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Dafnis Prieto: Experiments in Spontaneity

R.J. DeLuke By

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Improvisation—music in the moment, eloquently once called "the sound of surprise"—takes place in genres besides jazz. But in America's indigenous art form, it is a cornerstone. The degree to which a song might contain improv varies greatly. Sometimes it's hard to tell in a highly arranged piece where the musicians are taking liberties. Other times its obvious an elongated solo is being composed on the spot.

Consider the idea of a band that's pretty much making everything up on the spot. Not free jazz, where the cacophony can be off-putting to many. Even annoying. And in a way different from some of the bands on the current scene that are really playing in the moment, reacting to one another as if linked in spirit, like Medeski, Martin & Wood, or nearly anything led by saxophonist Joe Lovano.

Making up everything—right now—is what young drum phenom Dafnis Prieto is doing with his band, Proverb Trio. Prieto, a native of Cuba, has already been making a name for himself in bands that he leads, as well as playing with others like saxophonists Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill, clarinetist Eddie Palmieri and pianist Michel Camilo. The Proverb Trio, which has a recording out this year by the same name on the drummer's Dafnison Music, is three people fully engaged in improvisation. But in a tuneful way. Grooves are used, but Prieto uses all kinds of rhythms that are in his soul and come out through his talented hands and feet. Textures change. Tempos can shift, all at the whim of the players. One is Jason Lindner on keyboards, one of the fine players on the New York City scene, and the other is a vocalist, known as Kokayi.

What? Improvising melodies and words, derived from scratch. Surely there must be a sketch of an arrangement so the vocalist has some idea what words to use and musical direction to go, yes? No.

"It is very challenging. The three of us are completely improvising, being spontaneous in the performance," says Prieto. "That's why Kokayi impressed me the first time I saw him, because what he mostly does is free-styling, which means the spontaneity of improvising with words and everything else that he does. It is very interesting. Every time I do it I feel impressed with how he does it and how the whole thing becomes as a unit and it has one sound. Even though we're going in so many different directions and dimensions. He has his own sound, by himself. And to come up with very specific stories on the spot, of what to develop within what we're doing. It's very impressive."

Dafnis Prieto—Proverb TrioThe new recording contains twelve tracks that one would never expect were not preordained. "Into the Light Love" is riveting, with the polyrhythms of Prieto driving the effort and Lindner molding the melodic base with electric keyboards, over which Kokayi intones a perfectly sensible lyric. It's sophisticated soul. Funky jazz. No moniker really fits, but it's moving and hip. Lindner starts off "In War" with a spacey intro that moves into a layered harmony. Prieto listens for a bit, then adds what he feels will augment it. Eventually, Kokayi jumps in with a staccato lyric that even has a reggae flavor to it. Drums get more intense as voice speaks about the woes of war. It sounds, weird, but it works. A remarkable achievement.

Prieto said the germination for the group started out as a duet between himself and Kokayi at a jazz festival. He enjoyed it, but felt it best to add another element. "I needed to go wider and in more directions in terms of sound and possibilities within the idea. We kept doing performances as a duo and we had guests. Steve Coleman was one of the guests. Also Henry Threadgill. After that came the thought of having a third person continuously with us. Somebody who was going to be part of the band. I called Jason."

Prieto had played with Lindner in a variety of bands and felt a strong musical affinity. It worked, and the Proverb Trio came to be—three musicians making up melodies, rhythms and stories on the spot. Walking a tightrope, in a sense, but enjoying it. When it came time to record, the same philosophy was used, but with two different approaches.

"The first part of the recording I wanted to have the way we do it normally in a performance. So we play, and everything comes out very open. There is not really an amount of time set for how much we should be doing or not. The tunes might last 20 or 25 minutes, or 15 minutes," Prieto explained. The only change for the rest of the CD was to put a shorter time limit, about three to five minutes, to see what the group could do with the same open form, but with a time constraint in mind.

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