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Joe Herrera likes to take the attitude that every musical experience has value.
For instance, Herrera -- a husky 23-year-old trumpeter affectionately referred to by local jazz peers as "Little Joe" -- spent two years, off and on, playing Broadway show tunes on cruise ships. Traversing as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as South America, Herrera was trapped in tight quarters for weeks at a time, with much older musicians who couldn't resist the temptation to imbibe of the spirits. Neither the lifestyle nor the music was really to his taste, but Herrera found something to learn on the ships.
"I learned about the level of professionalism that needs to be attained," he says. "We'd have a featured vocalist who'd come onboard. We'd have an hour's rehearsal and be expected to play perfectly for two shows that night. So that really put me on the spot when I was only 18. I really took a lot from that."
Ask Herrera about any of his band experiences and he'll tell you how he's benefited. From his 17-piece big band, the Phoenix Jazz Orchestra, Herrera says he gained "management skills." From his work in the reggae-rock group Azz Izz and his current involvement in the eclectic salsa ensemble Chicano Power Revival, he's been able to stretch his stylistic horizons.
But it's as part of the new jazz quartet Convergence that Herrera feels all his musical lessons have finally, well, converged in one setting. The brain child of Herrera and drummer Rob Moore, the band also includes guitarist Mike Ozuna (Herrera's bandmate in CPR) and bassist Aaron Schuster. Unified by an appreciation for the recent work of Branford Marsalis and Dave Holland, among others, Convergence is both a showcase for original group compositions and a format that allows for nearly unlimited improvisational possibilities.
"With this group, what we were striving for was to be more contemporary, more progressive," Herrera says. "Even as we approach standards, we still wanted to take a more modern approach, as far as communication and how we play the music. It's less straightahead. It's swinging, for the most part, but it's less how you would hear a Coleman Hawkins do it. Ideally, what we're striving for is musical freedom -- having complete trust in each other that we can do whatever we want and it'll still be magic."
A recent Convergence performance at Rio Salado Brewing Company suggested that the group is well on its way to achieving that ineffable musical telepathy of all great jazz ensembles. A small south Tempe bar/restaurant nestled in a nondescript industrial park, Rio Salado Brewing Company isn't necessarily an ideal music venue. The band was squeezed into a corner, with Moore's drum kit pressed against the avocado-green wall, and with chatty patrons only intermittently attuned to live music. But Convergence played with a graceful fluidity that gradually won the admiration of the crowd. Moore and Schuster created a solid but elastic foundation that allowed Ozuna -- who squints his eyes for deep concentration as he loses himself in his solos -- and Herrera to float across adventurous melodic terrain.
For Herrera, who's grown used to playing with much older musicians, Convergence is a welcome meeting of new-generation jazz players. All four members of Convergence are students at Arizona State University (Herrera is studying Jazz Trumpet Performance), and they come to jazz from a shared historical perspective.
"It's the first group that I've played with on a regular basis that's all trying to achieve the same goal," Herrera says. "I've done other gigs, like with [ASU professor] Chuck Marohnic and his band, where they're kind of going for the same thing, but I wasn't a permanent member. But in this group, I'm a permanent member, and we're all going for the same goal."
Part of the shared perspective of Herrera and his peers is a youthful, non-purist's willingness to experiment with different genres. Along those lines, beat-crazy Chicano Power Revival has probably provided Herrera with the greatest inspiration. He credits CPR leader Raul Yáñez with allowing a given moment to take the music where it needs to go. It's a mindset that Herrera and his bandmates have brought to Convergence.
"With CPR, we definitely have charts, but Raul is such a committed musician -- he's about the music, and that's the beautiful thing about him -- we'll be in the middle of a tune and it could break into any kind of groove at any minute and the band will just go with it," Herrera says.
"I'm into those kinds of experiences, and this is what Convergence does very well, too. Right in the middle of the song, I'll play something in my solo that hints at a different meter and we'll just go there, all together, all four of us."
The group recently recorded at Tempest Recording with producer/engineer Clarke Rigsby, and Herrera says in the two months since they cut the tracks, their playing has changed completely. But that's part of what excites him about the band. Three days before their most recent Rio Salado Brewing Company gig, they decided they could use an up-tempo, minor blues tune. Not wanting to play something already written, Herrera came up with a tune the day before the gig, the quartet rehearsed it that night, and it made the set the following night.