Mondays with Morgan: Garrett Saracho (‘En Medio’ repress out now)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with keyboardist and composer Garrett Saracho, whose 1973 debut album, En Medio, has been repressed for its 50th anniversary via Impulse!/UMe. 

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A link to purchase the album, and another providing info on a free Los Angeles concert on July 15, where Saracho will perform En Medio in full, are available at the bottom of this article.

En Medio album cover. Face of Native American hovering in a brown background with colourful bordering

Garrett Saracho calls himself “a snail walking on a razor’s edge”. That’s without question.

Despite contemporaneous press adulation, his 1973 debut album, En Medio, fell through the cracks – due to a perfect storm of label turnover, budgetary woes and an oil embargo in the Middle East. But against the odds, 50 years later, the Chicano jazz-funk jewel has taken on a second life.

Like Saracho’s career trajectory, En Medio is an incremental journey on a thin line: En Medio’s patiently unfolding second track, “Happy, Sad”, seems to balance on the head of a pin, wavering between lugubriousness and jubilation.

Saracho is readying his first live performance in five decades. On 15 July, he and a small ensemble will perform En Medio in its entirety, for the first time ever, at the California Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, as part of Grand Performances’ free outdoor concert series.

The first set will consist of En Medio, while the second is an elaborate stage show Saracho began cooking up in 1977

Saracho’s legacy is commensurately in film; after leaving music, he worked in that industry for 16 years. Afterwards, he spent 25 years in the camp of Redbone, the Indigenous rock band in which his cousins played; you may remember them from their hit “Come and Get Your Love”.

“I’ve kind of led a tale of two lives,” Saracho tells LondonJazz News, “because I consider myself a composer, filmmaker and storyteller.” (He’s also promoting two albums; in 2022, he collaborated with DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and multi-instrumentalist/composer Adrian Younge on Garrett Saracho JID015, an entry in the Jazz Is Dead series.)

Read on for a decades-spanning interview with Saracho about the making of En Medio, his immersion in boxing and jazz, his captivating family story, and his upcoming return to the stage.

Garrett Saracho wearing a stripey colourful shirt, hat and smiling at the camera
Garrett Saracho. Photo Credit: Ava Saracho

LondonJazz News: You’ve mentioned that this concert is dedicated to your family. Tell me about your early life.

Garrett Saracho: My father used to always take me to the places where he grew up – where he used to shine shoes and sell newspapers. My father became a great designer. He was a decorated soldier – Purple Heart, Bronze Star, decorated Anzio.

My uncle – his brother – trained three world boxing champions. So, my upbringing was pretty much in a Latin jazz vein, with boxing and film. That’s how I got into film: because I was [exposed to it] very young. 

I remember going, one time, to the soundstage, and I met Robert Wise, who was directing a young Paul Newman in a [1956] film called Somebody Up There Likes Me. I was about three or four years old. My uncle’s fighter was doing the choreographed boxing scene with Paul Newman.

My uncle used to tell me, “Keep your mouth shut, keep your eyes open, and watch what’s happening.” I’d sit there and watch all these bigshots. The people I met in the gym were [awestruck chuckle] incredible. We’re talking people from Cleveland, St. Louis, Detroit, and New York, so you can imagine the type of people I was meeting in the boxing world.

Boxing, jazz – I think it was an incentive for me to continue my growth process and develop into who I am today. I had a very unique, eclectic upbringing.

LJN: Which instrumentalists got you going early on?

GS: Herbie Baker Jr. was my mentor. He was a younger cat, and he was my arranger. He helped me with the music; I got this music through the musicians Herbie had put together. I was playing vibes. 

In a year and a half, two years, I was able to accomplish winning the Frank Sinatra Award scholarship at UCLA. They called me the first Latino Native to win the award at UCLA.

As I grew up – after Herbie passed on – I started playing piano. [One influence] I had was Herbie Hancock; I got a chance to know and meet Herbie, and was hanging out with him. He introduced me to Wayne Shorter, and I just loved the guy, man. I miss him so much.

I was in the studio with Ed Michel when I was recording En Medio, and next door was Keith Jarrett. I hung around with him for a little bit; we talked a lot about the business and what was happening. 

Walter Bishop Jr., who was the keyboardist with Charlie Parker – I took a little harmony theory with him. Joe Zawinul; I was hanging out with Wayne, so I was with Joe. Jaco Pastorius, who I was very close with. 

McCoy Tyner, who I consider maybe the greatest pianist in the world. Never got a chance to really meet him; I just shook his hand. And of course, the ultimate, to me, was Miles Davis.

LJN: What else do you remember about the making of En Medio?

GS: [Chuckles] I remember it took me 16 hours to record the album, including the mix. They only gave me that much to work with. 

It’s like you being in your [small home office] you’re in right now, and you’ve got your kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living room in there, if you can imagine what that’s like. 

I was fortunate to have a great producer who turned me on to another producer, Ed Michel. We were able to cut the music in 12 hours and mix it in four.

LJN: What are your memories of Ed Michel? He’s a huge name in the jazz world.

GS: Ed Michel was a great man, a brilliant man. He was out there, man. 

When I took him to East L.A. to take the pictures with the band – which are some of the pictures on the album – they’re all from neighbourhoods that most people don’t want to go to at nighttime. It’s on the Eastside, and it’s kind of rough there. But he was a trooper, and he really wanted to see where my musical roots and everything started.

These were the areas that I wanted to talk about, because I wanted to pay homage to my culture and my people, man. That’s very important to me. This concert is about my family. It’s not so much about me. My family is paramount, and the people from Los Angeles – the original Los Angelenos.

LJN: Can you talk about your history with Redbone? Classic, undersung band.

GS: I was the historian, archivist, keyboardist, and handled a lot of the video production and stuff with the guys. 

I learned a lot. I was the younger one – the younger brat, so to speak. They always used to consider me kind of a freak, because I played jazz and these guys were just playing sevenths, major chords – diminished, maybe a little augmented. But I was playing 13ths, augmented ninths, flat fifths.

It wasn’t until later that they realised that I had not only potential, but was creative in a very visual way in what I wanted to do with the band. I was never able to accomplish it, but from a youngster growing up, I learned a lot about the business through my family. They taught me an awful lot.

One thing I’ll always remember my uncle used to tell me was: “Just remember, everybody loves a winner. When you’re a winner, everybody wants to be around you.” 

For me, it was a hell of a vision – a hell of a ride with them. Because I learned so much. I learned the trickery; I learned how people are in the business. How the group went up and down.

LJN: How does it feel to be performing En Medio in sequence for the first time?

GS: I feel like Rip Van Winkle. When my manager, Wolfgang [Mowrey], told me that he loved my music and everybody loves it, I said, “Why that music? Why? I’ve got new music material. That was done many, many, many, many years ago.”

I can’t believe that 50 years later, they’re asking me to play this music again. I think it’s a new generation of people, and people love the music. They love what I have to say, because I’ve had a very tumultuous endeavour with my music. 

Now, here I am playing this music all over again, along with some great, talented musicians I’m working with.

LJN: Tell me about them.

GS: The saxophone player, Cochemea Gastelum, has played with Lady Gaga, Madonna and Amy Winehouse. I’m playing keyboards. I’ve got a great singer named Mark Purdo; he sings with War. I’ve got Lee Wilson on drums; he’s played in Steppenwolf, War and Redbone. 

I’ve got [bassist] Jervonny Collier, who’s doing a tour right now with Bruce Hornsby. Melena has played with Pink Floyd and Stevie Wonder – great conga player. I’m just putting everything together, and we’ve been rehearsing and everything.

We’re getting ready for this show on the 15th in front of downtown Los Angeles. It’s a very special moment for me – one of the best concerts I’m looking forward to playing – because it’s right in front of City Hall, right down the street from where my family was: Chavez Ravine, Dodger Stadium.

So, it’s a very momentous, interesting concert [in which] I’m being featured, and I got the opportunity to dedicate the music to my family, and for the forgotten people from Chavez Ravine.

I’m doing a medley for the first show, and I’ve got a musical revue that I’m doing for the second show – the music from my musical play Boys From North Broadway. It’s going to be something they have not seen before. And it’s going to blow their minds, man.

Jazz is Dead performance flyer featuring album cover. All in black and white

LJN: Can you offer any teasers?

GS: Basically, all the things I told you about my family and growing up, because it’s a 1940s boxing musical. [It involves] war exploits. It’s about two brothers. One goes to war, and one becomes a prizefighter. 

All the situations that were going on in Los Angeles in the early ‘40s [play into it] – the Zoot Suit Riots, the training up at Camp Roberts, all the barracks situations. 

At the time, a lot of Native American and Mexican people were kind of put down, and when they got into the war, in boot camp, there were a lot of fights with the people from other cultures – particularly Oklahoma and Arkansas. So, there was a lot of prejudice and fighting in the barracks.

LJN: Let’s end on boxing. Which fighter do you relate to the most?

GS: I would say, pound for pound, Roberto Durán. Without question. 

Maybe, one day, if I’m successful in this endeavour that I’m working on with North Broadway, I think I would like to write his life story. I read some articles about him in Sports Illustrated, and he was just a mind-blower, man. He started as a lightweight, and he went all the way up to cruiserweight. How many fighters at his size can go up that many weight classes?

LINKS: Listen to En Medio

Garrett Saracho’s Jazz Is Dead page

Garrett Saracho’s Bandcamp page

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