Intercambio: Orbert Davis and Cuban cultural diplomacy

group color & crop
photo by Zoe Davis

By Don Macica.

In October of 2012, jazz trumpeter and Chicago Jazz Philharmonic founder/leader Orbert Davis traveled to Havana, Cuba to do research for a project he was creating with Frank Chaves of the River North Dance Company. A year later, the product of this research became one of the best multi-discipline concerts of 2013: Havana Blue.

Research, however, was only part of the reason for Davis’s visit. There were both personal and musical goals as well, and they were not unrelated. Davis, an African-American, was also seeking to learn more about another branch of the African Diaspora in the Cuba as a way to better connect with his own African heritage. The musician in him, inspired by the jazz that emerged as perhaps the signature cultural contribution of Africans in North America, wanted to get to know firsthand the African-rooted music of Cuba and the people who made it.

One of the places that Davis visited on the trip was one of the country’s top performing arts schools, the Universidad de las Artes (ISA), “akin to our Julliard” as Davis puts it. Students here are trained to be classical musicians – there is little jazz instruction. Thoroughly impressed by the student’s sheer talent and quick adaptability to jazz improvisation, Davis vowed to return, which he did in December 2014, with members of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, to perform a with the students at the Havana Jazz Festival.

‘Timing is everything’, for a jazz musician, is sort of insider talk about the importance of rhythm. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Of course, it also applies in general use to more or less mean being at the right place at the right time. For Davis and his CJP cohorts, it meant being in Cuba and working closely with the students and faculty of ISA on the historic day when Presidents Obama and Castro announced their mutual intention to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba after over half a century of recrimination and hostility.

At the Havana Jazz Festival, the young students “became” the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with the help of workshops and master classes from Davis and other CJP members including Steve Eisen, Ernie Adams, Leandro Lopez-Varady and Stewart Miller. The concert was a huge success, and almost immediately upon returning home, Davis & company went about the work of bringing the students to Chicago to help perform a new Davis composition, Scenes From Life: Cuba!, which will have its premiere on Friday, November 13 at the Auditorium Theatre.

12105928_10206832740169704_2507724450622166353_n
Leandro Lopez-Varady with ISA student Beatriz Arias – photo by Zoe Davis

One of the students, 17 year old violinist Beatriz Arias, said this when asked why she gave up her Christmas holiday to be in the project: “My motivation was to exchange with different countries, play and learn about jazz and other popular music besides classical,” adding “I didn’t learn improvising at school. It was mainly from my father who plays the tres, so he was like my school for improvisation. But I’ve never done this before. It was all an inspiration in the moment.”

It says something about both the Cuban educational system and the Cuban soul that someone so young who had never played jazz could hang and improvise with these top shelf jazz musicians and shine.

According to Orbert, it was a quality shared by all the students. He attributes this to the Cuban experience and sensibility. “We invited a pair of traditional Cuban drummers to work and later perform with the students. They began by discussing and demonstrating a rumba rhythm. It quickly turned into a jam session with the students singing and dancing. All of the kids knew the chant, they knew the song. They didn’t learn that in school. It was part of who they are at home.”

Davis goes on to praise the educational system. “We tend to think of Cuba as the third world. They’re poor, they need our help… I’ve been in music education a very long time, but there were two things there that I never experienced before. First, the teachers and administration give the students everything they need and want.” The second thing relates to the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic itself. “CJP is a third stream orchestra: 100% jazz, 100% classical. Many of our string musicians come from a strictly classical background, and there is a process of training and adaptation for them to understand jazz. What was astonishing in Cuba was that these classically trained musicians adapted to swing and improvisation so quickly. It was phenomenal what these kids were playing in just a few days. You’d never in a million years think that it was all brand new to them. They are truly third stream musicians.”

Davis will, in a sense, use these young students as teachers and vice-versa in the upcoming CJP concert. “The string section seating will alternate: American, Cuban, American, Cuban… Whatever we do will rub off on them, and whatever they do will rub off on us.”

This concert, like the 2014 trip that preceded it, will truly be an intercambio, a cultural exchange in which both parties will have much to give and receive. Orbert Davis alludes to this near the end of our conversation.

“These students are the future, and we want them to know what this new relationship is about. It’s not about when American companies get down to Cuba and make all this money. There’s some anxiety in Cuba about change, a sense of being conquered again, but this time by money. But for us, it’s about people; it’s about sharing what’s most important. The students will go home knowing this.”

Friday’s concert will be preceded by nearly a week of rehearsals, but it won’t be all work. In all, 36 Cubans are coming, including the president of the University, and there will be time to visit cultural institutions like the DuSable Museum of African American History and the National Museum of Mexican Art. They’ll also partake in that Chicago culinary institution, deep dish pizza. They will go home knowing the best of Chicago. Native Chicagoan that I am, I feel that they’ll experience the best this country has to offer. Judging from what Orbert Davis says, we’ll get to experience the best of what Cuba has to offer us.

Sounds like a good deal to me.

Scenes from Life: Cuba! Chicago Jazz Philharmonic with special guests from the Universidad de las Artes. Auditorium Theatre, Friday, November 13, 7:30pm. Tickets at auditoriumtheatre.org.

 

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

Review: Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, Intercambio

By Don Macica

wwljq_promo_site

The landscape of Latin jazz is, of course, an ever evolving one. The current crop of jazz artists that are the acknowledged as among the best, such as Miguel Zenón, David Sánchez and Danilo Pérez, shy away from labeling their music, preferring instead to cite their Latin American heritage as a means of informing a highly individual approach to the art of jazz, capturing the soul of what it means to be Panamanian or Puerto Rican rather than building their compositions around standard, recognizable forms. Even in Chicago, the Dominican violinist James Sanders, who has led a very good Latin jazz ensemble for nearly 15 years, prefers these days to integrate Afro-Caribbean essence into a totally improvisational approach, forsaking charts for an open ended conversation.

It’s refreshing, therefore, that the San Francisco based trombonist Wayne Wallace so warmly embraces the term, putting it right there in the name of his ensemble. And maybe that’s because he’s African-American, not Latino, and thus free to explore a sound and style without the added significance of it being his heritage. However, saying that Wallace plays Latin jazz is not to say he is being conservative. Quite the contrary.

Wallace is no newcomer. He was a founding member and co-musical director of John Santos’ Machete Ensemble, and before that he worked with Conjunto Cespedes, a Bay Area folkloric ensemble, and before that he played with Pete Escovedo. In addition to being a player in the Bay Area Latin scene, he’s also a bit of a proponent and documentarian. His created the record label that he records for, and it recently released two terrific Salsa de la Bahia compilations featuring the cream of the local scene, with a companion film in the works.

For Wallace, Latin jazz is still a music of discovery, one in which he can be both a teacher and disciple. His approach is anchored in that jazz process in which one listens, learns and creates anew. His new recording, Intercambio (Patois Records), is founded on the idea of cultural exchange. In this context, jazz has as much to give to Caribbean folkloric music as the other way around. While firmly committed to the idea and forms of Latin jazz, Wallace still remains an explorer. There are several moments on the album that coax a smile out of the listener by doing the unexpected.

Four of Intercambio’s ten tracks are Wallace originals, and the balance is drawn from jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and fellow trombonist J.J. Johnson. By and large the album smolders, the Latin rhythms underpinning arrangements that feature Wallace’s beautiful and buttery tone. Three tracks are reminiscent of Kind of Blue-era Miles, with Wallace’s trombone gliding over the shifting rhythms.

Rhythmically, the albums ports of call go beyond San Juan and Havana to also include Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Trinidad. There are a couple of burners, led off by the first track, the Wallace original Casa del Sol, which is dedicated to Eddie Palmieri. On this song, the quintet is expanded to 7 pieces to include violin and flute, referencing Palmieri’s legendary La Perfecta ensemble. Another Wallace original, Guarachando, kicks into high gear with a comparsa carnival rhythm, throws in steel drums for good measure, then brings back the flute and violin to trade fours in its mid-section before they all come together, only to be followed by a hot solo from Wallace himself.

 

The two remaining Wallace originals are quite nice as well. Como Vai alternates cha-cha-cha and samba rhythms in a way that brings to mind a pair of Stevie Wonder classics, You’ve Got It Bad Girl and Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing. Finally, Timbázo is built for grooving, funky trombones in conversation with the rhythm section, colored once again by Trinidadian steel drums, which return yet a third time on Dizzy Gillespie’s Woody n’ You along with a pronounced bomba feel.

John Coltrane’s Equinox is the standout among the covers, building off of Trane’s exploration of African roots with batá drums and güiro. The Hoagy Carmichael standard Heart and Soul is given a smooth salsa treatment that would satisfy any dancer while leaving room for some nice soloing and ensemble playing, especially when Wallace overdubs his trombone into a 4-piece section a la Manny Oquendo y Conjunto Libre.

Mile Davis provides the thematic centerpiece of the album with Solar, reimagined into En el Solar de Miles by Wallace, tying together Miles’ interest in African culture to the Cuban solares, Cuban fraternal organizations formed during slavery to maintain African cultural practices. Another Davis composition, Circle, closes the album, a moody number enhanced by a string quartet and featuring some of Wallace’s lovliest playing.

As noted earlier, Wayne Wallace is no conservative, despite working in a genre that’s been around for nearly 75 years. Intercambio gently but firmly moves Latin jazz forward. That’s no easy thing, but it is an essential one to a good jazz musician. In doing so, Wallace demonstrates that there is much still to be found inside of Latin jazz.

Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, Intercambio.
Patois Records, available July 7

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.