Javier Santiago on the keys to live experimentation and music being the centre of his story

The Minnesota-born pianist on live music, fusing genres, legacy and where his creativity is headed to next.

Passion, excitement and unlimited imagination are just three ways to describe an emotional response to Javier Santiago’s music. Born and raised in Minnesota, this pianist, producer and multi-instrumentalist continues to raise the bar, with sounds that remind us of the endless possibilities when creating from the heart. His portfolio – elaborate and grandeur in many ways, forms a bond between the lover of live experimentation and the listener obsessed with neo-soul and sample-based hip-hop. Close your eyes, press play and hear how the music he creates is dramatic and rich enough, to provide the soundtrack for a live action movie or theatre production. From being born into a family of musicians to playing the piano at just five-years-old, music remains at the centre of Javier’s story.

“The arrangements were so tight, but they were just improvising,” he says describing the pre-pandemic nightlife in New York City. Javier found a home in spontaneous jam sessions at The Lesson, where he spent much of his five-year stay NYC which ended in 2015. He speaks with a deep admiration for the instrumentalists like himself who rose to the challenge. “They would create a song with a chorus and repeat the chorus after the verse and it was just like incredible,” he adds as we bond over a shared love of musical improvisation. Despite being in two different time zones, we were able to share similar experiences and perceptions of music, which made this conversation via zoom all the more interesting.

Life is pretty unusual at the moment. I’m in London right now, we’re currently in our third national lockdown. For those who don’t know, whereabouts are you at the moment and how are you coping with everything?

Right now, I’m in San Francisco. Things are actually opening back up. Places like restaurants are opening back up for outdoor dining, I think. They were shut down for like two months. I’m over here in the states, it’s like – we haven’t been handling it the best. Some places it’s better than others, some states. But yeah, I’ve just been trying to stay busy and focused. Trying to stay sane, by being social as much as I can. Luckily, I’m really grateful now to be a musician too. Even though musicians and artists got hit really hard, I also am lucky to still have a great network and community of musicians. We all keep in touch. Sometimes we have outdoor jam sessions and collaborate online. That’s been keeping me afloat.

That’s good to hear. Let’s start from the very beginning of your music journey. Can you talk us through your childhood and the influence members of your family had on shaping your music palette?

Yeah, my parents were both musicians. My dad currently is still a working musician. He plays the drums and my mom is a singer. She doesn’t sing professionally anymore and not as much as she used to. They were huge in shaping my whole musical palette. Big influences on me. They played a lot of different kinds of music. Jazz, funk and rock…etc. Yeah, they’d always just be playing records. I really revered all the music they played. It was really great, but I didn’t understand it completely. I was just a young person in the 90s or early 2000s. I didn’t really grasp it until I got older. I eventually started to really get deep into the music as a musician too. Listening to and studying it in a way. I was more into funk, rock, hip-hop, grunge and stuff like that at first. It was just like oh yeah, my dad plays jazz and that’s great and I’m totally open to it. But, I didn’t really get it until later. I’m sure their involvement in that music really exposed me to that and made me get into it later on.

You’ve said in previous interviews that ‘Kind of Blue’ was the first jazz record you really connected with. If you were alive in 1959 and you were called upon by Miles Davis to be in this album, as a multi-instrumentalist what instrument could you see yourself playing?

Oh, definitely the piano! I’m flattered that you looked at other interviews, thank you. But, also that you called me a multi-instrumentalist which I – thank you. Piano is my first for sure. My primary. Then trumpet is second and other things after that I just dabble with. So, that’s interesting. I guess piano will probably be the first thing. It couldn’t be trumpet. I don’t think Miles Davis would have wanted another trumpet player. I mean, I don’t know. I imagine he won’t be that into that idea. So, yeah probably piano.

One thing I really miss is the pre-pandemic nightlife in London. Particularly the jam sessions, the open mic nights, the underground soul, jazz and hip-hop events that I think you would’ve loved too. Collectives like Unit31 or spaces like the Jazz Café and NT’s Loft has showcased some of the best talent in the city, in my opinion. Which musicians in the UK have caught your eye?

I’ve heard a lot of great things about the scene over there. I’m super interested in checking it out! I actually was planning on going there this past summer, before the pandemic hit. But yeah, I immediately go to Soweto Kinch. He’s a great saxophonist and emcee as well. That’s what’s so amazing about him. He’s exceptional at both. So, I always associate the UK with him. As a jazz musician and a beatmaker, I just really think he’s like – the truth. Yeah, I feel like Yussef Dayes is over there right?

Yes, he is.

I know there’s some people I’m totally missing right now. But, those are the ones that stick out in my mind. I would love for you to put me on to whatever.

Definitely. On the topic of nightlife, can you talk about the NYC nightlife? Specifically, your time performing in venues like Smalls Jazz Club in 2015.

Yeah, I guess that was like a long time ago. I was there from 2009 to 2015-ish. I was just a student and a young man. I did participate in that for a while – the jazz scene. It’s very much a scene, like things are very specialised there. Smalls is like the heart of it for sure. I kinda moved from that scene a little bit and started reaching out to more R&B and hip-hop and going into that world as well. In New York, it’s very much a vibrant community. I miss it to be honest. There’s a jam session that I always recommended to people after I left New York too.

What was it called?

Well, if they were making a trip to New York I would say, “go to The Lesson in the Lower East Side”. It’s kinda like the Unit31 thing, in a way it’s a jam session. I think it’s still going on. I guess pre-pandemic, maybe probably not now. But, I think it had been going on for years after I had left. It’s like a hip-hop jam session, amazing instrumentalists, emcees and singers. They would just get up and vibe. You would think it’s like a song they rehearsed, that’s how good it was. The arrangements were so tight, but they were just improvising. They would create a song with a chorus and repeat the chorus after the verse and it was just like incredible. That was a big highlight for me too, after I had gone away from the jazz scene. That was the new hang for me.

That experience sounds amazing. In 2007 when you were selected to study at the Brubeck Institute in California, being under the wing of musicians like Robert Glasper, Nicholas Payton and Joshua Redman. What are some of the great lessons you learnt? As an educator yourself, what would you like to pass down to those coming after you?

That’s a great question and a tough one to answer. They would talk about specific things about music, like play this scale over this chord – sometimes. Mainly it was very conceptual and broad. Just like philosophical almost about music. It taught me the value of stepping back. As a musician – it’s an art, it’s a craft and it’s a science. You’re practicing, you’re honing your skills. But, it’s just important to step back. Look at why you play music, how you’re playing and what’s your approach. They just taught me to always address and assess that about yourself as an artist. Are you approaching it from your mind or your heart? And also how you play with people. I was doing that every night before the pandemic hit. I miss that. They taught me so much about that. How you play with others, create energy and synergy. That was the most valuable thing and what I would like to pass down to people, which is like why we play music in the first place. It’s to bring people together and it’s for the love of it. Not for the material gain or to compete, you know I mean even though a lil’ competition is good once in a while.

Javier Santiago photographed by Jack Davis (LoonarCity)

Touching on what you said earlier, does your process of music draw from your mind or heart then?

Definitely both! You got to have it all right. So, I heard this saying by Aaron Parks, he’s one of my favourite pianists. He said, “melody is like your heart, rhythm is like your body and your mind is like harmony.” I was also talking to a great saxophonist last night – Andrew Speight. He was saying a similar thing. I think it’s good to have a balance of those three elements in music. And that’s with life too.

In 2013, you released ‘Loops, Circles and Revolutions’ Volume One and Two. Both projects are incredible, I am particularly in love with volume two. What headspace were in you when you made the beat for Ghosts and how did you feel after making something that sounds that incredible?

Thank you! I don’t know, I guess, every time I make music I want to make the best sounding music that I possibly can. I feel like a lot of that I already heard before, in a way. That clearly has like a Dilla influence.

Yeah, it definitely does.

A lot of those beats were like when I was in high school. I was in a very creative time. I had a lot of freedom and a lot of time to create. It was a very inspiring time at that particular moment and many other moments after that. It was almost a gift I was trying to give to people like, “hey, isn’t this music great, well here’s more of it.” It’s like Dilla mixed with this and that and Madlib and some Herbie Hancock and a little bit of me in there. I owe it all to the people that came before me.

One of the things I love about the late J Dilla is the way he fuses different genre’s together. Sampling classical composers like Erik Satie or drawing from his childhood cello lessons. I see that appreciation for different genres in your upbringing and your music. Do you think it’s important to be able to do this? If so, why?

Yeah, I think it’s super important! Like, why not? It could be something new. Something that hasn’t been done before, so it’s always great to experiment. You can come up with great innovations that way. It happens naturally anyway, but it defo is important for musicians to keep pushing the envelope.

We saw the release of your debut album Phoenix in 2018, which you worked with various instrumentalists and vocalists. Can you talk through the production process of this album? Was it largely planned or improvised?

It was pretty interesting how that worked out. Basically, I got a grant from an organisation in Minnesota where I’m originally from and I had been living at the time. I just knew it was either beats or live. Do I do everything by myself on my laptop and go in the studio to record every now and then? Or do I just go to the studio with a bunch of musicians and do a live thing, like a jazz record? Something more spontaneous with improvisation. You know, more acoustic or ensemble playing. I was like you know what, this is the only opportunity I’m gonna get to record with all these people, because it costs so much money to do. You gotta hire the band, you gotta pay for the studio. You have to have a big budget for that, nowadays it’s tough to do that as a DIY kinda thing.

I was like let me seize this opportunity to record a project with some great musicians. I went in with a bunch of compositions that I had written from over the years. We just recorded them all as like an ensemble. I arranged it like it was for a jazz group. We spent two days recording a bunch of songs. We did like two albums worth. The next album I did, B-Sides: The Phoenix Sessions that was all from the same session. On the third day it was just a quartet, we recorded different songs on that day. I went into the vault and took out some beats of mine and was like let’s play along to these and see what happens. So yeah, it was like three days and we did so much stuff. By the end of it I just had all this material. I didn’t even know where to begin. Production-heavy and live experimentation. It was like a hybrid.

It’s interesting to hear how it all came together. To sum it up, who would you say you made Phoenix for?

I made it for people like yourself maybe, who like live music and also like production. People who respect both. It’s kinda like a venn diagram. They’re not like a purist and don’t only like live instruments and don’t like hip-hop or synthesized instruments and drums. But, they also like production. I feel like there’s an audience and demographic for that. That was weird, because as a jazz artist that’s like one world. When you’re a jazz musician your first album is not gonna be that. Your first album is supposed to be, well you play standards. You play Fly Me To The Moon and songs from the great American song book, which for those who don’t know are songs from Broadway shows in the 1930s and 40s. Songs that jazz musicians took and did amazing things with. You do things like that on your first record. You have all original songs. Although, Herbie Hancock, I think was one of the first jazz musicians in that time, the early 60s, his debut record was all originals. That was unheard of at the time. So, I was promoting this record to jazz publications, but at the same time knew this other whole community in hip-hop would like it.

I like how you considered both these listeners in your production process. How do you usually decide who to collaborate with?

It’s half this is my friend, their dope and I wanna work with them. And it’s also like I’m hearing this particular person before I even find out who it is. I’m already hearing either a specific person or a certain type of voice or style.

Are You There? the EP literally sounds like a soundtrack for a movie. It’s expressive, passionate and imaginative. Would you be open to the idea of having your music featured in a theatre production or a live action movie?

Definitely! That would be incredible. I love collaborating with artists of different disciplines.

Are there any other mediums that you would like to see your music featured in?

Video games. Haha, that would be amazing! Someone actually just used my song in a Minecraft video game. They have this channel on YouTube, it’s like a gamer and he used my music in one of his sequences.

Now, that’s pretty cool.

Yeah, he had a 30-minute video of him playing the game and my song was in there. A lot of people heard it, cause he has like millions of followers. It which was really unexpected. I started getting all these plays on this song on Spotify and I was like, why all of a sudden this song?

Which song was it?

It’s called Wavy. Eventually, this great drummer played along to the track. I was like, how did you find this, like why this track? And he was like I saw it on this gamer’s video on YouTube.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word legacy. The importance of interviews, which help readers and viewers to understand a person even beyond their craft. Right now, we’re seeing people re-read and re-watch interviews of MF DOOM, Larry King and Cicely Tyson. I think about the way interviews memorialise people, leaving parts of themselves here even after they’ve gone. What does the word legacy mean to you and what would you like your legacy to be?

Yeah, part of me doesn’t even want to think about that right now, haha just kidding. It’s a great question though. That’s super important. Legacy to me is kinda like my art, archiving and documenting things. Someone told me a little myth, yeah quick little anecdote. There’s a dude. He’s a writer – or a woman. They die and they go to heaven. Or they don’t know what it is, they just end up in this place and there’s books everywhere. And he’s like where am I? And the deities up there are like, “these are all the books you would have written if you had followed through with your ideas.” I don’t want to be that person. I want to have at least got out all of my ideas and just put them out there. Not just hoard everything, because I tend to hoard things and I’m kind of a perfectionist.

How have you worked through those insecurities and feelings of self-doubt holding you back from releasing music?

I have days where I’m like this is dope and I wanna put this out there. I just always think about that time when I first made it. That time when I first had that initial high. I call it the ‘honeymoon phase’ of that song or that idea. I always go back to that, because if I had that feeling about it then it’s probably dope and I’m just tripping. I try to trust that feeling and see it through. I want to inspire future generations, motivate them, get them thinking about the world, how they wanna be a part of it and contribute to it. Anyone that wants to learn music, I’m a teacher. I’m like a natural teacher, I think. I’ve been getting more into that in recent years. But, I’d love to pass that on. I hope to do that while I’m here. Knock on wood, I’m going to be here for a while.

We’re one month into the new year and you’ve already blessed us with three singles and another on the way tomorrow. What can we look forward to hearing from you this year? And tell us about your upcoming project Verses Vol. 2 which I understand is coming out next month?

Yes. Verses Vol. 1 came out in 2018 and Verses Vol. 2 is coming out on the 19th of this month. It’s self-released, but I’m working with a great visual artist who did all of the single artwork for the record. He goes by the name of flatspot and he’s the founder of Hot Record Societe, which was the label I put my last project out on. It’s an amazing record label based out of Oakland. There’s also a great bassist and friend of mind named Giulio Xavier he goes by The Jazz Thug. He has a project coming out soon, we’re working on it right now. It’s his debut record and it’s gonna be crazy! I’m probably going to be coming out with another beat tape of some kind or an album by the end of the year.

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The Main photograph is taken by Jack Davis (LoonarCity)