National Debut Release by Former ¡Cubanísmo! Bandleader and Pianist, Nachito Herrera, BEMBÉ EN MI CASA


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“This album is a wonderland of musica cubana and a must if you love the piano stylings of Peruchin, Lili Martinez and Frank Emilio Flynn, other pianists with the candela (flame) to turn ice into water."
- Jesse “Chuy" Varela, Latin Beat

In the past decade, Cuba reminded the world once again, as it has done frequently since the rumba rage of the 1930s and the mambo era of the post World War II years, that this small island nation is indeed one of the globe's music superpowers. Before the aging denizens of the Buena Vista Social Club arrived with the force of a tropical gale to reacquaint a global audience of the timeless qualities of pure Cuban music, such names as Chucho Valdés, Paquito D'Rivera, Arturo Sandoval and Gonzalo Rubalcaba had become familiar to fans of jazz and world music. Longtime Latin music aficionados had long nurtured a fondness for Cuban sounds, from vintage Celia Cruz, Perez Prado and Cachao to Irakere's jazzy fusion and the driving, pop flavored timba sound of Los Van Van, Issac Delgado and other contemporary artists.

Now, it's time to herald the arrival of another Cuban music wizard whose world class talents as a composer, pianist, arranger and bandleader are self apparent. With the September 6 release of Bembé En Mi Casa on the FS Music label, Ignacio “Nachito" Herrera steps onto the national stage as a fully evolved artist, brimming with confidence, in total command of a vast array of traditional and contemporary Cuban idioms, and imparting a virtuosic touch on all aspects of this shimmering production.

For the past several years, Herrera has called Minneapolis, Minnesota home, grooming his working band and laying the groundwork for the recording of Bembé En Mi Casa. The city's Star Tribune newspaper jokingly dubbed him “the Minnesota music scene's favorite foreign import since the accordion," and virtually everyone in the Twin Cities who has caught him in action has been captivated by Herrera's charisma, bountiful talent and searing hot band. Star Tribune critic Tom Surowicz calls Herrera a “hard-hitting piano virtuoso" who is a “ferocious jazz soloist" whose touch is “pile-driving" while possessing a “poetic, sensitive side."

It's not unexpected that comparisons to Valdés and Rubalcaba have been frequently made. Like both of his better known Cuban keyboard compatriots, Herrera's conservatory training allows him to churn out spontaneous, highly imaginative improvisations replete with flourishes of classically-derived technique just as easily as he can deliver robust montuno vamps and bluesy, introspective excursions. As well-known Latin jazz radio personality and music critic Jesse “Chuy" Varela comments, “Listening to Bembé En Mi Casa, it's hard to believe that it's coming from St. Paul and not La Habana."

Nachito, as he is fondly known, captured the imagination of his countrymen in 1978 when, as a 12-year old piano prodigy, he performed Rachmaninoff's “Concerto No. 9" with the Havana Symphony Orchestra. Four years later, he was featured in concert with Rubén Gonzalez, the venerable pianist of Buena Vista Social Club fame. His professional career started shortly thereafter when he was named music director of such fabled Cuban ensembles as the Tropicana Orchestra and Valentin Orchestra for overseas tours. In the late 1990s, he served as pianist and music director on tours of the U.S., Europe and Asia with ¡Cubanísmo!, a stellar Cuban band led by trumpeter Jesus Alemany, with whom he recorded the standout album Mardi Gras Mambo. Herrera did advanced piano studies in 1998 with such Cuban masters as Jesús “Chucho" Valdés, Rubén González and Frank Fernandez. Recent career highlight's include serving as music director for Cuban diva Albita for a Latin music extravaganza in Minneapolis and making a critically successful debut at New York City's Birdland jazz club.

Herrera was born in Santa Clara in the center of Cuba but was raised from the age of one in a suburb of Havana. His mother, Romelia López, was a pianist and lover of Chopin, Bach and Rachmaninoff who instilled in him a love of classical music. His father, Ignacio “Nacho" Herrera, was also a pianist.

At the age of seven, encouraged by his parents, Herrera began his formal musical education at the Havana Alejandro García Caturla Conservatory with the renowned teacher Jorge Gómez Labrara. He continued his classical training and gained an appreciation of Cuban music as he pursued formal studies at the age of 12 at the National School of Art, finishing his scholastic career at Cuba's famed Instituto Superior de Arte (Superior Art Institute), where he earned a Masters in Music with a concentration in piano.

All of Herrera's extensive experience comes together on Bembé En Mi Casa. Working with a group of seasoned, mostly Cuban musicians who, like their leader, have gained experience traveling the world in the company of Cuban music greats, Nachito Herrera forges an album that captures the essence of his homeland's music traditions from the past five decades. There are flashes of Irakere-inspired horn orchestrations that feature trumpeter Adalberto Lara and saxophonist Nardy Castellini and recall the glory days of modern Cuban music when Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval shared the bandstand. The title tune bristles with urgent salsa-influenced bembe rhythms, propelled by the percussion work and vocals of Jesús Díaz. Every one of the album's 11 tracks reveals a different personality of Cuban music, from bolero and guaracha to vintage, 1950s style cha-cha-cha, radiant with a golden big band sound. Nachito's young daughter Mirdalys sings on the spirited “Ritmo Caliente," closing the date in grand fashion.

However, Bembé En Mi Casa is much more than just a collection of tracks meant to showcase various Afro-Cuban rhythms. Herrera's inventive arrangements and the expertise of his musicians produce a program that exudes an organic quality from start to finish. While the individual performances provide a panoramic overview of the most influential Cuban styles of the past half century, what emerges is a wholly contemporary take on these culturally profound music idioms. Always at the vortex of the action, Nachito Herrera reigns joyfully over the making of this modern masterwork. From Havana to Minnesota with many stops along the way, Herrera is now poised to capture the imagination of a global audience. With Bembé En Mi Casa as his entrée, there's little doubt that he will succeed.

This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz.
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