El Comité: Y Qué!? (So What)

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El Comité - Y Qué? - So What
left to right: Carlos Sarduy, Harold López-Nussa, Irving Acao, Yaroldy Abreu, Rodney Barreto, Rolando Luna, Gastón Joya.

A fantasy of my own making: Truth be told, the Cubans and French have not got together to and create a wonderful musical take – tongue firmly in cheek – on Bastille Day and the Cuba Libre of December 31st 1958 (though not necessarily in that order). For El Comité, the name of this powerhouse ensemble, is not a play on the Cuban Comités de Defensa de la Revolución; set up in 1960 to guard against foreign destabilization after Cuba was freed from the yoke of the American puppet, Fulgencio Batista. The French connection is, of course, the group’s manager, Philippe Monsan and an important instigator in the formation of the supergroup. He had an idea of fusing the ensembles of Harold Lopéz-Nussa and Rolando Luna – after listening to them in 2016 – to form one supergroup. But the creation and foundation of El Comité…? It comes after a rather humourous twist as well.

“It was the rum that found the name of the group!” said Harold Lopéz-Nussa to Yannick Le Maintec a music writer at Le Monde, in April 2019. M Le Maintec wrote, “One can imagine the debates which enabled them to find their name. Their leitmotif: no leader. Except that El Comité – this Committee – has only one aspiration: the defense of rumba.” And so listening to this music it all makes sense after all. Moreover it seemingly fits: the members of this group fit the music, and their music fits the name of the ensemble. The joke has become real in an uncannily appropriately manner for it is these seven young musicians of El Comité who are seemingly changing the popular Cuban music soundscape in a dramatically radical way.

Each of the members of this septet, El Comité has made his mark individually both by redefining the instrument he plays with diabolical fluency. Harold Lopéz-Nussa – the youngest (generation) musician in a veritable dynasty that includes his uncle, the great multi-instrumentalist Ernán Lopéz-Nussa and his (the pianist’s) father and drummer Ruy Lopéz-Nussa – had forged a now-legendary band with his supremely-gifted brother and drummer Ruy-Adrian Lopéz-Nussa. Rolando Luna is a pianist with a quicksilver mind and brilliant technique to match. Bassist Gastón Joya Perellada, whose credentials include playing in the groups of Chucho Valdés, is possibly the greatest contrabassist to emerge from the island since Israel “Cachao” López did decades ago.

Meanwhile Yaroldy Abreu, also a Chucho Valdés alum, was a disciple of the legendary Tata Güines and incorporates all of the master’s teaching into playing tumbadoras (and other percussion). Rodney Barreto, once powered the rhythm section of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s early Grupo Proyecto; his thunderous drumming now powers this ensemble. Carlos Sarduy is, quite simply, one of the most gifted young trumpeter and flugelhorn players anywhere in the world. And saxophonist Irving Acao, once all-but-forgotten, has returned with statuesque grandeur, seemingly out of an European mist as if affixed to the prow of a Spanish galleon speaking his musical truth and heralding a new era of woodwinds in Afro-Cuban music.

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Together El Comité seem to have created a new Cuban musical palimpsest somewhat as Miles Davis did when, first propelled by the vapours of Jimi Hendrix, he began to explore music during his so-called electric-period. Thus it also seems wholly appropriate that this recording by El Comité be entitled Y Qué!? or So What, after the iconic Miles Davis piece. In fact the album ends with an inventive arrangement of the song by the members of the group which revs up towards the finale in a vibrant comparsa-like processional. All of this also points to the fact that the structure of the group is anything but conventional despite the fact that piano, bass and drums are augmented by brass and winds. What is revolutionary – first and foremost – two pianists (and electric keyboards) players who perform with the proverbial closeness of twins, but seemingly with one brain.

That brain is also shared in apparent proportion by a trumpeter, saxophonist and percussion colourist, making the ensuing music appear to be something of a colossal seven-way conversation where the musical conversation may be started almost anywhere, followed by one or more (or all of the players) jumping in at any point in time, and where each musical conversationalist has the ability to (and does) embellish each other’s conversation by finishing a phrase or – and this is so most often – by providing the most breathtaking ornamentation to another’s phrase – which, in musical terms, would be the melody or by picking up an improvised line and taking it to another special place in the music’s architecture.

This result is everywhere on Y Qué!? not all at once, of course, but you can hear this song after song after song, throughout the recording. And this happens from the very outset as the group blitzkriegs its way through the tumbling, funky groove of “Gran Vía”. Piano dovetails into keyboards while trumpet and saxophone melt into one, the electric bass creates a catalytic, chain reaction drawing in the drums and tumbadoras and the edifice of the song is built upon by one body and one mind with many hands and feet. But make no mistake, individual voices also always reign supreme throughout. If you listen carefully it is possible to separate the radiant pianism of Harold Lopéz-Nussa from the voice of Rolando Luna as they switch from piano to keyboards (for instance from “E’Cha” to “Transiciones”) and in other songs as well.

There is also the no small matter of Carlos Sarduy’s trumpet setting the music alight as he inhabits the bluest part of the flame with which he uses to ignite the dark melody of “La Gitana”. Meanwhile Gastón Joya brings his considerable genius to accent the darkly passionate melody of his composition with voluptuous notes plucked out of the air with equal parts majestic technique and heartfelt emotion. Rodney Barreto brings his rolling thunder to accentuate the ink black song colours, Yaroldy Abreu caresses the skins of the tumbadoras as if he was fondling the body of the gypsy woman and she, now inhabiting his magnificent drums, exclaims her song in sensuous delight. Meanwhile Irving Acao presides over the magical scene as if uniting the Gypsy and her paramour as one.

Each song has its own special magic. Each is written by a different composer and so reflects a unique voice, but the musicians parley with the familiarity of old friends manipulating the warp and woof of woven sound; then smoothing every melodic, harmonic and rhythmic wrinkle. The music unfolds in playing that always retains that sense of gracious etiquette associated with the noblest of Cuban academies for which this music could well have been written. Nothing is forced or exaggerated or overly mannered; tempos, ensemble and balance – all seem effortlessly and intuitively right. This music is, in sum, a collection of sincere and poised accounts in song, a fitting tribute to the long and vibrant character of Cuba and its music.

Track list – 1: Gran Vía; 2: E Cha; 3: La Gitana; 4: Transiciones; 5: Carlito’s Swing; 6: Alamar 23; 7: Nada Más; 8: Son a Emiliano; 9: So What?

Personnel – Harold Lopéz-Nussa: piano and keyboards; Rolando Luna: piano and keyboards; Carlos Sarduy: trumpet and flugelhorn; Irving Acao: tenor saxophone; Gastón Joya: contrabass and electric bass; Rodney Barreto: drums; Yaroldy Abreu: percussion

Released – 2019
Label – Philippe Monsan
Runtime – 49:56

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