By Kelly Kimball
Photography courtesy of Satya Fuentes
Her voice pops and swirls like an eccentric firework, it deeply trills like a young and playful Billie Joel; it blends sweetly with the ambient waves of echoing, syncopated chords and falsetto harmonies like that of a hazy stroll through a sleepy city -- jazzy and bluesy; never sharp, always gentle.
Sitting, cross-legged in the wide belly of an empty street tunnel somewhere in Orange County, 18-year-old Satya Fuentes begins to pluck playfully at a few made-up chords, filling the arched space with the colors of an effortlessly folkish voice.
Fuentes is currently a music major at UC Irvine, with a special focus on Jazz Piano. Before that, however, she experienced four years of conservatory training at the Orange County High School of the Arts specializing in piano performance. Fuentes then went on to attend a prestigious summer program at Berklee College of music which would become her first independent experience as a part of her solo career.
Much to the disappointment of her piano teachers, Fuentes never owned a real piano – just an old YAMAHA keyboard that she has carried around with her to every open mic, every showcase, every banquet and every possible performance opportunity since she first musically debuted at the age of 13. At five years old, her musical training kicked off without so much as the ability to reach the echo pedal with her dangling feet. Just a few years later, she would go on to learn jazz piano under the direction of a private teacher, which would offer her a whole other level of creativity through the art of improvisation, intimate collaboration and the basic structures and chords of contemporary music.
“Every person you’re with is a musician,” Fuentes speaks elatedly when recalling her two months in the East Coast at Berklee College. “Everyone in your class is a musician; they have the same career goals and understand where you’re coming from and where you’re going.” Currently as a student in Claire Trevor School of the Arts, Fuentes notices the stark difference in the relationship between students and the Arts in Orange County versus Boston.
“Jazz is really a high form of art that not many people appreciate,” explains Fuentes. “Pop music is really accessible [nowadays], and jazz is an emotionally intimate musical relationship. You need to want to feel it.”
A fellow UCI student and Biology major Andrew Vong shares similar sentiments when describing Fuentes and her relationship to music.
“She’s like a walking art show, and I do mean that in the best way,” Vong says.
One of the most resonating experiences Fuentes has had at UCI so far is the chance to musically collaborate with nine-time Grammy Award winner and world-renown Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. She was invited as a part of a special reception hosted privately in the home of medical doctor and art collector Dr. Kenneth Tokita, who is a special patron of Claire Trevor.
At the time, Marsalis was touring with a group known as “Jazz at the Lincoln Center.” Fuentes recalls him being friendly and humble; he spoke briefly but made particular efforts to shake the hands of every young student musician before anyone else in the room upon entering. Fuentes sat among approximately 30 arts faculty members, graduate students and undergraduate students alike in this private concert.
Fuentes felt that her experience with Marsalis and his traveling orchestra was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Jazz is a beautifully preserved American artform,” she says. “[Marsalis] is so dedicated to furthering this musical education.”
Upon first glance at Satya Fuentes, one probably wouldn’t know that she primarily described herself as an eccentric person; that she is easily inspired by the work of surrealist artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Max Ernst; or that she strongly identifies herself as a feminist. She is a deep and passionate dreamer, layering experiences and musical characteristics together in a quirky and contemporary collage of sound.
“Music has allowed me to have a strong sense of self-identity; it pushes me to do better; to collaborate as much as I can, as creatively as I can. I’m not afraid to be weird.”