The latest release from the mighty Daptone Records label is saxophonist Cochemea Gastelum's All My Relations. It's a ten track project that was recorded through collective writing sessions with an ensemble cast of drummers and percussion players whose funky, indigenous-inspired rhythms anchor the album.
Speaking from his home in Woodstock, New York, we asked Cochemea about being influenced by Native American sax player Jim Pepper, the way imagery prompts his songwriting, and how listening to records on Sharon Jones’s tour bus kickstarted the making of All My Relations.
When did you have the idea to start writing All My Relations?
The seed of the idea started during the last year of touring with Sharon Jones. We used to listen to a lot of records in the bus and I was sitting there with [Daptone’s] Gabe [Roth] and he just said, “We should make a record.” We both wanted to do something that had a lot of drums. In the beginning, the idea was to have a preponderance of melodies through the drums. From there, it was all in the casting.
So the album was always intended to be very drum-based?
Yeah, we were listening to this record called Afro Temple by Sabu Martinez — who played with Art Blakey and all these jazz artists — and it was just all these percussion players and then there’s this sax wailing and we just kinda liked that vibe. Then as it progressed we added more instruments.
What’s this collective writing process you used to record the album?
We thought, why don’t we get everyone together over a 24-hour period, improvise, and see what happens? We didn’t have anything written. Once the drummers started playing, we felt something in the room. We’ve all played with each other over the years so it’s a very familiar setting, really like family, so there’s a deep level of trust there to begin with. The drummers would play these rhythms, I’d lay down a melody, then once something started to take form and shape, we’d hammer out a melody and record it and move onto the next thing. That was the first session. We’d just grab it and record it!
How do you describe that moment when a song takes shape?
It’s sort of like an intuitive knowing, a feeling. You look around the room and everyone’s feeling this same thing, like this wave you all start to ride together.
You’ve described the song “Sonora” as “a memory that is imagined from a time and place I’ve never been.” What do you mean by that?
“Sonora” is the ancestral homeland of my ancestors. I use imagery a lot when I write: I’d just imagined this place which in a way was informed by my longing for that homeland that’s imagined and what I have gathered from studying and reading, and also just trying to tap into a feeling. It’s almost like a mythical place but it’s like tapping into a memory of somewhere I have not been: I imagine walking down these little streets through a village.
The song is followed by “Los Muertos,” which is kinda like an ambient interlude on the album.
Yeah, we were just recording a lot of stuff and ended up recording a few of these sort of interludes and that was one of them. There’s something about it that feels kind of haunting to me and made me think of spirits and the dead ones. I thought about the ancestors and the spirit realm and that’s the imagery that came to me. Sandwiched between “Sonora” and the tune after, “Mescalero,” which has a Mexican rhythm, it seemed to fit into the narrative of my ancestors and thinking about spirits.
What’s the significance of ending the album with “Song Of Happiness”?
There’s a 45 of “Song Of Happiness” which I’d recorded in my home studio and I played all the instruments and it’s based on a Navajo melody. I was heavily influenced by this Native saxophone player called Jim Pepper and he’d take a lot of Native melodies and sort of combine them with American jazz music or even gospel. To me the song has a hopeful tone while also feeling like going through a journey and looking towards a happy future — it felt like a good way to end this journey.
Cochemea, All my Relations (Daptone Records)