Wynton Marsalis Brings In Cuban Musicians Chucho Valdés and Pedrito Martinez this Thursday 18
Bebo Valdes: "The Father of Afro-Cuban Jazz" exhibition from today
'This is all personal. It's about sharing, like you do in a family,' says Wynton Marsalis,
above, about the three-part suite 'Ochas.' Frank Stewart
When Wynton Marsalis brought his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Cuba in 2010, some things felt familiar.
Las Vegas, a cavelike club where Havana locals danced to the rumba group Yoruba Andabo, reminded him of the Glass House, a New Orleans neighborhood bar from his younger days. He saw similarities between Cuban music and American jazz: born of common roots, especially African traditions transplanted via colonial slave trade, and famously intertwined through a century of musical history.
"Ochas," the three-part suite that will open Jazz at Lincoln Center's season on Thursday, might rightly be taken as a grand statement honoring that bond. Or as an experiment in marrying the ritual rhythms and chants of Santería, the West African Yoruba religion as practiced in Cuba, with the musical language of Mr. Marsalis's orchestra.
Mr. Marsalis, who composed the piece in collaboration with the pianist Chucho Valdés and percussionist and singer Pedrito Martinez, sees it in more intimate terms.
"This is all personal," he said in an interview from his Upper West Side home. "It's about sharing, like you do in a family."
Wynton and Chucho
His father, the pianist Ellis Marsalis, introduced him to the music of Mr. Valdés, now 72 years old, a towering presence in Cuban music. With Irakere, the group Mr. Valdés led for nearly 30 years, as with his current band, the pianist did many things, including bringing the batá—the trio of two-headed hourglass-shaped drums essential to Santería—into a modern context informed by both Cuban traditions and jazz.
On the phone from Havana, Mr. Valdés recalled showing up at Mr. Marsalis's home in 1996 with two pages of tumbaos, the melodic and rhythmic loops that ground Afro-Cuban popular music.
"Learn these," he told the trumpeter.
"Chucho has been like another father ever since," said Mr. Marsalis, who is 52.
And a collaborator: For Mr. Marsalis's 2010 Cuban residency, Mr. Valdés composed "New Orleans," in tribute to Mr. Marsalis's hometown.
In New York City, where Mr. Marsalis's life and orchestra are based, Afro-Cuban influence has flowered anew on the jazz scene. Pianist Arturo O'Farrill's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra has expanded the very concept of such connections.
Ritual batá rhythms were central to recent projects led by the American pianist Michele Rosewoman and Cuban saxophonist Yosvany Terry. Both of those bands showcased the percussion and singing of Mr. Martinez, 41, who moved from Cuba to the U.S. in 1998, and whose ongoing residency at a Manhattan Cuban restaurant, Guantanamera, attracts high-profile players from all walks of music. Eric Clapton led Mr. Marsalis there four years ago.
For "Ochas," Mr. Valdés is the spiritual guide, Mr. Marsalis said, and Mr. Martinez is the teacher, demonstrating rhythms and explaining associations. The circle of collaborators includes bassist Carlos Henriquez, from Mr. Marsalis's orchestra, who served as "musical translator," Mr. Marsalis said.
The Cuban musicians augmenting the orchestra will include percussionists Román Díaz, Mr. Martinez's mentor, as well as Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, a standout within Mr. Valdés's group.
With his piece, Mr. Marsalis aims to express "the meaning of the religion as it passes through the sound of the batá drums," he said, and to capture a spiritual essence that has long coursed through jazz.
Technically, there's a steep challenge. "The batá rhythms are complex and specific," said Mr. Martinez. "If the horn section loses that, it will be a mess."
And yet the promise is great. The harmonies Mr. Marsalis has introduced to ritual melodies have "already changed the way I hear them and sing them," he said.
The premiere of "Ochas" reflects a cross-cultural connection taking firmer hold at institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as Mr. Marsalis's sense of familial sharing. The piece owes much to the late pianist Bebo Valdés, Chucho's father, whose legacy is the focus of an exhibit opening Tuesday at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
Via rare recordings, photographs, films, recorded interviews and a Tuesday-night lecture series though Sept. 30, "Bebo Valdés: Giant of Cuban Music," tells an unlikely story of stardom, obscurity and then even greater acclaim. It details the career of a pianist who played on the earliest Cuban jazz recordings, pioneered use of the batá in popular Cuban music, and helped, as one of the exhibit's curators, Ned Sublette, put it, "polyrhythmicize the jazz band."
The exhibit recalls Bebo's collaborations with American musicians as house pianist and arranger during the heyday of Havana's Tropicana nightclub, and how Chucho, then a young child, "learned to play Jelly Roll Morton by listening to my father play ragtime."
It traces blood bonds that course through so much current New York City music, including Mr. Marsalis's piece, and that invigorate any understanding of jazz's story.
—Chucho Valdés, Pedrito Martinez and Wynton Marsalis open Jazz at Lincoln Center's 2014-2015 season on Thursday at Rose Theater (also Friday and Saturday) Broadway at 60th St., jazz.org.
"Bebo Valdés The Father of Afro-Cuban Jazz" opens today (September 16) at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, 104 E. 126th St., Suite 2D;jazzmuseuminharlem.org.