Rising Star: Evan Gongora

April 29, 2024

Evan Gongora’s father, Oscar, is a classical saxophonist and Founder and Director of The Vitral Saxophone Quartet. “So,” recalled the 18-year-old Evan, “he put a saxophone in my mouth at a very early age.” Evan “fell in love with the baritone saxophone. I loved the sound. I always listened for all the low sounds, songs built on the low notes of the chords. It really blends everything together.”

Growing up in East Hanover, NJ, Gongora (photo above) became serious about jazz at age 14, performing as a member of the Hanover Park High School jazz band and taking private lessons from saxophonists Chris Bittner and Andrew Gould and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan. By this time, he had become aware of the “virtuosity” of the celebrated bari player Pepper Adams. “He played bari sax like it’s an alto,” Gongora said. “He could just fly and play at whatever tempo with such accuracy and such clear articulation. Transcribing him is one of the easiest things to do because you can hear every single note. I just love the way he played. It’s really powerful. He has a lot of joy through his playing, and you can really feel that.”

Gould was impressed with Gongora’s “dedication. I had an awesome time working with him in our lessons together! We got into all sorts of fun musical topics, and he really scooped up every idea we spoke about. Most of all, he had a great attitude and driven work ethic. The sky is the limit!”

Joseph Spina, Coordinator of Music/Director of Bands at Hanover Park High School, described Gongora as “an incredibly talented and hardworking musician. For many years, since he was in middle school, I’ve known Evan to be very driven and focused on his musical and academic growth. I’ve very excited to see where his performance endeavors take him in the near and distant future.”

During his junior year of high school, Gongora auditioned for the New Jersey Youth Symphony Jazz Orchestra, one of the programs of Berkeley Heights, NJ-based Wharton Arts. There, he studied with trombonist Dion Tucker, the NJYSJO Director, as well as tenor saxophonist Lance Bryant, and baritone saxophonist Dave Schumacher. “Dion Tucker has been great in getting me to play more melodic,” he said. “Lance Bryant invited me to rehearse with his big band, and Dave Schumacher helped me figure out a good mouthpiece. Because I play on a vintage horn, making sure that I have a compatible mouthpiece is important, and he actually is letting me borrow one, which is amazing. They’re all super helpful, and they’re really a big influence on my future career.”

Tucker described Gongora as “a natural leader in all of his ensembles. He leads by example, which, in my opinion, is the only way to lead. I love Evan’s attention to the details in the music. He’s constantly looking for subtle nuances that make the music and his playing special. It’s obvious to me that Evan has a special gift that will take him as far as he wants to go in the music business.”

Recalling the rehearsal Gongora did with his big band, Bryant said, “From hearing him playing with the NJYS band, I could tell how serious he was and how much time he spends learning the music on his own. When a young musician plays in a musical language and feel that is consistent with the jazz tradition, you know he has put in the time and work at home. An experienced musician can hear it right away. These are things that can’t be acquired in a classroom.”

In the fall, Gongora will be attending William Paterson University as a Jazz Performance major. “Dr. Demsey (WPU Coordinator of Jazz Studies, David Demsey) was so welcoming to me,” he said, “and I have a chance to study with saxophonists such as Dayna Stephens, Rich Perry, and Vincent Herring.”

Said Demsey: “When our faculty first heard Evan, we knew that he had something very special and has limitless potential for his future. As I have gotten to know him, I am increasingly impressed by his knowledge for someone so young and for his already deep commitment to the music and to his instrument. We are all very excited to have him as part of our William Paterson community starting next fall!”

Gongora is grateful to all of his teachers “Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am. Chris Bittner was the first to tell me to transcribe. He taught me the blues and helped me with the basics, using all of my skills and all 12 keys. Andrew Gould helped a lot with my tone development. With Gary Smulyan, we do a lot of experimenting. A lot of times, he asks me what I want to know. He gives me a lot of harmony, diminished patterns. He’s taught me a lot about that. He encourages me to listen to transcriptions and to learn tunes.”

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