Tag Archives: Cuban Jazz

A Certified Genius at the Drums

Many years ago during a weekend trip to Miami from Gainesville, Florida, where I had just started graduate school at UF, I dropped by the Librería Universal, Juan Manuel Salvat’s venerable Spanish-language bookstore in Little Havana. It was a Saturday, the day of the week when La Universal was always crowded with patrons hanging out among the books with the expectation of getting drawn into a more or less intellectual discussion about Cuba, about literature, or just about any other topic that promised some lively banter.

That day Salvat introduced me to several in the Saturday crowd as a “young sociologist.” One of the regulars, an elderly Cuban intellectual of some renown, who always graced La Universal’s Saturday gatherings with his impeccable attire, elegant diction, and sharp wit, immediately came up to me with a faux look of wonder in his eyes and forcefully shook my hand. “It is such a pleasure to meet you, joven,” he said, “in my long life I have met many Cuban poets, Cuban lawyers and doctors, Cuban peloteros and bongoceros, politicians, boxers, and dominoes players, but I have never met a Cuban sociologist.”

No doubt he was putting me on more than a bit, but I thought about that gentleman when our friend Marilú Menéndez suggested that we go with her and Monty (her friend and ours) to the Jazz Standard last Tuesday to catch a performance by Dafnis Prieto and his Proverb Trio. I jumped at her suggestion: it was an opportunity to meet a rare type of Cuban, far more unique than a sociologist. You see, Dafnis is a certified Cuban genius, the winner of a 2011 MacArthur Fellowship, informally known as “genius” awards. Imagine that: a certified Cuban genius, unlike almost all other Cubans, who are, of course, self-proclaimed geniuses. And how appropriate is it for a Cuban to win one of those awards by playing drums, a foundational instrument in Cuban music?

But Dafnis is not a typical Cuban percussionist. He is neither a bongocero nor a congocero, but a two-stick percussionist on a standard drum set, a baterista. His bio on the MacArthur website tells us that Dafnis is a “percussionist whose dazzling technical abilities electrify audiences and whose rhythmically

adventurous compositions combine a range of musical vocabularies. A classically trained musician who absorbed from an early age the multifaceted percussive traditions of his native Cuba . . .” Born in Santa Clara and now in his late thirties, Dafnis studied at the Escuela Nacional de Música in Havana before coming to New York in 1999.  He is yet another (and perhaps foremost) example of how the New York jazz scene has been enriched by the arrival of musical talent from Cuba.

The Jazz Standard in the Gramercy area (116 East 27th Street, between Park and Lex) occupies the basement of Blue Smoke, the regionally eclectic barbeque restaurant where the Chef de Cuisine is Eddie Montalvo, a Jersey native of Colombian ancestry.  The restaurant and jazz club share the kitchen, so you can order the restaurant’s full menu at the club. But since we had reservations for the late (9:30 p.m.) set, we decided to eat first at the restaurant, especially since Marilú believes it is discourteous to the musicians to munch on ribs while they are playing beautiful music. OK, that makes sense.

So after what turned out to be a very substantial meal we headed downstairs for jazz and drinks. The Jazz Standard has to be one of the most comfortable, yet cozy, jazz venues in the city. The tables are not crowded together and they are on different levels so that everyone has a good view of the stage. The piano was covered with a cloth and pushed aside; the Dafnis Prieto Proverb Trio did not need it.  Jason Lindner plays electronic keyboards, Dafnis, of course, plays his sprawling drum set (was that a skillet

hanging on his right?), and Kokayi, well, Kokayi plays his vocal chords.

The trio also does not need music stands. No sheet music anywhere on the stage. The group’s trademark is true improvisation, something Dafnis emphasized each time he spoke to the audience to introduce the next number, inviting it to go along with the adventure: “you don’t know what’s going to happen, and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Jason Lindner, Dafnis Prieto, and Kokayi

But it all comes together masterfully. This trio may not be reading music, but they have great rapport and seem to feed off each other’s creativity.  When they really get into a groove, you can tell they can feel it, and the audience also feels it. The trio is a perfect vehicle for the display of Dafnis’ talents as he uses the drums to weave a wide and complex tapestry of rhythms and even melodies. I don’t think I have ever heard drums played with such versatility. But his colleagues are not in the background. Lindner uses the full range of his keyboards’ capabilities to create evocative and exotic compositions that usually set the table for each number. Kokayi is a virtuoso of song, a veritable master of jazz/rap/funk, all rolled into one. He infused each number with incredible energy. The “tweet” piece, as Monty called it, was extraordinary.

The performances at Jazz Standard this past week marked the release of the trio’s new CD, which Dafnis’ companion, Ivet, was cheerfully selling at the door. I bought one and have played it now countless times. Dan Bilawsky, in his review of the CD characterizes it as a “triumphantly trippy album that’s built around the notion of jazz as a collectively improvised modern melting pot.”

Dafnis has a very comprehensive website with tracks from his CDs, including the new one, videos, biography, etc. It’s worth a click.

After the performance, Dafnis stopped by our table to greet Marilú whom he knows well. She said I should interview him for my blog, but I said that was not necessary; Dafnis had already spoken plenty with his drums.

My next posting will be the long-delayed essay on the credentials of Fr. Félix Varela as the first Cuban New Yorker. Now he was a truly one-of-a-kind Cuban. Sociologists abound. And there is even more than one MacArthur-certified Cuban genius. [I recall that years ago Ruth Behar, a Cuban-born anthropologist at Ann Arbor, also received the “genius” award.] But Varela is apparently on the road to being declared a saint by no less than the sole and ultimate authority: the Vatican. Although most Cubans will tell you their mothers are/were saints (“la vieja es/era una santa”), and many Cuban husbands try to portray themselves to their wives as perfect saints, contrary to all evidence (“no me digas, ¿tu eres un santo, verdad?”), Varela would be the first (and probably last) certified Cuban saint.

Now that would be a true wonder.

Yosvany Terry and Manuel Valera at Drom

Back at Drom for another session of Cuban jazz. The saxophonist Yosvany Terry joined the pianist Manuel Valera and his “New Cuban Express” for the late set on Saturday, June 23rd.

Unlike the June 6th set by Jorge Luis Pacheco (see CNY blog post of June 11), the Drom management did not offer an online deal, which meant that the audience, although a bit sparser, was there strictly for the jazz and not the deal. It also meant that the food was much better. Part of the deal for the Pacheco set was a plate of Cuban food, which, as I noted in the June 11 blog, was best forgotten. For the Terry/Valera gig one had to order a la carte from the menu and that was a good thing.  The Drom Kitchen, after all, does not regularly feature Cuban food. It’s based in the Mediterranean, especially Turkey, and Liza and I were pleasantly surprised. Clubs usually do not have food this good.

The fried calamari were light and crispy and the Mediterranean plate was plentiful, varied, and just the right accompaniment for the drinks. My apologies to the Drum chef for my previous disparaging remarks about the Cuban food. It’s just not what they do. They should stick to what they do best; with the Cuban plate they were, as we say, peleando fuera de peso (fighting outside their weight class). And you don’t have to have Cuban food with Cuban jazz.

The food was much better than the last time, but I can’t say the same about the musical experience. I simply enjoyed the Pacheco session much more: he had vibrant interpretations of many Cuban themes and melodies and his stage presence was engaging and simpático and he gave the audience his all, playing for nearly ninety minutes.  In contrast Terry and the Valera group seemed aloof and mechanical and the management asked them to end the set after only about one hour.

That is not too say it was not worth staying up past my bedtime to hear these guys (and it was way past my bedtime once we got back up to Washington Heights from Alphabet City). Terry is a wonderful and versatile musician and every member of the group was up to his level, virtuosos all (John Benítez on bass, Samuel Torres on congas, Ludwig Afonso on drums, and Tom Guara on guitar, in addition to Valera on piano, of course).

Yosvany Terry on alto sax, Manuel Varela on piano and the rest of the “New Cuban Express” on stage at Drom on June 23rd

The arrangements were flawlessly performed and I especially enjoyed the most distinctive (and yes, “most Cuban”) piece: “Me Faltabas Tú” a bolero by José Antonio Méndez (by the way, is there a bolero that says 1950s Havana more than Méndez’s “La Gloria Eres Tú,” interpreted, of course, by Olga Guillot?).  The last piece (I didn’t get the title) was also very good, perhaps because the congas were finally allowed to come out and punctuate the arrangement.

So it was a worthwhile musical experience, it was just that it was missing a yo no sé qué, an energy, maybe, or a chemistry among the musicians and with the audience. I did not leave that basement exhilarated, as I usually do after a great jazz performance.