“I’m a happy man,” reports Luis Muñoz, the celebrated Costa Rican–born Santa Barbara jazz artist and producer, who continues to win accolades worldwide for his optimistic, soothing, and sultry works. It’s a deep happiness, the kind that comes from a gratitude for the fabric of life itself. At age 5, the young Muñoz had to undergo heart surgery. “It was a blessing in disguise. It makes you present at all times, to try to get as much out of life as possible,” he said.
Certainly, he’s seizing every day, with an output that only seems to grow more prolific as the years go by. This year, he won two ACAM (Association of Composers & Musical Authors) awards for his new album, Voz — including Jazz CD of the Year in his native country — and his music was even chosen by NPR’s Alt.Latino program as a “Music for Healing” selection in a post-Trump world. Featuring an international roster of musicians, including Magos Herrera, Téka Penteriche, and Claudia Acuña — renowned jazz singers from Mexico, Brazil, and Chile, respectively — Voz also features incredibly skilled locals such as bassist Randy Tico and pianist George Friedenthal, plus mixing and engineering from S.B. sound engineers Emmet Sargeant and Dominic Camardella.
For lyrics, Muñoz turned to two childhood friends: poets Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy and Osvaldo Sauma, the winner of the National Poetry Award in Costa Rica in 2014, whose words are sung along with those of Rómulo Castro and Jaime Gamboa. “It is wonderful because with them you have such a deep sense of history and friendship. I grew up in a place where everybody knew each other, and then to see them flourish and to be able to collaborate with them — it is a very nice thing.” Something of a collaborator-come-lately, Muñoz, like many artists, began his early years in incubatory solitude to develop his own musical voice, and the studio is very much still a refuge and a place of shelter for him.
But he’s not blocking out the light; with records such as 2013’s Luz and 2010’s Invisible, light — both come and gone — is a recurring theme. “I try to find beauty in everything around me; there’s a lot of ugliness in the world already, so I try to be an optimist and see it with a perspective of light,” he said. For vocal records, he prefers the colorful and surreal prose and poetry of authors such as Roberto Bolaño, Horacio Quiroga, and Gabriel García Márquez.
For one of his newer works, an upcoming release titled The Dead Man, Muñoz took inspiration from a short story. “With the theme of the dead man, it’s about seeing a bit of the limit in your existence in this world of ours, kind of like, ‘I’ve got so much stuff in my soul that I want to put out; I gotta get on the ball and do it while I’m still around,’” he said. Fittingly, The Dead Man is vivacious and spontaneous, recorded live over two days and spiked with harsh electric guitar.
In fact, rock was Muñoz’s first music. But then he was introduced to jazz by his brother’s friend, who was traveling in a van full of “literally hundreds of the greatest jazz records of the world — Monk, Coltrane, Miles. I wanted to be part of that idiom — so fresh, so in the moment.” From there, he went on to play in ensembles and compose pieces for short films, and through steady dedication, one day he found himself playing a festival slot at the Long Beach Jazz Festival between giants Chick Corea and Miles Davis.
With a sequel to Voz in the works called The Infinite Dream, Muñoz continues to feed his artistic hunger. “You have to try new things as an artist, and you have to write to maintain your inner peace,” he said. Creating, relaxing, and finding contentedness — it seems there’s much inner peace, indeed. “To me, being accomplished and rich is being joyful, being at peace with your loved ones. That’s what it’s all about. In that sense, I am a happy man, and I am a successful man, too.”