RAVELLO, Italy —
The combination of bright stage lights, the roar of a crowd, and the ever-familiar rush of adrenaline all create the magic of a live show.
For Navy Musician 2nd Class Cristiana Rojas, the lead vocalist for the U.S. Naval Forces Europe Band’s Alliance Jazz Combo, what seemed like a nice break from a steady performing schedule during the global health pandemic caused by COVID-19, quickly turned into a longer hiatus.
“At the beginning of COVID, I was like cool, I get to take a break,” said Rojas, a San Diego native. “But one week turned into two, which then turned into a month.
Every time we would hear about a possible gig that was on the calendar, it would always get cancelled. I was frustrated, and I was struggling to stay positive.”
Then the Band received an invitation to play at one of the oldest and most renowned festivals in Italy, the Ravello Music Festival.
The gig was part of German entrepreneur and art visionary, Anton F. Borner’s, “Vino and Jazz” event that was aimed at creating a sensorial counterpoint between the oenological universe of fine Italian wine and the musical listening of a selection of songs from the most famous American jazz artists.
“For me, it was really exciting to have proposed two genres and repertoires where the common denominator was the sensory accompaniment of tasting great wines with the excellence of music,” said Borner.
He said the idea came to him during his recent travels where he met someone who said they could translate smell and taste into sound and music. The idea was revolutionary to Borner as he pursued the immense influence music has on the perceived acidity, sweetness, and fruity aspects of wine tasting.
“Wine is the concentration of the whole universe,” said Borner. “It consists of the earth, nature, spirit, and science. All the things that make us human beings you can find in wine.”
But not only did Borner want to match the perfect grapes with the perfect musical genre, he wanted to bridge different parts of the Western world together.
“I wanted to build a bridge across the Atlantic to the New World,” said Borner. “We’re here in Europe with over 2,000 years of story with classical music.”
He said he wanted to take the uniquely-American genre of jazz and combine it with European winemaking as a symbolic bridge between the two cultures; thus, his event, which was free and open to the public, combined the vast array of wines with the equally diverse range of American jazz.
At different parts of the two-hour long event, the Alliance Jazz Combo played musical selections to compliment the wine being sampled by the audience.
The multisensory experience began with a light crisp Chardonnay, and the band accompanied the tasting with a personalized arrangement of Louis Armstrong’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” which included bright arrangements of flute solos and light piano rifts.
This musical and conceptual matching continued through the event with both music and wine steadily becoming more lush and full-bodied. As the audience moved onto an oak-aged rich and creamy Viognier, the band featured spicy saxophone solos by Musician 2nd Class Kent Grover during Robert Glasper’s “Afro Blue.”
Even the Alliance Jazz Combo pianist, Musician 2nd Class Matthew Jones, got in on the action with Stevie Wonder’s easy-flowing shuffle groove “Isn’t She Lovely” as the audience crossed over from white to red wine with a savory and earthy Merlot.
The Band’s drummer, Musician 2nd Class Raymond Carega, was chomping at the bit for his turn as the audience moved onto a heavy and complex Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Personally I’m into the avant-garde scene and music that is kind of out there,” said Carega, from New Brunswick, New Jersey. “I took seriously the taste of the wine that was going to be paired with the drums and how I was going to interpret that.”
Carega said prior to the event he was able to sample the Cabernet Sauvignon, and the sensation he got was deep, rich, and earthy.
“I immediately thought of drumming like a caveman,” said Carega. “I decided to do something with lower-pitched drums that sounded tribal rather than high pitched with a bright sound.”
He wanted to give the audience something to hold onto and give the beat a steady pulse. Carega admits jokingly that it might seem weird to pair music with wine, but for him it was about creating a feeling and being creative enough to reach the next level of musicianship.
“It’s less about the black and white music on the page. That’s like 1% of what it’s all about,” said Carega. “You can put me and another drummer behind the same drum set, with the same sticks, playing the same music, but it can sound completely different.”
Carega said the challenge of intentionally creating feelings in the audience helped make the gig special for him and the rest of the Alliance Jazz Combo.
The disruption to the local music scene cause by COVID-19 has been immense, so the service members assigned to the U.S. Naval Forces Europe Band have taken the rare opportunity to get out into the local Italian community as an occasion to appreciate their unique role in the U.S. Navy. The event organizers implemented social distancing and other protocols to minimize the potential spread of the virus.
“What I’ve learned from this time is that you have to cherish the opportunities to perform [live], because you don’t know when it’s going to come around again,” said Rojas.
As the U.S. Navy’s official band in Europe, the band performs throughout Europe, Africa, and Western Asia to enhance the morale and welfare of U.S. and Allied Forces personnel as well as improving international community relations among partner nations.