to pay tribute to his roots with the album, particularly with the inclusion of "Espérame" and another Latin track, "La Puerta."

History and 'Big P'

American jazz legend Jimmy Heath penned "Big P" for his brother, bassist Percy Heath, and it's another song sent to Castellanos by White during the pandemic. It's an obscure tune Castellanos says hasn't been recorded much, but his band fit the instrumentation on the original. With this recording, he wanted to pay tribute to the Heath brothers.

History is central to the way Castellanos performs and teaches.

"In jazz, in particular, I think that history plays a huge role. I look at it as being your DNA for becoming a great jazz musician and having your own voice," Castellanos said. "I call it the plumbing. You need to have the plumbing. You need to have that foundation in your playing."

Gilbert Castellanos plays the trumpet in a black and white photo. He is standing outside against a leafy background, and is wearing a light-colored suit jacket and sunglasses.
Lev Tsimring
Gilbert Castellanos is shown in an undated photo.

Castellanos has been playing trumpet since age six, surrounded by the cumbia, salsa and Afro Cuban music of his father's 15-piece salsa band — but also his extensive jazz record collection.

"When I picked up that trumpet, I was already in love with jazz."

Castellanos just turned 50 this year, and in the decades since he first started playing, that spark, gratitude and devotion to the music seems stronger than ever. It manifests through his joy in performing, his excellent recordings and especially in his work with the Young Lions.

"My peers would always ask me, why haven't you moved to New York? Why are you still in San Diego? And I think now I can honestly say it's because of all of the seeds that I planted 15, 20 years ago. I have Young Lions now. We have Jazz at the Symphony, which has never happened before, and everything else that's going on in San Diego," Castellanos said.

"I feel like there's a huge renaissance taking place with jazz in particular in this town, where a lot of these younger musicians are really embracing the music and owning it and getting out there."

Listen to a sample from "Espérame en el Cielo" by clicking here and scrolling to the bottom of the page.

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Gilbert Castellanos' Album Release Concert: Encore

This event is in the past.
Sunday, December 18, 2022 at 7 PM
San Diego Museum of Art
From the organizers:Second encore night added: Tickets have sold so quickly that we've decided to add a second "encore" concert....Panama 66 presents: Gilbert CastellanosEncore Album Release ConcertAt the San Diego Museum of Art - Copley AuditoriumWith the Young LionsTICKETS: $45 General AdmissionSan Diego’s Jazz Godfather, Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, in conjunction with Panama 66 and the San Diego Museum of Art, present a live performance listen party of his first full album as a leader in over a decadeGilbert Castellanos’ new release, Espérame en el Cielo, set for release on December 17th, is his first album in over a decade, capping a hiatus from recording as a band leader since the stage soundtrack Federal Jazz Project. For this album, Castellanos guides listeners on a musical journey through trials and triumphs, through the personal battles, victories and miracles that have affected his career and life. Featuring culturally significant Latin tunes, as well as homages to family and friendship, near career-ending tragedies and more, the album serves as a timeline and Thank You to his entire fanbase for the love and support offered him during times of difficulty and transition. With veteran pianist Joshua White arranging, the album also features Christopher Hollyday on Sax, Tyler Kreutel on drums and offers bassist John Murray’s first performance on an album.The performance of the album, a special engagement in the Copley Auditorium at The San Diego Museum of Art, will feature the recording band with the exception of John Murray. Embellishing the auditorium for these events will be the addition of a professional sound and lighting team.SEATING: Seating will be general admission.DOORS: 6:30pmYOUNG LIONS: 7-7:30pmGILBERT: 8pm-9:30pmKITCHEN: The kitchen will not be open for this show. No food allowed.BAR: Bar will be open until 8pm (we request everyone to remain seated during show)PLEASE NOTE:Seats are general admission.Each purchase is for one single, general admission seat.16-up, no children.No pets.No refunds/exchanges.Thanks,Panama 66Related links:Panama 66 on InstagramGilbert Castellanos on Instagram


Julia Dixon Evans writes the KPBS Arts newsletter, produces and edits the KPBS/Arts Calendar and works with the KPBS team to cover San Diego's diverse arts scene. Previously, Julia wrote the weekly Culture Report for Voice of San Diego and has reported on arts, culture, books, music, television, dining, the outdoors and more for The A.V. Club, Literary Hub and San Diego CityBeat. She studied literature at UCSD (where she was an oboist in the La Jolla Symphony), and is a published novelist and short fiction writer. She is the founder of Last Exit, a local reading series and literary journal, and she won the 2019 National Magazine Award for Fiction. Julia lives with her family in North Park and loves trail running, vegan tacos and live music.
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