Jazz musicians have a divided view of fusion, with different opinions about what constitutes the core of the style and its reverence to modern jazz. When rock started to take some of the popular spotlight away from jazz in the sixties, musicians saw the need to start integrating rock elements into jazz. They were hearing rock all around them as well, so an exploration of the music was a natural extension of the culture of the times. As more people started combing jazz harmony and structures with rock rhythms and electronic instruments, fusion was born. Musicians like Miles Davis, who abandoned the acoustic jazz format completely, were met with furious resistance from traditionalists though. At the same time, they found a lifeline for jazz through a connection to younger people, providing strong evidence that they were on the right track. By the eighties, fusion was a defined piece of the jazz world, but it was starting to take a different shape, as musicians left the complexity of jazz harmony behind for more accessible textures. When the rock side of things started consuming more of the harmonies, structures, and improvisational approaches, fusion started to become fragmented, looking a bit like instrumental rock. Despite some disapproval towards the lighter side of fusion, it’s an undeniable piece of the jazz world, and music from jazz artists that explore fusion with a sense of artistic integrity and individual style can be extremely powerful.
When we see fusion through the eyes of Latin Jazz, things get even more convoluted. At its basic core level, Latin Jazz could be considered fusion – the mixture of jazz forms with cultural elements from the Caribbean and South America. When artists first started exploring the crossroads between rock and jazz, they recognized the importance of Latin music in the overall concept of “fusion,” and they integrated it significantly in their work. Groups like Return To Forever and Weather Report found inspiration in the music of Brazil and Cuba; rhythms from these countries regularly sat alongside rock beats. Traditional Latin Jazz artists saw the potential in this mixture too – during the seventies, musicians such as Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo put a funky backbeat inside their Cuban structures. This idea moved to Cuba as well, as Chucho Valdez and Irakere took the use of electric instruments, the integration of popular music, and sheer virtuosity to a whole new level. These innovations definitely changed the shape of Latin jazz, but it didn’t have as significant an impact as felt by the traditional jazz world – traces of fusion may show up in modern Latin jazz, but there’s still plenty of room for exploration.
On his latest recording, pianist Manuel Valera and his group The New Cuban Express has taken the idea of fusion, and pushed it into twenty-first century Latin Jazz with a healthy dose of class and style. Valera captures the essence of modern jazz, Afro-Cuban music, and rock by mixing equal doses of each style into compositions, while treating the individual aesthetics with respect. Style doesn’t drive the performance though; Valera has prioritized artistic expression through intelligent compositions with plenty of room from expansive improvisations. There’s healthy doses of electric instruments, with Valera freely moving between piano and synthesizer, John Benitez ably handling the electric bass, and Tom Guarna performing on electric guitar. Drummer Eric Doob lays down a backbeat with the same intensity that he swings, while percussionist Mauricio Herrera anchors everything from timba grooves to cha cha chas and funky jams with deft skill. Saxophonist Yosvany Terry serves as the perfect improvisational foil to Valera’s complex sense of melody and harmony, ripping through both intellectual and rootsy themes that call upon his broad musical experience in Cuba and the United States. There’s a defined sense that Valera and his group can walk comfortably through these different worlds, see the musical connections, and weave them into something memorable.
The music on New Cuban Express is both inspiring and thought provoking, and it translates to a powerful live experience. These videos highlight the band tearing through several pieces from the album in a live performance at 92Y TriBeCa in New York. You’ll hear bits of fusion energy, Afro-Cuban tradition, and modern jazz experimentation, but most of all, you’ll see a group of smart musicians pulling together a variety of influences into a powerful and individualized artistic expression. It’s a great collection of music from Valera and his group that will have you looking at fusion in a different way – enjoy!
Manuel Valera And The Cuban Express Performing “Upwards”
Manuel Valera And The Cuban Express Performing “New Cuban Express”
Manuel Valera And The Cuban Express Performing “Open Window”
Manuel Valera And The Cuban Express Performing “Poly”
Do you have a video to contribute to satisfy our weekly Latin Jazz video fix? If so, send it in – it’s time to feed our addiction. I’m looking for live performances, from any context. I’ll most likely be posting one video per week, but if you’ve got another idea, let’s talk. So come on Latin Jazz videographers, musicians, and fans – let’s share some of our memorable videos! Get my contact info HERE.
Check Out These Related Posts:
Album Of The Week: Live At Jazz Standard, NYC, Dafnis Prieto Si O Si Quartet
Album Of The Week: Taking The Soul For A Walk, Dafnis Prieto Sextet
Album Of The Week: Yaounde, Samuel Torres
Album Of The Week: Espiritu Optimista, Alex Garcia’s Afromantra