Artist Feature: Aquiles Navarro

Watching Aquiles Navarro establish himself on the New York music scene over the past six years has been fascinating. He’s a singular voice on trumpet and has been a transformative presence in every ensemble of which he is a part. His most well-known projects are a duo with Brooklyn-born drummer Tcheser Holmes and the collaborative quintet Irreversible Entanglements with Moor Mother, Keir Neuringer, and Luke Stewart, in addition to Holmes. I had the opportunity to speak with him in September to talk about his duo record, Heritage of the Invisible II, just released on October 23.

Cisco Bradley: How did Tcheser Holmes and you approach your recent duo recording?

Aquiles Navarro: Our first release as a duo was in 2014, played all over New York City, as much we could, joined Irreversible Entanglements in 2015, kept doing our thing, by 2017, Irreversible Entanglements takes off, so during that time was a whole growing period that informed our already duo project, so by last year we were already eager to go into the studio as a duo but $$ is always a thing, and being on tour + having to deal with the responsibilities back home pile up makes it harder to prioritize studio money. But in late October and early November 2019, we had to do it. So we did. We did our thing, thought creatively as a unit and came up with this stuff, most tunes have an idea behind them, and we go from there. For example on the tunes we’re riffing off of this audio interview I did with Carlos Garnett back in Panama, one day hanging out I asked him if i could record and talk about Miles [Davis], so I found this clip where Garnett doesn’t mention Miles although talking about him, says how they as the band would get paid before the gig, so then your cool on stage not worried about that stuff, so then from there on Tcheser and I riff with our voices off of that idea, talking about the shitty scene and how the realities with what might look all pretty, in both English and Spanish, then we added drums and piano. That’s just one composition on the record; they’re all different.

CB: Your collaboration with drummer Tcheser Holmes has been a longstanding one. How did that begin and what has your experience been like working with him?

AN: We met at the New England Conservatory both as incoming freshmen in 2008. We also found ourselves communicating via facebook before getting to school, I think we were in some facebook group for incoming students. The first few days while still moving in and getting to know everyone we were hanging out in the dorm rooms on our floor and I remember Tcheser playing a rhythm on one of the bed frames and I immediately knew or at least the feeling your body gives you let me know that oh shit, he can play, there was no awkwardness in rhythm amongst us, i think that’s what the body reacts to, it recognizes a familiarity that sometimes we are stripped away from, some people completely lose it, or never find it, but if it’s around, nurture it, embrace it, love it. From there on we developed a friendship in music and out of it as well. We started working on music early on, we would bring in tunes, concepts, hang out listening to A LOT of music, we were always checking out music and letting it teach us, we would spend a lot of time at the listening library at the Conservatory and were able to check out so many sounds, also the idea that a person like Cecil Taylor was a student there gives you this sense of this energy that is around, I don’t know, it was inspiring to be in a space where we could find each other and encourage one another to dive into the sound and fly, letting the imagination and the spiritually take over was always present, even if we were not 100% conscious about it. I have learned so much from him and keep learning. I could write a whole book about what we have gone through together.

Aquiles Navarro and Tcheser Holmes. Photo by Denis Batuev.

CB: The origin story for Irreversible Entanglements that I have heard is that you met at a Artists Against Police Brutality event organized in 2014 or 2015 with you and Tcheser playing duo and the other three, Camae Ayewa (Moor Mother), Keir Neuringer, and Luke Stewart playing in a trio. What in particular brought you all together in that moment?

AN: Well, we were getting into the scene in NYC and had played a few shows as a duo, one of them that stands out was a triple bill at the Manhattan Inn, organized by Amirtha Kidambi and Peter Evans. Me and Tcheser opened the night, then Amirtha’s Elder Ones, and a Peter Evans group, House Special. I mean it was a major musical gathering that put us in the middle of the fire you know. So, shortly after that they organized the Musicians Against Police Brutality at the now closed Silent Barn, and we joined for a duo set when we were asked if we wanted to participate. There were a lot of great musicians and creatives, now that I look back it was really something else. I remember seeing Keir and thinking about the sound, how I had never heard of him but the sound and the way he played stuck with me. He approached me during the evening and asked if we were interested in doing this studio session with him Luke and Camae. I don’t remember speaking to Camae or Luke that night, I mean we were young and in an ocean of amazing musicians that night, we were just trying to find our way and do the thing. So I believe what brought us together was the SOUND and FIRE that both individual groups were bringing to the stage that night. I’m big on sound, and can’t deny when if enters the body, it just does.

CB: What were your primary musical or artistic influences growing up in Panama? How has that shaped your sound?

AN: I think it started since I was born, my father’s music collection and what we listened to at home or in the car. I vividly remember the cassettes we had: Nat King Cole, Ismael Rivera, Ruben Blades, Bob Marley, Louis Armstrong, and a whole bunch of Salsa Dura. I vividly remember the joy those sounds would give me and how natural they felt. And this was while living in Toronto. Once we got to Panama…the shit just opened up. My school bus would pick me up around 6 am, and we would get to school around 7-7:30 and it would start blasting reggae in espanol as early as they could, like dancehall, big bass subwoofers in the back seats, it was crazy, but I loved it. I would even then start recording mixtapes from the TV or music that I was into and wait till the bus would fill up and pass it to the front like yo play this!! hahah crazy!! My family is very musical, they either dance, or are close to music in some way, my grandfather was the only one to do it professionally, he was a cellist, professor at the Conservatory in Panama, also a teacher at the Instituto Comercial (where he also composed the anthem for the school) and an active and respected member of the Panama National Symphony Orchestra. When my family returned to Panama he was a bit sick and I couldn’t really get to spend time with him or get to know him well.

CB: Who were your principle teachers?

AN: My first trumpet teachers were my cousin Sixto Alexander and my highschool music teacher Granville Barnett. Another big influence was the band director Earl Greaves, he pretty much decided that I would play the trumpet in seventh grade. I then went off to study with Carlos Garnett whom I met at a show he did in Panama around 2005 or ‘06. Me and some friends approached him after the show and I expressed my interest in studying with him, he gave me his number and I started studying with him the following week. The Panamanian trumpet player Victor Paz was another huge influence, without his teachings I wouldn’t be prepared to play in the real world. I also studied with Brian Lynch while doing my masters at UM, and in my undergrad at the New England Conservatory I had some great teachers such as John McNeil, Lui Bonilla, Ken Schaphorst, Steve Emery, to name a few. But having being a student of Carlos Garnett from early on I really got to learn from his school of thought where the creativity, imagination and letting go of rules is key, I mean he was playing with people like Woody Shaw, so their imagination was something else. So that being said I’ve had a lot of teachers because I’m curious and I feel that they also get something from my interaction with them, but I have to find my own ways into translating or finding the information into something personal, so it’s a mix of being self taught and being okay with being exposed to other alternatives in potential creativity.

CB: It has been fascinating to watch Irreversible Entanglements rise to international attention over the past four years. Looking back, what were your favorite shows to play live?

AN: We had a great time at the Tusk Festival and in Italia the day after because it was Luke’s birthday, plus the food and hospitality in Italy is amazing so of course they’ll get all the notes! I enjoyed Le Guess Who a lot, i don’t remember a single note I played during that set but I remember walking inside that building and all the different bands in every room, it was crazy, amazing. I cried on stage during our first date on the first tour, it was in Berlin, and at some point of the set I had to put my head down cause i could not control the tears, I mean I was on stage listening to everything I ever dreamed of, the best.

CB: How have you and the other horn player, Keir Neuringer, developed a vocabulary and understanding in the music while playing together in Irreversible Entanglements?

AN: It’s really about the sound and trust, we also push each other. But yeah, I’ve never met a horn player like Keir, we have this magnetism that keeps getting more and more refined. That defines the vocabulary, the trust, the sound and we know how to move.

CB: Moor Mother is a particularly talented and poignant front-person for Irreversible Entanglements. What has it been like collaborating with her?

AN: I love it. From the first time in the studio I really liked her voice, the sound of it, right away. Then, and now, I keep learning, I help with what I can, do what I have to do, but I keep learning from her, and the voice is, well, I respect it and I’m grateful to be able to be around and keep working on all of this.

CB: What is next for Irreversible Entanglements?

AN: Creating!

CB: Do you have any other projects you are working on at the moment?

AN: I started a label for Panamanian artists and creatives called, River Down Records, the name comes from the neighborhood in which I went to school in Panama and learned music, Rio Abajo, a cultural hub of Panama City. So I’m working with a bunch of Panamanian artists at the moment and managing each project and giving them time to flourish. I’ve also been putting my own music on the label so I have a personal outlet for some of my sounds. I’ve been having some film scoring work as well. I’m working on building custom wood furniture. Made a turntable, mixer, record cabinet for my apartment. I started [TOTAL IMPROVISACION] by Aquiles Navarro, I’ll have more to say about that at some point later.

Cover photo credit: Denis Batuev

Cisco BradleyArtist Feature: Aquiles Navarro