By Don Macica
I have to admit, I have a little bit of a bias against anything billed as “the next big thing”. Whenever I start hearing a lot about a new artist on the scene, I tend to think of it as a sort of group think phenomenon – “OK, everybody, let’s get on the bandwagon so we appear hip and in the know.”
That’s what was floating somewhere in the back of my mind as I entered City Winery to see the Pedrito Martinez Group, a skepticism that demanded they live up to the hype.
Boy, did they ever. Consider my mind fully blown.
First off, there’s a reason why it’s called the Pedrito Martinez Group. The quartet, as musicians, are incredibly talented, but it’s what they create together as a unit that is special. Yes, they are led by master rumbero Pedrito Martinez, but a percussionist of his caliber could easily make his mark in the world as a Cuban music traditionalist, leading a band of other traditionalists, carrying the banner of Cuban rumba forward while hewing to a well traveled path.
Instead, he’s picked three young firebrands and jumped on a superhighway to the future.
Every song induces a certain pleasurable form of whiplash on the audience as it takes almost hip-hop like jump cuts in and out of melody, rhythm and ideas. Electric bassist Alvaro Benavides, in his Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, blends jazz, funk and rock into constantly shifting rhythmic patterns, first supporting, then leading, then playing counterpoint, all in the space of mere seconds. Percussionist Jhair Sala was mentored by Martinez himself, and the gifted student is practically in a mind meld with his maestro. Most remarkable of all is keyboardist and vocalist Ariacne Trujillo. From La Habana, she is clearly a product of Cuban conservatory training, and her piano contributions borrow heavily from romantic classical music. Still, you barely have time to recognize the quote before she’s off on another idea.
One of my favorite things about Afro-Cuban based music is the son montuno piano runs. Trujillo’s constantly bubble under the music, but she most definitely doesn’t fall back on familiar patterns. Rather, there’s a constant tinkering that can come out sounding like Scott Joplin or Jelly Roll Morton, and it’s a startling effect when mixed with Benavides’ funk and the interlocking percussion of Martinez and Sala.
Did I mention she’s a vocalist as well? One with an incredibly powerful voice? She sings lead a lot, but like all the other musical ideas being thrown around, it’s a bit here, a bit there, trading verses with Martinez, adding her voice to brief harmonized passages with the rest of the band. The one major exception was an extended solo turn about halfway into the set. She introduced it with a virtuosic piano medley of Gershwin and Rachmaninoff, setting a romantic mood which was elevated to passionate heights through a further medley of beautifully sung boleros.
I almost feel like I’ve not said enough about Martinez himself, so let me rectify that now. He’s all over the three congas set before him, dynamically altering the intensity throughout a song while directing the group. He also sits astride a cajon, which he uses liberally, sounding like the world’s largest kick drum, adding a wallop to high intensity passages. At one point Benavides leaned in to say “now we’re going to get…” and I wasn’t sure if he said “funky” or “folky”. It was the latter, as Martinez temporarily left the congas for an exquisite and very traditional solo turn on a batá array set back on the stage a bit.
Martinez sings, too, with the timbre, tone and phrasing of the best soneros. However, said soneros don’t usually have to do anything more challenging with their hands than hold a microphone, while Martinez continues his amazing rhythmic attack, almost as though the voice and hands belonged to two different people.
The New York Times has called the group’s music a “complex, blenderized Africa-to-the-New-World funk.” I enjoyed that phrase before the show, but I understand it now. A shape-shifting R&B medley that included Busta Rhymes’ “Baby If You Give it to Me” and Kelis’ “Milkshake” was followed by the romantic piano/bolero medley described above, and then the blender was turned on high when a local Ghanaian djembe player joined them for an extended Cuban-African dialog.
Like I said, pleasurable whiplash.
About the author: Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.