I was taking a break from a private jazz gig at the De Young Museum in San Francisco when the text messages began flowing. I couldn’t help whooping with pleasure, even though I was standing in an art gallery being watched by a guard. Pacific Mambo Orchestra had done it: We were nominated for best tropical latin album in the 56th Grammy Awards! Band members, friends and family began texting congratulations.
So how did PMO have this banner year, complete with signing to Columbia Artist Management for a first-class tour and ending with our first Grammy nomination, putting the unknown indie label Tumalan Music/Steffrecords in the running against the behemoth SONY LATIN?
We had to laugh when someone said it was all marketing. What marketing?! Facebook? Nah. Here’s why PMO has gotten so much done in a mere three years.
1. Have a solid concept. Simply put, a 19-piece latin big band is a clear, memorable idea. There is a market for salsa dance music in the Bay Area. Thus, two great worlds are joined: Jazz and salsa dance.
2. Choose a memorable name. Certainly doesn’t hurt!
3. Gig regularly. PMO started out playing every Monday night at Cafe Cocomo. We were lucky to make $20 each. The dance floor was often nearly empty. We kept playing.
4. Hire the best and let them play. The orchestra was composed of top professional jazz players in the Bay Area. Good musicians will play when the music is good, even if the pay is (initially) bad. Do not abuse this concept, nor too readily assume it applies to your own music. Monday nights are also an off night for many musicians. The gig was invigorating and an enjoyable hang.
5. Have fun. Playing onstage is one of the great pleasures for professional gigging musicians. Audiences can tell when you are having fun. That’s what we heard all across America on tour: You’re having so much fun!
6. Like each other. We really respect and admire one another. That, too, comes across to audiences.
7. Put on a show. One thing we all loved about touring to performing arts centers was the opportunity to watch our show coalesce into a really exciting series of musical moments, surprises and emotional shifts from elation to contemplation to competition (as in the closing piano battle).
8. Have great leaders. I have never been in a band with two leaders, but I have to believe that this partnership has been key. Christian Tumalan and Steffen Kuehn balance each other out amazingly well, and I have to say the Mexican-German work ethic is unbelievable. Stuff gets done. Connections are made and followed through on. Meetings happen. Projects are completed.
9. Know how to compose, arrange and record. Perhaps an advantage of the Bay Area scene is how many people are genuinely skilled at creating music, from concept to finished product. Christian is a crack producer and engineer, on top of his pianistic pyrotechnics. Steffen can not only blow your socks off with the trumpet, he is an accomplished producer, composer and label owner. Mike Rinta’s arrangements are funky and fun, and Aaron Lington can write like nobody’s business — and with good taste!
10. Believe. Ultimately, everyone on tour had anywhere from 10 to 30 years of experience as a gigging musician. We’ve been in the trenches. We’ve led bands. We know how hard it is to keep the business going while never losing sight of the craft. We love music, and we simply kept our belief going all along, never tearing the vision of PMO down or questioning why. On tour, we constantly talked about how this had happened, and why, and what were the ingredients that made it possible. Of course, we can’t ever know all the reasons why this band is doing well where others we’ve been in haven’t made such strides in three years. Maybe 10% is luck? But 90% is definitely work, focus, consistency … and contagious belief that made everyone connected to the band contribute just a little bit more to its success.
Hats off to everyone on the record! The Grammy nominees are:
Pete Cornell, Tony Peebles, Doug Rowan, Evan Francis, Ben Torres, Mike Rinta, Jeff Cressman, Jamie Dubberly, Mara Fox, Ryan Black, Derek James, Niel Levonius, Jeff Lewis, Jon Ruff, Steffen Kuehn, Louis Fasman, Scott Englebright, Omar Ledezma Jr., Javier Cabanillas, Braulio Barrera, Alexa Morales, Kenny Washington Jr, Willie Torres, Christian Tumalan, Jorge Pomar, Abo Gumroyan, Christian Pepin , Karl Perazzo, Tommy Igoe, Tom Poole, Larry Lunetta, Henry Hung, Armando Cordoba, Carlos Cascante, Ray Obiedo, Camilo Landau