During the past year, Chicago listeners have heard trumpeter Victor Garcia in more musical contexts than any single player could be expected to master.
He hit hard in drummer Dana Hall's band at the Green Mill last month; debuted his own feisty, full-throttle septet at the University of Chicago's Logan Center last September; explored music of Melba Liston in saxophonist Geof Bradfield's epic suite "Melba!" at the Green Mill last September; and co-led the muscular Chicago Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble (CALJE) with pianist Darwin Nogueraat the Pritzker Pavilion during the Chicago Jazz Festival last summer.
And that's just a fraction of his itinerary, which also has included pop, gospel, musical theater, Afro-Cuban and what-not.
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The man clearly is difficult to pigeon-hole.
"People have told me that I'm kind of a chameleon, that I try to fit in," says Garcia, who will be playing a characteristically busy, stylistically far-flung lineup of performances starting Friday evening.
"Tonight," adds Garcia, speaking by phone as he traveled the East Coast, "I'm playing lead trumpet in a (theatrical) show – it's pop stuff, gospel. My iPod is on 24/7."
Garcia's constant listening – and performing – have made him one an increasingly ubiquitous Chicago sideman and leader, but what's critical to note is that he sounds remarkably different in each setting. Though some listeners may be inclined to perceive him as primarily a Latin trumpeter, his work with drummer Hall, saxophonist Bradfield and others has shown him to be quite adaptable, at least as far as matters of idiom and musical language are concerned.
Which is exactly what Garcia, 30, has been working toward for many years.
"When I first learned jazz, Darwin had a video of Chick Corea – an instructional piano video," recalls Garcia, referring to pianist Darwin Noguera, probably Garcia's closest musical collaborator.
"And in the (accompanying) booklet, there were all these rules for music. And the only one I remember is: Don't try to stand out in the musical situation – try to fit in and make the music sound good.
"It meant there's more to this than just being able to play your instrument. It's so deep – it's really a lifelong process of learning.
"So now I look for different things. Technical ability is amazing, but music is more important. Look at Gonzalo (Rubalcaba): He shows that once you achieve technical ability, that is only the beginning."
Cuban pianist Rubalcaba indeed has ventured far beyond the technical brilliance of his early work to create an original music that draws deeply on classical-piano traditions. If that's the model that Garcia is choosing, he's certainly aiming high.
But some of Garcia's most interesting work emanates not just from his horn but from his pen. The original arrangements he penned for his aforementioned septet ingeniously layered complex scoring for four horns atop Dan Trudell's fat sound on organ, Charles Heath's eruptions on drums and Scott Hesse's chordal inventions on guitar.
For Garcia's Monday-night engagement at the Green Mill, he'll be leading his Organ Quintet, which amounts to a stripped down version of the septet, with Garcia and tenor saxophonist Rocky Yera holding down the front line, and Trudell, Hesse and Heath keeping rhythms pressing forward. Even without the alto saxophone and trombone, says Garcia, the purpose will remain the same: to wrap multiple lines around Trudell's pulsing organ work.
"Having written so much for big band, I appreciate the possibilities of counterpoint, counter-melody, call-and-response," says Garcia. "You hear the power, you hear the soul, and when everyone comes together, it brings the emotion of the music even more."
On Friday and Saturday nights, Garcia will be working in an entirely different setting, playing with saxophonist Scott Burns at Andy's Jazz Club and reveling in the idiosyncrasies of Burns' writing.
"It's his group, and it's really beautiful music," says Garcia. "Not only is he an amazing tenor saxophone player, but he has a unique sound and harmonic approach that feels so fresh. Every time I listen to it, I get inspired.
"He's such a sophisticated writer. He writes unusual songs. Every chord has all sorts of (harmonic) alterations."
In the meantime, Garcia is doing a great deal of writing himself. He's penning new scores for CALJE, to be recorded later this year ("the old repertoire is played out," he says); and he has been crafting arrangements for the septet, as well ("I have a friend who's crazy enough to want to record us").