The Cuban Branch
"Jazz bands" began forming in Cuba as early as the 1920s. These bands often included both Cuban popular music and popular North American jazz, and show tunes in their repertoires. Despite this musical versatility, the movement of blending Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz was not strong in Cuba itself for decades. As Leonardo Acosta observes: "Afro-Cuban jazz developed simultaneously in New York and Havana, with the difference that in Cuba it was a silent and almost natural process, practically imperceptible" (2003: 59). Cuba's significant contribution to the genre came relatively late. However, when it did come, the Cubans exhibited a level of Cuban-jazz integration that went far beyond most of what had come before. The first Cuban band of this new wave was Irakere.
With Irakere, a new era in Cuban jazz begins in 1973, one that will extend all the way to the present. At the same time, this period represents the culmination of a series of individual and collective efforts from our so-called transition period, which will end with the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna. Irakere was in part a product of the Moderna, as its founding members completed their musical training in that orchestra and also played jazz in the different quartets and quintets that were created with the OCMM. Among the founders of Irakere were pianist Chucho Valdéz, its director since the beginning, saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, who acted as assistant director—Acosta (2003: 211).
"Chékere-son" (1976) introduced a style of "Cubanized" bebop-flavored horn lines, that departed from the more "angular" guajeo-based lines typical of Cuban popular music.
"Chékere-son" is an extremely interesting one. It's based on a legendary 1945 Charlie Parker bebop composition called "Billie's Bounce." Almost every phrase of the Parker song can be found in "Chékere-son" but it's all jumbled together in a very clever and compelling way. David Peñalosa sees the track as a pivotal one - perhaps the first really satisfying fusion of clave and bebop horn lines—Moore (2011: web).
The horn line style introduced in "Chékere-son" is heard today in Afro-Cuban jazz, and the contemporary popular dance genre known as timba. Another important Irakere contribution is their use of batá and other Afro-Cuban folkloric drums. "Bacalao con pan" is the first song recorded by Irakere to use batá. The tune combines the folkloric drums, jazzy dance music, and distorted electric guitar with wah-wah pedal.
According to Raúl A. Fernández, the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna members would not have been allowed by the orquesta to record the unconventional song. The musicians travelled to Santiago to record it. "somehow the tune made it from Santiago to radio stations in Havana where it became a hit; Irakere was formally organized a little bit later" (2011: web).
Ironically, several of the founding members did not always appreciate Irakere's fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban elements. They saw the Cuban folk elements as a type of nationalistic "fig leaf," cover for their true love—jazz. They were obsessed with jazz. Cuba's Ministry of Culture is said to have viewed jazz as the music of "imperialist America." Pablo Menéndez, founder of Mezcla, recalls: "Irakere were jazz musicians who played stuff like 'Bacalao con pan' with a bit of a tongue in cheek attitude—'for the masses.' I remember Paquito d'Rivera thought it was pretty funny stuff (as opposed to 'serious' stuff)" (2011: web). In spite of the ambivalence by some members towards Irakere's Afro-Cuban folkloric/jazz fusion, their experiments forever changed Cuban popular music, Latin jazz, and salsa.
Another important Cuban jazz musician is pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whose innovative jazz guajeos revolutionized Cuban-style piano in the 1980s. Like the musicians of his generation who founded the timba era, Rubalcaba is a product of the Cuban music education system. Initially he studied both piano and drums. Rubalcaba began his classical musical training at Manuel Saumell Conservatory at age 9, where he had to choose piano; he moved up to “middle-school” at Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, and finally earned his degree in music composition from Havana’s Institute of Fine Arts in 1983. By that time he was already playing in clubs and music halls in Havana.
Egrem Studios of Havana was the first to record his music during the early and mid ‘80’s, and these discs are still being released (recently Inicio, an album of piano solos, and Concierto Negro.) With Orquesta Aragon he toured France and Africa in 1980. He introduced his own Grupo Projecto to the North Sea and Berlin Festivals in l985. Beginning in 1986 Gonzalo began recording for Messidor of Frandfurt, Germany, and put out three albums for that label with his Cuban Quartet, Mi Gran Pasion, Live in Havana, and Giraldilla.
Today, Afro-Cuban jazz from Cuba is consistently the most rhythmically complex form of Latin jazz. Many outstanding Cuban jazz bands, such as the saxophonist Tony Martinez's group, perform at a level few non-Cubans can match rhythmically. The clave matrix offers infinite possibilities for rhythmic textures in jazz. The Cuban-born drummer Dafnis Prieto in particular, has been a trailblazer in expanding the parameters of clave experimentation. See: "Drum Solo with Displaced Clave" (Dafnis Prieto).
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