Rising Star: Esteban Castro

Esteban Castro’s parents gave him a toy piano when he was three years old. “I would just kind of gravitate toward it a lot,” he recalled. “When I was four, they rented a piano and started getting me lessons. I got into jazz because I would really enjoy improvising and composing when I started playing. I would get up in music class and improvise. My music teacher said, ‘Why don’t you play jazz?’ So, that’s when I started to get jazz lessons.”

A lot has happened to Castro since those early days. The 21-year-old moved to New York from Hackensack, NJ, in 2020 when he began attending Juilliard on a full-tuition Thomas Dubois Hormel Memorial Scholarship. As a 13-year-old, he was the first prize winner in the Montreux Jazz Piano Solo Competition, the youngest musician to ever receive that award. At 14, he was the youngest participant to win first prize in the Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition. He has also won three ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Awards, 15 DownBeat Student Music Awards, and was a finalist in the prestigious 2023 American Pianists Association Awards.

When Castro was nine years old, his first jazz teacher was pianist Adam Birnbaum at the New York Jazz Academy. Next stop was Montclair’s Jazz House Kids where he studied with alto saxophonist/educator Julius Tolentino. “I’ve been very lucky to have worked with so many talented young musicians through the years,” Tolentino said, “but Esteban was a stand out for sure because he was even younger than the rest. He was a member of the Jazz House Big Band as a middle schooler and was already playing with so much maturity. I’m so proud of his accomplishments, and I know there is only more to come!”

At 13, Castro began studying with pianist Jeremy Manasia at the Manhattan School of Music Precollege program. Manasia vividly remembers Castro’s MSM audition. “This little kid walks in with his father,” he recalled, “and we must’ve all smiled at how cute it all seemed; we didn’t usually have applicants at such a young age. I don’t remember what he played, but, collectively, all of our jaws dropped after he started to play. It was certainly unrefined, but there was already a sense of virtuosity and power coming out of that little body. It was remarkable, to say the least.”

What stood out for Manasia was, “how much fun music was for him. So much time was spent in our lessons laughing. Esteban was very ‘playful’ with music. He had a mind and ear that ‘just got’ music; it made sense to him. And, he liked to play around with it, to explore where it would take him. He’d crack himself up with the crazy things he would come up with. Esteban was one of the few students I’ve had where I didn’t need to really ‘teach’ him anything; I knew he would find it. I just tried to help him move in the right direction and provide a wide-open field to explore for himself.”

After he graduates from Juilliard this spring, Castro will continue to live in New York, concentrating on performing and composing, “leading my trio, plus sideman work. It’s kind of a continuation of what I’m doing now.” At Juilliard, he is studying piano with Ted Rosenthal, who described him as “a prodigiously gifted pianist. His unique pianistic gifts have him playing everything from ‘Carolina Shout’ to Prokofiev. He is an inventive and virtuosic modern jazz pianist and is a fine composer, too. I believe he will make a strong mark on the jazz scene for years to come.”

For the past eight years, Castro has been taking private lessons from Fred Hersch. “Esteban,” said Hersch, “is a rare talent. I started teaching him at age 13, and it has been very gratifying to see him come into his own. As I continue to mentor him, I am encouraging him to stay focused and have patience in his playing. He has perfect pitch and fabulous technique and wants to use it all! I have no doubt that he will quickly mature and take his place among the top pianists of his generation.”

Castro’s piano heroes of the past are Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk. “For me,” he said, “they are almost the holy trinity of jazz piano. I love Art Tatum’s 20th Century Piano Genius. It’s two separate live recordings of private performances he did later on in his life. Everything on that is beautiful, perfect jazz piano playing. Obviously, his technique is amazing, but I like the spontaneity of his harmonic sensibilities. He does a lot of stuff harmonically — he’ll throw in these notes that are super, kind of unexpected. That recording had a big impact on me.”

His favorite Bud Powell album is The Genius of Bud Powell, “especially the solo piano part. And, I love Solo Monk. I think that’s an incredible recording.” He’s also getting more into stride piano. “It’s hard to just even execute it,” he said. “James P. Johnson and Fats Waller were just able to make you dance and sound like a full orchestra with just one instrument. It’s really incredible. There’s so much to learn from it.”

A current pianist Castro particularly likes and admires is Sullivan Fortner. “I was watching an interview with him,” he said, “and he was talking about how he views the piano as an orchestra. I think that’s something that’s very unique about the piano, the idea of orchestration. When I played classical music, I played solo, but I also got the chance to play with an orchestra and chamber music and stuff like that. It helped give me an idea or sense of orchestration and also different kinds of colors, depending on what you want it to sound like. If you want the lower register to sound like a cello or a bass and the higher register to sound like the trumpets or flutes, you have the color palette accessible to be able to do that.”

Castro has been composing “for as early as I can remember because when I started playing, I also wanted to create, not just play something that was on the page. To me, composition and improvisation work hand in hand because what we do as jazz musicians — we just compose in the moment. I love doing it.”

I witnessed Castro’s piano wizardry live for the first time in late February when he was part of alto saxophonist Erena Terakubo’s quartet at the South Orange Performing Arts Center’s Jazz in the Loft series. It was only the second time he and Terakubo had played together, and she told me, “Esteban has a unique musical voice and exceptional technique on piano. I love playing with him.”-SANFORD JOSEPHSON

 

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