Colombian big band leader Gregorio Uribe has become a colorful fixture of New York City’s vibrant Latin Jazz community. On the first Thursday of every month, passersby sauntering outside the Greenwich Village Zinc Bar can duck in to catch the songwriter careening across the stage with passion–playing his accordion and singing alongside the brassy support of a 16-piece ensemble roaring behind him.
Uribe’s debut album Cumbia Universal is set to drop Oct 2, but the arrangements have tasted air for close to a decade now.
As we talk about the impending release, the musician’s fond reveries of musical discovery tumble to the surface.
“One of my first recollections is from being at the dinner table with my family,” Uribe recalls. “I grabbed the forks and knives to drum with, and it would drive my parents crazy. But it was so constant that they eventually said ‘okay, this kid needs an instrument.’”
They acquired a miniature classical guitar for their son. Before he even knew how to play or tune the instrument, the little boy was already trying to write songs with it.
A mounting musical appetite saw Uribe pummeling drum sets through his adolescence in a variety of rock and roll-based groups. The juvenile tendency to play as loud as possible surged in the boy feverishly as he stretched to hit every cymbal and tom during drum fills.
The deciding chapter and departure from these spirited excursions came in the form of a dusty old accordion. Around this time, a famous Colombian musician began to usher folkloric elements into the popular music of the country, and in turn spurred a larger audience (including the wide-eyed Uribe) to reconsider and re-enamor that style into both the culture and local music.
Uribe’s close friend had an uncle who once lent him an accordion. That was years before; by the time Uribe inquired about the instrument, it had already accumulated a layer of dust in the family’s basement. However, inspired by the folk sounds spreading across the region, Uribe brushed it off and began to practice.
“It was unique; not many people were using it,” the songwriter tells me.
“It instantly gave you the support of friends and listeners. You could actually start a party with an accordion,” he laughs. “That’s all you needed.”
By the time Uribe was ready to graduate from high school in 2003, he was performing original compositions with a couple of his close friends and managed to secure a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston.
With the dream of a musical adventure to America unfurling before him, the songwriter decided there was another path he needed to set sails for first. Uribe embarked on a journey that would find him backpacking through eight different countries in South America joined by two likeminded friends.
Uribe’s parents understood his decision. While they fully backed it, they also considered the risk. Even with email communications, sometimes three weeks would go by where they would hear little to nothing about their son’s whereabouts. Yet for Uribe, this was an integral part of the experience.
“I felt that I had grown up in a very privileged environment,” he explains. “I was gifted with a great education, a loving family, and there was always food on the table. I wanted to try things on my own; I wanted it to be because of me, not my last name or where I’m coming from.”
What began as a personally-driven sojourn soon became a musical odyssey that would forever change Uribe as both an artist and musician. He and his friends performed music on buses, beaches, and for small town audiences wherever they happened to roam.
Brazil offered some of the most transformative inspiration for the young songwriters. They discovered music in every little corner–pass by a casual restaurant and there was always someone inside playing a guitar. Even if musicians weren’t famous, their talent turned out to be astounding, and the repertoires richly vast.
Although Uribe didn’t exactly consider himself a guitar player at the time, his trio would often switch instruments and try out new modes of arrangement. The rhythm playing of these local players had a profound impact on the listeners.
“There were new chords that we were seeing, chords I’d never been exposed to before,” says Uribe. “I didn’t understand the theory behind it yet, but I kept asking myself, ‘what are all these beautiful colors and harmonies that I’m hearing?’”
Perhaps what struck him most of all was how blurred the lines were between the seemingly esoteric worlds of jazz and those more traditionally rooted in popular dance. Brazillian popular music can be intricately sophisticated, incorporating melodies and meters that seem to challenge, yet regular folks can still sing their hearts out while listening at a concert. It’s what Uribe fondly recollects as “a terrific balance.”
Uribe eventually left for Berklee, where he would study and gradually begin to integrate the musical theory behind the complex songs he picked up during his travels abroad. After graduating Summa Cum Laude in 2007, he moved to New York City to finalize his big band lineup.
While intimidated by the daunting size and pace of New York, Uribe quickly realized that there are seemingly infinite “niche” communities to explore and enter. The songwriter culled the talents of 16 powerful jazz performers, hailing from a diverse range of backgrounds including Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, and Canada (among others), and settled down into the city’s Latin Jazz community.
Incorporating traditional Colombian big band sounds from the ‘50s and ‘60s, along with Uribe’s infectious blend of groove and jazz sensibilities, the Gregorio Uribe Big Band took up the helm of a monthly residency at the Zinc Bar.
Their ongoing live performances can convert any listener, regardless of whether or not they’ve been exposed to the music before. Yet Uribe knew the time had finally come to bring the high octane energy of the stage into the recording studio.
Cumbia Universal is the result of that very ambition, and the record features a collaboration from seven-time Grammy winner Ruben Blades, and has earned Uribe a spot of Colombia’s list of “The 100 Most Outstanding Colombians Living Abroad,” joined by the likes of Shakira and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Expect the unexpected, an impassioned stew of traditional rhythms, eclectic voicings, and celebration set to dance from a kaleidoscopic soul that refuses to stand still.
To hear the rest of our interview with Gregorio Uribe, tune into this week’s episode of Discovery Corner.
Or interpret the music for yourself by attending the Oct 14 Launch Party for Cumbia Universal at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at NYC’s Lincoln Center.