Jon Secada :: Jazz and Feinstein’s

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 15, 2009

Years before "American Idol," Jon Secada, wowed listeners with his trademark, emotion-laden high notes that seemed to stretch to the horizon.

Now he's heading back to his jazz roots (he has a Master's degree in jazz vocal performance from the University of Miami) with his new CD, "Expressions: The Jazz Album" and week's worth of shows at Manhattan's posh Feinstein's nightclub.

Back in 1992, after a few years as a session musician and backup singer for Gloria Estefan, Jon Secada took front and center stage with his self-titled album and the Top Five hit "Just Another Day". By the time the song finished its 37-week run on the charts, it had become Billboard's #4 song of the year.

Three more singles followed, helping the album become triple-platinum in the US and a worldwide smash. Secada had arrived.

A Spanish version of the CD earned him a Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album. In 1994, the album "Heart, Soul and a Voice" (which included the hit "If You Go") went platinum, and in 1995, the album "Amor" earned him his second Grammy, for Best Latin Pop Performance.

Secada released a few more CDs and had celebrated turns in Broadway's "Grease" and "Cabaret" in 1995 and 2003, respectively.

In the last few years, he has been a judge on "Latin American Idol" -- televised in Latin and South America, it arguably gets a larger audience than "American Idol" -- and released the CD "Same Dream" in 2006, which was critically acclaimed but largely unnoticed by American audiences.

Through it all, he has continued to write hit songs for artists such as Gloria Estefan, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin and Mandy Moore, among others.

EDGE recently sat down with Secada, now 46, at the Regency Hotel on the day before his debut at the famed club, to discuss his career.

His Cuban connection

EDGE: You moved to the US with your parents from Cuba when you were about eight. Tell me what you remember of that journey and how it has been part of the ongoing story of your life.

Jon Secada: I don't remember much. Psychologically, as a child, I've blocked it out of my memory, the hard details of Cuba. My life as I know it, as I remember it, really started in Miami. Miami is still very close to my traditions and my culture and who I am as an American. Miami is a haven for Cubans, so as an immigrant and as a child I have good memories of being there and adapting to my surroundings. I had no hard issues as to how to deal or how to become part of mainstream society in the US.

EDGE: Do you have opinions about relations between the US and Cuba or do you try to stay out of politics?

JS: My father was a political prisoner but I was five or six years old then. Cuba still deals with a lot of oppression. It is one of the last strongholds of the world. Economically, I think it's something that the world community has to be responsible for, not just the US. Politically, it has never been my thing. My parents went through what they went through but my life as I know it has been living in the US. [He added that he has never been back.]

Any regrets?

EDGE: When you burst onto the scene in 1992, I had a sense that you were going to be huge -- like Michael Jackson huge -- because you had the voice, the musicianship, the look. Did you ever have any frustrations with the whims of the music industry or are you pleased with the way your career has gone?

JS: Less than 1% of anyone that goes into this industry gets as far as I did, especially as a musician, an artist, a performer. It's a miracle it went as far as it did. I studied music and I was a working musician in Miami and the success of my debut album was unbelievable. I'm very lucky.

EDGE: I think for a lot of Americans, there has been a sense that you've disappeared for a while. Do you see "Expressions" as a return to your roots as well as a kind of comeback?

JS: Absolutely. I did a Christmas CD in limited release a couple of years back and another pop CD three years ago. This particular CD is the first time I've done anything new in four years. It's a very fresh album for me and in terms of releasing something in English, it's like rebranding myself in the industry by putting a new kind of music out.

EDGE: When I told people over the weekend that I'd be interviewing you, the first thing that they said was, "Oh, he's hot!" You are so accomplished, but "the look" is such a part of the industry. How comfortable are you with that?

JS: [Laughs] I love it. It's a responsibility. Now more than ever, I'm glad that I worked it into my package -- to stay fit, to be conscious of my persona and how I look, how I dress. It's a part of being an artist. That's what I tell all the kids too... the importance of how you present yourself. And on "Latin American Idol", I emphasize the idea of stage presence and everything that deals with how you present yourself. Very important.

EDGE: Let's talk about the new CD. When I opened it up, what surprised me was that here you were, placing your songs alongside all-time classics like "What a Wonderful World" and "Body and Soul." I've never seen an artist do that -- I mean, Rod Stewart didn't do that, for example, with his albums of standards-and yet, it totally worked. I really came to re-appreciate you as a songwriter. When you were putting this together, did you ever say to yourself, "Wow, this takes some balls! This is a real risk!"

JS: This CD was risky; even the way that we did it. We did it all live; I wanted to do it very old-school. All the guys in the same room. It's very naked, extremely transparent. To take some of my old songs and re-harmonize them, it was challenging. I wanted to kind of extract all my years of college, all that jazz. We spent a lot of time prepping because we had to. Very jazzy, but very real with the proximity.

Family life

EDGE: You are married with two children, right? One of the songs, "Find Me in Your Dreams," was written for your children. Tell me how having a family has filled out your life.

JS: It's crazy busy, especially with the travel. Communication is everything. But I do as much as I can with discipline and sacrifice to make sure that I'm there for my kids. I'm never away for more than two weeks, and when I'm home I'm really home. But I do travel a lot. Now until December it's going to busy for me, but my children are my life. Being an only child myself, being a parent means everything to me.

EDGE: You've done a lot of work for so many causes-children, education, hurricane relief, AIDS. What helps you decide what to support?

JS: Since the beginning of my career, I've realized there's so much artists can do if they have the time. I've always told myself that if I can be an example or actually lend a hand in anything that I'm asked to do, I will do it. It isn't so much one charity more than another, it's just that if they ask me, if I can be of help, I'm there. So when opportunities come up, I do it. I enjoy it.

EDGE: You've worked with some amazing people over the years, even Sinatra and Pavarotti. Is there anyone out there you dream of collaborating with?

JS: There's nobody in particular. Opportunities come up, attached to relationships and people's schedules. There's so much talent out there, so many great artists. I love the fact that anyone would ask me to do anything. Especially in 1992 when the first CD came out, all these things-Sinatra, Pavarotti-came into play. And a lot of them are remnants of my songwriting career, which has never stopped. As a working musician, I am used to appreciating opportunities and love to take advantage of any that come my way. I love all kinds of music and respect all kinds of artists. Making it in this business is a blessing.

EDGE: So how excited are you about playing Feinstein's?

JS: I wanted to use this week as a way to introduce the CD and to put it out there attached to a gig that promotes this kind of recording. I love these rooms. I grew up seeing Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan play these kinds of rooms.

EDGE: Any thing else you want to say?

JS: The CD comes out on September 22 and I hope to be doing more venues to promote this music, in between bouncing down to Buenos Aires to tape "Latin American Idol."

EDGE: Wow, that's a big bounce and you're a busy guy. Good luck, and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow night.

JS: Thank you. I'll be doing songs from the CD, of course, and I have a few other things in store as well.

Jon Secada will be at Feinstein's nightly through Saturday, September 19. 212-339-4095.

Go to his website to find out about upcoming dates around the country.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).