Cuba-born, New York-based Francisco Mela is a world-class percussionist who’s in demand all over the globe. He plays frequently with such heavyweights as Joe Lovano and McCoy Tyner, as well as leading his own ensembles. His newly reconfigured Crash Trio, with bassist Gerald Cannon and pianist Leo Genovese, will make its debut during this year’s Twin Cities Jazz Festival, collaborating with a special guest, New Orleans trumpet great Nicholas Payton.
Mela also has a new gig as the first artistic director of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. Last week, via phone from New York, he reflected on his new job and his ideas for enhancing the festival. Despite shocking local residents by sometimes referring to Minneapolis and St. Paul synonymously, Mela seemed to be brimming with enthusiasm and fresh ideas.
How and when did you become artistic director of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival?
Francisco Mela: That happened at the beginning of this year. It’s an idea that’s been formulating by the three of us — Steve Heckler [festival executive director], Alden Drew [festival board of directors chair] and myself — since they’ve know me. I’ve been in Minneapolis several times with different artists — McCoy Tyner, Joe Lovano, my own band — and I was already artistic director of a festival in Mexico [Jazzuv Xalapa in Veracruz]. So Alden Drew came to my festival after we met in Minneapolis with Joe Lovano. He came to visit and was fascinated with the job that I do over there. That was three years ago. So they approached me and I was like, of course, yes, but I was busy with that [Mexico] festival. But the time came at the beginning of this year, so they approached me again and I came onto the board of the jazz festival of the Twin Cities. What my role in the festival is, it’s not the same as the festival that I had been doing before. It’s more as an advisor. I give new ideas and how to make the festival more international and more visible for people around the world. My goal in this festival is to make a well-known jazz festival [that] everybody knows, everybody talks about, not only the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul people. Our goal is — even in Japan people know about the festival.
How is that different than your role in the festival in Mexico?
This festival is already established. Like I said before, I’m just an advisor and I just recommend artists. But Steve Heckler, he has various ideas of what he wants to do with the festival, which is doing great. So I’m just including a few things. The difference with the festival in Mexico is that I used to do almost everything, like hire the musicians, do the schedules of the musicians — where they play, how they play, when they play. The other difference, this festival brings in real [established] bands, like Chris Potter with his band. In the other festival I was bringing musicians that never played together, from New York and from every place in the world, and they had to then get together as a band. And I would be telling them, for example, “Joe Lovano, do you want to be playing with Tain Watts and Ray Drummond?” They never played together as a trio. So they agreed to that and that was one band. So that was my idea — formulating and putting people together.
What other ideas have you had for this festival?
This festival didn’t have workshops. Now we are starting in with workshops. Before, musicians come, they play the same day and then they escape the next day. This time we are involving more students and we created the master class, where the artists come early, they do a master class and then interact with the students, the universities of music. The students are the future of our music. If we just have a festival and then we don’t have a network where the students feel part of the festival, it’s not going to be successful in that way. So now music schools are involved, the students are involved. [Nicholas Payton and Chris Potter are doing clinics.] We are creating a real community. This is the beginning of a lot of new things that are going to happen. Maybe we extend the festival a little bit more. Maybe in the next year we extend it to another day, where we can bring musicians in, they can do a master class, interviews for radio stations or TV programs. So we can really converse and make that festival a big thing. I think we are talking about really, really making this festival an international festival. I’m also talking about not only bringing people from New York — we have amazing musicians in Europe, we have amazing musicians in Asia. If we bring these people here, the festival is really going to get known. We are trying to establish that.
It sounds like you’re anticipating a lot of growth for the festival over the next few years.
Well, I’m just advising, because I have to go with the flow of the festival. It’s not that if I go there, this is going to happen. By working together, a little bit by a little bit, we’ll pull things together and grow things for the festival.
What’s your general philosophy for the festival? You mentioned several times about making this an international festival and bringing musicians in from all over. And the thing you were doing in Mexico — having different people playing together in new configurations—is pretty cool.
For me, that experience was amazing, seeing these guys that never played together and then putting music together. And then the students saw that that was an extraordinary experience. They were like, “Wow, this guy is making mistakes. He is famous, but he’s making mistakes playing this music because he is learning, and this is the way.” And the main idea to be honest is for the education of jazz for the students. That is something that I really want to happen in this festival. For me, being a teacher, being an educator, I’ve been in a lot of festivals and out of all my experience that’s my idea to share.
The idea of making this festival international is, first of all, trying to make things easy for the community. Whenever the community sees that a lot of people from all the countries come to their city they will see it’s an attractive city to visit, not only because of the festival but because a lot of good things are happening. Another thing is for the students to believe that they don’t have to move to New York just because jazz is in New York. We have jazz here in Minneapolis. People from other countries are coming to Minneapolis because in Minneapolis there is something happening. You want the whole world to know that there is an important jazz festival in Minneapolis. That’s what I was doing in Mexico — and so it’s not going to be a little festival for St. Paul. No — the people in New York [will] say they know that the festival is happening and amazing. We will see more opportunity to expand — that is the philosophy — to make an international festival for the city.
What do you see the strengths and weaknesses of the festival as it is right now?
Well, actually I’m missing some things. When you go the Newport Jazz Festival you see that the festival is like a party. The festival in Minneapolis is just a little event to me. And I want to convert this into a public and popular party. Like people from the area — not only Minneapolis and St. Paul — even people from Canada across the border, they will be like, “Wow, let’s go to the carnival that is happening right now in St. Paul in Minnesota.” This I was missing.
Are there any jazz festivals you consider models for what you want to do here?
Well, actually that festival in Mexico, that was very successful. To the people it was like that they were in a carnival, like a popular party in the street. So people from all over the world were flying into that city. The other festival is the Montreux jazz festival. I was there with Quincy Jones and that festival is like being in Brazil for the carnival. So if we make this little festival like that, I’m telling you that we are really into a big manifestation of a party for that city — people having fun listening to music and interacting and making the community more happening. What we want is to see everybody when the festival finishes talking about how great was that moment and they want this again.
What’s going on in your career as a musician and how is that going to coincide with this artistic director gig?
I just got here from Italy yesterday, I’m already practicing, trying to fix and get better at what I didn’t like with my playing the day before yesterday at the concert in Italy. I’m thinking about recording my new album this coming July 11 and 12 with my new Crash Trio and John Scofield. Then I’m going to Minnesota to reorganize and get on track with the festival over there with Steve Heckler and the gig that I have during the festival. And then in July I’m going on the road with Joe Lovano to Japan, and then with the McCoy Tyner Quartet to Japan again. But you know I’m very happy doing a lot of stuff.
This is going to be the first time that we play as a band, the new trio that I put together. I was there two years ago. And now I’m going with the new Crash and I have a special guest, Nicholas Payton. This will be my first time [playing with Payton]. I just sent him the music that I want him to play with me and hopefully we get into a little rehearsal over there. If not we’re going to rehearse onstage at the soundcheck, and you guys will see that, me putting music together. And I know that it’s going to be great! With my trio and Nicholas there it’s going to be beautiful, I’m really looking forward to that.