Freddy Gonzalez photo by Daniel Sheehan
BY PAUL RAUCH
In the Seattle jazz community, we have often lamented the departure of our best young jazz musicians for New York and elsewhere — them not seeing the opportunity to advance their careers here. What is less discussed is the story of those musicians who see Seattle as a destination, much like many of us outside of the music profession. Trombonist Freddy Fuego is one of those musicians, arriving here with his girlfriend and a degree in film scoring. They saw a city where they could achieve a viable work/life balance, where one day could center around a gig, the next around a hike in the Cascades, or some time along the shoreline of the Salish Sea. It somehow rose above the vastness and intense work ethic of New York City.
Freddy “Fuego” Gonzalez grew up in Harlem and didn’t take up music seriously until he was thirteen years old. Playing the trombone soon became a passion, even as he arrived at Fordham University as a pre-law student. He grew up in a musical family whose direction in music centered on the church. His dad played saxophone, while his uncle was a backup singer who worked with Celia Cruz among others. Family activities included drum circles and traditional Puerto Rican parrandas.
Gonzalez soon found himself busy enough with music to warrant leaving Fordham for the Berklee College of Music to study trombone, composition, and ultimately, film scoring. Though grateful for the experience, the high cost of the school drove him out into professional pursuits, performing multiple genres including hip hop, funk, and jazz. He eventually wandered back to New York to attend The New School, and later on to the Berklee campus in Valencia, Spain to complete a degree in film scoring. This was an achievement that included writing for, and recording with, a fifty-one-piece orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London. He remained in Spain for a spell after graduation to perform with Spanish pop superstar, Alejandro Sanz.
With his wide-ranging musical interests rooted in his Harlem upbringing, the question arises as to why the young Gonzalez would choose of all instruments, the trombone. Given its third-tier status beneath the trumpet and saxophone in small ensemble jazz and Latin music, the instrument still somehow found its way into his hands. “I really think the instrument chooses you,” he remarks candidly.
Trombone represented an expressive jumping off point for Gonzalez, perfectly conceived for what he had in mind musically. “It allowed me to have my own voice. Nobody else in the family played the trombone,” he says. His shift in direction from Fordham to Berklee was a decision to speak an entirely different jazz language professionally, bebop to be more specific. Whether a trombonist in the lineage of the great J.J. Johnson as modern players typically are or a wandering spirit like the great Julian Priester, the language is the same. But unlike the saxophone, there are no keys to press, no octave key to employ. Many see the slide as a technical disadvantage in playing fast runs often utilized in the bebop idiom.
“It’s probably the most analog instrument there is — no keys, no octave key. The trombone wasn’t built for the bebop language, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it, and that it doesn’t sound good,” observes Gonzalez. His sound is clearly impacted by the J.J. legacy, and by modernists such as Robin Eubanks, yet there is a contingent nature to sound and approach that is pure, well, fuego. “They say we’re climbing on the shoulders of giants. I try to take all of that and try to create something new. I have a sound, I have a timbre,” he cites.
Gonzalez carries his trademark sound whether playing voluminously on a high-energy piece or playing lyrically on a ballad with a warmth and melancholy more befitting a great trumpeter. There is nothing guarded emotionally, no fear of vulnerability. “You can play the right notes and the right rhythm, but the idea is to make the audience and fellow performers feel something, to tell a story,” he says.
A focus on composing orchestral pieces for film is what initially brought Gonzalez to the Seattle area in the fall of 2017. He took on an internship with Ron Jones in nearby Stanwood, diving into the composer’s diverse knowledge gleaned from wide-ranging projects such as Family Guy, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and DuckTales. He assisted in setting up sessions and scored films with Jones, in the process meeting Seattle jazz musicians Nate Omdal, Matt Jorgensen, Brian Kirk, and others. His connectivity with the Seattle scene thus began.
He settled with his girlfriend in the Emerald City, found work, and was married here. In November, they welcomed a newborn daughter into the fold. Life seemed to have come full circle with his daughter’s arrival and that life was here in Seattle.
Gonzalez’s view on music moving forward is steeped in community. His vision is a more inclusive community that attracts listeners that are fully engaged in the music. The passive nature of a multi-tasking younger generation is something he sees as needing address. Even while filling arenas for shows, today’s listener is wandering and distracted. “I don’t want people to shut off their brains when they’re listening to music,” says the trombonist, “I wonder if we can create more of an inclusive community that attracts listeners that do want something new and want to be curious, that are open to abstract art and don’t want to be catered to.”
The story of Freddy Fuego is still in a phase of gathering energy and direction. His arrival here was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, making the gathering of musical acquaintances difficult. He began teaching at Seattle JazzED and rehearsing a funk-style big band at Seattle Drum School. The band allows him to utilize his whole musical skill set, from composing and arranging to precision trombone work, and from funk to jazz to Afro-beat. “The whole idea is to put together this band that is not bound by genre or instrumentation — it’s all connected. Within the structure, you have these amazing moments that can’t be written,” he explains.
On a recent Thursday evening, Gonzalez worked his way through a set at the new Central District hang, Métier Brewing. The playing was technically masterful, ultimately melodic but most importantly, thick with a pure and free vibe. For those in the room as immersed in the sound as Fuego himself, the performance seemed to foretell the possibilities of what is to come from the trombonist down the road. After all, the acquaintance with Seattle has in many ways just begun to unfold.