Javier Santiago: Jazz, hip-hop, and 'Verses Vol. 2'

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Javier Santiago (Jack Davis (Loonar City))
Javier Santiago on how the pandemic has changed his career
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  • Javier Santiago - "Dream (feat. Taylor Johnson)" 03:40

During The Current's spring member drive, we're highlighting eight Minnesota artists – from newcomers to veterans – with new music you need to know. Javier Santiago is a 31-year-old pianist and composer with Minnesota roots, a California ZIP code, and an upcoming album called "Verses Vol. 2."

I'm Javier Santiago. I grew up in Minneapolis, and I started playing piano when I was, like, five. I started playing professionally when I was in high school, around the Twin Cities, and I went to college at the Brubeck Institute in California, and then went to The New School in New York City. I stayed in New York City for about five and a half years. Moved back home for two years, and then moved out to the Bay about three years ago. Throughout that whole time, I've been playing gigs and making my own music. Composing and making beats, playing in different bands, and collaborating with different artists from New York City, Minneapolis, and the Bay Area.

My parents were musicians – my dad's a drummer, my mother's a singer. They were really into jazz music and, like, funk, R&B, and classic rock, so that music was around the house. But I was also checking out the music of my generation, like hip-hop, punk rock, and pop. And when I was in high school, I started to get really deep into jazz: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis...all the usual names. John Coltrane. And the golden age of the boom-bap sort of hip-hop, like, Native Tongues and the Soulquarians, and D'Angelo and neo-soul. The Roots, Jill Scott. From then on, it was just a mixture of everything, pretty much.

I knew a lot of musicians in the Twin Cities jazz scene, specifically because of my parents. But then also, I went to South High School and Watershed High School, and my friend Jordan Hamilton introduced me to Tufawon and Dane Sehaj. Through them, I met Greg Grease and DJ Just Nine, and all the guys in astralblak. Brandon from Big Quarters got me started on beatmaking, and I met Medium Zach through him. These are people that I love dearly. I really felt like I belonged to two artistic communities – both hip-hop and jazz.

Before the pandemic, I was playing every night in the Bay. Just as a gigging pianist, playing at bars and jazz clubs and private events. The best part of my job is being able to play every day with people. And play for people. Which, of course, I miss that. The downside is sometimes it's a little exhausting. It's a lot of running around, and I'm always on my phone, texting, emailing. It's all DIY. Tax time is always crazy. I always file for an extension, without fail. [laughs]

This month, I put out a single called "Dream" with Taylor Johnson [formerly of astralblak], and it's going to be on an upcoming project called "Verses Vol. 2," which comes out Feb. 19. Taylor is one of my favorite songwriters and musicians, and this is some of our best work. As an artist, I'm trying to make good music. I try to make it as honest as possible. I don't need to be super famous – I'm just happy to play for people that are really listening and understanding what I'm trying to do.

Once people get vaccinated, I would love to travel. I would love to play for people and see the world while sharing my gifts and my art. But also, just being around people I love and collaborating with them – that's very achievable, and it's very much a reality right now. I live with a friend of mine named Giulio Xavier, and he's a great bassist. We've been playing music for the past three years, like every day. And even long-distance, I can send something to someone like Taylor, and we can still collaborate. So that's really what it's all about for me: just having the space and time to be creative, and not having to worry too much about making a living or other stressors.

As told to Cecilia Johnson. Audio clips by Cecilia Johnson.

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