As music director of Machito and his Afro-Cubans in the 1940s, the late Cuban saxophonist and bandleader Mario Bauzá was a key figure in the development of what came to be known as Latin jazz. Yet, he often railed against the term.
“I don’t know what they’re talking about when people talk about Latin jazz,” he would say impatiently. “Nobody is playing Latin jazz. What they are playing is Afro-Cuban jazz.”
Then, point made, he would allow exceptions.
“Paquito [D’Rivera] plays Latin jazz. Look at what he has done with Venezuelan waltzes, with tango, with Brazilian samba. [Jorge] Dalto played Latin jazz. Gato [Barbieri] plays Latin jazz. The rest are playing Afro-Cuban jazz.”
Bauzá, of course, had a point. Usage may make words correct, but only when reality catches up do the words have valid meaning. Once a sprinkling of exceptions, then the promising trend of a decade ago, Latin jazz is now, as pianist Danilo Pérez says, “a movement.” It includes established young veterans such as D’Rivera, Pérez, pianists Michel Camilo and Chano Domínguez, saxophonist David Sánchez, trombonist William Cepeda, guitarist Gerardo Nuñez and pianist Edward Simon. Add an impressive list of newcomers: saxophonists Miguel Zenón, Perico Sambeat and Llibert Fortuny, pianist Guillermo Klein, bassist Pedro Giraudo, pianist Adrián Iaies, trumpeter Diego Urcola and vocalist Claudia Acuña. Acuña appears at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall at 8 p.m. Friday for Festival Miami.
The music of these artists is not drawing-board fusion but a form of bilingualism. It might swing and include references to the blues, jazz harmonies and improvisation, but the source material, and even some of the instruments, can easily be drawn from flamenco, bomba y plena, huapango, cumbia or tango. And while the musicians share a similar concept in applying the tools, practices and sensibilities of jazz to the music styles of their native cultures, their individual sounds can be as diverse as their accents and as far apart as Barcelona and Buenos Aires.
THE NEW JAZZ
Welcome to the “new” pan-Latin, pan-Ibero-American jazz, one of the most stimulating developments in jazz so far this century.
“Music is always a product of the times, and this is one positive aspect of globalization,” says Cuban reedman Paquito D’Rivera, 61. “But also jazz is a sort of Esperanto for musicians around the world. It has always been that, and it’s become more so as time passes.
“Anything that we could add to this marvel called jazz, as long as it maintains the spirit, it’s still jazz,” says D’Rivera, who not only has championed a Pan-Latin notion of jazz through his repertoire but also has nurtured in his bands many of the talents now shaping the music.
Saxophonist Miguel Zenón, 32, has quickly become one of the movement’s leaders. In 2008 he won a MacArthur and a Guggenheim, the first jazz artist to receive both in the same year. His new disc, Esta Plena, released on Branford Marsalis’ Marsalis Music label, features a collection of original compositions that suggest a jazz update of plena, a traditional Afro-Hispanic folk music from Zenón’s native Puerto Rico.
The new disc is a followup to Jibaro, a 2005 exploration of música jíbara, the hillbilly music of Puerto Rico. Still, Zenón calls himself a traditionalist.
“I love people who play changes [the jazz practice of improvising over the harmonies of a song]. I love bebop. That was my first school. But I also think what we are seeing is part of a natural process,” Zenón says. “With globalization you have musicians from all over the world [playing this music]. You have bands in which every member is from a different place. You have access to music from all over the world, and things develop naturally. I don’t think there is a Big Bang moment for this. I just think it’s the result of a natural progression.”
In fact, the roots and timing of the emergence of this new Latin jazz might have to do as much with globalization and its most beneficial side effects as with the artistic and coming of age of a generation of Iberian and Latin American musicians.
“Playing with Paquito [D’Rivera] was like doing my graduate studies in Latin American music. And he was the door to Dizzy [Gillespie] who was the one who truly questioned me,” recalls Danilo Pérez, 43. Born in Panama, Pérez broke into the jazz scene in the United States with vocalist Jon Hendricks. He soon joined D’Rivera’s band, which in time led him to Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra.
“I remember, after a show, guys like [veteran saxophonists] Jimmy Heath and James Moody were congratulating me and telling me how some of the things I had played reminded them of Bud Powell and Bill Evans,” Pérez. “And Dizzy just looked at me and said `Yeah, that’s great. But when are you going to play your own [thing]?’ And because of that questioning, I started to look at my identity and the fact that I can’t escape the music I heard as a kid, the music my grandmother sang, the music I feel, the music I live. The fact is, the music in my DNA has a global component.”
For Zenón, who played with fellow Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sánchez, the Mingus Big Band, Joshua Redman`s San Francisco Jazz Collective and Charlie Haden before going solo, “the idea of integrating Puerto Rican music into my music came after a while, once I started to write.
“I left Puerto Rico to go the States [and to Berklee College of Music in Boston] when I was 19, and then I immersed myself in jazz for a very long time. I wasn’t really dealing with anything that had to do with Puerto Rican music. But when I started trying to work on my own music [I realized] that if I wanted to explore [Puerto Rican] music and find out my roots, who I really was, and where I was coming from, I really had to study it from the bottom up.”
Zenón says his Puerto Rican projects “started from a need to learn.”
“I’ve always had as reference the great creators in jazz: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane… . I know that for many musicians they represent the tradition, but for me they represent the revolution. They were my inspiration, especially with their approach, their compositions and in being open-minded to incorporating music from other places.”
Argentine bassist and composer Pedro Giraudo, 32, who came to New York as a student in 1996, began his career in earnest by immersing himself in the tradition.
“And then, after four years at Manhattan School of Music, I started to realize what it was that I could really do well, what was me,” he says. “And I realized that as much as I admire jazz … it was not my music.”
Giraudo’s music on El Viaje, his fourth and most-recent release as a leader, suggests a lived-in mix of European classical music, jazz and Argentine tango and folk elements. His work for his 12-piece ensemble largely skirts the typical section writing of the big-band tradition, favoring a classical orchestral approach instead. And while some critics hear echoes of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, Giraudo claims as influences young, idiosyncratic Latin jazz bandleaders such as Guillermo Klein and William Cepeda.
“At some point, I realized that I’m never going to be a straight-ahead jazz musician,” Giraudo says. “ … No matter how much I’d study it, no matter how much I play it, no matter how many licks I’d learn, … I will never have the level of conviction playing it that I may have playing tango, for example. It’s just not there.”
But while such recognition is critical, there are no formulas.
INS AND OUTS
“It’s a process,” says Venezuelan pianist Edward Simon, who broke into the U.S. jazz scene with stints with D’Rivera, saxophonist Greg Osby, guitarist Kevin Eubanks and flutist Herbie Mann. “I went through a period in which I was very diligently learning about jazz and trying to really understand the ins and outs of that language and its most essential elements, which to me are the blues and swing,” says Simon, 40. “Once you have a good understanding of all that, then you can begin to figure out the ways you can incorporate jazz into your music, your vision.”
Simon not only has incorporated into his repertoire pieces from what may be called The Great Latin American Songbook but also has organized several ensembles, each with a different leaning — a straight-ahead jazz quartet, a classical-oriented trio and Ensamble Venezuela, expressly created to play a fusion of Venezuelan music and jazz.
“I’d say it’d be kind of foolish to come all the way to the United States and try and make jazz better than the people who created it,” he says. “I think what we have to offer is something entirely different. We bring to jazz a rhythmic richness and certain passion and poetry that Latin American music has by nature.”
Pérez recalls fondly his time with trumpeter Gillespie, the undisputed non-Latin champion of Afro-Cuban jazz. A one-time band mate and a lifelong friend of Mario Bauzá, Gillespie gave Afro-Cuban jazz a bebop twist, opened his bandstand to Chano Pozo and his conga drums and went on to create some of the genre’s enduring masterpieces.
“Dizzy always said that Latinos were learning to play jazz better than American musicians were learning to play Latin music,” Pérez recalls. “And he used to say: `Watch it. When these guys get it, we’re going to be in trouble.’ ”