Chuck Klosterman had it right. His contemporary notion that art and love are essentially the same thing harbors a process of seeing yourself in things that are not you. This holds very true in music.
Live music is an artistic element that transforms the essence of the present moment unfolding into the next. But what, exactly, does this look like in a musician? Minneapolis-born, California and New York-trained Jazz musician and Hip-Hop producer Javi Santiago is a brilliant and unique example.
Mr. Santiago is on a slight prodigy tip with classical training that began when he was 3 years-old in a household run by parents who are both Jazz musicians in the Twin Cities community. A dabbling of productional experience during the high school years was accompanied by training in both piano and trumpet. This later led to the amazing opportunity to attend the Brubeck Institute in Stockton, California where he worked with Jazz legends such as Dave Brubeck, Robert Glasper, and Christian McBride.
While concerns of not-selling out, staying true to your craft, and balancing acts between being a producer and a live-performer are quarrels of many passionate musicians, there are few that have a handle on these oft-heavy woes. Javi most certainly does. While he answered the how’s and why’s of the well-renowned Jazz world and local Hip-Hop scene, it becomes clear that with a conscious humbleness and passionate dedication to grow, both roles can be pursued. It’s possible to be “on top of the world” so long as that world is one envisioned, set-forth, and consistently re-molded by ‘you’ and ‘you’ only.
The Examiner: After the Brubeck Institute, what was your experience like training at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City?
Javi Santiago: I met a ton of amazing peers, contemporaries and I got to study with a lot of great teachers within the New York Metro area.
E: Growing up, what were you listening to in your household?
JS: Growing up there was a lot of Jazz. Actually, I was listening to some Red Garland earlier today, which was the first piano solo I ever learned. My grandfather was into him. One of my biggest mentors, Tanner Taylor, he’s a pianist, he told me to learn that solo, too. Back in the day, I used to listen to punk rock like Bad Religion, Blink 182, NOFX, I was super into Grunge [music] and also into Hip-Hop like Native Tongues, Jay Dee, and Slum Village.
E: Top 5 now?
JS: Ahmad Jamal, one of my favorite pianists ever. I’ve been listening to Pandora to get all nostalgic…I’ll put on Nas and they’ll start playing A Tribe [Called Quest], Neo Soul, you know, the “Golden Age” of Hip-Hop. New stuff? Butcher Brown [and DJ Harrison], they just released an album and they’re one of my favorite new artists. Also, Christian Scott. I like the whole beat scene now. Some emcees like Anderson Paak, Kendrick Lamar, and Greg Grease. I think MF Doom is one of the greatest rappers of all time. A lot of people sleep on him. Everything he says is consistently amazing poetry. I would love to work with him.
E: As a producer, how do you decide who to collaborate with and what is your process of executing a project with an artist?
JS: This year I’ve been collaborating a lot and it does take effort to keep it going. Recently, my project with Greg [Grease], dates back to high school. I met him then, I gave him a couple beats, he put me on some of his projects and when I went away to school we lost touch until this most recent project. This one was thorough. I definitely prefer working with someone in the same room. It’s weird sending your beats to someone and just being like, “okay, do your thing”. I prefer being there with the person. I am a professional, so if you want to pay me I’ll work with you but I like the organic process [of collaboration]. If it has longevity and meaning to it, I love working with someone in that way.
E: As a musician, in terms of your performance, what goes through your mind? Do you do anything differently when performing on stage as opposed to in the studio?
JS: It’s a different environment. Live, I definitely can feel a lot of energy. Yes, of course I get stage fright. There’s definitely two different mind sets. I try to follow some advice I once heard: pretend like you’re playing live when you’re in the studio and when you’re playing live pretend like you’re recording. When you’re recording you’re super exposed and you tend to be a lot more conservative in terms of what you’re expressing. When playing live you can let it all hang out.
E: What is your “practice” routine, if you have one?
JS: Robert Glasper once told me that typical piano “warm-ups” and exercises can become a compulsive need for a pianist, meaning that the pianist feels like they can’t sit down and play unless they do these warm ups. You shouldn’t have to feel obligated, restricted or addicted to doing these warm-ups before you play. You should be able to just sit down and play at any time. [So] I don’t think a strict regime is necessary but, if I don’t play for, say, five days I’ll be out of shape and I’ll feel it.
E: Compare and contrast a bit between being a producer and a jazz musician. Is it difficult to split time between the two?
JS: A lot of it relates to capitalist marketing. What is producing? It’s making beats on the computer or whatever equipment. But at the end of the day, it’s music. Yet, it’s being pigeonholed into a genre so now it’s “electronic” music, or, people might not consider it “jazz”, or, it’s not “classical” because it’s not live and sounds a certain way. That’s marketing to me, fitting it into a genre and then that genre having a demographic tailored for sales. You become a brand. I don’t like to distinguish between genres because then the art that manifests from it sounds contrived and this comes from the industry dictating the way money is made through music.
I don’t try to do both [playing piano and producing]. I do what I feel. I love playing the piano because you instantly make music. But if I [momentarily] get sick of that I’ll go make a beat. Honestly, it’s all coming from my heart, from the same place. I have a lot of influences and when I sit at the piano or sit at the computer it’s all coming from the same person, the same soul.
E: What advice would you give to someone who dabbles as both a musician and a producer but they don’t know which one to pursue and feel as if they have to choose? Or, they don’t know how to balance both…
JS: I would say do what you feel and don’t let people pigeonhole you. Make music from your heart. At the end of the day that’s why you do it, for the love. There’s so much ego going around. You have to make music and not care what everyone else is doing. I admire musicians that do both. I would love to play in a Jazz trio and then go into some Hip-Hop 808s. I would love to do both. But at the end of the day I don’t want my ego to get carried away. As a musician, you have to be conscious about this and try to stay humble. That’s the most important thing. If the ego’s there, the music lacks depth, realness, that authenticity. Keeping levelheadedness is something so important that I realized being in New York, Cali, and then coming back home.
E: Last shoutouts to people you would not be here without?
JS: Austin Peralta (Rest in Power), Butcher Brown, Unity featuring Amaury Acosta (a drummer from NYC),
Taylor Johnson a.k.a. Proper-T in Zulu Zuluu with Greg Grease, Hustle Rose, and [my band] Murkury.
Music careers can bounce back and forth between the coasts. Even as someone who has played alongside Ms. Lauryn Hill and rehearsed at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios, Javi Santiago shows that your roots hold very strong in reshaping your vision of success. “Before I went to college, before I did all that, I was just a dude from Minneapolis. I was chillin’. I always want to have that sense of home, which is a sense of Self. I never want to stray too far from that.”
Musician or not, there is an extremely valuable lesson to learn in the art of Javi’s efforts to stay humble in who you are and what you stand for.
What can his fans expect in 2016? While Javi can currently be found in various well-recognized Jazz clubs in the Twin Cities such as The Dakota Jazz Club, Vieux Carré, and Jazz Central Studios, nothing stops his talents from spreading between the coasts. He recently played with Cadence Collective in Brooklyn with his band Murkury and plans to return to the beloved Cali coast for a tour.
Listen to his EP debut, Year of the Horse (2015), which can be supported here, along with all of his other innovative beat works and collaborations!
Stay posted about everything live on Javi Santiago’s keyboard by subscribing to his website. Short on time? Check out his twitter for the 808 buzzfeed.