Verve, Swerve and the Appeal of Diego Urcola

Diego Urcola 3

Sweet, natural runs joining phrases together and embellishments like vibrato when you need it (not when you don’t) is the prescription for phenomenal jazz by trumpet player Diego Urcola. Informed by his Argentinian heritage, Diego has taken the horn to a level of delicious expression. In “Deep” he speaks through the brass with the utmost of care and love, offering up a song-poem full of emotion. He can deftly play with sharp edges and spirit as in “La Yumba/Caravan,” an engagingly fun piece.

Diego’s love for teaching and bringing up young people in the art is made instantly clear when listening to the very skilled ensemble Tango Azul. His imprint is seen all over their music, yet they hold their own as musicians who will grow and develop in their own respective directions.

What surprised you most about the New York scene when you arrived?

Well, before I came to NY I spent three years in Boston studying at Berklee. That was a good transition for me coming from another country and culture. NY was like Berklee but instead of competing for scholarships I was competing for gigs. The surprise was how big the scene was compared to Boston or even Buenos Aires where I’m from.

What was the single most valuable component of an education at Berklee?

Other than some very good teachers like Herb Pomeroy, Gary Burton, John LaPorta and Hal Crook, the main thing for me was the incredibly high level of the other students from my generation there like Danilo Perez, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Jorge Rossy and Chris Cheek, just to name a few. 

Why did you choose trumpet and flugelhorn?

It was just by chance because trumpet was what I got in a “lottery” in the school band back in Argentina. Maybe I would have ended up playing trumpet anyways but who knows. 

Your biggest influences?

There are a few. First probably my father who was a music teacher. Then guys like Astor Piazzolla, Miles, Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy, Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti, just to name some. 

How did you first meet Paquito D’Rivera?

That was in 1992. I was recommended by Daniel Freiberg, an Argentinean pianist who used to play in his band. Claudio Roditi was starting to do his own thing and Paquito was looking for someone. I just got lucky. 

What was your experience with the United Nations Orchestra like?

I got to play in the band after Dizzy died and Paquito took it over. It was a great experience because we played and recorded a lot. I contributed with some of my own compositions to expand even more the musical philosophy of the band that Paquito continued, and further developed.

What are the different characteristics of the valve trombone as played by your colleague Claudio Roditi?

The valve trombone is like a big trumpet. An octave lower to be more precise. When Paquito got to NY in the early ’80s he heard Claudio playing it and fell in love with it, but after a few months Claudio stopped playing it because it was affecting his trumpet chops.

When I joined Paquito’s band in the ’90s, he always was asking me to get a valve trombone but I wasn’t too interested. After a few years, one day he showed up to my apartment with a new Yamaha Valve trombone and told me, “Bring it next week to the Blue Note.” The rest is history… 

The soul and fullness of the trumpet- how would you coach students into achieving that sound?

Sound is a very personal thing and the result of the combination of many factors like timbre, vibrato, articulation, phrasing, time feel, spacing and other things that are impossible to explain. For trumpet players, sound is everything.

If I like the sound of someone he can play anything, even mistakes, and I will like it. If I don’t like his sound it really doesn’t matter to me what he plays. 

Which tracks on “Mates” most exemplify the give-and-take of friendship and music?

I would like to think all of them. Friendship is the concept of the whole album inspired by the mate drinking tradition of Argentina and Uruguay. 

What was the production process like for this album?

“Mates” was recorded in the span of 10 years. I did other projects during that time. They were spontaneous sessions that just happened in different times and places until I got all the material needed to put it together as an album. 

What was the most exciting thing about debuting on “Libertango”?

“Libertango” was a session originally meant as a demo tape. The “problem” was that it came out so good that it became an album! 

How has your music evolved from there, through to today – tonally and composition?

I think as I mature as a musician, all my influences, especially music from Latin America and the jazz tradition, are always re-imagined and re-constructed in different ways throughout my playing and writing. 

As bandleader, what is the biggest challenge in keeping a band sounding tight, and in directing changes?

I think the biggest challenge for me when I put together a band is to find the right musicians for each project. If I get that right everything works well naturally. If not, things become very difficult. 

Talk about how Schilke horns stand out from others and their responsiveness.

I played many different horns during my career. At this time in my development I feel like Schilke has given me the perfect instruments to express what I want to say musically and I’m very lucky to have their support as a Schilke artist.   

Where do you go in your head when you play?

My goal when I’m performing is always to get to that point where I’m just another spectator of what is happening on stage. I let the unconscious part of my mind take care of everything. Sometimes this doesn’t happen, but when it does the best music occurs.  

Favorite venue?

My favorite venues are Smalls and the Village Vanguard in NYC because in those places everything is always about the music, musicians and the hard-core jazz fans. 

Place you’d most love to perform and have not yet been?

I played the Vanguard many times but always as a sideman. I would like to play there with my band sometime. 

Ingredients of a great gig?

An inspired band, a responsive audience and a good-sounding room.

Themes that inspire you when you compose?

Ideas for compositions come from different places. Usually for me it starts with either a rhythmic or melodic idea that develops into a tune, but I always try to find different ways and techniques to compose. 

How do you express your experimental side?

I don’t try to get “experimental” when I play or compose. I always try to go for what sounds good and beautiful to me. If it happens to be something new or original, even better. I hear a lot of things that are “original” but they sound terrible to me. I don’t think originality by itself has any value.  

How has Latin jazz evolved in the past 10 years?

I think it’s always evolving. Each generation of musicians has taken the music to higher levels. There are a lot of young guys who know the jazz and Latin music traditions very well, and they are coming up with very good staff.  

Has any new instrumentation has been introduced that you especially enjoy?

Nothing really new but I always try different combinations of instruments in my small group. Lately I have been trying some things with trumpet and bandoneon [similar to accordion] which is a combination that I really like. 

Where do you enjoy touring the most?

It’s always nice to travel and get to know different countries and cultures. But for me after so many years of touring most of the time I go back to the same places. From time to time I get to go to a new place. 

What are the challenges of touring, or is it all positive for you?

It’s very frustrating to travel because of all the security measures and the airline services that get worse every day. But for me now that I have a family, it is not as easy to leave for long periods of time the way I used to do when I was younger. 

Do you think jazz can bridge political divides?

I think music is one of the few things that historically has been able to bridge all kinds of racial, cultural and political divides. It’s too bad that most governments don’t realize that and don’t support music or the arts in general.  

How did you feel with your first Grammy nomination and with your very first win?

At the time it was good for me because I got a lot of free press and people got a better chance to hear my music. But I think lately the Grammys have lost a lot of prestige and musically for me they don’t mean much. Most of the new records and artists whom I like never get recognized. 

Plans for the rest of 2017?

I have a few gigs left to do here in the USA. Then I’m spending the holidays in Argentina with my family and the first week of January 2018 I’m doing the Punta del Este Jazz Festival in Uruguay that I have been helping to organize for the last 20-plus years. It is a great event that features mostly musicians from NYC.

What’s new for 2018 – new CD? New venues?

I’m not all that clear of what 2018 will bring. The only sure thing is that I will keep working with Paquito and the other bands that I usually play with like the Dizzy’s All Stars, Jimmy Heath, The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and others. I want to do a new studio session and also a live record. Let’s see if I can make it happen. 

Other comments?

Thank you for your interest in what I do. I wish everybody happiness and good health.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Diego Urcola.

© Debbie Burke 2017


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