The title of this record – Bach in Havana – should not come as a surprise, after all there is a yet-to-be-fully-discovered European Baroque and Classical music tradition that bubbles and boils in conservatories just barely under the skin of Cuban life, nestling cheek-by jowl with Santeria worship. This culture is very real and continues to turn out a stunning number of brilliant musicians year after year. Still the title surprises. Before a single note can be heard that is. Put that together with the name of the band, Tiempo Libre, a title that itself suggests a very free, almost avant garde force and you have a delightful, but perplexing conundrum. Perhaps it is this very anomaly that gives superlative credence to the music on this record. But finally there is, of course, the fact that a so-called “Third Stream” – music that fused jazz and music from the Western classical, romantic and baroque traditions that was already established in the early 1950s by the legendary band, the Modern Jazz Quartet.
In the face of the myriad of records documenting the collision between two musical traditions – classical and jazz – would any new attempt to redefine a relationship between – now- Afro-Cuban music and classical baroque music and that too Johann Sebastian Bach create a destructive deconstruction of both musics. Or would it in fact elevate all music to a vastly different level? On the musical evidence from this record, the latter is true. This is a landmark recording in the sense that Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) was approximately fifty years ago. What that Miles Davis record did for music was to establish beyond doubt that the hallmark of the high art of Afro-American music was its explosive creative spontaneity. This could make its mark even without the confines of written form, because its blues was form itself. Its emotion gave it form and raison d’etre. ‘Nuff said!
Now with Bach in Havana this is a vastly different challenge for the musicians on the session. Granted that by his own admission, Jorge Gomez, the Musical Director of Tiempo Libre, remembers often hearing his father play a Prelude or a Fugue from Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier,” what Robert Schumann called “this work of works’, the brilliant baroque exegesis. Granted… also that classical music is still de rigueur in the hallowed halls of Cuba’s conservatories… But to turn around and create an explosive meeting of the ancient Afro-Cuban music – that music which pulsates with Yoruban worship – and the secular or sacred music of Bach’s great music, both small and large landscape… This is nothing short of miraculous.
First, Bach: It is now legion that he enriched the prevailing German Style of music with robust contrapuntal technique an unrivalled control of harmonic and motivic organization in composition for diverse instrumentation. He also adapted rhythms and textures from foreign music – notably Italy and France. And, of course, Bach’s works were revered for their intellectual depth, technical depth and artistic beauty. Now what about the Afro-Cuban tradition? Probably born at the dawn of time it is primal, rocks with the vitality of life itself. At its bedrock is a tantalizingly complex polyrhythmic structure that is sometimes so mesmerizing that its musicians swear that there are rhythms even within melodies. Over the years this music evolved into a complex tradition bombarded with influences from the western Caribbean, from Jazz from the North of America, formal dance forms of Spain and France and above everything else – all of this melded in a cauldron boiling over with the batá rhythms that invoked the names of the saints in a battery of invocations… Santeria!
Thus, Bach in Havana is more than just a collision of two ancient-modern traditions. It is a coming together of what appears to be kindred spirits that no one would have known existed. It is a reinvention of musical idioms in a confluence of form. Among the easier and more accessible ones is “Air on a G String,” (Orchestral Suite in D Minor), which becomes a motivically a bolero , but where idiomatic phrases and sonic metaphors are gleefully intertwined and sewn together with superlative percussion under the “Air” itself, and then of course the wild cadenza from the incredible Paquito D’Rivera. There is plenty more of this kind of cultural collision that produces the most exquisite examples of Bach in Clave, so to speak. Not the least is a Gavotte (Bach’s French Suite in C Minor) that reincarnates into a Son with Paquito dazzling on alto saxophone yet again. And also the Minuet in G re-cast as a Guaguancó, this time featuring the amazing Yosvany Terry on alto saxophone.
But nothing compares with the daring re-interpretation of Bach’s majestic “French Suite in C Minor” and its appearance as the shape-shifting “Mi Orisha” virtually a spiritual communion as Yosvany Terry achieves near spiritual bliss with his shuffling, shuttering invocations on the shekere. Similarly, “Olas de Yemayá” brings the batá gracefully onto the Bach “Prelude in C Major “and there is much more in “Timbach” an exegesis on “Prelude in D Minor”. Finally the crowning moments are in the gloriously edifying “Kyrie,” where Tiempo Libre brings an inspired Bata and its rag-a-tag-a-tag to the most revered of spiritual masterpieces – Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
Does all this extraordinary work on the record work? Does it really work? This is going to be debated for a while. In the end, the real truth will prevail. Bach in Havana is going to be held up as one that made an enormous creative leap just as Miles Davis’ did when he, Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley blew those choruses on Kind of Blue.
Track listing: Tu Conga Bach – Conga (Fugue in C Minor); Fuga – Cha-cha-cha (Sonata in D Minor); Air on a G String – Bolero (Orchestral Suite in D Major); Clave in C Minor – Guaguancó (Prelude in C Minor); Gavotte – Son (French Suite in G Major); Mi Orisha – 6/8 Bata (French Suite in C Minor); Minuet in G – Guaguancó; Olas de Yemayá – Batá (Prelude in C Major); Baqueteo Con Bajo – Danzon (Cello Suite No.1); Timbach – Timba (Prelude in D Major); Kyrie – Batá (Mass in B Minor).
Personnel: Jorge Gomez: keyboards, background vocals, Music Director and arranger; Joaquin “El Kid” Diaz: lead vocals, batá; Leandro Gonzalez: congas, percussion, batá, background vocals; Tebelio “Tony” Fonte: electric bass, chapman stick, background vocals; Cristobal Ferrer Garcia: trumpet, trombone, background vocals; Hilario Bell: percussion, timbales, batá, background voice; Luis “Rosca” Beltran Castillo: tenor saxophone, guiro, background vocals.
Featuring: Paquito D’Rivera: alto saxophone on tracks 3, 5 and clarinet on track 9; Yosvany Terry: shekeré on track 6, alto saxophone on track 7.
Tiempo Libre on the web: www.tiempolibremusic.com
Review written by: Raul da Gama