Afro-Cuban Drummers at Unite Jazz Standard


Tracing the course of Afro-Cuban percussion through the veins of American music—as Larry Blumenfeld reports in this article for The Wall Street Journal.

Growing up in Havana, drummer Calixto Oviedo studied classical music at a conservatory. He was entranced by various forms of Cuban music, especially the interplay of flute and violin in the celebrated group Orquesta Aragón. A fascination with American jazz soon followed.

“I was always pestering touring musicians to bring back cassettes of Miles Davis or Elvin Jones,” he said in an interview. “I would stay up late to listen to an 11 p.m. jazz show on the radio.” On Tuesday night, Mr. Oviedo will lead a quintet at Jazz Standard for the first installment of “A Cuban Drum Series with Calixto Oviedo,” an outgrowth of the club’s “New Dimensions in Latin Jazz.”

If American jazz has long influenced Cuban musicians, so too have the pulses of Afro-Cuban drumming long coursed through New York’s jazz scene. The bond here predates Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo’s celebrated collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s, and it endures in elemental ways: Conga drums were front and center last week at the Blue Note, as played by Jerry Gonzalez (who also plays trumpet) in his Fort Apache Band—more than 30 years on, still a cutting-edge blend of Afro-Cuban rhythms and hard-bop jazz, reflecting also the essential contributions to Latin jazz by musicians of Puerto Rican descent. In June, drummer Milford Graves opened the avant-garde Vision Festival by playing Afro-Cuban grooves on timbales, alongside musicians from Cuba and Puerto Rico. And when the Cuban pianist David Virelles made his debut as a leader at the Village Vanguard recently, his music centered on the interplay between drummer Andrew Cyrille’s trap set and Cuban percussionist Roman Díaz’s congas.

There is also a rich legacy of New York venues fostering such connections: from the 1970s on, the “Salsa Meets Jazz” series at the now-defunct Village Gate; in the 1980s, the Tuesday-night scene at Soundscape; and during the late 1990s, the Jazz Gallery at its original Hudson Street location. For the past several years, Jazz Standard’s “New Dimensions” has been the place to hear Afro-Cuban rhythms in new contexts, and has helped to develop a wider audience for this music. Last year, the series presented Cuban alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry, who also plays chekeré, a beaded gourd used for percussion. His working quintet was augmented by Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez, himself among New York’s most alluring musical presences. In 2007, when the series was just beginning, Mr. Terry presented folkloric music that showcased the connection between Mr. Martinez’s drumming and the movements of dancer Felix “Pupy” Insua.

For Seth Abramson, Jazz Standard’s artistic director, “New Dimensions” marked a natural progression. “We wanted to dig more deeply into these influences, which span different countries and cultures, to get beyond the surface of this Latin connection that seems especially strong now in New York,” he said.

“A Cuban Drum Series” extends this investigation. According to Dita Sullivan, who has collaborated with Mr. Abramson to produce the Latin jazz series since its inception, “There are all these great Cuban drummers who aren’t on everyone’s radar in New York, people who have been influential but might be unheralded. These musicians have innovative approaches, and use drumming as their point of departure.”

The new series will feature one Cuban musician every month in single-night engagements, each making his New York debut as a bandleader.

Mr. Oviedo, who lives in Stockholm and frequently returns to Havana, is best known for his six-year tenure in Cuba’s NG La Banda, with which he helped define the densely textured and propulsive dance music known as timba. “Timba is not a technique,” he said. “It is a genre that grew from the combination of Cuban roots and Cuban streets, but also from American jazz and funk.” On his “Calixto’s Way” (for the Italian EYS label), Mr. Oviedo’s take on Latin jazz retains timba’s riveting rhythmic punch. At Jazz Standard on Tuesday, he will employ the hybrid setup he helped pioneer, combining a standard trap set with timbales. His quintet, comprising all Cuban musicians, includes percussionist Mauricio Herrera, who has been a forceful presence in New York since moving here in 2005.

The two other drummers scheduled in the Cuban drum series—Enildo Rasua (Aug. 6) and Miguelo Valdes (Sept. 11)—have left their own marks on Afro-Cuban drumming tradition. Mr. Valdes is a stunning percussionist who has played congas with celebrated Cuban musicians including pianist Emiliano Salvador and bassist Israel “Cachao” López. Mr. Rasua, whose work spans jazz, folkloric and classical settings, has attracted attention for his “third hand” technique—holding two drumsticks in one hand, simultaneously playing three or more parts. The drummer, though, referred to the technique as “only a vehicle.”

“What matters,” he said, “is the culture we express, what we communicate about Cuba.”

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