Luis Deniz talks musical influences, Cuban roots and debut album El Tinajón

Grammy-nominated and Juno-winning saxophonist Luis Deniz has just released his debut album El Tinajón.

Born and raised in Camaguey, Cuba and arriving in Toronto in 2004, Deniz has had an impressive career as an accompanist and soloist for the likes of Barry Harris, Howard Johnson, Randy Brecker, Ray Vega, Donald Harrison, Ingrid Jensen, Jane Bunnett and more. He’s earned a Juno Award and a Grammy nomination for his work with Hilario Duran and his Latin Jazz Big Band.

El Tinajón features nine original compositions that bring together the rich cultural influences of Deniz’s upbringing in Cuba and his later life in Canada. His ensemble features bassist Roberto Occhipinti, pianist Rafael Zaldivar, drummer Amhed Mitchel, and percussionist Jorge Luis Torres.

Deniz joined us to talk about the album.

We saw each other not too long ago for a Sound of Jazz tribute to Charlie Parker, and we talked about how influential of a figure he is to your musical identity. Who are some of the others?

There are a lot of people. Especially growing up in Cuba, I grew up listening to, of course, Chucho Valdés and Irakere, and all the bands that formed off of that. But as I’m getting older, I’ve tapped more into traditional Cuban music. When you have the Internet, there’s a lot of things to discover. As much as my music and playing is influenced by where I came from, the saxophone has gone two ways: the French school, and the American jazz school. So of course, ‘Trane, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, you name it.

The title of the album is El Tinajón, which I’ve learned is the name of a clay pot that the Spaniards brought to Cuba in the early 1500s. Tell me about the cultural importance of it.

I thought it was really important for me to come up with something that was uniquely me and that represents where I come from. I’m sure there are Canadians who have been to Camaguey and if they see a photo of the tinajón, they’d probably be like, “Oh yeah, I remember seeing that at so-and-so hotel.” It became the insignia of the city.

Does every household have a tinajón?

Not anymore. Back in those days when the Spanish were there, it was part of the more affluent households. In Spain, they have those open-concept patios, so they brought that kind of thing to Cuba and they have a lot of that in Camaguey. That’s where they would put the tinajón, because it would collect the rainwater. It just became the most Camaguey thing anyone could think of.

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You’ve lived in Canada since 2004. How old were you when you arrived?

I had just turned 21.

Was there a bit of a cultural shock when you first arrived?

Oh yeah, definitely. You name it. It’s so different. I think things have changed a lot in Cuba, but anything from actually having a bank account to having public transit. These were things that I never had to deal with. But I had a lot of help. It’s been great. I think one of the greatest things that has happened to me is that a lot of the people who have helped me out are saxophonists: Jane Bunnett, Kirk MacDonald, Pat LaBarbera, Jeff King, Mike Filice… the list goes on and on.

You’ve had some great teachers over the years, and now you’re a faculty member at Humber College. You were the student and now you’re the teacher. What insight can you provide a musician who shows promise at a young age?

Find the meaning in what you’re doing. These days, it’s really easy to confuse technical abilities with playing music with meaning. The whole point of jazz is that it’s supposed to be about something. Creating music is supposed to be about the human condition. That something is different for everyone. Tap into that thing that you’re struggling with, and feed off that. Your music will have a different connotation. It will speak to people. It will cease to be a science, and become art.

You’ve been playing around town here for many years, and now you have a debut recording with nine originals. Tell me about the process of putting together the band.

That part was really easy. I’m a huge fan of playing music with my friends. I believe in that. People like Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter], they were friends. They spent a lot of time together. The idea of playing music with my friends — people that care about me as much as I care about them — the music is a different thing. I’m very lucky to have one of my childhood friends Rafael Zaldivar on the piano. This is someone who has been my friend since I was 10 years old and he was 11. We’re from the same town, we went to the same school, we spent our entire lives together. Being so far from home, to have someone who knows me that well and has seen all my development as a musician and as a person, it was very important to me.

If there’s one thing you want people to know about this album, what would it be?

I worked really hard at giving the world the most honest impression of myself — of who I am, and my beliefs in music.

This interview has been edited and condensed.