Cuban Triumph: Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana play the Bohemian Caverns

Franz A. Matzner By

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The Spirits of Havana transformed the originally quiet and contained listening audience into shouting, dancing and laughing participants joined in an all out festival of music.
Jane Bunnett
Washington, D.C.
July 25, 2003

The first set started late. Half the band sat stuck in traffic as Jane Bunnett took the stage to open with “Real Truth” played as a duet with pianist David Virelles. A young player, Virelles’ melodic lines and soft touch meshed fluidly with Bunnett’s always explorative flute work. Revealing a fresh buoyancy combined with a slightly impetuous nature, Virelles interaction with Bunnet quickly established a playful, energetic atmosphere, one which had just begun to settle the murmuring, restless crowd when the rest of the band finally arrived.

Then there were sound problems. And another delay. Life on the road.

Completing set-up as quickly as possible, and overcoming continued microphone and balance problems, the band started again. This time as a full six piece unit with Peter Slavov joining on bass, Fransisco Mela on drums, Arturo Estable on conga, and Larry Kramer on trumpet and flugelhorn.

Confronting a once again chatting, impatient crowd, the musicians raised their instruments, counted off, and proceeded to blow everyone out of their chairs.

The first piece, “Santos Suarez” began with an impressively volatile, twisting intro by Bunnett on flute, and then erupted into a cooking, rhythmical feast. Propelled by drummer Fransisco Mela’s tremendous force, technical ability, and compelling showmanship, this first tune simply burned with energy. Calling out in Spanish, engaging in interactive solos, trading, and at all times maintaining a fast, driving, danceable rhythm, The Spirits of Havana had the whole crowd heated up by the time Kramer concluded a clean, tonally vibrant solo and Bunnett closed the piece with a ripping flute solo that swelled in endless crescendo.

Pausing a moment to make final adjustments to the balance, Bunnett introduced the band, and then began the night’s third tune, “Joyful Noise,” dedicated to the late greats Benny Carter and Compay Segundo. A more appropriate selection could not have been found, and the vibrant display offered by each member of the group could not possibly have fulfilled the song title’s promise any better. Again taking charge, Mela blasted out continuously churning rhythms while spurring on soloists with shouts, calls, sung vocals, and rhythmic nudges. Employing a Harmon mute, Kramer provided a carefully blended cross-current to Virelle’s speedy, clever piano work and Bunnett’s almost Coleman like plunges and swirls.

The evening’s next surprise followed short on the heels of the preceding piece. Calling the Cavern’s sound man to the stage, Kramer introduced local vocalist Lorenzo Miller who took the mike and announced the tune “El Rio”. Miller broke the subsequent hush with a gorgeously rendered a capela intro to the song. Joined first by Virelles, and then accompanied by Kramer, now on flugelhorn, Miller performed an astonishing improvisation on the lyric, interacting with the band and delving deeply into the songs emotional content. Building to a stunning sustained conclusion, Miller let the final note diminish slowly. Just as it faded beyond hearing, Mela ruptured the ensuing silence with a dangerously fast beat. The rest of the band followed suit, transforming the tune into a rowdy, solo filled extravaganza, the highlight of which may well have been the drum/conga exchanges.

Taking full advantage of the Cavern’s already unusual décor, The Spirits of Havana continued in this vein for the rest of the night. With pieces like the propulsive Afro-Cuban chant, “Spirit of Mother Nature”; the plaintive duet, “La Grienas Negras”; and a series of charged, upbeat selections, The Spirits of Havana transformed the originally quiet and contained listening audience into shouting, dancing and laughing participants joined in an all out festival of music. This is no mean feat considering the usual nervously respectful composure of most jazz audiences, and it was wonderfully satisfying to witness what can only be described as a direct transfer of musical energy. Through musical skill, sheer exuberance, and unremitting genuineness, The Spirits of Havana completely captured the night. The rough beginning, the organic, at times unpolished group sound, was in the end not so much overcome, but revealed to be essential aspects of the group’s success. Concert jazz possesses it’s own rewards, but rarely does it provoke the type of aisle-dancing, drink-buying reaction raised by this group.

If you are not already a fan of Latin Jazz, catch these guys the next time they are in town and you’ll be an instant convert. The music is great, the people better, and the atmosphere created full of temptation and joy.

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