Thelonious is packed for a Wednesday night: forty people sit at tables, the walls behind them lined with books on one side and a series of blown-up portraits of prominent Santiago jazz musicians sporting their instruments on the other.
Unlike most jazz band leaders, vocalist Juan Pablo Rivera doesn’t need an instrument to solo. His voice does the work on its own. With eyes closed, he loosely holds the mic with his right hand as his left travels up and down the neck of an imaginary bass, miming the notes as he sings them.
The songs chosen are being showcased from his new album Retrato Hablado. There is a mixture of jazz standards like “Moanin,” revamped pop songs like “Overkill” by Men At Work, and original compositions, which have recently become the highlight of his set. “On this album, I’m trying to take it further: more original songs, and everything connects together.”
Rivera’s air-bass soloing habits betray his background: he came to jazz by way of the upright bass, which he studied at William Patterson in New Jersey, only deciding later on in his studies to become a vocalist. The influence of his years as a bassist still has a major effect on his singing style and his musicianship. “When I’m directing my band, I think as an instrumentalist, not a singer. When I scat, like this,” he says, giving a few notes of a solo as an example, “I take a lot of it from the bass, from having studied music, which sometimes vocalists don’t really do.”
Rivera cites diverse influences on his vocal style. “One... is Mel Tormé,” he says, referencing the famous American jazz singer. “He did what I was trying to do, which is mixing this Sinatra style, this crooner style…and the dynamic part of jazz, which is the improvisation. In this album, I’m trying to take it even further.” Translated onto the stage, this convergence of vocal styles allows Rivera to pivot effortlessly between the smooth sweetness of his familiar, catchy choruses and his more experimental, scatted solos.
You probably won’t see Santiago on a list of the world’s top jazz destinations, but Rivera and other artists like him are carving out a small, close-knit community centered on the few venues that do cater specifically to jazz musicians and their fans. Thelonious, a small club in Bellavista known for its weekly late-night jam sessions, is Rivera’s favorite, and he’s known there as a regular. “Thelonious’s Wednesday night jam session is the best in Santiago, which has been going for a while. There you get to see new players and new things happening. Everytime there are international players here, they visit Thelonious and they love it,” according to Rivera.
Playing music professionally in such a small scene means that Santiago’s jazz players need to be self-managed and self-produced, which can take a lot of time and energy from artists, as well as making it hard to profit from or break even on albums. “Artists who are really good at managing themselves tend to become more successful...sometimes not because they are talented at music, but just because they have that skill and that energy,” Rivera says. On the other hand, it can also be liberating to work within a smaller scene: “I don’t want to go crazy. I just want to do my thing, do it slowly, and enjoy it. People are getting that: they’re buying the albums, and they think it’s good.”
To see Juan Pablo Rivera perform live, keep your eyes peeled for upcoming shows at Thelonious, and grab yourself a copy of Retrato Hablado to give it a listen at home.
Juan Pablo Rivera