Cuba seems to have an inexhaustible supply of musical talent. Last week in a cavernous basement in Alphabet City, New Yorkers got a chance to see and hear yet another young Cuban jazz virtuoso. Jorge Luis Pacheco made his U.S. debut in Drom, the Avenue A club/bar/restaurant that is quickly becoming a major venue for music clubbers in the Lower East Side with eclectic live “world” music six days a week.
On the Wednesday night that Pacheco took the Drom stage, the house was packed for an early 6:00 pm set (the only one of the night). Most of the patrons, however, were probably there because the house management had placed an offer on an online discount dining site: a jazz concert and a plate of Cuban food for $25 person (plus service charges, drinks not included). It was a smart move. Without a previous U.S. performance and no widely-released CD, Pacheco was not a guaranteed draw.
But the “online couponers” got more than they should’ve expected for their $25. Not in terms of the food, mind you. For a kitchen that normally turns out Mediterranean and Turkish tapas, the plate of Cuban food was a commendable and valiant effort, but ultimately horrific (although Liza pronounced it “not that bad”). Arroz con pollo became a piece of overcooked chicken with rice on the side with what seemed like gandules — not a Cuban staple – mixed in (couldn’t tell: Drom has club lighting), and some salad also on the side. Liza’s plate had two small slices of fried plantain underneath the salad, but my plate had none. She shared. Oh, and some sort of potato-based preparation clinging to the edge of the rice portion.
Never mind the food. Once Jorge Luis Pacheco sat on the piano bench, all was forgiven. He was accompanied by locals Zack O’Farrill (scion of the O’Farrill musical dynasty) on drums and Carlos Mena on bass. That was all: no congas, bongós, claves, güiro, or cow bell. And yet it was unmistakably Cuban jazz, and not primarily because the headliner was Cuban, but because of the evident origins of the melodies interspersed like leitmotifs throughout the improvisations.
There were two original pieces: the closing one, Negrita mía, written by Pacheco to his girlfriend, and a dramatic composition he was commissioned to write for the soundtrack of a Cuban documentary due out this year marking the centenary of the Cuban race war of 1912. His rendering of Drume Negrita, the lullaby famously interpreted by Bola de Nieve, was probably the highlight of the set. Pacheco showed his artistic range when he sang Rafael Hernández’s bolero Silencio in a plaintive tone reminiscent of Bola de Nieve himself. There is much in Pacheco’s style, both in his piano and occasional vocals, that is reminiscent of Bola, something remarkable if you consider the span of time that separates the two artists.
The trio worked remarkably well together, if not always smoothly, considering it must have been cobbled together days – if not hours – before the performance. The crowd was won over not only by Pacheco’s effortless and truly virtuoso playing, but also by his simpático stage presence, especially his self-effacing efforts to overcome his difficulty in communicating with the audience in English.
One is left to wonder why among young Cuban jazz musicians there is an abundance of pianists, following in the footsteps of Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Next Fall, Carnegie Hall, in addition to Chucho, will be featuring two young jazz pianists, Dayramir González and Aldo López-Gavilán in its three-concert Voices from Cuba Series. Check it out, it should be a memorable series.
Let’s hope we see Jorge Luis Pacheco back in New York soon.