Ernesto Cervini: Finding Balance with Tetrahedron
by Susan Frances
Canadian-born drummer Ernesto Cervini has performed and recorded with a handful of groups, some led by him and others contributing as a collaborating member. One accidental benefit he achieved has been to find balance, being able to play many different breeds of jazz from avant-garde and abstract to hard bop and swing and all derivatives in between. One recurring theme in Cervini’s style of playing is he likes music that makes him feel like he is flying. It is a quality he endeavored to capture in his recordings with a sextet called Turboprop, and again in his 2020 release, Tetrahedron with a trio by the same name.
Cervini’s trio is comprised of Luis Deniz on alto saxophone and Rich Brown on electric bass. He recalls, “I met Luis and Rich playing around the scene in Toronto. I don’t necessarily remember the first time I played with Luis, but I do remember the first time I played with Rich. I was instantly intrigued by his playing, and I knew I wanted to play with him more! We started playing as a trio around 6 years ago, and there was an instant connection. This album has been brewing since then.”
That album Cervini refers to is Tetrahedron. Pyramids are tetrahedrons, a term that defines 3-dimensional triangles. Cervini explains how the term fits his trio and their recording, “Tetrahedron was initially a continuation of my ‘flying’ theme that I started with my band, Turboprop. In flying terms, Tetrahedrons are the wind flags used at airports to indicate and measure the wind strength, loosely. I also like the idea of a triangle with 4 sides…seemed to fit the idea of 3 musicians working together with a 4th added as a special guest. I feel like this will be a constant theme for this group.”
His comparison to the 3-dimensional triangle is based on his 3-piece being accompanied by New York City guitarist Nir Felder, who provides another dimension to Cervini’s flying theme. “I met Nir Felder about 14 years ago,” he recollects, “when we were both living in Brooklyn. He’s an incredible guitarist, and I loved playing with him even back then. When I moved back to Toronto, we lost touch, but he always remained on my radar, and I knew I wanted to work with him again. This group provided the perfect opportunity to do that! Nir fits in with the band perfectly, both personally and musically. He brings a wonderful, forward-thinking and open, creative energy to the group, and he was instantly able to bring the music to another level.”
“Softy as in a Morning Sunrise” from the recording features Felder playing a dewy guitar riff, projecting the image of the slow, subtle rise of the sun coming up over the horizon. The composition portrays a flying feeling that can be compared to Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” Cervini points out about the track, “I made that arrangement many years ago while studying at the Manhattan School of Music. I’ve always wanted to revisit it, and Tetrahedron provided the perfect group for that!”
“Being a drummer,” he describes, “I’m constantly fascinated with rhythms, so it was fun to put this 5-beat figure in the bass line, and have the melody float on top of it. It was also exciting to come up with this particular arrangement because I like the idea of questioning the norms in jazz, and I was excited by the idea of only playing the melody once, at the end of the tune.”
Another track that Felder contributes to is “Summit Song,” which Cervini notes, “‘ Summit Song’ was composed by American alto saxophonist, Bunky Green. The song was brought to the group by our alto saxophonist, Luis Deniz. It’s a fun, hard bop waltz, and I felt that it created a good contrast to the other music on the album.”
Other tracks on Tetrahedron’s self-titled release are fraught with the diverse rhythms and stylizing of the musicians, showcased in “Boo Radley” and the “The Sneaky Two.” The former layers Deniz’s fluid swirls on the saxophone over Cervini’s steady cymbal taps and Felder’s subtle drizzle of guitar chords while the latter showcases Cervini’s pouncing drumbeats contoured by heavy streaks penned by Felder’s guitar and Brown’s bass pulls.
The band’s diverse textural patterns demonstrate an edgy quality in the musician’s phrases, which is related to the cover art of their self-titled recording. “The album art,” Cervini shines a light on, “was done by Toronto designer, Howie Shia. He’s done wonderful work for many of my peers, and I knew he would do a wonderful job with this. To be honest, I can’t speak to his inspiration, but I loved the artwork as soon as I saw it. I feel like it captures the edginess and propulsion of the music quite well.”
Tetrahedron’s compilation of diverse phrases contributed by each musician displays another facet of Cervini’s musicality when compared to the swinging rhythms laid down by his collaborators in Turboprop. Cervini cites about Tetrahedron, “This group is definitely a departure and a challenge for me. This style of drumming is much funkier and backbeat oriented, and more avant-garde. This is a good thing, as it’s important to keep challenging yourself musically! My quartet albums were much more modern than Turboprop but more swinging than Tetrahedron. I think it’s all about finding balance. I love the challenge of Tetrahedron and the comfort and joy of Turboprop! They are both challenging and completely enjoyable in their own ways.”
The enjoyment he experienced while involved in the recording process is the impression he looks to make on his audience. “I’m hoping audiences will enjoy the music,” he contemplates, “and enjoy the journey while listening.”
It’s a journey that Cervini embarked on in his youth. He recounts, “I started playing drums when I was very young…around the age of 10. Before that, I had already been studying piano from the age of 5. With drums, I think I was initially attracted to the rhythm, and also to the challenge of coordinating my body. Plus, hitting things is fun! As I matured as a musician, I became attracted to the music influence you can have as a drummer. You’re really able to sculpt the music and shape the dynamics of the whole group from back there. I started drumming in a local student big band, The Toronto All-Star Big Band when I was about 13, and I’ve been drumming ever since! I’ve been playing ‘professionally’ since then.”
Being in a big band may have whet his appetite for jazz, but it was subsequent exposure to jazz music that inspired him to submerge his feet more in-depth into the style of music. He shares, “My older sister, Amy Cervini, is a jazz vocalist in New York City. She’s also a wonderful alto saxophonist. I remember listening to her practice jazz etudes when we were young. I was instantly attracted to those…it sounded so much more fun than classical music! Once I started playing drums in the big band, that became a huge driver for me. I started checking out big band music — Count Basie, Benny Goodman, etc. and then more modern big band music — Maria Schneider, Mel Lewis. Once there, it was a quick step to start checking out the music of Miles, Dizzy, and others. When I was a young drummer, I was really inspired by Tony Williams, Gene Krupa, as well as Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans.”
Something his musical influences did not go through is the pandemic caused by the coronavirus, which has mobilized the temporary closure of clubs and concert venues around the world. The present climate has forced venues to cancel Cervini’s upcoming shows, which has made him find other outlets to bring his music to the public.
“Yes, this is definitely challenging times,” he regards. “I’m trying to stay focused on the positive, and continue to create music, and plan for the future. I’m writing more and continue to practice and stay inspired. All of my music can be found on all the online platforms, and can also be purchased on my website (www.ErnestoCervini.com). We also have these really awesome t-shirts for Tetrahedron!” The image of a tetrahedron imprinted on these t-shirts gives audiences another look at Cervini’s vision. The t-shirts can be found here: http://www.ernestocervini.com/product/tetrahedron-t-shirt.
The pandemic has also enabled Cervini to spend more time indulging in some of his other pleasures. “In addition to being a performing musician,” he provides, “I also run a jazz publicity company called Orange Grove Publicity. Through OGP, I work with other artists to assist them in the release of their albums. We run press and radio campaigns for artists across the globe. On top of that, I teach at both the University of Toronto and Humber College in their jazz departments, and I have 2 young children. All of these things occupy all of my time!”
Perhaps the pandemic will provide another accidental benefit for Ernesto Cervini, opening him up to new ways to bring his music to the public. Finding balance has become a priority for him, and Tetrahedron, both the band and the recording, are helping him to reach a balance in his music. He strives to fly in his music, but he equally enjoys being grounded by balance. In a climate that feels unpredictable and unforeseen, it’s a good priority to aim towards.
About Susan Frances:
Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices, Goodreads.com, Authors and Books (books.wiseto.com), TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com, Epinions.com, Fictiondb.com, LibraryThing.com, BTS emag, BarnesandNoble.com, RomanticHistoricalReviews.com, AReCafe.com, Hybrid Magazine, and BookDepository.com. In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.