Grammy-winning Pacific Mambo Orchestra's Steffen Kuehn

PMO's mission is to bring great music at the highest level of musicianship with an eye on a worldwide audience

By Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Hispanic News On-Line
Published on LatinoLA: March 6, 2015

Grammy-winning Pacific Mambo Orchestra's Steffen Kuehn

Watch Pacific Mambo Orchestra play Mambo Music!

2014 GRAMMY winner, Pacific Mambo Orchestra (a.k.a. the PMO), is a 20-piece, San Francisco-based musical group leading the rebirth of the Latin Big band sound. The PMO uses the traditions of the classic mambo-craze orchestras of the 1950's to deliver their original music and clever, modern arrangements of hit songs. Currently, as the only fully active Latin Big Band on the West Coast of the United States, this elite group of the Bay Area's finest musicians performs in both English and Spanish (French and Portuguese selections are also available).

The PMO is directed by Mexican-born pianist Christian Tumalan and German-born trumpeter Steffen Kuehn, each one a highly skilled and experienced artist in their own right. The band's instrumentation consists of four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, piano, bass, timbales, congas, bongos, and two lead singers: the lovely Ms. Alexa W. Morales and Armando Cordoba. Powered by a sensational percussion section featuring Venezuelan timbalero Omar Ledezma Jr., congero Javier Cabanillas, and Peruvian bongo expert Braulio Barrera. The band also showcases savvy improvisers forged in the region's most celebrated Latin bands.

PMO's sizzling, self-titled, 2014 Best Tropical Latin Album GRAMMY award winning debut record honors the sounds of the great Latin Big Bands of the 194'0s through 1960's, including Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, while infusing them with an intoxicating new energy. Richly textured arrangements flow through the entire production with exquisite playing by ace musicians. With a repertoire of mostly original scores, the selections move in a frenetic pace, pulsing with the sounds, rhythms, and beats that only a true Big Band is capable of producing.

Pacific Mambo Orchestra was voted as the BEST BAND of the 2014 Best of the Bay in the San Francisco Guardian Reader's Poll. This Best of the Bay insert coincided with the last copy ever of the 48 year old newspaper and the issue has become a collector's item.

This impressive debut may be attributed to the hard work, passion and determination of visionary bandleaders Tumalan and Kuehn, who founded the group three years ago with the aspiration of growing PMO into the most active Latin Big Band in the nation. Once they achieved their goal, they embarked on a six-month grassroots campaign to finance their first recording, seeking support from aficionados via local clubs and the internet. And the fans came through.

The resulting compilation is the first project of its kind to emerge from the San Francisco Latin scene and a unique, welcome contribution to the music world. Tumalan and Kuehn not only produced the album, but also performed, composed, and wrote the music and lyrics for many of the songs. One of their biggest accomplishments was gathering the impressive roster of international, award-winning talent that appears on the album. Together, band members and contributors bring forth decades of collective experience playing with a variety of musical greats, from Dizzy Gillespie, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and Tito Puente, to Art Garfunkel, Blood Sweat and Tears, Jerry Garcia and Mariah Carey. The resulting tracks showcase fresh songwriting, inspired arrangements, clever improvisations, and superlative vocals.

Steffen Kuehn was born and raised in Germany and began playing the trumpet at the age of eight. Twenty years later he received his Bachelor of Music from the prestigious University of North Texas (1993), majoring in jazz trumpet and Jazz Studies.

Being interested in Straight Ahead Jazz, Smooth Jazz as well as in Latin Jazz and Salsa, Steffen scored big in 2002 with the CD release Now or Later of his Jazz Nonet, that featured 2001 Grammy Nominee Tim Hagans. That year also marked the inception of his own record label Stefrecords.

Fast forward to 2005: having joined the Latin jazz orchestra of legendary timbalero Louie Romero, the band recorded its first album Timbaler and released it on Stefrecords in 2006 to rave reviews.

His 2008 release Trumpop was in the running for a Grammy nomination for 'Best Contemporary Jazz Album' and has been receiving national and international airplay and recognition.

He has shared music moments with Jazz greats such as Tim Hagans, Brian Lynch, Claudio Roditi, The Temptations, Brian Culbertson, Jose Lugo Latin Orchestra, Issac Delgado, Marilyn McCoo, John Handy, Mark Levine, Chico Freeman, Tim Hagans, Ray Obiedo, Kenny Werner, Ray DeLa Paz, The 4 Tops, Ray Sepulveda, The Platters, Lydia Pense & Cold Blood. In Europe he played as a sideman for Dusko Gojkovich Big Band, Al Porcino Big Band, Conexion Latina and others.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez had an opportunity to speak with visionary Steffen Kuehn.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): Tell us about growing up in Germany. What kinds of music did you listen to and how did that music inform what you do as a musician today?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): In my early teens I grew up with rock music like AC/DC, then turned to R& B andfFunk, like Earth Wind and Fire and Al Jarreau. That led me to Miles Davis, Louie Armstrong and bebop in general.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): What turned you on to jazz? Is there a German jazz community?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): There is a German Jazz community for sure, but I did not tap into that until I returned back to Germany from my jazz studies in USA.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): Who is your biggest influence?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): I listened to Pat Metheny and the Yellow Jackets in my late teens. Also Miles Davis and the hard bop era trumpeters like Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): What was it that brought you to Texas? What was the music scene like when you went there?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): I was very interested in the Big Band Jazz program at the University of North Texas and, even though I only had plans to stay there for one year, life took me on another path and I graduated from there with a Bachelor of Music .
The music scene was incredible at the school. Everybody played in several bands. UNT attracted some of the best musicians worldwide. That made for a very competitive and fertile musical landscape.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): How is straight ahead jazz different from smooth jazz?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): For me the difference between straight ahead jazz and smooth jazz is huge. Straight ahead jazz is based on complex harmonies and chord progressions and improvisation that is rooted in deep harmonic knowledge. Smooth jazz, on the other hand, is based on more funk and R&B rhythms and simpler harmonic structure. Improvisation is based mostly on pentatonic and blues influenced scales.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): How did you get turned on to Latin jazz and salsa?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): I got turned on to Latin Music at UNT when I started rooming with a Columbian pianist who took me under his wing. He educated me about Latin music, its roots and artists. It made me realize the importance of rhythm in music as whole.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): Tell us about your first CD "Now or Later." How did that come about and how was the record received?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): I brought the music for Now or Later with me from Munich, Germany to San Francisco. In Munich, I worked with composer and arranger Wolfgang Roth who had written and arranged all of the music for the Now or Later CD. I was generously granted permission from Mr. Roth to record his music here in the USA with Bay Area musician and special featured artist, trumpeter Tim Hagans. I personally think the record turned out great since the music was so gorgeous and brilliantly written and performed.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): How was it that you hooked up with Louie Romero? Tell us about Timbalero and Trumpop.

Steffen Kuehn (SK): Since my move to the Bay Area in 1998, I got involved in its vibrant Latin music scene. I was then asked to join Louie Romero's band Mazacote in 2005 and have been a member ever since. Louie's legendary style and swing heavily influenced my own personal sense of time from which I always draw in all my own musical endeavors. Playing and recording alongside one of the greatest timbaleros, Louie Romero, is still one of my proudest moments.

Trumpop came about during a very transitional period in my life when I wanted to explore more of a leadership position in my music and wanted to take on more responsibilities. Being the lead voice in that band challenged, not just my musical craftsmanship, but also presented me with personal challenges like talking and engaging my audiences. Trumpop also gave me the chance and opportunity to combine jazz with R&B and funk and take a more commercial approach to music in general.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): How did you end up in the Bay Area and how did Pacific Mambo Orchestra come about?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): I fell in love with the Bay Area when I met my future wife on a Cruise ship where both of us were working. The day we sailed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and set foot on San Francisco soil, I knew I had to live here. It was a magical moment!

Pacific Mambo Orchestra came about, when co-founder and co-leader Christian Tumalan approached me one day at a recording session about the idea of forming a Latin Big Band. I had purchased some Latin Big Band charts a few years prior to that, but didn't have it in me to manage a band of that size by myself. When Christian asked me about that we agreed to split the workload and responsibilities; that worked out really well. We booked ourselves into the now defunct Caf?® Cocomo and started playing regular Monday nights there at the end of 2010. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): What is the music scene in the Bay Area like today?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): Music and music scenes are ever-changing ÔÇô it seems that there have been a lot of venue closures in San Francisco in 2014. With this combined with exploding rents, there has been an exodus to Oakland and the East Bay, which seems to be more happening than San Francisco these days. Everybody is hoping for a reversal of those unfortunate trends since San Francisco should have a world-class music scene that supports its artists!

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): What is your role in the band and what is the bands mission?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): I take care of the financial side of things as well as some of the operational aspects.

PMO's vision from the beginning has been to play music that's gratifying and artistically challenging for the band and the musicians. At the same time we have always been conscious of who we are playing for: In a club setting we play music that's geared more towards the dancers. In a concert setting we might pull out more 'jazzy' tunes with more space for solos and improvisation.

PMO's mission is to bring great music at the highest level of musicianship with an eye on entertainment to a worldwide audience!

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): Tell us a little about some of the heavy cats in the band?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): PMO' has been able to attract a lot of 'heavy cats' to its roster of musicians: players that tour currently with the Carlos Santana Band, and those who have worked with Sly & The Family Stone etc. I can say with confidence that each musician in PMO has worked with some of the best and well-known artists in the world and are all 'heavy cats' in their own right!

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): Isn't it difficult to make any money with a 20 piece set up?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): The financial aspect of supporting a 20-piece band has been daunting, at least in the beginning, when musicians played for gas and bridge money. That, thankfully, has changed and PMO is now able to pay our musicians decently.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): Tell us about your first tour, doing performance art centers nationwide?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): Our first national tour was produced by Colombia Artist Management out of New York, and it was truly a dream come true. I think we realized then and there that we were on the brink of something really good. We started to realize, that we can actually play in front of big crowds in a theater setting (where we didn't get the energy from the dance crowd and the audience stayed mostly seated) and that we can generate enough energy on our side to captivate the audience.

Touring and performing with Tito Puente Jr. and Marlow Rosado was really fun and we all got along really well!

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): I understand you play a mix of musical genres. What does a typical set sound like?

We like to mix jazzy instrumentals (where we can feature some of our excellent improvisers) with dance-able vocal selections. These are either originals or are drawn from the classic Latin libraries, like Tito Puente, Machito, Celia Cruz etc

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): What kind of gigs have you been playing and what kind of touring would you like to do?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): The majority of our gigs nowadays are performance art centers, theaters and festivals. We are looking at taking this overseas to Europe and Asia, and are positive that those will be good markets for us and that our music will be received well in those countries!

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): Tell us about the Pacific Mambo Orchestra's GRAMMY?« Award winning, self-titled debut album?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): Yeah, that's really wild! I look at the Grammy statue every day and shake my head, and sometimes still laugh in disbelieve! It was such an improbability to win. When we were nominated two weeks after the completion of our national tour and saw who we were up against, we were all like: Wow! What a great honor to be nominated alongside Marc Anthony, Carlos Vives and Sergio Georges! I don't think anybody believed it would go further than that. But when we were called as a winner at the Grammy's it was probably our happiest moment ever!

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): What was the vision of the album? I understand you used "new media" to make it happen.

Steffen Kuehn (SK): We started out with the idea to make a great recording with the best music and arrangements: eight originals and two covers (that were chosen very carefully). We asked our two great arrangers, Mike Rinta and Aaron Lington to arrange El Cantante and Overjoyed and man! Those two arrangements came out perfectly!

We used the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to raise money for the recording.
Then we started pushing the finished CD on Facebook, Twitter etc., but also used old-fashioned promotion, like sending the actual CD to radio stations, DJ's, magazines etc. Truth be told, none of the above have the reach like a carefully planned 'new media' campaign.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): How did you and the band feel when you won the Grammy? Was it good for business?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): I think, winning the Grammy was a life-changing experience for all of us. It is an acknowledgment by peers, musicians, producers and artists telling us that they liked our work! It's like a title that you can put in front of your name for the rest of your life, like 'Dr.' If one gets the top acknowledgment in ones field of expertise, it's a proud moment for sure!

It certainly helped our business! We got a lot of really nice bookings and made a lot of new friends.

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): Why should people buy the album and why is it so universally award winning?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): I think PMO's Grammy award winning CD is special because it's all acoustic and no electronics. What you hear is what you get at the live performances. Every musician you hear on the record is a monster musician. All the arrangements are world-class and it's a beautifully crafted piece of art!

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): What kinds of things are you and the band working on right now? What are some of your plans for the future?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): We just released a new single, entitled Pacific Mambo Dance, available on iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp and other digital outlets! In conjunction we released the Pacific Mambo Dance video, which is based on a dance that we created ÔÇô very fun to watch!

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC): Where can people find out more about the band and where do we buy the latest CD?

Steffen Kuehn (SK): Please go to our website www.pacificmambo.com and become a fan on our Facebook fanpage at www.pacificmambo.com www.facebook.com/pacificmamboorchestra.

About Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Hispanic News On-Line:
Edited by Susan Aceves
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