Asher Barreras and John Maestas Go Large

Last summer, when bassist Asher Barreras and guitarist John Maestas booked a set for a nonet in the Outpost’s summer series, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew these two native Burqueans as primo players and ambitious composers who have swallowed a variety of genres while swimming in the jazz ocean. I’d heard them shine as sidemen and as coequals in their Humoso quartet. But a nonet with reed and brass sections? What exactly would two young string-plucking whippersnappers know about writing for a mess of wind instruments?

Well, it was a smokin’ set, and it featured some of the Southwest’s best players, several of whom also contributed fine compositions. It was so good, in fact, that the Outpost invited the nonet back for a full evening in the middle of the high-profile spring season.

Expectations have now been raised, but I’ve no doubt that this Thursday, Barreras, Maestas, and company—Kanoa Kaluhiwa and Aaron Lovato (tenor sax), Glenn Kostur (alto sax), Paul Gonzales and JQ Whitcomb (trumpet), Ben Finberg (trombone), and Paul Palmer III (drums), with help from special guest Albuquerque Poet Laureate Hakim Bellamy—will satisfy those
expectations and then some.

The summer 2012 version of the Barreras/Maestas nonet. Photo by and courtesy of Jim Gale.

The summer 2012 version of the John Maestas–Asher Barreras nonet. Photo by and courtesy of Jim Gale.

The Start of Something Big
The idea for the nonet came when the two leaders were “tripping out in Spain,” as Maestas puts it, a couple of years back. The two played at jam sessions, gigs, and spent every day for months talking about music and knocking around ideas about what to do when they got back to the States.

Photo by Billy Nguyen, courtesy of John Maestas.

John Maestas. Photo by Billy Nguyen, courtesy of John Maestas.

“I was itching to do more stuff with a larger group,” says Maestas, who wanted the
experience of writing for a larger ensemble. “The original idea was to do a swing band and get good at playing music for people, as opposed to music for art’s sake and have three people in the audience or no one at all,” he says, punctuating the idea with a burst of his slightly and delightfully mad laughter.

The nonet was appealing for several reasons, says Barreras. “It’s not as big as a big band, so you don’t have the economic issue of that many people, but it’s large enough that you can get the feel of a big band,” he says. “You can arrange things in that manner and get a big sound and do a lot of really fun things compositionally.”

The nonet took full advantage of the opportunity, with compositions and arrangements that
introduced a lot of cross-currents, both melodically and rhythmically, and that spanned a
variety of musical sensibilities, from hip-hop to lyrical ballads to hard-bop burners.

For Maestas, who’s living in New Orleans these days, one of the challenges of writing for the ensemble is the plethora of choices the large group offers. “There are so many directions to go,” he says.

“I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music, and my favorite classical composers, right now, are Ravel and Debussy,” says Maestas. He finds their writing for wind instruments
“breathtaking because someone like Ravel knows the amount of effort and the amount of breath it takes to do these crazy lines. . . . It’s kind of like you almost have to know who you have in the band.”

Photo by Sol Acuña, courtesy of Asher Barreras.

Asher Barreras. Photo by Sol Acuña, courtesy of Asher

Barreras agrees and particularly enjoys writing for the personalities in the band and
showcasing their improvisational talents. “The singing quality” of the wind instruments is
itself a source of inspiration for him, he says. “They have to use their breath,” he notes, “and you have to be conscious of that. You have to give the phrase breath, so when you’re writing lines for them, you’re actually writing space, letting things emerge out of space.”

The two leaders will contribute eight original arrangements or compositions. Barreras will offer three original tunes, “Joya,” “If Never,” and “Otra Vez.” Maestas will present arrangements of two hip-hop tunes, one each from J Dilla and Kendrick Lamar; “Jingles,” by Wes Montgomery, a nod to the swinging roots of jazz; Herbie Hancock’s “Speak Like a Child,” which he describes as a combination of a Marvin Gaye song and a Ravel concerto; and another piece that I’m sworn to secrecy about. Finberg, Kaluhiwa, Kostur, and Whitcomb will also offer up original tunes.

Whoever’s composition or arrangement is up, you can pretty much bet on sophisticated music played at a high level of hip.

John Maestas–Asher Barreras Nonet
Thursday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.
Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale Blvd. SE, Albuquerque

Tickets $20/$15 members and students

For more information, cal 268-0044 or visit

© 2013 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.

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