One Wednesday night last summer, guitarist/vocalist John Maestas, bassist/vocalist Asher Barreras and drummer Enrique Chavez were hanging at Vernon’s Jazz Club, each looking to get up and play with saxophonist Doug Lawrence in the weekly jam. Lawrence called them to the stage at the same time, and something clicked.
“We’re all friends, you know, but we had never played together, all three of us,” says Maestas. “So it was us three and Doug, and we played together, and it was like, Damn, this is great. We were interacting and responding, and we all knew the music, the tunes he was calling—and if we didn’t, we totally faked it, and we sounded all right. It was cool.”
Lawrence kept them onstage for three or four tunes. “From there, we said, We gotta do something with this.”
So they formed a trio called Humoso—Spanish for “smoky,” and the name of Barreras’ dog—and then invited saxophonist Aaron Lovato to join them. They worked up a bunch of tunes, including 32 originals, rooted in a jazz mentality but branching into rock, Latin, flamenco and whatever. They recorded an album, titled Humoso (Najulda Records), under Maestas’ name and landed a gig at the Outpost on May 5 for the CD release party.
Chances are good things will be smokin’ at the Outpost.
If you catch a quick look at Maestas, you might think this impish, energetic cat is considerably younger than his 20 years. If you hear him, sight unseen, however, you might be adding decades to his age to account for the assured relaxation with which he plays.
He started playing at age 14, when his grandfather gifted him with a guitar, but things really got going for him in the respected music program at Albuquerque’s Manzano High. Maestas was deep into metal and hard rock when he encountered guitarist Michael Anthony’s jazz trio. With the band’s ability to improvise on a tune spontaneously and make it sound like it had been rehearsed for weeks, the trio captivated Maestas’ imagination, and he’s been studying with Anthony ever since.
After high school, Maestas attended the Chicago College of Performing Arts but soon concluded, Wow, I really don’t like school, and returned home. A stint at Berklee College of Music in Boston brought him to the same conclusion, with the same result. He is now enrolled at UNM, but he does most of his learning in decidedly nonacademic venues, like the stage at Vernon’s. He’s also planning an extended trip to Spain later this year, possibly with other members of the quartet, to explore flamenco in its native habitat. After that, he’ll set his sights on New York City.
If you catch Maestas doing a Keith Jarrett imitation, humming along with what he’s playing, that’s one lesson he gleaned from his school days in Chicago. Although he loathed the Jarrett hum, he discovered that if he played only what he could sing, he made a stronger connection to the improvisation and tended to BS less.
“If you can’t play what you’re singing and make that connection from ideas to fingers and make it real solid, then it’s kind of like you’re missing some of the point of improvising,” he says.
The quartet prides itself on fluid and fearless improvising. “We all come from that mentality, not making things canned and trying to find new ways to explore the same material all over again—which basically is kind of the job description for a jazz musician. ... We come from a place where, Nah, let’s just totally shake up the snow globe. If we play it one way, let’s play it a completely different way.”
Either way, it sounds good.