Downbeat, 2018 Feature
Dafnis Prieto’s vivid new big band album, Back To The Sunset, gestated with a phone call. It came on May 2016, a month after the virtuoso Cuban-born drummer-composer self-published A World Of Rhythmic Possibilities, a well received book that deep-dives into his methodologies and aesthetics. On the line was Eric Oberstein, who’d become friendly with Prieto while serving as Executive Director of the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance, the umbrella non-profit that sponsors Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. ALJO had recorded Prieto’s “The Triumphant Journey” on the 2015 Grammy-nominated Cuba: The Conversation Continues, and “Song For Chico,” which titled ALJO’s 2008 Best Latin Jazz Album Grammy-winning CD, both of which Oberstein produced.
“I fell in love with ‘Song for Chico’ the moment I heard it,” Oberstein recalled in early February. “Dafnis’ beautiful, lush melodies captured me, and I’ve never met anyone with such an incredible sense of time. His pieces are little journeys that take hairpin turns, but he’s always in control as he takes you down his beautiful path.” Oberstein was looking to branch out, and decided to suss out Prieto’s interest in a collaboration.
Before Oberstein finished asking, “What’s your dream project?” Prieto declared, “I want to do a big band with my arrangements.” That aspiration dated to Prieto’s adolescence in Santa Clara, a city of 215,000 in central Cuba where he was focusing on classical percussion in conservatory and teaching himself to play drumset with exercises from a technique book by American percussionist George Lawrence Stone. He fueled his imagination at performances by the local big band Orquesta La Musica Moderna, propelled by the “extremely musical drummer” Juan Carlos Rojas (“El Peje”), who would subsequently spend consequential time with Chucho Valdes’ Afro-Cuban Messengers.
“Through them I heard not just Cuban music, but American music and any other kind of music—played well,” Prieto said by phone from his Miami home. “Always in the back of my mind I hoped some day to record my music with that great, rich sound.” Thirty years later, with the cessation of funding from his $500,000 2011 MacArthur “Genius” Award, and a substantial corpus of original music from five quartet, quintet and sextet CDs on his imprint, Dafnison, Prieto decided that the prospect of professional support in navigating infrastructure and logistics made this a fortuitous moment to take the plunge.
As spring transitioned to summer and summer to fall, Prieto and Oberstein looked for a narrative thread. Prieto decided to construct a notes and tones autobiography through tributes to a Pan-American cohort of heroes—some living, some deceased; some direct employers-mentors, some admired from afar—who influenced and inspired him in the process of evolving his sui generis heritage-meets-modernity sonic vision.
Three of the nine pieces are features for Steve Coleman, Brian Lynch and Henry Threadgill, who each recruited Prieto for their bands not long after he arrived in New York in 1999. Each master is also a dedicatee, as are Jane Bunnett, Andrew Hill, David Samuels, Eddie Palmieri, Jerry Gonzalez, Michel Camilo, Roberto Carcasses, Bebo Valdés and père and fils O’Farrill, all of whom he worked with, and such signposts as Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, Mario Bauzá, Tito Puente, Chucho Valdès, Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti, Buddy Rich, amd Art Blakey.
As Prieto composed new charts and expanded older ones, Oberstein tasked himself with financing the enterprise and convening a 17-piece band comprised of five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, piano, bass, percussionist, and Prieto on drumset. The core members were saxophonists Peter Apfelbaum and Roman Filiú, trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, and pianist Manuel Valera, all long-standing friends who are intimate with Prieto’s vocabulary, and intuit his intentions.
Oberstein announced the project around Thanksgiving 2016, and launched a crowd-funding campaign through the New York based non-profit arts service organization Fractured Atlas. They created tiered levels of rewards that, at the Producer level, included access to the recording session. Via this modality, a May 2017 fundraising concert by Prieto’s Si O Si quartet at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery, and several grants, Oberstein, “by hook or by crook, raised about $60,000.” They decided to self-release the project on Dafnison.
On August 21, a year-and-a-half after project’s conception, Prieto and company entered Michiko Studios for three days of rehearsal, then played a sold-out August 25-27 engagement at the Jazz Standard. Thus prepared, they recorded Back To the Sunset at Brooklyn’s Systems-2 on August 28 and August 29.
“The recording session was relaxed,” Valera recalled. “Most of the tunes were two takes, with hardly any overdubs.” He added that the charts are stimulating to play. “Dafnis’ writing for big band reminds me of the way Thad Jones wrote, where all the lines could stand on their own. He applies his rhythmic concepts to give the big band forward movement, push-and-pull, similar to those old Cuban bands—less about harmonic complexity than the different sections playing the melodies and rhythms.”
As an example of Prieto’s rhythmic legerdemain, Valera mentioned “Out of The Bone,” dedicated to Coleman and Camilo, on which, after a stentorian baritone sax overture by Chris Cheek, Prieto states a ferocious 7/4 time feel that conveys the illusion that two separate drumkits are in play, or that he perhaps deployed an extra limb—or two—in addressing his instrument. With that rhythmic signature as a fulcrum, the sections render complexly syncopated, Colemanesque polyrhythmic cycles over which bass trombonist Jeff Nelson and trombonists Alan Ferber and Jacob Garchik uncork evocative solos.
Prieto first encountered Coleman in Havana in 1996. He made 1997 and 1998 sojourns to the Stanford Jazz Workshop at Coleman’s instigation, and played drums on Coleman’s 2003 album Lucidarium. “Through Steve, I discovered the playing and music of Max Roach, which was huge, and music from South India and Ghana,” he said. “I’ve incorporated his strategies in my playing and in my teachings—you can see his influence in my book.”
The refracted motif of Gillespie’s “Manteca” introduces the album-opener, “Una Vez Más,” which Prieto composed for jazz quartet he played in with Palmieri, Lynch and Boris Kozlov in the early 2010s. Lynch—a co-dedicatee with Palmieri and Tito Puente—follows Valera’s Palmieri refraction with a clarion solo, flawlessly rendered, that signifies why he and Prieto have remained close since 1997, when Lynch played a concert at Stanford with him and Yosvany Terry.
“Right away I knew something special was going on with both guys,” Lynch said. He told Prieto, “If you’re ever in New York, call me.” He followed through in 1999, hiring Prieto to replace Antonio Sanchez for a band he was leading weekly at an Upper West Side bar called Cherokee Phoenix. “He had a lot of finesse, obviously a lot of knowledge and understanding of the rhythms from his culture, and a real ear for what the soloist is doing,” Lynch said. “He’s able to pull things into a creative place while respecting the form he’s playing. He plays like a composer always. When someone comes along and plays so great in an idiom that interests you, you think, ‘Ok, now this is the cat.’”
Both Lynch and Apfelbaum played in Prieto’s early ’00s groups, developing the repertoire that appears on the 2005 album About The Monks. Apfelbaum elaborated on Prieto’s creative mojo. “Dafnis plays with this exploding imagination,” he said. “He reminds me of the young Tony Williams. Every once in a great while, a drummer comes along with that breadth of vocabulary, and not only can they do all these different things, but they make everyone sit up and say: Wow, I didn’t know you could do that or that you were allowed to do that.”
He emphasized the linear ingenuity of Prieto’s quartet and sextet music, analogizing it to a tree with different branches. “Now each line is harmonized and played by a different section comprising four or five instruments and the tree’s branches are now filled with fruit,” Apfelbaum said of Back To The Sunset. The overall effect, he added, “is seeing a movie that seems familiar, but in 3D with Surround Sound.” Apfelbaum opined that Prieto “seems to have evolved in two directions. Not only is his imagination moving forward, but he’s using an even broader vocabulary to swing back and reference some roots of Afro-Cuban music.”
Prieto dedicates the title track to Andrew Hill and Threadgill, who uncorks a searingly vocalized alto saxophone solo, marking his second recorded sideman appearance with Prieto, following “Afrotango” on Absolute Quintet (2006). Both masters availed themselves of Prieto’s skills in 1999; Threadgill (who can be viewed on a Youtube clip playing alto sax and flute on a Prieto concert at the Jazz Gallery in March 2001) hired him for his paired 2001 albums Everybodys Mouth’s A Book and Up Popped The Two Lips.
“Dafnis operates at a very high level of musicality,” Threadgill said. “He’s able to translate non-percussion ideas into percussion ideas, to look at a piece in terms of the entire picture of the composition and not just his part. As a composer, he has command of the resources he uses and an ability to carry it out.”
Prieto observed that Coleman, Threadgill and Hill “showed the possibility for music to sound like yourself—it doesn’t have to be generic.” He first heard Threadgill’s music during a 1998-99 sojourn in Canada under the sponsorship of Jane Bunnett that directly preceded his move to New York. “I thought it was surrealistic, the music I could hear in my dreams—and when I wake up, it disappears,” Prieto said. “I learned from Henry that each tune should have its own character and intention upon which you put your own voice. You create your own world, which reflects your set of beliefs and structures and content, and it comes through in your artistic vocabulary.”
As he describes in A World of Rhythmic Possibilities, Prieto has practiced techniques that evoke a panoply of sounds on his drumkit, endeavoring to make his instrument both a vehicle to represent or imitate various Cuban folkloric percussion instruments and a portal to “the abstract zone of emotions or intellectual images or ideas.” He speaks the rhythms, speeds them up and slows them down at will, plays and subdivides any theme on any limb at any time, and deploys the rhythms to serve synesthetic or abstract imperatives—a notion of visual art, or a philosophical principle, or the sound of thunder.
His compositional process transpires “mostly by ear.” “I like scores from classical music, like Bartok’s String Quartets or some Stravinsky works,” he said. “It’s like they consist of words, and the game is how you play with those words—you see what results. The quality of the performer is also part of every composition—a melody played by Henry is almost a different melody than the same melody played by someone else.”
Prieto first conceptualized his procedures on mid-’90s tours with Chilean pianist Carlos Maza, an admirer of the m.o. followed by Brazilian composers Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti (acknowledged on “Two For One” and “The Sooner The Better,” respectively), whose own drummers played from an orchestrative, textural perspective. As his horizons expanded, he increasingly felt stifled by the absence of a platform in Cuba on which he could—pardon the bad pun—march to the beat of his own drum. Unwilling to play commercial jobs, Prieto left the island, landing first in Barcelona, then in Toronto, then in New York.
After the two aforementioned albums for Zoho, Prieto launched Dafnison in 2008 with Taking The Soul For A Walk. “I was basically swiping my credit card, or saving money from the gigs for my own projects, which wasn’t easy in an expensive city,” he said. “But I wanted and needed my own label. If no one wanted to release my albums, I had to do it myself. It gives me absolute control over the product, from the first note to the last artwork. I have the courage to challenge myself economically to make it happen. I make a record, and I don’t know how much I’ll make or how much exposure it will get—I depend on an industry that rolls on other principles. Our distribution is mostly online, through iTunes and Amazon. I always joke, ‘I don’t need anyone to make myself poorer; I can do that very well.”
At the beginning of 2018, Prieto released Transition, by the Kairos Sextet, an ensemble that he assembled during his first academic year (2015-16) at Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, where he teaches composition as well as drums and ensembles, and a course called Rhythmic Synchronicity, intended “to help people on different instruments work in depth with rhythm in conjunction with other members in the band.” “For me, teaching is one of the highest spiritual paths,” he continued. “There’s the reciprocal relationship of giving and receiving; you feel the students develop through time, and feel their gratitude for what you are giving them, just as I feel gratitude for what the musicians who I honor on Back To The Sunset did for me. They see I’ve done it on my own, and they ask why I did it, what the challenges are, why I made the decisions I made.”
Prieto lives ten minutes from the Fort Lauderdale airport, from which Jet Blue runs a direct daily flight to Santa Clara, facilitating visits to his mother. But increased proximity to his homeland hasn’t resulted in invitations to perform or teach there. “I’ve never even been invited to play the jazz festival in Cuba,” Prieto said. “I wouldn’t ever be able to do in Cuba what I’ve done in the U.S. as a leader and creative musician. In order to work with a Steve Coleman or a Henry Threadgill, to do what I really wanted, I had to come here.” On the other hand, he continues: “In Cuba, you can dream about what it’s going to be like, but when you get here, it’s not what you thought it would be. It takes a lot of time and courage, a lot of strength to keep your belief alive. Just to keep yourself at the top of your game is very challenging.”
For now, Prieto was focusing on the challenge of working with Oberstein to spread the word about Back To the Sunset, to book gigs for the orchestra, and to find personnel with whom he can tour. Ever the pragmatic risk-taker, Prieto is both optimistic and realistic.
“If the budget allows, I want to use the guys on the record,” he said. “But I’m open to using other musicians. To play these pieces, you don’t have to be a specialist in Latin music—though you need to be good at rhythm. But this isn’t generic music. We’re not playing ‘El Manicero.’ It’s completely new material. Besides being strong already as a musician, they have to be open-minded in order to accept it and be able to execute it.”
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 Proverb Trio’s 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 write 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,” Prieto 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, surrounded by 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, sustaining 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 (“Tootie”) 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.
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.
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.
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.
[END OF CONVERSATION]
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?
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.
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.