With 'Phoenix,' local jazz pianist and beatmaker Javier Santiago is going places

Jack Davis/LoonarCity Productions

Jack Davis/LoonarCity Productions


Javier Santiago doesn’t dazzle you. His keyboard work envelops and beguiles, immersing you in resonant notes that develop into resonant phrases, the way an ESL teacher goes about communicating the nuances of a new language.

It happened the other night at the Black Dog Cafe in St. Paul, when Santiago, playing in the ensemble the Ruckus, took a Fender Rhodes solo on “Naima,” John Coltrane’s lovely tribute to his first wife. The left hand comped while the right one roamed, gently piling a sonic bedding of feathers and silk.

“I am honored to have Javier Santiago with me,” drummer and bandleader Rodney “Ruckus” Rocques said to the audience afterward. “Minnesota, don’t wait for someone big to take him away from you. You see people get famous and when it happens it goes really fast. Take care of your own.”

On Friday, Santiago will release Phoenix, his first disc on a national label (Ropeadope). It’s undergirded by Santiago’s fellow alumni from the Brubeck Institute in Berkeley and spangled with take-notice guest stars like trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Nir Felder, saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and flugelhornist John Raymond.

Like Santiago himself, the music on Phoenix is hard to pigeonhole. He has an impeccable jazz pedigree—both his parents and his paternal grandparents met in jazz clubs, and his father, Mac Santiago, is a well-respected local percussionist who operates the Minneapolis venue Jazz Central. But Javier fell in love with punk and hip-hop growing up in the ’90s. His Bandcamp page contains more than a half-dozen albums of beats and loops he began making in high school.

“For at least a couple of the tunes on Phoenix, we played along to some of those original beats in the studio,” Santiago revealed over a beer at a south Minneapolis eatery earlier this month. “So I had a few things already mapped out sonically that way.” More broadly, he notes that “a lot of the sampling on hip-hop records is mainly from jazz—fusion and funk. So it was almost like a gateway into jazz for me.”

Meanwhile, his father, Mac, was locking down his son’s jazz bona fides from an early age. Mac, whose parents are Puerto Rican, taught Javier the chords to “La Bamba” when he was four. At seven Javier was enrolled in the MacPhail School of Music. By 10, he was picking up chord changes and figuring out how to improvise. Then came lessons with top local pros like Bobby Peterson, Laura Caviani, and Tanner Taylor.

High school graduation loomed. “I was playing a lot of jazz but also playing a lot of beats and trying to figure out what I was going to do,” Javier said. “Obviously it would be music but I wasn’t the greatest student in school. When I found out about the Brubeck Institute it was a no-brainer—if you got in it was free tuition, room, and board. My friend Chris Smith had just gotten in that year so I thought it might be a possibility, and I went for it.”

The odds were steep. The Brubeck Institute enrolls only five or six students at a time; they receive individual instruction but also play and even tour as an ensemble. Just one player per instrument is accepted, so only one slot for a pianist was available.

Javier auditioned at Yoshi’s, the iconic Oakland jazz spot near the Institute’s Berkeley locale, and Dave Brubeck himself was the arbiter. According to proud papa Mac Santiago, the institute’s program coordinator called him and revealed that while Javier was among the first pianists to audition, Dave Brubeck immediately announced, “that’s our guy” when he was finished playing. Not a bad impression to make at age 17.

Although Santiago went on to attend the Betty Carter Institute in Washington, D.C., and graduate from the New School of Music while hustling for gigs around New York City, the two years at the Brubeck Institute remain the most important of his career. Santiago chose to record the album out in Berkeley in September 2016, and the three other band members who make up the core quartet with Santiago on Phoenix are all Brubeck Institute alumni.

The most important of these was drummer Corey Fonville, who had an intimate appreciation of the nexus of hip-hop, electronics, and jazz that Santiago was after. For example, “When Javy came in wanting to put synth patches on an acoustic piano, I thought of [the late Marsalis band pianist] Kenny Kirkland, who was doing it back when it was taboo,” Fonville said.

Fonville also reminded Santiago that he used to play with guitarist Nir Felder in John Raymond’s band in New York, and the four songs Felder contributed to Phoenix are among the highlights of the disc. Fonville also played in Nicholas Payton’s band, knew that Payton was a fan of Santiago from the time when the trumpeter was a guest teacher at Brubeck, and had Santiago successfully recruit Payton for his glorious solos on Phoenix’s final song, “Alive.”

“Javy and I have a musical kinship. I was the right person to be around this project,” Fonville says. Santiago seconds the notion and calls Fonville’s band, Butcher Brown, his favorite new ensemble.

The sessions produced 16 songs, all Santiago originals. He spent the next 16 months culling it down to eight, continually buffering and overdubbing the mix, first in Berkeley, then Brooklyn, and finally Minneapolis. “I’d spent hours and hours—and days and days—on one detail,” he says with a sad shake of the head. “Some things I did I went back and totally trashed.”

But sweat equity comes through in the billowing density of the mix, especially on the title track and “Tomorrow.” Santiago was elated it when I called Phoenix a “mushroom record.”

“It’s totally a mushroom record! And I think that’s how people—I mean, I want people to interpret it how they want—but I want to say don’t play this at a party. It’s not a dance thing. I like to make things sound orchestral, so it is definitely more like a road-trip record. Like, take a journey with it.”