Primary Instrument: Keyboard
Alex Navarro has a lot of sneakers in his closet, and you can blame none other than soulful singer Queen Latifah.
“She always had the coolest shoes every day,” said Navarro, who toured with Latifah on her Trav’lin’ Light tour from 2007 to 2009. “That started my addiction to unique sneakers.”
But there’s more to this talented pianist than just a penchant for stylish footwear. There’s also a fascination for arranging, musical textures, melodies and stories within songs, evident in Navarro’s debut album “Closer Than You Think.”
An eight-track collection of melody-centered compositions varying in style and sound, the project is a fusion of Navarro’s musical experiences. His classical influence can be heard on the songs “Prelude” and “Somewhere Far From Here, while “Closer Than You Think” and “I’ll See You in my Dreams” embrace the present day pop music the artist encountered during his professional years in Los Angeles. In contrast, “November” is influenced by his musical upbringing as a church pianist. A native of Peru, Navarro even taps into his Latin roots with “Marisol” and explores African rhythms in “Life Is Beautiful.”
The focus of the album is on the writing, arranging, textures and layers of the songs, illustrating Navarro’s style of letting the music breathe and not saturating every measure with sound.
“I just didn’t want it to be a collection of notes, and anyone who knows me musically or has heard me play knows I like to explore space in music,” Navarro said.
What’s more, each sound on the album is completely organic. Navarro incorporates a wide spectrum of electric and acoustic instruments including live strings, horns, acoustic and electric bass and guitar, vocals, and his personal 1963 Wurlitzer, along with three different pianos that really capture the mood of each song. Although a fan of some of today’s leading synthesizers, Navarro avoided them to preserve the live integrity of the project’s overall sound.
“I think there’s a realness to the record because of that,” Navarro said.
The record offers the listener a retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, just as it did for the musicians on the project. Navarro and his ensemble escaped Los Angeles and spent three days in Oceanside, California just outside of San Diego, recording the initial rhythm tracks.
“We really got to live the songs for those three days, without the distractions we might have had being in L.A. in a studio,” Navarro said.
The pianist added that the project is a good representation of his career. He landed his first major tour in 2005 with Carly Simon, where he played keyboards and got a real taste of what it meant to be “on the road.” Two years later he joined Queen Latifah on tour to promote her jazz album, expanding on his skills in keyboard programming and sound sampling often used in R&B and hip-hop.
Currently, Navarro serves as music director for Engelbert Humperdinck, a position he has held since 2007. Though he has served as a music director in other settings, this is his first time taking the position on such a grand scale. It has helped him polish his ability to interpret and read a vocalist, both during live performances and recording sessions, as well as understand what the artist’s needs are from both the piano and the entire band.
Navarro has also seen success in the studio as a session musician and arranger on albums for Carly Simon, Rod Stewart, Art Garfunkel and Engelbert Humperdinck. The piano player approaches arranging in much the same way he does composing; he focuses on creating a sound that matches what the song is trying to accomplish and subtly referencing different parts of a song.
“When I arranged for other projects, I really tried to take into account what the lyric is or what the melody does, so that what I did with my arrangement empowered those elements even more,” he said.
Navarro is especially proud of his arrangements of “I Only Have Eyes For You” on Carly Simon’s Grammy-nominated album “Moonlight Serenade” and his orchestration of “Where Is Love/The Long and Winding Road” on Engelbert Humperdinck’s “The Winding Road” album.
“I feel like what I wrote, in a subliminal way, allows the listener to hear the melody and lyric a little bit deeper. It reinforces it in some way,” he said.
Navarro grew up in Houston, Texas and started playing piano when he was 7 years old. By age 16, he had spent nine years working the local circuits, playing for a church and at occasional weddings along with teaching a handful of students. The turning point in his life, however, came when he spoke at length with a professional piano player at a friend’s wedding reception about his business.
“That opened my eyes. I saw this was a possibility professionally. Before, I knew I wanted to pursue music, but I always assumed it would have to be secondary or a hobby,” he said.
“Here was someone actually doing it, and I thought, ‘I could do that, some day.’ I thought if I could end up doing what this guy’s doing, that must be the greatest success ever.” After graduating from the University of North Texas where he studied jazz and classical music, Navarro moved to Los Angeles, where he has spent his professional years playing, recording, composing and arranging.
“Closer Than You Think” is available for purchase at iTunes and www.cdbaby.com.
“I’m excited about people getting to know me as an artist. I think that this album appeals to both the casual listener, in its honest and sincere melodies, as well as the seasoned musician, who will appreciate its complex layers and intricate rhythms,” Navarro said. “I feel like each song has a story or paints some kind of picture for me, and my hope is that it does the same for the listener.”