BGJI Students Experiment with Innovative Instrumentation

Joshua Breeden
March 6, 2015
Berklee student harpist Charles Overton
Berklee student harmonica player Roni Avraham Eytan
Berklee student cuatro player Carlos David Capacho Hurtado

Jazz is a boundless form—an ever-expanding musical plane hospitable to any collection of notes or tool of expression.      

The Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI) performance program, a focused area of study at Berklee, is composed of student musicians from across the globe. 

Each artist wields his or her own unique sonic vocabulary, and often, instruments that are unusual in the scope of jazz; the result is an organic testing of the periphery of the genre.

“We encourage artists with nontraditional instruments to apply,” says Marco Pignataro, BGJI’s managing director. “We want different sounds and textures because jazz is about blending different cultures. It’s very hard to define jazz as a style but it’s very easy to define it as a spirit: it’s the spirit of community, of fusion, of connecting—not disconnecting.”

A New Twist for Harp

BGJI student Charles Overton began playing the harp in elementary school. Overton grew up listening to classical music and trained using the Suzuki method.

The young musician shifted from a strictly classical course—the stylistic path trod by most harpists—after discovering Monika Stadler, a renowned Austrian harpist and composer known for her innovative, eclectic playing style. Soon, Overton was incorporating elements of jazz and world music into his classical repertoire.

Now, as a member of the BGJI, Overton—a sixth-semester performance major—finds himself embracing the freewheeling, improvisational side of his bilateral musical persona.

“I’m still torn between classical music and jazz,” he says. “I love playing jazz. I really feel like I have a voice. I haven’t had the same opportunities in classical music—the opportunity to have an important voice. In jazz, the harp can be an integral part of the music.”

Lately, Overton has been sharpening his chops by studying jazz pianists/composers Keith Jarrett, Aaron Parks, and Herbie Hancock. Overton strives to carve out a meaningful place for his instrument inside an almost alien territory.

“A big trend in today’s music world is being different,” says Overton. “Jazz harp is a unique thing but I don’t want it to only be a niche or a gimmick.”

Drawn to Jazz in Jerusalem

For BGJI student Roni Eytan, playing the harmonica started as a low-cost pastime.

It wasn’t until Eytan explored the vibrant music culture of his home city of Jerusalem that he decided to take a more serious approach to playing. During his frequent trips to the city’s various live performance spaces, Eytan also discovered that he was attracted to jazz.

“I didn’t even know what it was but jazz caught me,” says Eytan, an eighth-semester student who’s majoring in performance and professional music. “There was something about the amazing amount of freedom involved.”

Watch Hear and Now perform Eytan's original song, 'Atonement Song"

Eytan began studying rhythm and blues-oriented harmonica players like Stevie Wonder—the instrument is most associated with American roots artists—along with jazz trailblazers such as Toots Thielemans. Eytan also developed a relationship with Swiss harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret.

“He influenced me musically and personally,” says Eytan. “I’m forever grateful.”

Despite his non-traditional instrument, Eytan fits in perfectly with his fellow musicians at the BGJI.

“I definitely feel like there’s an openness to different sounds, musical backgrounds, and instruments,” he says. “I feel completely welcome with the harmonica. I look at myself as just another horn player.”

Eytan also believes that the BGJI and its unique cohort have deepened his musical knowledge and widened his cultural awareness.

“This place is perfect for a person like myself who’s interested in different types of music and cultures,” he says. “I feel so fortunate to be a part of this family; we really inspire each other to push our instruments into new territory.”

Pushing the Boundaries of the Cuatro

Eytan’s classmate Carlos Capacho plays the cuatro, a four-string, Venezuelan instrument from the guitar family. Traditionally, cuatro players serve as rhythmic accompaniment for singers or other instrumentalists. Capacho, a sixth-semester student, wants to change that current reality.

Before arriving at Berklee in 2013, he’d had already developed a fruitful playing career in Venezuela. Originally from Ciudad Guayana, the musician moved to Caracas when he turned 18 to study at the Caracas Conservatory of Music. Eventually, the school decided to offer him a teaching position, as his unorthodox, melodic technique on the cuatro was essentially unheard of.

Watch Capacho and Eytan perform at Berklee:

While in Caracas, Capacho also expanded his musical palette, discovering rock, pop, and jazz via fellow musicians and the internet. 

“I couldn’t get a teacher, so I started using the internet and YouTube to learn this language,” says Capacho, who’s studying performance and jazz composition at Berklee. “I had the opportunity to see great musicians like John Scofield.”

Once at Berklee, Capacho began developing a formalized jazz vocabulary. 

“I started to see that this was another world,” he says. “Everything was new. I studied piano and guitar players, and started to transcribe different types of music like bebop and other forms of jazz for cuatro.”

Capacho continues to push the limits of his instrument and, by extension, the rich cultural heritage with which it’s normally associated.

He and one of his Berklee colleagues are developing the first jazz-oriented training guide for the cuatro.

Capacho has also begun experimenting with the electric cuatro, a project that began as a practical search for more effective concert amplification but has since transformed into a more imaginative quest.

“I’ve started to add pedals and different synthesizers,” says Capacho. “I’m almost creating a new language for this instrument.”

Overton, Eytan, and Capacho are most certainly treading new ground. And, while the prospect of jazz harp or electric cuatro might excite both musicians and lay music fans, the most important aspect of these innovative approaches must not be forgotten: the individual, artistic voice.

“The instrument is just a medium,” says Pignataro. “Here, it’s about your music. It’s not about your instrument. It’s about how you use your instrument to communicate.”