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Ninety Miles: Boulder, CO, January 17, 2013

Geoff Anderson BY

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Ninety Miles
Macky Auditorium
Boulder, CO
January 17, 2013

Cuba has long held an allure for jazz musicians. The sounds and particularly the rhythms emanating from that country have influenced jazz nearly from the beginning. From early in the 20th Century, the Latin tinge, as Jelly Roll Morton called it, has seasoned the jazz sound. By the 1940s, through the work of musicians like Mario Bauza, Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie, Afro Cuban jazz became an important part of the music. For nearly a century, American jazz musicians have been incorporating the sound of Cuba into American jazz. The now decades-long embargo by the United States on Cuba may have only made the country and its rhythms all the more tantalizing; forbidden fruit and all that.

One of the more recent, successful amalgamations of these two cultures is the Ninety Miles Project. In 2010, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah traveled to Cuba and recorded an album with two different local rhythm sections. The resulting Concord album was one of 2011's best releases. On its current tour, Scott has been replaced by Nicholas Payton, and the rhythm section has been swapped out, too. But the music inspired by the cross-cultural pollination remains.

Ninety miles is the distance from Cuba to Florida and highlights the irony of two very different cultures separated by such a minimal distance. Despite the various barriers— political, nautical, linguistic—the band melded the Cuban and American jazz cultures in two 60-minute sets. Each set featured only three songs, as the musicians stretched out for extended explorations.

As with many forms of Latin jazz—of which Afro-Cuban jazz is a subset—polyrhythms are a hallmark. Unlike some other forms of Latin jazz, such as salsa or mambo, Ninety Miles' music Thursday night didn't grab the audience by the throat and demand moving and shaking on the dance floor. While the music emphasized rhythm, it was, at the same time, very cerebral, demanding attention from both sides of the brain. In a few extended song intros, the band eschewed any kind of organized beat altogether, and on "The Forgotten Ones," a tone poem, the bulk of the tune was without meter.

Mostly though, a vibrant pulse propelled the proceedings throughout the evening. The congas—a key ingredient—were played by the only actual Cuban in the band, Mauricio Herrera, taking a solo early in the evening. Drum solos can often be on the tedious side, but his was enthralling. Herrera kept the beat throughout, while adding captivating flourishes. As a testament to the lofty level of musicianship, pianist Edward Simon was listed in the program as a "sideman." Simon is a bandleader in his own right with several recordings released by various trios over the last few years. Whatever his status in the program, Simon played several solos during the evening that displayed both power and exquisite taste. The other two members of the rhythm section, bassist Ricardo Rodriguez and drummer Henry Cole, played with the virtuosity expected based on the caliber of players on the frontline. Each is a veteran of the jazz and Latin jazz scene with a lengthy list of top-flight associations.

However talented the sidemen were, it was the frontline that sold the tickets. Harris, in particular, generated excitement; a good mallet player is fun to watch, just because of the physical moves required. For the Boulder concert, he brought along a set of vibes as well as a marimba, configuring them in an "L" shape which allowed him to switch back and forth between them in a flash—or, sometimes, play both at once. He would throw in a little body English for further visual effect. Harris is certainly among the top vibraphonists on the scene today.

Sanchéz brought many musical influences to the table but remained grounded in jazz. He demonstrated his technical chops by occasionally laying down John Coltrane-like sheets of sound, but more often preferred to let his foot off the gas in favor of a more melodic approach. He also wrote two of the songs, "The Forgotten Ones" and the show closing "City Sunrise," which was a true highlight of the evening. The studio version of that song runs a little under seven minutes, but the version Thursday night ran at least three times that. It was one of those pieces that start quietly, but steadily pick up in volume and intensity. The final third of the piece was grounded on a hypnotic yet intense rhythm with the frontline soloing simultaneously.

Payton is the new member of the group, known for a substantially different style to the group's original trumpeter, Scott. Payton works largely (but not always) in a fairly traditional jazz vein, while Scott has demonstrated a tendency, over the last several years, to explore some of the outer reaches of jazz, including melding rap and hip hop. On the other hand, both trumpeters are from New Orleans so, perhaps on that basis, the substitution had some logic to it, especially since New Orleans was one of the first ports of entry of the "Latin tinge" a hundred years ago. As the new man on the frontline, Payton seemed, at times, a bit tentative and when it came time to trade some licks around the frontline, that more often occurred just between Harris and Sanchez. For the most part, however, his ensemble playing was seamless and his solos were intricate and emotional. During his brief turn at the microphone between tunes, Payton acknowledged Colorado's recent passage of a law allowing recreational use of marijuana. He explained that "Ninety miles is the distance between Boulder and Kingston."

A documentary about the Ninety Miles project is underway. From the preview, it appears that the film will focus not just on the music, but also life in Cuba—which looks, in part, like a museum for 1950s American cars due to the trade embargo. Despite that deprivation, it's obvious from the music in the Macky Auditorium, that the Cuban spirit continues to thrive.

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