Both reeds and woodwinds maestro Jane Bunnett and piano virtuoso Hilario Durán have released enormously successful albums lately. Bunnett made Embracing Voices (EMI, 2009) with the celebrated Cuban a capela choir, Grupo Vocal Desandann. Durán recorded a masterful trio record, Motion (Alma Records, 2010) with bassist, Roberto Occhipinti and drummer Mark Kelso.
The two musicians had not worked together in several years, but have enjoyed a highly rated relationship for years, ever since Bunnett brought Durán over from Cuba. So the recording of Cuban Rhapsody (Alma Records, 2011) is first and foremost a celebratory reunion of sorts. It is also a first for Bunnett, who has rarely worked with any producer other than her trumpet-playing husband, Larry Cramer. Putting her art in the hands of Alma and producer Peter Cardinali was also a leap of faith.
For Hilario Durán playing classic repertoire from Cuba sounds like an emotional journey to a place in his youth where he first fell in love with music. For Bunnett, apart from being “Havana-Jane” there was another touchstone: the brilliant album, Jane Bunnett and the Cuban Piano Masters, (EMI/World Pacific, 1996), an album that featured the late Frank Emilio Flynn and José María Vitier. The fact that Durán was not on that album has now been fully redressed. Cuban Rhapsody is an exquisite body of music. Not only does it represent the work of great Latin American composers such as Miguel Matamoros, Ernesto Lecuona, José María Vitier and Emilio Flynn, but this time Durán and Bunnett play some of the most enchanting contradanzas ever put down on record. This is where the rhapsodic element of the record comes in.
Nowhere does Bunnett’s lithe and fluttery tone on soprano saxophone and flute sound better. She plays with sublime authority on both instruments, soaring into the azure of each song with stellar grace. Her command of color and timbre is second to none – in fact on soprano saxophone, she proves that she has few equals and often raises the bar (“María la O”) to such vaunted heights that it seems impossible to envision anyone ever clearing this. Hilario Durán, for his part, shows a distinct side to his playing. His technique and expression is absolutely beyond reproach, but it is his masterly control of harmonically fanciful flights that is stunning on this album. Durán has always been known to have killer tumbao, that rhythmic ingenuity that fires his left hand. On this album there is plenty of that, but also a graceful right hand that creates wondrous whorls of harmony that wrap themselves around Bunnett’s flute or saxophone flights like the other half of a double helix. The two musicians seem to be part of the same DNA when it comes to Cuban music at least and this is one of the most compelling aspects of their playing on Cuban Rhapsody.
This album is brimming with special moments. But the duo truly excel on Miguel Matamoros’ “Son de la Loma” as they address a familiar classic with fire and emotion that makes the hair stand on edge. The “Contradanzas” (all five of them) contain some of the most beautiful playing by both Bunnett and Durán on record. On each of the fabled music, the conversational exchanges on piano and reeds and winds reach a high-water mark and this will be hard to match by anyone who comes after this. “New Danzón,” Durán’s sole composition on the record is a masterpiece of melodic magic as well as harmonic mystery. It is work of this nature that continues to keep Cuban music front and centre today. However, at the end of the day it is the consummate skill of both Durán and Bunnett, especially showcased on Frank Emilio Flynn’s maddeningly lovely “Sherezada”, that makes this recording what it is: a duet album of rare and beautiful playing by two masters of modern music.
Track Listing: Lágrimas Negras; Son de la Loma; Longina; Quirino Con Su Tres; Contradanzas: La Tedezco; El Pañuelo de Pepa; Los Ojos de Pepa; Los Tres Golpes; Tarde en la Habana; María la O; Almendra; New Danzón; Sherezada; Danza Lucumí.
Personnel: Jane Bunnett: soprano saxophone, flute; Hilario Durán: piano.
Review written by: Raul da Gama