"Music is always evolving," says Robert Castillo, a Kansas City jazz-band leader who is broadening his city's signature sound.
It's not as if he doesn't know the rules. As a bass player, he's in demand all around town as a sideman in other people's bands, proving that he knows how to play by jazz's strictest conventions. Yet as the leader of his own band, The Sextet, Castillo is dedicated to expanding the art form's possibilities.
The Sextet's new album, "Among Friends," veers between traditional swing and futuristic sounds. At almost two hours long, it's Castillo's most ambitious project.
"It's all over the place," Castillo says. "It goes from one style to the next. There's a reggae tune that is in an augmented harmony so it sounds really spacey. There's an Afrobeat track. There are two free avant-garde pieces and there are two traditional tracks — you know, 'good-old good ones.'"
Much of the music Castillo describes as groove-jazz sounds a lot different from the sound historically associated with Kansas City. His long hair, his devotion to meditation and his allegiance to counterculture events like the Burning Man Festival lend Castillo, 27, the vibe of a modern-day hippie.
"Yeah, sure, I'll embrace that term," he says with a laugh. However, he notes, "I am clean. I shower regularly. And I'm very organized."
Castillo comes by his freewheeling nature naturally. He was raised in North Kansas City by a Dominican mother and a father of Mayan descent.
"Latin culture is much looser than American culture," he explains. "At nine p.m. my mom might say, 'I think I'll make dinner now.'" Or, he says, "on a Thursday my dad would say, 'Hey, let's go to New York for the weekend' and then we just literally get in the car and just go to New York."
That sort of spontaneity influenced his approach to jazz. After attending North Kansas City High School and graduating from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, Castillo volunteered with AmeriCorps. Based in the Oregon mountains, he began to make plans for a group that would become the Sextet.
"I had all this time to myself and I just found myself writing music for three horns," he said. "And that's essentially how the Sextet was born."
The group's third album, "Among Friends," features the core band of saxophonists Max Levy and Joe Tesoro, trombonist Trevor Turla, guitarist Peter Marten and drummer Nik Douglas, along with contributions from several other Kansas City artists.
Partly because it features vocals from the popular Calvin Arsenia, an early fan favorite is the record's startling ten-minute reading of "My Funny Valentine." Arsenia and vocalist Miki P are among 14 musicians on the exuberant Afrobeat arrangement of the old jazz standard.
"I just wanted to play a lot of music with a lot of friends," Castillo says. "We had a lot of friends in the studio that day."
"The song is about the experiencing, acknowledging and overcoming of depression," says Castillo, explaining how his student debt gave him the blues.
"I was not always this positive or vibrant," he says. "I definitely had a bout of depression after my junior year of college when I finally realized how much debt I'd signed myself up for."
He's diligently knocked it down, and estimates he'll be free within two years.
"I'm so excited for what I'll do then," he says, "because I have all these visions for large-scale ensemble works and you gotta pay those musicians."
Castillo did pay J. Ashley Miller to co-produce "Among Friends." He credits Miller for helping to realize his experimental vision.
Miller says he admires the adventurous ambition of Castillo's band.
"Some of my favorite parts of the record are when they were really stretching the solos out and, like, doing these long fusion sections and just getting it as kind of trippy and humongous-sounding as possible," Miller says.
To describe the psychedelic production effects he applied to Peter Marten's soaring guitar solo on "TBD," Miller uses a cosmic analogy: "It's a falcon that can withstand the vacuum of space."
Such playful experimentation is uncommon in Kansas City's jazz scene. The city's conservative dynamic might begin to change, however, with the spread of Castillo's large-scale perspective.
"You just can't see beyond the background radiation of the universe," he says. "And you can't see beyond this moment. It's just so far out."
The Sextet "Among Friends" album release, Sunday, Sept. 15 at RecordBar, 1520 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri 64108.
KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at Plastic Sax.