Pianist, composer, and Latin-music advocate Turiya Mareya has returned to San Diego after spending 10 years in Alaska, Madrid and Vancouver. She'll be marking her homecoming with a special concert on Aug. 10 at the World Beat Center in Balboa Park.
Mareya was an indispensable force on the creative jazz scene in the '70s and '80s, playing piano and bass clarinet in several key avant-garde ensembles like Future Primitive with bass virtuoso Mark Dresser and multi-instrumentalist Dave Millard.
For a self-described "white girl from Texas," Mareya made significant cultural strides upon relocating to San Diego at the age of 17 and hooking up with some local jazz icons.
Music. Community. Culture.
"I moved to Barrio Logan as a teenager, and at that time, Daniel Jackson was doing a radio show at what used to be the old Black & Tan on 30th and Imperial," says Mareya. "They were broadcasting from there and he did a jazz show and he announced that he was teaching classes. So I went down there. He was definitely one of my prime influences, and he introduced me to the whole revolutionary black-jazz scene. His pieces were message pieces -- that were also intended to uplift people."
With mentors like Jackson and jazz scholar Nelson Pallemon, who she describes as "an eccentric genius who I studied with every day. He gave me a reading list and a listening list. We would listen to things such as Om by John Coltrane and discuss it, where the claves are."
Eventually she obtained funding to attend the world-famous Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, N.Y.
"Which to me, at the time, was the creative center of the universe," she said. " I spent six months there with my four-year-old daughter! Everybody came through there. Anthony Braxton, I got a chance to play a duo with [drummer] Jack DeJohnette and I did a two-week intensive session with the Art Ensemble of Chicago -- which was like boot camp. You got up every morning at 5 a.m. until late at night, and they were very challenging emotionally. You had to be strong. I was the only woman there, so I was used to it. They were teaching me how to improvise, and to improvise you have to be in the moment, and ready for whatever gets thrown your way."
Dresser has memories of Mareya that date back 30 years.
"She is a wonderful composer, pianist and multi-instrumentalist," said the bassist. "Turiya is a tireless champion of her music and has traveled the world extensively, performing in places off the usual 'schnitzel circuit' of Western Europe. She's a strong musical personality and a compelling performer."
While she was exploring the avant-garde, Mareya also played with Mexican dance bands in Tijuana, a place she has lived for long periods of time. She discovered, and fell in love with, the Afro-Latin music she is most well-known for now.
"When I moved to Mexico and started studying Afro-Cuban music, I discovered that we can bring in healing energy," Mareya said. " I became fascinated with Cuban music and those rhythms! You could express yourself and still make people dance."
The Aug. 10 concert is free to the public and will open with the Women's Spirit Music Ensemble at 7 p.m. and continue with the World Beat Afro-Latino Ensemble at 9 p.m.
"The concert we're having here features Ignacio Arango on bass, Irving Soto on percussion and Nana Yaw Asiedu on West African percussion with Paul Ruiz on trumpet and a bunch of our musical friends sitting in," says Mareya.
Bassist Rob Thorsen has collaborated with Mareya pretty often since the '90s with performances and recordings.
"Turiya is certainly a creative force in any ensemble," Thorsen said. "Her compositions created a unique sound that at the same time left a lot of freedom for the individual player to be creative. She is totally supportive as far as the musicians contributing their personal sound and energy to a composition. I am so glad she has returned to San Diego to keep creative jazz music moving forward."
As for the upcoming World Beat concert: "We won't be playing so much tunes as beats and grooves to leave the music open," said Mareya. "We won't have to stop and start tunes, we'll just move to a new rhythm."
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.