Arturo Stable

by Mike Dawson

More than most, this percussionist understands that necessity is the mother of invention—and you never want to leave Mom hanging. So whether he’s collaborating with heavyweight jazzers or leading his own unique ensembles, he always answers the call to create new rhythmic and sonic possibilities.Last fall, the Cuban-born, Philadelphia-based composer/percussionist Arturo Stable met with four of his favorite musicians—saxophonist Seamus Blake, bassist Edward Perez, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and vocalist Magos Herrera—at Peter Karl Studios in Brooklyn, to track a handful of original compositions and spontaneous improvisations for his latest album, Cuban Crosshatching. Conspicuously absent from the two-day session, however, was a drummer.

On his previous records (3rd Step, Notes on Canvas, and Call), Stable brought in his longtime friends Francisco Mela and Dafnis Prieto to man the throne. This time Arturo decided to go it alone, absorbing both roles by playing on an unusual hybrid kit that incorporates common drumset elements (18″ bass drum, hi-hats, and cymbals), various percussion instruments (cajon, djembe, bongos, pandeiro, frame drum, doumbek, bata, rattles), and a custom snare made by master luthier Matthew Smith that features a goatskin head and a truncated conga-style stave shell.

This unique setup allows Stable to shift seamlessly from driving drumset-like grooves (“Havana Lights,” “Mr. Brake”) to more traditional percussive approaches (“Táita,” “Duet With Sax,” “Habana del Este”) and impressionistic textures (“Pienso en Ti,” “Reverence,” “Letters to Luz”). The result gives Cuban Crosshatching a unique and refreshing sound, something the ever-curious thirty-seven-year-old Stable has strived for since first being drawn to music as a child growing up in a family of artists in Santiago de Cuba.

Stable’s family eventually relocated to capital city Havana, and Arturo went on to study percussion at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory. In 1993 he moved to Puebla, Mexico. This is where he began to absorb musical styles from other areas of the world, including American jazz.

In 2001, Stable enrolled at the Berklee College of Music, and in 2006 he earned a master’s degree in music from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, where he’s currently on the faculty. Since coming to the States, he has kept himself busy with a slew of his own projects, including an intimate piano/percussion duo with fellow Cuban Elio Villafranca, whose first album, Dos y Mas, was released in 2012. Stable is also a first-call percussionist for legendary artists such as vibraphonist/marimbist Dave Samuels and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, as well as for contemporary greats like bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, whose critically acclaimed 2013 album, Money Jungle, Arturo appears on.

ARTURO STABLEStable fills the rest of his schedule teaching hand drums and Latin drumming at UArts and working on commissions for various big bands and chamber ensembles around the world. At the time of our interview, which occurred a few weeks before he headed off to Europe for a short tour, Arturo was scrambling to put the finishing touches on a twenty-minute string quartet/jazz ensemble piece composed to accompany a Marc Chagall painting on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We decided to start our conversation here, on this most recent—and most pressing—assignment.

MD: What is the commission piece about?

Arturo: It’s a piece for string quartet based on a big painting called “A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon.” Chagall painted it for an opera about the Pushkin poem
“The Gypsies.”

The painting has a humongous wheat field and a huge orange sun and moon. There’s also a little boy in a blue boat, and within the wheat field there’s the head of a sheep that looks like it’s been decapitated. What you see when you first look at the painting is the sun, moon, and wheat field, but when you really dig in you realize that the most important element is the little blue person.

But I’m not trying to replicate the painting. I just tried to use some of the elements as inspiration. I started with the story of the poem, which talks about a city guy who leaves his life to be with a Gypsy girl but then kills the girl and her lover when he finds out she’s been sneaking out on him. The main elements I decided to work with were the sun, the moon, death, and the feeling of loss and solitude.

MD: This sounds like a very ambitious project for a contemporary jazz percussionist.

Arturo: I know. What was I thinking? [laughs] I could have just gone there with my jazz quartet and played a tune that works with the painting. But no, I had to do a string quartet, so I ended up writing music for hours every day for a month. But it’s fun, and I don’t want to have too much control over my creativity.

MD: How did you get into writing music?

Arturo: The first important thing I wrote was at a family reunion when I was ten or eleven. There was a big fight, and I felt so bad that I went to the piano and started playing a melody. As I was playing, everybody stopped arguing. The fact that my family paid attention to it, and that my dad said I had a gift for writing, really encouraged me.

MD: When did percussion come into your life?

Arturo: I started taking piano lessons when I was very young, but at that time Cuba had a strict Russian-style music school. I wasn’t able to study piano because I started school a year early, but I could study percussion. I worked really hard on piano at the same time, thinking that after a couple years I could ask them to change, but I fell in love with percussion. If you live in Cuba or Brazil the coolest guys are the percussionists, and they were the guys who got the girls. [laughs]

MD: How is percussion taught in Cuba?

Arturo: Until the late ’70s, everything that was taught in school was classical music, while popular and folkloric music was taught on the streets. But that system was changing when I started. You studied classical, but you took courses on folkloric. My teacher was classically trained, so he only taught the basics. But on the streets you could learn from different mentors. My dad was a musician, so he would talk these great percussionists into having me to their houses to hear me play. You had to show them that you were worth their time, because they didn’t charge money. Back then everything was based on pride and mentorship.

MD: Aside from the duo with Elio Villafranca, you’ve mostly worked alongside drumset players. But for Cuban CrosshatchingARTURO STABLE you decided to absorb the role. How did that come about?

Arturo: It was partly about economics. With the way the scene is today, the less people you have involved the better, and the only element that I had repeated in my groups was percussion. Also, a lot of the music I write is not based on clave or folkloric elements, where the percussion plays a very specific function, so incorporating cymbals and other textures started happening naturally.

MD: What’s the difference in mentality of being the drummer versus the percussionist?

Arturo: The first is the function. If you’re playing rumba, each drum has a pattern that interacts with the others in a very specific way. But in contemporary music, the drummer is the one who drives the intensity and handles the transitions. Percussion is not traditionally played that way. You either embellish with colors and textures or lay down a groove. The function of the contemporary jazz drummer is much more interactive, so making that switch in my head was very important. And, of course, there’s the technique of playing with sticks. I still work on trying to get the cymbal to sing.

I have two people to blame for me taking this new direction. One is Francisco Mela. We played a lot in Boston, and he was the one who pointed out that the music I was writing could benefit from different approaches.

The other guy is a Spanish sax player named Javier Vercher. He booked a tour, and he wanted to use percussion instead of drums. I went to Spain with him for three weeks, which was an eye-opener. I didn’t know what I was doing, but the people loved it.

MD: What was your setup at that point?

Arturo: I went to Home Depot and bought three garbage cans and filled them with everything I had. [laughs] I didn’t know what I was doing, so I would set up different stuff each time. It was hilarious, but it was a lot of fun. I just needed to find a way to do it right.

All of that is what drove me to make Cuban Crosshatching. Recordings are like photos of a stage in your life. They don’t need to be perfect or groundbreaking. We made that record under a year ago, but I feel that I’m already playing a lot differently.

MD: What was the inspiration for the compositions on Cuban Crosshatching?

Arturo: I wanted to do something that I would feel good about as an artist but that would also reach out to people. That led me to think about why I got into music in the first place. For me, it was traditional Cuban and classical music, like Bach, Mozart, and Schubert. Then I thought about what type of jazz was the most influential for me. It wasn’t Bitches Brew or Herbie Hancock funk from the ’70s—it was Louis Armstrong and things like that.

MD: What else are you working on these days?

Arturo: I’m working on a piano trio. I’m writing tunes that have specific poly-chords that the pianist and bassist have to work within. We’re going to hit the studio at some point, but I’m not in a rush. What I don’t want to do is record first and then gig. When you do it that way, a year later you’re playing the music differently. Even if it takes a year or two, I want to let life dictate the circumstances.

MD: How do you stay focused with so many things going on at once?

Arturo: My main focus is to try to keep from losing focus. [laughs] I’ve had to make some sacrifices along the way. For instance, I really wanted to learn tabla, but I had to say no. I’m a curious person, and I have natural skills for a lot of things, which actually works against me sometimes. I learn pretty quickly, but nothing’s fast enough if you want to do it really well. Even if I can learn tabla quicker than most, it’s still going to take me two to five years to really master the instrument. Can I do that? No.

MD: Nothing comes overnight.

Arturo: Right! So I have to put limits on myself. Part of my nature is to do a lot of things, but sometimes I want to do too much. I mean…I just bought a mandolin. Why did I do that? [laughs]

Stable’s setup changes from gig to gig, but for Cuban Crosshatching he used an 18″ Slingerland bass drum; a Meinl doumbek; LP bongos, Vibra-Slap, and Stanton Moore signature pandeiro; a traditional djembe, cajon, thumb piano, and frame drum; a custom-made rebolo; a signature goatskin-head snare and quintíllo; a Zildjian 20″ Flat ride and 14″ K Custom Dark hi-hats; a 22″ Sabian HHX Manhattan Jazz ride with three rivets; a 22″ Bosphorus Master Vintage ride; and assorted shakers, rattles, gongs, and cowbells.