Coming Full Circle
Jazz pianist Joshua Espinoza returns to the Furman stage to debut new album
by Ron Wagner ’93
One word Joshua Espinoza ’11 uses to describe “Journey Into Night,” the Joshua Espinoza Trio’s critically acclaimed debut album that dropped in June of 2019, is nostalgic. It’s also a word that reflects his feelings about Furman, which made the jazz pianist’s Oct. 4 performance in Daniel Recital Hall all the more meaningful.
“It was really exciting to come back and bring things full circle,” Espinoza says. “I’m always bragging to people about how much I love Furman, and I miss it every day. Going back, doing what I do, just (felt) really special.”
The show was part of a tour through the Carolinas to promote “Journey Into Night” and represented the first time Espinoza had played on campus as a professional musician. The audience was treated to material from a record All About Jazz rated four stars out of five, experiencing first hand Espinoza’s “elegant touch” as he teamed with drummer Jason Lamar Davis and Mikel Combs to perform a mix of covers and original songs.
“Journey Into Night” opens with Burt Bacharach’s “Always Something There to Remind Me” and the Beatles’ “In My Life” before flowing into original Espinoza compositions “Streetlight Serenade” and “Nocturne for Anna Marie.” The disparate mix contained in the nine tracks concludes with the 1973 Eagles classic “Desperado,” though the mix becomes not so disparate when viewed through the lens of artistic inspiration Espinoza drew from living in Baltimore.
“The original material I wrote for the album, those songs invoke nighttime images,” he says. “A lot of them are inspired by my life here, living in the city.”
The choice of cover songs, which also includes Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” was also influenced by where the mind often goes as it drifts into sleep.
“When we think about the nighttime, it’s when we reflect on what’s important,” Espinoza says. “(The covers) have a poignant, nostalgic feel to them besides being just really great music.”
Espinoza grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and while his interest in jazz was sparked by a high school music teacher he says his ability to play it needed some work when he arrived at Furman.
“I started learning the piano when I was 11, and most people who go on to a career in music – especially as a piano player – start when they’re like 4 or 5. So I had a lot of ground to make up,” Espinoza says. “Going to a place like Furman was great for me because it was small enough that I got a lot of personalized attention that I may not have gotten at a much larger music conservatory, but I got the same quality of education that I would have gotten anywhere else.”
Nobody contributed to that more than Professor Emeritus Ruby Morgan, who retired in 2018. She became Espinoza’s mentor as he gained the superior technical skills necessary to earn a degree in piano performance, and Associate Professor of Saxophone and Director of Jazz Studies Matt Olson’s jazz improvisation class and the Furman jazz ensemble helped Espinoza focus those skills on the genre he loved.
He went on to be a winner of Furman’s Biennial Concerto Competition, performing the final movement of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Furman Symphony Orchestra under the baton of composer Jay Bocook. Olson says Espinoza’s talent was always apparent, and dedication brought it out.
“Becoming a good musician, there’s no app for it,” Olson says. “You have to put the time in and you have to persistently and consistently do the work. The piano is a wickedly difficult instrument.”
Nonetheless, Espinoza was hooked from the first moment he began playing.
“I’ve always just been drawn by something that I can’t really describe,” he says. “I just love the sound of it. You can essentially be the orchestra because you’ve got all of these notes at your disposal. So when you sit at the piano you’re sort of like a conductor.”
Espinoza, who went on to earn a master’s degree in jazz studies from Indiana University, has performed with artists like Warren Wolf, Paul Bollenback and Jerome Jennings and on national stages including the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, The Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Journey Into Night” marked a different challenge, however, as he grappled with domesticating jazz enough to make an album.
“I enjoy composing, but composing is kind of a strange process for me because as a jazz musician one of the things that we do so much is we improvise … It’s a discussion-oriented type of music, and when you’re playing it there’s this thrill about creating it on the spot,” he says. “And when it comes to composing, you have to make permanent decisions. It’s a daunting task to write music and set it in stone, and especially to record it.”
Espinoza is the son of a Mexican immigrant father and white American mother, and growing up exposed to two cultures made him open to multiple experiences and perspectives. It also has manifested itself in his music, both as a performer and composer.
“My music has elements of classical music and elements of jazz and elements of maybe hip-hop or funk … I don’t like to box myself in,” he says. “There are few boundaries now as artists. We can be fluid and go from one cultural experience to another with our music and it doesn’t sound strange. I think it sounds beautiful.”
Olson says there are several ways to measure success as a jazz musician, and Espinoza has achieved perhaps the most important one.
“That’s the most honest part of becoming a jazz musician: Can I have my own identity as a player? I listened to that record, and it’s Josh. It’s who he is as a player and who he is as a musician,” Olson says. “He’s developing his voice, and as a teacher that makes me super happy because that’s what we want.”
Learn more about Espinoza on his website, https://www.joshuaespinoza.com/.