In offering up their debut albums, many jazz musicians tend to embark on a safe, easy road, rarely breaking the standard norms and adhering cautiously to a straight-ahead, standards-packed pathway. Others may opt to travel down a brash and outlandish highway of tricky twists and turns, with topsy-turvy gestures that serve merely to elicit flash and dazzle. But then there are the forward-looking artists who feel free to passionately express themselves in a new way that’s all about integrity and originality.
This makes the perfect introduction to the talented newcomer Mauricio Morales, the Mexico City-born, Los Angeles-based bassist/composer/arranger who delivers his compelling first outing, Luna, on Outside in Music. What makes the album so distinctive is his thematic approach in an unorthodox setting, enlisting a string quartet to color and texture the seven reflective and cinematic originals.
“Luna is a tribute to childhood,” Morales says. “Every song depicts a different layer of my own growth. Conceptually I am attempting to tell a story through my music. Each piece represents a chapter in the journey that Luna is meant to be.”
Many of the songs spring from natural elements, ranging in inspiration from the beauty of the moon to the ravages of an earthquake. They are journey-like episodes with pockets of tension juxtaposed with joy. The overarching takeaway is that Luna, he says, “represents the pursuit of a childlike peace of mind and excitement about life.”
Picking up the bass when he was 14, Morales played pop and heavy rock in Mexico City, but was also inspired by all kinds of music, including sounds coming from video games, film and TV. “I was a sponge,” he says, “for any kind of art that had an impact on me.” As he went deeper into learning how to play his instrument, he realized he would be heading into a different musical direction. “I came to understand over the course of time how cathartic and liberating it was to recognize the freedom that improvised music represented,” he says. “That was the moment of realization for me, and I knew I wanted to play jazz.”
His plan was to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. While still in high school, he attended two summer programs there, in 2009 and 2010. He stayed in Mexico for another couple of years to work on his craft, then went to Berklee full-time. He worked with celebrated faculty including George Garzone and Tia Fuller, but it was educator Hal Cook who mentored Morales throughout his tenure there. Morales shared the stage with several artists connected to Berklee, including being a member of a big band in Boston for a show featuring the music of Ambrose Akinmusire. In 2015, he also played the bass chair in an exclusive big band performance titled BCJO at the Newport Jazz Festival featuring Sean Jones who at the time was a new member of the SF Jazz Collective.
Living in Los Angeles since 2019, Morales began to think about Luna and initially brought together three close friends since college: pianist Aga Derlak, trumpeter Aidan Lombard and harmonica player Roni Eytan. “I knew violinist Megan Shung from working with her on different projects,” he says. “I was relatively new in L.A. so I didn’t know a lot of people, especially string players. I wanted to do something different, the music was already written and arranged, and she instinctively pointed me in the right direction. They create such a different texture for the music that is perfect. The collective energy and focus from all musicians involved is what created a perfect outcome.”
Morales opens the album with the title track that has groove authority thanks to the leader’s electric bass and drum command from Gene Coye (one of three drummers on the album due to conflicting touring engagements) and the lush strings that float in the tide. It is based on the Mexican tradition of El Día de los Reyes Magos, the holy Epiphany day of January 6 when gifts are given in remembrance of the three kings who came to baby Jesus in Bethlehem bearing gifts. Part of the Mexican celebration is sending letters skyward in helium balloons requesting certain gifts. “Our family always celebrated this time-honored tradition, but I was three when I first celebrated it, and my mom filled out the gift card for my balloon,” Morales says. “She asked me what I wanted, and I said the moon. The song represents the innocence of a kid who is so unaware. I wanted to make the music sound magical and special.”
Beginning slowly, “The Forest” sways with strings and breaks into lyrical stretches with a bold rhythmic solo by Roni Eytan. “This is really a simple song,” Morales explains. “My idea was to write a piece about the hero’s journey, which is a common template in every form of storytelling that involves a hero that goes on an adventure and is successful in beating whatever challenges are put in front of him and comes home transformed. The whole idea is about fantasy.”
The most moving piece of the album is the twisting and dancing, urgent and ultimately joyful “Terremoto,” that is driven by Morales coming to grips with the horrendous earthquake that destroyed parts of Mexico City on September 19, 2017. “It was a hard moment, I wanted to be home and support” he says. “I was in school in Boston and seeing lots of buildings tear apart and numerous lives destroyed. But what was remarkable was how people came together to help each other. It was a crazy and tense moment. That’s why I wrote a pretty and simple melody, underscored by the intensity of the rhythm section meant to represent the contrast between chaos and beauty. I was so moved by my native city coming together in dealing with tragedy and showing so much resilience amongst the chaos that surrounded them.”
Teeming with ecstatic brio and cinematic strings, “Colibri” exudes drama and ebullience in the midst of havoc. “Colibri is the hummingbird as a symbol for anxiety, yet so tiny with wings that race at a rate of a thousand times per minute,” Morales says. “This is not about the bird, but the journey of anxiety throughout our own lives and the healing of society. The end of the piece is meant to represent anxiety at its peak.”
“The Glass Door” is a reflective tribute to pianist Robert Glasper (“I don’t know him, but the way he perceives harmony and melody informs the way I approach music…he opened doors to me”); the joyful and grieving “Relojito” is a look back at a grandfather who passed away (“it’s how mortality is a part of life”); and the end number, “Garden of Hope” with a riveting electric guitar rock solo is a song about redemption (“There is hope no matter what mistakes you make”).
Luna soars musically into another sphere of delightful sonics while also giving Morales free reign to tell his story in a musically poetic manner, with impressive arrangements and a band that supports his vision. It’s an auspicious beginning to a top-tier career.