Berta Moreno — jazz saxophonist, bandleader, composer, and producer — has been described as one of the most distinctive voices on the tenor among her generation. She is often defined as a thoughtful and precise soloist who knows how to choose meaningful notes and statements, and that her strong personality is reflected in her unique dark and warm sound on the tenor.
Her new album, Tumaini, was created because of a “profound and life-changing experience” she had while spending time in Nairobi, Kenya, volunteering in a pre-school. The trip, and the process of creating the album, changed Moreno’s outlook — on life, on community, and especially on her music.
“It freed me up as a musician,” she says simply. “It changed me permanently.”
She recently sat down with Inside:Cool Music Magazine and discussed her African trip, the musical journey it enabled, and the new album that resulted.
(To view the complete video interview, scroll to the bottom of the story.)
A native of Madrid, Spain, Moreno spent her childhood playing multiple musical instruments such as guitar, cello, and bass, until she could get her own saxophone. She trained classically on the clarinet, but says she was always in love with jazz, with the freedom and openness of improvisation. “Classical music is amazing and I love it, but it was lacking the space for me to be myself a little bit more,” she says.
She immersed herself in jazz albums and books, listening to and learning about everyone from Cannonball Adderley to John Coltrane to Thelonious Monk. “In my environment, there were not many jazz musicians in Madrid, so I didn’t think that was a music that you could play, just to listen and enjoy,” she says. But then one day she realized she could play jazz, and she set about doing it.
She moved to the Netherlands in 2010 to study jazz and sax. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she moved to New York City in 2014 because, as she says, if you want to play jazz, New York is the place to do it. She quickly became a staple player on the jazz scene, won numerous awards, toured Europe and the US, formed the Berta Moreno Quintet, and released her first album, Little Steps, in 2017.
But it was in 2016 that Moreno’s life went in a new direction, influenced by a trip to Africa. She was working then with a group in New York City called Bilingual Birdies, which builds cultural bridges by teaching young children foreign languages through music and movement. They had prepared a trip to volunteer in the Little Ray of Hope School in the economically downtrodden Kawangware region of Kenya and asked Moreno to go as a saxophone player and interact with the kids.
“The kids had never seen a saxophone before — or any real musical instruments,” she says. “It was so much fun spending time together. They opened their arms to us; we sang and danced together. … I became one of them: just a little kid.”
Not only did the schoolchildren learn from her, but she also learned from them. “I was missing community and people [like I knew in Spain, which is so different in New York],” she says. “I was a little down and having a hard time, and I went there and they gave me everything I was missing. It was also impressive to see how they all were smiling and they were with such positive attitudes, living in those conditions. … They had nothing but they sharing whatever they had. So I was like, if I could take that approach to my daily life [in New York City] and remember how they are doing over there it will be much easier to me … and if I do this album I can spread that philosophy around and help a little bit.”
And that’s exactly what she did. Moreno formed the Afro-Jazz Soul Project (comprising bassist and co-producer Maksim Perepelica, drummer and bandleader in his own right Raphaël Pannier, percussionist Franco Pinna, pianist and keyboardist Manuel Valera, and vocalist Alana Sinkëy) and started composing the album that would become Tumaini.
The music is a blend of traditional African music with soul and jazz, Moreno says. Each song started with a feeling branching out from the intense emotions and experiences she had while in Kenya. “It was a little bit of sitting down and just searching, searching, searching and trying to connect those feelings to something that musically will make the picture.”
Moreno wrote and composed all the songs on the album herself. She says it was challenging to learn and feel the African sonorities and rhythms and meld them with jazz and soul, but on the other hand it was like a “playground” for her to explore and just have fun creating new music.
“It was really personal, so when it was done I was really proud,” she says.
Tumaini means “hope” in Swahili, which is the entire point of the album, she says. “They hope life will work out; they trust life and they trust each other, so that was one of the reasons for the album title,” she says. Also, the people of Kawangware gave her hope for community and caring for each other, and there’s also the hope that the album is heard by as many people as possible and continues to grow.
“There’s a lot of hard work behind the hope,” she says. “Hope plus action is a good balance.”
Watch our complete interview with Berta Moreno:
Listen to Berta Moreno play a few bars from “Karibu” during our interview:
Check out this video by Berta Moreno and the Afro-Jazz Soul Project for the song “Karibu” off the album Tumaini: