Latin Jazz Finds New Voice With Young Players

Puerto Rican saxophonist and composer David Sanchez has explored in his work various Puertorican musical traditions. 

Puerto Rican bomba y plena and American blues. Panamanian mejoranas and good ol’ swing. Venezuelan waltzes and bop harmonies. Latin jazz is truly becoming . . . Pan-Latin.

The genre emerged in the ’40s in the ballrooms of New York, brought to life most notably by Cuban bandleader and saxophonist Mario Bauza, a veteran of the Chick Webb and Cab Calloway bands. As director of Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Bauza smartly grafted jazz melodies, harmonies, and improvisation to Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Since then, by and large, the term Latin jazz has come to mean Cuban jazz, or in a stretch, Brazilian jazz. But now, a young generation of Latin musicians is exploding such narrow notions. Standouts such as Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez, Venezuelan pianist Edward Simon and Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez – along with newcomers such as Puerto Rican trombonist William Cepeda, Argentine guitarist Fernando Tarres and, locally, Venezuelan pianist Silvano Monasterios, are bringing the music styles and rhythms of their native countries into the mix and turning Latin jazz into a truly pan-American sound.

It is the most intriguing development in Latin jazz since its inception.

The music of these young turks is neither the at-times-awkward experiments of their predecessors nor another variation of the lazy jazz-with-congas sort. Instead, their music and playing suggest an organic blend, a reflection of their bilingual, bicultural experience, that illuminates the familiar from unexpected, newly revealing angles.
“I don’t know that in the past there has been a barrier about including all these styles [in Latin jazz],” says Simon, 29, from his home in Philadelphia. “The freedom to do that has always been there, but for one reason or another, Afro-Cuban music was the one that became more popular in this country.
“But now there are more young musicians from different parts of Latin America who know jazz and the music of their own country,” he continues. “I came here very young; I was 12. That’s a great help: to adapt, live both cultures.”
For Sanchez, 30, blending his Puerto Rican heritage into his work as a jazz player and composer was simply “part of growing.”
“You search, you listen, you study styles and ways of playing, and little by little it comes out in your own voice,” Sanchez, who now lives in Brooklyn, said during a visit to his family’s home in Puerto Rico. “People who are only mixing Afro-Cuban stuff [in their music] are getting behind . . . falling back into the formulas of 30, 40 years ago. This is what Mario Bauza, Tito Puente did. That was nice then, but it was just a period.”
Jazz explorations of Latin American styles don’t represent totally uncharted territory.
In the 1970s, Argentine saxophonist Leandro “Gato” Barbieri, who became a pop star with his sultry soundtrack of Last Tango in Paris, explored Argentine folk rhythms and tango in several brilliant but now out-of-print albums. The late Argentine pianist Jorge Dalto, who backed guitarist George Benson, among others, also blended jazz and Argentine music into his work. In the late ’70s, Uruguayan keyboardist Hugo Fattoruso led Opa, a trio whose music drew from Afro-Uruguayan candombe and released two albums on a North American label.
More recently, Dominican pianist Michel Camilo, who has often taken a Pan-Caribbean approach to his music, has experimented with pambiche (a style of the Dominican merengue) in a couple of his pieces.

Gillespie a guiding presence

Curiously, it was the late Dizzy Gillespie, the undisputed non-Latin champion of Latin jazz and musicians, who most consistently embraced a Pan-American approach to Latin jazz. His last great big band, aptly called the United Nation Orchestra, featured at one time or another Perez, Sanchez, Cepeda, and, most importantly, Cuban saxophonist and bandleader Paquito D’Rivera.
D’Rivera, who says his approach predates his stint with Gillespie to his days in Havana, has been the most committed champion of a Pan Latin jazz. Not only have his own groups been a sort of traveling Pan-American society – Perez and Simon were among members of his ensemble – but he has long incorporated styles and rhythms from Brazil, Argentina, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela in his repertoire.
He welcomes what he sees as the Latin-Americanization of Latin jazz.
“There is no other place to go,” he says, suggesting that creatively, the genre had essentially stalled. “That’s something that, to a degree, we initiated, and now other people have picked up on it,” he says. “It was about time.”
Trombonist William Cepeda, a member of the royal family in Puerto Rican traditional music, agrees. “They realize there is too much Cuban music on the street and they need to do something different,” says Cepeda, 33. “It’s hard to innovate in Cuban music, and people are now realizing they might have something of their own.`
Cepeda has led his group, Afro-Rican Jazz, for more than a decade, he says, but only now has anyone become seriously interested: Cepeda’s first album, My Roots and Beyond (Blue Jackel), will be released this week.

Learning the music
Members of this young generation haven’t taken their native musical traditions lightly, D’Rivera points out.
“They have dedicated themselves to study,” he says admiringly. “You don’t have to be Austrian to play Mozart. But you have to pay attention to the music, the styles, do your homework.” Most of the young musicians rediscovered – or, in some cases, simply discovered – the music of their home countries only through the benefit of time and distance.
In his recent La Bikina (Mythology, 1998) Simon offers not only several originals and a fresh reading of the Cuban classic “El Manisero,” but also revisits the title track (actually a Mexican song made popular in Venezuela by singer Gualberto Ibarreto) and “Quinta Anauco,” a ’60s standard by composer Aldemaro Romero. In a previous, self-titled 1995 release, Simon tackles Venezuelan staples including “Alma Llanera.” He tends to deconstruct the songs smartly and elegantly, stretching out phrases until at times they become barely recognizable, reworking the harmonies, slyly playing with tempo and mood.
Not bad for a Venezuelan musician who says that, until coming to the United States, he hadn’t played Venezuelan music.
“I discovered Venezuelan music through Paquito,” says Simon, who was part of the band in the ’80s. “I had never played it, but when I joined Paquito’s band, suddenly I was forced to play these Venezuelan waltzes. I felt a bit embarrassed because I didn’t know anything about them.”
The experience inspired him to take a closer listen.
“It was a natural thing,” he says. “I started to think: Why not do something my way about my own country?”
Sanchez arrived at his brand of fusion through a different path. His brother is a percussionist in a traditional bomba ensemble. He “grew up around percussion,” playing congas beginning at age 8, tagging along to his brother’s performances, and eventually even playing with folkloric groups.
He became interested in the saxophone when he was 12, and soon after, to protect his hands, stopped playing drums.
“Back then, ironically, I was totally into jazz, jazz, jazz,” Sanchez says. “I never imagined I’d be looking back to the different styles of playing bomba or playing plena and how to mix them with mainstream jazz influences.”
When he burst onto the jazz scene as a member of Puerto Rican pianist Eddie Palmieri’s group and Gillespie’s United Nation Band, Sanchez seemed to be yet another talented saxophonist with a rich tone and a soulful, bruising style deeply evocative of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Joe Henderson.

Developing a personal sound
But Sanchez did not settle for a secondhand style; he whittled away influences until a personal sound emerged. And throughout, in each of his four albums as a leader, Sanchez has made a point of including bomba y plena pieces. In his case, Puerto Rican music permeates not only his repertoire but his phrasing, his attack, his rhythmic sense.
“I think time teaches you,” Sanchez says. “When I started, I needed to do what I did. Now I feel more complete as a player. I also feel fulfilled after playing with some great mainstream jazz players. But I have a lot to learn. I come from a rich culture, and I know certain aspects of it and its music, but I also know there are some things missing.”
Sanchez and Simon are just two in a growing young generation of Latin players. It’s a group of musicians who not only profess mutual admiration but have collaborated on each other’s albums, pushing each other, blurring stylistic boundaries.
“I’m happy when I see more and more young guys coming up with this new vision of trying to create a new fusion,” says Sanchez. “It’s like we are all growing up together . . . and that’s something very nice.”

This story was published by The Miami Herald Sunday, January 24, 1999

Fernando González
fergonzalez@bellsouth.net