Latin Jazz In The 2000s: A New Generation (Part 4)

by chip on December 24, 2009

During the nineties, Latin Jazz composition was based upon conventions, mostly dictated by the clave driven outlines of Cuban music.  Leaders such as Tito Puente and Ray Barretto followed a New York aesthetic which remained dangerously close to dance ideals for a long time.  They were also reaching out to the general public and needed to rely upon familiarity to a certain extent, so much of the nineties work included arrangements of jazz standards.  Forward looking musicians like John Santos’ Machete Ensemble used modern Cuban groups like Irakere as a role model but still respected the boundaries of the past.  Traditional jazz bounced between a fervent alignment with standard forms and an experimental aesthetic that eschewed established structure in preference of self-expression.  The tension of this dichotomy defined jazz in the nineties, but Latin Jazz side-stepped this genre splitting division.  Instead, the Latin Jazz leaders of the nineties focused upon definition in their work. A variety of things changed in Latin Jazz during the 2000s, from the rhythms to the musicians themselves; but one of the major movements was a change in compositional approach.

What Is Latin Jazz?
Young artists threw away the shackles of compositional structures during the 2000s and once again made us question “What Is Latin Jazz?” with their creations.  Rhythmic structures became a background element in many works that simply supported the pieces instead of defining them.  Cuban artists revisited their relationship to clave and found new ways to write around the two measure pattern.  Some artists moved away from Latin rhythms altogether and created modern jazz albums that relied upon a swing rhythm section.  In this case, the concept of Latin Jazz snuck away from jazz informed by Latin rhythms and leaned more towards jazz played by Latinos.  In an interesting turn of events, the concept of Caribbean or South American identity rose more subtly through phrasing and interpretation. Musicians called upon ideals from classical music, creating lush orchestrations and emphasizing melody rather than rhythm.  Musicians felt free to mix and match styles as well, jumping between Cuban rhythms, swing, funk, and more in a post-modern drip of the hat. Latin Jazz composition experienced a new freedom that redefined the genre and shaped the music in exciting ways.

A New Generation With A Different Background
During the nineties, most of the leaders of the genre were stylistic originators that established the blueprint for Latin Jazz much earlier; in the 2000s, a younger generation with much different backgrounds found their place in the genre. These artists grew up in the modern jazz age, listening to musicians like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, and more. They learned the lessons of modern jazz and they strived to emulate their contemporary role models. Artists that developed their skills in the United States like David Sanchez and Miguel Zenon received formal training at universities with established jazz programs and they went into their professional careers as skilled jazz performers. Musicians that spent their formative years in Cuba such as Dafnis Prieto, Elio Villafranca, and Yosvany Terry received thorough foundations in classical and traditional Afro-Cuban musics and then spent all their time learning jazz on the street. While earlier musicians gained their training on the bandstand, working through both dance and jazz gigs, this generation came onto the scene with a firm understanding of both worlds. At the same time, Latin Jazz had already established it’s guidelines, giving these musicians a starting point. The new generation built upon the lesson of earlier Latin Jazz musicians. They understood the music that came earlier, which allowed them to move ahead. These musicians carried ample tools and a keen historical knowledge which allowed them to break away and push the music compositionally.

The Continuation Of Traditional Latin Jazz
Traditional Latin Jazz didn’t disappear during the 2000s, it simply sat beside the music’s newly emerging experimental side. Although a good number of Latin Jazz leaders died during the 2000s, several of them played through half of the decade, continuing the legacy of straight-ahead Latin Jazz. Poncho Sanchez kept the flame burning for the Cal Tjader lineage of Latin Jazz, presenting evenings full of jazz standards fueled by Latin rhythms. Longtime Bay Area icon Pete Escovedo kept moving ahead with a funky mixture of tradition and accessible smooth jazz leanings. Despite his unique approach to harmony and improvisation, Eddie Palmieri stayed close to his dance music roots, providing a fairly traditional interpretation of Latin Jazz. Cuban trumpet hero Arturo Sandoval sporadically bounced into the traditional jazz and classical worlds, but he never strayed too far from commercially-tinged straight-ahead Latin Jazz, the bread and butter of his career. Increasing access to recordings and live performances, as well as a wealth of newly available instructional materials led to the formation of new Latin Jazz groups across the country; many of these groups took their first steps into the style with a straight-ahead approach. Traditional approaches to Latin Jazz continued to hold a prominent position in the music world throughout the 2000s, despite the fact that a younger generation of musicians drove the music in a distinctly different direction.

Two Approaches Sitting Side By Side
Although the dichotomy of approaches that tore apart the jazz world found it’s way into Latin Jazz during the 2000s, it didn’t tear apart the genre, it simply expanded it.  The jazz world’s leaders during the nineties took immoveable stands on either side of the fence, declaring war upon the opposition.  Figures like Wynton Marsalis loudly and clearly provided hard-line definitions about what jazz was, not providing any room for variation.  Perhaps Latin Jazz artists learned   from the mistakes of the jazz world or maybe they just held a more flexible view of their music – whatever the case, they saw room for both sides of the Latin Jazz equation during the 2000s.  Arturo O’Farrill kept the Latin Jazz Big Band tradition alive with the formation of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, but balanced historical repertoire with cutting edge explorations into new artistic directions.  Bobby Sanabria shared his extensive historical knowledge with young students, producing tributes to important figures like Machito Puente, and Ray Santos; at the same time his own big band pushed the limits of the genre with interpretations of work by Frank Zappa, Hermeto Pascoal, and more.  Paquito D’Rivera held his Cuban Jazz roots near the center of his career, but freely dived into classically-tinged projects with Yo-Yo Ma, the Turtle Island String Quartet, and more.  The Latin Jazz world didn’t reject it’s differences during the 2000s, it embraced them, making both sides of the genre stronger as we move into 2010.

Some Important Latin Jazz Albums That Stretched The Music’s Compositional Boundaries During The 2000s:

Dafnis Prieto Sextet: Taking The Soul For A Walk


Elio Villafranca Quartet: The Source In Between


Francisco Mela: Live At The Blue Note


Arturo Stable: Notes On Canvas


David Sanchez: Cultural Survival


The Rodriguez Brothers: Conversations


Paoli Mejias: Jazzambia


Yosvany Terry: Metamorphosis


Insight: A Genesis

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The 2000s were a major time of change in the Latin Jazz world, so we’re taking a look at some of the major trends through several different articles. Make sure you check out Part 1 of this series where we take a big picture look at the main theme riding over the 2000s, Part 2 where we discuss the changing of the guard, and Part 3 of the series where we discuss a new diversity in the music’s Latin styles. All four of these articles give a big picture look at the decade in Latin Jazz, so check it out!

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Check Out These Related Posts:
5 Artists That Are Making Us Question Our Assumptions About Latin Jazz
Jazz Now: 5 Latin Jazz Albums From The Present Moment
Jazz Now: Extending The List
Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix: Yosvany Terry And Dafnis Prieto

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