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Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez: Live at the Modern Drummer Festival

John Kelman By

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With a breadth of ability, drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez still maintains strong roots in the traditional music of his native Cuba. Despite playing in a variety of contexts since relocating to New York City a few years ago, and recording with artists including Victor Mendoza, David Samuels, Steve Turre and, most notably, on Carlos Santana's mega-hit Supernatural , the clave has never been far from the surface. No more evident is this fact than on Live at the Modern Drummer Festival , culled from two performances he gave at the annual festival back in May of '00. With a crack band that features Michael Brecker on tenor saxophone, fellow-Cuban Hilario Duran on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Allman Brothers percussionist Marc Quiïones, Hernandez proves, over the course of an hour, that traditional music doesn't have to feel stale or dated but can, in fact, be fresh and modern.

Most drummers seem to anchor their left foot on their high hat. Hernandez's, however, is firmly planted throughout almost the entire performance on a foot-controlled cowbell, keeping the clave rhythm as the firm basis for a programme that features two pieces written or arranged by Cuban trombonist Papo Vazquez, who cleverly fuses Afro Cuban rhythms with a more hard bop sensibility. "El Reverendo" has a suitably brain-cramping theme that sets the stage for equally dazzling solos from Brecker, Duran and Patitucci. The traditional "Juan Jose" is a cha-cha with a difference, an infectious rhythm that still provides everyone with plenty of room to stretch. Hernandez and Patitucci both demonstrate how it is possible to balance impressive chops with a firm sense of groove.

Duran's "Moon Face" blends a light funk with a little swing, while his "Lada 78" cleverly combines an up-tempo clave with a more modal approach, perfect for a particularly strong solo from Brecker. Throughout the programme Hernandez demonstrates an almost frightening dexterity, an independence of limb that allows him to carry out surprising polyrhythmic feats that are as exciting to watch as they are to hear. And what is surprising is that, while they have shared a stage in jam sessions before, this is the first time that Hernandez and Quiïones have played together in a more planned context. Their opening duet, "Octo-Opus," is a surprising display of improvisational abandon within a remarkably structured percussion composition.

While this is a performance for any fan to appreciate, drummers will be especially grateful for the filmmakers' providing more than ample space to see exactly what Hernandez is doing, and from a variety of angles. But Hernandez makes the point, in one of the interviews of band members that are interspersed between songs, that as much as drummers need to be dedicated to their craft, they also need to be "married to the music," and to the history of the form.

It is all too easy for aspiring musicians to become enthralled with the technique and ability of the players they watch and wish to emulate, but watching Hernandez and his group play, what is most clear is that it's really more about the marriage of method and musicality, head and heart, that yield the most success. Live at the Modern Drummer Festival is a treat for those interested in watching a skilled percussionist at work, but even more importantly it's a document of an exciting quintet making passionate and vivacious music.

Visit Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez and Hudson Music on the web.

Personnel: Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez (drums), Marc Quiïones (percussion), Michael Brecker, (tenor saxophone), Hilario Duran (piano), John Patitucci (bass)

Track Listing: Octo-Opus; El Reverendo; Juan Jose; Moon Face; Lada 78; Encore

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