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Building a career note by note

Celt Jesus Gomez accompanies the McNary High School choir during practice in November. Gomez has made the most of the opportunities he’s been afforded and is planning a career as a composer. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

Jesus Gomez doesn’t hear a song like the the rest of us.

If we’re lucky, we might latch onto a lyric, a bit of perfect harmony, a melody that gets stuck in our brains for hours, or worse, days.

Gomez, a McNary High School senior and music composer, hears all of those. But, more importantly, he hears the places where he can break a song down, parcel it out and insert his own vision.

“I listen for message, but it’s the message I want to portray. It’s also the workability of the song I’m trying to find,” Gomez said.

He offers up Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack as a song that doesn’t quite work for reinterpretation, “There’s no real melody or harmony, it’s just kind of there, but there are some dance clubs songs where you can explode the musical content.”

Gomez certainly isn’t alone in his ability to plumb new depths of a song, but just a few minutes inside the McNary choir room will show any visitor what sets him apart. He regularly directs the choir through its warm-ups and sometimes during class itself closing his eyes tightly and listening intensely for imperfections and areas of improvement. He’s unafraid to stop them mid-note and have them start over if he’s not hearing the choir sing to their potential. More astonishing is that choir members accept Gomez’s guidance seemingly without question.

“It’s crazy, it’s good, it’s an honor,” he said. “Sometimes I sit there and think where else could I do this? The leadership in other choirs is running sectionals,” Gomez said. “I’ve arranged 10 pieces for the jazz choir in the time I’ve been here and directed and accompanied and everything.”

Born in Monterrey, Mexico, and moving stateside a little more than a year after his birth, Gomez’s musical aptitude arrived early.

“My dad picked up playing guitar for fun in Mexico and he was directing music for our church. I was there one day and just started playing along by ear on a 12-key keyboard,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, Gomez found himself enrolled in piano lessons. He interest was furthered under the guidance of Jane Kadaja at Cummings Elementary School, who Gomez credits with much of his early inspiration.

“She just let us do so much. If someone had learned a new solo, she would encourage us to play it for the class,” Gomez said.

He attended Howard Street Charter School in Salem for his junior high education where heavy emphasis was placed on the arts and he acquired an affection for theater through taking part in several school plays. He landed the lead in the the Gallery Theater’s production of High School Musical as an eighth grader.

“The rest of the leads were college students,” he said. “It was my first taste of performing in a show where everyone was expected to be good.”

Performance is where he found his passion, whether as a musician or an actor, “I was the kid that bounced up and down and all around. It was a reason to get excited and into it.”

Gomez said attending high school at McNary was when his future started coming into clearer focus.

“All I did after school as a freshman was hang around with the seniors and make music,” he said.

It kept him from being consumed by one of his other passions – video games. He still falls prey to it on occasion and when his schedule permits. At the time of the interview, he’d already logged 80 hours on the The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, just three weeks after its release.

“Being around guys like Dylan Bien and Kyle Kuhns prepared me to step up and assume more responsibility from that younger age. As I continued, it just became natural,” he said.

His friendship with Kuhns and Bien led to him doing his first arrangements. His first hit was a slow version of Kings of Leon’s Use Somebody recorded for the McNary’s first choral holiday album.

“It was just a bunch of whole notes, but it sounded good and everybody loved it,” he said. “People still think it was one of the best tracks.”

It led to arranging more songs and a mash-up of Wonder as I Wander and Carol of the Bells, his personal favorite on the album.

Meanwhile he’s stayed involved with McNary’s drama program. He’s had several roles in past plays, but in January he’ll take on one of his biggest yet, the role of Tony in West Side Story. He plans to approach the role in the same way he approaches music, by bringing his own vision to it.

“Tony has always been portrayed weaker than I thought he should be. He was one of the founders of the Jets, the ‘it’ guy before the whole story unfolds. He’s going to be a bit tougher than what a lot of audiences have come to expect,” Gomez said.

The irony of a native Mexican playing the leader of the play’s white gang, the Jets, isn’t lost on him or his castmates, but he said it gives him a unique perspective on some of the underlying themes of the play.

“I go back to see family in Mexico every so often, I see the culture there and the culture here and I see kind of the twisting,” Gomez said. “In Mexico, the notion of family is about blood relations like it is for the Sharks, but in America friends are the family you choose and that happens more often here.”

Still, his focus remains on music. He’s recently applied to the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music hoping to major in contemporary composition. As part of the application process, he had to submit original songs – one of which he wrote in the sixth grade but has withstood the test of time.

It’s fitting that he pulled from that early work when moving into his future. Watching Gomez direct the choirs there’s a mixing of childlike enthusiasm that he can’t completely shed or hold at bay and a maturity that exceeds his years and gives him clarity of vision. When both are working in concert, the results thrill even him.

One of his recent arrangements was for a Green Day song, 21 Guns. He based his arrangement on one performed in a Broadway adaptation of the band’s music, but he wanted more from it.

“The whole song is a cry to stop fighting and we got the classics choir on stage with the jazz choir and I watched them go from this tentative reading of the parts I’d prepared to rising to the point where they became that cry. It was just huge and cacophonous and great,” Gomez said. “Hearing it all come to life … it must be what it’s like holding a baby that’s yours and realizing, ‘This is mine.’ Other people can take it and mess around it, but the core of it will always be mine.”