Here's our talk with María:
I mostly play saxophone, improvise, and use my voice. I do a lot of composition too, in my band. In other bands, I interpret the music and try to play it and care for it as if I had written it. In both cases, I try to find the way to play that is going to add the most to the ensemble playing.
I started out by playing in the street with my father when I was 6 years old. Most of my childhood I played music with my parents; they had a duo and sometimes I would come and sing a song with them during their shows. Eventually I started playing with some salsa bands in Switzerland, mostly with Venezuelan and Cuban musicians. I started to really learn how to improvise when I came to New York at 17.
As a kid, I had a few CDs I listened to all the time: a Dinah Washington album called Dinah, where she sang things like A Cottage For Sale and There’ll Be Some Changes; Ben Webster was playing saxophone. I also loved the Jazz at Massey Hall album. I heard Billie Holiday a lot, and then I listened to people like Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, and also lots of South American and Argentinian folk music like Mercedes Sosa and Atahualpa Yupanqui. I also had two Beatles albums that my cousin gave me and I listened to those a bunch of times too.
I still have an eclectic taste, I listen to everything as long as it sounds good to me. I’m interested in most music; usually I find something that I enjoy, although I tend not to like things that are too clean and that don’t hold any surprises.
Meeting Von Freeman and hearing him play live was a big moment in my life. Also, studying with Antoine Roney, who taught me about culture as much as music. He’s a very important hero and mentor of mine.
Getting to play with Fay Victor was incredible. Her breadth of knowledge and her amazing way of creating improvised melodies and rhythm is incredible to me and standing next to her was very meaningful.
Speaking about standing next to - playing alongside Chris Potter was a big moment for me. What a saxophonist! I also had a moment like that, on a separate occasion, with Mark Turner. Strong, strong musicians and horn players. It was really great to be able to hear them play over the same song I was playing, because I could hear very clearly what they were going for.
One pivotal moment for me was being in an ensemble I was playing with in Geneva. Ohad Talmor walked in; we were playing “On Green Dolphin Street”. He said “can I play with you guys”, and he blew my mind. I started studying with him and we transcribed “Yesterdays” out of People Time, the duo album with Kenny Barron and Stan Getz. I didn’t know what improvising over a form was, and although I had no idea about what was happening, learning to play the same notes was an incredible first experience of transcribing for me. At the time, I still had a Walkman, and I would rewind a million times listening with some cheap headphones.
Actually, a few years before learning Yesterdays with Ohad, I remember coming out of middle school and hearing that exact same song on my headphones and Walkman - at the time I had to hold the Walkman upright while I was walking, otherwise it would skip. The experience was spiritual, almost surreal. The leaves were so green, the air was so sweet, and the music was so beautiful… I knew then that I wanted to play saxophone.
One thing that's hard for me is to correctly estimate the skillset of the people that I hire. It's happened to me to ask people to play things they weren't comfortable playing, and I learned from that. I like to ask people to stretch their limits a little bit, but too much of that is counterproductive.
Also, more recently my band members got on my case for not rehearsing enough, and they were right. I'm working on not being so afraid to ask for what I need and want, so now I ask for a little more rehearsing time, and everyone is happier because we sound better.
To be honest I’ve worked with whatever gear I had since the beginning of my career. I have one tenor saxophone and one mouthpiece I work with - an old reworked Morgan. I play whatever reeds I have at the moment, usually around a 3 or 3.5 of whatever brand I’m working with. My favorites right now are Rigotti reeds.
Believe in yourself, go off the beaten path, seek people with wisdom, kindness, and experience. Go where you aren’t comfortable but keep yourself safe. Create all the time, and try not to look at screens when you can avoid it. Practice but with a clear goal in mind; work hard, and don’t forget to rest. Eventually, you’ll get your break. Drink water!
I work with bluetooth earbuds when I do videos; otherwise I use headphones a lot for deep listening because it allows me to keep the world away for however long I’m listening. I can close my eyes and feel the music. A lot of my creative practice is listening to music. I also use headphones to check on mixes.
My Audeze headphones expand my listening practice. Sometimes I listen to music simply to get lost in the sound; sometimes I listen to zero in on a particular musical device I’m working on; and of course I also use headphones and pay particular attention to sonic details while mixing. With these headphones I am able to gather more sound, more information, more knowledge, and more feeling. I feel the presence of the musicians I am listening to, almost as if I was able to travel through time and space. I also get a cleaner reflection of my own sound when I am listening to a mix. In short, I love them!!