Recess Interviews: Eric Oberstein on his Grammy win

Eric Oberstein, Trinity '07 and associate director for Duke Performances, won his second Grammy Award Monday for Best Instrumental Composition for producing Arturo O'Farrill's "The Afro Latin Jazz Suite" on the album Cuba: The Conversation Continues. Obserstein previously won the 2014 Best Latin Jazz Album Grammy for his work as producer on the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra album The Offense of the Drum. The Chronicle's Jessica Williams conducted an email interview with Oberstein to talk about his musical origins leading up to his Grammy success.

The Chronicle: How and when did you first become interested in producing music?

Eric Oberstein: I've played saxophone and drums since elementary school, when I caught the music bug. I started a rock band in high school with my best friends, and we ended up recording an album in a professional studio in Queens, NY, near where I grew up. We wrote all original music and raised enough funds for the project by selling our band's t-shirts to our family and friends. 

That experience of recording in a professional studio, working with an engineer, of seeing a project through from an idea to a final product, was incredibly gratifying. I realized producing was an outlet for me to combine my love of music with my organizational skills and attention to detail. I ended up interning at Kampo Studios in Manhattan the summer before my senior year of high school, where we recorded acoustic sessions with well known artists, such as Jimmy Eat World. That summer in the studio was a great education for me. It wasn't until I was back in New York City after graduating from Duke that I met Arturo O'Farrill and was ultimately invited by him to produce his sextet record, Risa Negra. I've produced six records with Arturo in our eight years of working together.

TC: Why are you drawn towards Afro Latin jazz music specifically?

EO: When I picked up the alto sax in fourth grade, my dad gave me the CD "Bird & Diz," featuring jazz greats Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I came to love jazz and wanted to play like Charlie Parker. I also learned that Dizzy Gillespie was one of the founders of Afro Cuban jazz, and Charlie Parker was the featured soloist on "The Afro Cuban Jazz Suite," the masterpiece composed by Arturo's father, the legendary Cuban composer and arranger Chico O'Farrill, 65 years ago.

I'm also half-Cuban—my mother was born in Havana and left Cuba in 1961 after the Revolution, moving with my family to New York, so I grew up around Cuban music and Cuban culture. I was hooked when I heard the mixture of Cuban music with jazz. I saw Afro Latin jazz, encompassing the music of Cuba and Latin America, informed by rhythms of the African diaspora, as exciting and infectious. I am particularly drawn to the music's danceable rhythms and energy.

TC: As the producer of “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite,” what did you do for the album?

EO: As a producer, I wear many hats, seeing an album through from start to finish. With my co-producers, I consult with Arturo on the artistic vision for the project, and help Arturo to translate that as effectively as possible into a beautiful musical recording. I help to raise money and run the recording sessions in the studio, sitting alongside the audio engineer, acting as intermediary between Arturo, as bandleader and artistic director, and the engineer. I keep us on schedule and on budget, and also try to create a positive environment so that Arturo, the Orchestra, our guest artists, the engineer, and the studio staff, can do their best work. 

We recorded our album, "Cuba: The Conversation Continues," in Havana at Abdala Studios over three days in December 2014, just 48 hours after the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States was announced —a very exciting and surreal historical moment. I still shake my head in disbelief thinking I was on the ground in Cuba for that. We were working for the first time in a Cuban studio, so I was working with a Cuban engineer and staff, translating between Spanish and English during the process. When we got back to the United States, I worked with Arturo and a team of New York-based engineers to mix and master the album. I also worked closely with our record label, Motéma Music, on the release of the album and the accompanying publicity and marketing campaign.

TC: What was the hardest part of producing the suite?

EO: "The Afro Latin Jazz Suite" was one of the largest, most ambitious pieces Arturo has written in his career, an opus that references the past, present, and future of Afro Latin jazz.... The suite evokes the evolution of Afro Latin music in three movements, with a passing adagio movement between the last two, so there's a lot of music in there, about 22 minutes total. When you're recording jazz in the studio, you're recording live with all of the musicians playing in the studio together (rather than one musician at a time). We had to record the piece in sections, making sure we captured the best takes. It's not an easy piece of music. It's technically demanding, so as a producer I need to be aware of how taxing a piece of music is on our players so they're not burned out physically. We recorded the piece first on our second day of the studio when the musicians were fresh. The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and [featured soloist] Rudresh [Mahanthappa] played their hearts out on it, and I think that comes across in the energy of the recording. I'm honored to be able to work with such world-class musicians who bring such passion to their playing.

An additional challenge was adjusting to working in a Cuban studio. Cuba has strong recording studios with modern equipment and expert technicians. There were moments we had to adjust our expectations, though, when a a set of headphones wasn't working, for example. The recording software occasionally stopped recording mid-take due to issues with the software. Cubans are inventive and make do, despite not always having perfect equipment or access to the resources we take for granted. We needed to learn to adapt and just take a healthy, positive approach to the experience, knowing that there might be hiccups along the way but that we were engaged in a beautiful, collaborative process. I want to credit our Cuban recording engineer, Orestes Aguila, who was a consummate professional and managed his team with grace—and coincidentally served as the sound engineer when Duke Performances presented the Buena Vista Social Club at DPAC in Durham this past October.

TC: What did accepting the Grammy feel like?

EO: It was a thrilling moment, to hear Arturo and the Orchestra's name called. I was sitting with my parents in the audience, and we all just yelled in excitement. I joined Arturo, my co-producer Kabir Sehgal, and Motéma Music president Jana Herzen onstage to accept the award from the great Anoushka Shankar, Ravi Shankar's daughter. We were fortunate to win a Grammy last year for Best Latin Jazz Album for our previous album, "The Offense of the Drum," but you can never prepare yourself for a moment like that. You've worked hard and spent years on a project, so to hear your name called—it's an incredible rush. I was overjoyed to stand up there with Arturo and our team, to celebrate Arturo's incredible composition, and the huge team effort that brought the suite to life.


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