Category Archives: Cuba

For Saxophonist-Composer Yosvany Terry’s 45th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature From 2014, Two Interviews from 2013, and A Downbeat Profile (and the Interview for that Profile) From 2013

Today is the 45th birthday of the master alto saxophonist-composer Yosvany Terry, which is a good excuse to post documents of three formal encounters I’ve had with him since 2006. At the top is a 2014 feature piece that I wrote about Yosvany for Jazziz magazine framed around the release of New Throned King, his investigation of arara culture. Following that are two interviews from 2013 for a Jazz Times piece in which I interviewed 8 Cuban musicians who had transplanted to the U.S. about their education in Cuba. Following that is a short Downbeat profile from 2006 framed around his CD Metamorphosis, and following that is a long interview that we did for that piece.


Yosvany Terry, Jazziz Feature Article, 2014:

“It’s interesting that this happened in New York,” Yosvany Terry says, reflecting on the chain of events that culminated in the June release of New Throned King (5Pasion). Joined on the CD by a 10-piece all-star band comprised primarily of fellow Cubans transplanted to the New York metropolitan area, the 43-year-old alto saxophonist-chekere player refracts the rhythms and chants that animate Cuba’s obscure [i]Arará[i] religious ceremonial with a comprehensive, poetic conception of modern jazz harmony and phrasing.

In early June, over a lunch of shrimp croquettes, roast pork, yuca and moro rice in a Cuban restaurant in Greenwich Village, Terry offered the involved back story that led to New Throned King. The chain of events sprang into motion in 2006, when Terry, a Harlem resident since emigrating from Cuba in 1999, applied for a grant to research Arará traditions. His fascination with the subject had gestated a year before his move to New York, while he was touring on a Steve Coleman-led collaboration with the folkloric ensemble Afro Cuba de Matanzas, who played Arará chants on congas. “I loved the chants, and I wanted to discover more where they came from,” Terry recalls. “But I had never seen real Arará drums in person.”

Brought to Cuba from Dahomey (now Benin), Arará drums, which animate Haiti’s vodún religion, were not to be found outside  Matanzas province, where the famously hermetic Sabalú cabildo — a religious/social organization originally formed by African slaves — that has preserved the tradition over multiple generations, maintains hawk-eyed custody. The drums portray deities with characteristics similar to those described by the Yoruba bata drum choirs that fuel the majority of Cuba’s traditional Afro-descended ritual practices. Arará drums are tuned lower and sculpted from different wood than batas, and are used to generate rhythmic patterns, chants and dances that differ entirely from those generated by their Nigeria-rooted counterparts.  “A community can use the Arará patterns to tell another community to prepare for war,” Terry said. “Batas are more ceremonial, to play for the king and other occasions.”

In December 2006, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors awarded Terry an $85,000 grant. In September 2007, he made an initial visit to Matanzas, where he contacted Mario Rodriguez, a.k.a. El Maño, a master practitioner of the Arará, bata and abakuá dialects. This trilingual guru figure played a key role in the Sabalú cabildo, which, Terry says, has “turned away great musicians and ethnomusicologists” on suspicion of their motives. However, El Maño knew Terry’s father, a violinist and singer who had built a national reputation since the 1950s as leader of the prominent charanga ensemble Orquesta Maravillas de Florida, based in the Camagüey Province, 260 miles east of Matanzas. El Maño decided to share his knowledge and assumed the role of Terry’s padrino, or godfather.

Parallel to these lessons, Terry commissioned a set of Arará drums, which, he says, would enable him “to hear the way the Arará chants were supposed to work with the original instruments and in the right environment.” He continues: “Seeing the drums was like a flashback. These were the exact same drums, deities and cultural traditions that I grew up with from the vodún tradition in the Haitian side of my family, even though Camagüey and Matanzas have no relation to one another in Cuba.”

With assistance from Matanzas-born percussionist Sandy Pérez — an Oakland, California, resident who put Terry in touch with El Maño — Terry taught the rhythms and chants assimilated in these encounters to master percussionists Román Diaz and Pedrito Martínez, both Cuban-born first-callers in New York. Although familiar with the Arará religion as rendered in Havana, their hometown, where, Terry says, “there is no chance you see those drums,” neither drummer knew the idiomatic Matanzas style. The three powerhouses formed the core of an ensemble that Terry convened to make a demo CD of five initial compositions framed around the traditional Arará toques,  representing, Terry says, “my take on going to a ceremony, but with a different aesthetic vision that includes everything I’ve been exposed to since I started studying music in Cuba and then living in New York.” Joining the drummers were the leader’s bassist brother, Yunior Terry, Cuban pianist Osmany Paredes and — to add “an American perspective” — Oakland native Justin Brown on trap set. Terry named the unit Ye-Dé-Bgé, after a Fon phrase meaning “with the approval of the spirits,” and led them through several concerts around New York City and northern California in 2008.

After this initial salvo, Terry continued to study with El Maño, exponentially expanding his information base as he earned the trust of the members of the Sabalú cabildo. (In early 2011, he and brother Yunior were initiated into the sect.) During this period, Terry fleshed out the older pieces and composed several new ones, among them “Mase Nadodo,” written in conjunction with a commissioned poem by Ishmael Reed depicting the Minos warrior women of Dahomey, and “Reuniendo la Nación,” a drum chant that Terry augmented with ghostly sounds from Haitian DJ Val Jeanty and improvised piano from Jason Moran.
Terry’s sense of familial obligation to preserve and extend the cabildo’s traditions became even more palpable after Rodriguez died in August 2011. “Without El Maño, I wouldn’t have any information; nothing I could use was available on the internet or on CDs or anywhere,” Terry says. “I think he realized that I was not just a student interested in learning the patterns and chants, but someone who sees himself as part of the same lineage. In that way he embraced me. When my cousins saw me playing the drums in my house, they knew these were same drums they’d known as children. So I was able to connect my family tradition with Arará. One path developed in Haiti and one developed in Cuba.”


In Terry’s view, neither New Throned King nor the Ye-Dé-Bgé ensemble could exist outside of New York City. Indeed, he ascribes his decision to emigrate to a deeply felt need to further his education by “living and participating in the mecca of music and the arts.” Having digested New York in his own manner, he has arrived at his own sound and, paradoxically, moved closer to his roots.

“I understood that my journey was not complete,” Terry says. “I wanted to meet the great masters of the jazz community, to learn directly from the source, not from books. That forces you to look more within yourself, to state who you are and what you really think about music, about life and your aesthetic perspective. Living here, you hear jazz mixed with Middle Eastern music, with music from areas of South America that you don’t hear in Cuba, with music by people from Europe, Japan and around the world. We no longer think of music in terms of Cuban flavor. For us, jazz is everything together. So my intention was not just to recreate Arará culture, but to do something with it from a New York standpoint.”

When he moved to Manhattan, Terry, then 28, was well-prepared to stake his claim within the world’s most competitive jazz scene. The early training he received from his father engendered intimacy with a broad array of folkloric styles and an ability to play the gourd-like chekere with the narrative flair of a griot. Comprehensive training in the Euro-canon at Cuba’s rigorous music conservatories polished his musicianship and sharpened his technique. “Even in Cuba,” he says, “I liked the concept that I could play multiple styles.”

After graduating from the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana in 1992, Terry freelanced in Cuban jazz and dance bands, with folk and rock ’n’ roll singers and with nuevo trova singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, who exposed him to a Pan-American musical conception. He joined pianist-composer Carlos Masa, who brought Terry onto the European festival circuit and exposed him to Steve Coleman’s musical production. Terry met Coleman in 1995  at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, launching an intense, mutually beneficial relationship.

“Steve was one of the first people who told me to come to New York,” Terry says of his former guru. “In fact, he was the first person to bring me here.” Like several of his jazz-oriented generational peers from the Southern Americas, Terry benefitted from Coleman’s willingness to share seminal saxophone recordings by Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and to impart his vast knowledge of the codes embedded in h the notes and tones.

“When we met, I told Yosvany that I was coming to Cuba to do a project with Afro Cuba de Matanzas and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, and that I wanted him to be my Mario Bauzá,” Coleman recalls, naming the trumpeter-composer who introduced Dizzy Gillespie to Afro-Cuban  while they were section mates in Cab Calloway’s Orchestra in the late 1930s. “I needed someone who knew Cuban traditions and a bit about the folkloric stuff, but was also familiar with what we do. Right away I noticed that he’s serious, intelligent and curious, with an ability to break things down. Yosvany was always quick at rhythms, like he was familiar with them already. He had a lot of questions about our tradition; I had a lot of questions about his. We traded information over a long period of time, conversations deep into the night about all kinds of stuff. I would say it changed both our lives in terms of directions and paths.

“He was immediately interested in the experimental nature of that project. He also had leadership qualities, an ability to organize. His English was always good, so he was my main communication with those musicians, who didn’t speak English at the time. I think Yosvany did more for me than Mario Bauzá did for Dizzy.”

Once ensconced in New York, Terry continued freelancing, playing an assortment of styles on gigs with a range of forward-thinking musicians, including Coleman, Dave Douglas, Brian Lynch, Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, Manuel Valera, Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto. Although the Rockefeller grant signified a transition from sideman work to a leadership role, Terry continues to apply a pluralistic orientation to his various endeavors (which still includes an abundance of work as a sideman).

The Arará project was the most imminent of these during the spring. Terry presented it over a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with the members of Ye-Dé-Bgé and dynamic, costumed dancer Francisco Barroso, who found alternate pathways to refine and develop the repertoire. “Each one is a cultural bearer who knows the traditions,” Terry says of his bandmates.  “Without their knowledge the project could not be given birth and could not have grown.”

Terry emphasizes that his quest to learn and refract the music he was listening to “even before I was in my mother’s womb” is far from finished. “It will take several years to complete my big idea,” he says. “I need to learn all the ceremonies in depth, so that I can then write a mass for it. How could Mozart compose his Requiem without being a believer, to know what a requiem means, and how to write a ‘Kyrie’ — all the parts of the Mass? My approach is to compose as though representing the entire mass of the church in classical music, but within the Arará tradition.

“Hearing these chants is like seeing my grandmother, my aunts — everyone in the family — dancing in the ceremony. To be able to work with things that are part of what made you puts you on a different plane than someone who just does the research and tries to work with that. You understand everything, even what a chant means. When you hear the chant, you can see the old lady who came to the ceremony all the time, doing so many different things. It couldn’t be more personal.”


In 2010, Terry received a call from Brad Learmonth, the Program Director of Harlem Stage. “He asked if I could write a musical opera,” Terry recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, I can do it. Why not?’ I had never done anything like it, and I never thought I’d do anything like it. But I always think that if a human being did it, I am supposed to do it, too.”

Terry was tasked with composing music for Makandal, conceived a decade ago in Miami by Carl Hancock Rux, who wrote the trilingual book and libretto. The narrative interweaves the stories of François Makandal, an escaped Maroon slave of the mid-18th century who directed effective slave resistance for two decades from the hills of Haiti until he was betrayed and burned at the stake in 1758, and of a boatload of Haitians, Cubans and Dominicans clandestinely crossing the waters in search of brighter prospects. Both the historical and contemporary protagonists interact consequentially with the spirit world, portrayed by Edouard Duval-Carrié in images and by Terry in notes and tones.

At an open rehearsal for funders and board members in late June, a six-piece ensemble rendered Terry’s deftly deployed mélange of traditional Cuban music, classical music, jazz and electronica, both as backdrop to the dramatic action and choreography, and in direct engagement with the nine extraordinary singers who comprise the cast.

“It was a super-challenging project, not like writing compositions for my band,” Terry says. “It wouldn’t work to use a European composer, because they needed someone who knows the Caribbean traditions and can use them within the environment of the piece. So it allowed me to bring in all my different roots. I wasn’t familiar with Carl’s work, but we spent a lot of time together, sharing, exchanging information. I did a great deal of research so I’d have a concept of the material I’m working with.

“To do this, I felt that I needed to add more tools to the art of composition, so I was forced to go back to school, which I’d been wanting to do. I took counterpoint lessons at Juilliard’s evening program, and studied composition, orchestration, analysis and more counterpoint with Leo Edwards at Mannes School of Music. Music existed before I was born, and it will be here after I’m gone. The more I can try to grasp and learn, it will only make me stronger. I consider myself an eternal student.”


Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 1 (May 16, 2013):
TP: You’re from a very well-established musical family and I’d guess got your early musical training and ideas within the home before going to school.

YT: Yes, for sure. I started studying music within the family at 5 years old, with my father and also with a private teacher. He got us a private teacher to start music studies. We knew from an early age that we wanted to be musicians. Having said that, since music was in the family, everything was different for me in that case. So we learned a great deal from my family and also through friends, too. So it’s completely different than when you just go to school and the only music environment you have in your life at that time is the school.

TP: When did you start to study music in school formally?

YT: I started studying music in school formally at I guess 10 years old.

TP: Did you go to one of the regional schools when you were 10? Can you take me through the process a bit? I assume, then, that you didn’t attend a casa de cultura.

YT: No, not at all. I would say the first exposure that I had to music within the school system there that is… Each area has a music program that the school tunes to… The name of it is like “Singing With the Invisible Teachers.” Through that program, people are introduced to music in the sense of learning a little bit about singing in tune, and singing songs, and things like that. Very basic. I started, as I said, at home, but at 10 I went to what they call there the vocational arts school. The vocational arts school is a school that is built in every province in Cuba. Since it was built in every province, then you can guarantee that in Cuba the education is centralized by the government, and then it was a way to make sure also that all the students would get the same education in every province, in every little municipality. Say, for instance, that the vocational arts school was in Camagüey, and when I started my family had already moved to Camagüey, but by then, my older brother, Yoel, he was going… We were living in the municipality of Florida in Camagüey. So he would go from Camagüey to Florida, and then from Florida to Camagüey to go into the school. In other words, since he was from a little further away, he was going as a boarding student, too. So when I started also, and when Yunior, my brother, started at school, it was as a boarding student. And now, Yunior started early, because Yunior started at at 7 years old already in the boarding school. His first violin teacher at the school was a Russian teacher. In my case, my first saxophone teacher was from Camagüey, and he was a great saxophone player, and also an arranger, and he composed and arranged for one of the important bands in town. So that was a little bit what I got at the school.

TP: Had your teacher studied in Russia?

YT: No. My saxophone teacher studied in Cuba. In fact, he graduated in ENA, in Havana, which is the national arts school. What happened for saxophone is that most of the stuff… Also, the program for saxophone is modeled to the French program for saxophone in France. So yeah, it was fully classical music that we studied. The school is a classical music school. They taught a little, little bit of what they call music from Cuba in the school, and in that regard, I was fortunate to have my father, because my father was …[DROPS OUT]…

TP: You said you were fortunate to have your father…

YT: I was fortunate to have my father, because it was through my father that I was introduced to all the popular music culture of Cuba. Because even when I lived in Florida, my town in the municality of Camagüey, during the carnivals and major events in the province, all the big orchestras that would play in Florida would stop by my house, because they were all friends with my father. So it is now …(?)…. the same way… [DROPS OUT] [9:32]; L’Orquesta Aragon, Los Van Van, all these orchestras always stopped by my house in the carnivals, because they were very good friends with my father, and had known him for a long time. So the house was like a cultural center for the Cuban music, and we were fortunate to be around that.

TP: So you were able to absorb the whole timeline of Cuban popular and folkloric music.

YT: [DROPPED OUT] [10:39] … Afro-Cuban music, it was also present in my family, because from both sides of my family they were practitioners of the different religions that came from Africa. So since an early age before I know, I was going to ceremonies and everything even before I… [DROPS OUT] Because both sides of my family would practice within the …[DROPS OUT]…

Both sides of my families were practitioners of religions that came from Africa, and that is how I was exposed at a very early to different cults that still prevailed in the Caribbean, related with Afro-Cuban religions.

TP: Did you assimilate all the traditions in a very holistic way? Did your training in the African rhythms cause you not to play the classical exercises as a classical player might want, or was relatively easy to handle all the idioms on their own terms?

YT: The fact that I was exposed to the music at a very early age, and also from all the religion, it was a plus, because in terms of understanding rhythms, I was already exposed to many other things before getting to a school. So it made things easier, in a way, given the sophistication in all the rhythms of the Afro-Cuban religions. So of course, that helped greatly. It was never a problem, the fact that I knew that… It was never a problem to learn classical music or… I mean, it didn’t stop anything. If something, it really helped, because those were knowledge that I didn’t learn in the school at all.

TP: At about what age did you start to become conscious of jazz and interested in it?

YT: At 13 or 14.

TP: From family, or friends at school, or a teacher…

YT: That was from my family. Because my older brother was the one who had… He was introduced to jazz, and I think he was at that time introduced to one of the Chick Corea CDs, Friends. I was fascinated with the music, because it had nothing to do with what we were learning at school or what I’d heard before. Then there was this moment that they would go into this thing that was improvisation, that was like, “Oh, what is that?” So right afterwards, I discovered there were two jazz stations that we could get on the radio waves, so we quickly started tuning in every night to all these radio stations in order to hear jazz, and then we started going to… We found out that the library in my town had a huge jazz collection of LPs and things that we just didn’t know about. They had records by Coltrane and you could hear Charlie Parker. And then, at the school, they had also jazz later on, that they would play every… The guy who was working as the sound engineer in the school was also a fan of jazz, so he would play jazz in the afternoons. It was like that.

Then later on, one of the teachers at the school was a great saxophone player and a jazz player, Alfredo Thompson, and it was through him that I started learning jazz harmony. He just taught us a great deal of harmony, phrasing, and exposed us to a lot of music, too. So it was like that, by word of mouth and people who would bring information… I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ernesto Simpson.

TP: Of course. Great drummer.

YT: The drummer. So Ernesto Simpson back then was playing with one of the important bands in Havana. But his family lived in the building just next to us, and both families were really good friends. So I remember at age 13 or 14, whenever he would come into town, he’d perform with the group that he was with…I’ll remember the name of the group in a second… I remember waking up early, and then knocking at the door to see if they’d brought in a new style from Havana, what music he brought, and so on. So it was through him, for instance… He was the first one who brought me Elvin Jones and Trane and things like that. So it was something like that. Since there is no music store where you could buy any music, and they were not in Camagüey specifically any really old jazz musician, it was something that happened like that—by word of mouth, and knowing…some of the teachers discovered that the public library had jazz, discovered what the jazz station was, and discovered that there were some people that we knew who were familiar with this kind of music that we just discovered and was so hip for us.

TP: As a young musician with a lot of information under your belt already, what was it that it was appealing to you at the time?

YT: What appealed to me about jazz that I liked from the beginning was, you would hear them playing the themes, the melody, and then they would go into this zone that you didn’t know what it was, and that was improvisation. So for us, for me, that was really fascinating. You’d hear them playing the melody, but then all of a sudden, wow, everybody went into improvising. That kind of thing we didn’t have in classical music, the classical music that we were learning in the school, and it also was very different that the improvisation approach within the Cuban aesthetics. So we do have improvisation in Cuba, within the Cuban language and vocabulary. It’s different, because harmonically it was a whole different approach to improvisation. So I think it was improvisation and soloing, the part that really fascinated me.

TP: As your education continued, were you able to express these interests within the school, or did it always happen parallel to school, outside of school?

YT: I would say that the school was really hermetic and closed, in the sense that they would like people to learn classical music. Again, I was fortunate that my saxophone teachers, they were familiar with jazz, and of course they would let us be excited with it and would let us also bring jazz standards to play in the school. But the great thing is, if you want to play jazz, you have to be also good in classical music. So we couldn’t become bad students just because we were just playing jazz. So in other words, I always say that given that I discovered jazz and was interested in jazz, that forced us also to be the best classical music student, because we needed to prove the fact that we like jazz was not going to turn us into bad classical musicians. And the school was a classical music school, so in fact, we have to do double everything. You have to be really good in classical music in order to be able to play jazz.

TP: At what age did you go to Havana?

YT: Around 17. Once we started discovering jazz at age 13-14, then we discovered Irakere, then we discovered Emiliano Salvador, then we discovered Paquito D’Rivera, we discovered all the musicians who were doing jazz in Cuba.

TP: Did your father know them?

YT: Yes. My father knew Chucho. He knew who Emiliano was, but he wasn’t friends with him because Emiliano Salvador was a local figure more in Havana. The difference with Irakere is, like, Irakere also played a lot of popular dance music, and they would do tours and play in the carnivals in Cuba, so that was one of the few chances to see them perform, not only performing dancing Cuban music but also they would play an instrumental tune, completely a Cuban jazz tune. So that was completely (?—22:52).

In my province, also, like I said, one of the saxophone teachers was a great jazz musician. So there was a band in Camagüey that was named Fever Opus. They would have a regular gig every Sunday playing their original compositions, and it was jazz. For us, that was also another way to see live bands playing. I remember also, for instance, Gonzalo Rubalcaba going on tour with his sextet all around the country; when he stopped in Camagüey to play with it, we went to see it, too.

TP: So you got to Havana in 1989.

YT: Yes.

TP: And you did attend conservatory then, yes?

YT: Uh-huh.

TP: What did you major in?

YT: I studied saxophone.

TP: Can you speak a bit to when your own conceptual ideas began to emerge? When you arrived in Havana?

YT: No. I started exploring with improvisation in Camagüey. So by the time I got to Havana, I was already improvising, so I quickly joined the jazz musicians in Havana. So when I went to Havana at the school, I met Osmany Paredes, who was there. I met Dafnis. I met Elio Villafranca. I met Roberto Carcasses. I met also ….(?—25:29)… All the musicians I was performing with then. Also Julio Padrón. That was an opportunity to meet a lot of people who were really great musicians, but they were also playing jazz for a long time.

TP: People have said that it was tremendously competitive, at each stage of the way, the best of the best converging, and this had an impact on the way the music was thought of and the way it sounded.

YT: Yes, I think that it was competitive, too. The fact that we had to be really good students, and the fact that there were so many great musicians. Ok, I’ll give you the idea. It was like being at Manhattan School of Music or the New School or Berklee, but with the difference that there are all these great musicians at the school, but not only are they all great jazz musicians, but they’re all playing classical music. So now the amount of information that they’re dealing with is …[DROPS OUT—27:01]… In my case, I always loved classical music, so it wasn’t that I was just in the school because that was the only way to learn music. No. I love classical music, and still to this day I practice classical music and I play classical music with different people in New York. So it was a great challenge and it was a great… Well, like I said, coming to one of those great schools that you will run into many of the great musicians playing on the scene today, but they were all in the school, and you were friends with them at that time.

TP: As far as getting groups together and playing for audiences in Havana, was it complicated? Easy? I gather you couldn’t get paid for gigs like that playing in Havana. How did you deal with the issue of gigging and making a living as a musician?

YT: Well, there’s two things. Once you’re a student, you’re not thinking about how you’re going to support yourself. My family was supporting us. They provided us the money, the resources for us to be fine in the school. So I started gigging with groups from the school at the jazz festival in Havana. Money was the last thing that we ever thought about. We were just so focused on music, that in my case I never thought about any money. Then, right when I graduated from the school, I started playing with a local…with a singer-songwriter, with Santiago Feliu, for the first two years. Then I was playing with another group, the Grupo (?—29:16), and in that group there used to be musicians who worked with Emiliano Salvador. So they were all great jazz musicians. I was with that band for two years. From then, I started working with Silvio Rodríguez. Silvio Rodríguez was the person I started touring abroad from Cuba, in South America—Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Chile. That was with the band Diakara.

When I stopped working with Silvio, I stayed as a freelance musician, because at that moment I wanted to play just the music that I wanted, and it was at that time that I created Columna B with Dafis, Roberto Carcasses and Descemer Bueno. We started playing in all the venues and things like that. But the band… We got to be in one of the Cuban… We went on tour with Columna B, into Spain, and I started coming to the United States, because I had met one of the co-founders of Stanford Jazz Workshop, so he invited me to teach at Stanford. [Bob Murphy] He came to Cuba because he was interested in Afro-Cuban music, and there was a course being organized by someone from the Bay Area that would bring a lot of people from the Bay Area interested in Cuban music and musicians, to learn Afro-Cuban music in Havana. It was through those courses that I met John Santos, Wayne Wallace, Rebecca Mauleón, who is now head of the Education Board of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. All of these people came to Cuba because they were interested in learning Cuban music. They were really playing a lot of Afro-Cuban music in the Bay Area. But for them, that was an opportunity to come and learn with the master. Because in those courses, Changuito was teaching, Tata Güines was teaching, my father also was teaching, and all the great musicians of Cuba.

So Bob Murphy came to one of those courses, and I met him, and he realized that I was playing with a different band, and we… Then it was like that, and he invited me to be part of the Stanford Jazz Workshop, to teach over there. It was through the Stanford Jazz Workshop that I came for the first time to the U.S. It was known after the second time that I was at the workshop that I spoke to the director, told him that I had the band, Columna B, and it would be nice to bring the band. So it was through a grant from Meet The Composer that…it was to collaborate with a composer from the United States, and in this case it was Wayne Wallace, and there was a choreographer, Judith Sanchez,  and myself. So with us three, we were commissioned to write a piece with an element of collaboration between both countries. It was that way that I brought Columna B to be part of the project, which was Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz, Dafnis, Descemer, and also my father came in, too. So that’s how Columna B got to the United States.

TP: What year did you start touring with Silvio Rodríguez?

YT: In ‘92. [20 years old] I had just graduated. It was end of ‘92, I remember.

TP: What year did you start Columna B?

YT: Columna B didn’t start until ‘97.

TP: What year did the Bay Area musicians come to Havana for the Master classes?

YT: They started coming from ‘91-‘92. So it was not until ‘94 that they invited me to Stanford Jazz Workshop, and it was not until ‘95 that I came to the United States, because the first time they didn’t grant me the visa because they said that I was too young and I was going to defect in the United States. So the next year, when I applied, and I had a great friend intervene in my case, who was at the time the UNICEF ambassador in Cuba. Then they grant me the visa, and when they saw that I returned to Cuba, then they started granting me the visa every year to go to the United States. In fact, I had a great relationship with the American (?—36:41) in Cuba, so I would receive… Then we had such a great relationship that they would send me every month the DownBeat magazine, so that was another way to be informed about what was going on in the jazz scene.

TP: Was it during these years that folkloric percussion started being part of the curriculum in the conservatory? Dafnis told me that his pedagogy was classically-oriented, and that at a certain point, because of interest from foreigners, they started teaching folkloric percussion and Cuban traditions and so on. Does coincide with Stanford Jazz Workshop and these events in the early ‘90s.

YT: Yes, with the Afro-Cuban music courses. Afro-Cuban music courses I think were really key, especially for the school and the educational system, to notice that a lot of foreigners were interested in Cuba for its culture. So even though we had Cuban music in our curriculum at the school, I don’t think that it was taught at the same level that was taught the other classical music. So right after that especially, the very, very last year… I remember in my case, in the very last year of my courses, they started to put more emphasis in the courses teaching Cuban music in our program in the school. Like I said, I was fortunate that music was in my family. So everything that I am learning in popular Cuban music was from my father, from my family. It wasn’t from the school. So if I had learn from the school, then I had ….(?—38:54)…. when they decided that Cuban music was important for them to put in the programs.  I think it actually became part of the pedagogy at the end of the ‘80s-beginning of the ‘90s—‘88-‘89, and on into the ‘90s.

TP: And you think the motivation is because there was interest from abroad.

YT: Yeah. People were going to Cuba not to learn about Mozart and about Beethoven and Stravinsky, but people were learning …(?—40:21)… in Cuban music which was going around the world. But what happened is, the people that get together and put together the programs for the classical music school in Cuba, they are not necessarily the popular musicians playing with all the popular bands. So as a result, they have a different orientation in what is important to them in music. That’s what I’ve always believed.

That’s why, yes, you study in theory who was Beny Moré , who was all the… There’s more inclination to teach about the Cuban classical music. Then the Cuban popular music is just taught in one semester out of the four years of one school and out of the four years of the other school. I was always like: Why are we studying our music only for one semester? There are so many things that would interact from there. So that was the case. But like I said, all my saxophone teachers were… My first saxophone teacher was a great arranger and a saxophone player. He played baritone. Then in the second school I went to, one of the saxophone teachers, who really wasn’t actually my saxophone teacher but he was teaching tenor, he was a great jazz musician. That’s why, by the time I came to Havana, I knew so much about jazz, because I was already learning learning with my teacher in the school. In that school, it was… In terms of saxophone players, Roman Filiu was there, Felipe Lamoglia, all these great saxophone players, were in the school. César Lopez, who was in Irakere later, also is from Camagüey. There’s a lot of great players who come in from Camagüey. Even if they are not from Camagüey, they went to study in Camagüey for some reason.

TP: I don’t want to take too much more of your time, because I know you have to start getting ready to perform.

YT: I know there are so many things that happened during these years that you want to know. We can talk another time, if you want, and we can talk for a little while more now.

TP: I don’t think I need you to say that your preparation in the conservatory and what you got outside the conservatory made it relatively easy for you to adapt to the different challenges you faced outside of Cuba, with all the different circumstances you have to function it. I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this question, but it would be helpful if you could talk about it. Could you synthesize, state in a relatively general way, how you draw on the information you received in the conservatory in the music you’ve been putting out in the last decade or so? Dafnis said, for example, that studying theory and composition has been tremendously helpful for him in organizing his ideas in composition.

YT: I’ll give you my take on it. I think studying at the school and in Cuba, and being exposed to all this classical music program at a very early age, gives you also a discipline of how to approach and learn music. I think one of the things that made Cuban musicians different from musicians in different parts of the world is all of the information that they have in music from a very early age. I must admit, in the Cuban cases, not only the Classical music but also the music of our culture. That is also really important for us.

In terms of composition and theory and all that, of course it’s important to me. As a composer, even when I came to New York, I went even further to study at Juilliard… I went to Juilliard to study counterpoint, and I went to Mannes to study composition, to study orchestration, to study analysis, to study theory, because I wanted to deepen all this knowledge that I brought from Cuba. Since I was in New York, it was even to me more important. I wanted to really master composition and all of that… I went to school here in the United States to keep learning, because I believe also, like, there were certain things that I didn’t learn in Cuba because of information. I didn’t go to study composition directly at the ISA, so composition was always important to me, but I always studied on my own and with people. Therefore, the amount of technique that you are exposed to in terms of composition, orchestration, analysis, and counterpoint…that I have been exposed to…is starting in New York. Going to the classical music school in New York to study that has been tremendous. And I keep in contact with all my friends that I went to school with in Cuba, that they also went to study classical composition outside of Cuba, and we all coincide with all the information that we have incorporated for ourselves as composers.

It is true that the fact that I went to the school makes you a strong musician, and it’s always… To me, also, I have a different vision, because I am a teacher at the New School, and I can see the way that the program has been put together. I see areas where there is a gap of information that the student needs in order to become a better musician at an early age, so they can …(?—48:43)… at the school to start discovering on their own what to do. It’s like all of the students that I teach at the New School, I always send them to take orchestration classes at Mannes. I always send them to take analysis, conducting, all these classes at Mannes, because I said, ‘Listen, you are not just a jazz musician; you are a musician. To be a musician is more important than just to know one different kind of vocabulary in music. So you’re a musician, you’re supposed to…like Mozart, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, or Beethoven, you’re supposed to be able to understand and work at the higher level with understanding of music. So it is great that you are learning everything here at this school, but we need to know what music is about. Music is something that has been around forever, and it’s going to be around afterwards. So there’s so many things that we need to learn to for that. So it’s like I always push them to work to their limit, because this is the belief that I have in music. To me, music is just one.

So that’s the way that I think with the school. I don’t know if it answers your question.

TP: There’s no one answer. Did you ever at any point feel limited in what you could attain in Cuba, in how far you could go with music, or being able to express your musical ideas… You left Cuba. A lot of musicians left Cuba. Yet, you were nourished in this extraordinary way in Cuba, that probably couldn’t have happened elsewhere. What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages of being here?

YT: That is a good question. There is a big reason why I left Cuba. I left Cuba because, like any other musician interested to learn music and interested to master and assimilate a lot of information from all over the world, you need to know what the mecca of the arts are. In the 19th century, the mecca of the world for music was in Paris, so a lot of musicians were moving to Paris to learn and be part of that important energy that was happening at that time. There was so much information going around. The mecca of the music and the arts moved to New York then. So since the mecca of the music was in New York, I realized that I needed to come to New York if I wanted to be part of all of this great information and things that were going on around the mecca. I’ll tell you something, too. If the mecca of the world in ten years moved to Burundi in Africa, I would go there, too, because it’s there where I really need to be in order to learn about that.

Of course, I understood that my journey was not complete in Cuba, and I needed to go out to do it. Because it’s like everybody has to do it in their time. So for me to come to New York, it was important, because wow, it’s there that I have the potential to meet all these other people that were great masters and idols and heroes to me that I needed to learn from. I mean, you don’t go there… I am not going to learn that from Rio De Janeiro. I am not going to learn that from Cuba. You’re always going to learn what do you think is this business about? Well, you will not learn from the horse’s mouth, you know? This is an oral tradition. Jazz is really an oral tradition to this day. You need to hear from people. There’s a lot of information that you just don’t learn from the books. The same happened even with classical music.

That’s why you always have to travel where the good teacher is, because it is with this teacher that you’re going to get a lot of information passed orally. Yes, it is true that you can get all the Bach fugues and Mozart concertos and everybody… All this is printed in books, and you can get it even in South Africa. But no, you need to go to Europe to study with the great performers and teacher in order to get the information that has been passed orally from that tradition.

TP: One thing I’m curious about, but feel a little shy in asking, is what sort of effect the armature of Marxist-Leninist aesthetics as applied to education affected you in any particular way? It’s hard to tell. Since I never had direct experience with it myself, it’s hard for me to get how it impacted people who were raised under that umbrella.

YT: It’s like…music and politics don’t go together. You know? At the same time, I was born in Cuba, which is a Communist country, and I consider myself a very political person. I think one of the greatest effects that I saw from that society in Cuba was that it made the highest education available to everybody, whereas I see here that you can study at a lot of the greatest schools, but you need to have a lot of money, too, to be able to have access to them or be lucky enough to have a scholarship to go to those schools. To me, one of the best things that could ever happen in Cuba is that that system made education available to everybody. In every little corner, in the most remote place, there are people coming from there who had the greatest music education. Even though I agree or not in my political views with the system, I cannot deny that I had really the greatest teachers I could ever have to learn anything that I learned, and this knowledge is going to travel with me to the end of my life.



Yosvany Terry on Cuba Education — Part 2 (June 6, 2013):

TP: I’m not clear on how the plantilla system affected everyone, as it seems to have.

YT: Ok. It’s a simple concept. Plantilla is more…what it means within the music term is like contract and format, and the band instrumentation at the time. So to have a plantilla within the company, that means that you have basically a contract with the band. Let’s say, for instance… Every group, to be part of the company, they need to be plantillas.

TP: What is the company? The state?

YT: No, the companies are the music companies. Actually, the same term can be used at any regular companies, say, like, within the civil engineer company or agriculture company or a building products company. So plantilla are all the…how do you say in English…how do you call it when you work in the university and you’re part of the faculty, but you are… Let’s say, in my case, I teach at the New School, but I am an adjunct faculty. I am not full-time faculty. So plantilla is like a full-time contract. That’s what it means. That’s actually the meaning. It’s a full-time contract. So when you have a plantilla in the music company, your group has a full-time contract, and sometimes you have a contract, but you have a temporary contract—so you are not plantilla. You are not a full-time contract. That’s actually what it means.

TP: But the contract is with the regional empresa… In other words, who is the contract with? And what are the implications of the plantilla? Is it restrictive? Or does it make it difficult to move from one band… Or did it? I’m talking about conditions 20 years ago. I hear things have loosened up some now. But yes, was it restrictive in terms of moving from one band to another.

YT: I’ll give you an example. Say, for example, I am forming a new band, and I’ve got to gather all the musicians, I prepare their repertoire and everything. Now, I have to audition for one of the music companies in order to get a plantilla, a full contract, so that my band can receive a salary from the music company. All the music companies are sponsored by the government. Therefore, let’s say when we had Columna B, before we started getting a salary from any music company, we created the band and we started playing, but then we said, “Ok, we need to belong to a company.” Because if you don’t belong to a music company, then it is impossible to travel abroad of Cuba, because all of the tours are managed through the Instituto de la Musica or the Ministry of Culture. So therefore, for us to go and tour in Europe, this is… The Instituto de la Musica as well as the Ministry of Culture, they are the ones that do all the paperwork regarding passport, contracts, and everything.

So if you want to work and make money… I’ll give you another example. If you want to do a national tour, and you’re planning to perform in Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba, all the provinces, in order to make contracts with the institutions and make Cuban pesos, because you’re going on an international tour, you still need to be part of the structure. So plantilla is like being part of that structure. It’s part of the government. It’s like the Cuban music enterprise, you know?

TP: And is there one company for classical music, one for popular dance music, one for folkloric music…

YT: Yes.

TP: Which one were jazz groups placed under?

YT: Yes, there were differences. The one that we were associated with was Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto.

TP: Do they have you on a fixed salary?

YT: Yeah, we were on a fixed salary. That means Concert Music Association. That was the music company that would deal with people doing a lot of creative music. So that is one type.

Then there was another one called the Karl Marx Company. That was based next to the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. There was also a lot of creative music being done within that company. Also there was another one named Beny Moré , named Beny Moré . There was another one named Adolfo Guzmán, named after the Cuban composer Adolfo Guzmán. There was another one…

Those companies are mostly named after important musicians who were in Cuba. Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto, which is the one we were with…the symphony orchestra was through that, a lot of chamber music, all the classical concert soloists, and a lot of jazz musicians also—a small group, like Hernando Posnosa(?), and different things. So we were part of it.

But in order for us to be part of the system like I said before, we formed a band and started playing, and then I said, “Guys, actually, we need to be part of the system if we want to have a salary, and at the same time we need to prepare if we’re planning to tour abroad of Cuba.” So we did a… What was interesting is, like, the director of the Agrupacion de Musica de Concierto was one of the teachers at the school, so he knew already the musicianship of the band. So in our particular case, we didn’t have to do the audition because he knew who we were. They just came to a concert, heard the band, and then of course created the plantilla, created the full-time contract for the band to be in the company.

Then we started actually having a salary. That was the way we would do all the paperwork to travel abroad when we were touring in Spain, and then we came to the United States. All this paperwork has to be done through the company.

TP: Let’s suppose you had a gig with, I don’t know, Isaac Delgado or someone like that, and you wanted to move to another band. Would you easily be able to do that, or would that be very difficult?

YT: Well, that’s the other side of that system. That system makes it a little bit difficult to be a freelance. So let’s say if Isaac Delgado needed…if the saxophone player is sick, and he has a tour and he needed to do a tour with me, then I have to do a temporary contract with his music enterprise in order to have all my paperwork done with them so that I can have a salary to that. So that’s the other part. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in that.

TP: So it can be cumbersome.

YT: Exactly.

TP: And it can keep you with the same band. It can make it difficult to develop creatively, it might seem? Or not?

YT: Well, I don’t think it will stop you from being creative. Because it doesn’t have a direct impact on what you do. But what I think is, it’s not natural. It is not natural to the way musicians interact with each other. Imagine if you had that system here, it would be chaos, because everybody is free-lance, everybody works with everybody. So whenever you had to work with a band… Say, I have a concert with Tain at the Jazz Standard in July, but then I am playing with my band, and then I am playing with some other people. So any time that I have to play with everybody, I have to go through a contract and things like that. It would make things really difficult, really crazy.

But that doesn’t stop people from recording with each other. All the records, people go to the studio and just, like, you go with whomever you want.

In Cuba, there is a great culture of bands. So when people form a band…when there is a band, musicians stay for a quite a while with the band. It’s a different concept here, because people here are just playing with each other and we’re playing with everybody. But over there, when you talk about Los Van Van, you’re talking about, like, an institution. So it’s more the concept that used to be here in the ‘40s and ‘50s, where Art Blakey was an institution, Horace Silver was an institution, people who would work with Monk would be with Monk for a long time, with Dizzy Gillespie for a long time, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, you name it. It’s the same concept that still prevails in Cuba. That’s what it is. That’s why when you see the bands that come here, they sound like a band. They rehearse.

At the same time, with the music company, they always try to get them a rehearsal space and things like that. Different companies do different things. Different companies ask for a certain amount of concerts that you have to perform a month in order to make your full salary.

TP: Let me ask one other thing. When you were in school, it coincided with the “special period,” of real shortages and so on?

YT: That was at the very end of my school years.

TP:   What effect do you think going through that had on musicians in your age group? Some musicians left the country.  It seems to have made people determined to do whatever they could to… In a certain way, it seems to have strengthened people who were stronger.

YT: Looking back and thinking what I had in my time when I went to school, and then what I saw looking at the school when the “special period” came and the younger generation, what they were going through that I didn’t… I think it was the beginning of the collapse of a lot of great things I had during my time. Because in my time, when I went to school, the most important thing was just to be a great musician, to be a great student. Now, when the special period came in Havana, and then everything started being shortened and everything was…it was more difficult to do anything, to get reeds, to get anything, because of economics, then you could see how the principles that unified all the students start to be dismantled.

I’ll give you an example. It was not until I graduated that I started thinking what was I going to do after school, what band I was going to be working with. Because up until then, all I thought was just to be the greatest student, you know, and the best thing. Then, when I looked to the younger musicians who were in school during the ‘special period,’ now the whole thinking had changed, because the students from the schools while the ‘special period’ was going on, they were looking how to join a band in order to make money, so that they could have money to support themselves. Because everything was more difficult. Even for the parents to support those students was more difficult, too. So they were just thinking how to start your own band, to travel abroad and make money so that they could have their family and things like that. Which in my time, I never thought about anything like that. I was just about, like, “Ok, I want to be a great musician; I want to learn music.” So I never had to think, like which band I can join that would have a tour so that I can make money and support myself. You see? So I think that’s one of the big impacts.

The other impact that I noticed with the special period is, like… Of course, the students were not the only people involved with that, but the teachers, too, so the teachers now had to make sure they could get on tour and make money for themselves. So a lot of teachers started getting contracts out of the country. A lot of teachers started touring more, because their salary was not enough to cover all their needs. So like I said, right at that point, the whole system started to collapse, because… Well, when you have such an economic crisis, that crisis removes, in effect, the foundation. Therefore, everybody has to then rethink how are they going to support themselves, from the teacher to the student to the system itself.

It was interesting, because the ‘special period’ came, and all of a sudden, I started seeing all my friends from my generation, if they had finished their studies, they all started traveling abroad of Cuba, and they all started staying, and defected to different countries. A lot of my friends started traveling, joining orchestras in Europe, in South America, in Colombia, in Ecuador, El Salvador, and they went to those places where they didn’t have as strong a classical music foundation, and they started making orchestras everywhere. I have friends who live in El Salvador, classical students, who play in all these orchestras—in Spain, in Colombia, in Venezuela, in Chile you have Cubans also who are teaching and playing in the orchestras. So the same thing that happened with the Russians in Europe. Now, you go to Europe, there’s Russian musicians playing all over Europe in all those orchestras. Yeah, the same thing happened with the Cuban musicians.




Yosvany Terry (Downbeat Article — 2006):

“New York is an incredible learning experience,” says saxophonist Yosvany Terry Cabrera. “Every band or session or musical project that you participate in has people from all over the world, bringing new information and knowledge on what they do.”

A native of Cuba’s Camaguay province and a Habañero through the ‘90s, Terry, 35 and a Harlem resident since 1999, is a long-established first-caller in the jazz capital. His c.v. includes consequential stints with such radical conceptualists as Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, and Brian Lynch; pan-diasporic postboppers like Jeff Watts, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen the bassist, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, and Manuel Valera; Latin music envelope-pushers Eddie Palmieri and Dafnis Prieto; the tradition-centric show band Afro-Cubanismo!; and Norteamericano Afro-Cuba purists like Jane Bunnett and Glenn August. All value Terry’s immaculate musicianship, his rare ability to blend in when executing the idiomatic nuances of the function in question while also stamping his creative, recognizable voice within the flow.

“All the different gigs you play in town put you on the spot, and you always end up growing,” Terry said. “I like to be a sideman as much as playing my music; the different accents and demands put you into corners you wouldn’t get to otherwise.” He cited bassist Cohen’s various Middle Eastern influences, and trumpeter Cohen’s use of West African melodies and rhythms. “Of course,” he adds, “I was exposed to this kind of music in Cuba; my father also traveled in many African countries.”

Terry referred to violinist-chekere player Don Eladio Terry, who has led Maravillas de Florida, a popular charanga unit, since the ‘50s. He trained Yosvany and his brothers—flautist Yoel and bassist Yunior—both in the African codes that inform Cuban folkloric and popular music and in Euro-Classic strains.

“Growing up, music was really exciting,” Terry recalled. “When we were little, he would bring us to the bandstand, fill a big plastic bottle with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we’d sing and dance. We had a piano, and we were around musicians all the time. All the big orchestra names that came through my town to play in the Carnival would visit the house, because they were friends of my father—Miguelito Cuní, Chappottín, Beny Moré. Everyone knew him—he was a showman, a really good dancer with the hat and cane, and the orchestra drove around the country in this huge limo. My father created respect for the tradition of music, and even now I enjoy playing traditional music because of the feeling. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. When you hear the good bands, it isn’t just done at the intellectual level, but you feel that it’s moving people, too.”

Terry took up the saxophone at 10, and caught the jazz bug in his early teens. “I heard a jazz recording, it sounded really fresh, and I didn’t know what they were doing,” he said. “I wanted to learn. I studied piano and jazz harmony with a teacher in my school named Alfredo Thompson, who worked in Irakere and is now the musical director for Omara Portuendo. He played saxophone with the one jazz group in my province, led by Gabriel Hernández, a pianist who worked with Roy Hargrove after Chucho Valdés stopped working with Crisol. My father brought him to the Maravillas de Florida, and he’d put Coltrane harmonies in the bridges of the tunes. They were amazing, in-depth musicians, and I heard them play as often as I could.”

After graduating from the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Arte conservatory in Havana, where he moved at 17, Terry linked up with a clique of contemporaries for whom jazz was not a samizdat experience, as it had been for prior-generation Cuban jazzfolk like Paquito D’Rivera, Ignacio Berroa and Arturo Sandoval. He became, as he puts it, “one of Havana’s first freelance musicians, began to travel with such diverse personalities as  Silvio Rodriguez, Diakara, Santiago Felifi, and Chucho Valdés, and joined Prieto, pianist Roberto Carcasses, and bassist Descemer Bueno in Columna B, an over-the-top timba-rhythms-meets-postbop harmonies unit. “I liked the concept that I could play just music, not one style,” he says.

Attending the Stanford Jazz Workshop in 1995, Terry began a relationship with Steve Coleman, which solidified the following year when Coleman spent quality time in Cuba to prepare and document The Sign and the Seal, his epic collaboration with the folkloric group AfroCuba de Matanzas. “Steve knows the tradition so well, and he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff,” Terry said. “He’d bring us recordings by Bird and Sonny Rollins, and break them down for us so we could really understand them.

“There are are major differences between the vocabularies here and in Cuba. Now, [pianists] Emiliano Salvador and Frank Emilio were playing from a perspective of deep knowledge. But I think my generation was a victim of all this fusion that happened in the ‘80s, Chick Corea and so on. We didn’t have access to recordings by the old players like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, and Don Byas that the older generations were exposed to. I knew a little bit when I got here, but only then did I realize how deep I needed to go in order to integrate. If you want to be part of this community, you need to know this language and vocabulary so you can play with people in different formats.”

A worthy document of Terry’s hard work and due diligence is the 2004 recording Metamorphosis [Kindred Rhythm & EWE], issued earlier this year. Drawing on a lexicon of strategies deployed by such Terry employers as Coleman, Lynch, Douglas, and Watts (the latter performs on one tune), Terry arranges seven of his own originals and one by his brother Yunior for quintet, sextet and septet configurations. He tells his stories with gorgeous harmonic voicings that frame narrative beats postulated by Prieto and conguero Pedro Martinez and apt tumbaos from Yunior Terry and Hans Glawischnig. Avishai Cohen is a mercurial trumpet foil, and pianist Luis Perdomo and guitarist Mike Moreno comp and solo with elegance and imagination. Playing primarily alto sax, Terry uncorks an array of fresh, uncliched ideas, phrasing them in a singing-through-the-instrument Charlie Parker-through-Steve Coleman manner (check the out-of-the-blue quote of “Ornithology” on “Subversive”) and projecting them with a tenoristic tone that bespeaks immersion in the Gary Bartz-Kenny Garrett school of alto expression.

“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Cuba,” Terry said. “The rhythmic concept is so sophisticated and elaborate, but it’s the folklore, the popular music, what you would hear in the ceremony or from people sitting down on the corner. But I want to be part of something bigger, of music in general. That’s what you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky, who came here after living in different countries. Cubans have been doing this for a long time. It keeps the music fresh in content, to take tradition and fabricate something new.”

More and more, Terry accesses Cuban roots through the chekere, to which he returned while on tour with [bassist] Avishai Cohen’s International Vamp Band. “I started to discover myself more,” he said. “In Cuba, the chances to play the instrument were less, because my father is so active. Now I think about the instrument when I’m walking around, imagining how I can apply rhythms that I just learned and develop a solo. It helps me feel more Cuban, closer to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.”


Yosvany Terry (May 12, 2006):
TP: I want to start by talking about the different things you do in New York now as a working musician, and then work back to how you got here. How many different bands are you working with now?

YOSVANY: Well, I work with different people, which is one of the things I like about the city, is the different styles of music. I’ve done stuff with the Jason Lindner Big Band, which is a specific kind of music, but it’s original music, and it’s very dependent on the creativity of the moment. People just get freer and freer right there on the spot.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the bass player first. With him I worked on three different projects – his bass project, the Vamp Band, then his quartet. They were three different kinds of bands, and helped me to grow a lot. Also with Dafnis’ band, which is different music, and that has a whole different perspective and demands with the music…

TP: The music you’re playing with him on the Absolute Quintet record is very abstract.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also with Eric Revis, with his band a little bit, although he hasn’t been playing a lot lately. But it’s different music, because it’s associated I’d say with avant-garde type of music where there’s a lot of room for experimenting with other kinds of sounds where you normally wouldn’t go in other groups. With Jeff Tain Watts’ band, which is another kind of music. You learn a different kind of perspective in the music… I think his goes more from a wide palette, respecting tradition, breaking it, and then going out and doing nowadays stuff, too. So that is also very interesting, because it puts you right on the spot. If you have a gap on it, you’d better go back to the room and work it, because you have to play it on the concert the next day.

Also with Avishai Cohen, the trumpet player. That’s more African oriented, where he’s working with a lot of material from the western region of Africa. It’s a different kind of band, with different musicians, like Lionel Loueke, Jason plays in the band sometimes, Eric McPherson has been doing the gig, Omer Avital, and then… In there I use also the chekere… I try to use the chekere in the other bands, too, unless it doesn’t feel right. But all the time I try to bring it, because people like it anyway.

TP: You make it sound like a talking drum almost.

YOSVANY: Yes. To me, it’s an instrument that can be placed in any style. Then I have my band with all the exigencies that I have on my own music. And I’ve been working a lot with Gregg August, a bass player and really good composer. It’s more like a large ensemble with three horns and rhythm section. It’s really good, because it’s another perspective.

TP: How about Steve Coleman?

YOSVANY: With Steve Coleman I used to work also a lot, but lately not, because he has a different personnel. But we’re always close and we’re always talking about music and concepts and things he’s researching, and its application within a musical context. He likes to learn and research all the time, but he’s always looking for the application to his music. He’s not somebody who just wants to accumulate knowledge and leave it outside. So in that regard, it’s really interesting and inspiring, too, because he’s also someone who really respects tradition. It’s always inspiring you to grow out of it.

TP: Are you playing traditional Cuban music gigs also?

YOSVANY: Yes, I missed one. I play with Eddie Palmieri, recording and touring. The first year I came here, I started working with them. I did this concert at Hunter College, and he invited me and Dafnis for that concert, and since then he’s been calling me for concerts and recordings.

TP: If Donald Harrison doesn’t do the gig, you do the gig?

YOSVANY: Exactly. When he can’t do it… It was at a time when Donald was traveling a lot.

TP: But traditional Cuban music, is that still part of your professional activity?

YOSVANY: I used to do it more at the beginning. Now I still do it sometimes, which is something I’m trying not to be disconnected from, because it’s my source, my own music, and it’s something that I’m learning, I keep growing in all the time. I get called to do different gigs, traditional Cuban music, too.

TP: Now, Metamorphosis comes from 2004, so it’s two years old, and presumably you were putting it together for the year before that. Does it reflect where you are now, or have you gone somewhere else in your own music?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting. I think it reflects where I was, and it’s still reflecting where I am now. Of course, the record, like you said, was done maybe two years ago. That doesn’t mean that we stop as a musician just growing up. So of course, I’ve been growing more and more, and trying to compose new music, too. I still play all these compositions, and I’m going within those compositions, too, because even though they were created at that time, it wasn’t like I was touring all over the world with that music. That’s what forces you to really change the repertoire. So mostly, I performed it at the Gallery and different venues here, whatever was available to play. But it’s now that I’m trying to really take the band on the road. Because also, I have all these demands to be a sideman, so it’s not like you can put all the energy into your own band. And I really now want to do that.

TP: Bring your own band on the road. Who would that band be?

YOSVANY: Now I’m going to the West Coast for a tour in mid-August, so we’ll be four days at the Jazz Bakery, then we go to the Outpost, then we go to Yoshi’s, the Jazz Hall in Seattle, and Boulder and Denver. That will be quartet with Yunior Terry on bass, Justin Brown on drums (a young drummer from the Bay Area who lives in New York; he used to go to the New School), and Osmany Paredes on piano, who is a very talented piano player living in Boston (we went to school together). I recently did one week in New Orleans and Lafayette, doing the Banlieu(?) Series at Lake Charles and also at Snug Harbor. It was really successful, and it was also a chance to expose the music down there… To me, it’s a very important city musically, because it has that Caribbean feeling, and the people’s reaction to the music was so natural.

TP: Several bands down there have doing… Cubanismo had roots in New Orleans, and the Irvin Mayfield-Bill Summers Group was doing a pan-Caribbean thing out of there, so it’s a receptive place. Is what you’re doing now what you envisioned you’d be doing when you moved to the States? If not, how is it different that what you thought 7-8 years ago?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because the music I was doing in Cuba before moving out here was very much alike, concept-wise. We were trying to do music in the border kind of region, trying to understand our own language and the traditions we represented and everything that we knew. I don’t think that changed. That vision didn’t change. What changed…

TP: For the record, Yosvany is having shrimp croquettes and tostones rellenos, and I’m having an avocado salad and a tamal.

YOSVANY: I don’t think the vision changed, because also it was… I had opportunities to make ..(?).. here, and then we worked together… My point is that the vision didn’t change. But when I moved here, you’re receiving so much information, that then I realized, “Okay, I have to learn all that,” and for a minute, it’s not like you stop your vision, but you go into a different process, just to really learn and digest all the new things that are happening. All that really helped me to grow. It’s helping me still, because now… Every day you discover more stuff that you need to check and there’s more things that’s going to inspire you.

TP: For how long was it your aspiration to come here? Because you don’t just leave. It’s something you had to be dreaming of and thinking about for a while.

YOSVANY: I really started thinking about it seriously in ‘99. Before then, I was coming here back and forth since ‘95, because I was going to Stanford Jazz Workshop and then playing up here with different musicians. But back then I never felt that I wanted to live here. I felt comfortable just coming back and forth. But it was not until late ‘98 and ‘99 when I decided that I really wanted to be part of what was going on here, and also…

TP: What happened? What made it the right time?

YOSVANY: I don’t know what happened really. There were many things that influenced me. I used to travel all the time, even when I was living in Cuba, so maybe the idea was that it was a slow year, for some reason. Then the first travel I did within that year was to the States, to this conference that I was invited to for all the people who had been getting grants through different philanthropic foundations here. So I decided, well, maybe it’s the time. Also, I had done a week with Chucho at Bradley’s and some people asked me for my phone to get a gig, and then when they asked, “So, where do you live?” and I said, “In Cuba,” that’s the beginning of the end, too. So all these things were hitting me.

TP: So living there was holding back your creative development in a certain way, because you’d been exposed to people but you could only take it so far.

YOSVANY: Yeah. Some friends were telling me, “man, you have to move to New York; it would be nice if you do it,” dah-da-dah. So I think at that time, I was decided that I wanted to do it and make a move, so that I could just keep learning.

TP: When you and Dafnis and some of the other Cuban musicians came here, I think because of your conservatory education, you arrived as well prepared as anybody does to meet the requirements of the scene – to play a lot of different music, play complex music, deal with different moods and contexts. What was the biggest challenge you found when you came here that you didn’t expect?

YOSVANY: The big challenge, which I think is still today and is going to be all the time, is all the information of music from here. We had information in Cuba about the music here, jazz in general, but it was not until I moved here that I really heard about Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Don Byas…

TP: The jazz tradition.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So this information, a lot of that I was missing there. Then it was a shock, also, the development of the language of that tradition. Because I remember starting, going into sessions, and then I heard that they were playing something that wasn’t exactly what I was playing, and it was, “Oh, now I need to sit down and figure it out.” So that helped me a lot. Also at the same time, if you don’t work with that language, you can get certain gigs, but there’s a lot of gigs that you’re not going to get into.

TP: Did the language come fairly naturally to you, or was it hard for you to adapt?

YOSVANY: It was both. It was natural in a way, because I was listening to jazz since Cuba. There are points of coincidence. But at the same time, it’s different from the rhythmic accents of Cuban music. So it was relearning it and being conscious of the difference. When you know a language that you learn in the street, and then you go to the country where the language is spoken, then you have to learn all the nuances and the subtleties, and everything is different. “Wait a minute.” This is what I knew. I could get by. But there is a whole deep level of it.

TP: Your English is excellent.

YOSVANY: I’m trying to work on it a little bit.

TP: It’s excellent, which I think speaks to the way you assimilated the musical language, too. What was interesting in 1999, to hear you and Dafnis, is that previously, when Chucho or Gonzalo came here, they were arriving as stylists, with their own idiosyncratic style.  I’m wondering if anything was happening in Cuba within that decade that made it possible for you and Dafnis to be more open to taking in the information rather than coming in as Columna B.

YOSVANY: I think what happened was… Someone who helped also was Steve Coleman. Because we were friends back then, and then he would bring me a lot of recordings. For somebody like him, who is from here and he knows the tradition really well, maybe he noticed that we were lacking some of this stuff. So he would bring a lot of Sonny Rollins, Trane, Bird, all this kind of information. We would talk a lot about music. He would break it down for us so that we could really understand…

TP: What would he break down? The harmonic stuff? The phrasing? The rhythm? The accents?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because some of that stuff it’s not like he would say, “This is the way to do it,” but he would say, “Check that, and check the way they do this, or check this out.” We’d discuss about some of the concepts he was working on at the time for his own music that we could share, and also we would tell him what we were working on in Cuba at that time.

There were also lesser-known musicians in Cuba who were working more with the traditions here. For instance, Ernesto Simpson, the drummer, I used to know when I was little, maybe 13 or 14 years old, but he used to live next to my building, when I was studying in Havana, so when we would come in town I would wake him up… He was the first one who played me Trane with Elvin Jones and all that. So he was bringing all that kind of information from Havana to Camagüey. He was the person, him and two other saxophone players who I respect a lot, who were working with this kind of information, too.

It’s interesting, because at a certain time, I think my generation was victim of fusion, this Chick Corea…all this fusion happening in the ‘80s.

TP: The way Irakere sounded in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yeah, exactly. But at the same time, there used to be Emiliano Salvador, there used to be Frank Emilio and all this tradition, people trying to play music from a different perspective, with a different depth of knowledge in the music. So it all helped. It wasn’t – like you said – that I came here all of a sudden and I just did anything. I mean, I knew a little thing. But here was where I really saw that I needed to go deep if I really want to… My thing was that I wanted to integrate. I didn’t want to come here and just be an alien. I wanted to be part of the scene.

TP: So when Steve Coleman played you Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, how did that augment your knowledge?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because even though I was listening to Sonny Rollins and Coltrane since I was maybe 14 or 15 years old… But here’s the deal. It’s the same if you lived, say, in Ohio, if you lived here and were listening to Cuban music… New York isn’t a good example for that, because there’s a Latino community. But if you were listening to Cuban music, I don’t know, in San Francisco, and you’re here with friends, but for the first it’s different when some Cuban musician comes in town regularly and then you’re getting together with them. Then you can listen to the making of the music. You can really see to what they’re listening to. So even though I was listening to Trane and Wayne Shorter and all these people in Cuba, but it’s different when you get together with people that…

TP: It’s different when you’re in the culture, hearing Cuban music in Cuba and how it relates to…

YOSVANY: Exactly. It’s the same. That’s the example – you start understanding the Cuban system. Maybe you heard Cuban music since you were little, but you never knew really the details.

TP: When you were 14 or 15, how were you hearing Coltrane and Sonny Rollins? Was jazz sort of in the air with musicians? Was it a samizdat, the way Paquito describes it when he was young in Cuba… As he describes it, in the ‘60s it was dangerous to listen to jazz; people would pass around cassettes. I take it that it was different in the ‘80s.

YOSVANY: Yes, it was different. In my generation, we didn’t go through all this trouble that Paquito and his generation had to go through at the time, in terms of not being able to listen to jazz or listen to a lot of music that represented some other political views. There were a lot of bands traveling, a lot of musicians by (?). So to me it was just a whole different new sound. Listening to Sonny Rollins with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and then Coltrane with his own band. Also, there was a jazz program in Cuba, a jazz show at night to which I used to listen all the time, one at 10 o’clock and one at 11 o’clock…

All I’m trying to say: To me, I think this is… Let’s say, if you’re a musician, you start listening to traditional Cuban music, and you like it but you don’t…let’s say… The way I would describe it is, yeah, I was trying to imitate it, but at the same time, there are so many layers of learning one culture that maybe I considered I was at the outer level at that time, and then, because I was at the imitation stage… It was at the imitation stage because I wasn’t really knowing the tunes, so I couldn’t manipulate the music. It’s not until really you know the tunes that you can manipulate it on your own and you can create your own sound and you can just try to say something different. Because you understand what he’s saying and at the same time you understand what he’s doing, so that inspires you to do your own stuff, knowing the tunes and even challenging the tunes. So that was the difference at that time, and when I was 14 or 15 and listening to that, it was just in the imitation stage. It wasn’t like I could understand, “Oh, they’re doing this hip dominant substitution.” At the same time, I was getting around to knowing my instrument, too. This kind of music really demands a knowledge of your instrument.

TP: You started off how?

YOSVANY: I started off playing violin at the age of 5, and then saxophone when I started in the conservatory when I was 10 or 11, I think.

TP: A conservatory at Camagüey?


TP: I had Dafnis Prieto on the air yesterday, and he said that as a kid in the cultural center in Santa Clara, he was learning bongo and conga, and learning in a very specific way, in a youth band playing traditional music. You come from a musical family. Were you trained in a ritualistic way?

YOSVANY: My way was completely different, because my father being a musician, the whole universe of music was open since I was born. So there was a piano always in my house, there were musicians visiting my house. All the big orchestra names that would stop by in Florida, my town in the province of Camagüey, they would come and visit the house, because they were all friends of my father. Like, let’s say Miguelito Cuní, Chappotín… They would come play in the Carnival, because there was Carnival in all the little towns, and they would all come to the house. Benny Moré also would come with his orquesta. I was very little, but they would stop in the house.

TP: Benny Moré was alive then…

YOSVANY: He died in the late ‘70s. I was born in ‘71. I might have been 1 or 2 years old. Orquesta Aragon. All the bands came because they knew my father, because the Maravillas de Florida was one of the most important charanga in the interior. So I grew up in a real music environment. It’s different than what happened to Dafnis. So then, that’s why, when I decided I wanted to be a musician when I was 5, my father got us a real…you know, a private teacher, and we started learning solfegge on the instrument… Since I was little, I went to the performances that my father played in town. Music was always in the family. Yunior is the same way, and also Yoel, my older brother.

TP: Were you playing with your father at a certain point? Was that part of the deal? Or was it separate?

YOSVANY: It was interesting. Because my father, we always got inspired by him because he was always practicing at home all the time, but he didn’t want to force us into music. He wanted us to decide for ourselves. So when we decided, he said, “Okay, if you really want to be a musician, I’ll get you a teacher.” That was the end of playing on Sundays and Saturdays, because he said, “if you want to be a musician, you have to be serious.” So we had to practice for the teacher when he would come on Sundays. That was the stop of my playing with other kids on the weekend. Which I didn’t understand at the time, but now I appreciate it, because it really made you understand the discipline. If you want to be a musician, you have to take it serious; it’s not like a fun time. I remember when we were little, 3 or 4 years old, he would take us to the bandstand, and then he would take a big plastic bottle, fill with water, and suddenly we were playing the chekere, or we would sing and we’d dance. But we were always on the bandstand. So that was a different… Growing up as a child, it was really exciting. We were around musicians all the time.

TP: When you play chekere, when you play traditional music, it’s in your blood. It’s very natural.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s natural. Because my father created respect for the tradition of music. That’s why even now, when I’m called for traditional gigs, I like to play it. I really enjoy playing the traditional music. Because you have the dancing feeling. It’s made for the dancer. If the dancer doesn’t move, then it’s not good. I think jazz has the same quality. That’s one of the reasons why I like jazz. Because when you hear the good bands, you have a feeling that it’s moving people. It’s not just done at the intellectual level in which it just can be heard from that narrow point of view. I like that quality a lot, too. But to me, it needs to have both.

TP: Did your father have any connection to jazz?

YOSVANY: He likes a lot Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan. But he knew very little. It wasn’t like he knew much.

TP: Did he know Bebo?

YOSVANY: Yes, of course he knows Bebo. Every Cuban knows Bebo Valdés, Arsenio Rodriguez. Everybody.

TP: He knew Cachao back in the day?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. Because he started… Orquesta Maravilla Florida was founded in the ’50s. He was one of the founders. They started working on that in ’57 or ’55…I forgot. So at that time, he knew everybody. He was somebody who was really distinctive in the charanga orchestra, because he was the leader at that time, and then he was like a showman. He was a really good dancer, and he would dance with the hat and cane. The orchestra also used to have this huge limo that would go all around the country. So everybody knew him.

TP: Was he a little like Bobby Carcasses?

YOSVANY: Yes, a little. But Bobby does that, mixing jazz and Cuban music, and this was with the traditional, with the charanga music, using also the folklore music. It was geared to the popular people, to the regular people, people who go to the ..(?)…

TP: The folkloric music, when it’s applied to the States, is almost an avant-garde concept, in terms of the rhythms. It’s like bringing a story to a particular set of beats or rhythms. I don’t know if there’s a question in this. But it’s interesting how the popular music of one culture can take on a different flavor in another.

YOSVANY: It’s true. In that regard, that’s why I feel very fortunate to have grown up there. Because when you look at that, like you say, from this perspective, it’s one of the most sophisticated rhythm concepts. Really, really sophisticated and elaborate. But that’s the folklore, that’s the popular music there. So this is what you would hear in the ceremony, or what you would hear from people sitting down on the corner to do that. So for me, I’m used to that since I was little. Just like it would be so natural for people here to listen to people at the early stage hearing jazz and blues — and it’s really sophisticated music when you look at it from a different perspective. So there’s a lot of similarities of culture. That’s why I believe that, besides they have the same kind of background… But that’s what made them interchange.

TP: Did politics impinge on you at all as a kid?

YOSVANY: Did they stop me from doing something?

TP: Did they stop you from doing anything? Or was music always an apolitical thing? A lot of people in Cuba don’t have mobility and can’t travel, and to be a musician, there’s a certain status that’s involved. I don’t know exactly what the question is.

YOSVANY: Here’s the thing. My father is a musician playing popular music before the revolution, and then I guess, since I was born in ’71, so I didn’t go to music school until the ’80s… Then in the ’80s, all that was going on with musicians not being allowed to do different things… By the time that I started going to conservatory and studied music, that was calmed down. It seems like maybe like… I don’t know what was the factor that made all this turmoil calm down. But maybe it was just a different time, a different generation; maybe they grew out of it by the experiences they had before of musicians leaving the country because they couldn’t do what they really want to do. So really, I didn’t live those moments. I came out of something different. That’s why it’s so difficult for me… All the musicians of that generation who left, I understand where they’re coming from. But I don’t have anything to understand, because I didn’t live that. All I can know is that I listen to them, because they know the story that I didn’t know. I learn whenever I talk to them.

TP: Let me get back to music. You start playing saxophone at 11 or 12, get yourself together on the instrument and start hearing jazz musicians at 14 or 15. Among jazz saxophonists, was there anyone you started modeling yourself after stylistically?

YOSVANY: Over there? It’s interesting, because there was… When I was there, I liked a lot of Trane and Wayne Shorter. Even though I heard Bird, I didn’t really discover him until later, when more recordings were available to me.

TP: What do you think of Bird?

YOSVANY: I was really transfixed when I started to transcribe him. I heard him many times before, and I didn’t know the level at which he was involved until I started transcribing him and just to realize that he was just beyond anything I could imagine before that, and everything that I heard, it was like wow. It was just like total awe — about everything he did. His melody concept, rhythmic concept, harmonic concept. It’s really impressive that a person can have all these things developed only in one person. Some people are good with rhythm, some are good with harmony and melody — but he had everything. Don Byas, too. That’s why those persons… You could be 50 years from now, and he will be sounding the same.

TP: Did your awareness begin when Steve started pointing that out to you, or before?

YOSVANY: To realize about Bird? I think it was more when I moved here, and also in talking to Steve, and then I started getting together with Antonio Hart, too, to practice. Antonio was really important to make me be aware also of the tradition and the depth of the music that they were working with. Because it sounds hip already when you listening to it, but then when you break it down and go inside, it’s even more profound. So he was really a deep person. And many other people, too.

TP: It seems like musicians here were very open to you.

YOSVANY: Yes. I think one of the…

TP: Well, you’re from a musical family and know how to behave around musicians, so I’m sure your manners and personality has something to do with it.

YOSVANY: Yes. Also, when people see that you want to learn, then they open the door. If they see that you’re going out with an attitude, it’s not the same. I’m just interested to learn. At this point, I want to learn as much as I can. You learn from everybody. Also, it’s true that we used to work with a different kind of information coming from our culture that people are always trying to learn here, so for them….

TP: You have something for them, too.

YOSVANY: Yeah. So it’s… It’s a shame. Everybody would like to go to Cuba right away, but they don’t have the possibility So whenever they see an opportunity from somebody who can talk to them in the same language and they can talk to them on the same music level, it’s great, because they can exchange. I learn from them, they can learn from everything I know from my own culture, and you have the exchange.

TP: In New York, it’s not just Cuba and jazz, but there’s Vijay Iyer and Rudresh, with North Indian music, all the North African and Middle Eastern themes. What do you make of that? Do those cultural ideas enter your concept?

YOSVANY: Well, from before moving out here, I have so many Indian music tapes in my house, all the great Indian musicians. I have all the great Brazilian music, music from all different parts of Africa, all the different countries. That’s what I was doing before that. The music vision hasn’t changed, because I was exposed to all that, and that was my interest before. Here it broadened it more, and then I had the opportunity to have the access to more information to really put in the sack.

TP: But it’s interesting, because on one night you might be playing in Avishai Cohen’s group with Lionel, then you might be playing another night in Jason Lindner’s band, another night Dafnis’ more abstract music, all these different flavors that you have to adjust to.

YOSVANY: Last night I was doing a gig at the Zinc Bar with Samuel Torres, who works a lot with Columbian folklore and music from South America, too. Edmar Castaneda came with the harp, and another guy… They were digging up in the tradition. Then if you play with Tain, it’s a whole different demand. You have to really know about tradition in this culture, like jazz tradition and also the concept that he’s working on.

TP: Not just the jazz tradition, but you have to have it all at your fingertips – you have to be post-Branford and even where someone like Henry Threadgill is.

YOSVANY: That’s the challenge that I like. Even when I was in Havana, I think I was one of the first freelance musicians. Over there, everybody is in a band. I like the freelance concept, so I started being freelance, and that’s why I started moving easily, coming here and then traveling to Europe with Carlos Masa. I liked the concept that I could play… I wanted to play music, just music, not one style.

TP: Why were there not so many other freelance musicians in Havana?

YOSVANY: Everybody who is over there, normally they have to belong to a certain music company through this band, and the way that the system is organized now doesn’t allow you to do a lot of freelancing. But now, more and more, people are trying to do it.

TP: So more people are trying to do this now, which also lends itself to an open attitude towards embracing a lot of music.

YOSVANY: The great thing is, I was playing with singers, Cuban music, Cuban jazz, rock-and-roll singer. I also liked folkloric music, too, because I was working with the people from Folklorica Nacional. Then I would do my own stuff with my own band, and also with some other jazz groups over there. I would get together with singer-songwriters, too. It was all these things that I was doing.

Now, the difference I find from what I was doing there and what I’m doing now is, like, now I am doing, as you say, all different kinds of things in the palette, but… Here I’m not doing funk or hip-hip or folk music or anything like that, which before I used to do a lot. Which is something that I want to start to incorporate more and incorporate a bit more. Because before I also had the pressure that I had to learn so much new information that… I mean, you either concentrate to learn it or you don’t. Because there is only way to do it. There’s no shortcuts. You have to be in your practice room. That’s the way to learn it. Or going out and playing in sessions. Because I’ve been putting in all this time to learn, I haven’t been doing a lot of other different things which I want to do. Also, I played with El Negro and Robby Ameen’s band, in which we were trying to do a whole different approach. We were trying to mix Cuban music with more Funk and Hip-Hop, too, and some other current sounds. So that was really good. It was another kind of exposure.

TP: You were talking about learning Cuban music outside the context. In New York in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Eddie Palmieri and Barry Rogers, and then Andy and Jerry Gonzalez were reaching their own conclusions on the great Cuban music of the ‘40s and ‘50s. What did you think of what they were doing at that time? Were you listening to Eddie Palmieri or the Fort Apache band?

YOSVANY: I didn’t know much about the Fort Apache band, but I really did know Eddie Palmieri.

TP: What did you think of it in Cuba?

YOSVANY: What was really interesting was that they were keeping the form that was developed in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, so that was a great respect to the tradition, and now the new thing, why it was a real feeling for me, it was all the challenges that Eddie was doing with the harmonies. He’s a great writer. So that sounded really refreshing to me. That’s why people know who he is in Cuba. That’s why they know also that other people playing Cuban music here, like (?) Cedeno, El Canario, Oscar De Leon, who are also challenging a little bit the harmony. That sound a little bit came from the mix of jazz here and the awareness of harmony also on a different level. So that’s why it sounds appealing to a lot of Cubans.

TP: One criticism some of these guys who like the old-school music have of the music in Cuba is that it’s so fast, so intense, so virtuosic, it doesn’t breathe in some ways. I don’t want to cite Jerry Gonzalez as the authority on all matters, but is there anything to that idea that the music in Cuba these days…

YOSVANY: I know what you’re talking about. I can see it in people, especially when I go back sometimes. But let’s say if you are never exposed to, say, Coleman Hawkins playing a ballad, or Ben Webster or Lester Young or Johnny Hodges playing a ballad, then you don’t learn about that side. Because let’s say all the musicians doing jazz before in Cuba, they knew those people – Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole.

TP: Those musicians played shows in Cuba.

YOSVANY: Yeah, Roy Haynes played there.

TP: Stan Getz. Bebo described playing shows with Stan Getz.

YOSVANY: Also, Philly Joe Jones was there. So all these people from that generation, they KNEW. But then after ‘59, when there was the gap, no more American music was coming into Cuba to be performed, and it was not until 1978 when they had that Havana Jam… But again, this is only one night. It’s not like you were able to see that every day. Then at the same time, the fusion thing came in. So a lot of people grew up out of the fusion, and they never had the opportunity to learn. So that’s why I understand where Jerry is coming from, because I can see. He’s someone who has so much knowledge about the culture from here… He’s from here, you know. So of course, the younger generation, they don’t have that sound he was looking into. But he’s an incredible guy, because he’s always playing tapes, saying, “You have to check this out,” and so on. He’s hipped me to many really interesting things.

TP:  Within the broader frame of things, do you see yourself as specifically Cuban or as part of a broader Pan-Latin movement? In 1990, say, Gonzalo Rubalcaba was here, Danilo Perez was establishing himself, Ed Simon was here doing different things. Each was distinctively from their own culture, but also part of something broader, at least the way their identity portrayed itself here. Do you see yourself in that way, or is your identity here a more specifically Cuban identity?

YOSVANY: I understand your question, because you could be here and still keep your pure Cuban identity, which I know some people… But no. To me, the feeling here is to integrate, to be part of something which is bigger, which is music in general. Which is the same thing that you learn from all the great composers, even in classical music, like Bartok and Stravinsky. They all came here after living in different countries. They’re from something bigger than solely their own culture is going to be. I know Cuba is one… The three countries with the most important popular cultures are the United States, Brazil and Cuba. But I feel I’m trying to present something a little beyond. It’s music in general.

TP: Someone like Danilo extrapolated Panamanian folkloric music onto Cuban and Brazilian strains. There are people doing tangos who from Argentina and Uruguay. Ed Simon, ironically, learned about tonadas from Paquito. David Sanchez with bomba and plena. So it’s interesting how people integrate their own specific folkloric ideas into the broader fabric.

YOSVANY: But that’s what people have been doing for a long, long time.

TP: Since the Cubans came to New Orleans in the 19th century.

YOSVANY: Yes. That’s what also keeps the music fresh in content, when you can see people taking tradition and reviving it in a different way, but not for the sake of saying, “oh, I play tradition.” No, it’s…” You didn’t say this word, but it’s more like the intent to fabricate something new. It’s like when you put the fabrics together and you come up with something different.

TP: I was asking what you found so special about Bird. I want to ask you that about some other musicians. How did Coltrane strike you when you were in Cuba?

YOSVANY: I don’t know. There was something about his tone and his ideas that make it sound different. Even though I didn’t know much people… But when somebody has a power in their speech, then they can convince you. Maybe you speak to a thousand people within a day, but it’s like one or two that you remember the next day – “Oh, that an interesting conversation I had with this guy because of what he was saying and the way he was putting his piece together.’ I think that was what struck me on him. Like I said, I didn’t know much about what he was dealing with musically; I couldn’t understand that back then. But what he was expressing, even though I didn’t know the terminology, it struck me.

TP: Charlie Parker was part of the tradition of Cuban music in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s, but I can’t see an analog to Coltrane. I can hear it in Elvin Jones.

YOSVANY: But you can hear Bird in Trane, and that’s the bridge. Also, you can hear Dexter Gordon in Trane, and Dexter was somebody I always liked.

TP: When you heard something like Interstellar Space, was it something you could relate to?

YOSVANY: No, it wasn’t. The first time I heard that was on the jazz radio shows. I remember it was something completely different. At the beginning, I didn’t dig it much, because I didn’t understand what he was dealing with. I remember one of the radio guys was real into free jazz, which was hip, too, because if it hadn’t been for this guy, I would never have heard that. He would play a lot of Trane in his last period, and Albert Ayler, and… The guy passed, but he was into this type of sound. So he would cover the whole history, but always at the end of the month or every two months he would do a show with just that sound. For us, it was like you’d check the dial, because you’d wonder if it was the same station. It was so different. No, there was no way to relate.

TP: But when you came here you could relate to it?

YOSVANY: When I came here I could relate to it a little bit more. It’s not like this kind of sound is walking around the street. But at the same time, you can relate it also with the city. You can relate it with the dynamics of… Now that you’re here, you can see what the dynamic of the city and this whole city rhythm is, and you can arrive easier to that aesthetic.

TP: Another aspect is that a lot of the musical community here, musicians who play downtown at certain venues, that’s the sound they work with. It’s a very large clique of musicians who do it. Then you mentioned Wayne Shorter. Talk about his appeal when you were in Cuba.

YOSVANY: I first discovered Wayne with Weather Report. But he played so different within that sound, because he didn’t sound like any of the featured saxophone players who were playing within the fusion style. He sounded so different that it made me look for some stuff he was doing before, and then some people gave me cassettes of his LPs, and I found out that he was a monster who had all this tradition and knowledge within himself. Even though you couldn’t tell from the Weather Report, but at the same time there’s a certain tune he’s playing that you said, “Wow, this is not a cat who is coming out of the fusion; what he’s playing is something different.”

TP: When did you first hear him with Miles?

YOSVANY: When I was maybe 17-18. But I was in Camagüey still, but I might have been 16-17… There were people from Havana bringing all this information. Then I heard his own record with McCoy and then with Miles.

TP: Was improvising important to you as a teenager? Was there room in Cuban music for you to improvise? Someone as immersed in music as you and so at-one with your instrument, it would seem that the notion of creating your own music would be equally attractive to interpreting other music beautifully. You seem to be a musician who is equally comfortable doing both. There aren’t too many.

YOSVANY: I like to do both. I like being a sideman, being able to interpret music. That I got from the school in Cuba, because as we studied classical music, you have to interpret it like it’s yours, but then at the same time, when I heard a jazz recording, it’s when I was maybe 13 or 14, and I didn’t know what they were doing, because they were doing something really fresh. So then I wanted to learn how to do that. Even though there wasn’t much… I was lucky that there was a teacher around there who knew…he was a jazz player. So I learned with him piano and harmony, and I learned to understand the concept. His name is Alfredo Thompson. He is now maybe the musical director for Omara Portundo. But he knew jazz. He knew harmony and he knew Coltrane and all the jazz players. He also worked in Irakere before, and then he worked in …(?)… There was a jazz group in my province, only one, but they were really incredible players. The piano player was Gabriel Hernandez. He worked with Roy Hargrove in the latest stage of Crisol. After Chucho stopped working with Crisol, Gabriel Hernandez started working with Crisol. They were just amazing musicians, who really knew in-depth, and they were serious.

TP: And you knew them.

YOSVANY: Yeah, yeah, through my father. Coincidentally, my father was the one who brought Gabriel Hernandez to the Maravillas de Florida charanga orchestra after Gabriel had studied in Havana. If I play you those CDs, they’re really amazing, because it will be like a Charanga Orquesta, and then you will hear like Coltrane harmonies in the bridges.

TP: That’s what Emilano Salvador did.

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah. But you never heard that in a Charanga orquesta. They did that because Gabriel was hip to all this music. So I used to go every Saturday when they played, just to listen to them, because he was an amazing musician.

TP: We’ve covered a lot. I’m trying to think how to tie this up. Was alto saxophone your first instrument?

YOSVANY: I’ve played alto since I started, through all my studies in Cuba. But when I finished school, since my alto was cool, my parents gave a tenor as a present. So for the next three years, tenor was all I played. Tenor and also I bought a soprano because I started working with Silvio Rodriguez, and he wanted to travel to Argentina. But I had to become a tenor player because I didn’t have any alto. Then I ended up liking it. It gave me a whole different register in sound. I like to play an alto more with a tenor sound instead of playing with more of a kind of alto sound.

TP: Like a lot of modern alto players.


TP: Were you into Jackie McLean and Kenny Garrett and Gary Bartz?

YOSVANY: Yeah-yeah.

TP: I know with Antonio you got a good dose of Gary.


TP: Those guys all appeal to you.

YOSVANY: Yeah, definitely. Even Steve. He played with a different approach, not an alto type of sound. He was influenced a lot by Von Freeman, so he’s got so much of that depth. When he plays, it’s not like he’s taking the altissimo register. He’s got a deep bottom. But he’s very much raised on Bird. Bird is so strong in his style but at the same time he’s singing so much that mainly he’s just playing the instrument. That’s a whole different approach. Most of the people that imitate him don’t get his singing sensibility through the instrument, like the horn becomes an instrument, so they make the cliches or whatever…

TP: The licks.

YOSVANY: The licks. But by recreating the licks, you’re not really understanding. His real ability was to sing through the instrument. It was a different perspective.

TP: Not different than the sensibility of the older Cuban music.

YOSVANY: Yes, it’s something that used to be there a lot. What happened now is that the chances for a soloist to take solos in the popular Cuban music are all the time less and less. Before it was common. Everybody would take solos. Now I went to Havana, and it’s like you don’t listen to a soloist.

TP: Are people listening to MTV or hip-hop?

YOSVANY: No, they don’t have MTV there. There’s only 2 channels; it’s really controlled. But for some reason, reggae is there, and hip-hop has been there, too. They have a TV show… They don’t have something like MTV that would be playing mainstream. They have a show once or twice a week in which they pick whatever the emcee likes, and they will put it on. But I’ve never seen them… You know how MTV is sort of hip-hop. I haven’t seen it that much. It might have gotten there in some way, because of course people know. But they don’t have MTV bombarding them.

TP: So you play the three saxophones and the chekere. Has the chekere stayed there all through, or was there a period when you weren’t playing it and you’re bringing it back?

YOSVANY: It’s interesting, because in New York… I was playing with my band in Cuba, and then at some point I did a tour with my father playing in the band, on which I didn’t play chekere at all because it was right there. But then I would take it with me on the road with my other band. But I think it was here where I started playing it more and more, and then I grew up more playing the instrument. And with Avishai Cohen, because at the beginning I started playing with him in the International Vamp Band as a tenor player, and then chekere – but I think I was playing even more chekere sometimes than tenor (and also soprano). Even though I didn’t understand the concept of using it, I just wanted to blow my horn. But then, by playing the chekere every time and having to do solos and play it the whole concert thing on a tour, I grew up, and then I started developing more and more.

TP: Developing a personality on the chekere.

YOSVANY: Yes. Then I started to discover myself more. In a way, I was… It’s not like it was harder in Cuba, but the chances to play the instrument were less, because it was only my band, or maybe through… Well, very few other bands, because my father is really active there. So it was here that I had the opportunities.

TP: Here it becomes an art instrument instead of functional. People are sitting down watching you play it instead of responding.

YOSVANY: Yes. My father also played in places like that. But for some reason, people also haven’t seen the instrument. They don’t know it.

TP: Does playing chekere in some way, the longer you’re away from Cuba, help you stay Cuban?

YOSVANY: Not only that, but also stay closer to my Afro-Cuban roots. Even though I listen to that at home, too, the same way that I check out Brazilian music, classical music, music from the different parts of India and Africa… But I think about the instrument also when I’m walking around, imagining the way I can develop a solo, how I can apply certain rhythms that I just learned on the instrument. So again, it helps not only to feel more Cuban, but feel more close to the dancing aspect of the music that I like so much.

TP: Other musicians – Omer and Avishai – described that in Israel they didn’t really think of playing Ladino or Yemenite music, they just focused on hardcore jazz, but when they got here, they found themselves gravitating towards bringing those things into their sound as a way to do something individual, but also in some mystical way, so that being here brought them more in touch with their own national identity through art. That’s one reason why I’m asking this question.

YOSVANY: Ah! Now that you say that, it’s interesting for me to know that. When I look at musicians coming from Israel, they are the ones with the strongest sense of rhythm, in which they can understand Latin rhythms… They can pick it up really quick. That doesn’t happen in many other cultures. But of course, that helped me not to lose the tradition and not to forget about my roots, where I’m coming from, and then to adapt it and put it in whatever I’m doing.

TP: Your record Metamorphosis I suppose is your calling card for 2006. Do you have plans to do another record?

YOSVANY: Yes, I want to see if I can do another recording, maybe towards the end of this year. I’m already working with different material that I’ve been composing, and I want to compose more. But I would like to record something that’s here…

TP: This record has a formal quality, very composed, not something you’d be able to bring in every week, let’s say. Do you want to do something that’s more live-oriented. It’s your first record as a New York musician, and first records can be grand statements.
YOSVANY: When I do live shows, I go back and forth and new stuff that I’m playing now… If you want to pick up the word “formal,” they’re not as formal. They have to be more like what is happening, the way that you’re feeling that day and the way that it’s happening that day. That’s some of the quality that I like on the music. This music happened this way because I know that I composed it and I was working a lot on it. So even though it sounds more through-composed, I guess, it changes all the time in the live performance. It changes, because then I would put a whole different intro, like solo instrument intro here, and then we’d just switch the sections to here. I will do it differently, completely differently.

TP: And next year, you’re going to try to move your activity more towards leading your own group, but you’ll keep a lot of your sideman things.

YOSVANY: No. I love to be a sideman because it’s the way that I grew up. I like to be a sideman as well as I like to play my music. When you get to play other people’s music, with the different accents and demands, then you’re into corners that you wouldn’t get there unless you were working with some other people.


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Filed under Cuba, DownBeat, Interview, Jazz Times, Jazziz, Yosvany Terry

For Dafnis Prieto’s 42nd Birthday, A Jazziz Article from 2012, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2009, and an Interview conducted for a 2013 Jazz Times article on Musical Education in Cuba, and a 2001 Interview for a Short DownBeat piece




Jazziz, 2012 Feature

Late last September, not long after Dafnis Prieto was awarded a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation — to be distributed at quarterly intervals over the next five years — the virtuoso drummer discussed how he intended to deploy the funds. Tops on Prieto’s to-do list was to issue a recording a year on his imprint, Dafnison. The first of those recordings would be by the Proverb Trio, in which, for several years, Prieto, keyboardist Jason Lindner and vocalist Carl “Kokayi” Walker have conjured tabula rasa improvisations that, as Prieto says, “create a sense of compositional music.”

Eleven months later, not long after two sold-out nights at the Jazz Standard to support the just-issued, eponymously titled CD, the 38-year-old Cuban expatriate compared the “nothing preconceived” imperative that drives his newest project to the carefully roadmapped compositions he presents with his sextet, (documented on the 2008 date Taking the Soul for a Walk) and his Si O Si Quartet (which recorded Live at the Jazz Standard in 2009). “When Proverb Trio does a concert, I don’t know what’s going to happen, whereas with the other bands, a certain amount of what we’re going to do is written,” Prieto says. “There I want to [i]write[i] and interpret music separately from playing standards or anything else that’s been done”

In the Proverb Trio, Prieto says, the interpretative flow emanates from a mutual “chemistry and empathy” that “lets us be the way we want, express anything we want, fully accept who we are. It’s more about listening and reacting to the sounds than playing jazz or any other style that involves a lot of improvisation. Any path could be the path we develop. It’s the joyful journey of the real unpredictable. To behave that way is a basic element of life. Otherwise we become a computer which only reacts to whatever it is designed to react to.”

The opening invention on night two at the Jazz Standard reasonably represented how this aesthetic could operate in real time. Lindner, stage left, began the sonic conversation with musique concrete chords from his synthesizers, to which jockey-framed Prieto — in a lime-green, short-sleeved guayabera, chin uptilted — deployed his mallets, uncorking rolling, wave-like tom-tom beats. Lindner, the brim of his black cap almost perpendicular to the keyboard, stated a percussive response. Kokayi — burly, full-bearded, skull-shaved — shifted weight from foot to foot like a pendulum, then declaimed about texting and tweeting in a sweet tenor not unlike Sting’s. The discourse transpired within the rhythm, which Prieto had morphed into a clave with a mallet on a small bell-like cymbal while executing a counter-rhythm on the snare drum with a stick.

The performance proceeded along principles similar to those followed on the 12 pieces comprising Proverb Trio, for which Prieto juxtaposed edited-down open jams from the first portion of the sessions with shorter, more focused tracks from the second half. Each tune sounds structured, but certain giveaways — Kokayi’s abstract permutations of lines like “I got a little bit … got a little bit … little bit to say”; Lindner’s intuitive voicings; Prieto’s polyrhythmic refractions of rhythms drawn from hip-hop, funk, and the folkloric rituals of Cuba, Brazil, India and parts of Africa — bear out the extemporaneous back story.

From start to finish, Prieto showcases his extraordinary control of the drumset — the micronic precision of his subdivisions, his ability to play at different tempos with different limbs simultaneously, his refusal to sacrifice orchestration for technique. But he regards the Proverb Trio’s primary achievement as conceptual. “Most people think of ‘spontaneous composition’ as music that’s hard to connect to,” Prieto says. “It can be very introverted or follow a specific style, like Ornette Coleman or the latest period of John Coltrane. The musicians enjoy it, but not the audience. We are creating a fresh strategy, a new sound that people can enjoy.”

That strategy, Prieto notes, gestated in 1996, shortly after he graduated from Havana’s National School of Music, when Kokayi traveled to Cuba with Steve Coleman for a large-ensemble project. “I was impressed by how he incorporated hip-hop freestyling with Steve’s music, improvising with words and using a lot of rhythmic elements outside the regular beat we’re used to hearing in the hip-hop style,” Prieto says of Kokayi. After Prieto emigrated to New York City in 1999, he and Kokayi worked together on several Coleman ventures, including a 2004 engagement in Saalfelden, Austria, where they were invited to do a separate duo performance. “We learned to listen to each other on that gig,” Kokayi says. Prieto adds, “That was the birth of it —trying to interact with as much freedom and sincerity as possible.”

Sporadic work ensued, sometimes with Coleman or Henry Threadgill, himself a Prieto fan and employer, as were, during the early 2000s, Andrew Hill, Eddie Palmieri, Michel Camilo, Brian Lynch and Claudia Acuña. To have a wider range of sounds to draw upon, Prieto decided to recruit a permanent third member. In 2010 he started calling Lindner, with whom he’d previously played in Acuña’s band, in Lindner’s big band at Smalls, and in his own Absolute Quintet (the latter group documented in 2006 on Absolute Quintet).

Lindner says that the Proverb Trio offers “the thrill and challenge of getting to play everything I’ve ever learned in my life — and everything I’ve never learned in my life.” He credits Prieto for being “completely open to letting things come to him. He’s probably evolved a lot as a person to decide to have a group like this, where every night he’s making it known that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In Kokayi’s view, that spontaneity emanates from a “hive mindset” through which the band establishes a shifting narrative that draws on their “collective memory,” accumulated from “conversations we’ve had during travels, what we said over lunch or in the dressing room or on the phone.” He continues: “We don’t live within the confines of the paradigm of what is supposed to be jazz music. We all have this lexicon of music language, and we’re a sum total of our experiences. I don’t just listen to hip-hop. I listen to punk and rock, and I’m heavy into go-go. Jason listens to a huge bunch of stuff. Dafnis can play a rumba, a son, a guaguanco with the best of them. When he’s with Si o Si, he’s not bringing the funk and the hip-hop; he’s ‘Let me play the shit out of this Cuban music.’ But with us, he let’s go of everything and leaves his influences out.

“Dafnis has the biggest name right now. But he isn’t arrogant, like ‘This is the me show.’ It’s an equally distributed thing. Anybody can lead at any time. Anybody can set the rhythm. When everybody is allowed to contribute, you get what you have now, which is a big-assed pot of sounds and people being able to freely give of themselves and receive the messages and share information all at the same time, without pulling down trousers and see who got the biggest penis.”


Last September, Prieto mentioned that, with the MacArthur funds, he hoped to publish a book, in the works for several years, about his “personal relationship and love for the drums, the passion that I have felt since I was little.” The experience began when Prieto, who is of Spanish descent, was a 7-year-old guitar student at a music school in the predominantly black, working-class Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. When his teacher decided to organize a combo to play traditional Cuban music, Prieto opted to play bongos.

“I’d seen the bongos, and they felt natural to me,” Prieto recalled, noting that he’d frequently observed rumberos and parading carnivalistas on the streets around his house. “One day, the person who was playing the clave and singing didn’t show up for the performance, so I ended up playing the bongos with my hands and singing the clave with my mouth. The teacher told my mom she had to put me in percussion.”

At 10, he enrolled as a percussion student in the Santa Clara conservatory. At 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music, where he taught himself to play the drum set, conjuring home-grown methodologies (for example, enhancing independence by playing études from a snare drum book with his left hand while adding a clave or cascara or cowbell pattern with his right). In the course of teaching over the past decade, whether at NYU or at various clinics and master classes, he began to reflect upon and codify these practices.

“Before I started playing the drums, music for me was sound,” Prieto says. “I walked around the streets in Cuba and related to everything around me — the music, my friends, the way they talk, nature, buildings. What I am trying to re-create is somehow the way I grew up — very intuitive, very innocent, feeling the music [as though for the] first time [], as well as playing it. I was playing the rhythm of the clave; I didn’t know there was a clave rhythm. The name itself wasn’t relevant. For me, it was the content and the meaning.

“I look for different sounds in the drums, and develop a technique to get it. Sometimes I try to make drumming an inner step into the abstract zone of emotions or intellectual images or ideas. Rather than melody or rhythm, I think of visual art, form or a structure or visual illusions. I might want to re-create an idea of thunder while I’m playing a rhythmical structure, and insert different combinations to transmute and transform that idea into sound.”

Prieto began conceptualizing those ideas during his late teens and early 20s, on tours with Chilean pianist Carlos Maza, an admirer of the m.o. followed by Brazilian composers Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, whose own drummers played from an orchestrative, textural perspective. He further exercised his imagination on late-’90s gigs in Havana with Columna B, an experimental quartet that springboarded from Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s dense, plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ’80s, Coleman’s odd-metered structures and the jagged tumbaos of timba. As his horizons expanded, he felt increasingly stifled. Unwilling to play commercial jobs, Prieto left the island, moving first to Barcelona and then to New York City.

“The alternative scene in Cuba was very small,” he says. “I was listening to Ornette Coleman and Coltrane and Monk and Indian music, and connecting on a deep level. When I got to New York, I felt like a fish in different waters — and I liked those waters and finding myself within those waters.”

Liberated from quotidian concerns by the MacArthur funds, free “to not have to accept gigs, to give more attention to what I really want, which is to be as sincere as possible within what I do,” Prieto intends to continue the process of self-discovery. Toward that end, he’s privileging self-development — “as an individual, a player, and a musician” — over composing new music for his groups. But he’s leave all options open.

“It’s like having two babies,” he says. “One appeals more to you one day, the next day the other kid does something you like. I’m always carrying with me my tools and strategies, the visions that I had before, and I’m always open to new ones. I am trying to be as sincere as possible, to play what I really feel the music needs. If I’m in a band that needs a specific music content, that’s fine, even though I’ll always be trying to develop my own voice within that.

“I don’t take styles for granted. To be myself touches those styles, or might resemble those styles, but it’s no longer those styles. I don’t live like the Funkadelics or Sly and the Family Stone or James Brown. How can I play the same as somebody else if I’m not them?”


“I really never see myself as a Cuban player,” Dafnis Prieto says. “I see myself the same way I hear my voice. It doesn’t matter what language I speak, it’s going to be the same sound.” Still, he adds, the rhythms and sounds of Cuba are inside him, both via osmosis and close listening to predecessors and peers, several of whom he discusses here.

Juan Carlos Rojas (“El Peje”) — “He was one of the first drummers I saw and heard live in my hometown of Santa Clara, particularly with a big band named Orquesta de Música Moderna. He’s an extremely musical drummer. He’s played with Chucho Valdés since 2006.”

José Luis “Changuito” Quintana — “His great sense of innovation and knowledge of the tradition always inspired me. He is the main person who created the rhythmic structures of the congas and drums and timbales in the songo style. I got to record with Changuito and Tata Güines on a big-band record by pianist Hilario Duran.”

Giraldo Piloto — “When I heard Piloto the first time, he was playing with NG La Banda. Then he started doing arrangements — which are unbelievable — and his own compositions, and created a great dance band called Klimax. He has done what I consider to be part of my dream: establish a band with a sound that is yours.”

Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez — “In Cuba, I saw El Negro a few times with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I like his subtle, fluid, relaxed, interactive playing. And his independence. He can play the clave with the left foot while playing something else with his other limbs. He’s incorporated a lot of Cuban traditional patterns into the drum set. I didn’t meet him until I came to the States, and he was very welcoming. He loaned me a set of drums, which I’ll never forget. I consider him a friend.”

Ernesto Simpson — “Ernesto’s musicality, his touch and beauty and tastefulness, always amazes me. He knows how to move from one style to another in a subtle, integrated way, and always plays from the heart. He’s a fluid, natural player with great talent, ears, technique and maturity.”


Downbeat, 2011 Feature


The penultimate track of Dafnis Prieto’s first self-released recording, Taking The Soul For A Walk, titled “You’ll Never Say Yes,” is a rubato, ostinato miniature with a beautiful line and a floating, ambiguous feel. Prieto—who immaculately directs and entextures the flow from the trapset—described it at the time as reminiscent “of the old Paul Motian-Keith Jarrett approach of open sound.”

“It reflects the emotion of frustration I feel of always trying to break the wall,” Prieto said in 2008. “It’s not specifically related to the music business—it could be a personal thing also. I’m trying to show people what I’m doing and I have inside myself the thought that they will never recognize it—they will never say yes.”

He was reminded of this remark three years later, a week after the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship named Prieto one of 22 “genius” awardees of their annual, no-strings-attached $500,000 gift.

“I’m honored and happy to have been selected,” he responded in the living room-practice den of his Washington Heights one-bedroom. “But I want to work, and it’s hard for me to feel like the MacArthur is going to be the answer.” Legs akimbo, Prieto sat on a small sofa in his living room-practice den, which held an upright piano, an electronic drumkit, a Macintosh desktop with a huge screen, and various artwork, artifacts, small instruments, books and CDs. He’d performed the night before, and his drums, still packed, were on the floor.

“I will feel much better when I see that presenters notice what I’m doing, and start to open their doors for my music,” he continued. “But why do I have to wait for a MacArthur to get attention when I’ve been doing as much as some people they’re already booking? Sometimes it seems the only way to get to those places is if somebody is behind you with a very recognized name, maybe George Wein or some guy who looks like a padrino.”

In point of fact, on the previous evening, Wein had witnessed Prieto’s first New York concert since the MacArthur announcement—a mindboggling scratch-improvised duo encounter with tabla player Pandit Samar Saha, out of Benares, India, a master practitioner of Hindustani classical vocal and instrumental forms.

For the first forty minutes, a packed house at the Cornelia Street Café saw the protagonists trade solos of gradually increasing length. Navigating a drumkit setup that includes a frying pan amongst the cymbals and a conveniently positioned pair of orange jam-blocks, Prieto, keeping a clave metronome on the hi-hat, developed polyrhythmic designs with a “melodic” connotation reminiscent of a Cuban Max Roach. Saha established his own terms of engagement, then Prieto, deploying brushes, alternated swish and stutter patterns. Saha emulated them with the right hand on his dayan drum, punctuating with the left on the bayan. Prieto established another clave, displaced it with surging, wave-like embellishments. Saha rendered the patterns with his own ideas and subdivisions as Prieto kept the pulse; he withdrew as Prieto postulated a rumba, establishing and sustaining three independent lines. The mind-reading continued over a sequence of exchanges—Prieto, barely moving a muscle above his elbows, soloed at length on the ride cymbal and hi-hat, crisply executing intricate figures; Saha turned the bayan on its side, extracting a rich tapestry of rhythm-timbre from its metal skin; Prieto’s riposte seemed to elicit all the colors of the kit before he stated a tumultuous cumbia over which Saha improvised.

Neither drummer seemed to have broken a sweat, but they decided to take a breath. “This is a pretty interesting fusion you’re hearing,” Prieto remarked, as he picked up two super-sized mallets. “Now we’re going to get a little bit wild.” Positioned over the drums like a jockey steering a thoroughbred, he unleashed a volcanic wall of sound, then set up juxtapositions between rolling thunder and whisper, playing soft with the left hand, loud with the right, and vice-versa. Mixing percussive hand chops with skin-to-skin rubs, Sala transformed his drums into animistic sound containers. Prieto responded with long cymbal washes, complemented by feathered bass drum beats; using his tuning fork as a mallet, Saha explored further overtone combinations. Then they stopped.

Over the past decade-plus, Prieto has made it his business to investigate the correspondences and distinctions between the drum languages of India and his native Cuba, where he lived until 1998, when he was 24. Indeed, as we spoke, he was preparing for a November to mid-December residency at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Mumbai.

Questioned on the subject, Prieto answered, “Right now, it’s harder to separate things in my brain than to put them together.” Then he gave it a shot.

“One general similarity is that each culture contains a very wide possibility for improvisation,” he began. “One difference is that we work a lot with intuition, while they are really conscious of the mathematical, scientific aspect of rhythm—where the note is played inside of a bar or inside of a certain length. In Cuban music, each instrument plays an intricate melodic line. The pulse is there, but the beat doesn’t need to be heard. In most Indian music, the solos are very sophisticated, but without that intricacy in the melodic lines between the instruments; the connection between the three is in relationship with the beat.”

During the performance, Prieto continued, he’d “mixed everything,” sometimes manipulating folkloric Cuban rhythms—played “in the most personal way I could play them”—with tihais, a North Indian technique that involves three verbatim repetitions of a structure and landing the first beat.

“I never see myself as a Cuban player, or Latin player, or Swing player, or Fusion player,” he said. “My voice is not anybody else’s voice, and it doesn’t matter which language I speak—it’s going to be the same sound. My idea of soloing is the freedom of the possibility to play anything you want, manipulating the sounds you’re able to execute while developing your ideas thematically. Those are the two basic elements of improvising—creating something in the moment, while being simultaneously aware that you’re creating a bigger compositional structure. I like the idea of trying to do more with less—using one single phrase or rhythm for the structure and getting many different meanings out of that same idea.

“We all manipulate sounds, and we have the right to feel a relationship with those sounds. Sometimes, I look for a sound in the drums and that gives me the technique to play it. Sometimes I see myself doing something I haven’t seen before, and it gives me the specific sound I want to play. I’m not necessarily thinking in melody or in rhythm—sometimes it’s visual art, form, or a structure, or developing some philosophical or conceptual ideas about objects, or even visual illusions. Any information I see that’s interesting, that I feel comfortable with and connected to, I will transmute and transform into sound.”

Prieto’s heritage-meets-modernity aesthetic took shape during formative years in the predominantly black Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. Himself of Spanish descent, he internalized the language of rumba from carnival musicians on the streets outside his home, and received formal instruction on bongos and congas at 7. At 10, he entered the local conservatory to study classical percussion, teaching himself to play trapset on the side; at 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music in Havana.

Through his four years at ENM, Prieto absorbed the idiosyncracies of Cuba’s state-of-the-art percussionists and drummers—trapsetter Enrique Pla from Irakere, congueros Tata Guines, Changuito, and Miguel “Anga” Diaz. He freelanced, playing post-timba “Latin-Cuban Jazz” in units with Irakere trumpeter Julio Padron and pianist Roberto Carcasses, as well as pianist Ramon Valle’s Keith Jarrett-centric trio. He made his first trip to Europe with a Pan-American oriented ensemble led by Chilean pianist-guitarist Carlos Maza, who drew deeply on Brazilian visionaries Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal, invoking imperatives of playing feelings, telling stories with sounds and beats. Further stimulation arrived in 1996 when Steve Coleman bivouacked in Cuba to do fieldwork on a recording project, bringing information on South Indian music and ways to render astrological and numerological principles in notes and tones.

Soon thereafter, Prieto joined the road warrior rank-and-file with Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana ensemble. He also workshopped with the experimental band Columna-B, with Carcasses, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, and bassist Descemer Bueno (best known for his involvement in pan-Caribbean hip-hop band Yerba Buena), which refracted Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ‘80s and Coleman’s odd-metered structures, augmenting the mix with jagged tumbaos, and elements drawn from Hip-Hop, Funk and the Euro-Classical canon (Enclave [Mas, 1998] documents an unbridled recital).

As his conceptual horizons expanded, Prieto felt increasingly stifled. “There were only a few musicians I felt the empathy to play with,” he recalled. “I was treated like a crazy guy; some people felt I wasn’t representing their idea of how to play the tradition. But the way we see tradition sometimes is just a premeditated idea of what it really is. Don’t get me wrong. Since I was little, I played dance music and popular music—which is the same thing in Cuba. I love a lot of dance bands from Cuba. Once in a while I like the experience of playing drums with Los Van Van. But after I got into jazz and into more avant-garde or contemporary music, the idea of playing music for dancers was already washed out.”

On tour with Bunnett in 1999, Prieto, by then a Barcelona resident, moved to New York City on his work visa. Soon thereafter, he took an engagement with singer Xiomara Laugart on which trumpeter Brian Lynch—with whom he’d played the previous year at Stanford University, while in residence via an arts grant to attend a master class with Billy Higgins and Albert Heath—was present.

“Just from that gig, I thought this guy has more happening in terms of playing Afro-Caribbean music with a real jazz sensibility than just about anyone I’d heard,” Lynch recalled. “He had the chops, the finesse, the dynamics, the reactivity, the feel, the swing. It was like, ‘Oh, this is the cat.’ There wasn’t a doubt about it.”

Others felt similarly. Springboarding off a weekly hit with Lynch, and gigs with Coleman and Henry Threadgill’s Zooid ensemble, Prieto quickly became one of New York’s busiest sideman, accumulating a c.v. that, by 2002, cited consequential engagements with a diverse cohort of challenging leaders—Eddie Palmieri, Andrew Hill, the Fort Apache Band with Jerry and Andy Gonzalez, David Samuels and the Caribbean Jazz Project, D.D. Jackson, Michel Camilo, and Peter Apfelbaum—as well as a trio with John Benitez and Luis Perdomo, and numerous ad hoc gigs at downtown musician hangs like the Zinc Bar and the Jazz Gallery, where he also played his first American gigs as a bandleader.

“New York is a functional place,” Prieto said. “You get to meet a lot of people, most importantly—if they are interested—the people that you really want to meet. In order to play with Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill, to connect with them and experience their music one-to-one, you most probably will have to be here. Steve’s approach to rhythm will challenge any drummer who wants to do it right to develop skills of coordination and independence. With Henry’s music, I learned that each tune should be developed as much as possible in the diversity of sounds, that each should have its own character with different structures and instrumentations. I had an opportunity to exercise my imagination, to represent the music, like acting. You have to own the character and the intention, and put your own voice on it.”

As he soaked up information, Prieto began to refine his instrumental voice as well, mining Cuban raw materials in a systematic, meticulous manner. “I started looking at everything that came from my country as an observer,” he said. “Now I have an enormous amount of different sounds at my disposal. Sometimes I play things that represent or imitate the sound of the congas, or the batas, or timbal, or bongos or maraccas—or from inside myself.” He trained himself to make the instrument an extension of his brain—he speaks the rhythms, speeds them up and slows them down at will, plays and subdivides any theme on any limb at any time. “I’ve heard that idea of intricacy of lines—having one theme in the bottom that becomes the top theme later on—in ancient African music and also in the Baroque,” he says.

He called on all of these attributes in guiding his sextet and quartet through cohesive suites of music on, respectively, Taking the Soul For a Walk and Live at the Jazz Standard, both on his imprint, Dafnison. “The rhythm is usually really important and strong, and he guides the band on the drums,” said Manuel Valera, who played piano on both dates. The compositions have very strong melodies, with no frivolous notes. Each has its own character, and is fun to play over. It’s definitely rooted in Cuban music, but less like the Latin Jazz tradition, and more compositional, with rhythms from Cuba that people don’t really use here. The group orchestrations are unconventional, and he has an interesting approach to orchestrating his compositions on the drums, certain grooves and colors that are perfect with whatever the tune is calling for.”

With the MacArthur funds, Prieto intends to record the Proverb Trio, a collective improv project with Jason Lindner on keyboards and vocalist Kokayi freestyling on trans-Yoruban chant, hip-hop, contemporary R&B, and jazz.

“It would be almost impossible to make music this way with other musicians,” Prieto said. “We completely accept each other; I feel open to express anything I want, and so do they. We are not trying to do anything. We are just doing it.”

Inevitably, he continued, that expression will reference Cuban roots. “This is not clothes that I put on and take off,” he said. “This is the way it is. It’s the resonance of a specific attitude and a specific meaning that I’ve captured from when I was a child until now, and is still inside me. Like talking. Certain words mean something specific. It’s the same thing in rhythm.”

Prieto added that the MacArthur provides him funds to publish a method book—in English—that “explains some of the things I did in order to develop independence and conceptualize my ideas. It’s about my passion for the drums. It’s analytical, it’s instructional; in a way, it’s poetical. It’s a result of all my teaching experiences in clinics and things like that, and my experience of teaching in NYU for six years, which helped me organize information that I already knew intuitively. Somehow, it reflects all these things.”

But above all else, he reiterated, “I want to keep playing my own music as much as possible. I’ve already played a lot of other people’s music, and I’ll keep playing with people like Eddie Palmieri and Jerry Gonzalez because they’re still open, and make me feel challenged and encouraged. But I am not the kind of musician who only assumes that music is a job, and I have to do anything to get money. When I play music I don’t like, I go home and I don’t feel good.”


Downbeat, 2009 Blindfold Test:

1. E.J. Strickland, “Asante (for the Tribes of Ghana)” (from IN THIS DAY, StrickMusik, 2009) (E.J. Strickland, drums, composer; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass)

This is a very light groove. It’s nice to hear a 6/8 pattern really light. I don’t know what to say about a piece like this. I can’t really recognize the album. Maybe that’s Luis Perdomo. I haven’t heard Luis in a long time. It is Luis? It’s not his record? It might be David Sanchez’ record? Miguel? Not David or Miguel? Then I can’t recognize it. I like the tune, but it’s very simple. It has the specific idea of what you hear the horns doing against thing, but there’s not really a B-section or any kind of sophisticated compositional elements in it, at least from what I heard of the tune itself in the beginning. Sometimes this kind of tune sounds to me like an excuse to improvise. The tune itself is not really that developed in how many things you can do on a compositional level when you write the tune. I have to say that a lot of alto players are very influenced by the M-BASE—Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and things like that. The drumming and the percussion is really supporting the tune itself. See, the tune is a vamp; it’s a redundant melody. Which is fine. It gives this effect… It’s kind of tender. I can’t recognize the drummer or the two sax players. I liked it. It has a lot of improvisation, really nice trading by the two horns. Somehow it’s a very settled or normal kind of tune. I liked it. More than a band itself, it sounded to me like a record date. For me, it’s a difference; a record date and a band. I don’t want to insult the band, if it is a band, but it sounded like a record date more than a band. 3½ stars.

2. Gerald Cleaver, “Isobel” (from Yaron Herman, MUSE, Sunnyside, 2009) (Herman, piano, composer; Matt Brewer, bass; Cleaver, drums)

Very groovy, the drummer and the bass player. The bass player sounds great—a very nice sound. I like the bass player. Is that Jason Moran on piano? Then it could be Jean-Michel Pilc maybe. Whoever it is, the pianist is very together. I don’t know. I was trying to get the… The tuning of the drumset itself, I don’t know if he uses… Maybe there is solo drums here. Oh, the tuning the bass drum, the skin is loose. Besides… I haven’t really heard…I don’t remember any guy who plays this style that uses this kind of drumming. There is a guy named Keith Carlock who plays this kind of bass drum, but he plays a different style. It’s a very rhythmic line there, the piano. The trio sounds very together. I couldn’t recognize the drummer, though. He sounded great, very groovy, very supportive of the tune itself. Strong. 4 stars.

3. Arturo Stable, “Call” (from CALL, Origen, 2009) (Stable, percussion, composition; Francisco Mela, drums; Javier Vercher, tenor saxophone; Aruan Ortiz, piano; Edward Perez, bass)

It’s a blues form on top of a bata rhythm. They’re putting a 7/4 pattern on top of the 6/8—the bass line he has. I like the fact that it’s evident to have the batas…the elements that they’re using in the tune itself are very evident, have this open sound, this loose sound with the drummer on top of the batas, kind of an avant-garde sound in the soloing—but not in the tune. The soloing goes more into that mode of freedom principle; it reached a freedom of playing it on top of the batas and stuff. I couldn’t say who… The only guy who comes to mind is David Sanchez, but the saxophonist doesn’t sound like David. I mean, it sounds like a Coltrane tune. I like the fact of that tension of contradiction that comes from having a really steady rhythm in the batas and having the drums filled with more free adventures sonically on top of it, following the improvisation of the tenor, which in this case is the only one soloing. It comes through very natural, so I liked it. 3½ stars.

4. Bill Stewart, “Incandescence” (from INCANDESCENCE, Pirouet, 2008) (Stewart, drums, composer; Kevin Hays, piano; Larry Goldings, Hammond organ)

That must be Brian Blade? It isn’t? I like the fact of the emptiness of space. That emptiness of space lets me think that they’re doing that as accompaniment to a solo which is not there. It sounds like they’re doing the backup soloing for somebody else, but it’s not there. The effect is nice. I like the effect of somehow not having all the information in there at once. The drummer sounds very fluid to me. He sounds open and groove at the same time, which are two boundaries that sometimes it’s very hard for a drummer to get together. I can think of Nasheet maybe. No? I don’t know. I liked it. 4 stars. [AFTER] Bill is a great drummer. Sometimes the kind of sound… That’s why I got it confused with Brian Blade. The sound of the drums, sometimes it can be… Just the style is different, because Brian, for my taste, uses more surprise in his playing. For doing really little of something, going all the way to the maximum of the expression of the sound of the drums, that’s Brian Blade. I always have the tendency to see that from him. But the two of them have a very distinctive sound when they play the cymbals and the toms. Obviously, they know the tradition and the jazz sound of drums very well, and they have it incorporated in their playing.

5. Nasheet Waits, “Bowie” (from Dave Douglas, SPIRIT MOVES, Greenleaf, 2009) (Douglas, trumpet; Luis Bonilla, trombone, Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Nasheet Waits, drums)

That’s Dave Douglas’ stuff, the brass and drumset thing. So that’s Nasheet playing drums. I like Nasheet’s drumming. He’s always looking for the polyrhythmic thing, like playing the bass drum and the snare at the same time, which are things that a normal drummer will think of in a more melodic way—which is great. Using two sounds at the same time, like the bass drum and the snare drum, things like that. It’s very compositional. Everything was arranged until now, when the trombone solo comes over the swing. I like the experimental thing with the tuba. It reminds me of when I worked with Henry Threadgill, who had done this for a long time already—working with a lot of horns. It reminds me of European music. It reminds me of parade music in a more open way. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of sound connected to music that you see in the parks in Europe right now, this kind of experimental sound. It sounds very European to me. It’s cool. They used actually a few things reminiscent of some other tunes. 4 stars.

6. Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, “Free Latin” (from ITALUBA, Pimienta, 2004) (Hernandez, drums, composer; Ivan Bridon Napoles, keyboards; Daniel Martinez Izquierdo, bass; Amik Guerra, trumpet)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s El Negro’s stuff. That’s Negro. I don’t know which album this is, but that’s El Negro. The drum sounds big! Sounds like a Cuban band to me! Negro is a very strong player. He has this quality of having a big sound. Well, he uses big drums, so it sounds big. The tune itself reminds me of the sound of jazz music that was happening in Cuba in the late ‘80s, this influence from Chick Corea, the Gonzalo thing using the keyboards, having the same pulse but incorporating a lot of different things with the bass and the drums in different places than the melody line, and sometimes joining them together and stuff like that. It’s a rhythmic approach more than melodically. Then he has a vamp at the end, and goes to the last part of the thing. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve known Horacio for a while, he’s a good friend, but I met the others about two years ago at the Northsea Jazz Festival.

7. Tyshawn Sorey, “Somewhere Between Dreaming and Sleeping” (from John Escreet, CONSEQUENCES, Posi-Tone, 2008) (Escreet, piano; David Binney, alto saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Matt Brewer, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums)

I love that drummer. Very sensitive, but he’s very swinging. Let me see if I can get it. Sounds like Tain to me. It’s not? [AFTER] I liked the piece. I liked how it unfolded, the different sections in it, and the surprise factor. I really liked the drummer. I don’t know if it’s Tyshawn or Marcus, but I think it could be one of them. There is a big difference between the two of them, but it’s really hard in context, but sometimes one specific kind of music will make you feel a certain way and you’ll become more aggressive, and then it becomes confusing to identify who it is by the sound. It’s Tyshawn? I really like him, his inner sound. That’s why I got confused about Tain, who gets a powerful, aggressive sound on the drums on the drums as well? Was that Tyshawn’s record? No? Vijay’s. No? Greg Osby? No? Wow. Then I don’t know. 4½ stars.

8. Eric Harland, “Treachery” (from THE MONTEREY QUARTET: LIVE AT THE 2007 MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL, Concord, 2009) (Harland, drums, composer; Dave Holland, bass; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone)

I recognize this. It sounds like Chris Potter, and by the playing, I think it’s the band with Dave Holland, Gonzalo and Eric Harland. I really like it. Eric Harland is one of my favorite young drummers. I like the way he interacts with the music, besides the fact of how much he can play or not the drums. What is happening at the moment in the music, the way he actually interacts with the music, I really like that. You have to use different textures and techniques to make that happen, but… He’s a very open player. He can be a very open player, he can be very straight. He’s very versatile. An exciting drummer. I like Gonzalo here, but for my taste, Gonzalo has been getting a little bit too conceptualized in his own music. It’s a very recognizable sound, the sound of Gonzalo, the sound of Chris, and… I like the band. It’s a challenging idea. Sometimes it doesn’t really work when you put those kinds of characters together. But Dave is a really strong bass player. I think the four of them blend well. 4½ stars.

Lately, I always want more from Gonzalo in his playing. I want more digging in the piano, digging in ideas. It’s not necessarily the chops, but the ideas itself, on an emotional level. Nothing against what he’s doing now, but lately I think his playing is more in the context of conceptualized things and ideas. Obviously, he plays great piano, but for some reason… Like, Chris Potter right now is expressing himself, he’s putting it out. Sometimes Gonzalo gives me this… I miss the old Gonzalo sometimes.

9. Marcus Gilmore, “Smoke Stack” (from Vijay Iyer, HISTORICITY, ACT, 2009) (Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Gilmore, drums; Andrew Hill, composer)

That’s very Monk-influenced playing. I liked it. I liked the involvement of the piece. The involvement of the three of them playing is very nice—it’s a nice trio. I don’t know if it’s Vijay or Jason Moran. It’s hard to tell. They have sometimes a mutual place. But I don’t know. Maybe the drummer was Marcus Gilmore, but the sound of it…it’s hard to… He’s a very versatile player as well. He’s very supportive of the tune itself. I really like his drumming; it’s really good. I liked the piece. So it’s probably Vijay’s record. 4 stars. I liked it. This is a very involved tune, and the drummer really has to be on top of it in order to make it happen. Not so much the virtuosity of what you play, but the meaning of what you’re doing there. That’s the nice thing when you hear a trio working together, because there’s only three elements, and it’s very easy to identify what they’re doing and what they mean. It came out nice here.

10. Antonio Sanchez, “Fat Cat” (from DECLARATION, Sunnyside, 2009) (McCaslin, tenor saxophone, composer; Edward Simon, piano; Ben Monder, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Alex Sipiagin, trumpet; Chris Komer, french horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone)

I cannot recognize the band or the players in this case. I like it. It sounds kind of evident to me, the sound of the tune. Evident. Something that you’ve heard before, something that is not really personalized that much. I mean, the tune is good. But this is my personal thing. I couldn’t really get who was the drummer, or the percussion player. 3½ stars.

11. Steve Gadd, “Matrix” (from Chick Corea, SUPER TRIO, Mad Hatter, 2006) (Corea, piano, composer; Christian McBride, bass; Gadd, drums)

[at 9:30] Sounds like Steve Gadd! It’s not the regular sound of the drums that he’d normally use. Normally, I don’t recognize him doing it in this context. This is a very open set for him. For what I’m used to from him, it’s a more precise sound. The bass player is killing! Is it Miroslav Vitous? It’s Christian McBride! Who is the piano player? That’s a trio with Chick and… At first, I thought it was the old trio with Chick and Miroslav and Roy Haynes. But then I realized it wasn’t Roy at all. I like that they’re going through different phases in one piece. Because the piece has changed like five different times already. It seems more like a jam than a tune itself. The drummer just grabs whatever is there, and having a piano player like Chick, who is a very leading voice, helps to organize it. That’s the convenient thing about having the leader play a harmonic and melodic instrument. It’s hard for me when I have to do it myself on the drums. 4 stars.



Dafnis Prieto on Cuba Educational System, Jazz Times (May 14, 2013):
DP: There are different ages that we start in the school. I believe actually 7 years old is when you start in the school with violin and piano. Those two instruments are fundamental to start at that age in the school. I started school when I was 10, which is most of the other instruments… I started at 10, and pretty much I would say 90% of it is related to Russian or Eastern European classical training.

TP: On violin and piano, you mean.

DP: Violin and piano, and every other instrument as well. There are some French influences as well in terms of the program when we’re talking about saxophone and horns and things like that. But pretty much all the education that we get there is classical training, and because of the circumstances after the ‘60s we became somehow in relation with Russia politically, and that affected actually the educational aspect. We got a lot of influence, and teachers that were coming to actually work and teach in the schools of Cuba. So we got people from Russia and the Eastern European Socialist countries.

TP: May I ask… You went initially to a local school, and I think you were also able to study percussion there.

DP: Well, here’s the thing. Also there is something that the translation to English would be House of Culture, which in Spanish is casa de la cultura. That I started when I was 6 or 7 years old. That is a completely paid program, subsidized by the state. I was around 7 years old. What I did there, I was interested at the time to play guitar. I was playing acoustic guitar. I learned a few Cuban songs from the Cuban tradition, like guaracha, guajira, son montuno, things like that, those kinds of styles. After that, then we got into the more classical-oriented thing. But still, both of the programs were integrated into that early stage. I was like 7.

TP: So you were doing two separate program?

DP: Well, it was integrated. It was part of the same thing. That is something very interesting that I always saw from my early ages in music in Cuba, is that I always integrated kind of everything instead of putting on, playing a Russian composer, …(?)… and the whole thing… I mean, there is an attitude behind the music, etc., etc., but in terms of the program itself, in the House of Music, that was part of it. It wasn’t like “this is classical music and this is Cuban music.” In the same class, you had both.

Then, when I went later on to a school of fine arts in Santa Clara when I was 10, we had specific classes for different things.

TP: Did you move from a local school to a regional school to then the national school?

DP: Exactly. The House of Music that I first went to is not really a school… I mean, it is a school, but it doesn’t really have that many students. We were 6 or 7 students in one class, almost the same age, everybody. This is actually the reason I became a percussionist. It was because we were saying we wanted to have a Cuban band for certain activities, that were going to happen as cultural events in the town. Then everybody decided to play the other instruments, so everyone chose, and I chose to play the bongos, since I was already somehow exposed a lot to a lot of percussion because I was living in a neighborhood where there were a lot of rumba and things like that. Therefore, I did the bongos, and that was how I became a percussionist.

TP: Are these schools also used to track kids? In other words, you displayed a lot of ability right away. Were you then tracked the way athletes are here or in Cuba, as a musician? Were you being identified as someone who was going to continue along this path.

DP: Yes, in a way. But that didn’t necessarily mean… I mean, somebody recommended you. A teacher at that time recommended you to the next level, which is the School of Fine Arts. But that didn’t necessarily happen. I kind of made my own connection, in terms of, you know, the teacher told my mom that had a special aptitude, and I seemed to enjoy it very much, etc., and therefore my mom went to the school and asked for when the admissions were and things like that, so I did a whole process of it. I actually did on the side…I kind of got a tutor or something like that, to prepare me for that examination which I need to go into the fine arts.

TP: When you went to the school in Santa Clara, was it more of the same, but more advanced?

DP: Not really. Percussion in itself, I didn’t know anything about…

TP: Oh, you went to Santa Clara as a percussionist.

DP: Yes, that’s what I did. Drumset in itself, I’m completely self-taught. What I did specifically, when we got into the school I started doing the technique. I did actually one of the most important technique books from an American percussionist by the name George Lawrence Stone. He did this magnificent stick control book, a very famous stick control book. Anyway, we had some material. We had a lot of material from Russia also. We had a book called Polansky(?), and we had so many other things. So we had both information somehow…

For me, the special thing… Maybe this is going a little bit ahead. But the most wonderful thing that I found about how Cuban musicians come to be very powerful is because of the combination of the technique that the Russian and Eastern European countries brought into Cuba together with the culture that we already have musically. Which doesn’t take away the technique. It has its own technique. But it’s just different. So I think the most fundamental thing that happened in education in Cuba is that we have the culture, which is very strong, with the technique aspect of those things. Musically, too. So I think that marriage of culture and technique, plus the culture of the Russian and East European.

TP: What is it about the Russian pedagogy for percussion that’s particularly distinctive?

DP: Well, it gives you a very elegant and functional technique, control of the instrument… For example, I did… They started focusing in the beginning with the snare, just the snare. You spend a lot of time on the pad, getting control of your hands. So then you go to the snare, and you do all these classical pieces on the snare. Then they introduce you to a set of percussion, which can include timbales, bongos, bells, and things like that, just like a classical set, and you play different pieces, the classical things and from Cuban composers as well on those kind of sets—and I did play those, too. Then after that you go the tympany. So you start developing little by little, and by the end of the four years, you know how to play very decent a snare tympany, set of percussion… Not necessarily a drumset, but I did a drumset, and I wrote some stuff actually for drumset as well. But the drumset itself wasn’t taught at the school. It was there physically, but there wasn’t really a teacher. Some of the teachers played, but they weren’t really teaching you; you’d just hear it. I don’t know why.

TP: I recall you told me that you developed your own techniques on the drumset. Were they also teaching you theory?

DP: Yes. Theory of music was very important, too, because that’s what’s brought from the academic style… And we had solfegge. We had the harmony. We had counterpoint. And we have history of European music and history of Cuban music, and Latin American music, too.

TP: Were you also being taught the liberal arts or sciences?

DP: We did. From 10 to 14, we had chemistry and we had biology. Also, in music, we also had to take complementary piano lessons, which included mostly classical music.

TP: You’re 38 now. So you’re doing this from 1985 to 1989. That coincides with the last years of the Soviet Union, and the Empire, and the economic impact on Cuba was considerable.

DP: Yes.

TP: Was education politicized in any way? As you describe it, it doesn’t sound like a particularly ideological education.

DP: Well, inside of it, we also had somehow philosophical classes. We learned about Lenin…

TP: Marxism-Leninism and aesthetics.

DP: Yes, and also in literature, classes of literature. We were exposed to Eastern European writers and that new wave of belief.

TP: For instance, was the folkloric music of music looked favorably upon, or was anyone talking about jazz during those 10-14 years?

DP: Yes. I was very captivated by the Orquesta de Musica Moderna. It was kind of a jazz band that played Herbie Hancock’s music and some Maynard Ferguson music. It wasn’t like a big band in itself. It was actually like an orquesta, which means it has…almost the Irakere size, but I think it had more horns. I don’t remember the specific amount of horns, but it had a drummer, a percussionist, an electric bass player. By my time, I think that idea of restriction in terms of listening to jazz music specifically, or the Beatles, or that thing, it was already gone.

TP: Paquito described there being a certain party line during the ‘60s about jazz being unacceptable.

DP: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of stories about it.

TP: At 14, then you go to the national school, La ENA. Talk about the continuities of the pedagogy and how it was different?

DP: Then the next step was for me to go to Havana, and the whole thing got a little bit wider. There I was introduced to… Actually, there was a class in percussion. It was about Cuban percussion. So we learned the patterns of the congas and the batas, and a more Cuban thing also. I will say that it wasn’t enough. I would love if there would have been more, actually.

TP: More percussion instruction.

DP: Yeah. I would have liked… Coming from Cuba at that moment, it wasn’t really that much of a pedagogy in the school of our tradition. It was still oriented… But I was more free, and I played whatever I want. I’m just telling you what the system was giving you in that way.

TP: What was the attitude towards playing outside of school, and towards artistic freedom, for that matter?

DP: At the moment that I was there, as long as it doesn’t affect the school, you’re good. They’re serious. The whole thing is that most of the people who get into the music school, they had their own experience…but most of the people who come there, it’s because they really want it and they really express a talent. Teachers don’t want to be wasting their time in that way. If you’re there, it’s because you mean it. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be here. You’re not paying, so what is the big deal? This is about being…

But yeah, it wasn’t a big deal at that moment. Actually, that’s the way I made my way through into becoming a professional musician, because what I basically did was everything that… Mostly everything I’m doing now is what I did on the side of the school, as a consequence as well of… I took advantage of what was given to me.

TP: So the school gave you the tools to experiment and find what your voice actually was.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did you graduate?

DP: I did graduate from the National School of Music. I had to do a presentation of… You select a program and you do a presentation. I played something on the tympany called “Molto Perpetuo,” and I have no idea who wrote it now—I’ve completely lost track. I played “The Venice Carnival” on the xylophone. I played a piece on the snare called “The Train.” And I played a piece that I wrote for drums, four horns, and a bass player. I actually got the music from one of the bags that I found in my house in Cuba; I found some of the charts of that music. So yes, that was the program that I did on my recital. Five things.

The drummer in Orquesta Musica Moderna was one of my big influences at the time, my first influence of seeing somebody playing the actual drums in front of me. His name is El Peje, who is one of the drummers who used to play with Chucho. Through them I started hearing more than just Cuban music, but American or any other kind of music played in front of me. So I used to follow them a lot, just to hear. They sounded good.

TP: You seem to have balanced your time… there’s an element of the conservatory musician in you and an element of the street musician in you, just using the words roughly.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did a new type of Cuban musician start to emerge in the ‘80s because of the development of education in the conservatory?

DP: Yes, I think so. See, the thing is, you either receive an education from your house or from your very close related family, or you go to what the system offers you, which is to go to these kind of places. There are a lot of musicians who are I guess self-taught, in a way, in Cuba, that they didn’t go to a conservatory. But in my case, going to the conservatory was the way for me to develop myself as a musician. Everybody was looking for that, because that was a very good system. So I think yes, the generation that came after Paquito and after all those guys… That was even including… Well, Gonzalo is 12 years older than me, and El Negro as well. That generation I think also took a lot of… I think Gonzalo would be…

To tell you the truth, I didn’t get really good results when I got into the school. Not at the beginning. For some reason, I don’t know…

TP: Are the people who come out as jazz musicians somewhat misfits in the conservatory system?

DP: I wasn’t sure what got them… There seem to be a few stories of people… I heard also a story about Anga, that he had a problem… I don’t know if he got fired or he got a problem with something, because they said he didn’t have an attitude to play percussion. [LAUGHS] So it goes from the very subtle and naive to the most sublime and ridiculous.

TP: What are musicians being trained for in Cuba? What purpose are they seen as serving?

DP: The purpose is to really be good at playing… Eventually, we play Cuban music, or you will become whatever. But it is focused on classical music. It is classical training. That’s for sure.

TP: Has that changed? Is jazz in the curriculum now?

DP: At this moment, there is something open in the schools that they teach, like, jazz harmony or jazz history or whatever it might be, related to any other kind of culture that is not classical or, in a small degree somehow… Maybe more now they do teach Cuban music maybe. I think so. There are a lot of summer camps and things that happen also. Now there is more than when I was at the school.

TP: There are also these cultural exchange programs, like Jazz from Lincoln Center going over. Or Steve Coleman, for that matter.

DP: The story of Wynton or Steve or all those guys going now…it’s very different from the story that Paquito is saying. It’s not that they did it on purpose. That something has changed. Time goes by and things develop, and hopefully develop for the good. And in that case, it did develop for the good, because we opened up ourself to those…

TP: Can you describe to me… Around 1990 or so, things started opening up for Cuban musicians to start to travel, which you were able to do later on. Can you say something about the history of how that worked, what you had to do to go out on the road and the live elsewhere? What they asked of you, what sort of bureaucracy you had to go through to do it?

DP: Yeah, it was… For most of the people, there was a system created where you actually become an employee of… You have a salary a month for being part of a band or for teaching or for anything. You have a salary. You have different entities that represent music and culture. So through them, they organize tours and things like that, and that’s the way a lot of people traveled outside of Cuba when they started opening it up. I never was really part of any institution there, after I finished my school studies. I was completely independent since then. I was somehow playing with some musicians who were part of this orchestra, especially ….(?—28:56)…. and this organization, and I came to know the director. Then whenever I had a trip, I arranged it through him. For most of the people, when you’re going outside the system, you’re going with a very specific salary. I am not really sure what the salary was, because I didn’t experience it myself. But they had a very specific salary. There were some people traveling with them who were part of making security for them and making sure…

TP: That they don’t defect.

DP: Both. Yes, that they don’t defect, and they’re being their road manager and their management, period. I don’t know the amount of people that… But that was the way they did it. I didn’t do it that way. But it did exist, and some of my friends did it.

TP: Let me get to some more general questions. You touched on this earlier, but the ways in which your experience in the Cuban educational shaped your attitude towards music, helped you move in the directions you’ve moved in. I don’t know what you would have done had you not been in the system. You were self-taught. I’m sure you would have been a musician. But have you been shaped by that experience?

DP: Oh, yeah. I got to know classical music, which is a very fundamental… This is the music that came before. If we have to put a tradition on the podium, that is part of our tradition, in a way. The music in the world. Not in Cuba itself, but in the world. I got to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach…from Bach to Schoenberg.

TP: Would this be one reason why you were so open to someone like Henry or Andrew Hill…

DP: When I was in the National School of Music, I heard a few things of Andrew, but I heard Henry’s music much later on. I was already… I hadn’t heard Henry’s music when I was in the school, but I heard it maybe 17 years ago, something like that.

TP: That’s around when you met Steve.

DP: Exactly. Kind of the first person that I met from outside who was doing something, where we created a link, and we interchange ideas, and we actually played together… We were having the band Columna B. Steve came to Cuba, and he jammed with us, and I got to know his music. But then through that…then I came to Canada, and I heard Henry’s music, my searching for …(?—33:26)….

TP: Do you think the conservatory experience enhanced your ability to play the folkloric music?

DP: Not necessarily at the period I was in. Maybe now, when… I have a feeling that now, somehow, our popular tradition (I like to call it popular tradition more than anything else, which includes all the percussion…Cuban instruments, coming from our African heritage) is more integrated now into the system. But at the moment when I was there, it wasn’t integrated into the system.

TP: Why do you think that is?

DP: I don’t know. I think there was somehow a misleading perception about differentiating too much between the two of them. I think now everything has become more integrated, in a way, and the system has accepted more Cuban music as something that could be taught and something that could be part of our academic system. Before it was more of people who were on the street, and musicians self-taught, differing approaches… There have been musicians, earlier musicians who were trained on those European terms, as we know…

TP: Well, Cachao was one of them…

DP: Well, Ignacio Cervantes or Manuel Saumell, which were early Cuban composers. Those are the ones who created a nationalistic Cuban music in the period of nationalism. But it wasn’t… I don’t believe at that time, and I’m talking about the beginning of the 1900s, or actually… Anyway, there were people who had their own thing. But I don’t believe it was a music academy. I don’t know if there was a music academy at that moment in Havana.

TP: Also, being in the conservatory, you developed the techniques of composition and so on.

DP: The thing is that music is how we get to organize sound, and we learn in the schools how to organize and appreciate sound, and that becomes a form of knowledge that is very necessary in order to be conscious and have different ways, different paths, and different alternatives, and different strategies of how to make music. That’s what it is, and that’s why the academic world… As I said before, in my experience, it really was significant, because I wasn’t coming from a musician family. So I had to go and get other studies in order to do what I really want to do.

TP: There’s certainly that tradition of families bringing forth several generations of musicians.

DP: A lot of people came from it. That’s a completely different thing, even though they went to the school and it was completely different.

As time goes, you see a journey of how that system kind of changed. At the beginning, it seemed to be very rigid, and at the end everything got somehow integrated. That’s how I see the whole picture.




Dafnis Prieto (5-19-01):

TP: You’re 26, born in 1974. Where in Cuba?

PRIETO: In Santa Clara, right in the middle of the island.

TP: Is there a drumming tradition from there?

PRIETO: Not really. It’s good, you know, the drumming in Cuba, in the whole place. But it’s not really specifically a heavy point in that place, no. Not really.

TP: Tell me about your early years in music, and how you found your affinity for the drums and developed as a musician.

PRIETO: I started young, like at the age of 8 or something like this, to start playing guitar. But then I changed I think when I was 9. We had a children’s band, like Cuban music, and nobody wanted to play the bongos. So I said, “Okay, I’ll play the bongos.” Then it became a strange situation, because I started doing… In one concert that we had, the guy that played the claves didn’t show up, so I started doing the claves with my voice. [REPLICATES THE SOUND] I made the clave sound. Then I started playing bongos. Then the director of the band looked at me, and he said to my Mom, “You have to put this guy in the school now.” Even when I came into the school I was in guitar and percussion, but my mind was like percussion-percussion-percussion.

TP: So when you were 9 or 10 years old, your musical talent was discovered, and then you were sent… How does the schooling work?

PRIETO: At 10 years old I started to go to a school in Santa Clara, for four years. They call it a FEVA school, like for education. I did four years there. . In this school you just learn classical music.

TP: By vocational school, they teach a number of trades, including music.

PRIETO: Definitely. Half the day you do music, half the day you do the other part of the studies.

TP: Was it a school for the region or for the city of Santa Clara?

PRIETO: In the city of Santa Clara.

TP: How big is Santa Clara?

PRIETO: It’s not that big. I don’t know.

TP: Did you learn classical music and Cuban music…

PRIETO: Well, the thing with the Cuban music… I don’t know if at some point Cuban people need to have this in the school, because you’ve got so much on the street… Just washing your face in the morning, and you hear the neighbors and stuff, and then at the same time you’re in the school and you see people playing. It’s easy. If you are interested, it’s easy to get that kind of knowledge from the street. But they don’t teach that much Cuban music at the beginning, in those four years. After that I did ENA (Escuela Nacional De Artes), which is the national school in Havana.

TP: That’s the high school that the most talented musicians on the island go to when they’re that age.

PRIETO: Yes. You have to do an examination after you finish the four years. For example, in my case in Santa Clara, after I finished I did an exam, and I was 14-15 years old, and then I went to Havana for four more years.

TP: You were playing drums at ENA?

PRIETO: Drums.

TP: Was it developing yourself on hand drums, orchestral percussion, trap drums?

PRIETO: In the beginning at the school, I started learning the classical stuff. . Then I started playing more congas and percussion during the first four years in Santa Clara. Then I started really playing the trapset at the end, during the fourth year, before I went to Havana.

TP: I gather around 1990 records started becoming more available — Los Van Van, Ritmo Oriental, Irakere. People were able to get these more than they had ten years before.


TP: And did you listen to this stuff?

PRIETO: Yes, I listened.

TP: Were these the records that influenced you, gave you ideas or models to follow?

PRIETO: Well, there are records from Emiliano Salvador, like “Nueva Vision.” I really liked that stuff… There was a generation that did the Revolutionary part in the music in Cuba. That band included Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez… They were called La Nuevo (?). The band was really good musicians. Emiliano was in that band, and a really good bass player who played with Pablo Milanes. Many musicians in that period that did the classics of the Revolution… It was a consequence also of the Revolution. They sing, and some of the songs are revolutionary songs. Singing about revolution and freedom and these kinds of things.

TP: The bands in the ’60s..

PRIETO: Yes. The ’70s actually was the more developed stuff.

TP: You’re listening to Emiliano Salvador, and his records are an ingenious synthesis of modern jazz harmony, like Woody Shaw, with very advanced Cuban rhythms and playing polymeters and all this stuff. Then you’re saying that you went back from that and listened to older records by the people he was playing with?

PRIETO: I’m just saying at that at the same time, in that period, like in the ’70s, then there was this new…the same people… The contemporaries of Emiliano Salvador. They did a band together that was including Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez, (?), and the music was happening.

TP: Were there any drummers in particular who influenced you?

PRIETO: Actually I listened a lot to Los Van Van. In the beginning I went for that kind of thing, like the root part. Because I started playing percussion, I started listening to more Rhumba than the other things. So the Rhumba is the street stuff. So I start listening to this, and then in Havana I start listening to Coltrane and all this jazz thing. But from Cuba, Changuito, Tata Guines, also Enrique Pla who is the drummer from Irakere.

TP: Then Ignacio Berroa had left Cuba, I guess.

PRIETO: Right. Well, I didn’t hear much of Ignacio Berroa. I just met him like four years ago. Maybe I heard him on some record that I didn’t know he was playing on, because in Cuba the kind of information I got in that time was from underground tapes. It didn’t have credit.

TP: So by the time you were in Havana and studying classical music, you had the street music just from living in Cuba and paying attention. That was a given. Then you were able to develop your techniques and get a universal sense of approaches to drums while you were in the high school.

PRIETO: Yes. I started at 15 years old to play trapset.

TP: Around this time is when the Timba style starts to become popular. Can you speak to how that affected the way you think about music? In other words, from Son and Rhumba the songo rhythm evolved, and from that feeling comes the virtuosic Timba style. Were you playing all of it? Were there functions for you to play the whole timeline of the music?

PRIETO: Definitely. The thing is that the Timba includes… The thing with the rhythms is sometimes that it’s not a rhythm that you’re playing. It’s a rhythm that you’re feeling. This is kind of an abstract thing, kind of philosophy shit! But I’ve talked to some drummers about this. Because sometimes we’re feeling so many things, and we’re playing short stuff…

TP: You mean you’re editing yourself to suit the function of the music?

PRIETO: Not really, no-no. It’s that sometimes you don’t play what you are feeling. You are just playing the essence. So in those terms I am talking about the Timba thing. For me, the Timba is the consequence of all these things together. It’s a feeling. It’s the same thing as the Songo. The Songo, after a while, became like categorizing, and they put it in the books, like “Songo number 21,” that kind of thing. But when Changuito started playing Songo, he just started playing what he was feeling inside. So it’s kind of the same feel. Changuito is a Rumba guy also.

TP: So it all comes out of Rumba.

PRIETO: Well, the Rumba is really deep stuff. And the Timba is including the Rumba inside it anyway.

TP: So you go to the high school, then you’re 18-19, and it’s 1993-94. Apart from going to school are you playing in bands?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. When I was 15 and started in school, I started playing… Well, I played in a band by Julio Padron, the trumpet player. He was playing with Irakere for a while. That was a kind of Latin Jazz group.

TP: Does “Latin Jazz” mean something different to you than “Rumba”?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. The instrumentation is different, and harmonically and everything you can really go wide-open. The Rumba mostly is congas and singing and claves and stuff. You can put something on top. Some people have done that.

TP: Some Latin musicians say that Clave is much freer in Cuba than in other areas? Can you comment on that?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. Well, the same thing I was talking to you about the Songo. It’s a feel. In Cuba, when you play the clave, we are not thinking on 3-2, 2-3 or how many beats, or even the people in Rumba don’t know how to explain it. It’s a feel. They trust the music first of all, because they feel it. It’s not because of their knowledge.

TP: So it’s more of an art and less of a science in Cuba.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, I think that the science is a consequence of other things actually. But people here at the end, to analyze the clave, they put it a second away, so people are starting to classify the clave like in 2-3, 3-2, and all these kind of things. But in Cuba, as soon as a guy gets a clave, they don’t know where… It’s just they go. The music, it goes. That’s what these people mean when they say it’s more free.

TP: also in the early ’90s, ’93-’94-’95, a lot of the younger generation of American musicians starts coming to Cuba. When do you start interacting with American jazz musicians?

PRIETO: In Havana at the jazz festivals.

TP: Do you remember when?

PRIETO: Actually I don’t have my curriculum in front of me. I don’t remember that much.

TP: Around ’94-’95?

PRIETO: Yes, I think so. Around ’94-’95 I started playing at the jazz festival. Then I saw great musicians. Airto Moreira; I was fascinated with his playing. Chico Freeman. Dizzy Gillespie I saw earlier. Not that much, but some.

TP: When did it start to be in your mind that you would like to come to New York and play with jazz musicians? How did that develop?

PRIETO: In 1994 New York wasn’t in my way of living or in my way of thinking to do. But I saw those guys, and I really wanted to do something like this. But I didn’t expect…

TP: Because of the politics.

PRIETO: Well, at some point… I didn’t have the politics in my mind. Actually, I came to New York twice before I decided to stay here; the first two times I didn’t feel comfortable. The first time I came with Jane Bunnett, and the second time with Columna-B, which Yosvany played in and Roberto Carcasses.

TP: So you were playing with Yosvany at this time, and Julio Padron.

PRIETO: Yes. That was out of the school, although we practiced in the school in the nighttime.

TP: What were you practicing?

PRIETO: In that period, I started listening more to Coltrane-Elvin Jones’ stuff, more Tony Williams’ stuff, and I really liked it, and I started to go to this position(?) at some point.

TP: What are the complications for someone whose first language is clave to adapt to a 4/4 feeling. There are confluences, Elvin Jones has a triplet feeling. But are there complexities to play swing properly?

PRIETO: Yes, there are. At some point, it’s a different… It’s an attitude thing. When you’re playing different kinds of music, in your mind you have to accept different attitudes at some point. Mostly when you’re a drummer, because you have to keep the strong rhythm part, and it’s… It gets different at some point when you’re playing jazz and when you’re playing clave, definitely! The clave stuff and the rhythmically Cuban stuff is really complex. The jazz could be as complex as these kind of things. It depends who plays. The things that Charlie Parker and Max Roach and all those guys did… They did some research.

TP: Well, Max Roach spent time in Haiti.

PRIETO: Yes, I know. Those guys were doing music 24 hours a day.

TP: By the way, did you play also in santeria functions? Can you talk about the spiritual aspect of Rumba and drumming in Cuba?

PRIETO: Well, the difference between the Rumba thing and the other thing is that the Rumba you can get on the street. You don’t have to be part of the Santeria stuff, even though most of the Rumberos are part of it. But I didn’t have that much contact in Cuba with the Santeria stuff. When I was living there I started playing with different cats, but doing a mix of stuff, like I was doing with Jane, with Pancho Quinto and Lucumi(?) and Pedrito and all those guys that play the Santeria stuff. But I just started playing it consciously when I left Cuba actually.

TP: When did you move here?

PRIETO: I came here in October ’99. How I got here is a story. I was staying in Barcelona. I started to go out of Cuba, because my wife was in Barcelona at that time; I was touring Europe with Columna-B, and I decided to stay in Barcelona. That’s a real avant-garde Latin and jazz band.

TP: So you were touring in Spain with that band, and you’d been here earlier as well. You get to Barcelona and what happens?

PRIETO: It was getting really boring for me. So I came to Canada to do a tour with Jane. I was doing a tour with her in Europe, Canada and the United States. Then at the end of that tour I was trying to decide to go to Spain again, because I was supposed to go back, but I got some visa problem. I wasn’t able to go back to Spain in that period. Actually, Spain is part of the G-7, and they denied my visa to go to the Northsea Jazz Festival. So I couldn’t go back to Europe. It was a really fucked-up situation.

TP: So Spain has passport restrictions on Cuban citizens also?

PRIETO: No. The thing is, I left Spain without having a residency. It took so long that I had to leave! So I left without any legal paper in Spain. So they didn’t let me go back that year. Then I decided to come here, because I didn’t want to stay in Toronto, in Canada. So I decided to come here with my heart! [LAUGHS] So after I came here, I started feeling really good. It was completely different than before. Maybe it was my difference. But I started seeing everything in a different way. For me before it was all too aggressive.

TP: In Cuba did you listen to the great Salsa bands from New York, or the Fort Apache Band or bands like this, and did they have anything to do with the way you thought about music?

PRIETO: I didn’t hear the Fort Apache stuff, believe it or not, until a week before I had to play with them! I’d heard the name, Fort Apache, and I had met Jerry a couple of years before that. But I didn’t hear the records.

TP: From your perspective as a Cuban and from the first generation that had freedom in some degree to travel, what do you think of the way Latin music has developed in New York in the last 15-20 years?

PRIETO: I think it’s really nice. I really love the stuff that all those guys in the ’70s did — Hector Lavoe, Eddie Palmieri, Mario Rivera. I think they made some innovations, mostly harmonic. They have more knowledge in some points because they have lived here. So they started mixing the harmony stuff with the Cuban thing in the… You know, the same thing at some point as Benny More in Cuba. He did a big band with Perez Prado. But I think it was really developed for those guys. I really like what they did musically. It was fresh in that period. And if you listen now, it’s great. When I hear Hector Lavoe, Mario Rivera, all those guys, man, I say, “Fuck!” It was nice arrangements. And you didn’t miss the Latin part. They were doing that approach to the jazz stuff. It was interesting.

TP: So from the mid-’90s on you were hearing a lot of bands around the world.

PRIETO: Yes. But there’s one part we’re missing. I met a guy named Carlos Maza at the school. He’s from Chile. He had really different ideas. He was listening to the more avant-garde stuff, like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti. I really enjoyed those kinds of things, and I started hearing different kinds of drummers with more freedom.

TP: Yosvany sounds very comfortable with avant-garde music also. It seems it must be because of the level training you get, being in the conservatory and learning so much music. Do you think that intensive training may differentiate you from other musicians in Latin America?

PRIETO: Definitely. Because you do four years at the school, and you have time to practice if you want. If you want to practice, you practice. My friends have a really high level musically, but they do not like the avant-garde stuff or they are not interested in that kind of thing, and they keep going in maybe the Salsa stuff or jazz in the Latin way. So there are differences in taste.

TP: But you became interested in Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, and playing feelings, and the science of sound.

PRIETO: Yes. I really like that approach.

TP: Do you have an abstract turn of mind? Sometimes there are correlations between musicians who think like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti with physics and mathematics and so on, and I wonder if you have a bent towards that.

PRIETO: Actually I work with that. I have been doing some research with Steve Coleman also about all these things. We’ve been doing some work on South Indian stuff. Working with him, this kind of approach numerically and philosophically also… We were doing some work with the relationship between the Moon and the Sun and that approach to music.

TP: You mean how music relates to the angles and gravitational pulls of the universe.


TP: Did you meet Steve in Cuba?

PRIETO: I met Steve in Cuba.

TP: Were you part of his big project?

PRIETO: Not at the beginning, no. I just played with him a year ago.

TP: Has he been an influence on you?

PRIETO: Yes. Big. I was really interested in the odd-metered stuff, and he is one of the more developed guys on that kind of thing. He started playing me records that he’d heard a lot, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, different, and I liked them.

TP: Probably Von Freeman, too.

PRIETO: I met Von Freeman. We played together in Chicago with Steve Coleman actually. He’s really great. He did a nice duet with a mrdingam player. It gets a similar sound to the tablas, but it’s kind of the bata. In a way it’s like a sitting drum.

TP: A lot of Latin musicians in New York heard Steve Coleman’s record with Cuban musicians and didn’t like it because it wasn’t idiomatic enough. They felt he took liberties. But you had no such feeling.

PRIETO: Right.

TP: But you know what I’m talking about.

PRIETO: I know what you’re talking about. I’m still hearing that, but I liked it. I think everything you do that somebody can learn from, it’s good to have had it. [LAUGHS] Nothing is perfect in this life, and maybe the people who talk about those things, they don’t do that much.

TP: When did you start composing music?

PRIETO: I started composing music when I started doing the thing with Columna-B in ’96 or ’98, something like this. I did a piece, and then we did some arrangements together with the band. But now I’m really interested in composing.

TP: Tell me about the musicians you started to form alliances with in New York. John Benitez is crucial, Luis Perdomo seems crucial…

PRIETO: Brian Lynch.

TP: Talk about how you started making your inroads. I guess the first time I heard your name was with Brian.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, after I’d been here for about a month, I went to Brian’s gig at the Cherokee-Phoenix, and it was good. Antonio Sanchez was playing drums then. I met Brian the year before that, when we did a concert at Stanford University with Conrad Herwig. When I saw him here, I sat in, and I said, “Man, if you need a drummer…” The next week Antonio couldn’t make the gig, so I did it.. And I started doing that gig for something like two months.

TP: Was it different music than you’d played?

PRIETO: Yes. Brian’s compositions has a specific kind of tone, like more Palmieri stuff, that kind of influence that he has. And I didn’t play that kind of stuff before so much. At some point, it could be really Latin — the way of forming the melodies and the harmony. I really liked doing that gig, and I still do it. We’re doing a concert June 16th at the Jazz Gallery.

TP: One thing I’m trying to get is how forward-looking musicians from Latin America are converging in New York, and what sort of music is evolving from it. Every time I hear one of you guys it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before.

PRIETO: As I said before, I think my main influences musically since I started playing music (I can tell you right now from the bottom to now): I started listening to the Rumba thing, Changuito with Los Van Van, Tata Guines doing other stuff; some of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s stuff…

TP: The things he did with his quartet.

PRIETO: Yes. Some tunes I didn’t understand that much about in that period. But I saw what’s interesting. I liked all the time things that I didn’t understand, so I have to work on that. So Gonzalo’s things, Irakere, Chucho, the whole thing. Then on the other side, as I said, I met Carlos Maza, and I started to hear Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti…

TP: So meeting him helped you get a pan-hemispheric attitude.

PRIETO: Yes. When I met Carlos Maza I started to hear all this avant-garde stuff, and different things, more South American stuff, like Joropo, Venezuelano(?) and Querqua(?), and… All these rhythms. Different things. Ornette Coleman. I was also listening to Coltrane. All those guys. I played with Carlos Maza for four years; he plays piano and guitar also.

TP: Did the music sound like Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto?

PRIETO: At some point, yes. He used that approach. Then I played with this piano player in Cuba also named Ramon Valle. In some points he has an approach playing in a Cuban feel and in the jazz stuff, an approach like Keith Jarrett, not that much classic, and at the same time more… This approach, the way of playing. I did a trio record with him at Egrem. I think we did that record with PM Records, Pablo Milanes’s record company, when he had it. He doesn’t have it any more.

TP: Ramon Valle, Columna-B, Yosvany, and Roberto Carcasses. What is Roberto’s sound like?

PRIETO: He’s a great piano player. He’s a great musician also. He does arrangements and he’s really good.

TP: Then you’re here and playing with Brian Lynch, John Benitez…

PRIETO: I played with Yosvany Terry’s quartet also. Eventually I did this stuff with Andrew Hill. That was a great experience. I came in after Nasheet Waits, and I did a big band with him at the Jazz Standard. We played for three nights there, and then on June 14th I’m doing a concert with him in Philadelphia with the sextet. His music is really fluid. One of the first things that I asked him, on one tune, “What kind of feeling should I put here?” And then his answer was, “that’s the reason you’re here, to show me the feel.” [LAUGHS]

TP: He speaks in code, too.

PRIETO: Yes. I like that code!

TP: Then you started playing with Henry Threadgill.

PRIETO: Yes. That was before. Actually, Andrew Hill came to Henry Threadgill’s performance at the Knitting Factory where I was playing.

TP: How did this happen?

PRIETO: Steve Coleman called Henry and told him he had to check out the Columna-B band. We came here and did a performance at the Knitting Factory and also… The day I met Henry, he came down to the Zinc Bar to the Columna B concert. He really liked the way I was doing stuff. Then I left for Cuba, and when I was staying in Barcelona I received a call from a friend saying that Henry Threadgill was looking for me to invite me to play here in New York. At that time I couldn’t leave Barcelona because of the papers. Then one the first things that helped me decide to stay here was, “Dafnis, if you want to do that kind of music, you should stay here!”

A year before I met Henry, I heard one of his records at a friend’s house in Canada, and I said, “Man, who is this guy?!” He was doing some crazy shit rhythmically and harmonically, like Henry’s stuff. I really liked it. I really feel sensitive with those kind of things. Then I met him.. I think it’s a really sensitive music. It contains so many specific things. I really feel comfortable with that kind of idiomatic musical language. I don’t know how to describe it technically. But definitely he has his own way of harmonizing things and for orchestrating the stuff. He writes out the whole orchestration. If you put a harmonic chord, like five notes, he probably will give one note to each member of the band. I mean, his own particular way of doing that.

TP: Did this influence the way you write? Henry sounded so comfortable playing your music.

PRIETO: I don’t do that much this approach. I’m trying to get in touch with myself, trying to be sincere with myself. But I definitely have influence from Henry and from Andrew also.

TP: That brings me to this question of how being in New York and interacting with the cream of musicians from around the world on a regular basis is affecting your path.

PRIETO: New York has a really high level of musicians. The people who come here have in some way this feeling that they can do something. That makes it a kind of challenge musically, because you can see formidable shit, really nice stuff, and a really high level of people playing.

TP: When you’re playing Latin or pan-diasporic music… You’re from Cuba, John Benitez is from Puerto Rico, Luis Perdomo is from Venezuela, Carlos Maza is from Chile. Each country has a specific folk tradition, then they have a specific way of playing salsa or clave. But here people are coming together. There’s someone like Edsel Gomez or Ed Simon or David Sanchez, El Negro, all these different people. First, you keep your own identity and your own path. That’s always going to be with you. There’s a set of influences and experiences that you’ve had. I guess this is another one that you’re responding to. But there’s a sound to the music that all of you are doing that seems very New York in some way. I’m wondering if you could give me your impression is of what that quality is that is New York in what you’re doing.

PRIETO: I was talking to Yosvany about this actually. I was saying to him that I’m happy to be here, because I feel we have a generational thing happening now musically. Luis Perdomo, Miguel Zenon, David Sanchez. At some point, we are this generation that has, as I said before, knowledge about different cultures. It’s not about just Latin things. When you go to a concert, we are not just playing Latin stuff. We are mixing all the things we know and putting it in one language — music. If it’s Latin rhythm, we’re doing a Latin rhythm, but we can do it in the jazz style, in the swing shit, and also be free like Andrew Hill could be. It could be as wide open harmonically as Henry can do. You know what I mean? All these influences that I feel are with me personally, but at the same time, because I’m playing with them, we’re sharing the same thing. So I was talking to Yosvany about this generation that is coming now, between 25 to 35…

TP: Like Gonzalo and Danilo Perez on the front of it, down to you guys.

PRIETO: Well, I don’t know if I want to say that. I don’t know Danilo that much. I can’t say anything about him. Danilo doesn’t live here either. I haven’t got the chance to play with him.

But I think it’s a generation that has many questions to ask and many answers to respond at the same time. This is really fun. I get together with Yosvany to do some research, the same thing I do with Steve Coleman and with Miguel Zenon. We get together in my house and hear some music together and analyze it. I enjoy that part.

TP: So you’re able not just to play, but to get together and think as one. And in Cuba, you might have an opportunity to do it because people come to the school from all over Latin America, but it would be a different context. Have you been back to Cuba since you moved here?

PRIETO: No, I haven’t. I have a (?). It’s a permit you get here in the United States to travel out of the United States. So I may go this year to Cuba to visit my family.

TP: I gather that the situation in Cuba started changing in the early ’90s, and they started allowing musicians to travel out of the country and not give back all the money that they made, or to keep a good chunk of it.

PRIETO: In Cuba, when you become a professional musician, you have to become part of the Impresa…

TP: The union?

PRIETO: Well, it’s not a union thing. They have different ones. They control you definitely!

TP: They tell you where to play?

PRIETO: They’re supposed to. But sometimes it gets so disorganized that they don’t even do that! For example, all these musicians are part of the “Impresa” thing. I don’t know to describe “impresa.” A company.

TP: Like a guild maybe.

PRIETO: Something like that. So you’re part of that. And through this company you can make your papers to go out of the country. So sometimes you have to give them part of the money or a benefit or that kind of thing. Most of the travel that I did through that company, one of them, I did it because I was a friend of the director of that company. At some point, he helped me out. But I wasn’t part of the company. I don’t know for what reason, but I’ve always been kind of a revolutionary in that sense!

TP: You mean being a sort of free agent within the structure?

PRIETO: Yes, I like the freedom shit. I like to be freelance.

TP: Does that make it hard to function in Cuba?

PRIETO: Yes, it really makes it hard! Well, you know. In Cuba, Jazz doesn’t have much support. The only thing that happens in Cuba with jazz is a couple of concerts a year, and that’s mostly the same thing — Chucho Valdes, Gonzalo. When we were there, we tried to make some stuff. We did some. But we want to do more.

TP: So part of being here is being able to express yourself, even beyond the politics. Although there were the jazz festivals, and you could meet Roy Hargrove or Steve Coleman, and they could meet you. And tell me about some of the venues in New York. It seems the two primary ones have been the Jazz Gallery and the Zinc Bar.

PRIETO: The first things I started to do was at the Zinc Bar. Then at the Jazz Gallery we did many things with Yosvany.

TP: It seems you’ve developed an audience, and it’s a very international audience on just Latin. It’s interesting to hear a young, hip audience come out to hear some jazz of any sort, and you’ve drawn a lot of people.

PRIETO: Well, as I say, maybe they identify something with themselves about this music. That’s one of the reasons I think this is happening about this. At least myself, I am not interested in doing just Latin music or Jazz. I don’t even want to categorize the music that I play.

TP: So you’re a musician of the world, and there are a lot of musicians like you now.

PRIETO: Yes. The contact with the other side of the world is getting easier. The influences culturally. You can now get how many books you want about India or how many books you want about Greece or Asia, and you can start by your own. I like the studies that people do because they want to do it, and they do it on their own. They don’t go into school and do this and that because the professors told you to. I like the research that you’re really interested in, and you get the opportunity to do research on your own. You navigate with your own luck.

TP: And also, you can hear any music you want. Are you mostly listening to music from India and Egypt, rhythms of the world — folkloric music. [Yes.] Classical music?

PRIETO: I love classical music. That was my training for eight years. I couldn’t leave it.

TP: You left school at 18, didn’t go to the conservatory. The training must be good for you as a composer, knowing the harmony..

PRIETO: Yeah, definitely. And the way of writing and all this stuff. So you make the sections clear in your mind. I think the classical training… I was talking to Clarence Penn, and I said, “Man, I feel good because I have the classical training, and now I can appreciate different things.” I think it gives you a really good basic knowledge of the music. Even if the music that I sometimes am trying to reach now is…it gets in a different way… Like, the Indian stuff has different melodies, different scales, different rhythmic patterns. Different culture.

I said also about my influence of Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Doug Hammond. The first time I heard Elvin was really inspiring for me, because it was really powerful rhythm and at the same time it could get free. But there was a real rhythmic thing going on that I enjoyed from him, the stuff he did mostly with Coltrane. With Tony Williams, he’s a really technically developed drummer in a musical way. He’s a very musical drummer, and he can do melodies on the drums. I’m really influenced by him also.

TP: You did a solo the other night where you sounded like about four drummers. I was trying to figure out what instrument you were striking. It sounded like you had three hands. What was interesting was that you had the timbre. Usually when drummers try to do that, they get the rhythm but not the timbre.

PRIETO: It’s good you talk about this. I’ve always been interested in European Baroque music, because it has the same melodies repeating in different places. At some point I like to do that in my drumming, doing the same phrase in different places, and explaining this phrase in different ways. That kind of thing.

TP: Is your family musical?

PRIETO: No. My mother works in an office, and my father is an elevator engineer. They like music, but they are not musicians at all.

TP: They are hard-working people.

PRIETO: Yes, people from the people. From the Bushmen. I played with Essiet at the Zinc Bar a few weeks ago, and he called his family the Bushmen.

TP: You look like you’re from a Creole background.

PRIETO: Yes. But the neighborhood I was born in at some point you could call a Black neighborhood. I grew up in that kind of situation.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Cuba, Dafnis Prieto, Drummer

Two DownBeat Feature Articles On Paquito D’Rivera from 2005 and 2009

I recently allowed the 66th birthday of Paquito D’Rivera, the singularly talented woodwindist (alto saxophone and clarinet) and composer, to pass without posting the texts of these two articles that I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2005 and 2009, respectively. The first one covers a spectacular 50th anniversary as a musician concert in 2005 at which Bebo Valdes, Cachao, Candido, Yo Yo Ma, Rosa Passos, Portinho, Dave Samuels, the New York Voices, and Bill Cosby, among others, performed; the second, generated by DownBeat award for “Best Clarinetist of 2009,” contains a long interview and a prefatory essay.

* * *

Paquito D’Rivera Article from 2005:

At the mid-point of a Sunday afternoon rehearsal in January, Paquito D’Rivera held his clarinet to the side, exhaled, and exclaimed, “I have never played so much shit in one day!” Ensconced in a small room at Carroll Studios on Manhattan’s Far West Side, D’Rivera, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Alon Yavnai had spent the previous half-hour working out the nuances of the fourth movement of Brahms’ Concerto for Clarinet, Cello and Piano before  a crowd of photographers, videographers, a Spanish film crew, various publicists, and select lookers-on. This followed a runthrough of D’Rivera’s elegant chamber piece, “Afro” and “No More Blues,” on which guitarist-singer Rosa Passos whispered Antonio Carlos Jobim’s undulating melody.

“I have heard that so many times, that I think I know your solo better than you do,” D’Rivera, dead-pan, declared to Yo-Yo Ma. “I think I can play it on the cello, too.”

“I think you should,” Ma shot back. His shirt-back was dark with perspiration, and he seemed ill at ease with the motley crowd.

D’Rivera persisted. “How do you write that passage for the string instrument?” he asked, referring to the cellist’s soulful, kaleidoscopic intro to “Afro.” “You play the same passage, but it sounds totally different.” “I play one on the first string and the other on the second string,” Ma responded. “Rock-and-Roll cellists do that,” D’Rivera said. He laughed lightly, and took his first break of the afternoon.

D’Rivera, who first worked professionally as a 6-year-old soprano saxophonist, was preparing for a next-evening “this is your life” Carnegie Hall concert billed as “Fifty Years and Ten Nights of Show Business” to acknowledge his golden anniversary on stage. More than 20 friends and colleagues from 15 countries convened in New York to celebrate the milestone.

He was fresh, alert, and in fine humor, despite a low-sleep week that included morning-to-night promotional appearances around New York and a 48-hour cross-country jaunt to International Jazz Educators’ Convention in Long Beach, California, where he accepted the NEA’s 2004 Jazz Masters Award. In another 48 hours, D’Rivera would fly to Uruguay to perform at a festival he booked, followed by a duo concert in Chile. A week later, he’d alight in New York, lay off a day, and embark on a three-week U.S. tour with the Assad Brothers.

“When I finish all these things, then I am going to be tired,” D’Rivera  said. He recalled a Carnegie Hall concert by Celia Cruz a few years before. “She was sick already,” he continued. “But when she went out to the stage, it was like a 25-year-old Baryshnikov. She did that show with so much energy, and when she finished and went to the dressing room, she became the old lady that she was. Maybe this profession does that to you.”

When emphasizing a point in conversation, D’Rivera likes to interpolate references to food and its byproducts, just as he frequently signifies on his alto saxophone solos by quoting choice licks from the lexicon of Charlie Parker.

“It’s like having sushi and black beans and rice and Indian food at the same time,” he responded, as if on cue, to a question about the challenge of performing tangos, chorinhos, sambas, various Cuban idioms, hardcore jazz, and classical music over a single event. “But you have to be very sure of what you’re doing in all the styles. It’s like a cook trying to mix Chinese food with Cuban food. If you know both styles, that can taste really good. But if not, it’s like Ray Brown said once—‘chopped onions with chocolate ice cream.”

Relaxed in a brand-new black Jazz Masters t-shirt, jeans and tan loafers, D’Rivera had launched his Sunday marathon with ‘90s Caribbean Jazz Project partners Andy Narrell and Dave Samuels, tackling an intricate Samuels arrangement of “Night In Tunisia” and fine-tuning the details of “Andalucia,” a D’Rivera homage to iconic Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. The Americans exited and a trio of Brazilians—drummer Portinho, who had worked with D’Rivera throughout the ‘80s, guitarist Romero Lubambo, and Ms. Passos, who sang “So Dança Samba.”

“Caribbean music is pure happiness,” said D’Rivera. “But Brazilians are the only people in the world who get the feeling of being happy and sad at the same time. Saudade. I tried to translate that word once, and I said, ‘Well, that’s nostalgia.’ There was a Brazilian musician who told me, ‘no, it’s not nostalgia. Nostalgia is something else. This is saudade.’

“The Brahms Trio is hard to play, but that doesn’t matter. I have worked like a slave on some hard pieces, and nothing happened at the end. But this piece is so well written, so profound, so logical and original. It’s very jazzy, too. The polyrhythms of Brahms have a lot to do with jazz music.”

Across the room, D’Rivera spotted trumpeter Claudio Roditi, his frequent partner in the ‘80s. “When I came to New York, I surrounded myself with Brazilian musicians like Portinho and Claudio,” he stated. “I mentioned several famous names I’d been listening to, and they told me, ‘I think you have to do your homework again; that is not the real thing,’ and they illustrated. Then I became a new-born Brazilian!”

In strolled the members of the New York Voices, who collaborated last year with D’Rivera and Roditi on Brazilian Dreams [Manchester Guild].

D’Rivera rose for greetings and salutations. “Two of three people who made me forget to play are here,” he said. “Toots Thielemans was the first one. Then the New York Voices and Yo-Yo Ma. When they play, I forget to play sometimes.”
“Paquito reminds me of the musicians I played with in Cuba,” said conguero Candido Camero, who left the island in 1955, and met D’Rivera for the first time in 1987. “Especially the ones who play saxophone, clarinet and flute. His style, his phrasing, his sound, the feeling, the touch. The new generation always have different ideas. But the root stays.”

D’Rivera concurred. “I grew up listening to this music,” he remarked as Candido, bassist Cachao and pianist Bebo Valdes, 255 years between them, settled in for their leg of the rehearsal.  “It’s like playing marbles with my father, or baseball.”

The camera-folk jockeyed for position, and Joseluis Ruperez, the producer of the Spanish TV crew, firmly pushed them back. The elders and D’Rivera spoke in Spanish as someone fetched tape for Candido’s hands and timbalero Ralph Irizarry found the right position. Then D’Rivera and Cachao—holding his bow as he plucked the refrain—began to play a danzon. They applied themselves to “Priquitin Pin Pon,” which appears on the 2001 recording El Arte De Sabor [Blue Note]. Over three takes, Bebo Valdes soloed effervescently, uncorking fluid, ascendant chromatic lines that reversed direction like dancers spinning and twirling. On his solo, Cachao transitioned seamlessly from pizzicato to bow; positioned behind the piano, Yo-Yo Ma observed intently. After working out the appropriate clave structure, they stretched out over several similarly dynamic explorations of “Lagrimas Negras,” which D’Rivera recently had recorded with Valdes and flamenco singer El Cigala on a CD of that name.

Applause erupted when they were done. The photographers broke down equipment, the musicians dispersed, and D’Rivera packed up, ready for a short dinner break and a Carnegie Hall evening rehearsal for the orchestral portion of “Fifty Years and Ten Nights In Show Business.”
Earlier, at 10-sharp, D’Rivera, wearing a crisply pressed cranberry guayabera and blue flowered bowtie, briskly entered the Patrons’ Room at the Buckingham Hotel, a block down 57th Street from Carnegie Hall, for a photo session.  Soon, Bebo Valdes strolled in, fortified against the chill  in a down jacket from and plaid flannel shirt from Sweden, where he eventually settled after leaving Cuba in 1960. At 86, he sustained an endless smile, carrying his six-and-a-half foot frame with only a slight stoop. As Bebo and co-producer Ettore Strata mock-conducted to a photographed score of Paderewski’s “Minuet,” Cachao, on a cane, slipped in like a shadow, a wry smile on his face.

After a succession of hugs and poses, the room emptied. With saxophonist Enrique Fernandez translating, the legends, born a month apart in 1918, sat on a couch and reminisced about D’Rivera’s  father, Tito, a skilled saxophonist who sold instruments, musical accessories and records at his Havana music store. When Paquito was 5, Tito bought him a Selmer soprano saxophone,  taught him to play it, and played him records by Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie with Lester Young, Tito’s favorite saxophonist. He even introduced him to bebop.

“One day he came home with a 10-inch LP, and said, ‘I want you to hear something,’” D’Rivera recalls. “It was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker!” He sings the refrain of “Thriving On a Riff” from 1945. “We heard the whole thing in total silence, and after the last note he asked me, ‘Did you like it?’ I said, ‘No. What about you?’ He said, ‘Me either. But they are good musicians, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what is so confusing. I can’t understand anything, but I can feel that this is something special.’ So we kept listening. My father had played in a military band, and although he hated the military, he kept that discipline. But in some ways, he was very open-minded.”

Cachao worked with Tito D’Rivera as early as 1934 in a singing group called the Martinez Brothers, and later purchased bass strings from his store. “My first experience with Paquito was performing a clarinet and orchestra piece by Weber with the Havana Philharmonic when he was 12,” he said. “Even then he was more dedicated to jazz than anything else, but Tito imposed a lot of discipline. Paquito was complete.”

Bebo Valdes interjected an anecdote. “Way before Paquito was born, Tito was a boyfriend of a beautiful mulata named Silvia,” he said with a laugh. “I was a boyfriend of her sister, so the four of us always went out together. I played with him a lot at the Rivoli, which was a place for blacks and whites. He was a very good musician and a great person. When I started working at the Tropicana, the famous Havana nightclub, he sold instruments to the musicians who worked there. If somebody couldn’t pay the weekly fee for the instruments, he’d say, ‘Another week will come; don’t worry about it.’”

Then he became serious. “Paquito plays the saxophone divinely, with a really high range,” he said firmly. “But the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito’s execution as good as any I’ve seen in my life. He’s a great soloist on both instruments in any genre or style, and he knows the very old traditional music from Cuba. His range is formidable. Now he’s focusing a lot on the music of South America, particularly things that are happening in Brazil and Argentina.”

Cachao emphasized that D’Rivera, in his insistence on addressing all styles of music with idiomatic thoroughness, follows the aesthetic imperatives that molded music in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

“In our day,” Cachao said, “the CMQ radio station and clubs like the Tropicana brought in artists from all over the world. You had to be ready to play with them all. Paquito follows that tradition. It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician has no borders. Nationalities are not important.”
Surprisingly, D’Rivera states that he had no interest in a pan-American aesthetic when he lived in Cuba, perhaps because, during his teens, the regime propounded a cultural nationalist line that frowned on jazz as a counter-revolutionary Yanqui diversion. Official opprobrium seemed to strengthen the youngster’s resolve to use jazz and improvisation as a vehicle for free expression. Informed by a samizdat of bootleg cassettes and Willis Conover’s Voice of America broadcasts, D’Rivera soaked up vocabulary from Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Thad Jones, Joe Henderson, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. The learning curve accelerated after 1967, when the authorities, switching gears, authorized the creation of an orchestra devoted to jazz. Within several years, Irakere, the Cuban super-group, took shape.

In 1980, when D’Rivera was 32, he landed in Madrid for a tour with Irakere, ran up a down escalator to escape his handlers, and famously defected. “I was stranded in Madrid, and a group of musicians from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay got me a gig in a place called Dallas Jazz Club,” he recalls. “It was the first time I mixed jazz standards and some originals with Brazilian and Cuban music, and tango.

“The environment in New York enabled me to explore further. I always prefer to have around me people who want to analyze all types of music and try to play them correctly. It’s like being in a school, but a mutual investigation. I am just the director.”

During a pizza break at Carroll Studios, some of D’Rivera’s colleagues commented on the qualities that distinguish his tonal personality. All spoke of his instrumental virtuosity and aesthetic scope. But they also referred to his voracious curiosity and energy, his insistence on mastering the details—in short, the attitude that enables an exile to create a room of one’s own in a foreign land.

“Paquito plays Brazilian music with the feeling of Brazilian people—the same heart, almost the same culture,” Romero Lubambo stated. “He doesn’t just play popular music, like the samba,” Portinho added. “He is able to play chorinhos, the classical Brazilian music which is very difficult to play right.”

“It’s been a real trial by fire education,” said Chicago-born Mark Walker, D’Rivera’s drummer of choice since 1989. “We go to all these South American and Caribbean countries, get the CDs, hang out with the cats. Sometimes, Paquito wants to play a rhythm from that place the night we arrive.”

“He understands the rhythmic cell of each musical style, which is why when he mixes them, one doesn’t sound like the other,” said Alon Yavnai, an Israeli of Argentine descent. “He’s a lizard. Not cold-blooded, of course, but he can change the colors, and still you know it’s Paquito D’Rivera after a couple of notes. I also love how quickly he thinks on stage. He gives a lot of freedom, and he’s unpredictable. Tunes don’t sound the same; today he plays one solo he will never play again. But again, his personality is always there.”
“Now I have to forget everything,” D’Rivera said.

An hour before the concert, he betrayed no tension at the prospect of performing polyglot repertoire with constantly shifting personnel configurations—and also serving as his own emcee—before a sold-out house at the world’s most prestigious venue.   Still in soundcheck gear of t-shirt and jeans, he stood in the common area that centers Carnegie Hall’s third floor dressing rooms, examining a table laden with depleted trays of fried pork, meatballs, fried peppers, rice in squid ink, humus, and an enormous cold salmon flown in that day from Alaska by a friend, the proprietress of a restaurant called Ludwig.

“I didn’t recognize her,” D’Rivera remarked. “I could not believe that somebody flew from Alaska with a salmon to come to this concert! Really it’s the whole world!”

D’Rivera greeted the indifferent 3-year-old daughter of New York Voices singer Lauren Kinhan, talked numbers with producer Pat Philips, and laughed uproariously at the antics of concert host Bill Cosby, who made a beeline for the room in which Cachao and Bebo sat. With twenty minutes to spare, he finally made his way upstairs to change.

On stage at 8:05 sharp, Cosby stated, “The gentleman who is honoring…himself has done a brilliant job.” He concluded the roast with the observation that D’Rivera’s “shoes, when you see them, will be out of season.” Wearing white boots to complement his black suit, D’Rivera riposted. “I have not enough words in my limited English language,” he said, as Cosby departed for the wings, “to thank Mr. Bing Crosby…”

For the next three hours, D’Rivera—sustaining a steady stream of jokes and patter, moving traffic, playing immaculate ensembles, soloing with inspiration, and eying an 11 o’clock witching hour at which union overtime began—might have been presiding over a party in his living room. There were many highlights. A polyrhythmic, overtone-rich solo on “Andalucia” by Columbian harp prodigy Edmar Castaneda with the Caribbean Jazz Project. An abstract D’Rivera clarinet variation on “Why Not?” counterstating pianist Michel Camilo’s  florid declamation; a leaping solo on “Adagio,” framed by the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, conducted by Tania Leon, his conservatory classmate; a delicate duet with the harmonized a capella voices of Kinhan and Kim Nazarian on “Modinha.”

The chamber trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Alon Yavnai matched the intensity of the rehearsals. Cosby emerged to introduce the Cuban elders, remarking, “I think we should do this at the Museum of Natural History.” Striking the drum with his shaved head to punctuate the beats, Candido uncorked a showmanship solo, but Bebo and Cachao, perhaps fatigued after a three-hour wait in the dressing room, played with far less vigor than the previous day.

Fifteen minutes remained for the four orchestral pieces—a set of Gershwin variations showcasing D’Rivera’s wife, soprano Brenda Feliciano—and things got sloppy. At the closing vamp of the finale, “To Brenda With Love,” performed by D’Rivera’s sextet and the orchestra, Spanish flamenco dancer Raphael Tamargo, in a white-on-white suit-shirt ensemble, twirled, gesticulated, and stomped, resolving into a pirouette and a hand-clasp with the leader.

At the after-party, D’Rivera, momentarily anonymous at the bar, briefly bemoaned the union’s inflexible overtime policy. “Even in Germany, they’re more reasonable,” he said with some asperity. He sipped from a glass of red wine.

“My father was very strict about making sure that I kept a level head and didn’t let my ego get too inflated,” he said, shaking his head at the audacity of having made himself the centerpiece of such an expansive evening. “Confidence is a completely different thing, but there is a very thin line between them.”

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Paquito D’Rivera Piece From 2009:

“There was a great Cuban folklorist-writer called Lydia Cabrera, who went to study in Paris in the 1920s, and started missing her land,” said Paquito D’Rivera, relaxing in his dressing room at Manhattan’s Blue Note, a few hours before hitting the bandstand with his quintet. “She said, ‘I discovered Cuba from the bank of the Seine River.’ I discovered Latin America on the banks of the Hudson River.”

This process began in 1980, when D’Rivera, then 32, while on tour with the Cuban super-group Irakere, ran up a down escalator in the Madrid airport to escape his Cuban handlers, and famously defected. “Spain was my first Latin Jazz gig,” he stated. “Irakere was just a dance band that played some concerts—Cuban music mixed with classical and rock. But in Spain, I met up with a group of Argentineans, Brazilians, and Uruguayan musicians—they played Samba, tango some candomble from Uruguay. I started learning all those styles. Then here in New York, I had the opportunity to work with the Brazilians, who are people not from another country but another planet. I have dedicated a big part of my career, to Brazilian music. But I also like Venezuela, and Argentinean tango and Mexican guapango, too.”

D’Rivera wore a red guayabana shirt, crisply pressed black pants and well-shined black shoes. His face revealed deeply chiseled embouchure lines from a lifetime spent blowing on his array of wind instruments—he made his public debut as a six-year-old curved soprano saxophonist, graduated to clarinet a few years later, and launched his alto saxophone investigations at 11.

Deploying excellent English, he continued his account of becoming a polylingual musician. “In fact, this started in Cuba,” he said. “I composed one of my most popular pieces, ‘Wapango,’  in 1970 for the Carlos Azerhoff Saxophone Quartet. Later, I arranged it for strings and jazz groups and all that. For Irakere, I wrote ‘Molto Adagio,’ which is the second movement of the Mozart Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, arranged in a bluesy way. I like doing all those hybrids. Now I prefer to have around me people who want to analyze all types of music and try to play them correctly. It’s like being in a school, but a mutual investigation. I am just the director.”

In his predisposition to present repertoire drawn from a pan-American stew of musical flavors, addressed with attention to a full complement of idiomatic detail,  D’Rivera—who spent his first decade in the U.S. working extensively with ur-one-worlder Dizzy Gillespie, and employed such avatars of hybridity as Danilo Perez and Edward Simon in the piano chair in various ‘90s iterations of his quintet—has had an enormous impact on the development of jazz thinking over the past two decades. In truth, his musical production hews to the aesthetic imperatives that guided Cuba’s incomparable musicians before the revolution terminated the casino-fueled economy that had provided them gainful employment and offered them first-hand contact with musicians from around the world.

This reality came forth in a conversation several years ago with the late bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, who was playing bass when D’Rivera, then 12, performed Weber’s clarinet concerto with the Havana Symphony. “In our day,” Cachao said, “the CMQ radio station and clubs like the Tropicana brought in artists from all over the world. You had to be ready to play with them all. Paquito follows that tradition. It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician has no borders. Nationalities are not important.”

Another continuity that links D’Rivera to his Cuban antecedents is his formidable command of all his instruments, not least the clarinet, as evidenced by his 2009 “Best” award in Downbeat’s Readers Poll. Sitting with Cachao in that same conversation, pianist Bebo Valdes, like Cachao a friend of D’Rivera’s saxophonist father Tito from the 1930s, stated: “Paquito is  a great soloist on both instruments in any genre or style. He plays the saxophone divinely, with a really high range. But the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito’s execution as good as any I’ve seen in my life.”

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You like to quote a Frank Wess quip that the clarinet, which is made of five pieces, was invented by five men who never met. However, by your account in your memoir, My Sax Life, you’ve had two extremely good instruments. In 1959, your father got you a Selmer, and then in 1997, you ordered a custom-made clarinet.

I used Selmers all my life, because my father was the representative of the company in Havana. He had a very small office, about as big as this room! He even had contrabasses and tubas in it. He ordered for me a covered-hole, center-tone Selmer. Covered hole because I was very skinny, my fingers were thin, and he was concerned that I would not be able to cover the holes. That instrument is now in the Smithsonian Institute. Together with that, he ordered the open hole model, which he gave me when I knew the fingering of the instrument. That’s the clarinet I played until 1997, when Luis Rossi, from Santiago, Chile, made for me this wonderful instrument that I play now, which is made not out of black wood, but rosewood.

The great Al Gallodoro, who passed away a couple of years ago, when he was 95 years old, called what I play the “smart man clarinet.” It’s an instrument with 7 rings and an articulated g-sharp on the left hand, like a saxophone. It’s very comfortable. Benny Goodman used it for a little while, and also Artie Shaw, but the instrument never had success. For some reason. I’ve gotten so used to it that for me it’s very hard to play a regular, 17-key clarinet. When I showed my old Selmer to Buddy DeFranco, he told me, “Wow! Too many keys in the way!”

You played your first public concert at six in Havana, on curved soprano saxophone. Which jazz clarinetists did you hear and assimilate when you were young?

Benny was the first American musician who impressed me—that concert he recorded in Carnegie Hall in 1938, with Lionel Hampton and Ziggy Elman, Harry James, and the wonderful Teddy Wilson. Then Artie Shaw, and of course, Jimmy Hamilton from the Ellington band. But Benny playing swing—my father never used the word jazz, only “swing,” even if it was Ornette Coleman—but also Benny’s rendition of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. It was very illuminating at that tender age, that Ellington concept that there are only two kinds of music—good and the other stuff.

I tried to assimilate the different styles by copying them. I copied Benny with the soprano. Later on, my father came home with a 78 recording of Buddy DeFranco playing “Out of Nowhere.” [SINGS SOLO] When Buddy started improvising, I said, “Wow! What is that? A clarinet playing bebop?”—I’d already heard Dizzy and Bird. But a clarinet was not supposed to do that. What I heard in my ears was Jimmy Hamilton and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. So this guy is going [SINGS FAST BEBOP LINE] [DO-PE-DO-DE-DIDDLE-PLA…] with a clarinet! Wow, what a surprise! So  I started trying to copy Buddy DeFranco. It’s normal to try to copy your idols when you are a kid. But my first idol was Benny, and he still is today. Sound is the main thing in music, and he had that characteristic clarinet sound. I used to transcribe not only Benny’s solo, but Toots Mondello and Harry James, and even Gene Krupa’s playing, and tried to copy some Lionel Hampton solos. [SINGS LIONEL HAMPTON LICK VERBATIM]

You wrote that your progression was from soprano to clarinet to alto saxophone, and that your father taught you alto saxophone with the Marcel Mulé method, the French school.

Yes. The French School was very strong in my formation. My dad had the Conjunto Sinfonico de Saxophones—Symphonic Group of Saxophones—in 1943, I believe. That was the year after Marcel Mulé was appointed professor of saxophone at the Paris Conservatory, and founded his saxophone quartet. He started bringing all those books, and the pieces that were written for Marcel Mule by Jacques Ibert, Eugene Bozza, and many others. I grew up listening to and playing that music with a pianist friend of my father. It’s hard to explain why French music is so influential on my style, but I feel it. Maybe in using the staccato a lot when blowing the saxophone. Most jazz players play legato lines. Very few use the staccato—Wynton Marsalis, Claudio Roditi, I can’t think of anyone else. It comes from classical training.

You’ve said that it was your father’s ambition for you to be a clarinetist in the symphony orchestra.

Yes, I did it for a while. But I like improvised music, and didn’t feel happy in the orchestra as a main gig. So I did it for a while, and I did some chamber music, which  I enjoy even more than the symphony. I went with my father to play in stage bands, with the second or first clarinet. Even in cabarets. When I started playing the alto, at 11 or 12, I’d go to a cabaret that had a variety show, and my father would say, “please let the kid play the show.” And the guy was happy. “Ok!” He’d go to the bar and I’d play the show for nothing. I had my uniform and everything. I was very tall. It was important to my father that I learn how to play in a section, not only by myself. He’d bring home the third alto book for me to learn the notes. I did different types of things, as did many Cuban musicians, who had to do any type of music for surviving. I still maintain that tendency. Of course, improvised music, jazz, is my favorite, but I love playing other things. I love the complexity of Igor Stravinsky’s music. Bartok. Certain composers are more appealing to some jazz people because they are hippest. But how do you explain what is more hip? There is something hip about Stravinsky. Brahms is a hip composer. Milhaud. Ravel. Debussy. They have more affinity with the jazz language.

When you played jazz early on, was it on clarinet or saxophone?

Mostly on the saxophone. I was into Charlie Parker then, and later on Paul Desmond. Jackie McLean I liked also—it’s amazing how he could swing playing one note, even if he played it out of tune!

In a New York Times performance review, Ben Ratliff wrote: “No performer should be at full voltage all the time, and the clarinet subdues Mr. D’Rivera’s super-abundant energy.” Is that a remark you can relate to?

I  think that’s right. When you maintain the same energy all the time, it can be boring. The alto and clarinet have totally different personalities. It’s two instruments that are cousins, like Palestinians and Israelis. They don’t get along! Clarinet players that try to play the saxophone with the same concept, it’s not going to work.

My father was a saxophone player, and didn’t know how to play clarinet. Later on, he bought one, and learned to play it. I’m not sure who taught him. But suddenly, he showed up at home playing the clarinet, then he showed me how to play. My father was a self-taught person. He went to school only to the sixth grade, because he had to work in a printing press. He told me it was so hard, and when he was 15-16 years old, he decided to buy a saxophone. He learned how to play with friends.

Was there a clarinet tradition in Cuban music? There’s a flute tradition in Cuban charanga music.

It’s a different type of flute, what you call the 5-key flute. But yes, there was a clarinet tradition that was lost. The clarinet was never a soloist. So it’s a tradition, but not a strong tradition of clarinet playing there.

So for you as a young person, the clarinet was more a window into classical music.

Classical and some swing also, because of Benny Goodman.

Can we say that the alto saxophone was more your improvising instrument?

Yes, especially because of Parker.

How did your sensibility on the clarinet evolve over the years? Now you use it…

More and more. Mario Bauza gave me a clarinet and a mouthpiece when I came here; after my ex-wife sent me my old center-tone Selmer from Cuba, I gave it back to him. Mario and Dizzy said, “You should play the clarinet more; there’s not too many clarinet players around.” The scene for the clarinet was not very encouraging. It still is not. It’s improving, but it’s there’s still very few of us. It’s too much sacrifice for something that people really don’t feel. It’s easier to feel the sound of the flute.

Do you mean feel physically?

Both physically and musically. To make the clarinet sound hip into the world of modern jazz, it takes double or triple or quadruple the effort than with the saxophone. For that, you have to love the instrument. You buy a flute and go [SINGS ‘FHWOOOO’]—it’s hip already. Only the sound of the wind. FHWOOOO. It swings already, like a trombone. The trombonist goes, BWOOH, and it swings, like a baritone saxophone. But to make a sopranino swing, it’s a pain in the ass!

An LP that inspired me to play the clarinet again was Breaking Through by Eddie Daniels, with arrangements by the great Argentinean composer-arranger Jorge Calandrelli, who arranged for Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and so many others. Jorge told me about it. I hadn’t heard of Eddie Daniels in years, just from playing tenor with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. I didn’t know that he played the clarinet. I felt so inspired. Wow! Clarinet again! Mario and Dizzy were right. So I started playing it more and more. Eddie gave me the encouragement that I needed. He started getting big after that. He revolutionized the clarinet world.

I enjoyed your autobiography, My Sax Life. You write the way you talk, which is no small accomplishment.

I sent the manuscript to a friend who grew up with me in the neighborhood. When I called her, she started crying and said, “That book is like talking to you.” I said, “Is that good or bad?” “It’s great!”

A common theme from your musical partners is that, for all your extreme technique, you’re also a very spontaneous player who doesn’t repeat solos, plays fresh things, remains in the moment.

I agree. Many young players—and among them many Cuban young players—have a tendency to overuse technique. Weapons are to use when you need them. You use technique if you need it to play a certain thing. If not, it sounds like an imposition. It’s supposed to sound effortless. Some people use it and try to make it look harder than it really is.

In the book you convey a conversation with Maraca Valles, the Cuban flutist, where he offers an opinion that the quality of aggressiveness you just mentioned amongst younger Cuban musicians reflects the tension and generalized anxiety in their lives. of the musicians. At the end of last year, you debuted your first all-Cuban band since moving to the States.

That was a fantastic thing, to work with people like Charles Flores, the wonderful bass player, who has worked with Michel Camilo. I heard talk about him all the time, Manuel Valera played  piano—his father is an old friend of mine. We have a very good guitar player and singer (a tenor) who came from Canada, Mario Luis Ochoa.  Ernesto Simpson, a great drummer. Pedrito Martinez was singing and playing percussion. Pedrito is one of the most talented Cuban musicians around. He plays the percussion instruments beautifully, and he is one of the few Cuban percussionists who understand Brazilian music. That is another groove that they don’t mix. Like the Palestinians and the Israelis! They are cousins, but I remember a Cuban entertainer in Spain who told me, “Cubans don’t understand Samba and Brazilians will never understand clave.”


Nobody can explain that to me. I don’t see any reason. We are cousins. Even the same African religions and all that. But Pedrito can play the bandera very well. Pedrito understands any type of music very easily, and especially Brazilian music.

It’s hard to maintain that band, though. If you live in Miami or in Cuba, you have Cuban musicians all over the place, but here you don’t have ten Cuban trumpet players and four bassists. You only have one or two. So I only do it once in a while. My goal is to do a Cuban big band one day. Mostly we played modern Cuban music. It was an experiment. I wanted to feel it, and it was very nice. One day I will organize it again. I want to record. But I have to work with my regular quintet. I am in love with that band, too.

Did you play percussion instruments when you were younger?

I think most Cuban musicians know how to play a little bit. I know how to play a conga, for example. Or a bongo. For five minutes. After that, I look for someone else.  Folkloric rhythms were part of the decor. It was on the radio, with my mother sewing and cooking and listening to Celia Cruz, and danzones and so on.

How is your relationship with the younger musicians, who grew up under Castro? For example, at the beginning of the ‘90s there was sniping between you and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I know that’s long in the past…

Yes, it’s in the past. Now I understand them. They are sick and tired of listening to talk about politics and all that. They want to keep that behind them. It’s a totally different way of thinking. They grew up with that thing there, and they have ties with it. In my opinion, they see Cuba like a total disaster, but it’s like home. Then they come here, and this is different. They don’t have—and this is an assumption—the intention to change that for a better life. They want to help their family, send some money, send some medicine. They have no intention to protest, to denounce the atrocities—and I understand it. These new kids ignore the government. I cannot do it!.

With the transitions have occurred in Cuba over the past few years, what would you like to see transpire?

A normal country. That’s all we want.

By what process? What’s a realistic scenario?

With these people, there are no realistic ways. They don’t want to recognize the reality. So the realistic thing, no. I think the ideal thing is what happened in South Africa, what happened in Czechoslovakia, and what happened in Spain. Forget what happened, let’s start something new, blah-blah-blah. Czechoslovakia had the Velvet Revolution, and the country is working perfectly. The same thing with Spain and in South Africa. At least they didn’t kill each other or anything. But in Cuba they don’t want to change anything. People love to put words in their mouth. “No, they are going to change.” “No-no, I’ve been telling you for fifty years, we are not going to change nothing. We are going to PERFECT this piece of shit.”

So predicting what is going to happen, nobody knows. It’s too complicated. So like Americans say, let’s hurry up and wait.

Romero Lubambo once remarked, “Paquito always brings you to your limit, and then past it.” I suppose the corollary is that you’re as demanding of yourself.

Musicians sometimes don’t know how good they are. I force myself also to do things, and they force me to do things because they are high quality. When you are over 50 years in a profession, and you look back and see that your work has been fruitful, and you have conquered the love and respect of your peers, it’s an accomplishment. Those are my friends, part of my family, my musical family, the people who work with me. I learned a lot from Claudio Roditi, for example, and also from Fareed Haque, the guitarist, and from Michel Camilo, who knows Venezuelan music so well. Also Oscar Stagnaro, my bass player, who is my scout.

You launched your imprint, Paquito Records, last year with Funk Tango, which won the Latin Grammy. Will there be a followup in the catalogue?

My second project will be Benny at One Hundred. Actually, “Benny At One Hundred” is the name of the first movement of a sonata that was commissioned by the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. The first movement is dedicated to Benny Goodman, and it’s dedicated to his centenary, which is this year. I’m planning to go to the studio at the end of November and record  that movement and other pieces.

When my father, who was a classical saxophone player, played me that LP, Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, that changed my life until today. Jazz is still my favorite activity in my life. For me, it used to have a political connotation—I wanted to play only jazz in Cuba to contradict what the Establishment said. But I love improvising. It’s the result of a multinational country. The result is a multinational style of music, and you can add anything, and if you keep the spirit of this music, it still is called jazz. I love what Herbie Hancock said many years ago when he was asked what is jazz, and he said, “something impossible to define and very easy to recognize.”


Gunther Schuller a few years ago wanted to do a music school  for professional musicians, not to play like Jascha Heifetz, but to play the violin so you can do a jingle in the morning, and then the opera, and learn to improvise a little bit. But now, the art of improvisation is a mystery for classical musicians. I remember the face of terror on a very fine young trombonist I wanted him to play not in a jazz style, but on top of a montuno that I was playing with the rhythm section—WHAAP-WHAAP, PING-PING-PING, WHAAP from A-flat to B-flat. That’s it. He looked at me so terrorized, like he saw Adolf Hitler or something! WHAAP-WHAAP, That is something that is missing in the music schools, on both sides. Of course, nobody paid attention to Gunther Schuller. But that was a great idea, to open a music school where people learn how to play Brahms and how to play Monk.

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Filed under Clarinet, Cuba, DownBeat, Interview, Paquito D'Rivera

For Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s 51st Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2006

Master pianist-composer Gonzalo Rubalcaba turns 51 today. Three years ago, I posted a couple of interviews and a review of his brilliant self-produced solo piano album, Faith. They might provide an interesting context for the DownBeat feature, posted below, that I was given the opportunity to write in 2006.


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Since he emigrated from Cuba in 1992, Gonzalo Rubalcaba has embodied the adage  that discretion is the better part of valor, communicating to his public primarily through the medium of notes and tones.

“If you talk about things far away from your main function, it gives people an opportunity to be confused,” the pianist  said. “It’s frustrated me that people refer to me in two directions—politically or about virtuosity. I am not a political man, but like everyone I have a right to express my feelings about my country, its history, the government. But people have interpreted my words as though I were a politician speaking, and the repercussions are heavy.”

One such repercussion was a picket line whose members spat, threw bottles and waved Cuban flags to greet Rubalcaba on the occasion of his Miami debut in 1996. But during a week in New York last June in support of his current release, Solo [Blue Note], Rubalcaba, who is now a U.S. citizen, spoke at length on the aforementioned subjects, on aesthetics, and on his own personal history.

“I try to be balanced; nothing in this life is black or white,” Rubalcaba said. “To make the more radical people in the Cuban community feel happy about you, you have to adopt a certain a way of speaking, and apparently I never did it. The other part of the community says, ‘You are a Communist; you should say that everything is bad.’ I had serious health problems from the time I was born, and I never went outside Cuba for treatment. It wasn’t only because of that—we have our faith, our hope, things we really believe. But I was treated by wonderful doctors and a great hospital. Why not say that? It’s my truth. Now that’s destroyed. I have to support my mom in Cuba, send her medicine, money, everything to keep her alive.”

From the distance of exile, Rubalcaba notes, he is “in a stronger position to discover what happened in Cuban history.” On the other hand, despite the large Cuban emigre population and strong Latino culture in Miami, an hour south of Rubalcaba’s home, he is no longer directly connected to the Cuban street, and therefore is cut off from the raw materials that fed his imagination in formative years.

How has he sustained his muse? “One thing is to be updated about what happens in your country,” he responded. “Another is to have that sense of nationality inside you. You can’t explain it, but you feel that way, and that’s enough. That makes you different, because since birth you put together what you saw and heard, what they told you, the spectrum of colors and sounds, how you understand light, your sense of rhythm, the way you walk and speak and communicate. How to live.”

In the process of putting together Solo, a lyric meditation on the classical and folkloric canons of Cuba and the points at which they intersect with jazz, Rubalcaba, 43, thought long and hard about issues of identity.

“I’ve always looked for music as a space where I can throw everything I know and feel,” he said. “The ability to get into different styles and languages is typical in Latin-American musicians. They move around the world, assimilating everything possible to make them powerful artists. And the way they think they are powerful is working in different areas. For example, a lot of writers work in musicology, in novels, in social studies. In music, we see the same. It’s not just Cubans. Astor Piazzolla left Argentina looking to develop his career. He established himself in Paris, and when he returned to Argentina he was criticized because nobody understood exactly what he was doing with the tango. But the tango we hear today is 100 percent Piazzolla.”

On Solo, Rubalcaba applies that paradigm, interpreting 20th century Cuban composers—“serious” music by Almadeo Roldan, Sergio Fernando Barroso, and Rolando Bueno, boleros by Rafael Hernandez (“Silencio”) and Conseulo Velazquez (“Besame Mucho”)—and signifying upon them with his own syncretic pieces.

“European culture had a strong presence in Cuba in the ’30s and ’40s,” Rubalcaba said. “Composers like Roldan and Alejandro Garcia Cartula, for example, used tools from the European school to tell their own stories, their own roots and traditions, on the level that we know as classical music.”

As an example, he analyzed Roldan’s “Cancion de Cuna del Niño Negro (Lullaby For A Black Child),” which appears on Solo. “The melody is not exactly a folk melody, but Roldan’s vision of how a folk melody sounds, and he placed it in a form that mirrors Europe,” he said. “There is the ambiance of the Impressionist composers. But the score shows us that the left hand, the ostinato, does not work as a French or Russian composer would do it. It’s against the beat, as in popular Cuban music—as we dance, as we accent and phrase our speech. My challenge was to combine the worlds of interpretation—my vision of that music—and improvisation.”

Asked if the experience of living in another culture has illuminated the raw materials of his formative years and made them resonate in different ways, he responded affirmatively.

“This depends on each person,” he added. “For example, people in Cuba refused to use cowbell or congas or maracas or timbales; they said that the real music was straight ahead and bebop. They moved. A few years later, after you’re supposed to see them work with the top representatives of the hardest music in the world, they start to include bongos and congas. Are we talking about feelings or a pose? Many people adopt things because they believe it’s a way to call attention to themselves and to appear in front of people as the most pure, 100 percent national from Cuba or wherever.”

Rubalcaba carries the Cuban vernacular in his DNA. His grandfather, Jacobo, who lived in Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province, was a conductor, a brass player, and a noted composer of danzons, such as “El Cadete Constitucional,” which Rubalcaba performed on Super Nova, a 2002 trio project. His father, pianist Guillermo, still active at 78, spent the ’50s with the charanga orchestra of Enrique Jorrin, inventor of the cha-cha-cha; he now directs Charanga Rubalcaba, a traditioncentric unit, and has toured over the past decade with such nostalgia ensembles as the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Buena Vista Social Club.

At 6, Rubalcaba asked his parents for a drum. “It was not easy to find an instrument at that time in Cuba, but they found a very rustic drum,” he said. “I played it and the timbales, congas, bongos, and maracas in our family band. So I went into music through percussion. When I was of age to apply to the classical school, they rejected me. I had no rhythm sense, they said. My father and one brother refused the test result. They repeated the test in front of them, and I passed. I wanted to be in the percussion department, and they said I wasn’t the right age; I had to choose between piano or violin, and my mom persuaded me to choose piano. In my second year I got lucky with a teacher, and I developed. A few years later, the principal asked if I still wanted to be part of the percussion department, and I said, ’Yes, but I don’t want to leave the piano.’”

He grew up in Centro Havana, a neighborhood he describes as not unlike a U.S. inner city district. “Simple people, full of folklore. Street people. Tough people. You’d see a wonderful party, religious or not religious, and at the same time a big fight and a knife. That was a tremendously strange picture, because I was living in that reality but getting Mozart and Beethoven and Impressionism at school.

“The classical school in Cuba talks too much about European music and not about Cuban traditions or folklore,” Rubalcaba continued. “One of our mistakes, as with all revolutions in history, was trying to eliminate our past. When my generation were kids, the revolution was trying to create a society where everything was new, so we had problems being able to listen to Arsenio Rodriguez or Celia Cruz or Cachao or Beny More or Peruchin or Bebo Valdes or Frank Emilio. We heard Spanish pop music and music from Eastern Europe. Jazz was prohibited; it was the music of the enemy. They prohibited rock musicians because they did not want the new revolutionary young people to be dressed like them with long hair—this was synonymous with capitalism.”

While immersing himself in the European legacy by day, Rubalcaba spent evenings in various Havana venues playing with the giants of Cuban pop—Orquesta Aragon and Los Van Van, singers Omara Portuendo and Elena Bourque, salsero Isaac Delgado. He crystallized those influences into the funky timba style that would become Cuba’s lingua franca in the ‘90s, and also into a distinctive jazz vision, one deploying unstoppable technique towards articulating a sensibility that drew on the harmonic lexicon of Bill Evans and the follow-the-line imagination of Herbie Hancock.

Rubalcaba learned the codes of older Cuban styles first hand from his father and his cronies, a veritable who’s-who of Cuban pop. “I saw them discuss how to do this and that, telling the story of how the music was played 30 or 40 years before,” he said. “But I found a sound that matched the time I lived in. Timba is the bolero, cha-cha-cha, rumba, conga, danzon, proposed in a very contemporary way. It extended the tradition. Timba represents the dynamic of Cuban society, the way people think, look at things, make love. It’s also the way they criticize, which is ambiguous, because it’s their only outlet. They use that context to say what they usually cannot say.”

With the government’s permission, Rubalcaba emigrated from Cuba to the Dominican Republic in 1992, and moved to Florida in 1996. “I said that I would never choose the dramatic way—like taking a boat or swimming—to emigrate anywhere,” he said. “I knew the United States was the country where I should live. But I wanted to make that move with my family. To leave them and not know when I could see them again would have destroyed me mentally. So if we can do it together, that’s fine. If not…”

Rubalcaba departed at the onset of Cuba’s “special period,” when the regime, adjusting to the endemic economic and social problems spurred by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the concurrent loss of Russian subsidy, began to treat its musicians as exportable commodities. The repercussions to which he refers began full-force on the occasion of his American debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center in December 1993, four years after the U.S. State Department denied him a visa and forced the cancellation of a concert. In a New York Times profile before the event, Paquito D’Rivera, who had defected 13 years earlier under arduous circumstances, stated that the Cuban government was using Rubalcaba, saying, “they want to avoid his escaping, so they give him more freedom than anybody in Cuba has.”

“A few months earlier, I joined a double-bill concert in Valencia with my Cuban Quartet and Paquito’s group,” Rubalcaba recalled. “We saw each other at the soundcheck, and he was very gentle and sweet. I played first and he closed the show. He made a wonderful speech about me in front of the audience. Everything was fine.”

A few days before the concert, Blue Note President Bruce Lundvall invited D’Rivera to an informal welcoming party for Rubalcaba at the label’s offices. “I said, ‘Why not?’” Rubalcaba said. “I saw Paquito arrive. But when the party started, some people asked for pictures. Everybody came together—and Paquito disappeared without a word. It was a strange move. A mystery. I was in the middle of an intense schedule of interviews, and one guy gave me a letter Paquito had written for the New York Times. The minimum thing he said was nasty. I couldn’t respond. I had nothing to respond to.”

“I was among the first invited guests to arrive at the reception,” D’Rivera recalled by email. “Mr. Rubalcaba apparently wasn’t aware that when the press photographers asked for pictures, Don Lucoff, who was doing public relations for the company, discreetly called me to a corner and asked me to please stay away from the cameras, because Gonzalo was nervous that taking his picture with me on it could make it to the newspapers. Humiliated and deeply hurt, I quietly ran out, only to find out that Gonzalo had declared to the media that ‘Life in Cuba is not that bad.’ It was not that bad for him,  authorized by the Cuban dictatorship to reside abroad with his family, while most honorable Cuban families — mine included — were divided by that same government he was representing. I replied throughout the New York Times and other publications.”

Through the ensuing years, Rubalcaba developed and sustained an international career while absorbing slings and arrows from various factions of the Cuban diaspora. “It wasn’t just people involved in politics, but musicians, not only Paquito, but Arturo Sandoval, Manuel Valera, and many others, including people from my generation, people who played with me in Cuba, who know me personally,” he said. “They invented arguments, distorted my life, my essence as a human being. The motivation cannot be personal, because I never had a problem with any of them. I don’t know if it was politics or professional jealousy.

“The people who were forced to leave Cuba in the ’60s and ’70s lost everything, and we should respect their pain. They were separated from their families. They didn’t want to leave. They were forced to do it; they had a different point of view in terms of ideology and politics. I don’t feel able to criticize their position. I just want to know more about them. But this is not their position about the new generation. They attack and criticize. Not only that, they don’t give you space to be part of the society. I think they lost time talking about me, writing little letters. I know what I’m saying is kind of hard, but this is the way that I think.”

“At the beginning, I was a bit rushed, and pushed by the record company,” said Rubalcaba, contextualizing the bravura soloist-over-rhythm section quality of his numerous early ’90s all-star trio albums. “I was still in the process of feeling comfortable and safe. It took time to be part of the musical reality of the States, and meanwhile I was supposed to do something.”

As is evident on the trio disks Inner Voyage (1998) and Super Nova, Rubalcaba worked hard to assimilate the nuances of jazz syntax into his presentation. “Gonzalo just now is getting a real feel for playing trio piano,” said Ron Carter, who is responsible for the more conversational quality of Diz, Rubalcaba’s 1994 trio homage to the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. “He’s learned not to feel so responsible for all the ideas—all the good nights and bad nights—and to let the chips fall where they may. He understands some things are out of his control, which frees him to be even more creative.”

“I don’t pretend to be the best jazz player in the world,” Rubalcaba said. “A lot of reference and influence comes from jazz, but I am looking for something beyond that. When I heard my father’s records of Art Tatum and Charlie Parker, what put me in orbit was the importance of improvisation within the jazz form, how musicians interact and create another story in relation to the main thing, like composing another piece. Everybody was able at the same time to say their speech and their voice, and collaborate as a group. Then the question was to figure out what sign gave them the green light to develop this speech—how they came to play those harmonies and chords, how the bass player decided what line to do behind the saxophone player. With time, I understood that it wasn’t only about musical knowledge, but about spirituality, instinct, conversation.”

Rubalcaba referred to a family friend who taught him to read music. “At the beginning he told me: ‘Read music as you read the newspaper. You don’t know exactly what the newspaper will say tomorrow. But you get it and start to read.’ The music is an idiom, a language you have to control. Later I had composition lessons with Roberto Valera, a great contemporary Cuban composer. He said, ‘I will give you the tools to get a good balance, instrumentation, a good sound. But you have to feel the need to say things your own way, and I cannot teach you to do that.”

Not one to take his creative process for granted, Rubalcaba sustains freshness with a regimen reminiscent of a chess grandmaster.

“I have been touring for many years literally around the world—different contexts, different audiences, different weather,” he said. “But offstage is the time to look inside, to create a platform for developing my thoughts. I have a strict discipline, which I enjoy. At home, I wake up, and spend a minimum of 4-5-6 hours working with the instrument. Sometimes the work is technical. Sometimes I make time to read music that I am not going to play, which helps you think and interpret fluidly. How did composers in a certain period work? What harmonic ideas and harmonic statements did they develop? Why did Bill Evans or Monk or Peterson or Jelly Roll Morton play in the way they did? What historical moment made possible a figure like Duke Ellington? You don’t leave that in the room where you studied. You bring your knowledge with you. It helps you preserve the attitude to try to invent when you’re on stage.

“Talent and imagination is good, but not enough. I believe 100 percent in the history and culture of jazz. But there’s also a lot to learn about our music that nobody knows yet—especially the folkloric, religious music, which is so rich. There is also still a lot to hear from Europe. You find points in common. Roldan and Garcia Cartula were focused on developing their own heritage, but were also open to an interchange of opinions, of tools to do their music. They were fresh until the end of their lives. Everything they did contained something new, some risk, which to me is the most important thing in music.”

It is unclear when Rubalcaba will next have an opportunity to share his explorations with audiences in his homeland, where he has performed only once—at the 2002 Havana Jazz Festival—since he emigrated. “During those years, people around the world asked me, ’Why don’t you play in Cuba?’” he recalled. “I always said, ’Because they don’t want me to play there. When they extend an invitation, we’ll discuss conditions.’ Finally the invitation came, and I said, ’Why not?’ Against many people. But I was not thinking about those people. I was thinking that I had that responsibility. Many people came to see the show. But my feeling about the trip was split. On the one side, I had the joy to see my family, that people who really love me had the opportunity to see me play after many years. I hate to say it, but I also found mediocrity and jealousy, terrible actions from professionals, from musicians. Very sad.

“When the airplane started to fly over the island, when I saw the color of the earth and everything down there, automatically I said to myself, ’That’s Cuba; that’s my country; I feel that I am from here.’ Hours after, I still believed that, but I add something. I know I’m from here. I can feel it and smell it. But I am not any more part of that. It’s a big contradiction.”

At risk of amateur psychoanalysis, one might speculate that Rubalcaba’s Oedipal break from the fatherland has liberated his spoken voice. “I’m very happy saying what I’m thinking now,” he said. “I am not going too far. I think that to speak in this way now gives you the opportunity to speak that way tomorrow.”


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Filed under Cuba, DownBeat, Gonzalo Rubalcaba