The El Paso jazz guitarists were an unlikely highlight of the Lone Star State’s music scene in the ‘90s, and with the album discussed here, they stormed the Billboard charts and nabbed a Grammy nod. Time to revisit—and to catch up, as well.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Ed. Note: The concept behind our series “The Story Behind the Album” is pretty straightforward: what went into the making of a particularly noteworthy recording, as seen through the eyes of its creator(s). It can be an acknowledged classic or an under-the-radar gem, but the basic parameters are the same: a title that stands out in an artist’s catalog, one which has stood the test of time and still commands the respect of fans. It could even have been a critical flop or a commercially under-performing record upon its initial release, but the years have steadily unveiled its extant genius. Our first investigation was into Thee Hypnotics’ 1991 classic Soul Glitter & Sin. Then we took a look at New River Head by The Bevis Frond, followed by Rock ‘N’ Roll by The Cynics, From the Heart of Town by Gallon Drunk, Couture, Couture, Couture by Frausdots, Blue Sky Mining by Midnight Oil, and Illuminated by the 360’s. Here’s our latest, a remarkable album, released in ’93, by a remarkable Texas-based jazz outfit that is clearly dear to our “Story Behind…” editor Levitt’s heart. Enjoy.—FM
La Vienta is a jazz group that formed in my hometown of El Paso, Texas. Founded by Mario Otero and Stefan Schyga in the early 90s the band was one of those rare occurrences in a town filled with either metal heads or Freddy Fender wannabes. This was one of those cases where the right elements for success seemed to just coalesce out of the ether, like a freak thunderstorm in the desert beauty arrives and quickly dissipates from whence it came. Sometimes the right climactic conditions come together and all hell breaks loose, as it did when a young guitarist from Hildesheim, Germany studying music at UTEP of all places became friends with a local El Paso guitarist who together as La Vienta set the jazz scene on fire with their debut album Jazzmenco released back in 1993 for jazz label Telarc records.
With lead cut “Tu Sonrisa” or you’re smile you knew the band could bring the goods. Here and on the rest of the album you could tell the band was working from a deep fondness for flamenco music. Their collective talent crossed like bridges over a desert wash blending flamenco guitar with a broader jazz sensibility to take the music to somewhere fascinating and uncharted.
“San Miguel” is more straight ahead flamenco with strains of Cuban piano that fuses well. Here drums, congas and palmas (hand claps) sparkle and give the song even greater heft.
“Spanish Invasion” is healthy mix of Pat Metheny and Carlos Santana. I appreciate the shifting of styles on this piece and the delicate fret work in the calmer moments of the song. It’s also a cool moment on the album that despite the dated sounding keyboards shows one of the many strands of creativity flowing through this duo.
“Paco’s Night Out” bolts out of the gate with its galloping beat, here the playfulness of the guitar playing dips and climbs over the pulsing beat, a great track to play as you drive up Transmountain Drive to catch the sunset.
“Skeleton Samfa” is a jazzy number that offers a great back and forth dialogue between Stefan and Mario. The tune which is stretched over a taught drum beat cut with some Jimmy Smith organ virtuosic embellishments will have you tapping your toes, and luxuriating in the positivity.
“Moroccan Face Dance” would have gotten the band in trouble had it been released in Trump’s America with its Mexican and Arabic influences or at least it would have had to been left off the album due to visa issues. Joking aside, this track is worth the price of admission alone, with its deft playing that’s infused with intrigue and romance, sailing in on tendrils of myrrh incense. The song then shifts gears with vocals and palmas and an electric guitar that just rips before ushering the flamenco guitar back into the mix. Stefan says, “[It’s] a song that tells a story kind of [like] “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin.”
Despite being a shade too early for internet promotion, Jazzmenco managed to climb to #17 on the Billboard contemporary jazz chart and garner a Grammy nod for production. As with many big label debuts this record shows the abundance of talent the group would draw upon for subsequent releases. That said, there’s something vital and electric about this first album that later albums seemed to dampen down a bit, which is why over the last twenty years this record has remained on constant rotation in my life, providing me with a much-needed dip back into the beauty of the southwest, with its sun-bleached edifices and alluring smell of creosote permeating the air after a summer downpour.
I was able to connect with Stefan and Mario to answer a few questions about how Jazzmenco came about. These days besides teaching music, Stefan is busy recording his next solo record that will be out sometime in 2017. Meanwhile Mario is also still involved with making music and running a music school. Both of them still call El Paso home and while they aren’t currently playing together as a duo, the bond of friendship remains deep between the two.
Blurt: How did you guys start playing together?
Stefan Schyga: We met at the UTEP and heard each other play and thought it was cool to play together. In those days’ lots of people just hung out in the hallways and jammed, it was a really cool situation.
Who came up with the name? What does it mean?
It is from a poem by Doug Adams. He talks about a girl “and she moves like the wind and he called her La Vienta”. We just always thought that the name was cool and different, and kind of described our south west style of music.
A German-American is not the first person you think of when it comes to Flamenco, how did you develop a taste for this sort of music?
When I was 16 I found a couple of Flamenco albums and fell in love with the music, even though my teacher later said they were horrible. I won’t mention any names but he was very popular in the US during the 60ies. My teacher then let me listen to some great players such as Ramon Montoya, Mario Escudero, Sabicas and many more. I was just amazed by what these players were able to do on the Guitar. I also loved Classical Guitar but these Flamenco players were using all these cool and formerly unheard (by me) techniques.
How long after forming La Vienta, did you start to get interest from labels?
Mario had some good friends Keith and Muriel that were kind enough to finance the first album. It sold like crazy locally, even outselling Michael Jackson during the Christmas Season. We decided to just send it out to some labels and had 2 labels jump on it.
This was pretty crazy, as one label guy told me: “This stuff never happens”. The labels were Higher Octave and Telarc. We decided to [sign] with Telarc. (Below: Stefan’s advance check in 1993 from the label.)
Where did you guys record the album?
We recorded it here in El Paso at El Adobe a really nice 24 track analog studio, but Telarc brought in their Digital recorders.
I think they were Yamaha Digital 8Track recorders that you could chain together, kind of like the first ADATs
I know we did not have quite enough tracks since most of the recordings they used to do were live sets such as Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson.
This presented a big problem during the mix since the Engineer had to bounce some of the audio, such as congas and other percussion onto one track and we could not change those levels later.
Of the 14 tracks on the record, what was the oldest song that had been kicking around? What songs went through the greatest evolution in the studio?
I think the oldest song was “Paco’s Night Out”, a great song that Mario composed. We added the drums and stuff so it sounded a lot bigger than we were used to with just the 2 guitars.
Also in “Moroccan Face Dance”, we added the Jaleos and Palmas performed by a Flamenco Singer who happened to live in El Paso. Mario also added some cool electric guitar so this song became a lot bigger sounding.
Before you guys entered the studio were the songs 100% ready to go or was there some major tweaking to be done?
We really had rehearsed them well, but there were still slight changes. Before the session we had opened for Flora Purim and Airto Moreira and we played pretty much all of the songs with the full band.
What was the input of your producer Michael Bishop and what songs went through the greatest changes in studio?
Well, Michael was really not our producer but the Engineer.
The biggest issue that we had was that we were using new digital technology and had very limited tracks. So, some instruments were bounced to a track to save tracks and we could not go back and change individual instruments in the mix. That was a real problem. Telarc was used to more “live” recording than studio multi tracking.
How many of the compositions were penned by you and how many by Mario?
From the beginning, we decided to always do a 50/50 split. (Below: La Vienta with fan Billy Gibbons)
How many songs were recorded in total and who made the decision on which songs to cut?
We recorded 14 and fought for all of them, and Telarc worked with us. There were issues such as string noise, but they did agree to keep all the tracks. I think this really helped the album to be a cohesive listening experience.
Of the tracks on the record who came up with the running order? Was lead cut “Tu Sonrisa” (Your Smile) worked to jazz radio?
Telarc had radio promoters and other people listen to it and they came up with the order. We really did not know how any of this worked. When we listened to the final order though we were happy with it.
How did the song Moroccan Face Dance come about?
I just wanted to write a song that combined Rock and Arabic/Flamenco elements with full drums. Can you say “Spinal Tap”? A song that tells a story kind of [like] “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin. I really enjoyed recording that song and Mario really whaled on that electric guitar!
When the record came out how was it received?
It did extremely well, much better than expected. The album got lots of radio play with stations like KKSF in San Francisco having up to 6 songs on heavy rotation. We got quite a few concerts out of it and did radio interviews etc. Telarc promoted it with Sound Warehouse (a record store chain) and it jumped on the Billboard Charts!
When is the last time you listened to Jazzmenco and if you could change one thing about it what would it be?
I’ve been listening to the album for this interview. I don’t really listen to it. Maybe once every 5 years! I think we’d like to re-record it, but most artists feel like that. It is a moment in time and that’s it. Some songs sound great and some songs well, Mario and I might have heard them differently. Sometimes we feel that our first self-produced album captures the feel better than the first Telarc recording, but then again the guitars sounded much better on the Telarc recording.
What formats was the album released on?
Cassette and CD. I still have a cassette, what a weird thought.
Where did you first hear the final mix?
I think Mario and I got together and listened to it. It was weird, because the mixes were done sending tapes back and forth to Telarc. We were not present for the mix, which in the end was probably not a good idea. We still liked it though, and I remember driving into LA and hearing it on the Wave ([radio] station), [that was the] coolest feeling ever!
What was the feeling when you opened the cd for the first time?
Wow, just pure excitement! All the work has paid off. Let’s see what happens.
Stefan, do you disown that haircut that graces the front cover?
The hair got even worse for the second and third albums!
Will there ever be a reissue?
Mario and I are currently researching what it would take for us to re-release the very first album. I think people might really like it. We just have to be aware of publishing contracts etc.
When and where do you remember hearing that Jazzmenco was nominated for a Grammy?
We were actually just told after the fact, like yeah you guys were nominated.
Did you guys attend the ceremony?
After the nomination, what sort of venues did you play at and what artists did you perform with? Any Jazz fests?
Nothing much changed but we played gigs with people like Joe Bonamassa, Joe Satriani, Tommy Emmanuel, The Rippingtons the Ike Turner review etc. We did play some wine fests also in northern California. (Below: performing at a jazz festival)
How did the album sell?
I believe it was like 100,000 copies
In terms of sales do you remember your first royalty check you received from Telarc?
Yes, the very first one was actually an advance. Still have a copy of it! As far as royalties I don’t think we ever recouped, at least to the statements we have seen. We still have to receive a statement from Concord Jazz, but that has been our fault for not checking up on it.
Seeing as you’re of German extraction (Stefan) did you manage to pick up some coverage in Germany at the time?
We did actually pretty well in Europe. I remember my former guitar teacher seeing the album in Amsterdam and not buying a copy!!!! Got lots of radio play.
Did any of this make an impact in El Paso?
I think so, lots of people remember us, and I hope we helped to start some other groups. We have a very vibrant music scene in our Border Town(s), this includes Juarez. Mexico.
Did the A&R people or other label staff get involved at all with pushing some creative ideas towards the band?
They let us record what we wanted, but then they started to push some of the tracks they thought were [going to] be more successful in radio play. They also listened to radio promoters to check on the order of the songs. All that input was really helpful for the project.
What was Telarc’s input on the promotion of this record? Did you have any issues with the publicity for the record?
Well Telarc had all the greats like Joe Pass, Al DiMeola and really did not have to promote them so much since [they’d] sell anyhow?
We kind of felt that Higher Octave might have done a better job breaking a new artist, but hey what do we know?
How soon after the record came out did discussions begin floating around for the next one?
Right away, since it sold so much (for a new artist), but now with a “real producer” etc. That is a whole different story though. I think our favorite album will always be Forgotten Romance.
Will La Vienta ever surface again for a new album?
Hey you never know!
Stefan, when will your solo record come out?
It will be released this summer (2017)
Below: Some of the group’s press clippings and billings.