Miami bard Aaron Lebos is an actual professional musician, not just a guy who plays guitar. "I work every night with different groups," Lebos told us after performing at the recent New Times' Iron Fork festival. His main gig right now, though, is his own: Aaron Lebos Reality. But he regularly tours with jazz singer Nicole Henry -- most recently to Japan, Malaysia, and Aspen -- and he's also the second guitarist for the Spam Allstars, and works with a slew of other talents.
Lebos graduated with degrees from both University of Miami and Florida International University in jazz performance, and has been playing guitar since he was 11 years old. He's got plenty of experience, with enough left over to share. As Aaron Lebos Reality, with drummer Rodolfo Zuniga, bassist Eric England, and Jim Gasior on keys, he not only plays places locally, like the Van Dyke or Funky Buddha, he also instructs at a university in Quito, Ecuador, and participates in UM's School of Music Jazz Forum. We asked him a little about improvisation, his dream festival lineup, and whether you really need that much training to make the kind of music he does.
New Times: How does your formal education affect the music you make now?
Aaron Lebos: Technically, it's pretty complex music. But I hope that doesn't interfere with the delivery. It's pretty raw. It's not conservative jazz by any stretch. I think it's more funk and rock and jazz. It's definitely complex but it has a groove.
Is there any improvisation to your sound?
That would be the main jazz part. Aside from the arrangements of the songs, that you would have extended solo sections for the guitar, the keyboard, the bass, the drums. In that sense... That's one of the main characteristics of jazz, there's a lot of structure to this music, but there are extended solo sections where we improvise.
What aspect of making music appeals to you the most?
With this group specifically, it's my music, so the band contributes a lot with arrangements. Even though my name's on it, I don't tell people what to play. Everyone has a lot of musical freedom. Which I think is one reason why the musicians like to play in it. It's my favorite music to play, not just because it's mine, but it has the aspects of music that I love. It has the improvisational aspects of jazz, but it has the energy of rock and funk. So it's a combination of those two things.
What do you think about bands that have no technical skill but are still playing?
Formal education is not necessarily a requirement for greatness. Obviously, Hendrix or Zeppelin, they weren't... But I do think there's something about continually wanting to get better, continually wanting to learn. I had that instilled in me, and these guys I play with, and the musicians I respect and like to play with, whether they're schooled or not, kind of have that quality.
As far as younger bands, man, just play and experiment. We were just in Costa Rica, and we did a week of shows and a master class clinic at a music school there. The kids, they love the music, because it rocks, there's a lot of shredding going on, and it's fucking crazy, but a lot of them don't like traditional jazz. Which is fine. I'm not a jazz Nazi. They ask, do you have to have a foundation in jazz to play what you guys play, and I have to say, yeah. But that's because of the technical aspects, and there's a lot of complexity in the rhythm and harmony. That's usually where people get that kind of education.
What are some of the perks of playing other peoples' music?
Being a sideman, session musician for different artists -- Nicole Henry, Spam Allstars, Tony Succar, Christian Castro, and many, many more, as well as turning down tours with Julio Iglesias, Pitbull, Ricardo Arjona even some Juanes shows to pursue more of myself as an artist -- has made me check out lots of different styles of music. We even have a reggeaton "jazz" song, but of course it has some complicated harmony (chords) and odd time signatures. Plus sometimes it's nice to not have the responsibility as a leader and just play guitar (laughs).
If you were planning a music festival, who's in your dream lineup?
Dream lineup... Well, I've never thought about that, but I guess some of my favorite groups, Phoenix, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Rage Against the Machine, and of course I love hearing new bands that Ive never heard of before. But I'll leave this one up to the promoters.
Aaron Lebos Reality, August 29, The Funky Buddha, 2621 N Federal Hwy, Boca Raton. Visit thefunkybuddha.com. They'll also be performing at the Friends of Nature Music Festival in Virginia Key in November. Visit fonfest.com.