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.

The titles of the songs come later, because no one is sure what story Kokayi will cook up as the trio stirs the pot and creates its music. "We did the music, and out of the content of what we were doing came the titles of it. There was no title before," says the drummer. There was also some editing, but not overdubbing. "I did some fade-ins and fade-outs for some of the tunes. I wanted to have sequence in the record. Not only as a player, but a listener, to have a sequence where it could be appealing. Different kind of textures and stuff like that. I'm really happy with the way it came out. We have [material for] more than two more records from the same session, because we have four-and-a-half hours of music and we put out one hour. We have the rest in archive."

Twelve songs, twelve titles on the inaugural CD. But when the trio plays out, that music may not be heard again. Certainly not in the fashion that it was originally created. Concerts are—like the recording—an on-the-spot creation. Explains Prieto, "The idea for the record is more of an archive, or a possibility for us to present what we do. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we are going to repeat ourselves when we do a live performance. We keep it as open as when we did the album. We might go on for 15 minutes playing one tune. Not only one tune, it could be three or four tunes in one—if we're calling tunes the amount of moods we can have within one length, going in and out."

It's not important whether people want to put the music into the jazz category, where Prieto resides as one of the genre's outstanding drummers. "I just call it music, because it involves so many things," he says. "I'm not thinking genres because I'm influenced by so many genres and so many different sources. When we say improvisation, we have a tendency to think about jazz as a requirement. It is something that identifies that character of improvisation. But improvisation has been going on for centuries, going back to the first early African music and Indian music. Many other cultures have a lot of improvisation. We're talking about thousands of years ago. So improvisation has been [around] since music was created."

Prieto wants to express himself through the drums and through his compositions, alongside other outstanding musicians. While he is a major player on the Latin Jazz scene, he can play it all. But genre doesn't really concern him. It's music that concerns him, something that got into his blood at an early age.

He started playing guitar at the age of six, and gradually starting fooling with the bongo drums and then to other percussion instruments. "By the time I started doing my classical training in the School of Fine Arts in Santa Clara [Cuba], where I come from, I went in for percussion. That was the beginning of the whole thing. But it is very important for me to always say that one of the most fundamental moments for me was that I was born in a musical environment. It doesn't necessarily mean I have any musicians in my family. But my neighborhood—a very poor neighborhood in Santa Clara—was very musical. I was always surrounded by music. Therefore I picked up all this inspiration and influences. On the street."

Rhythms were all around him and he soaked it all in. Some of the more important influences were Jose Luis Quintana, called "Changuito," who played drums and timbales in Los Van Van, a popular dance band. Conga players Miguel "Anga" Diaz and Tata Güines were others. "Later on in my life, I had the opportunity to work with them all. Also congueros and musicians that were around my neighborhood. I cannot recall those names now, but they were definitely very important to me in the beginning."

After his schooling, Prieto played in various bands in Cuba. "One of the bands I played in the most was named was Columna B. That band developed a lot of musical things within the four of us. After that, I decided to stay in Spain. I stayed in Spain and then Canada. I was working with [saxophonist] Jane Bunnett. Then, during that time with Jane Bunnett, I decided to come to New York." That was in 1999.

"I had been to New York once before. To tell you the truth, I didn't really like it. It was too many things going on for me. Too noisy in every possible way," Prieto says. "Then I had to make the decision to come here because I wanted to do something more with my career. I thought it was kind of destiny to come here. Ironically, I had said two or three years before that, that it wasn't my intention in my life to come to New York. Then I end up making the decision to come to New York. It was kind of an irony. After I came here, everything started developing and building up so I could do what I really wanted to do."

His name got around quickly because of his startling talent. He did work with Coleman, Camilo, Threadgill and Palmieri, as well as Chico O'Farrilland Arturo O'Farrill, Dave Samuels and The Caribbean Jazz Project, Michel Camilo, Chucho Valdes, Bobby Carcasses, Claudia Acuna, Roy Hargrove, Don Byron, Andrew Hill and others.

"The interesting part," he says of working with such a vast array of artists, "is they all have their own distinctive way of how to conceive music. I was willing to experiment within their way of doing music. So it was a wide range of possibilities, from Eddie Palmieri to Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman."

He also had the opportunity to start checking out American drummers, many of whom he was already listening to in Cuba, "like Jeff "Tain" Watts. In Cuba, I knew some of the work of Max Roach and Elvin Jones, who are some of my favorite drummers. Also Roy Haynes and Billy Higgins. Here, in New York, there are great drummers, but I felt somehow related to the playing of 'Tain.' He was one of the people that supported me, my playing and what I was doing. So for me it was great happiness, in a way, to be heard by somebody that you admire and he supports what you're doing. That's a great thing. After that, I've met great drummers who have also been an inspiration for me, like Dave Weckl and Peter Erskine. Jack DeJohnette."

Starting with >About the Monks (ZOHO Music) in 2005, Prieto has five recordings under his own name, including the new trio disk. In between all his performing work, Prieto is constantly inspired to compose. He's received commissions from groups like Chamber Music America, Jazz at Lincoln Center and East Carolina University.

"I wanted to be able to swim in my own water. That's one of the basic inspirations that gives me the impulse to start creating my own music, because I want to be able to express myself, not only through drumming, but through my compositions."

He is also involved in education, teaching master classes throughout the world. For six years, he has taught at New York University. In 2011, he was named a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and so receives a stipend over a five-year period that eases the financial burden and allows him to concentrate his art. "It saves a lot of aggravation," he says. "It helps a lot for me to concentrate on what I want to do in my career. It has given me that support. And the attention from other people who didn't know me before that.

He is well-known in the jazz community, but says "I still think I can and should be doing more in terms of performance and the possibility of playing in different places. There are a lot of places I haven't played yet. I think eventually it will happen." In doing so, his desire is to concentrate on his own projects and his own music. He still does some sideman work, which has currently been whittled down pretty much to the Eddie Palmieri band.

Additionally, he runs Dafnison Music and will be recording things besides his own projects. And he will be putting out a book on drumming that he has been developing for a while. As for Proverb Trio, the drummer is continuing to try and get work for the group. There will be U.S. west coast gigs in November, 2012 and he hopes the schedule will grow.

"I'm really happy with the way the music came out and the concept of the band. I'm looking forward to keep developing that music and that idea of spontaneous composition and collective improvisation," says Prieto. "The main idea is to do something spontaneous that may sound preconceived. Instead of preconceiving something that may sound spontaneous, we're doing it the other way around. The idea is to do it in a way where we develop things from our influences and who we are now, in the present moment. It's all about the now."

Selected Discography

Dafnis Prieto, Proverb Trio (Dafnison, 2012)

Dafnis Prieto, Dafnis Prieto Si o Si Quartet: Live At Jazz Standard NYC (Dafnison, 2009)

Dafnis Prieto Sextet, Taking the Soul for a Walk (Dafnison, 2008)

Michel Camilo, Spirit of the Moment (Telarc, 2007)

The Caribbean Jazz Project, Mosaic (Concord Picante, 2006)

Dafnis Prieto, Absolute Quintet (ZOHO, 2006)

Bryan Lynch, Sphere of Influence (EWE, 2006)

Arturo O'Farrill Trio, Live in Brooklyn (ZOHO, 2005)

Dafnis Prieto, About the Monks (ZOHO, 2005)

Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Lucidarium (Label Bleu, 2004)

Eddie Palmieri, La Perfect II (Concord, 2002)

Arturo O'Farrill Trio, Cumana (M&I, 2002)

Henry Threadgill, Everbody's Mouth's a Book (Pi, 2001)

Jane Bunnett, Ritmo + Soul (Blue Note, 2000)

Photo Credit

All Photos: Courtesy of Dafnis Prieto

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