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Dafnis Prieto: Cross-Cultural Mix

Angelo Leonardi By

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Dafnis Prieto is one of the leading drummers and composers of his generation. Forty-four years old and Cuban born, Prieto moved to New York City in 1999. The early 2000's found Prieto employed as a sideman by several prominent musicians, including Eddie Palmieri, Michel Camilo, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Dave Samuels and Arturo O'Farrill. In the following years Prieto also appeared in some avant-garde settings with Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman. The young Cuban drummer transposes elements from his Afro-Cuban musical heritage onto a jazz drum kit. During the 2000's he composed and arranged his first album, leading a quintet with Brian Lynch, Peter Apfelbaum and others (About the Monks, ZOHO 2005). After six recordings as a leader, Prieto is close to releasing the Dafnis Prieto Big Band's debut album, Back to the Sunset and Kairos Sextet's Transition, leading his new band.

All About Jazz: Let's start from your latest ambitious project, the big band album, Back to the Sunset, which will be released in April. How did the idea of a big band project come about?

Dafnis Prieto: I have always loved the big band sound. When I was about eleven years old I heard a big band from Santa Clara, my hometown in Cuba, and I got impressed and overwhelmed by that sound. About a year ago, I had a conversation with Eric Oberstein about what to do next, and we agreed on doing a big band album with all my music and arrangements. I had previously written music for big bands, but at that moment I started getting more curious about going deeper into preparing a full album. My previous albums featured quartets, quintets, sextets, and this was a very exciting opportunity for me to develop my music in a big band setting.

AAJ: Back to the Sunset is a masterful piece of work, a perfect combination of Cuban music and contemporary jazz. What's the best audience for this music?

DP: I think anyone with some sort of sensitivity towards sound can be driven by the music. I don't target my music to any specific audience. This music can be played either in a jazz club or in a theater, or concert hall. This album carries many emotional qualities. One minute you can be dancing and the next you might be crying, or singing a catchy beautiful melody. To me the genre is not as important as the persons behind it, the musicians who create the music.

AAJ: You composed and arranged nine tunes for the album, honoring your musical heroes and mentors. Can you describe the reason for your choices?

DP: Indeed, I wanted to honor some of my musical heroes. Some of them I've had the opportunity to work with, like Eddie Palmieri, Brian Lynch, Steve Coleman, Michel Camilo, and Henry Threadgill, and others whom I didn't have the opportunity to work with, like Mario Bauza, Tito Puente, Hermeto Pascoal, Buddy Rich, and others. They have all been an inspirational force to me, one way or another, directly or indirectly. Therefore, I wanted to honor them big, with a big band.

AAJ: With this project you continue the long tradition of drummers who lead big bands. How do you approach leading a big band from the drum throne?

DP: I've been leading different side bands for over fifteen years. I see the big band as an extension of all of these years of experience. Leading this big band has been a very uplifting and unique experience, I've been having a great time playing the music. It sounds tight, powerful, and also very versatile when it comes to dynamics, and textures.

AAJ: The Dafnis Prieto Big Band made its world premiere in August 2017 at New York's Jazz Standard, days after recording the album in Brooklyn, joined by special guests Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman and Brian Lynch. How did you go about writing the pieces that featured them?

DP: I wanted to invite some of the mentors and musicians that, one way or another, have inspired me to move forward. "Una Vez Más" is a song I originally wrote dedicated to Brian Lynch and Eddie Palmieri, back when I was playing with them in a Quartet setting. Therefore, the song had a very specific quality about Brian's and Eddie's playing. Then, I rearranged the song for this album, and invited Brian to feature on this track. "Back to the Sunset" features Henry Threadgill. Since I started writing this song, I though of Henry's sound in it. Henry is a very unique musician with a very distinctive sound, and this is a unique song for him to play. The song is a ballad that I thought would work very well with his style of playing. "Song for Chico" is a song I originally wrote about 10 years ago for the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, and Steve Coleman is someone who always has been very adventurous on mixing different vocabularies and cultures. I thought of having Steve's sound on this specific song because it reminded me of an updated version of the collaboration between Machito & Charlie Parker, a perfect combination for this song.

AAJ: Can you recall anything about the musical experiences and influences you had playing with Lynch, Coleman and Threadgill?

DP: One of the most powerful things I've learned from them is that music can be personalized, and can be significantly different from one musician to another. And that's one of the most beautiful and powerful qualities in music, because it lets you hear who is the person behind it, and what are the actual musical intentions. They all gave me great lessons on music, on how to lead a band, and also about the understanding and acceptance of differences within musical styles. Very often these lessons were given in a very subtle way and came about through the experience itself, and not in a classroom or through a teacher/student relationship.

AAJ: What role did Eric Oberstein have in this record production?

DP: Eric has been a very important person behind the creation of this band and this recording. He has taken care of all the logistics, and preparation for this album. He also was very involved during the recording process, helping me to keep track and organize the many things to be done in the studio.

AAJ: You have another album coming out soon, Transition, by the Kairos Sextet. Could you introduce the project and the young partners involved?

DP: Transition is the first album by the Kairos Sextet. This band was my artist ensemble band when I started teaching at Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, in Florida in 2015. It features Sean Johnson on tenor sax, Sam Neufeld on trumpet, Tom Kelley on alto sax, Nick Lamb on piano, Jon Dadurka on bass, and Johnathan Hulett on drums. They decided to continue as a band after they graduated. They are all very fine young musicians with an extraordinary talent, and a passion for what they do. The album is comprised of original compositions from each member, and also one of my compositions "Triangles and Circles" from my previous sextet album. This band won the Next Generation Competition and performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2016.

AAJ: The sextet is incredibly powerful. How long have you worked with them?

DP: I worked with them for a full school year before they all graduated. We worked hard in getting to sound like a unit, and make sure the band had its own sound and approach to music.

AAJ: When did you start composing music? How did you get into writing?

DP: I started getting more deeply into composition when I came to the States in 1999. I wanted to develop my own music, besides drumming. I was classically trained in the music, but I also like different kind of compositions from different genres and individual composers. So, I started writing and developing my own ideas and the way I wanted the music to sound.

AAJ: What are your foremost influences as a drummer?

DP: My first influences on drumming started from drummers from Cuba, like "el Peje," Changuito, Tatá Güines, Miguel "Angá" Díaz, and others. Then, from the US and specifically within the umbrella of jazz, I would mention Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Tony Williams, and many others.

AAJ: Generally speaking, what's the most important thing you've learned from the leaders you've worked for?

DP: Diversity, dedication, passion, and hard work.

AAJ: You have extraordinary technique as a drummer. How hard did you work at it?

DP: Well, I practiced with passion during my school years, and beyond. My point of practice was focus on trying to play every idea that I had in mind. So, I created different kinds of technique exercises to facilitate this process. I like feeling technically ready when I play, so that I can focus 100% on the music.

AAJ: What inspired you to publish your drum instructional book: A World of Rhythmic Possibilities ?

DP: A lot of things inspired me to write the book, including my experience of teaching so many young drummers throughout the world. I wanted to share some rhythmic possibilities, that I found fascinating, but also many exercises I practiced in order to develop rhythmic independence, rhythmic vocabulary, and more. They are all presented from both an analytical, and technical point of view, so the reader can understand what to do, and most importantly, how it could be done.

Photo credit: Henry Lopez

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