Cuba has long held an allure for jazz musicians. The sounds and particularly the rhythms emanating from that country have influenced jazz nearly from the beginning. From early in the 20th Century, the Latin tinge, as Jelly Roll Morton called it, has seasoned the jazz sound. By the 1940s, through the work of musicians like Mario Bauza, Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie, Afro Cuban Jazz became an important part of jazz music. For nearly a century, American jazz musicians have been incorporating the sound of Cuba into American jazz. The now decades long embargo by the United States on Cuba (what was the goal of that again?) may have only made the country and its rhythms all the more tantalizing; forbidden fruit and all that.
One of the more recent, successful amalgamations of these two cultures is the Ninety Miles Project. In 2010, vibist Stefon Harris, tenor sax man David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott traveled to Cuba and recorded an album with two different local rhythm sections. The resulting CD was one of 2011’s best releases. (Concord, 2011) On the current tour, Scott has been replaced by Nicholas Payton and the rhythm section has been swapped out too. But the music inspired by the cross-cultural pollination remains.
Ninety miles is the distance from Cuba to Florida and highlights the irony of two very different cultures separated by such a minimal distance. Despite the various barriers – political, nautical, linguistic – the band melded the Cuban and American jazz cultures in two 60 minute sets. Each set featured only three songs each as the musicians stretched out for extended explorations of the tunes.
As with many forms of Latin Jazz, of which Afro-Cuban Jazz is a subset, polyrhythms are a hallmark of this sub-genre. Unlike some other forms of Latin Jazz, such as Salsa or Mambo, Ninety Miles’ music Thursday night didn’t grab the audience by the throat and demand moving and shaking on the dance floor. While the music emphasized the rhythm, it was, at the same time, very cerebral, demanding attention from both sides of the brain. In a few extended song intros, the band eschewed any kind of organized beat altogether and on “The Forgotten Ones,” a tone poem, the bulk of the tune was without meter.
Mostly though, a vibrant pulse propelled the proceedings throughout the evening. The congas, a key ingredient in this type of music, were played by the only actual Cuban in the band, Mauricio Herrera. He took a solo early in the evening. Drum solos can often be on the tedious side, but his was enthralling. Herrera kept the beat throughout while adding captivating flourishes. As a testament to the lofty level of musicianship, pianist Edward Simon was listed in the program as a “sideman.” Simon is a band leader in his own right with five recordings released by his trio over the last few years. Whatever his status in the program, Simon played several solos during the evening that displayed both power and exquisite taste. The other two members of the rhythm section, Ricardo Rodriguez on bass and Henry Cole on drums, played with the virtuosity expected based on the caliber of players on the front line. Each is a veteran of the jazz and Latin Jazz scene with a lengthy list of top-flight associations.
However talented the sidemen were, it’s the front line that sold the tickets. Harris in particular generates excitement with his playing. A good mallet player is fun to watch just because of the physical moves required. He brought along a set of vibes as well as a marimba and he configured them in an “L” shape which allowed him switch back and forth between the two in a flash, or sometimes play both at once. He would throw in a little body English for further visual effect. Harris is certainly among the top vibes players on the scene today.
Puerto Rican Sanchez brought many musical influences to the table but remained grounded in jazz. He demonstrated his technical chops by occasionally laying down Coltrane-like sheets of notes, but more often preferred to let his foot off the gas in favor of a more melodic approach. He also wrote two of the songs, “The Forgotten Ones” and the show closing “City Sunrise” which was a true highlight of the evening. The studio version of that song runs a little under seven minutes, but the version Thursday night ran at least three times that. It was one of those that started quietly, but steadily picked up in volume and intensity. The final third of the piece was grounded on a hypnotic yet intense rhythm with the front line all soloing simultaneously.
Payton is the new member of the group, taking the place of Scott who played on the original recording. The two are known for different styles, with Payton working in a fairly traditional jazz vein and Scott having a tendency, over the last several years, to explore some of the outer reaches of jazz. On the other hand, both trumpeters are from New Orleans so perhaps, on that basis, the substitution has some logic to it, especially since New Orleans was one of the first ports of entry of the “Latin tinge” a hundred years ago. As the new man on the front line, Payton was at times a bit tentative Thursday night and when it came time to trade some licks around the front line, that more often occurred just between Harris and Sanchez. For the most part, however, his ensemble playing was seamless and his solos were intricate and emotional. During his brief turn at the microphone between tunes, Payton acknowledged Colorado’s recent passage of a law allowing recreational use of marijuana. He explained that “Ninety miles is the distance between Boulder and Kingston.”
A documentary about the Ninety Miles project is underway and a trailer can be seen at the link, below. From the preview, it appears the film will focus not just on the music, but also life in Cuba which looks, in part, like a museum for 1950s American cars due to the trade embargo. Despite the deprivation, it’s obvious from the music that the Cuban spirit continues to thrive.