The Sextet bandleader Robert Castillo describes the band's sound as "groove jazz", which makes perfect sense when you hear this natural amalgamation of funk, soul dance and jazz. While The Sextet initially established roots in Oregon, Castillo and rest of the ensemble currently call Kansas City home. In addition to Castillo, the band's comprised of Joe Tesoro (soprano sax), Max Levy (tenor sax), Aryana Nemati (baritone sax), Pete Marten (guitar), and Nik Douglas (drums). Their newest album, Blob Castle, features songs inspired by personal and world events as well as a collaboration with celebrated Kansas City musician Calvin Arsenia. Enjoy our interview with Castillo about the new album, the band's creative process and what's ahead for them in 2018.
Introduce band and describe your music for new listeners.
The Sextet plays music for people to move to and be moved by. I like to call it “groove jazz.” The song structures and harmonies are rooted in the jazz tradition while the rhythms make it so there’s a dancer that just can’t hide (to quote Larry Graham). Most of the songs are about specific thoughts, emotions, events, or ideas. “Left of Center” is about the September 2015 attacks in Paris, “Moving On” is about the process of experiencing and overcoming depression, “In a Natural State” describes the natural beauty of Oregon. Because the music is instrumental the listener can interpret and experience the music in a way unique to them.
The idea to form the group originated when I lived in the mountain town of Fossil, OR. I was there through AmeriCorps teaching K-8 music.. I had a lot of free time and found myself passing the days writing music for three horns. I moved to Portland after Fossil and formed The Sextet with musicians I met at jam sessions. When Life called me back home to KC in the summer of 2017, I called up some friends I knew from back in the day or that I had met at jam sessions to reform the group.
Talk about Blob Castle. What are you most proud of with this album? What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered with making it?
I’m proud of this record for a few reasons. Artists of any form strive to refine their craft and continuously grow through incorporating the inspiration we’ve absorbed, whether actively or passively. The tunes on Blob Castle showcase a more refined and informed music that I hope will function as a launching pad for even greater depth in the next.
I’m also really proud to showcase these fine KC musicians. Since being back home my pride for this city has swelled. Sharing what we offer the world brings me great joy.
In terms of challenges, we were blessed to not have any that significantly hindered our progress. There was a situation where our trumpet player’s face essentially quit on him. Teddy had been gigging a lot leading up to the session, which for a brass player results in a face that demands rest. We just had to bump the second studio day to the following week.
How does songwriting work in The Sextet? How much of the compositions come together collaboratively? How much of what we hear is improvised?
I specifically didn’t call the group the “Robert Castillo Sextet” because I want all the band members to feel welcome to bring in their own original charts or arrangements. That being said, only one of the tunes in our book was brought in by another member (Joe Tesoro’s arrangement of the “Hey Arnold!” theme song, not on either album).
Aside from that, I write the music for the group. That includes melodies, harmonies, backgrounds, etc. Each song has at least one built in solo section (except for my arrangement of Claire de Lune) which is when the improvisation and spontaneous communal creating takes place.
The music takes a life of its own when we perform live. I encourage the band to play as the Spirit moves them. This results in some beautiful additions that only exist in an improvised environment.
Some of the Blob Castle tracks were commissioned via a Kickstarter campaign. What was that experience like?
The four tunes that came from the Kickstarter campaign were my first experience in writing music that attempts to capture an emotion or feeling put forth by someone else. Three of these are on Blob Castle. “be” was commissioned by my wife Kathryn who asked for a song to describe the feeling of simply being and enjoying the present. My friend Andy requested a “battle theme,” thus came “#notmypresident” which alludes to Gustav Holst’s orchestral piece “Mars: Bringer of War.” I wrote “TC” for a friend with the same initials and is about his consistent jovial energy. The fourth took a while to complete. My mother-in-law commissioned a tune to describe my love for her daughter. That tune is called “September 2006” which is when she and I met. We play it live and it’ll definitely go on the next recording.
What ahead for The Sextet in 2018?
Things are moving fast for the group. We’ve been honored with an invitation to play Boulevardia 2018 in June. What makes this even more exciting is that we’ve only existed in KC for a little over a year. Who knows what opportunities will exist when we’re 9, like Making Movies, or 14 like Snarky Puppy.
I’m currently in the process of sending emails to do a little touring South and East towards the end of the summer. I feel compelled to tour because I have first-hand experience with the healing power of music. I want to share the healing positive energy with as large an audience as possible. When I write, it is to that a person struggling with anything in their life might relate to an emotion in the music and find resolve in knowing someone has felt the same way. The song “A Coin Perfectly Spinning” by the Contemporary Noise Sextet provided me this experience.
What inspires you about contemporary jazz in Kansas City?
Support from the community. Jazz musicians in town respect the fact that jazz of today differs from that of the 50s. Venues respect and support the musicians by paying better than most other American cities. And perhaps the most gratitude goes to the listeners themselves. Kansas Citians are down with contemporary jazz, so much so that Ryan Heinlein (bandleader, trombone of The Project H) has been talking about getting a contemporary jazz festival together.
KC was the home of jazz in the 20s and I believe the respect we as jazz musicians receive today is a result of that time period when speakeasies would fight over hiring the baddest musicians in town. I believe support for jazz will always exists in Kansas City regardless of how it will continue to evolve.
Robert Castillo's recommendations:
Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda. Eastern thought/religion is how I best relate to the Divine. In this book, Yogananda describes his upbringing, the miracles he witnessed by Indian yogis, and how he came to the US in the 1920s to share mindfulness. This book reminds me of the extent of human potential.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. If ever I'm in a rut about which book to read, I pick this up and am reminded about how lucky we are that we're able to document and share information as easily as we do today.
The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov. Isaac Asimov's ability to form complex narratives that tie neatly together hits its peak in this one. The creatures he imagines for the middle section of this book showcase a creativity that few other writers ever achieved.
The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi was an ideal human and role model. His will power and determination are constant reminders of how to live when the choice to live through Love or fear constantly presents itself.
I Am (DVD) Directed by Tom Shadyac. This is by far my favorite documentary of all time. Shadyac discusses with the great minds of today to show that we are all truly connected. there may be more from other band members, I'll get them to you when they dudes send it. If they take a while to get back to me and you want to publish this, go ahead
Joe Tesoro's recommendation:
Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies From Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds by Dav Pilkey. "Best... Book.... EVER!!!!"
Nik Ferguson's recommendation:
Matilda (DVD) Danny Devito's seemingly directive gentleness is almost tangible throughout each scene of this film adaptation from Rald Dahl's children's book catalog. A story bearing lessons in valuing what most consider weak, this film displays a unique form of humor and comedic rhythm amidst struggles of character and finding love that nurtures.