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Jane Bunnet, Spirits of Havana CD

Review: Jane Bunnet — Spirits of Havana

by David Peñalosa

I certainly have been enjoying the current renaissance in Afro-Cuban jazz. Today we are blessed with an abundance of new releases that are not just a matter of super-imposing jazz over Afro-Cuban rhythms, they are true hybrids that manage to maintain the integrity of both parents.

This recent phase actually began in the early '80s with Jerry and Andy Gonzalez's ground-breaking Fort Apache Band in New York City. Since the Big Apple has been the world capital for both jazz and salsa it seems only natural for Afro-Cuban jazz to thrive there.

Meanwhile, in Cuba itself there are numerous musicians who are well versed in both jazz and the rich folkloric traditions of their island. Irakere's Emiliano Salvador and Gonzalo Rubalcaba are just a few prime examples of the high level of jazz artistry in Cuba.

Because of the political polarity between the United States and Cuba, musicians from these two countries cannot easily interact with each other. The fact that the two nations are separated by less that 100 miles of ocean makes the present situation seem especially strange. One can only imagine what magic would occur if musicians from the U.S. and Cuba could travel freely back and forth between the two countries.

Canadian saxophonist/flautist Jane Bunnett doesn't have this problem because her country enjoys relations with Cuba. Ms. Bunnett's Spirits of Havana is a successful blend of jazz and Afro-Cuban folkloric music. Accompanied by her musical collaborator Larry Cramer, she went into Havana's Egrem Studios with Cuban musicians Guillermo Barreto, Merceditas Valdez, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Grupo Folklorico Yoruba Andabo de Pancho Quinto. The result of this international assemblage is a rich blend of exotic and cosmopolitan textures.

One of the most fertile musical traditions within Afro-Cuban folklore is that of Lucumí (also known as Santeria). Lucumí is the name given to the descendants of Yoruba slaves in Cuba, their language, religion, dance and music. The depth and complexity of Lucumí music, particularly that of the batá drums, offers endless rhythmic possibilities for Afro-Cuban jazz. By incorporating batá drums and their accompanying Lucumí call and response songs, Spirits of Havana serves up a particular type of jazz that contains echoes of ancient African music. The basic premise of this disc works, and the overall aesthetic is pleasing.

Merceditas Valdez's presence here is a delightful addition. She has earned great fame and respect for her renditions of liturgical Lucumí songs. Although that tradition usually has a rough and nasal sounding quality to it, Merceditas is unique in that she sings it very sweetly with her own distinctive style of phrasing. Her voice is well suited for this recording. Her rendition of Yemaya Asesu is especially nice. It is a suite dedicated to Yemaya, the Lucumí deity of the ocean.

Spirits of Havana is the first CD I've come across that has Yoruba Andabo on it. This little known Havana-based group specializes in Afro-Cuban folkloric dance and music. They play batá drums, have some of the best singers in Cuba, and play their own unique form of rumba on cajones (wooden boxes that can be substituted for conga drums). These guys can smoke a rumba like you can't believe! Unfortunately, they're too low in the mix. Perhaps someday we will be lucky to hear an entire CD by this dynamic group

Jane Bunnett's playing here is tasty, but it's more a matter of jazz superimposed over the rhythms rather than the true integration of two idioms that I mentioned earlier. In order to create a real fusion you must fully understand both elements that you're meshing together. The rhythmic key to Cuban music is called clave. Clave is a Spanish word meaning key, as in key to a puzzle. In the liner notes Jane Bunnett comments on clave: "I know that a lot of people, when they play that style, they really think about clave. But if you start to think about it, it really screws you up. I listened to recordings, never thought about it, just played around with it." OK, but I hope Ms. Bunnett will continue to study Afro-Cuban music, particularly clave. It's definitely a mystery worth pursuing.

The true glue on this recording is provided by the three alternating piano players: Frank Emilio Flynn Rodrigues, Hilario Durán Torres, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Rubalcaba's contribution in particular is very valuable. He is well versed in both Afro Cuban rhythms and jazz. In fact, he is a master, a young genius with mega chops. His first recordings were energetic fusions of Cuban rhythms, jazz and funk. For the past few years he's been recording straight-ahead jazz on the Blue Note label. In my opinion, this chops-master is usually guilty of doing what so many young musicians do; overplaying. However, it's very refreshing to hear him here performing within the parameters defined by his role as sideman.

The legendary Guillermo Barreto is another famous artist on Spirits of Havana. Barreto played timbales on Cachao's historic descarga records of the late '50s. Jane Bunnett credits him as one of the main forces behind this recording. He passed away the day after he heard the final mix and the music is dedicated to his memory.

Spirits of Havana has a lot going for it. Check it out.

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