For decades, Latin Jazz was a shorthand for what was, in essence, Afro-Cuban Jazz. But there is more to Latin Jazz than that.
For some time now, musicians throughout Ibero-America have been utilizing jazz to explore and reinterpret their own musical traditions,from flamenco and tamborito to candombe and porro, and in recent years, they have started to be heard. Pianist, composer and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill has been a North American champion of this broader view of Latin jazz. In his own writing and playing, O’Farrill has explored African-rooted music genres of the Americas such as Peruvian festejo, Colombian cumbia, Brazilian choros and Argentine tango.
In the most recent installment of O’Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s Jazz Across the Americas series, at Symphony Space in New York, Oct. 1 and 2nd, the subject was Venezuelan music and it was both a revelation and a confirmation.
Featuring pianists and composers Edward Simon and Luis Perdomo; bassist and composer Bam Bam Rodríguez; Jackeline Rago, cuatro and percussion and Roberto Quintero, percussion, O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra offered a program of originals that moved seamlessly between the Afro-Cuban jazz tradition and Afro-Venezuelan jazz.
The Afro-Venezuelan part of the concert included accented big band jazz and unexpected juxtapositions such as Simon’s Steve Reich-like minimalist passages on the saxes in his “Venezuela Unida” or Perdomo’s dazzling performance, featuring Quintero and Rago on maracas, of a piece by Austrian-born, Venezuela-based pianist and composer Gerry Weil, connecting Scarlatti and a style of Venezuelan merengue. As a reminder, there was also a tantalizing sample of the original sound, a version of “Compae Pancho” performed by a quartet of Simon, Rodríguez, Rago and Quintero.
“These are not your parent’s maracas,” had joked O’Farrill on Thursday, but that didn’t quite prepare the audiences for the rhythmic possibilities of the Venezuelan maracas or the virtuoso displays by Quintero and Rago.
It was fascinating to hear multi-layered grooves in odd time signatures, played with such graceful swing, fluidity and ease.
On Thursday, Rago discussed in a pre-concert talk how the merengue played in Caracas is in 5 / 8 and, growing up, such time signatures were “the most natural thing.” It was only after arriving in the United States and playing with other musicians, that these Venezuelan musicians became aware that, well, this was not as standard, or easy for anyone else, as they might have thought.
The evening concluded with “Wild Jungle,” a piece by Cuban pianist and arranger René Hernandez, recorded by the Machito and his Afro Cubans orchestra. It was fitting finale.
Mario Bauzá, trumpeter, saxophonist, music director of Machito and his Afro Cubans and a key figure in the history of Latin Jazz, used to speak out, and loudly, about the mistake of believing that all Latin Jazz was Afro Cuban Jazz. There is a whole world of music out there, he used to growl to unbelievers.
This weekend in New York, he would have been pleased.