In January of last year, 2020, I had the opportunity to travel to Havana with my colleague, the renowned writer and cultural chronicler Raul Da Gama. The reason: to attend the 35th edition of the International Jazz Plaza Festival for the first time. Jazz Plaza is a mandatory meeting point for great Cuban artists, both for those who live in the island, and for those who are based in the most distant places around the globe. Artists from various countries, cultural workers, journalists and enthusiasts of Jazz and Cuban music in general also participate. All with the common goal of celebrating jazz in its many expressions in one of the most important creative spots for global jazz development.
Among the many compact discs and audiovisuals that I was able to buy in the different cultural centres and concert halls where the festival took place, one project caught my attention: Benny Moré Un Siglo Después [Benny Moré A Century Later], a concert offered by the young guitarist Héctor Quintana in Sala Covarrubias, Teatro Nacional, during the Jazz Plaza 2019 Festival, as part of the tributes for the centenary of the birth of Benny Moré, “El Bárbaro del Ritmo.”
Héctor Manuel Quintana Ferreiro  is a guitarist, arranger, composer and teacher, graduated from the Instituto Superior de Arte [ISA] of Cuba in 2014. He has collaborated and shared the stage with international groups and artists: Horacio “El Negro” Hernández, Mark Whitfield, Omara Portuondo, Joe Lovano, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Sid Jacobs, Roberto Fonseca, María del Mar Bonet, Reginald Policard, Arturo O’Farrill, Al Jarreau, Yaron Herman, among many others. He has participated in festivals such as the Montreux Jazz Festival, Jazz Plaza, Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince [Papjazz], Festival L’Agglo au Rythme du jazz, JoJazz, Fiesta del Tambor, among others. He has toured Spain, France, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Venezuela, Trinidad & Tobago, Panama, Colombia, Mexico, South Africa and the United States. He won first prize at the National Classical Guitar Musicalia Competition , first prize at the International Young Jazz [JoJazz] Competition  and second prize at the Montreux International Competition . He has two albums to his credit: Dactilar and Benny Moré Un Siglo Después [Benny Moré A Century Later]. He participated in the concert in Havana for the International Jazz Day , chaired by Herbie Hancock.
During the unexpected pandemic that is still hitting the whole world, and thanks to the magic of social networks, I was able to communicate with this talented and outstanding artist, who agreed to have a remote conversation to reveal the details of this fantastic project that he got to lead. In these pages dedicated to jazz with Latin roots we present the result of our conversation, and nothing better than to accompany this story with some of the most outstanding audiovisual clips of a memorable and unforgettable night [so you can feel the energy], in which the spirit and the music of “El Bárbaro del Ritmo” invaded the Sala Covarrubias in the Cuban capital.
How was the Benny Moré Un Siglo Después project born?
The project was born because they were giving me a larger space in the Jazz Plaza Festival (National Theater) and the festival organizers told me with these words: “think of a project where people would never think to see you.” After a few days thinking and researching, I discovered that the following year, 2019, was Benny Moré’s 100th birthday, and that’s how the idea came up, Benny Moré Un Siglo Después. The concert was recorded live on January 17, 2019.
How was the process of selecting the songs, the arrangements, among so many songs that Benny Moré performed and recorded?
To select the repertoire and when making arrangements, we thought of each of the guests, the songs were arranged in their own style. Obviously, I wanted known musical themes to be there, but I also wanted some lesser known songs to be there. I Also tried to avoid redundancy and that’s why the idea of a medley came up, where at the same time we did three of Benny’s most famous boleros [Cómo fué, Hoy como ayer, Mucho corazón].
Another aspect is that I wanted a concert that responded to Latin jazz but that at the same time was not tedious in terms of duration or thematic repetition. That’s why the concert has a low-key duration and most of the songs are relatively short to be performed live. It should be said that on the album there are two arrangements by the maestro Joaquín Betancourt, one by Bobby Carcassés and one by Jesús Pupo, the others are mine.
Who are the members of the Big Band in this project?
The band brings together some of the best musicians on the current scene in Cuba: Víctor Campbell [piano], Rafael Aldama [bass], José Carlos Sanchez [drums], Adel González [percussions], Lázaro Thondike and María Alejandra [backing vocals], Dany Arce [trombone], Hansel Woo [trombone], Roberto García [trumpet], Alejandro Delgado [trumpet], Thommy Lowry [trumpet], Yuniet Lombida [baritone saxophone], Emir Santa Cruz [tenor saxophone] César Filiú [alto saxophone], Iván Ariel Guardiola [alto saxophone].
It is worth highlighting the art work made especially for the concert by the Cuban artist Joaquín Avila, the sound work of SOUNID by Orestes Águila and the general production by Lianet Pérez León.
Tell me about the preparation in general, the rehearsals. What challenges did you find along the way to bring the project to completion?
The first and constant challenge was to unite so many musicians in the middle of a festival where they usually have several commitments. Everyone gave their greatest support as musicians and as great human beings, but there was always some stress during rehearsals, because there was always someone who had to leave early or who could not arrive on time, something that is common in musicians who are in high demand. The arrangements took me about a month to complete, as I didn’t have the full time to work on them, I had to combine it with my work as a guitarist.
The other part was looking for the ideal place to be able to gather so many musicians, which turned out to be studio number 2 of the Abdala Studios. Honestly, we literally did two rehearsals for that concert and in the sound check the third. Many will not believe it but the first time we were able to get through the concert from start to finish and without interruptions was during the concert itself, something you can only achieve when you work with musicians of the highest level. The support of my producer Lianet Pérez was key to not lose my head with so many things.
And the special guests… What does each one of them contribute? How do they enrich and enhance the project?
The guests play a fundamental role, on the one hand it goes with the title of the album itself, such as, for example, Cimafunk, a great contemporary artist interpreting Benny’s music in its own way… and also to attract new generations to be interested in some of the most valuable things of our culture, which they may think is something old but no, it can be very modern.
On the other hand, the guests were people with whom in one way or another I have been linked, either through friendship, work or both. I really tried to adapt what they were going to interpret a bit to each other’s style. For me it really is a tremendous honour that so many international guest artists had participated in the same concert. For example, New York-based guitarist Mark Whitfield, who is one of the most prominent guitarists on the jazz scene today. It’s a great honour for me to have had the opportunity to play together, no doubt it is a historical moment in my career.
I have to thank very much the presence of the great Alaín Pérez, the teacher Barbarito Torres, my friend and great singer Maikel Ante, the one and only Danay Suárez, the excellent collaboration of David Álvarez and Antonio Guzmán. Two of the greatest trumpet players in the world: Julito Padrón and Maikel González, and the luxury of having Bobby Carcassés, a true icon, National Music Award winner.
I know that each piece of gear to carry out this project was very important, some contributed more, others less, but surely there are people, organizations or companies that were with you from beginning to end so that everything turned out in the best way and the project was a success…
Personally, I thank God because he was putting each key person on the path. I received great support from my company, the Centro Nacional de Música Popular [National Centre for Popular Music] and from Víctor Rodriguez, its director, who from the beginning also endorsed the project. The record company Abdala and its director Mabel Muñíz gave us a vote of confidence even without practically knowing each other.
And I repeat, the support of my production company [Unicornio · Abdala Productions] was essential for me so I could be as concentrated as possible on musical issues. There were many people involved, in the theater, in the record company, Marlon and the guys from the cameras, drivers, lights, my friend Joaquín Ávila, who went out all over Havana to look for some doors to be able to prepare the stage shown in the concert, in short, many people made this project possible.
It is also fair to note that today there are people who continue to work for the project, for everything that has to do with promotion and marketing, it is worth highlighting the support of Roxana Rodríguez in all this work.
As a parenthesis, tell me a little about your experience recording your first album, Dactilar, and how do you compare it with the experience of this second and great project?
Dactilar is an album with which I have some mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is an album that still does not exist physically, after 8 years, and I am still not sure if I will ever release it one day. At the same time I am infinitely grateful to the Colibrí label for the support and trust.
This album brought together my first experiences as a composer and as the leader of a group, and I also received the support of great musicians who are currently great friends.
Among some of the musicians who participated in the album are Jorge Aragón, Alejandro Falcón, Jorge Chicoy, Yissy García, Carlos Ríos, Ankel Someillan and maestro Joaquín Betancourt, who was in charge of the production.
Personally, the most important thing about this album is that it treasures a 22-year-old Héctor Quintana, with his strengths and weaknesses at that time. On the other hand, the Benny Moré Un Siglo Después project is an album that takes a 180 degree turn and marks a distance in many respects from my point of view. And I also hope it will be with the next one, which I hope will be realized sooner rather than later.
Was it decided from the beginning that Benny Moré Un Siglo Después would be presented in audiovisual format?
That’s right, from the beginning it was known and planned that this project was going to be carried out in audiovisual format.
The music of Benny Moré is forever, it does not obey fashions, it is timeless music … and with this project you bring that music to our time, with a modern, contemporary sound, of an imposing Jazz Big Band.
Simply, what is well done, with taste, with artistic knowledge, with mastery, will always have a following at any time and that is what happens with this music. For me one of the most difficult tasks was precisely to contribute my vision to the music of Benny Moré, but on the same foundations. I wanted to find a point where they didn’t say “they’re playing Benny’s music” or else, “this has nothing to do with Benny Moré.” I think that’s where the point is.
On the other hand, Benny’s music is full of different influences, from jazz and North American music, so it is not difficult to jump into the purest jazz, with improvisations, etc.
I think that when the 200th anniversary of the birth of Benny Moré is celebrated, his music will be as valid as the first day, and new elements can be incorporated of course, but the essence will be there, in the end what has value will have it in any time, but look at Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven…
In addition to the premiere for the Jazz Plaza Festival, have you had the opportunity to perform this concert at other events?
We have not yet done this project again, but we are open to everything that may come and adjust to the needs that the modern world imposes on us.
Benny Moré Un Siglo Después · Héctor Quintana
Producción general: UNICORNIO Producciones Abdala · 2020
Lianet Pérez León: Productora general del concierto
Marlon Garrigas Vargas [29.9 Films]: Dirección Audiovisual
Héctor Manuel Quintana Ferreiro: Dirección musical
- Que pasará
- Soy tan feliz
- Mi amor fugaz [Maikel Antes]
- Locas por el mambo [Mark Whitfield]
- Popurrí [Cómo fué, Hoy como ayer, Mucho corazón (Julio Padrón, Maikel González)]
- Perdón [Antonio Gúzmán, David Álvarez]
- Qué bueno baila usted [Bárbaro Torres]
- Oh, Vida [Alaín Pérez]
- Sutil Intención [Danay Suárez, Jesús Pupo]
- Te quedarás [Cimafunk]
- Soy Guajiro [Cimafunk]
- Blues con Montuno [Bobby Carcassés]