Music to Hidden, New Pathways

Jonathan Saraga credit Tayla Nebesky 2

“Journey to a New World” is a new CD by trumpet player Jonathan Saraga. The whole of the CD is familiar but also fresh; grounded but also hopeful. The horn work is brilliant and technically spot-on, and presented with an ease and warmth that makes the songs accessible. The ensemble produces an inspiring sound that blends seamlessly with Jonathan’s lead.

His treatment of an old Beatles’ standby, “Fool on the Hill,” utilizes brief stops, fluttering trills and Latin-like adornments to make the song his own; add to that some great soloing by guitar, percussion and keys. Upon his re-entrance, Jonathan improvises with an ever-soaring motif. The fool may be atop the hill but perhaps we are flying above him and looking down.

“Sabbath Prayer” starts with a brassy declaration of inverted arpeggios and a study of minor modes until the moment sax comes in and there is sweetness and light. Jonathan then caresses the main theme which slows to calmness and solemnity. All through, the approach is exceedingly beautiful. One could hardly imagine how electric guitar would fit here but it does. A very modern and respectful take on the tune from “Fiddler on the Roof.” If the listener is familiar with the original, it is a stunning re-invention.

For punch and speed, try “The Guardians” and for a dreamy offering there is “Firm Roots.” In waltz time, “New World” opens in melodic unison, then colors change and there is a breaking-off point where each musician contributes on his own.

When did you decide to become a musician?

I did have a moment about half-way through my undergrad where I realized I could play music at a level that I felt comparable to some of my idols at the time: Ryan Kisor, Jim Rotondi. I realized that I understood the language of music… maybe not that I had mastered it, but that I understood it; and I knew how to keep getting better at it. Even then, the thought of whether or not I wanted to become anything wasn’t a part of it.

Being a musician can mean so many things. It may sound strange but one of the most important things a musician is doesn’t even have anything to do with the music they play. It is someone who practices the art of listening. I think if you practice the art of listening, you are a musician.

Did your family support you in your choice to go into music?

My family is supportive of my career choice, which I thank God for.

I owe everything to my parents. My mother is very musically inclined. She has been singing all her life, and she has a lovely voice. She also is quite an artist as well, and can paint and draw nicely. I also draw, and I definitely got my creative blood from her. Her father played harmonica and also was artistic.

My father is really good with numbers and equations, and he knows how to work hard and get things done. I got my organizational mind, work ethic and discipline from him, which I’m very thankful for. My dad doesn’t play music himself but he understands and appreciates beautiful music.

My uncle on my mom’s side is actually a great jazz drummer; retired now. But he was playing a lot in the 40’s and 50’s. I got to play with him for the first time this past year. It was some of the most fun I’ve had playing music.

Who are your influences?

I feel like I’m influenced by everything I hear. Some that have really made big impacts on me as person, in addition to how I hear music: Miguel Zenon, the LeBoeuf brothers, Art Lande, Philip Dizack, John Raymond, Ambrose Akimmusire, Peter Evans, Aaron Burnett, Loren Stillman, Donny McCaslin, Mark Turner, David Binney, Dayna Stevens, Tyshawn Sorey, Seamus Blake, Michael Brecker, Chris Potter, Joe Lovano, Linn Nicholson, Joey Calderazo, Ben Monder, Scott Lee, John Riley, Todd Coolman, Jim Rotondi, Eric Alexander, Charles Blenzig.

Biggest takeaway from your musical education?

I feel like there’s no end to being a student of music or or life, so every day I end up with new take-aways, new lessons, new learnings, new appreciations, new gratitudes. I can’t say enough about how much it’s done for me.

As time goes by, I become more grateful for the teachers that I’ve had, and the opportunities to be around great educators and mentors.

I’d have to say the biggest lesson I’ve ever learned and that I continue to learn is to be present. All of the teachings I’ve absorbed over the years while in school have been invaluable, but only because I was really paying attention and appreciating what was happening, without judging it. By no means have I been perfect at this, and I’ve sustained bumps, bruises and even some scares over the years as a result of not being present. But, to take the time to just appreciate and be, shapes our art and who we are like nothing else can.

In addition to that, it was invaluable to have been surrounded by such supportive and talented friends throughout college.

What are you most surprised about regarding the music industry?

I’m just always attempting to figure out the industry more, and observe people I feel have it more figured out than me, regardless of how they play or who they are.

I try to pick up tips, tricks, and learn about what works and what doesn’t. I converse with friends and colleagues about the industry all the time, seeing what their perspectives are, and how they approach things. I was having a conversation with my good friend and monstrous saxophonist, Caleb Curtis, about this. This was several years ago. He said something that has stuck with me to this day: he doesn’t think about why, he thinks about how. In other words, not worrying about why things are the way they are, but instead what to do to make the best of it.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I’m inspired by musicians whose work has really touched me, and that makes me feel. It’s hard to narrow it down! Jazz-wise, lately I’ve been really into Miguel Zenon, especially his new album “Tipico.” For many years now the Le Boeuf Brothers have very strongly influenced my writing style. Also certain video game and movie soundtracks; usually those whose accompanying story is based on adventure.

Right now I’m really into Henry Jackman’s writing, but I also love Howard Shore. I like when music makes me feel like I’m a part of it somehow. Even the intricate heady jazz that I love can affect me like that.

Speaking of which, I love alto players. I think maybe because the resonance of the trumpet is similar to the alto. I’m a big fan of Steve Lehman, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Loren Stillman. There’s also this tenor player that I’m blown away by named Aaron Burnett. His playing is incredible. I like sax players a lot obviously. Wynton Marsalis and Phil Dizack are my two favorite trumpet players right now.

Ultimately, I want to make music that helps people and that has healing qualities, so I’m inspired by composers and players who affect me in those ways with their music.

What’s special about your ensemble?

They bring a heightened awareness and sensitivity to what the music is asking for. They each have huge ears, and are very patient; both in terms of learning and practicing the music together in rehearsals, but also within their own playing.

Also, they’re amazing technicians, yet none of them overplays. I think that’s something I wanted for my last record specifically; I wanted the solos to feel woven into the compositions, and I didn’t want too much shredding. Each one of those guys can shred for days, but they chose the notes to play very sensitively throughout the session.

There’s Remy Le Bouef on alto sax; Aki Ishiguro on guitar; Chris Pattershall on piano and Rhodes; Rick Rosato on bass; and Kenneth Salters on drums.

Above all, I just love the sound they get on their instruments, and I hear their specific sound as a part of my music. 

What determines whether you play with trumpet or flugelhorn on any given song?

I usually gravitate to playing flugelhorn on slower songs and ballads; songs that I wouldn’t necessarily ‘shred’ over. However, I have played it on songs that aren’t slow actually. It also depends on the vibe of the tune, and what the chords are. The flugelhorn, (mine anyway), sounds really good playing certain patterns and arpeggios and such…it darkens and broadens the sound, and makes it more wet. Also interestingly, playing fast on it can actually be easier than on trumpet. Flugelhorn requires a different physical approach to playing than the trumpet, due to how it’s constructed. In the end, I’ll play flugelhorn on something where I’m hearing my voice as more deep and open, and also where I don’t feel the need to play high notes. The flugelhorn can play high notes, and it can sound cool to go into the upper register on it, but it can’t pop them out like the trumpet can. 

Talk about the personal/spiritual/emotional development that led you to create “Journey to a New World”?

It had to do with a lot of things… growing up really, and experiencing things. Things that all people experience… human things: love, loss, death, struggle, perseverance, change, reward… All things that I think all people go through, but just in my own way.

I actually describe it fairly well in the liner notes to the album which are found here:

How do you translate your experiences and feelings onto the page?

I don’t overthink it, unless I’m trying to figure out how to express something very specific. I can really hone in on an emotion and the visual/sensory experience of where that emotion is coming from and then hear something that embodies it. It might just be a chord, or just like a palette of sound, that I then can break apart to find usable content.

Sometimes when I do that, some of the content doesn’t even feel like it’s related to where it came from anymore, but it still could be cool, and then I might just see where that goes.

Composing doesn’t always go as planned! It’s a lot like improvising. You have to just keep going with what the music is asking for.

What are some of the highlights of the new CD?

Track-wise, “Uprising” is definitely a highlight. It seems to be a fan favorite, and it received several awards: The Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award, and a semi-final selection for the International Songwriting Competition, in which it was among 1,800 entries out of 18,000 that made it.

I am waiting to see if a few of the other tracks qualified for a few things this year. There have been several reviews that have spoken about key moments in various pieces, for instance within solos, but I prefer to let the listeners determine that for themselves.

I put a lot of time and effort into making this record sound the way I had been envisioning it. I feel like I achieved the sound that I wanted, and I think listeners will experience a clean and well put together record. That’s a highlight in itself for me.

How did it feel to receive the Herb Alpert nomination for “Uprising”?

I knew the track was good, and I knew it had a chance because I believed in it. It was surprising because I thought of how many people must have submitted tracks for that competition, and how mine was one of about 13 that was selected internationally.

It was difficult to process for a few weeks actually. I think “Uprising” ended up being a very polished and well put-together track. The solos were on the shorter side, and the arrangement was very solid. I think that it’s a very engaging track from beginning to end, which is sometimes difficult to achieve in jazz.

When was this CD released?

October 29th, 2017 at Dazzle Jazz Club in Denver, CO. We played the whole album start to finish.

A big part of the two-year process it took to get this album out was due to obtaining enough money to put it out. My previous record was picked up by a great label called Blue Truffle Music, but it was already after I had duplicated all the CDs and done all of the production.

This time I shopped around for labels, and did negotiations, and the whole bit. Also, I wanted to have a strong publicity campaign behind me this time, and like I said, getting the money together for that took a while.

Besides the business end of things, I was writing new music for about six months prior to getting the band together; scheduling rehearsals (accounting for cats being out of town/on the road); setting it all up; and planning everything. I really wanted to make sure I did it right this time.

What did you learn about producing and recording from this CD?

A lot, and I’m still learning.

As far as recording, I learned more about how I want to be able to play on a recording session. Although I have done a fair amount of them, recording my own music on my own CD while managing and paying for everything, was more challenging than just showing up to record someone else’s music.

I learned a lot about time and energy management in the studio, and ways of making studio time more efficient.

On the production side, there’s a lot that goes into a truly successful record release. One thing that I realize I need to do better next time is to hype up the release, and have high quality videos and photos hitting social media a month prior, at least. I’ve learned a lot about social media recently, and how I can more effectively use it when producing a record, or a music video, which I plan to do many of in the near future.

How would you characterize your own sound?

That’s an interesting question. I feel like my sound varies from day to day, and I like changing up my approach too.

I never want to get comfortable within my own sound, because then my playing gets stagnant. I think my voice on the trumpet is an original one, although I don’t try to be original. I’ve transcribed a lot of saxophone players so my vocabulary is very much influenced in that way, and my sound is certainly influenced by my favorite trumpeters: Wynton Marsalis, Phil Dizack, Nick Payton, Clifford Brown.

I aim for my sound to be more like the players above: clean, beautiful, elegant, patient. I think my playing has a lot of passion and chops in it; also a lot of creativity…but not enough patience. I’d like to add more patience to my playing.

Why do you think it allows you to express yourself better than any other instrument?

Because I’ve been playing it longer than any other instrument! It’s the instrument that I’ve put 10,000 hours into, probably closer to 20,000. I understand it, and I feel like it’s an extension of me.

Fave venue in NYC?

The Village Vanguard, Smoke, The Jazz Gallery, the Stone and Smalls are some of my favorites. The old Jazz Gallery was really cool… I also really like playing in big halls that have great acoustics like Carnegie Hall, Symphony Space and halls at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The more intimate, “underground” clubs promote a different kind of a vibe, even if the audiences are the same. It’s just a different energy; they both have up sides and down sides!

How did you come to play the Bowling Green subway station and was it planned?

I play in a band called The Liberte Big Band. They’ve been around for several years now…Liberty-Anne Lymberiou is the leader. She got the gig at the Bowling Green subway stop.

We played outside about 100 feet away from the stairway, and there’s always tons of people coming and going. A lot of people checked us out! It was definitely interesting to play that type of original music in such a business-y environment, but I think it made people think at the very least. The music is very high energy and has some avant-garde aspects to it. It also sometimes has some political-activist messages scattered about.

What other cities do you enjoy playing in?

To be honest I haven’t done too much traveling within the country as a freelance jazz musician. I’ve toured the country as a lead trumpeter in an off-Broadway show, but the venues we played were all theaters. I will say that I have performed in New Orleans, cities in Maine and NJ, Boston… mainly on the East Coast.

Europe is really cool. Paris is a fun place to play; people are really into the art. I’ve toured in Haiti and Malaysia too. Playing in places with different cultures is really cool.

Where will you play this year?

Well, since I’m stationed in Colorado for about eight months a year, I’ve been doing a lot of playing in different cities there. This summer (’18), I’m hoping to get some gigs lined up for my group and do a little tour of some kind; that’s still in the works.

What venue or festival would you most like to play?

I’d say probably the Newport Jazz Festival.

What would you like to develop or improve upon?

This might sound strange, but…my image; as an artist. There’s so much to image as far as creating a product that people want. I already can play the trumpet, but improving on that is easy compared to the business and networking side of things. Also getting online and media presence stronger. Those areas are really where I need to improve, and I feel like I am. Trying new things, and just getting more organized with the types of online content that people will associate with me. 

Little-known fact about you or the band? 

We rehearsed two times before the record date.

Other comments?

Thanks for featuring me in such a fun hang with these other musicians, Debbie. One final word to everyone reading…have an express gratitude every day. 

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jonathan Saraga. Photos (c) Tayla Nebesky.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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