Artist Angle: Playing the Changes

Paul Yanomé, Columnist // Illustration By Cynthia Tran Vo

My dad used to be embarrassed of me because I would wear black T-shirts to school every day. These shirts, proudly emblazoned with heavy metal logos, were what drove my dad’s coworkers, fellow teachers at my school, to tease him for having a weird “goth” kid. In a way, he only had himself to blame, since he was an avid music fan himself. From Mötley Crüe to Metallica, my dad had fed me a strict music diet since I was a toddler. He had successfully made music a part of my identity and now he began to regret it.

Looking back now, I can see that I was only looking for a way to express who I am to my peers, and I guess I eventually decided that playing the electric guitar would be the way to do it. I was around 11 years old when I started learning how to play, and I quickly encouraged all my friends to learn an instrument so that we could perform at our school’s talent show. To put it bluntly, we sucked. We didn’t even make it past the auditions, but later we performed at a small showcase inside a shopping mall. Throughout the years, my guitar proficiency advanced and I found myself always craving more knowledge, always wanting to improve in every way possible.

Still, if someone had told me back then that I would end up studying jazz in Canada, I would have probably laughed in their face and put my headphones back on. It’s kind of tricky to look back and analyze how exactly my tastes slowly evolved into what they are today, but a few select records can change your entire perception of what music can be in an instant.

Early on in my musical education, I was lucky enough to take lessons from Werther Ellerbrock, a Berklee College of Music alumnus, who taught me that there are incredible guitar players in genres other than rock. The music I was listening to at the time was, to my ears, incredibly complex and sophisticated. Progressive metal bands such as Dream Theater and Animals as Leaders used chords and rhythms that sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. In the hopes of understanding this kind of music, I decided to delve into the world of music theory. I still remember showing up to a guitar lesson one day and Werther had prepared a lesson in harmonic analysis by looking at the famous jazz tune “Autumn Leaves”. For a few lessons we talked about jazz and improvisation over chord changes, but I didn’t think too much about it until years later.

Fast forward to my family moving from Mexico to Canada, I finished high school here in Vancouver, and later auditioned for the Capilano University Jazz program because I thought that learning jazz harmony and improvisation would help me understand everything I would ever need to know in music. Going into the program, I thought understanding jazz would merely be a tool that would allow the music in my head to materialize through my instrument. A year later, I’m still learning that jazz is its own musical language and has a unique set of challenges and characteristics. In the past, writing and composing music has been a vehicle for me to convey my emotions. Now that I’m learning how to play jazz and, consequently, how to improvise on my instrument, the emotions and thoughts I express come in the form of spontaneous melodies with no filter on what I want to convey. Learning this art form makes me think of improvisation as an immediate composition that was never premeditated, and to my ears it sounds a lot more honest and lyrical.

Nowadays, I don’t wear Slayer T-shirts as often as I did in my teenage years, but the music I grew up on remains a part of my identity. Right now I’m entirely devoted to learning, appreciating and playing jazz, but I don’t doubt that in the future I will find a way to bring back the rock, and put the pedal to the metal.

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