Originally from Lima, Peru, bassist Jorge Roeder has become renowned as one of the most versatile and expressive bass players in jazz today. Combining a symphonic imagination with the intimate lyricism of a folk musician, the aggressive energy of a raw rocker with the buoyant rhythmic sensibilities of his Afro-Peruvian roots, Roeder conveys a wide spectrum of influences within a resolute foundation. In his hands, writes Peter Hum of the Ottawa Citizen, “the music feels like it’s dancing from the ground up.”
The stunning adaptability of Roeder’s voice is evidenced by the diversity of his gifted collaborators. He has enjoyed long-standing partnerships with guitarist Julian Lage, whose music encompasses a panoramic sweep of Americana styles, and Argentinian vocalist Sofia Rei, an inventive songwriter and interpreter of melodies from various South American traditions. He is also a key member of Israeli pianist Shai Maestro’s trio, which blends intricate complexity and ethereal elegance, as well as trombonist Ryan Keberle’s politically charged ensemble Catharsis.
Roeder has also shared stages with such innovators as legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton, adventurous guitarist Nels Cline and iconoclastic composer/saxophonist John Zorn. His gifts have been recognized with a number of awards, including first prize at the 2007 International Society of Bassists Jazz Competition; semi-finalist placement in the 2009 Thelonious Monk Bass Competition; and a Grammy Award nomination for the debut album by the Julian Lage Group.
Despite his seemingly natural talents, Roeder began his life in music reluctantly. He would go on to enthusiastically study classical cello in Peru and Russia, hone his electric chops in Lima rock clubs, and delve into jazz at Boston’s esteemed New England Conservatory. But it all began when his mother, on a whim, bought a guitar and signed the family up for lessons. Roeder’s sisters soon dropped out; as the youngest sibling, Jorge failed to realize that saying ‘no’ was an option and persisted.
During his first guitar lesson Roeder’s instructor challenged him to improvise, which the bassist recalls as a terrifying moment – but an adrenaline rush that he seeks to recreate to this day, relishing opportunities that place him in unfamiliar or unexpected situations. At the time, however, he simply froze and formed a dislike of the instrument that wasn’t shaken until he began to play along with early 90s rock songs on the radio, figuring out ear-rattling hits by the likes of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
At the same time Roeder’s high school became the first in Peru to institute a music pedagogy program, which the students took to excitedly. Out of 1200 students, 900 signed up for the music program; Roeder’s first choice was the upright bass, but when he skipped the tryout to play soccer he was left with the choice of saxophone or cello. Figuring that his guitar lessons would better suit him for a stringed instrument he opted for the cello. The opportunity for the school orchestra to sit in with the Lima Philharmonic for a performance of Carl Orff’s epic “Carmina Burana” gave Roeder his first taste of how powerful live music could be, finally setting him on the path to becoming a professional musician.
Two years after picking up the cello, Roeder was invited to pursue his classical studies at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia. At the same time he had begun performing in local rock bands, tearing the frets from an old guitar to adapt it into a makeshift electric bass. During his senior year of high school he made the switch from cello to upright bass, and after his first experience sitting in with a big band formed by his peers, he knew what his future held: “I have to play upright bass,” he recalls, “and I have to play jazz.”
Roeder moved to Boston in 2002 with a scholarship to New England Conservatory, where he would study with such jazz greats as Danilo Pérez, Jerry Bergonzi, Dominique Eade, Bob Moses, Charlie Banacos, Cecil McBee, John Lockwood, and fellow Peruvian Oscar Stagnaro. While there, he made important connections with fellow students including pianist Dan Tepfer, saxophonist Dan Blake, and drummer Richie Barshay, who was also touring with Herbie Hancock. He also began collaborations with the only other Latin American students in the jazz department: pianist Gabriel Guerrero and vocalist Sofia Rei. As a founding member, artistic director and frequent producer of Rei’s group, Roeder has explored a vast swath of South American folkloric music as well as the singer’s own evocative songs.
In 2007 Roeder relocated to Brooklyn and soon forged two more profound collaborations. Crossing paths with the then 17-year old guitar prodigy Julian Lage while on an excursion to the West Coast, Roeder found himself with an intuitive partner with whom he could embark on a variety of divergent explorations. Their first recording together, the Julian Lage Group’s 2009 debut Sounding Point, was nominated for the “Best Contemporary Jazz Album” Grammy. Since that time they’ve reconvened in duo and trio settings, most recently on Lage’s 2019 Mack Avenue release Love Hurts with Bad Plus drummer Dave King, and in groups led by Gary Burton, John Zorn and Nels Cline.
Roeder met pianist Shai Maestro while both happened to be playing in Peru, then reconnected once they’d returned to New York. Having recently concluded his acclaimed tenure with the virtuosic Avishai Cohen, Maestro was used to playing with a bassist who could respond to any challenge with wit and audacity; in Roeder he found the same qualities, and in the pianist’s alternately airy and exhilarating trio alongside drummer Ofri Nehemya, Roeder can be heard playing with both staggering athleticism and deep-rooted emotion.
Roeder’s electric playing can be heard to soul-stirring effect in his work with trombonist Ryan Keberle’s Catharsis, a band formed to respond to our tumultuous political times with inspirational vigor. He was also recently enlisted by the prolific John Zorn for a new project investigating the saxophonist’s vast Masada songbook with Zorn, Lage, and drummer Kenny Wollesen.
With his boundless skills and searching curiosity, Roeder’s music seems to forever be reaching towards a new horizon. He’s absorbed the lessons of cerebral classical training, unbridled rock passion, and spontaneous jazz invention to form a singular voice on the bass, one that has placed him in the vanguard of modern jazz.