Few people would contradict the claim that Santa Barbara is a great place to live, but what about working here as an artist or, more particularly, as a musician? Can the city boast the same nurturing qualities that you hear about in Los Angeles and New York, or Portland, Seattle, and Austin? For Luis Muñoz, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” The Costa Rican-born drummer turned composer and part-time pianist has been a working musician in S.B. for 37 years, and his new CD, Invisible, is one of the most stylish, romantic, and fully realized suites of music of any released this year. And that’s not all. In addition to making great music himself, Muñoz puts many of the best musicians in town to work, both in his capacity as a composer and arranger of commercial work, and as members of the expansive musical family that manifests on his albums. This Thursday, April 29, Muñoz takes Invisible to the stage at SOhO with a band that features Jonathan Dane on trumpet, Brad Dutz on percussion and marimba, Tom Etchart on bass, George Friedenthal on piano, and Narciso Sotomayor on guitar.
Invisible, which is dedicated to “the poor … the sick … the homeless … the invisible ones,” could easily qualify as a jazz album, and will probably be reviewed and marketed as one, due to its virtuosic musicianship and lush, complex melodies. But the album, as the title and dedication suggests, is intended to be more things to more people than even the mighty soul-stirring forces of jazz could ever be. There’s a traditional gospel number, for instance, sung by Lois Mahalia, and several tunes where the distinctions between Latin, jazz, and such Brazilian forms as bossa nova and tropicalia dissolve altogether. As a drummer and trained composer (he studied music theory at UCSB), Muñoz demonstrates an unusual facility with mixing multiple musical elements. This alchemy is most evident on “Esperanza,” a heart-wrenching duet written for Etchart’s acoustic bass and the Chris Judge’s classical guitar, and “Tango y Sangre de la Media Noche,” a stunning nine-and-a-half-minute suite that melds tango with the Western classical tradition.
Behind “Tango y Sangre de la Media Noche” lies a method of composing that reflects the habits of a mature artist striving to achieve what Muñoz says he values most in music: “a kind of direct connection between the heart and the notes that come out at that moment.” When I asked him about the work, he told me that it was originally three separate works, “first a tango that got started seven years ago, then a contrapuntal classical piece in the manner of Bach, written very much according to the rules, and finally, a third piece that was just hard labor, something that I was rewriting over and over and still couldn’t finish. But then, one night around midnight, I broke through the block and ended up putting the third part together with the first two. It has a baroque theme, and it’s a reference to the blood of Christ. I was raised a Catholic, and even though I would not claim to be a religious man today, these things stay with you forever.”
Muñoz, who says that he has “never been away from music,” grew up in a family of composers. “My father had 17 brothers and sisters, and there was music in the house where I grew up all the time. Two of those relatives of mine are well-known composers in Costa Rica.” But for Muñoz, Santa Barbara is the place to be. “It makes a humongous difference to have a musical family like I do here in Santa Barbara after all these years,” he says. “I play with true friends, people I trust, and that makes it all so much better. I believe that we become isolated in our society today, and that the best music, the music made in this way, it brings us together and it unifies people.”
Luis Muñoz plays a CD release party for Invisible this Thursday, April 29, at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.). Call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com and luisjournal.blogspot.com for tickets and information.