A report by Giovanni Russonello for the New York Times.
When the Grammy Awards eliminated the category of best Latin jazz album six years ago, an outcry arose quickly. Musicians and advocates argued that the move cut off a rare source of institutional recognition for a genre at the commercial fringes. And the academy listened. The next year the category returned.
In the years since, the importance of that recognition has become even clearer: Latin jazz is experiencing a kind of creative bloom, with musicians diversifying their work at an uncommon clip. It’s generating some of the most invigorating improvised music around.
So maybe it is a bit disappointing that the Grammy nominations this year don’t fully reflect those developments, focusing instead on older musicians. Every nominee up for best Latin jazz album this Sunday is over 60. And while all have led fabulous careers — especially the pianist Chucho Valdés, the bassist Andy González and the trombonist Wayne Wallace — each of these recordings tends toward a sound that’s now classic.
Look beyond the nominees, though, and you’ll find a proliferating landscape of shape-shifters, particularly among Cuban musicians. In particular, recent records by Pedrito Martínez, Alfredo Rodríguez and Arturo O’Farrill — all released within the Grammys’ eligibility period — offer visions of how the fusion of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and jazz improvisation is no longer an end unto itself, but an invitation to integrate more.
In a sense, this is a continuation of the work Mr. Valdés was doing 40 years ago with his Latin fusion band, Irakere (the subject of his latest Grammy-nominated album, “Tribute to Irakere”). Musicians today are reworking his mission for an even more globalized and diversified world.
“These guys — the third generation, in a way — are brilliant,” said Tomás Peña, an editor of the Latin Jazz Network website, referring to musicians who’ve come of age in the 21st century, two generations down the line from the first marriages of Afro-Cuban music and American jazz. “They have their own sound, they’re writing their own music, and their energy is so strong.”
Mr. Peña added: “They’re not averse to playing R&B, they’ll play straight-ahead jazz, Latin jazz. And they’re talented enough, smart enough, where they’re taking things to a whole new level.”
Mr. Martínez’s “Habana Dreams” is the most effortlessly relatable of these new Afro-Latin fusion recordings. It finds this Havana-born virtuoso percussionist and vocalist collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, the jazz trumpeter; Rubén Blades, the salsa vocalist; and Telmary Díaz, the Cuban rapper. The result is an album that couples the liquid pull of Cuban rumba with gently romantic melodies — and some subtly magnetic electric bass playing from Alvaro Benavides. It’s a new form of Latin pop that makes no compromises, and doesn’t let your ear wander.
Mr. Martínez performed at the Jazz Standard this week with Mr. Rodríguez, another Havana-born musician of wide-ranging ambition. Mr. Rodríguez released an impressive third album last year, “Tocororo.” It shows his piano playing to be both punctilious and expansive — ready to handle a tightly syncopated revamp of Bach (“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”) or a swaying, spacious collaboration with the Indian-American vocalist Ganavya (the title track).
Then there’s David Virelles, 33, a Cuban pianist whose inclinations run rampant. In his tirelessly experimental music, Abakuá and Lucumí folklore become an invitation to enter a diffusely contemplative space.
Mr. Virelles’s latest recording, the 10-inch vinyl album “Antenna,” was released too late in 2016 to be eligible for Sunday night’s Grammys. But with its skewed traditional rhythms, unsettling electronics, tenacious Cuban rap and occasional spurts of improvised delirium, it reveals how open the world of Afro-Cuban jazz is becoming.
Mr. O’Farrill is the son of the Latin jazz pioneer Chico O’Farrill and the director of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, which won the Latin jazz Grammy in 2015. (It was a surprisingly good year for progressive nominees.) The younger Mr. O’Farrill released an incisive sextet album last year, “Boss Level,” spiced with hints of avant-garde improvising and aggressive, rocklike propulsion.
He suggests that Latin jazz is enjoying a surge in creativity partly because its systems of inheritance remain relatively pure — and loose. Straight-ahead jazz is often taught in the academy, where practices can become codified and recycled, but students of Latin American music frequently have to venture closer to the source. They are also exploring other influences in their daily lives, and pouring the components together.
“If they really want to understand this music,” Mr. O’Farrill said, “they study it themselves, and very often go to Cuba, and sit with older musicians, and bug them until they divulge the secrets. And in a way, that’s real jazz education.”
In some cases, a trip south is not necessary. The bassist Luques Curtis, 33 — who, along with his brother, Zaccai, recently released “Syzygy,” a strong album of Latin jazz fusions — learned at the elbow of mentors like Andy González (a nominee in the Latin jazz category this year), while also studying straight-ahead jazz at a conservatory.
More recently, musicians seeking direct mentorship have been wise to seek out the Cuban folkloric percussionist, singer and poet Román Díaz, who runs the Midnight Rumba at Zinc Bar every Thursday.
In performances with younger musicians like Mr. Martínez, Mr. Virelles and the remarkable saxophonist Yosvany Terry, he has shown how folkloric tradition can fit into almost any berth. (Mr. Díaz’s own recent recording, “L’ó Dá Fún Bàtá,” is a marvelous document of folkloric rhythm and song. Perhaps too traditional for the Latin jazz category, it ought to have received some kind of Grammy nod this year.)
At Zinc Bar each week, Mr. Díaz gathers roughly a dozen percussionists, vocalists and dancers to play traditional Cuban rhythms. But stay long enough and you may see him welcome other musicians onstage, too — maybe a blues guitarist, a jazz violinist, a flamenco singer. As the complex rhythms open up to accommodate them, the new initiates find themselves fitting in.
Even within the most rigorous realms of Afro-Latin music, other sounds and influences can find a home. The academy doesn’t always recognize it, but by now it’s inescapable.