Home News Q & A: Joseph Henry Cortese Discusses His Latest Album, The Storytellas,...

Q & A: Joseph Henry Cortese Discusses His Latest Album, The Storytellas, and First Fridays at Crossroads Tabernacle

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Tom Campisi, publisher of TriStateVoice.com, recently interviewed Joseph Henry Cortese regarding his family’s music legacy, his time as a drummer with Roberta Flack, and the Washington Commanders. The full YouTube video is below.

This transcript from that interview (part one of two) includes a conversation regarding his latest album, Kenosis, and First Fridays at Crossroads Tabernacle. Rev. Cortese and his wife Melissa are the pastors at Crossroads Tabernacle in the Bronx. An accomplished musician and songwriter, Joseph Henry Cortese’s previous albums include: The Race, Come To Me All Who Labor, The Psalter Remixed, Vol. 1, and various releases from The Storytellas.

Tom Campisi: Welcome Pastor Joe. Your latest album, Kenosis, has a connection to some of your music with The Storytellas during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Let’s talk about the Storytellas hip hop movement and how your new project came about.

Joseph Henry Cortese: The Storytellas movement evolved from a need we had when we (Pastor Aimee Cortese and Crossroads Tabernacle) were co-laboring with evangelist Nicky Cruz and trying to touch the lives of young people. We needed the right tools. We had to embrace a musical style that was more hip hop. We came from a progressive background as a family—classical jazz, gospel, R&B.

I went out and got some help. And the help ended up becoming this troupe called The Storytellas. It was filled with musicians, rappers, singers, actors, actresses, comedians, all kinds of people. During that time, I would bring songs that I had written to the rappers. They would lay down their poetry on this bed of music, but that bed of music was not written primarily for them. It was music that I had been writing for either a more instrumental context or a vocal context.

TC: So some of The Storytellas music influenced Kenosis?

JHC: Kenosis, the new release, revisits some of that music, some of my favorite parts. When people listen to this music, they are going to recognize songs like “The Atonement,” “The Prodigal,” and “Blind Man.” There are also a couple of new songs.

I wanted to bring these songs back and introduce them to a whole new world…Because of my musical background and my training, I also deeply love instrumental music. But the instrumental music still has to be lyrical. It still has to be approachable. It has to be accessible to the audience.

This music (Kenosis) has a lot of jazz sensibilities….typically, you introduce the song and you play the melody of the song down once. Then you go back to the top of the song, and you take it down with iterations through soloists of the same form…So you get a chance to hear the melody and then you start to hear everybody else….That’s a very jazz standard form. On Kenosis, we are doing it without losing the essence of R&B, soul, hip hop…

We want the music to reach the innermost part of the listener. Not to sound spooky, but that’s when I know I’m reaching your heart, because your heart moves at beats per minute. So when we talk about groove, when we talk about dancing, we need to understand that people come because we’re literally matching the rhythm of their heart, the rhythm of their gait when they’re walking.

So I’m hoping that this new album and this music not only has the musical things and the melody and the chord changes and all that stuff, but it also is happening in a rhythm and a beat that is in harmony with your heart.

TC: Who are the musicians on Kenosis?

The people from our neck of the woods may not know the musicians, and that’s okay. But anybody from the world of modern progressive music and all those other genres I talked about, they know Bob Franceschini (jazz saxophonist). They know Manuel Valera (jazz pianist). These are Grammy nominated/winning musicians who are monsters in their own right and in their own world. I can’t believe I get to know them and get to be in a relationship with them.

Bob Franceschini has played with {everyone]. Ever since Michael Brecker passed away, I believe that people look to Bob as sort of the remnant of that level of playing and musicality… Manuel Valera is a phenom that came over from Cuba in the 80s. He came from a prestigious family of musicians, landed in Miami and eventually made his way to New York.

Carlos Chung (guitar) is an Ecuadorian that has Asian roots as well. He is another phenom well known in South America. He is also the guitar player at Crossroads Tabernacle….Mike Stern, one of the biggest names in jazz music, is one of his favorite guitar players. There’s a viral YouTube video of Carlos going into 55 Bar and asking to borrow Mike Stern’s guitar. You just don’t do that….He borrows it and he plays it. And Mike Stern goes crazy and tells the whole club, “This guy is amazing.”

Well, this guy (Carlos) and his beautiful family are in our world. My son, Jordan Miles Cortese, is on bass. This is the group I am working with now. Even someone who doesn’t really have an ear for jazz can understand that that these are virtuosos who are having a ball with my music.

TC: Your band will play songs from Kenosis when you host First Fridays at Crossroads Tabernacle on Friday, Oct. 6 and Friday, November 3. What is First Fridays and why are you hosting these events?

JHC: Our motivation for hosting First Fridays was to give people a chance to get out of the house (especially after COVID) and give them a place to dance, celebrate, and enjoy music.

With First Fridays, two things are aching me. The first is how hard it is to live in New York City. Everybody thinks, wow, the capital of the world, it must be amazing. The skyscrapers, Broadway. Well after Broadway and the bright lights, there are other things that are really hard to contend with—a super high cost of living, nonstop vigilance. We always have to be on guard and that gets exhausting. And then I think about the commute of so many New Yorkers. And that, again, is harrowing. I am looking to create a space, a safe place, where you know you are being taken care of, and there’s security all around. When people come home from work on Fridays, there’s a place to go. Between isolation and loneliness, combined with the rat race of living here, and the post-COVID world, things are really, really tough.

Data shows that people are seeking artistic expressions more than ever. People are spending more money to go to museums, to go hear live music, to do anything to do with art. At the core of it, people want to feel again, feel deeply. In these kind of places, people want to feel connections. People want to be able to dance. “Dancing” is a funny thing in our world of faith, but it’s becoming less of a thing. And it’s becoming more of a freedom.

And so we wanted to create a place where you can dance or not dance. A place where there’s live music, refreshments, and connections. This is the motive behind First Fridays. We’re going to try to keep doing this (on a monthly basis). This space is perfect for it.

Kenosis is available on all streaming music channels.

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