Tag Archives: Yosvany Terry

That Irrepressible Cuban Creativity

The creativity of Cuban performance artists was on full display this past month in New York City. I attended two concerts/performances that left me shaking my head from the sheer amazement of what Cubans are capable of achieving on a stage. And I mean not only on a stage in New York City, but also on the world’s cultural stage.

In my Cuba courses I have always tried to balance my coverage of political history with an appreciation of cultural expressions. To focus exclusively on the former is to dwell on the dismal, but the latter is a story of extraordinary achievement, not just now, but always. I tell my students that if there is ever a final judgment day for the world’s cultures, the Cubans could never claim, say, contributions to better governance. But my people would be at the front of the line of those claiming to have made world-class contributions to the performing arts, especially music. That engagement on the world’s stage, dating back to the nineteenth century, continues undiminished to this day. It’s a hell of a run.

Anyone who thinks that I am just being the usual hyperbolic –exagerado – ethnocentric Cuban did not attend the two events I attended in New York City in the past few weeks. Those were not quaint folkloric performances. They were performances that, in a uniquely Cuban way, push the envelope in the universal genres of jazz and modern dance.

May 16, Friday, the stage of the Appel (née Allen) Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center was the site for a gathering of five virtuosos that had not previously played together as a group. With Columbus Circle, 57th Avenue, and Central Park as the

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backdrop in that beautifully designed hall, the mostly Cuban group delivered an original set of ten compositions by the performers under the title “Nuevo Jazz Latino.” All the Cubans in the quintet started their careers in the island’s musical institutions and arrived in the U.S. in the late 1990s: Yosvany Terry, saxophone (Camagüey); Dafnis Prieto, drums (Santa Clara, see my previous blog on Dafnis); Elio Villafranca, piano (Pinar del Río); and Pedrito Martínez, percussion (La Habana). The fifth performer was Carlos Henríquez, acoustic and electric bass (Nuyorican, born in the Bronx).

Dafnis Prieto
Dafnis Prieto
Pedrito Martínez

Pedrito Martinez

 

 

Each musician contributed two of his own compositions for the concert. It was a varied and intense concert, played without an intermission and with a minimum of interruptions. The ten pieces collectively represent a milestone in Latin Jazz, pushing the boundaries of the genre in different directions. There was not a weak spot, but I especially liked the opening “Back and Forth” by Dafnis; “Keep Talking,” by Martínez, based on an African canto; the danzón-inspired “Tula’s Dream,” by Henríquez; and Terry’s “El Noticiero,” the finale.  It was in that final number that the group was joined on stage by Eladio (“Don Pancho”) Terry, Yosvany’s father, violinist, legendary leader of a charanga orchestra in Cuba, and perhaps best known as a master of the chekeré, which he brought with him in a case and played it throughout “El Noticiero” with great gusto.

It was an evening that ended triumphantly with a standing ovation. Too bad the New York Times’ reviewer Jon Pareles left the hall after the performance by the New Jazz Standards Quintet at the Appel Room earlier that same evening. In his review of that performance, Mr. Pareles noted that “the [New Jazz Standards] quintet is an all-star group of composers whose daunting task was to come up with 21st-century jazz standards.”  Had he stuck around for Nuevo Jazz Latino, he might have heard (and reviewed) another all-star quintet of composers and performers whose work may well become part of the new jazz “standards” of this century.

Another New York Times reviewer, however, did attend a performance of MalPaso, a dance company from Cuba, who performed, in their first tour outside of Cuba, at the intimate Joyce Theater in Chelsea from May 27th to June 1st. Liza and I went on the last day’s matinee performance and found it truly electrifying. The New York Times reviewer, Siobhan Burke, heaped praise on it: “It’s impossible to choose favorites among the dancers, many of whom studied at Cuba’s National Ballet School. They have the pristine technique but none of the

MalPaso4

rigidity that comes with that kind of training, as comfortable on the ground — in coiling, capoeiralike flips and tricks — as they are in the air. They’re both humble and sparklingly present — and remarkably strong all around, with the men and women doing equal lifting.”

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The company was founded by Osnel Delgado Wambrug and Dailé Carrazana González, two gifted dancers and choreographers who are joined on the stage by six other equally talented dancers. The program featured two pieces, divided by an intermission. The first was “24 horas y un perro” and the second “Por qué sigues.”  Liza liked the second one, an energetic piece with African musical motifs and movements derived from Yoruba folk dancing. But I preferred

malpaso3

the first one largely because it had live music, composed and arranged for the piece by Arturo O’Farrill and performed right next to the stage by O’Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble. Besides, I really liked the “dog” theme, chronicling an eventful day using a canine allegory.  I know literally where they’re coming from: after visiting Havana many times, I have developed a little theory about the behavior of street dogs in that city. But that’s for another blog post . . .

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Even the dogs are creative . . . 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.