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Dafnis Prieto Big Band: Back to the Sunset

Troy Dostert By

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The astonishingly talented and prolific drummer Dafnis Prieto has done a lot since moving to the States from his native Cuba in 1999. He's made a host of sideman appearances with musicians of widely varying stripes, including Peter Apfelbaum, Michel Camilo, Steve Coleman, Marilyn Lerner, Brian Lynch, Henry Threadgill, Chucho Valdes, and John Zorn. He won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2011. He published an influential instructional guide, A World of Rhythmic Possibilities, in 2016. And he's recorded a significant number of his own dates, with small groups ranging from trios to sextets, all of which highlight Prieto's distinctive approach to using the Afro-Cuban musical tradition as a springboard for all manner of stylistic and rhythmic innovation.

The one project he hadn't yet attempted? A big-band album. But with Back to the Sunset, that's now been fixed. And the results are as invigorating, imaginative, and rhythmically exhilarating as one would expect from such a fearless and restlessly creative musician.

Prieto has assembled a large ensemble of extraordinary talent, with a number of musicians he's partnered with previously. The aforementioned Apfelbaum is here, along with folks like pianist Manuel Valera and trumpeter Mike Rodriguez. But also included are guest appearances from Lynch, Threadgill, and Coleman, as Prieto clearly sees this record as an opportunity to recognize his debt to musicians who have influenced and mentored him over the years. Along the same lines, each of the album's nine pieces is dedicated to assorted jazz luminaries, ranging from Art Blakey to Jerry Gonzalez to Andrew Hill, giving further evidence of the sheer breadth of Prieto's omnivorous musical tendencies.

The music is characterized by an irrepressible energy, as each piece is chock full of rhythmic detours that maximize the talents of the band. Stasis is Prieto's sworn enemy, as very rarely do these tunes stay locked on to a particular rhythmic figure or theme for very long; there's always another segue just ahead, so that the tunes easily hold interest despite their length (8-9 minutes each, on average). At times Prieto's got so many ideas bursting forth that they just about get the better of him: pieces like "Song for Chico" or "Two for One," a couple of the surging up-tempo tracks, bring so many transitions that it becomes a challenging task at times just to follow their logic. But this kind of exploratory spirit has always characterized Prieto's work—and it's hard to fault him for this, given that the rhythmic energy the band sustains is always so infectious. There are a lot of overlapping and polyrhythmic grooves happening here, but they do always groove. Much like Steve Coleman's work, the music somehow manages to be heady, complex and supremely catchy at the same time.

There are a lot of standout moments on the disc, but here are a few of the most noteworthy ones. "Una Vez Más" and "Out of the Bone" showcase Prieto's Afro-Cuban roots most effectively, with the compositions making full use of the ensemble to create vigorous, danceable lines that are filled with movement and surprise. Just as effective are the poignant "The Sooner the Better" and the uplifting "Triumphant Journey," both of which utilize the kind of voicings and lyricism one might hear on a Maria Schneider record—but of course with Prieto's unmistakable Latin undercurrent always propelling the music forward. Terrific solo moments are abundant as well, with too many to do justice here to their consistent caliber of musicianship. Multi-instrumentalist Michael Thomas is a particular revelation, as he provides superb, well-crafted solos on alto sax, soprano sax and piccolo on three separate tracks.

But the most special moment belongs to one of Prieto's mentors: Henry Threadgill. To hear the barely-restrained power in his emotionally-charged solo on the somber, affecting ballad "Back to the Sunset" is to be struck once again by the cross-stylistic pollination that has consistently shaped Prieto's development as an artist. This album bears witness to that career-long, multifaceted creative process—and it does so in a vivid and deeply enjoyable way.

Track Listing: Una Vez; The Sooner the Better; Out of the Bone; Back to the Sunset; Danzonish Potpourri; Song for Chico; Prelude Para Rosa; Two for One; The Triumphant Journey.

Personnel: Mike Rodríguez: Trumpet, Flugelhorn; Nathan Eklund: Trumpet, Flugelhorn; Alex Sipiagin: Trumpet, Flugelhorn; Josh Deutsch: Trumpet, Flugelhorn; Román Filiú: Alto Sax, Soprano Sax, Flute, Clarinet; Michael Thomas: Alto Sax, Soprano Sax, Flute, Piccolo; Peter Apfelbaum: Tenor Sax, Soprano Sax, Melodica; Joel Frahm: Tenor Sax, Soprano Sax; Chris Cheek: Bari Sax; Tim Albright: Trombone; Alan Ferber: Trombone; Jacob Garchik: Trombone; Jeff Nelson: Bass Trombone; Manuel Valera: Piano; Ricky Rodríguez: Acoustic & Electric Bass; Roberto Quintero: Congas, Bongos, Percussion; Dafnis Prieto: Drums & Music Director; Brian Lynch: Trumpet (Track 1); Henry Threadgill: Alto Sax (Track 4); Steve Coleman: Alto Sax (Track 6).

Title: Back to the Sunset | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Dafnison Music

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