Open Hands w/Justo Almario

“If we are a drop of water and we try to get to the ocean as only an individual drop, we will surely evaporate along the way. To arrive at the ocean, you must go as a river” Thich Nhat Hanh

With utter gratitude I thank my “Jazz on the Sacred Side” family, especially Nailah for stepping in for me on Palm Sunday (while I was in India) to host the remarkable Open Hands band. I hear the show was out of this world!!!! I love this photo of Justo and Abe with Nailah in front of our spiritual ancestor, Art Blakey, in one of my favorite paintings in the current Jazz Bakery space in the Helms Bakery building. As you know Ruth Price has announced that May will be the final month for the Bakery in that space, and I stand in profound thanks for all the joy that space has held over the last 15+ years.

WE WILL HAVE OUR FINAL “COME SUNDAY: JAZZ ON THE SACRED SIDE SHOW SUNDAY MAY 3 @ 3PM (jazzbakery.org) FEATURING BASSIST EXTRAORDINARE, ROBERTO MIRANDA, WITH JAMES NEWTON AND SONSHIP THEUS AND MORE…!!!

Here are the notes I put together from a beautiful conversation I had with Mr. Almario before leaving the country. Again I want to thank all my jazz comrades, including January’s Sacred Side feature, Eric Reed for coming through for the Open Hands show…while journeying through India reading Thich Nhat Hanh, I felt a special resonance hearing him speak about moving toward peace in community…it’s so clear I’m not on this interfaith sacred jazz journey by myself…we go as a river, a deep, deep river.

Gratitude for Open Hands and Mr. Almario…The poet in me could not be more thrilled that a band called “Open Hands” is performing on this special “Palm” Sunday, Come Sunday. Nailah and I drove out to the Valley for the record release party for Justo’s latest and greatest collaboration, Open Hands, a couple weeks before the Palm Sunday gig, and the place was packed. We had to take turns between the ONE empty chair near the sublime Bill Maxwell, and a few empty inches of bar to lean on at the back of the club…and you need something to lean on when you listen to these brothers, because you will fall out. You will also dance, you will call and respond, and if you’re lucky, Justo will lead you in the shoulder roll-rhumba-amen. You heard me right. Now I’ve heard Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel say when he marched with Dr. King in Selma, that he felt as if “we were praying with our feet.” Justo had us praying with our shoulders. A few times I’d watch Nailah raise her hand to bear witness to the grace and groove before us and that struck me too…no disrespect to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, but I’d like to take a moment to lift up the power, the black brown beige all color -power, all faith tradition power of the open hand salute. What makes us lift our hands like that? Is it the same impulse in us now that those hungry for healing folks in Jerusalem had when they raised those palm fronds and shouted Hosanna so many centuries ago? Justo and Abraham, Greg and Bill had us shouting and will surely have you shouting, Hallelujah! Have mercy!…and maybe even, “Stop the madness…” as the playing got so complex, yet so funky and uplifting I lost all sense of space and time…ask Nailah, I couldn’t find my car afterward and I swear I was only high off the power of those Open Hands.

When I spoke with Mr. Almario on phone about his own Sacred Side/knee conversations, he shared that he was blessed with many musical fathers in Colombia who instilled his love of Afro-Caribbean music. He reminded me in the 50’s in his small town there was no electricity, no radio or tv, so his experience of music was always in community, on the street, in people’s homes. When he first had the opportunity in his teens to listen to Jazz on vinyl, hearing Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley changed everything. For Justo, Charlie Parker sounded like “a bird set free from a cage…it touched my heart.” And just like that, Justo was off to the U.S…first Boston to attend the Berklee school of music, then later to NYC when Mongo Santamaria invited him to join and ultimately become musical director of his band.Justo thrived on the city, and I have this sudden urge to put on my Salsa heels just listening to him riff about this era when on any given night he might sub for Tito Puente’s band or Eddie Palmieri’s band if he wasn’t already working a gig with Mongo. Or there were nights, like the unforgettable summer night in 1972, when after an early set with Mongo, Justo took the A Train to Lincoln Center to listen to guitar legend Andres Segovia, then raced back downtown to the Village Vanguard to catch, yes, Thelonious Monk. Justo rattles off the names of Monk’s sidemen that night like it was last night not 30+ years ago. What tickled Justo most was that on one of the hottest nights that summer, Monk stumbled down the stairs of the Vanguard, wearing a thick wool overcoat and Russian hat…”Didn’t talk to anyone…sits at the piano and plays ‘Off Minor’” laughs, “only in New York!” Justo’s exhilaration when telling the story segues to his celebration of the arts in general…”It’s the best thing in life, the influence it’s had throughout history!”

While Justo could easily brag about the superstars he would go on to work with (okay I’ll brag for him…just a little bit…from Freddie Hubbard, Roy Ayers and Cachao to Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah and Chaka Khan!), he would rather talk about the deepening of his Christian faith, his “very conscious awakening” in 1981. He tells me from that point to today, he experiences music as a prayer. And for people coming to listen to him play–people he knows may be going through hard times–Justo prays that his music will offer a sanctuary, where the listener might experience “joy, rejoicing, love, healing where healing may be needed.” He said he hopes his music will “refresh the soul of the listener.” He speaks so sweetly about the way Duke Ellington through “Come Sunday” and John Coltrane through “A Love Supreme” spoke their prayers, and then he reminds me of the line from Coltrane’s sacred liner notes, “Let us sing all songs to God, to whom all praise is due.” Thank you, God. Serious shoulder roll Amen.

At the end of our conversation Justo asked me if it would be okay instead of bringing his own quartet to the Sacred Side show to bring the band he just recorded a new CD with…”Open Hands.” On faith I say yes, not knowing then I was basically saying “yes” to the jazz/blues/gospel masters equivalent to the Four Tenors: Abraham Laboriel, Greg Mathieson and Bill Maxwell. While time did not allow me once we made the change to interview all the guys, I am still full up from hearing them play/pray last weekend in the valley. These are powerful and vulnerable times…in the Christian tradition this Sunday, April 5th marks the beginning of Holy Week, beginning with these waves of open hands and palms, to Good Friday, to the glory of Easter morning. For me this music, this season, this conversation with Justo reminds me to walk this journey with open hands, so I too might receive, embrace all the joy, rejoicing, love and healing where healing may be needed.

Love and deep bows of Namaste to you all from India.
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Please enjoy the full bios of all of the Open Hands legends at openhandsmusic.net

2 Responses to “Open Hands w/Justo Almario”

  1. People always say that Pa Abraham Laboriel is dead,is it truth? And why did he have to leave intergrity music. I love him so much.

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