Manuel Valera & The New Cuban Express

by Julian Gerstin

Julian Gerstin, Ph.D. is an ethnomusicologist and percussionist specializing in music of Africa and the Caribbean. He has taught at Wesleyan University, Clark University, Marlboro College, and Keene State College. At the Vermont Jazz Center, Julian co-leads the Latin Jazz Ensemble with Eugene Uman, runs an ensemble in the Summer Jazz Workshop, and serves on the Grants Committee and as President of the Board. Julian Gerstin’s percussive explorations have led him from the folk traditions of Ghana and Cuba to popular music from Nigeria to Brazil, as well as jazz styles from New Orleans brass bands to avant-garde experimentalism. He currently appears with the Caribbean/Mideastern jazz group As Yet Quintet, Afrocuban dance ensemble Grupo Palo Santo, cajun band Lil’ Orphans (on washboard!), Brattleboro’s Brass Band Project, and accompanies the Brattleboro Women’s Chorus, River Singers, and others. Julian’s scholarly interests took him to Martinique in 1993-95 and his articles on Martinican music traditions have appeared in several journals and books.

Manuel Valera, piano and keyboards, Joel Frahm, saxophones, John Benitez, bass, Joel, Mateo, drum set, Mauricio Herrera, congas.

In the mid-1980s and 1990s many jazz critics and fans were worried about the future. Where was the music going? What was left to discover? Like twelve-tone music in the classical field, free jazz seemed to have taken things as far as they could go conceptually, and lost the popular audience. That audience had flocked to jazz fusion for awhile, but many critics and serious fans hated the style. Wynton Marsalis and his crowd had reacted against both free jazz and fusion with “neo-conservatism,” reaching back to the glories of swing and bebop to create a postmodern pastiche. Marsalis’s music always sounded honest, his own, but it did not lead many other musicians towards new directions. A couple of other populist reactions hovered at the edges for a few years: the swing revival, and acid jazz. Neither lived up to its hype.

I don’t want to say “we needn’t have worried,” because of course we should worry about jazz’s health. But it turns out there was a major new direction. In the 1990s it was still behind the scenes, invisible but growing, gathering force and numbers. By the 2000s it began to bloom, and now it is all around us, and unmistakeable. Jazz has achieved a new level of cross-fertilization with numerous other traditions from around the world. The result is high-quality, vibrant, imaginative. Because it draws deeply on many sources, it is highly varied, which also makes it hard to name. “The new generation of cross-fertilized jazz” seems as good a label as any.(1)

Where did it come from? The new generation of cross-fertilized jazz is doubtless linked to schools like Berklee and New England Conservatory, where jazz protegees gather from all over the globe. Looking at the personnel lists on many new recordings, the close-knit relationships nurtured by these schools are clear. There must also have been increased jazz teaching in many of these students’ home countries. The trend is probably also linked to technology, the ease with which people all over the world can listen to each other nowadays.

In reality, jazz has been a world music since its beginning. Born in the African American community, jazz was never contained there. It swept white U.S. audiences immediately, and that’s only part of the story. In 1922–just a couple of years after the first recordings labeled “jazz” appeared–journalist Burnet Hershey shipped westward from San Francisco and found jazz already everywhere: Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, India, Egypt; and then on to Paris and London where he already knew he’d be hearing copy bands. The story of European jazz is well-known: Django and Grappelli; African American players relocating to Paris to escape segregation in the U.S.; anti-Nazi youth during World War II gathering in clandestine swing clubs in Paris and Berlin. During the Soviet years jazz became a style of resistance in Eastern Europe and Russia; the rock band Plastic People of the Universe, whose concerts sparked the movement that overthrew the Soviets in Czechoslovakia, featured free jazz saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec.

In some places, the early local version of what was called “jazz” probably wasn’t something U.S. fans would have recognized. Often the term simply meant “modernity” and was applied to any urban dance band, even if what it played was basically local music transposed to saxophone, trumpets and drum set. In Africa, for instance, many highlife and soukous bands called themselves “jazz”–Franco & TPOK Jazz, Bembaya Jazz, Ryco Jazz, and so on.

In other places the meaning of “jazz” went deeper. To Soviet-bloc youth the name signified the individual freedom of self-expression encapsulated in jazz improvisation. In South Africa, jazz musicians identified with the Harlem Renaissance, later the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Black South African musicians of the 1940s and 50s first mastered swing and bebop, then a new generation in the 60s and 70s–Abdullah Ibrahim, Dudu Pukwana, Phillip Thabane, Chris McGregor–developed more integral fusions of local and U.S. sounds.

The South African story is a good example of the general trend. Creating really viable fusions between two very different styles seems to take a couple of generations. The first generation’s efforts, while exciting, in retrospect tend to sound kind of clunky. A case in point: compare Indian-jazz fusion of the 1970s–John McLaughlin, notably–with contemporary music by Vijay Iyer or Rudresh Mahanthappa. McLaughlin still sounds great because he and his collaborators were killer musicians. But the seams stitching together the music are more obvious. The music isn’t as much itself. The new crossings seem more effortless, richer and subtler.(2)

On to Manuel Valera. After European gypsy jazz, so-called Latin jazz was the next major jazz cross-fertilization.(3) Its main source was New York City, where thousands of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican immigrants in Spanish Harlem rubbed elbows with black Americans in Harlem. The 1950s mambo jazz of Machito and Mario Bauza remains great music, a real blend of styles–Cuban rhythm section with big band bebop. But very quickly a pattern was set: bebop blowing over rhythm patterns drawn straight from Cuban dance styles, and mainly the same relatively few styles: son montuno and uptempo mambo, the occasional bembe (a 12/8 groove). Brazilian bossa nova, pioneered in the early 1960s, became, in the hands of too many jazz bands, a rhythmically boring vehicle for pretty ballads with a dusting of exoticism.

When great musicians perform these styles they still kick ass–we’ve heard this in recent seasons at the VJC from Chuchito Valdez and Ray Vega, among others. But the new generation has pushed the boundaries a lot further. For one thing, many new bandleaders and composers come from countries other than Cuba and Brazil, and have explored their own traditions’ forms and rhythms. VJC concerts by Miguel Zenon from Puerto Rico and Gabriel Alegria from Peru are top-ranking examples; I’d also recommend Argentinian Guillermo Klein.(4)

For another thing, new composers from Cuba and Brazil are investigating new sources. At last night’s concert I heard more than one audience member remark, “That wasn’t what I expected from Latin jazz.” I believe the main reason is that Valera’s sources are Cuban, but are mainly not son montuno and mambo. Several of his tunes were based in timba, a contemporary dance style that features electric bass and drum set, which give it a funk vibe. Timba uses busy, slippery rhythms, and its unfamiliarity to U.S. audiences probably provokes reactions similar to what mambo produced in the 1950s: the beat’s there but you can’t find it, it’s wild and exciting. “The New Cuban Express” is an apt name for this sound.

The band was well-chosen to play this style. Bassist John Benitez is like a huge rock on the seashore, smiling serenely while waves of piano and percussion crash around him. Then he moves subtly and creatively, and the whole ocean shifts with him. Joel Mateo, on drum set, is both rock and wave. That is, he demonstrates the polyrhythmic dexterity required of today’s drummers, plunking out steady beats (usually fast eighth notes with his left foot, on high hat) while swooping all around them with his other three limbs. Conguero Mauricio Herrera was almost all wave. Comping like a pianist, he played off the melody and the soloists, with only occasional allusions to the slippery timba groove. Solos by all three men in the rhythm section were both imaginative and powerful.

The melodic burden was carried by Valera on piano and Joel Frahm on tenor and soprano saxes. For the bebop-minded, Valera throws in plenty of changes, even if the main focus of his music remains its rhythm. Valera’s playing has dazzling speed yet every note rings clear, the melody never fuzzy. Frahm is funny. He’s so straight looking (clean-shaven, short hair, chunky build) he practically screams “White Guy!” Then he starts wailing, and it’s bluesy postbop soul through and through.

Apart from timba, other compositions in Valera’s set included whiffs of danz√≥n (a gentle older style), and there was a lovely waltz written for his daughter, which the rhythm section sometimes shifted into bembe. There were also a couple of songs in odd meters: one song was in five with a coda in seven; another in thirteen. Odd meters are big in the new cross-fertilized jazz, and one wonders how did so so many musicians become so comfortable playing in seven or thirteen. Is this the Berklee effect? Again, the new generation has surpassed its elders. Often, when 1970s bands played odd meters they set up unison ostinato riffs and hung on tight. Today’s musicians play fluidly and flexibly.

Which brings me, finally, to a few musical tendencies in the new cross-fertilized jazz. It tends to be complex, musically dense, because it combines so many ideas. At the same time it is often populist, with driving grooves and lots of energy. Its sophisticated ideas–exotic modes, advanced harmonies, polyrhythms, odd meters–come across as effortless. Above all, the fusions are deeper, richer and subtler than in previous generations. I can’t be much more specific, because the styles are enormously diverse–as they should be, since they are incorporating so many very different concepts from far-flung musical traditions.

The musical direction I’ve sketched here, cross-fertilization with many traditions, is clearly a major part of jazz’s future. But it is not jazz’s only future. Other paths will emerge and we can’t know what they’ll be. The next time jazz seems gripped in the doldrums for ten or more years, we should try to remember that. As Claude Levi-Strauss says at the end of Tristes Tropiques, “The darkness in which we grope our way is too intense for us to hazard any comment on it: We cannot even say that it will last forever.”

(1) I hate the term “world jazz,” which, like “world music,” throws everything that’s not U.S. jazz or U.S. pop into one box–as if there is a style out there called “world”–instead of recognizing our planet’s thousands of distinctive musical styles for what they are. “Thousands” is not an exaggeration.

(2) My two-generation model is of course oversimplified, and the story in any one place is far more complex. For instance, in the field of Indian jazz, Trilok Gurtu surfaced midway between the 1970s generation and today’s crop, and makes a mess of any neat chronology. In New York City, in retrospect some highly visible artists during the doldrums of the 1990s presaged the current movement, people like Steve Coleman and John Zorn, both of whom worked with non-U.S. sounds. But at the time they seemed like genius mavericks; we couldn’t have known then what they portended.

(3) What people call “Latin jazz” is mainly the Afrocuban fusion pioneered by the mambo bands, plus Brazilian bossa nova. There are dozens of other countries in South America and the Caribbean, but their jazz musicians have mainly stayed in the Cuban/Brazilian vein, until the current crop of young innovators. Again, the story is more complex than we can get into here. For instance Gato Barbieri represents an older generation musician rooted in Argentina rather than Cuba or Brazil; Hermeto Pascoal, a Brazilian, based his music on choro rather than bossa nova or samba.

(4) Locally, Eugene explores Colombian styles in his Convergence Project, I work with Martinican music in Look Out Brass Band, and Eugene and I collaborate with these and Balkan music in As Yet Quintet.