Pavel Polanco-Safadit is a whirlwind on the piano, unfurling mesmerizing lines of melody and rhythm with charismatic force. A native of the Dominican Republic, he's most known for playing salsa, Latin jazz and other genres associated with his Caribbean roots. But Pavel also possesses an advanced knowledge of Western classical music theory, which adds a significant power to the vocabulary of his unique musical language.
I spoke with Pavel in advance of his May 29 date at the Jazz Kitchen with his band Direct Contact
NUVO: You grew up in the Dominican Republic. Tell us about your childhood there and how you first became interested in playing music.
Polanco-Safadit: I remember growing up I had only one pair of shoes. I had to save them for school only! (laughs) But I had a very supportive family there.
When I was thirteen years old a missionary from the Episcopal church came along and my father took me to learn music from him. According to this teacher, who was named Tim Holt, I developed very quickly. By the time I was 14, I started teaching music at this school where I had been taking lessons.
NUVO: The worlds of church music and party music aren't always compatible. Were you playing merengue and salsa music at that time?
Polanco-Safadit: I look at music like this: the highest quality of music in any genre is music of the highest quality music period. But at that point I was more interested in classical music. I was more interested in Chopin and Bach then.
I transferred to Latin and jazz music later when I started playing in the clubs to earn money, which happened at an early age. I realized that if I wanted to make money classical music wasn't going to be the way in the Dominican Republic. I was getting my academic lessons in classical music and developing my technique there and I would use that training in playing salsa, merengue and jazz. I played in the clubs all through my college years.
NUVO: So by age 14, you knew you wanted to devote your life to playing music?
Polanco-Safadit: Yes I did, but I had my doubts. I knew I couldn't pursue the music I wanted to play in the Dominican Republic. I finished high school early at age 16. I went to college to study computer systems. As soon as I got there I knew I didn't want to do it. Music was always my passion, so I transferred to Mexico to study music. After a year studying in Mexico I was offered a scholarship to study music in the United States at the University of Arkansas.
NUVO: You mentioned that you didn't think you'd be able to pursue the type of music you wanted in the D.R. Why?
Polanco-Safadit: The scene there didn't require an extended background of knowledge. If you played merengue or bachata you didn't need to learn music to the extent that I wanted to. I wanted to go all the way with my music studies.
NUVO: When did you come to Indianapolis?
Polanco-Safadit: About nine years ago. I'd been living in New York before. It took me two years to get used to living in Indianapolis. Now I love Indianapolis to the fullest. This is my home. But it took time to get used to, especially coming from New York where things don't close and you can get gigs forever.
NUVO: There's been a huge growth in Indy's Latino population in the nine years since you arrived. How has the scene for the music you're playing changed in that time-span?
Polanco-Safadit: When I came there were not that many Latino businesses and clubs. Things have evolved for the music. There's more clubs and bands. The Indy Jazz Fest now has a full day devoted to Latin jazz.
NUVO: I love hearing you play live. I've noticed when you take a solo your whole demeanor changes, you just come to life almost like you're overtaken by some sort of spirit. I'm curious what's going on your head when you're creating your extraordinary solos on the piano?
Polanco-Safadit: That's a hard question! [laughs] I hear things in my head and I'm using my hands and arms to duplicate them as fast as I can. I'm one with the piano at that moment. I don't see, hear or think about anything else during that moment.
NUVO: You've played with many great musicians throughout your career. Can you look back and share a few highlights with us?
Polanco-Safadit: I'll give you three different scenarios.
There was one time in Chicago I payed with Sergio George and Marc Anthony's musicians. That was a night to remember, especially seeing Sergio George right next to me watching me play. He's one of the greatest producers in Latin music.
Another moment was playing with the [Conan O'Brien, Bruce Springsteen] drummer Max Weinberg. I was jumping around on the piano bench and he told the audience he'd never seen anybody else move around onstage more than Bruce Springsteen! [laughs]
And finally this last moment is a little sad. I backed up the great jazz musician Dave Valentin when he came to play in Indy. He had a stroke when he came here. He couldn't play a note during the rehearsal, and that's when he knew something was wrong. But he went on to play the show regardless - and he played! I was blown away, because earlier he couldn't even stand up. But he played the flute that night. It was an amazing moment.
NUVO: You're part of a project being developed to help build a music school in a remote area of the Dominican Republic. How did this come about?
Polanco-Safadit: Last fall I met with Felipe Martinez and Barry Sumner from the Whitewater Valley Presbyterian Church. They told me they'd developed some programs in Mexico and they wanted to do something similar in the Dominican Republic. I agreed to help with the music side of it. Having come out of a similar system I immediately felt very connected to the project.
Now after months of speaking to leaders over the phone we're going to take an exploration trip to the D.R. We're going to one of the poorest parts of the country. The closest Wal-Mart is four hours away. There are dirt roads and dirt floors in the homes. We're going to go and see what their needs are.
I want to go there and start a music camp to train the youth and train the leaders on how to keep it going. Ultimately, we want to build a school of music and teach them how to maintain it.
We need to show the youth the possibilities out in the world. When you grow up in a bubble as I did, it's hard to have a vision for your future. Music can be a tool to get somewhere else.
Kyle Long's WFYI show A Cultural Manifesto debuts on 90.1 next Wednesday. We'll have much more info next week.