What's Going On In Cuba?

Nick Catalano By

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As most jazzophiles know, in 1947 Dizzy Gillespie decided to go to Cuba. Having presided over the bebop revolution with Charlie Parker, Dizzy was leading his own big band and searching for new jazz pathways. He had long recognized that while jazz had originated in America, the richness of its African polyrhythms had been principally transplanted to Latin America and South America rather than the States during the days of slavery. He was intrigued with the jazz possibilities of the latin rhythms and had heard important recordings coming out of Cuba. In addition, Cuba possessed a rich legacy of classical artists with trumpeter Rafael Mendez leading the way during those years—a fact uppermost in Dizzy's mind.

When he arrived in Havana he immediately fell in love with the rhythmic precocity of the music, bestowed his bebop imprimatur on the leading bands and virtuosi as he sat in on many jam sessions, and virtually kidnapped Chano Pozo so he could enrich his own band with this hypnotic Afro-Cuban polyrhythmic magic. Meanwhile, back in the states, Stan Kenton, Johnny Richards and other progressive jazz pioneers were busy preparing Afro-Cuban recipes for their new recording ideas. Pozo became an instant sensation and paved the way for other latin rhythmists who were suddenly in great demand.

The Castro revolution and subsequent estranged Cuban-American relations may have severed the socio-economic ties between the two nations but, as the last 50 years has shown, it did not deter Cuban musical development. Indeed, during the intervening decades since the Batista regime was toppled, Cuba has continued to unveil an important musical agenda and has generated a brilliant new generation of jazz artists.

I have always been intrigued at the continuing parade of Cubans who arrive on the New York scene and instantly turn the heads of audiences and reviewers. It was during a performance of the new Michel Camilo trio a few months ago that I came across drummer Dafnis Prieto and began to reflect on the extraordinary legacy of Cuban musicians through the years. Prieto's technique and stylistic singularity has impressed not only myself but countless other musicians and jazz folk. His recording datebook has overflowed as of late—his drumming can be heard on several new CD's and he has recorded under his own name. His credentials seem to typify those of so many Cuban musicians who come here and are quite substantial. A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, he studied at its School of Fine Arts as a youngster and then matriculated at the National School of Music in Havana. If Prieto's situation is any indication, it is obvious that music education in Cuba has continued to flourish during the Castro years.

Of course, when one writes of the presence of outstanding Cuban jazzers the names of Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval immediately leap to the fore. Upon his arrival in the early 80's D'Rivera's wildly hot alto saxophone instantly enraptured jazz fans and he was in immediate demand with leaders, club owners, and record producers chasing him everywhere. But as the years have progressed, it has become clear that D'Rivera's interests lay far beyond entertaining jazz mainstreamers with cascades of notes in rapid fire tempos. His recent work with the a Pan-American nonet at Lincoln Center (reviewed in this column) typifies his classical influences. As the years have gone by, D'Rivera has steadily unveiled the full canvas of his talent ''" and coincidentally had many observers wondering what forces in Castro's Cuba had conspired to breed such talent.

Arturo Sandoval has replicated the D'Rivera phenomenon and gone beyond. Born in Artemisia, a small town in the outskirts of Havana in 1949, Sandoval began studying classical trumpet in the context of the aforementioned Cuban educational system. He rocketed to stardom when he worked with Dizzy Gillespie, obtained political asylum in the U.S., and composed the Emmy-winning score for his HBO film biography—all a couple of years in the early 90's. He has four grammys and six Billboard awards and spans the musical spectrum from jazz to classical. The talent he exhibits in a club performance ( outstanding trumpet and piano improvisations interspersed with truly prescient scatting) are equaled by important recording triumphs. The latest Rhumba Palace on Telarc is a scholarly retrospective of the Cuban musical world. The CD features nine new Sandoval compositions exploring various forms and ushers new Cuban musicians onto the scene: percussionist Tomas Cruz, keyboardist Antonio Perez, bassist Armando Gola and drummer Alexis Arce. The album once again showcases Sandoval's soaring range and his flashy technique but it is the performance of legendary Cuban dance traditions and the exploration of rich Afro-Cuban polyrhythmic heritage that provide unique highlights.

These brief references suggest that some revisionist aesthetic inquiries need to be made into the music of Castro's Cuba. Politics has certainly beclouded the situation.

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