Despite the hour, jazz envoys draw listeners in Limón library

Friday at 11 a.m. hardly sounds like the perfect time for an Afro-Cuban jazz show, and hosting it at the public library in Limón makes it sound even less perfect. Electrical storms and heavy rains had closed schools and caused flooding that morning. But against all odds the Joel La Rue Smith Trio, played a captivating set to the 30 or so persons who came to be a part of Costa Rica’s 2013 International Jazz Festival, which runs through Sunday.

The Joel La Rue Smith Trio is comprised of Joel (pronounced Joe-L), who in addition to being the leader is also the current director of Jazz/Big Band at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. He plays piano. Parker McCallister, a former Smith student, is on a five-string bass, and Charles Burchell, also a former student who recently was graduated by Harvard University with a master’s in education, handles percussion.

Smith was happy to discuss what it means to be a part of a U.S. cultural envoy, his music style and his upcoming CDs.

Smith, 40, who is from Queens, New York, and has roots on his father’s side in Louisiana, has travelled all over the world playing with orchestras and in major jazz festivals. He has performed at the White House as well as the Royal Albert Hall in London.

This is his fourth trip to Costa Rica but his first time as part of a U.S. State Department cultural envoy.

“To be asked here in an official capacity that means that they have acknowledged your worth on more than just a verbal level,” he said. “Being part of the cultural envoy is like creating an ally in spreading the music to the world. I’m following in the tradition of Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, people that I admire.”

He added that he has always had a positive experience in Costa Rica. He’s been around the world and he considers Costa Rica a mountain top experience. Diversity is a buzz word in the world now, but it really exists in Costa Rica.

In fact, he said, the student band members are playing in place of  previous band members because of Costa Rica. Before the start of 2012’s jazz festival Manuel Arce, cultural director for the Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano, asked him if he could bring African-Americans and students to help promote the Black Culture festival. Last year was his first year to bring them “and we have been playing together ever since,” he said.

He said has a favorite Costa Rican group. “. . . the kids in the New Jazz Project. They are the group to watch. They play with authenticity and are fusing Latino roots with jazz.”

The core of his jazz music has a strong allegiance to Cuban tradition and his classical to the Russian school of piano playing. He considers Isabelle Vengerova a musical grandparent because he studied with someone who studied with her. “It’s almost like a pedigree.” he said. He insists that he prefers performing live to recording and wants his music to make listeners feel uneasy but good all at the same time.

“I have worked very hard to be a leader,” he said. “I have worked for everything I have.”

“This is just the tip of the iceberg for me. As an artist you never get settled, you don’t feel like you accomplish much. There is always more to do.”

“Everyone has a purpose and it is up to us to find out what it is and believe in it. Let no one tear you away from it.”

The trio’s two new CDs are coming out this December. The classical “Colossus Piano Collection” includes an original sonata, and the Afro-Cuban Jazz is “Motorman’s Son,” which has seven original songs and three standards. Smith’s father is a motorman for the New York City subway.

His Web site is and more information on the upcoming events in Costa Rica’s 2013 International Jazz Festival can be found at

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