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.
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.
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."
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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