For fans of indie rock band Calexico, the trumpet artistry of Jacob Valenzuela is something indispensible to the group’s intoxicating sound.
The Tucson native, 31 and the proud papa of 7-week-old Jacob Martinez Valenzuela, came to Calexico nine years ago, introduced to group leaders Joey Burns and John Convertino by local mariachi legend Ruben Moreno.
It’s a dream gig for the young trumpeter who grew up on jazzmen Clifford Brown and Miles Davis, and had been part of the Desert View High School mariachi.
“At that point Joey was looking for a trumpet player who could travel and who could do jazz and a little bit of mariachi as well,” Valenzuela says of joining the group, sitting on the porch of his father’s house near the airport. “There’s a lot of liberty in (Calexico’s) music and the music is wonderful, too. I still enjoy listening to it after nine years. They’re really classic songs and I think the writing is beautiful. I’m really fortunate to be a part of it.”
On Calexico’s 2008 “Carried To Dust” CD, Valenzuela had a chance to spread his wings as a songwriter as well. His “Inspiración” is one of the best on the outstanding disc – a tune with a classic Latin sound that conjures images of the 1940s and ’50s.
“That song just kind of came out with me and my brother,” he says. “One day we were just sitting in Joey’s house and he was going over some chords and I just had this melody pop in my head. It started out very simple like things do. And eventually bringing it to the guys, you could see it starting to grow. It’s kind of a special song to me because of the relationship that I have in my family. It’s really strong.”
Valenzuela says that one of the things he likes best about Calexico is that it, too, feels like family.
“When you’re on the road it’s hard to be away but at the same time you have your family that you’re with. Just like brothers. We get into it and you make up. But they’re really lovely people. They’re really real.”
Valenzuela comes from a family of musical brothers. He started playing trumpet at age 10 as part of a church group.
“That’s where I started playing music and learning by ear,” he says.
Valenzuela wasn’t much into mariachi music when he was in high school, but with Moreno’s encouragement he stayed with the group. It was as a music education student at the University of Arizona that he came to see the beauty of the mariachi.
“I really didn’t feel I had the grasp of it until I started gigging,” he says. “It’s a lot of music to learn and if you didn’t really grow up listening to it and really studied it intensely, it’s just a crash course trying to learn it all. And it’s the same trying to learn jazz. You’ve got to grow up and listen to it and really invest a lot of time.
“Clifford Brown was one of the musicians that I appreciated most. I would study all his solos. I can’t play like him. He has a totally different style but just the way he plays the solos is really nice and his articulation and everything. I was really impressed with him. I really love Miles too. He’s always been very inspiring because he’s done so many different types of music and done it really well. It’s amazing how you can apply the trumpet to different genres of music.”
As a musician, Calexico is a dream gig because nothing is static. The group’s sound is based on an adventurous, collaborative spirit that incorporates everything from jazz, pop and rock to elements of the mariachi and other world music currents. And where things really get fun is in the live concerts, where the music morphs into something completely different from the recorded version.
“When you think about all the songs we’ve played over all the years, the repertoire is so extensive,” he says. “It’s huge, and it’s surprising how we remember all the songs.
“In just starting off a tour, the first gigs you start realizing, this doesn’t quite work out like it did on the album. ‘Let’s add this or let’s change this part.’ So it kind of becomes its own thing at that time. And then you have these two different versions we can always play off of. And everyone is so talented and so quick to adjust and compromise that it’s always easy. It just seems effortless.”
Things seem to be taking a good course. At the same point that he had a baby on the way, the group slowed the pace of touring, preferring to set up gigs that would take the members away from home for a few days at a time.
But Valenzuela is looking forward to getting back into the studio with Calexico again, either in the fall or winter. And he’s honing a few song ideas as well.
“With Calexico I think I grew with the band, and express myself more in different ways, he says. “This is one of the ways – vocally through writing my own music. Joey Burns has been a big inspiration, as well as the rest of the guys. But he’s really pushed me to write my own music and write my own songs.”