5 Artists That Are Making Us Question Our Assumptions About Latin Jazz

by chip on October 10, 2008

At its most basic level, good music forces us to reflect upon ourselves and question our lives. Music speaks volumes about culture, from the most established concepts to the ever-changing modern edge. When we hear inspiring music, it should make us examine our relationship to culture and consider recent changes in our own communities. Tradition shines through music in many ways, like a clear picture of the way that things have always been done. As the world changes and we move into the future, we need to make decisions about evolving traditions. History comes alive through recordings and performances, reminding us of the past while forcing us to look into the future. Each song, album, and performance relates to a moment in history, and with our related memories come questions about how these events affected our lives. The basic idea of preference comes into play as well, as we sort through the vast array of choices before us. Our choices change over time, making us ask why we enjoy the music we choose. Our answers to all these questions shape our core beliefs and define our identities – once we ask them.

Latin Jazz is a music filled with a wealth of loaded assumptions. We assume that the core of an artist’s music relates directly to their heritage. In some cases, this assumption is true, but the reality is much deeper than that. We think we know what a piece of Latin Jazz will sound like before we hear it; and in many cases, this involves jazz chords over Afro-Cuban rhythms. We associate certain moods with genres; from the ominous effect of a minor 6/8 Bembe to the soothing saudade of a bossa nova, the sounds go through our heads before we actually hear them. We expect standard forms, instrumentation, and approaches that have been established through years of performance practice. We want to dance with our Latin Jazz, keeping the music closely tied to Salsa so that the party doesn’t end when the soloists takes center stage. In our minds, we’ve got Latin Jazz figured out and we’re often looking for more of the same – this mindset often stops us from asking essential questions, unless we are pushed.

Like many true artists before them, a group of young Latin Jazz artists are delivering music that challenges our assumptions about the basic nature of Latin Jazz. They’ve shattered any pre-existing ideas about what Latin Jazz should sound like; instead, they’ve reconstructed the elements into a new statement that reflects their unique and modern perspective as an individual. They remain well-versed in music history, but they don’t’ feel tied to it. They take the lessons of their elders and build upon them. In many cases, they are not playing Latin rhythms beneath their compositions; instead they lean towards swing or other modern expressions. At other times, they manipulate traditional rhythms to fit their ideas or they re-contextualize cultural elements into new musical settings. They clearly state their identities, both as musicians with a Latino heritage and creative individuals – they simply make their statements in a way that we don’t expect.

The Latin Jazz world is changing, and we need to reflect upon our place in these evolution. Fortunately, these artists are helping us search for answers with their probing and thought provoking recordings. Their music often travels a more intellectual path, and we may have to dig deeper to unveil connections to Latin culture. Once we see the finely woven tapestries of music and culture, they cannot be denied – we must revisit our own thoughts about Latin Jazz and see how our ideas fit into this new world. For some of us, these artists challenge every notion that we’ve ever believed important to Latin Jazz. Other listeners may find these works as natural progressions of the style. Regardless of your initial impression of the music, it will undeniably make you think – take an opportunity to hear their work and question your own assumptions.

1. Elio Villafranca
Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca explores the connections between culture and style on The Source In Between, a collection of several strongly constructed Villafranca originals. Most of the pieces lean towards swing and modern jazz, but a closer look reveals a close connection to Villafranca’s Cuban roots. “Oddua Suite” captures the deep spirituality embedded in John Coltrane’s music, yet the piece reflects a Santeria deity, basing the spirituality in Cuban religion. Villafranca makes the connection between Cuban music and modern jazz very apparent with two version of “The Source In Between” – one featuring Arturo Stable on congas and one just utilizing the quartet. “Resurrection of the Incapacitated” explodes with bold drama in the vein of Chick Corea, yet draws the storyline from a Santeria ritual involving the orisha Babalu Aye. “Luna” receives an almost classical treatment with an intricate compositional structure but consistently contains the sparse rhythmic underpinnings of a classic bolero. Villafranca spends most of the album in a modern jazz mode, rarely providing an obvious connection to Cuban rhythms. The strength of Villafranca’s compositional process builds the necessary bridge though, deeply rooting his work in Cuban culture.

2. Dafnis Prieto
Since his arrival in the United States, Dafnis Prieto has found ample work across many genres, and his compositions on Taking The Soul For A Walk reflect that diversity. Prieto’s group functions without a percussionist, leaving the stylistic definition purely in Prieto’s hands. He handles this responsibility with style and ease, yet he also indulges in the freedom that it allows him. “En Las Ruinas De Su Infancia” implies a cha cha cha, but Prieto plays off the composition’s inherent energy, moving the song towards fusion at times. Prieto and his group explore the use of colors on “You’ll Never Say Yes,” letting the melody guide a freely interpreted background. There’s a beautiful elegance behind “Until The Last Minute” as Prieto establishes a jazz-tinged danzon underneath a rich arrangement. “Tell Me About Her” falls into a straight-ahead swing groove, allowing the musicians freedom to improvise in a more traditional context. There’s an airy feel to the son montuno groove behind “Prelude Para Rosa,” which supports the delicate melody while allowing Prieto to make quick dips into swing. Prieto walks cleanly between Latin and jazz worlds here, never leaving the door locked – his stylistic mastery allows him to alter genres as the compositions demand; the results are inspiring.

3. David Sanchez
David Sanchez spent much of his younger career immersed in traditional Latin Jazz, but as he focuses on his skills as a composer, albums such as Cultural Survival include less obvious connections to the music. Sanchez steps firmly into the modern jazz realm throughout the album, heading a guitar quartet, sometimes complimented by a piano. The music maintains a Latin-tinge through freely structured rhythm section work that finds a comfortable medium between swing and straight 8ths on tunes such as “Coast To Coast.” Pernell Saturnino establishes a firm connection to Latin traditions on “Manto Azul” with a strong cajon presence. The album’s centerpiece is an extended composition written by Sanchez, “Le Leyenda del Cañaveral,” that explores connections between jazz, African music, and Latin traditions. While the piece never breaks into a Puente-style mambo section, it implies Puerto Rican bomba, Nuyorican rumba, and African genres. The group’s stylistic jumping and at times freeform improvisation on Sanchez’s “Cultural Survival” make a strong argument for the album’s artistic direction. It steps outside the classification of “Latin Jazz” and moves into something completely unique. While this may seem disorienting at first, in the long run, it’s an extremely interesting and modern exploration of culture.

4. Francisco Mela
Cuban drummer Francisco Mela explores several stylistic directions on Cirio: Live at the Blue Note, but conceptually the album relates directly to his life, family, and culture. Mela contributes the majority of the compositions here, shaping a distinctly modern and open sound. His writing doesn’t necessarily adhere to the confines of clave structures, but his playing certainly implies Cuban rhythms. There’s a heavy helping of freedom throughout the album, as the band members actively engage in spontaneous improvisation. A strong bass line grounds Mela’s tribute to his father, “Cirio” while the song evolves through free blowing, varying textures, and interactive drumming. A repertoire choice harkens back to Mela’s Cuban upbringing as the group interprets Silvio Rodriguez’s “Pequeña Serenata de Urna” with a swaggering 12/8 swing feel. Vocals intertwine with guitar lines at the onset of Mela’s dedication to his newborn son, “Urick Mela,” moving into combination of swing and cha cha cha. The group falls into a delicate ballad on “Maria,” as Mela reflects upon his mother with a beautiful composition. You’ll be hard pressed to find a straight-ahead son montuno on the album, but we do a get a straight picture of Mela as an artist. The relationship to his family and culture shine through the album, based upon the strength of his compositions.

5. Arturo Stable
Stable’s Notes on Canvas stretches the boundaries of traditional Cuban rhythms, but stays fundamentally connected to the island through concept. The album connects to Stable’s childhood in Cuba where his father, an accomplished artist, filled young Arturo’s life with art. Stable prioritizes his concept over the use of specific rhythms; in fact he follows any path necessary to paint an accurate musical portrait for each work. His interpretation of Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam’s “La Jungla (The Jungle)” involves a composition based upon a 6/8 rhythm, logically connecting to the artist’s foundation in Afro-Cuban rituals. The group’s performance around Salvador Dali’s “Clock Explosion” captures the works chaotic feel while teetering between swing and free blowing. Leonardo D’ Vinci’s “Gioconda” gets a lush treatment through an open ballad, complimented by Barry Ries’ trumpet and Stable’s bongo accents. Stable’s touching tribute to his father, based on the painting “La Ventana Magica (The Magical Window),” unfolds as a delicate danzon with Paquito D’Rivera providing a gentle melodic performance on clarinet. Notes on Canvas reveals a good deal about Stable and the connection to his Cuban childhood. We get a strong vision of his artistic perception by making connections between his compositions and the paintings. The music never feels a need to stay within the realm of Cuban rhythms, but we never loose sight of Stable’s background.

These artists have done their work – they’ve questioned the very foundations of Latin Jazz and found new avenues for the music’s artistic progression. Now it’s time for us to do our part – ask the questions that the music inspires. How does this music relate to the Latin Jazz tradition for you? What does it say about the future of Latin Jazz? How often does this music enter your listening time? There are many ideas around the music that we could discuss – LEAVE A COMMENT and let us know what your think. Help us question our assumptions!

Check Out These Related Posts:
5 Latin Jazz Trends From The First Half of 2008
10 Latin Jazz Perspectives of John Coltrane
David Sanchez Tenor Sax Solo on Home Cookin’

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