Influential: Gilbert Castellanos' Playlist
After a harrowing few years of dental trauma and career-saving procedures, Gilbert Castellanos reflects on the music that shaped him — and got him through it.
Influential is a KPBS music feature in which we ask San Diego musicians to make us a playlist and talk us through the music that shaped their careers. This is a way of sharing music together while we can't quite get out to live music performances, plus get to know the artists we love and maybe discover something new.
Up next is jazz great Gilbert Castellanos. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico and raised throughout California, he has lived in San Diego for 25 years. The award-winning trumpet player is founder of the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory, curator of the San Diego Symphony's Jazz @ The Jacobs series and host of the weekly Wednesday night jazz jam at Panama 66 in Balboa Park.
The last few years have brought medical trauma to Castellanos' teeth, mouth and jaw, exacerbated by playing the trumpet. It got so bad that he worried he'd never play again. But thanks to major breakthroughs, multiple invasive surgeries and experimental implant and graft technologies, he's back. We asked Castellanos about his influences: the music that shaped him, inspired him or soothed him in times of crisis.
And here it is in Castellanos' own words.
Over the last few years I have been struggling with not only some dental issues, but with my lower jaw, I started to experience some severe pain when I would play and the pain just got worse and worse and to the point where I literally was starting to approach the trumpet from a standpoint where every day was a struggle. I would be very inconsistent with my playing, and some days I would sound great. Others I would sound like a complete beginner.
It's been a long journey with the medical procedures that I've been going through. And Dr. Roy Vegter, my dentist, I am extremely grateful for him because he literally made devices that have never been made before in order for me to continue playing the trumpet.
'There Is No Greater Love,' By Dinah Washington
Music has gotten me through this whole nightmare, in a way, but one particular song that really stands out is a tune entitled "There Is No Greater Love" by the great Dinah Washington, which is my favorite version of this particular song.
For me, it represents me and the music, being in love with the music and the love of the music returning the favor. It's almost like if you take care of the music, the music will take care of you.
'Embraceable You' By Clifford Brown
"Clifford Brown with Strings" was definitely the soundtrack to my life, and it continues to be the soundtrack to my life. It was a particular album that was introduced to me by my father, who is also a musician. I just remember in junior high and even in high school, playing along to the records. And one of my favorites to play is "Embraceable You."
'Solamente Una Vez' By Trio Los Panchos
Los Panchos, that's what they're really known as, but everybody calls them Trio Los Panchos, but Los Panchos, that's really my roots. That's how I grew up. I grew up around an environment where my mother would be singing around the house and my father would play all of these particular songs that I grew up listening to by Los Panchos in his groups. And that's how I learned about my heritage, my Mexican heritage, by learning beautiful songs, boleros like "Solamente Una Vez."
'Reasons' By Earth, Wind And Fire
One of my favorite songs of all time is "Reasons," and that particular song I would play when I had my Hammond B-3 Quartet, that was like a part of my set, and I would play it probably three or four nights a week. But I just grew up around a lot of women and they all loved Earth, Wind and Fire. And it was just a natural thing for me to embrace that and to also make it a part of my life and part of my musical taste.
'La Tinsa Ana Hona' By Fairuz
For Fairuz, there's a very interesting story behind this particular song that I picked. When I heard her sing, I was just mesmerized by her voice. I was so intrigued by her and moved by her that I started to do some more research on her and found out that she is considered like the musical icon of Lebanon, and they would play her every morning on the loudspeakers. And there's a song and that's really kind of her hit. It's called "La Tansani" (or "La Tinsa Ana Hona").
I decided to adapt that for one of my albums and record it as a jazz version, and that one is also on my album "Underground," and so you can hear a jazz version of a Fairuz tune played with with jazz instruments. She not only was an influence with her music, but also how I approach the trumpet, because when I play the trumpet, I don't want to play the trumpet. I want to sing through my trumpet.
'The Night We Called It A Day' By John Coltrane And Milt Jackson
I think I own three copies of "Bags and Trane" on vinyl, and I also have the CD version and I still have the original pressing that I just played to death. You can't even put it on the record player anymore because they won't even play. But I still own that copy that I grew up listening to, just dissecting it and transcribing songs off the album and memorizing the solos and, you know, pretending that I was in the band.
And, you know, it's just one of those albums that I always encourage all my students and fellow musicians to really listen to, because it's one that's more of an obscure album by John Coltrane that doesn't really get a lot of attention. I believe there's a song on there called "The Night We Called It A Day."
Let's just say that I wasn't able to play the trumpet again. I would have found another format to express my music and to get it out. My sound is not in my trumpet. My sound is in my head. And I can approach music from any standpoint.
It's really the easiest way to describe it. Picture the trumpet being the vehicle and then picture your sound, which is in your head being the steering wheel. So I can just take that steering wheel and put it on any instrument. And if I work hard enough, I can still produce my sound and get the message out through music that way. It may take me a little longer to figure out how to play saxophone or how to play piano, but it's all there. Everything is in my head.
And that's why I love teaching, because I've always had that to fall back on in case, you know, I ended up being paralyzed or, you know, my lips sealed together where I couldn't play any wind instrument.
So the power of music is just unbelievable beyond words. It's so spiritual and healing, and you can approach it from so many different points of view.
— Gilbert Castellanos, January 2021
This interview has been edited for length, and you can find a slightly longer playlist of Castellanos' influences on Spotify here. Castellanos will livestream a jazz performance on Monday, Feb. 1 with pianist Gerald Clayton through the Athenaeum's jazz series.