Arturo Tappin – Tappin’ into the Music

Arturo Tappin of Barbados is a musician who's making waves with his distinctive jazz/reggae blend. A profile by Roxan Kinas

In Jamaica with the Marley sisters Cedella and Sharon, 1995. Photograph by the Tappin FamilyPhotograph by Roxan KinasTappin is at home with virtually any instrument (here it’s a ukelele). Photograph by Roxan Kinas

The place was a decorator’s nightmare. This bar was almost new, but it had that half-broken outdoor-furniture look, with garish souvenirs stuck crookedly on the walls like an after-thought. The lighting was supermarket-bright. And that mask: a huge semi-trampled Carnival headpiece hung in a far corner like some ragged safari trophy.

But I never noticed any of it, at least not until the combo stopped playing, because the music was so riveting. Especially the sax player.

He sat in a corner perched on the ledge of a large, open window, listening intently to the flute, piano, bass and drums around him. He nodded or smiled occasionally, and now and then let go an emphatic yes!

Until, as if by a secret signal, he eased to centre stage and gently launched into a lead break that stood the room on end. In his dapper signet attire — matching multicoloured African vest, tie and cap — he stood there, eyes dreamily half-open, an occasional upward bop of his body when grabbing a high staccato note, and simply played. Raw, unabashed bebop jazz, so fluid that the audience soon began to take the amazing for granted.

But Barbadian Arturo Tappin always amazes. Whether in a recording session for a top artist, as a guest at a music festival, or in some obscure nightclub, he captures heart and soul with his saxophone. His notes thread together like an intense conversation; a rich romantic language speaks to listeners vividly and tenderly.

Musicians recognise his talent. Stephen “Cat” Coore, founder member and lead guitarist with the internationally acclaimed Jamaican reggae band third World, says ‘I first saw Arturo on his music video (Breaking Up, from his first CD Strictly Roots Jazz). I was listening to the song and I thought, ‘This guy’s really good.’ Since then I’ve followed closely.

“What sets Arturo apart isd that his personality comes through his music. He is a wonderful musician because he’s not only skilled in his ability to play his instrument, but he has a spirit that comes through in his playing, which is very important.”

Early last year, Arturo found himself on stage with Third World, a band he has long admired. In fact, 1995 was a bumper year for him. It started with a personal invitation from Rita Marley, widow of Bob Marley and Director of the Bob Marley Foundation, to perform as a featured guest artist at the Bob Marley 50th birthday Bash in Jamaica in February. Her invitation ended, “This event will not be complete without your special participation.”

And with good reason. Explained Rita, “Arturo is one of our finest young ambassadors of reggae.” Still a performing reggae artist herself with the I-Threes, she added, “His passionate performance of No Woman No Cry at Bob’s 50th birthday celebration was a fitting tribute not only to Bob, but to the spirit of reggae music itself.”

He so impressed listeners that Third World invited him to join them on stage. For 29-year-old Arturo, “It was like a dream come true because I grew up listening to these guys. Then, after ending their set with Marley’s Jammin, the band did their traditional group hug, and I was invited into that circle. The high point of my career was that moment.”

Within weeks, Arturo hit another crescendo when he was invited to play on Monty Alexander’s new album. One of the region’s foremost and most prolific jazz pianists, with a career than spans some 30 years and 50 albums, Monty Alexander is internationally acclaimed for his special genre of Caribbean-influenced jazz. A usually unflappable Arturo recalled, “Playing with Monty was another uplifting experience, but a little intimidating. He is so genius it was like a three-day university course.

Monty saw it a bit differently. Chuckling, he said, “I don’t know about that, because he was right in there with me all the way. Arturo is one of the exciting players of today’s modern approach. He has a great feeling for rhythm and he can go as adventurous in jazz as he wants. I admire him for promoting the culture of the islands. Even though he’s a world musician, he plays a music indigenous to us all in the Caribbean. There aren’t many of us in that field and he’s doing a very good job.”

In the summer, Arturo joined Jamaican reggae group Skool Band in what was a very successful 25-city tour of the west coast and southwest United States as opening act for Mutabaruka, the Jamaican reggae artist and poet. He finished out the year with a string of studio sessions and guest appearances, with several London performances and a “jazz jam” gig at Jamaica’s Polo Club in between.

Arturo straddles the line between jazz and reggae. While bebop jazz is his first love and is what he most often plays in the clubs, he sees his future in reggae. “Putting the two of them together works, and I’m happy doing it.” Of this special musical blend, “Cat” Coore remarks, “Arturo’s music will always have a future. His career is not one that is short-lived.”

Arturo Senior (“I’m Art, he’s Turo; I’m the first half, he’s the second”) is fully behind his son’s career. “I’d like to see him achieve what he set out to do — gain commercial success and international recognition for his music. What I’d like to see him play most is jazz. But then, I’m a jazz fan myself.”

Art Sr.’s love for jazz was a profound influence on his son; in fact, Arturo’s fate in mastering jazz as well as reggae, then fusing the two, was decided long before he ever touched an instrument. “My dad listened to all the jazz standards, and it went into my subconscious like some musical osmosis. Though he didn’t like jazz then, he came to love it as he “grew musically”.

By the time Arturo was 15, music was his life. He had reached Grade 5 on classical violin with the Royal Schools of Music, was a seasoned clarinet player in his school’s cadet band, had a working knowledge of most instruments and a mastery of music theory, and was in his church and school choirs.

“He was always musically inclined, from the time he went to prep school,” his father says. “The teacher said even then he loved participating in the music sessions and singing.” Later, school tests indicated an aptitude for music, “and they gave him a violin. But after he was exposed to other forms of music and instruments, he lost interest in it.”

Age 15 was a turning point for Arturo. In moving away from classical music in favour of jazz, he found his calling in the saxophone, albeit somewhat reluctantly. He joined a jazz band as a clarinet player. “But they really needed a sax player. I never liked the sound of the sax, but I liked playing in the jazz band.” So he switched. It was tough at first — “I was into the pure sound of classical clarinet. But because of the raw sound of the sax, I could do more emotionally, and I soon fell in love with the instrument”

After that, according to Art Sr., “He was in his room almost everyday practising.” His mother often had to tell him to stop practising to do his best in school studies.

From then on, Arturo played in both jazz and reggae bands, often simultaneously. Yet it was not until he was 27 that he seriously fused the two in his debut album, Strcitly Roots Jazz.

First he had to pay a few dues. At 19, Arturo had played on stage with organist Lloyd Wilson Jr. and Arthur Prysock, who both encouraged him to try out for Berklee College of Music in Boston, the United States’s foremost jazz school. Ironically, Arturo soon met the school’s founder, Lee Elliot Berk, who was vacationing in Barbados. From him, Arturo received audition materials that ultimately led to a Philwoods Alto Saxophone Scholarship.

A small, esoteric college with a big international reputation, Berklee was a virtual “salad bowl of cultures from all over the world,” Arturo says. But coming from an island environment, he had a rude awakening. “I saw young teenagers there who were so technically proficient it was either give up and go home or work to catch up. So my first year I practiced six hours every day. What I learned in that year would otherwise have taken me ten. It was my greatest period of growth.”

He still practices constantly, as any serious musician must. Even when he’s on the telephone you can hear the hollow thunking of the keypads opening and closing as he runs through scales while chatting with friends. “It takes time to develop good tonal quality,” Arturo says, “because you need to develop different muscles around the mouth. And if you let even a few days pass, you can start to lose that muscle control. Getting good is all about technique, and you’ve got to practice to develop it. It’s also about being focused and having the discipline to remain motivated in reaching your goal, which for me is commercial success. It is like my mother would say — you can’t go to a supermarket and say you play sax and get a free bag of groceries.”

But stylistically, Arturo draws on the great jazz tradition. “There is an historical link leading from Lester Young to Charlie Parker and on to John Coltrane, and you’ve got to listen to that chain and learn from it.” Because he so carefully studied the history of jazz, he can walk into any club and play, unrehearsed, with virtually any group of musicians.

“It is because of the music’s history that we all know where to go and where to end. A lot of people are under the assumption that improvisation is everybody on stage arguing and the drum-mer is the judge. But it is a language, and there’s a history to it that has been passed on through the years.”

Jazz and improvisation, he feels, are the most challenging music forms. “While you need the technique of a classical musician in order to create spontaneously, the whole process of improvising is different from a classical musician’s concept of music. Where they practice one piece for a year to reach perfection, in jazz the object is to play from the sub-conscious.”

Not that Arturo is a perfectionist in all things. His father thought about this for a moment, then said, “Besides music, the only other thing I can remember is he always liked to have a spit-polish on his boots in Cadets. Otherwise he’s a pretty sloppy guy in every other respect. He leaves everything everywhere.”

Arturo’s home is a clutter with instruments, from a sitting-room piano to an entire dining-room corner of saxes all standing at attention. Instrument stands, a huge music library, music cases and road trunks all tell the story of his obsession and his family’s infinite support.

Arturo is a regular at concerts and festivals in the region, particularly in Jamaica, where he has shared the stage with Wynton Marsalis, the legendary Ernest Ranglin, and Chuck Mangione. Jamaica has been kind to Arturo. “It’s been my most productive location,” he says. “Every time I go there, something happens.” Actually, many people believe he is Jamaican — Monty Alexander teased, “Arturo is a Jamaican by proxy.”

While his first CD is chiefly original jazz-oriented reggae, his July 1995 Java release “is more simplified in its jazz element and more refined,” Arturo says. It reeled in some powerful reviews. In its New acts to watch department, Billboard Magazine said, “Arturo Tappin is stretching reggae’s envelope.” Jamaica’s Gleaner newspaper reported that Arturo’s “… unique jazz and reggae blend is creating excitement everywhere.” Reggae Report’s Editor-in-Chief Peggy Quattro told her readers, “Barbados may now boast of a new star on the brink of world acclaim . . . Watch out for Arturo. There is no doubt that this young man will open new markets with his saxual reggae passion.”

That confidence is already being reflected in new record contracts.

Despite his increasingly hectic schedule, Arturo often still plays for free. He shrugs when asked why and remarks, “Nobody gets paid for reading a book, but it is the same thing. My jamming is learning. It’s a growing experience, and every time I play I learn something, no matter what level the other musicians are at.”

Outside of his work, Arturo lives the quiet life. Devoted to his family and his music, humble in his outlook, he maintains a strong loyalty to those who have helped him along the way. He believes his fortunes are due to “being very lucky, with one thing always leading to another, and people always going out of their way to help me move forward.”