Next Year in Havana: Latin Jazz for Dummies

Duke Ellington liked to introduce his 1970 extended work, Afro-Euroasian Eclipse , by saying, “The whole world is going Oriental.” On stage at last month’s Jazz at Lincoln Center concert, Wynton Marsalis could have argued that the whole jazz scene is going Latin. Instead, he let his playing speak for itself-a nifty version of the Cuban chestnut “The Peanut Vendor,” the tune that ignited the first American craze for Latin music in 1930.

Leave it to Jazz at Lincoln Center to celebrate the current Latin vogue in a decidedly retro fashion. For last month’s “Cuba: Where the Rhythm Is Hot!” concert, it flew up a handful of Havana graybeards to play what could be described as the popular roots of Latin jazz: the mambos, boleros and rumbas that swung the Havana nightclubs of the 1950’s before the whip came down. Fidel Castro’s revolution had put the American careers of players like percussionist Aristedes (Tata Güines) Soto and bassist Cachaito on ice, and there was something poignant listening to these guys play their funky, unpretentious music before an adoring stateside crowd. Any music that has me searching out Meyer Lansky at Alice Tully Hall really evokes that old Havana mood. Most affecting of all was the pianist Frank Emilio, whose early 60’s album, Jazz at 6 P.M. , was a seminal Latin jazz classic that never legally entered the United States.

“This has all been a big surprise,” Mr. Emilio said in Spanish at his hotel before the show. His musical colleagues were rushing around like boggled country relations, trying to jam their New York purchases into overstuffed suitcases, but he remained unfazed, which seemed only fitting for a frail, blind man nearing 80 who has, in his way, seen plenty. “I don’t know if all this was necessary,” he said of the Lincoln Center debut, “but it’s left me with a very pleasant impression.” On stage that night, he was somewhat more demonstrative. After a stirring solo, this little old guy in a white dinner jacket lifted up his arms to acknowledge the cheers, a bit of show biz from the old Havana nightclub days and, I’m guessing, a note of heartfelt Rockyesque triumph. He’d outlasted the bastards on both sides of the political fence.

I couldn’t help thinking of Frank Emilio as I made my way through Blue Jackel’s 4-CD retrospective, Cuba: I Am Time , which came out this past summer and is now up for two Grammys. The cigar box design is an obvious winner, but the title is completely gnomic-that is, until you turn to pages 86-87 in the excellent CD booklet and behold a photograph of the Havana street mural that reads, “I can wait more than you because I am time.”

Blue Jackel’s Jack O’Neil explained, as best he could, that the saying alludes to the Afro-Cuban/Yoruban notion of time as encompassing the past, present and future in one infinite moment. The best example I could think of was the American triumph of Mr. Emilio (who is featured on one track on the second CD) and, indeed, the whole current fascination with Latin jazz that is driving the high-profile careers of Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez (appearing at the Blue Note, Feb. 24-March 1) and Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist David Sanchez (at the Village Vanguard, March 31-April 1). The current scene recalls nothing so much as New York’s Latin music craze of the 50’s, sparked by two Cuban brothers-in-law, the percussionist Machito and the trumpeter-arranger Mario Bauzà, and one American trumpeter-icon, Dizzy Gillespie. In 1998, the jazz community’s delicious insidery question is, “Are you going to the Havana Jazz Festival?”

Of course, not every gringo jazz fan is applauding jazz’s thralldom to hip-shaking Latin rhythm, the 3/2 or 2/3 beat that’s called the clave , or, translated, the “key.” But here is where I Am Time is indispensable: The set’s concluding CD surveys “Cubano Jazz,” which pretty well defines the current state of the art. The middle two CDs sample the island’s startling number of European-influenced traditional forms, a mellifluous laundry list of son and danzón, montuno, guaracha, charanga and guaguancó . But for my money it’s the opening disk, “Cuban Invocations,” that provides the essential clave to understanding the Latin purchase on the American jazz imagination.

As the “Young Lion” generation has discovered, late 50’s-early 60’s hard bop is not inexhaustible. For trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who joined forces with David Sanchez and Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes on last year’s Habana (Verve), or alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who worked with the band Afro-Cuban de Matanzas on I Am Time ‘s final cut, the Afro-Cuban jazz idiom promises a revivifying trip to the African rhythmic well.

Africa still lives in Cuba in the form of the Yoruban gods, or orisha, whom the Cuban slaves first worshipped under the guise of Catholic saints. In Cuba, polyrhythms and polytheism seem to go hand in hand; there’s a dance behind every shadowy deity. (The orisha Babalu was strictly bad news, so presumably Ricky Ricardo was singing to him to get on his good side.) As the primal mysteries of “Cuban Invocations” might suggest, good Latin jazz can be endlessly seductive but not always so easy to pin down. When, for instance, does the music become so beholden to Latin dance rhythms that it’s more properly called “salsa” and not “Afro-Cuban jazz”?

“I disagree with the term ‘Latin jazz,’ but I’ve been asked to become a little more politically correct,” said Ray Barretto, the Puerto Rican-American master conga player who’s got a fine new album out on Blue Note, Contact! (Mr. Barretto plays the Blue Note, Feb. 17 to Feb. 27). Mr. Barretto holds the torch for the great North American jazz tradition. “I want to present jazz as respectfully as I can, and I want to minimize the accent,” he said. “Now, whatever accent is there is because of me as the conga player. If you eliminate me from the picture, you have a great straight-ahead jazz band. So I’m not gonna fire myself.”

Exhibit B in this week’s “Is It Latin Jazz?” contest is a new release by the duo of top-dog saxophonist Joe Lovano and Miami-based Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a young Cuban piano virtuoso. Flying Colors (Blue Note) is demanding chamber music that moves with a kind of breathing, organic rhythm reminiscent of Ornette Coleman. No one in their right mind would describe it as Latin, but Mr. Lovano is undeterred. As a New Yorker attuned to the indigenous Latin vibrations and as a musician who has played with Machito, Mario Bauzà and Gillespie, Mr. Lovano suggests that he’s playing Latin even when he’s not. “I have played in settings that have lit a fire under me,” he said, “and once it’s lit, you can’t put it out. It just becomes a part of the way you feel the beat.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Rubalcaba, a musical metaphysician of a Glenn Gould stripe, imagines a pure music beyond the chains of ethnicity. “I think one of my missions is to integrate the most important codes of Cuban music and put them in a universal language,” he said in precise Spanish. “For me, the most interesting musicians are the ones who have arrived at a level of comprehension where nationality has no musical value.”

Maybe the jazz world is going Latin. What better proof than that no one can agree on what Latin jazz is or should be.

Next Year in Havana: Latin Jazz for Dummies