Saturday, January 21, 2012

Today Meets Yesterday on Latin Jazz Double Bill

It's well known that today meets yesterday in a museum, but a concert hall is also a nice place for intergenerational communication. Sometimes its just musicians in tuxedos and audience members communing with a dead white guy. But it's nicer when there's a sense of dialogue between musicians themselves, like an old master and an up-and-comer.

The McCarter Theater here at Princeton had just this kind of concert on Friday evening, pairing Cuban piano wunderkind Alfredo Rodriguez with his legendary countryman (and rare US visitor), pianist Chucho Valdés. While both performances were standouts on their own, putting them together helped highlight how the two take their Cuban musical heritage into new places.

Some assorted observations from the evening are below the jump.
On the subject of Thursday's post, there were no music stands to be found on stage!

Yup, these two groups get you, Mr. Chinen. Both Rodriguez's trio and Valdés' long-running Afro-Cuban Messengers are working bands and are pretty damn tight. Rodriguez and his mates - Peter Slavov on bass and Francisco Mela on drums - knew the tunes inside and out and so took them way out without losing the form. The Afro-Cuban Messengers have been playing this music around the world for a couple of years ago (though I think this is their first stop in the US with this material) and if they ever performed with charts, they've long been thrown away.

What's great about bands knowing music this well is that the players don't have to focus undue attention on just executing written lines or following the form. Everyone can take risks because they've all built up an intuition about how the sections fit together. This risk-taking is an essential ingredient for a tasty and vital jazz performance.

Back to Mr. Rodriguez, what's with all these awesome young Cuban pianists?

Seriously. There's David Virelles who wowed Ben Ratliff at the Village Vanguard about this time last year, and is cutting his teeth in bands led by Chris Potter and Steve Coleman. There's Fabian Almazan, whose lush harmonies and refined touch have filled out the sound of Terrence Blanchard's groups over the past few years (getting to hear him up close while playing a concert of Blanchard's "A Tale of God's Will" was a revelation), and he's shown deep compositional ambition as well on his debut album in 2011.

And then there's Rodriguez with chops out the wazoo, a sonic creativity to match, and the maturity to use said chops judiciously. Throughout much of his set, Rodriguez would wow with keyboard-spanning runs, but without the glibness of an Eldar. After completing a musical 100-meter dash in two directions simultaneously, Rodriguez would pause for more than a pregnant moment, letting the air out of those pent up phrases before jumping on another one. In terms of his sonic creativity, Rodriguez had some urge in the last jam to prepare the piano, but didn't have anything to do it with. He called for a drum solo and ran over the drum set, seeming to rummage through a pile of percussion instruments. He pulled out a stack of papers, ran back over to the piano and laid them out over the strings. Voila, he had a vaguely middle-eastern sounding, plucky instrument.

So back the point about all these unbelievably talented and creative Cuban pianists. While their styles are all different, all three players share a common musical background in the fantastic system of Cuban public music schools. From the time they were about 7 or 8, they got lessons in both classical and Afro-Cuban music, developing prodigious chops and the important nuances of style throughout their youth. The emergence of these players shares a similarity with the emergence of a lot of now-influential Finnish composers - Esa Pekka Salonen, Kaija Saariaho & Magnus Lindberg - in the 1980s. They were a product of the music education system in Finland.

This begs the question why countries like Finland and Cuba find enough room in their national and local budgets to make good musical education available to anyone, but the United States does not. There's no secret to producing a generation of fantastic artists and musicians, it just takes a little political will. But that's a rant for another day.

Across the stage from Alfredo Rodriguez, drummer Francisco Mela was using two snare drums.

Eric Harland's been doing that for a couple years now. I just thought it was his thing, possibly inspired by ?uestlove's old setup where he had like 3 snare drums to get all those different hip-hop sounds with the Roots. Then I saw Chris Dave do it. Maybe it was a Houston thing. Now Mela shows up with two snares.

It's sure getting to be a thing.

This trend is interesting to me because jazz musicians are traditionally very crotchety about changing instruments. Sax players still go for the Selmer Mark VI's that they don't make anymore (a jazz buddy of mine got really excited when he got one that was only like 1 serial number away from Rich Perry's, he of the Maria Schneider and Village Vanguard orchestras). Small group jazz drummers have generally kept the same setup since the 40s: a small bass drum, a hanging tom tom, a floor tom, and a snare drum. Granted, Mela never turned the snares on of the second snare and pretty much used it in lieu of a rack tom. But the point was he had that other option. Knowing how influential Harland, Dave and Mela are among young drummers, I feel we may be seeing the beginning of a sea change in jazz drum kit set-ups. (I feel the dual snare drum thing comes from a hip-hop sensibility - you want one with a tight crack and one with fat plop, and it's not like you're loosing a tom sound altogether).

Moving onto the second set, Chucho Valdés' opener showed that blending Cuban forms with bop language can be a bit tricky.

The first tune of the set began with a rubato melody over a flurry of minor modal chords in the early 60s Trane vein. Once the groove locked in, the drummer plus 2 percussionist attack had already pushed the musical intensity to a very high level. In post-bop small group jazz, the soloist is the hero-leader, spontaneously creating a fully formed composition through dynamic and density shifts. With the intense rhythmic activity of Cuban dance music, there's not much room to grow in these ways - the music by its nature is pretty loud and dense. The soloists on this first tune - Carlos Hernandez on tenor sax and Reinaldo Álvarez on flugelhorn - were pretty much overwhelmed by the dense thicket of drums flying around them.

Luckily, the momentum picked up from there and didn't flag the rest of the generous 90-minute set. The best blends of Cuban rhythms and bop-style improvisation came during the wide-open vamps. Without being restricted to a form with complex changes, the soloists were able to concentrate more on arc and development, and the drummers were able to back off more and let the groove breathe. "Zawinul's Mambo," a sorta reconstruction of "Birdland," was particularly effective in how drummer Juan Carlos Castro was able to lay Birdland's famous rock groove over a mambo cascara pattern, uniting diverse styles under one rhythmic roof. Valdés' solo was particularly inspired, beginning with a humble melodic statement, then adding cheeky quotes ("Blue Rondo a la Turk"), then finally reaching a piano-shaking fever pitch, the instrument cowering under his large frame and monster hands.

I would be remiss if I did not say that Batá drums are awesome.

They're awesomely-shaped, and have two different sized heads, so they're like two drums and one. And percussionist Dreiser Bambolé had three of them. That he played at once. While singing.

Batá drums are traditionally used in Yoruba religious ceremonies, but Bambolé blended these drums' traditions into the jazz-oriented band environment. Coltrane would have approved.

But the biggest takeaway from the evening was this. While they may come from different generations, both Valdés and Rodriguez know a hell of a lot of different music.

Rodriguez's tunes were certainly based in Latin dance forms like his bolero take on "Veinte Años," but he's certainly learned a lot about the power of harmonic and melodic abstraction. And there's was a ton of rhythmic playfulness that went against the grain of the grooves, in the vein of Vijay Iyer. Plus, you can tell that Rodriguez is classically-trained with his equally-athletic left hand.

Valdés set was a study in diversity, with takes on fusion ("Zawinul's Mambo"), the American Songbook ("Stella By Starlight"), and Duke Ellington (An encore medley of Satin Doll, In A Sentimental Mood, Caravan and C Jam Blues). But before that encore, Valdés played a gentle trio version of the famous theme from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherezade." You could tell Valdés loved the tune, savoring its every harmonic twist. After the playing the theme, Valdés brought it into the barrelhouse, taking it through its paces over an "All Blues"-type groove.

By hearing Alfredo Rodriguez and Chucho Valdés play on the same stage, one got a fascinating glimpse into vastly different musical visions - abstract and adventurous vs. tuneful and showy - and the musical heritage that lies at the core of both.

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