Fresh off a Pitbull tour, Twin Cities jazz artist Lucia Sarmiento returns ready to lead

A woman tunes her saxophone
Lucia Sarmiento in preparation for a concert with rapper and singer, Pitbull.
Courtesy of Lucia Sarmiento

Lucia Sarmiento was born and raised in Lima, Peru and moved to the Twin Cities to study jazz at the former McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. Since then, she has been making her mark on the music scene, including touring with singer and rapper Pitbull. Sarmiento joined host Cathy Wurzer to talk about her work in the local jazz scene and her upcoming album to be released this summer.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

How were you first introduced to jazz in Lima, Peru?

I started playing in the big band at my middle school. We were playing big band arrangements and they were, of course, very simple, but I was drawn to the sound and everything was something that I had never heard before. I wanted to learn more and that's how I started taking lessons and got more interested in the style.

How would you describe the jazz scene in Peru?

When I was growing up, there were not many women playing music. I think that's a problem that we have everywhere. Every time I go back home and visit now I see so many more musicians, boys and girls. There's a lot more schools too that are training people to be musicians and I think the scene is growing, which is very inspiring.

What drew you to the Twin Cities as a musician?

When I was in high school, McNally actually sent an ensemble to Peru. And I got to meet Pete Whitman, who ended up being my college professor, and a bunch of other people that I work with now. So we met when I was 17 years old and that's how I heard about the school. So I ended up applying and moving here.

What has your experience been like breaking into the local jazz scene as a woman?

I have received nothing but love here. I consider everybody in the community, in the music community here with my family. I moved here on my own, my family lives in Peru. Of course, as a woman, I feel like maybe people are paying a little more attention when you walk into a room because you look a little different. But I've always tried to sound the best that I can.

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How's it different? How would you describe your sound?

I admire saxophone players like Michael Brecker, Bob Mintzer and Chris Potter. Those are my three favorite one, because they have these huge sounds and they play with so much intensity. Every time I play the saxophone, I try to emulate that because I like that feeling of power and danger.

You are fresh off a tour with Pitbull. How'd you get connected with his team?

I actually got recommended. Last year, they were looking for a person who was a saxophone player and also a guitar player. And of course on the team everybody speaks Spanish, so I'm sure they were looking for somebody who was bilingual. And I sent an audition and ended up getting the call in July of 2021.

What was the experience like with Pitbull?

It was incredible. We were on the road for three months. There's different layers of rehearsals, first comes to the band and comes rehearsals with the dancers, and then we have the big rehearsals with the whole production and then we got sent on tour right away for two months. It was a bus tour, so we were all sleeping in the bus after the shows and we got to travel the whole country and play 48 shows in two months. It was crazy.

How many songs did you have to learn?

So for rehearsals, we learned about 30 songs and we recorded everything with the arrangements. They ended up consolidating and making a setlist of, I would say maybe 12 to 15 songs for the tour.

Did you have to move along to the music while you played?

I think that was the most challenging part of this specific show is the high energy that I had never, as a jazz player, had to do. I am used to playing in a more intimate setting where people are not dancing or moving around so you're more focused in the music. In this type of huge production, it is more about the energy. One of the hardest, most challenging things about learning the show was being able to play and move around and dance.

Now that you're back in the Twin Cities, you're pursuing your own path as a solo artist and a band leader. What has that transition been like for you?

I am currently working on my first album, which is super exciting. This is a project that I started during the pandemic in 2020 because there were no shows anymore. I had to figure out a way to put my creativity to use and my time so I started writing, which had been something that I was a little scared of because it was so new. It is something that's gonna be recorded that you created and it's going to stay documented forever, instead of displaying a live show, which is what I'm used to where you play the music and it kind of evaporates in thin air, right? So this felt like a bit more pressure. I started learning the process of composition and now, two years later, I can finally say that I finished everything. I recorded the whole thing, which is a very big milestone.

Did your music change during the pandemic?

It was an outlet for me to kind of forget the whole situation and putting my time and energy into this creation. So for me, it was like an escape for everything. And I have been playing saxophone for 15 years, but I have been also taking voice lessons and I was playing guitar on tour as well. All these things have influenced my sound and I love jazz music, but I also love R&B and pop and smooth jazz. The music that I write I think kind of encompasses everything that I am.

Are you going to do a local tour for the album?

Right now we're in the first phase of mixing and mastering and everything and figuring out the performance part of it. I hope it will be released by the end of the summer and there will be some shows.