Friday’s Palladium Theater/Side Door performance by the trio La Lucha – a jazzified celebration of music from the 1980s – has particular significance for pianist John O’Leary.
“This weekend is my sixth anniversary of graduating with my doctorate, and leaving science to become a full-time musician,” he says.
That playing jazz piano took precedence over his hard-earned PhD in neuroscience says a lot about O’Leary, and how much he believes in the music he makes with drummer Mark Feinman and bassist Alejandro Arenas.
“If I hadn’t met you guys, I still wouldn’t see my family,” O’Leary laughs as his cohorts assemble for a late-afternoon rehearsal. “But I would have more money.”
The three musicians like to keep things light. “I’m totally kidding,” O’Leary sighs. “I love my life. To have a group of people that you love, and that give you emotional and physical support, is incredible.”
The three met as University of South Florida music students in 2005. Their backgrounds could not have been more different – O’Leary had arrived from his native Mexico as a 12-year-old, Arenas was only slightly older when his family left Colombia, and Feinman – the hometown boy – was born and raised in Clearwater.
“We found a rapport,” Arenas recalls, “and we started getting together and playing what we wanted to do, not just the stuff that was being assigned to us.”
O’Leary: “Mark was the connector. I was taking a semester of tuba, jazz and chemistry, trying to figure out what I was going to do.”
Feinman explains the three knew almost immediately that, despite their differences, they were brothers in music. “We would stay there after combo rehearsals and just keep playing,” he says, “and then we’d look at the clock and it was like 2 or 3 in the morning.”
The key to understanding La Lucha (it’s part of a Spanish phrase meaning “I’m fighting the good fight,” a very musicianly thing to say, when you think about it) is that, while the instrumentation may be traditional – and the musicianship superior – their approach is anything but.
“We use jazz almost as an umbrella term,” says Arenas. “There’s a lot of definitions of jazz. If you ask 10 jazz musicians, they’re all going to give you a different definition of what jazz is.
“The common denominator in jazz is improvisation, regardless of style. To us, growing up a generation far from the golden age of jazz, we said ‘What do we do? We love playing the Great American Songbook, but generationally it’s not our music.’ We’re putting it through our generational filter.
“And it’s a collective filter, too. That’s why we work so well together.”
Everything La Lucha does includes elements of improvisation, experimentation and fun. There’s something refreshing about musicians – talented musicians – who are clearly having a blast doing what they’re doing.
After several independent album releases (including 2018’s Pa’Lante, a detour into synthesizer-based, ‘70s-style funky jazz, on all original compositions), the band has been signed to Arbors Records, a prestigious jazz label that happens to be based in Clearwater. They’ll travel to New York to cut the album in December.
Friday’s event will be La Lucha’s third trip down the 1980s musical memory lane. “There’s always been a collective passion for that music of the ‘80s, and nostalgia in the band,” says Feinman. “We’re all children of the ‘80s. In 2015, a few of the members of La Lucha were turning 30. We said ‘Why don’t we take all these hit songs from 1985, and re-arrange them for the trio and a singer?’ And it was really fun.”
It all comes down to the arrangement, Arenas suggests: “We said, let’s make music that’s not entirely jazz, but let’s make it jazz. And not just say ‘OK, let’s just swing this song,’ but reconstruct the song in a way that fits with the harmonic and melodic vocabulary of jazz. And rhythmically bring a lot of different styles in as well.”
Jamie Perlow is guest vocalist for the all-new 2019 edition. Working on La Lucha arrangements is thrilling, she explains – and challenging. She’s used to the songs sounding a certain way.
”It definitely is making me use the brain a bit more. Because some things are in different time signatures, and I’m somebody with a record player in my head – oh, now we’re changing keys, and we’re changing the feel of a song … and I love that, because it’s fighting the programming!
“So it’s exciting – you don’t get to go on autopilot.”
La Lucha plays intermittent local gigs, and tours sporadically, but day jobs are still a necessary part of the package. Both Feinman and Arenas work in the St. Pete College music department – so even when they’re working, they’re playing.
Neuroscientist-slash-musician John O’Leary teaches a bit of piano the side, but otherwise, La Lucha is his professional life.
“So far so good,” he says. “You never know. I will do whatever I have to do to take care of my family. My wife is a nurse, so we both contribute. Without the two of us working as a team, I’m not sure it would be possible to have the life that I have today.”
Tickets and info here.