Tag Archives: Afro-Cuban jazz

Dizzy’s Love

Dizzy Gillespie ca. June 1946 – William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress

 

Today we celebrate the 100th birthday of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie.  Dizzy as he was affectionately known was one of the greatest jazz innovators of the twentieth century.  His music, Bebop – “Bop” for short, was improvised, with complex and often dissonant chords, and sometimes very rapid tempos.  It began in jam sessions in Harlem, and made a dramatic entrance into the music scene in the mid-1940s.  Listeners were startled by it, and some traditional jazz musicians even described it as noise. But, it took over the world of jazz rapidly, and as a genre would influence generations of musicians to come.

Nothing so amazing and so influential has been heard in jazz since.  Looking back, many writers have focused on Dizzy’s musical genius and technical mastery, but I am going to talk about Dizzy’s love of Cuban music and his connection to Cuban musicians.

Dizzy was born on October 21st, 1917 in Cheraw, South Carolina, and his father was a bandleader.  Dizzy was surrounded by instruments as a young child.  He learned to play piano starting at age four and later taught himself trumpet and trombone. He soon became a professional musician.  It was while he was playing in Cab Calloway’s orchestra in the 1940’s that Calloway introduced him to Mario Bauzá.  Bauzá was one of the first musicians to introduce Latin music to the United States. He would later connect Dizzy to Luciano Pozo Gonzáles, who was known as Chano Pozo.

Chano Pozo cut a strong and charismatic figure on stage. He could dance and sing as hard as he played conga.  Even though it was difficult for them to understand each other.  But, Dizzy said in the documentary film, A Night in Havana: Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba, that they both “spoke Africa.”  Dizzy saw him as a brother.  Before they met, Cuban music had only an occasional influence on jazz, and vice versa. That would soon change.  Dizzy quickly welcomed Chano Pozo as a conguero into his band.   And, on September 29th 1947, Pozo and the bongo player Chiquitico performed with Dizzy at a Carnegie Hall concert.   As Alyn Shipton wrote in “Groovin’ High: A Life of Dizzy Gillespie”:

Few collaborations capture the heady excitement, virtuosity … that can be found in “Manteca”, “Cubana-be Cubana-bop” (also known as the Afro-Cuban jazz suite) and “Guarachi Guaro” from the first fruits of Pozo’s tenure with Dizzy’s band.”

 

A Night in Havana: Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba

 

Dizzy incorporated much of Chano Pozo’s Santeria chanting into Bop – something that was new, and at times perplexed his fellow musicians, but later caught on.  Likewise, bands in Bop had hitherto only a single drummer, but suddenly congas and sometimes a group of Cuban percussionists became a regular component of the music, adding additional excitement and rhythmic spice.  Chano Pozo was tragically murdered at the age of only 33, but he left behind a powerful mark on modern jazz that reverberates to this day. Dizzy also recorded several beautiful pieces with the masterful Cuban composer and arranger, Chico O’Farrill, including the album Afro-Cuban jazz moods, on which the well-known Cuban maraca player, Machito, also performed.

Dizzy fell quickly in love with Cuban music.  It was a firm embrace. He said several times in different interviews that slaveholders forbade drumming in the United States, yet drumming was kept alive in the South Americas and Caribbean, a drumming that has as its roots Africa.  Cuban music is a music with rhythm at its center.  The clave rhythm, broken up into a first measure of two notes and a second measure of three or vice versa, finds its origins in Sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed the word clave means key.  And it is used to help organize many Cuban rhythms, including rumba, son, salsa and mambo.  Dizzy was no stranger to rhythm. He wrote in his autobiography, “To Be or Not … to Bop” of six prerequisites that all successful musicians must have: mastery of instrument, style, taste, communication, chord progressions and rhythm. “Rhythm,” he wrote, “includes all of the other attributes because you may have all of these others and don’t have the rhythmic sense to put them together, then it would negate all of your other accomplishments.”

 

To Be or Not … to Bop

 

The Cuban music that Dizzy fell in love with in the 1940’s would stay with him for the rest of his life.  Forty years later, he was invited to headline the fifth international jazz festival in Havana.  He described going to Cuba as “coming home.” There, like a loving father, he embraced and nurtured the emerging jazz talents of several younger Cuban musicians, including Arturo Sandoval and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Arturo who is a trumpeter later recounted that he thought Dizzy was expecting to find only a group of great percussionists when he arrived in Cuba, but was a bit surprised to find a trumpeter with some technical prowess.

Dizzy’s love of world music did not stop and rest in Cuba.  He travelled the world as part of the Jazz Ambassador program with a band of musicians from all of the Americas on behalf of the United States State Department. They toured South America, the Middle East, and still other countries. He went with a sense of curiosity and openness. But he also felt a deep need for the world to know and to appreciate jazz.  He felt the same need in the United States, where racism impeded its acceptance. For Dizzy, music was a delight, he emanated joy from the stage.

In 2002, Gillespie was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to Afro-Cuban music.  Dizzy had long embraced the Ba’hai faith.  It is no accident that a man who wanted to be remembered not only for his music, but also for his humanitarianism, was so moved by a religion that speaks about the worth of all religions, and the equality and unity of all people.

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Superb Latin Jazz Guitar Discoveries

Steve Khan – Backlog – Asuntos Pendientes (Tone Center, 2017)

Guitar maestro Steve Khan continues his remarkable series of Latin jazz explorations with Backlog. Khan skillfully combines soloing with rhythm guitar techniques as well as subtle slide effects. He’s supported by an outstanding rhythm section featuring three percussionists and a bass player.

The rich, irresistible percussion section adds an undeniable Afro-Cuban flavor to the music, even when Khan performs jazz standards by Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, a tribute to the late Bobby Hutcherson, or even Stevie Wonder’s hit song “Go Home.”

There is no smooth jazz here. Steve Khan delivers real contemporary jazz infused with beats from the Spanish-speaking region of the Caribbean.

The lineup on Backlog includes Steve Khan on guitar, Rubén Rodríguez on baby bass and electric bass; Bobby Allende on conga and bongo; Marc Quiñones on timbales, bongo and percussion; Mark Walker on drums.

Guest featured Rob Mounsey on keyboards and orchestrations; Randy Brecker on trumpet; Mike Mainieri on vibraphones vibraphone; Bob Mintzer on tenor saxophone; and Tatiana Parra on vocals.

On Backlog – Asuntos Pendientes Steve Khan delivers a set of masterful performances opening new pathways for the electric guitar in the context of Latin jazz.

Buy Backlog – Asuntos Pendientes

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Elemental Cuban Joy

Roberto Fonseca – ABUC (Impulse/Verve, 2016)

I’m a greedy girl…and I’m sneaky. I have secreted my way into the dark, messy lair of our esteemed editor and smuggled out a savory treat – ABUC, the latest by the Cuban Grammy nominated pianist, composer and producer Roberto Fonseca. Well worth the personal risks of being crushed under the weight of stacks of CD and mountains of press releases, ABUC is lush, delicious sophistication. Grounded by meaty Cuban percussion, set soaring with tight, neat brass and levitated by the sheer brilliance of savvy compositions, Mr. Fonseca pulls and tugs at the history of Cuba’s musical traditions to conjure up a brilliant homage to his homeland.

The idea was to show a different Cuba, perhaps from a different direction,” explains Mr. Fonseca. “That’s why the album title is Cuba spelled backward. I wanted to review the Cuban music history – not only the styles that have influenced me most, but in a broader sense, so people could have a better idea of how the orchestras used to sound in those times.”

This Cuban powerhouse comes to music by way of his drummer father, Roberto Fonseca, Sr., singer mother, Mercedes Cortés Alfaro, and older half-brothers drummer Emilio Valdés and pianist Jesús “Chuchito Valdes, Jr. who are the sons of Ms. Cortés’s first marriage to pianist Jesús “Chucho” Valdes, and of course the rich music that pervades the island like the scent of tropical flowers. With collaborations with the likes of Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Carlinhos Brown and Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez, Mr. Fonseca has dazzled listeners on countless tours and recordings like Akokan (2010), Tiene Que Ver (2002), Zamazu (2007), Yo (2013) and Temperamento (2012).

Released under the Impulse label in conjunction with Verve, ABUC is set for digital release on October 28th and physical copies out on November 11th. Writing most of the compositions himself, Mr. Fonseca inundates listeners with a collection of tracks that drinks deeply from bolero, danzón, cha-cha-cha, contradanza, descarga and hip-hop, all immersed in Mr. Fonseca’s jazz sensibilities. Often the music seems steeped in the tradition, helped by way of the recording process.

Mr. Fonseca explains, “Capturing the music as it used to be done in the old days means getting out of the high quality sound of these days, and if a certain song invoked a certain time when the sound was not that clean, that’s how we had to do it on ABUC. I’m sure many people will get confused and will think some tracks were composed some time ago. I hope they do, because that was our goal.”

Chocked full of goodies, listeners get the full force of Mr. Fonseca’s mastery from opening track “Cubano Chant” with its plummy percussion, sleek piano and some fabulous help from Trombone Shorty. ABUC is a feast of delights with the cleverly dated sections of “Afro Mamba” with vocals by Dayme Arocena and Carlos Calunga, the dazzling guitar laced “Tumbao de la Unidad with the revered Eliades Ochoa and the sizzlingly sassy “Family” which is stylized in the way of the 70s group Los Zafiros.

Equally delightful is the dark thrum against ethereal vocals on “Habanera,” the hip-hop/reggaeton combo of “Soul Guardians” and charming bolero “Despues” with Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal on trumpet and Mr. Fonseca’s mother Mercedes Cortes Alfaro singing the vocals.

Mr. Fonseca says, “I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to work with such a super team. What’s more, I feel blessed to be a musician and to have the opportunity to share my life and my perspective through my music. When people listen to this album and attend my concerts, I would like for them to walk away feeling full of positive energy and hope. I want them to feel the same love that I’ve put into this record – enough to make them dance. I want them to feel good, but most importantly, I want them to feel!

ABUC is masterful and sleekly sophisticated, but it is infused with that familiar Cuban invitation that music is an elemental joy and that everyone should have a good time.

Buy ABUC in the Americas

Buy ABUC in Europe

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Harold Lopez-Nussa’s Sheer Coolness

Harold López-Nussa – El Viaje (Mack Avenue Records, 2016)

Composer and pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa’s El Viaje, out September 9th on the Mack Avenue Records label will certainly earn the cool kid on the block spot in Latin jazz offerings this year. Sleek and agile, El Viaje is comfortable in its own skin, devoid of pretension and without any ham-handed artistic wrestling.

Mr. Lopez-Nussa, along with his partners from his The Harold Lopez-Nussa Trio, Senegalese bassist and vocalist Alune Wade and drummer and percussionist Ruy Adrian Lopez-Nussa (who just happens to be Mr. Lopez-Nussa’s younger brother) and guest artist trumpeter and flugelhorn player Mayquel Gonzalez, tambores batá player and vocalist Dreiser Durruthy, percussionist Adel Gonzalez and the Lopez-Nussa patriarch and drummer Ruy Francisco Lopez-Nussa whips up a sound that is warm and compelling.

Hooking international influences from Africa, France and the West into his own brand of Cuban jazz, Mr. Lopez-Nussa fashions a sound that’s seamlessly sophisticated and globetrotting easy.

Mr. Lopez-Nussa says of the recording, “Having a non-Cuban musician on this recording speaks to our contact with other cultures. Especially with African culture, which is so far from ours geographically and yet so close. Every time we play, I believe we enter into a journey we are creating. Ever since I was a kid, since I began to study piano, music, I have tried; I have searched for that journey of the mind, always traveling with music. I remember that I started playing ‘El Viaje’ while on tour as a way of feeling closer to home, and when I’m here, it’s also a way for my mind to travel.”

With a career that includes recordings as New Day (2013), Havana – Paris – Dakar (2015), El Pais de las Maravillas (2011), Herencia (2009), Sobre El Atelier (2007) and Canciones (2011); a spot on the “Fourth Piano Concerto” by Heitor Villa-Lobos and a recording with Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra; a first prize slot and an Audience Prize of the Jazz Solo Piano Competition at the Montreux Jazz Festival; a collaboration with David Sanchez, Christian Scott, Stefon Harris and a three year touring spot with band for the revered Omara Portuondo, Mr. Lopez-Nussa still finds his Havana hometown a creative well.

“I’ve always liked the idea of projecting myself to the world from here,” says Mr. Lopez-Nussa. “The personal ties are very strong for me. A lot ties me to this country. I want this to be my place to create—even if I can have those great experiences traveling. The personal is essential for my creative process. Being able to go out into the neighborhood where I grew up, a place that I know so well, walk on the Malecón, sit by the sea. This is where I want to be.”

Opening with the jaunty “Me Voy Pa’ Cuba,” El Viaje is a treat with compositions that unfold easily and organically with flashes of delicious rhythms, sleek horn lines and brilliant improvisational piano sections. Mr. Wade provides the vocals for the heady, Africa inspired “Africa,” before dazzling “Feria” takes over in a mix of Cuban party and jazz club with a little Thelonious Monk added in for good measure. The elegant bolero “Lobos’s Cha” is as much as a delight as is the hip sassiness of “Bacalao Con Pan.”

Other goodies include the elegant lines of brass and piano against delicious percussion on title track “El Viaje,” the bright breeziness of “Mozambique En Mi B” and sheer coolness conjured up on “D’Una Fabula.” Equally good is the sly musical journey that is “Inspiracion En Connecticut,” as well as the evocative sultry mystery whipped up Mr. Lopez-Nussa and company on “Oriente.”

Mr. Lopez-Nussa has ensured the conditions are good, the weather fair and the course of El Viaje is smooth and easy.

Buy El Viaje in the Americas

Buy El Viaje in Europe

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Artist Profiles: Afro Cuban All Stars

Afro-Cuban All Stars
Afro-Cuban All Stars

The Afro-Cuban All Stars were brought together by musical director Juan de Marcos González (leader of the son group Sierra Maestra and mastermind behind the Buena Vista Social Club), as a multi-generational big band to explore a broader scope than the Buena Vista projects, ambitiously paying tribute to the diversity of Cuban music, marrying the past with the present. It is a band for dancing – combining a variety of contrasting styles including classic son montuno, contemporary timba, swinging big band guajira, Afro-Cuban jazz, danzón, the pure tribal rhythms of abakua, bolero and more.

The original list of lead vocalists that have performed with the group is a virtual “who’s who” of the greatest Cuban sonerosthe octogenarian Pío Leyva (Estrellas de Areito) and the septuagenarians Raúl Planas (Rumbavana, Celia Cruz), and Manuel “Puntillita” Licea (Sonora Matancera) were joined by rising stars from a younger generation, Antonio “Maceo” Rodríguez (Sierra Maestra), Félix Valoy (Alberto Alvarez), and Teresita García Caturla (Las D’Aida).

To back these individual talents through a diverse selection of songs González brought together a very special group of musicians. On piano is one of the founding fathers of modern Cuban music, the legendary Rubén González (Arsenio Rodríguez, Enrique Jorrín, Estrellas de Areito). On acoustic bass is Cuba’s finest, Orlando “Cachaíto” López, who learned his trade as part of the extraordinary bass playing López dynasty which includes his father Orestes López and uncle Israel “Cachao” López.

The six piece horn section (three trumpets, two trombones, sax, flute) is made up from the best players of Havana’s celebrated Tropicana Orchestra. Soloists include the great Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal on trumpet (Orchestra Riverside, Estrellas de Areito) and Afrokan (Irakere) on trombone.

In a country renowned for its percussionists, the All Stars’ six-piece section is matchless and includes the young phenomenon Julienne Oviedo on timbales, and the great Miguel “Angá”on congas.

In December of 2000, Pedro Calvo, the lead singer of Cuba’s top dance band, Los Van Van, was recruited as a vocalist for the Afro-Cuban All Stars. The line-up in 2001 also included Caridad Hierrezuelo.

Discography

A Toda Cuba le Gusta (1997)
Distinto, Diferente (1999)
Baila mi Son (2000)
Bajando Gervasio (2002)
Live in Japan (2005)
Step Forward (2005)
Absolutely Live (2009)

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