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Interview: Eric Oberstein

Special to The Chronicle / David Garten
Special to The Chronicle / David Garten

Eric Oberstein, Trinity '07, is the Associate Director at Duke Performances. Oberstein recently won a Latin GRAMMY award for Best Instrumental Album for producing Final Night at Birdland, from Arturo O’Farrill & the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra. Recess sat down with him to discuss his work at Duke and his success in the music world.

The Chronicle: To start off, can you briefly explain what you do at Duke?

Eric Oberstein: I am the associate director at Duke Performances. We are Duke’s professional Performing Arts Presenting Organization. I am kind of the utility player in the office: I manage and coordinate our artist residencies. So I oversee and plan all of the campus and community engagement our artists do when they come to town. That includes bringing them to Duke classes, organizing those public conversations, producing master classes...things like that. I also write grants in our office. I oversee budgeting and strategic planning and manage our student interns and work arts shows. So, wearing lots of different hats!

TC: What about outside of Duke Performances? How did you get involved with producing music?

EO: My background is as a musician. I play sax and drums. So, I am a Duke alum. I graduated in 2007. Long story short, I did Duke in New York as an undergrad my junior year and interned at Jazz at the Lincoln Center. The second resident orchestra there was the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, which is an 18-piece Latin jazz, big band ensemble directed by Arturo O’Farrill. Arturo is a pianist, composer, band leader and son of legendary Cuban composer and arranger Chico O’Farrill. So, Arturo was carrying on that legacy in New York.

That orchestra was at Jazz at the Lincoln Center when I was working there as an intern. When I graduated from Duke, the orchestra actually left Jazz at the Lincoln Center to start their own non-profit called the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance. It was fall of 2007. I was just newly minted with my Duke diploma, back home in New York, starting grad school. And they started a new residency at a venue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side called Symphony Space. I went to their very first show.

I was a big fan of theirs, so I filled out one of those little survey cards they put in programs, and then I flipped it over and wrote a small note to Arturo saying, “Hey, I’m a big fan of the orchestra. I interned at Jazz at the Lincoln Center. I’m in New York studying arts management and would love to help you out if you need any help with the non-profit.”

I didn’t hear from them, and then, finally, ten months later I got an email from Arturo’s wife. They had found my audience response card in their kitchen under a stack of papers and emailed me inviting me to their home asking if I wanted to help them out.

TC: Wow! That’s pretty crazy.

EO: Yeah! Never throw away those pieces of paper! It became very clear that we were going to do a lot of work together over the years.

My mom’s family came from Cuba after the Revolution when she was six, so I grew up around Cuban music, Latin music, Latin jazz, so this was kind of a dream opportunity for me. I started as Arturo’s Assistant Director. They had no staff at the time, and they had a small board of directors. So I started in that role, and once I finished grad school, I was hired as their first full-time staff member–as their first executive director–and basically managed that organization full time from 2010 to 2012.

I returned to Duke in October 2012 at Aaron Greenwald’s invitation. I was Aaron’s very first intern at Duke Performances, so he was a close friend and mentor. It was hard to turn down that invitation.

So, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance is a non-profit that I managed, and it–in addition to supporting the work of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra–is dedicated to Afro Latin Jazz performance, education, preservation at large. And I was involved in lots of different efforts while I was there.

But because of my background as a musician and because of my experience in the studio (I had done internships in studio settings before), Arturo invited me into the studio to produce, first, his sextet album in 2009, and then he invited me next to produce the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s third album, “40 Acres and a Burro.” So, you know, we developed this relationship.

So, there was the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, which was Arturo’s band that he founded. And then there was the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra. Chico O’Farrill, like I said, was Arturo’s dad. He passed away in 2001 and was a legendary composer who, kind of in the later stages of his life in the early 90s, enjoyed this resurgence in his career and started Big Band again at Birdland, which is a famed jazz club in Manhattan. Essentially, Arturo was called upon by his dad to direct the band because his dad was elderly at that point. His dad passed away in 2001, and Arturo continued to run the band until 2011. They performed every Sunday night for 15 years at Birdland. And that residency ultimately concluded in June of 2011. And this was six months after the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance brought that orchestra, the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra, to Cuba.

Chico O’Farrill passed away without ever returning to Cuba. He left after the revolution and was never able to return home. So it was kind of his wish to bring his musicians, his orchestra, even though he wasn’t around. We were able to bring his musicians down to headline the Havana Jazz Festival. Ultimately, after that–it was a really moving experience for all of us–Arturo decided that it was time to put his father’s band to rest and focus on his non-profit and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s work.

So we recorded the very final set by the orchestra at Birdland, June of 2011, because it was the last performance of this amazing orchestra and featured the music of Chico O’Farrill who, you know, was really cited as being one of the major architects of modern Afro Cuban big band composition. To be able to record a live album with his musicians featuring his greatest works–it was an honor for me to be invited to be a part of that.

And to listen to the album, you can feel that it has this great, natural energy in the room. The musicians are playing their hearts out. The energy of the audience–you can hear it on the recording. And it was a lot of fun. Just a lot of fun to be a part of that.

We released it two years later on Zoho Music, a label out of New York, in August of 2013, and then it was nominated this past September for a Latin GRAMMY for Best Instrumental Jazz Album.

And, yeah! We found out this Thursday before last that we won in that category.

TC: What was the process like to produce this album?

EO: Sure, sure. A producer can be many things. Often, in a studio setting, you are contracting with the musicians. You’re reserving studio space. You’re hiring the engineer. You’re raising the money. You’re ultimately recording and mixing and mastering and working with the label to release it.

That’s sort of what I do in the producing function. For this live album, this band had been a working band for fifteen years, so I wasn’t really contracting with guest artists. But I was contracting with the engineer. I worked with a great engineer named Bill Moss who we had done the previous album with, who also mixed and mastered the album, and then, yeah, worked with the label to release it. And to kind of follow the publicity campaign after that. And also raising some funds for the album as well.

TC: What was it like to win the Latin GRAMMY? Were you expecting it at all?

EO: It was…you know, you never…never can expect these things. This is a first for me. I wasn’t able to attend because the awards were in Las Vegas, but I was able to watch a live stream online. When they announced our name, I was just kind of in shock. It’s really one of those…we say in our business that we don’t get into it for the awards, but when they happen it’s just kind of a nice thing. I think more than anything, it’s kind of an affirmation of the work that we’re doing.

If anything, it’s encouragement for me that the work we’re doing through his music and through these albums is important work, and people enjoy it, and it’s a great record, especially the genius of Chico O’Farrill and his music in a very historic, final recording.

It was humbling. It was thrilling. It was exciting. And it was exciting to call up Arturo and share that with him and share it with the rest of the orchestra! These are guys who had showed up faithfully every Sunday night for fifteen years and toured the world with Arturo and Chico O’Farrill, so, more than anything, I’m just thrilled to be along for the ride. And these guys, they’re the artists I really admire.

So, you never quite know what to expect, but when we heard our name, it was definitely thrilling.

TC: Where do you hope to take this aspect of your career in the future? Do you hope to continue producing?

EO: I’ve done five albums with Arturo to date. The most recent album that I produced was the latest album from the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra called “The Offense of the Drum.” It came out last May on Motema Music, and that album was nominated as well. We didn’t win, unfortunately, for that album. But it was nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album at the Latin GRAMMYs. We will find out on Friday about GRAMMY nominations. So we have our fingers crossed. That was a very special project as well that was kind of two years in the making.

I’d say that producing is certainly not all of my work. It’s a part of my work. It’s something that helps me to strengthen the work I do here at Duke. When you’re producing anything, whether it’s a concert, a performance or an album, you’re managing a whole group of artists and managing logistics and raising money and working on publicity and making artistic decisions. So I find that, while it’s not something that can sustain me, it’s really a passion of mine. And, specifically Latin Jazz, which is something that I grew up with and is a part of me, a part of my heritage, no matter where I am in my career, it will always be something that I love to do.

So, I hope to continue to produce albums. I’ve actually been invited by Arturo O’Farrill to produce the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s newest album to be recorded in Havana in Cuba later this month. So I’m going down in a couple of weeks, right before the Christmas holiday, to record down there. The project we are tentatively calling “The Conversation Continued” is going to feature works from both Cuban and American composers. The concept is: what if the cultural conversation between Cuba and the US hadn’t been cut off after the Revolution? What if the rich cultures and traditions of these two cultures had continued their dialogue and continued this exchange?

We’ve got some great new pieces that have been written. So I’ll be down there as part of the producing team to record that. And, yeah, ultimately we will look to release it in the new year. So that’s the latest project. Yeah! I’m hoping to produce other projects in the future with Arturo, with other artists. I’m fortunate to continue that work in addition to the work that I do here on a daily basis with Duke Performances.

TC: Thank you so much, Eric. Any last bits of advice or thoughts to tie it up?

EO: This is a huge honor for me, and as a member of the Duke community, it’s exciting to be engaged here and be part of this community and to really share this exciting thing with this community.

I encourage students who are interested not just in music and producing albums, but really in any sort of creation, whether that be dance, theater, writing, visual arts, film...whatever it is, to produce your own projects. Produce your own albums. Create your own things. Keep making work. Keep collaborating with folks. Your work will pay off.

I think that’s an exciting thing for the arts at Duke right now, to be part of a growing community of people who are working on unique projects and passion projects.

That’s certainly what this represents for me–hard working paying off–which is very humbling but exciting.


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