Jane Bunnett: The Spirits Were Dancing In The Flesh

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Concert Review: Jane Bunnett with special guest Chucho Valdés
by Raul da Gama – Saturday, Oct 20, 2012 – Koerner Hall, Toronto

Notes were fluttering out of the bell of the diminutive bell of the soprano saxophone. They were rising and soaring like birds on the wing; ascending as if on the spirals of a proverbial thermal, towards the acoustic ceiling. Some were soft and fluffy; they were gentle and coaxed tears form the eyes. These were at the ends of particularly aching lines, which brought much catharsis. The notes echoed and surrounded the breathless audience in the room. When she was done with the soprano saxophone and the band had returned to the melodic out-chorus Jane Bunnett had switched to flute. This time, the ache became a joyful shriek. Ebullient arpeggios raced forth from its end. Bunnett’s body was swaying; Her producer, trumpet and flugelhorn-playing husband joined in playing a brilliantly clear, contrapuntal melodic line and the music began to race on to its inevitable end, as vocalist Alberto Alberto sang the lyric to the out-chorus, praising famous musicians, both alive and ghostly as the percussionist, Jorge “Papiosco” Torres and drummer, Ahmed Mitchel beat the retreat while the horns and bass were retired to make way for the dying echo of the melody.

“Santos Suárez” was one of the finest charts on one of Jane Bunnett’s seminal albums from the year 2000, appropriately called Ritmo + Soul. The album was a magnificent journey into the heart of Cuban rhythms and deeper into the soul of the musical and mysticism of the island country. On any given day it might have been difficult to replace the vocalists of that album: the baritone of Dean Bowman and the swaggering spirit of Ernesto “El Gato” Gatell. This time, however, Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana have been well-served by the sonorous tenor of Alberto. Hilario Durán, the pianist with a roaring tumbao is still on piano, a seat he occupied when the recording was made. Durán is a mainstay of Bunnett’s bands from well before the making of Ritmo + Soul. Hearing the great pianist seems to have grown in skill and virtuosity and grown exponentially. His left hand is thundering and rolling out the counterpoint his right hand which is a blur across the higher and mid registers of the Yamaha Grand. Bassist, Roberto Riverón, also a regular bassist with Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana, is chopping out a jagged bass-line. “Santos Suárez” has been completely re-imagined and The Spirits of Havana are immediately led into the rhythmic votive of another chart from that breathtaking record: “Joyful Noise”.

Alberto Alberto is a revelation. His tenor is pure and he enunciates with classical precision, still managing to incorporate an irreverent swagger in his intonation. Alberto’s accents are flawless on this piece, which requires not only a conversational air, but which must also carve out a rhythmic air as if sung to the tune of woodblocks. Alberto does so with panache and it is clear how well he fits in with a Canadian/Cuban musical exploration that has taken Jane Bunnett and her ingenious producing partner and horn-man, Larry Cramer thirty long years to come to this stage of sagacity and erudition. The journey, as John McFarlane’s remarkable documentary Spirits of Havana and the years since its production has shown were challenging. Personnel changes and the heartbreak of losing some of the Cuban musicians along the way—especially Merceditas Valdés and her husband and percussionist Guillermo Barretto—was devastating. But Bunnett is a resilient character. With the stoic support she has overcome many hurtful obstacles. This day, she performs at the top of her game. Ellegguá and the resident Lucumí who have been spirited in from Cuba are on her side.

Hilario Durán, looking dapper and ever so young in his white suit, waves as he exits stage left and Jane Bunnett introduces one of her early Cuban protégés. She met him, she says, on a tour of Cuba, when the Canadian band was in Santiago and visiting the Esteban Salas Conservatory of Music. Bunnett saw in him a prodigious talent and invited him to Toronto, a city he fell in love with and stayed. A shyly smiling David Virelles replaced Hilario Durán for the next few charts and it was immediately clear why he was one of those pianists that could be easily added to Cuba’s long line of great keyboard artists, from Peruchín to Durán. Virelles’ touch is so sensitive it might be discerned that he has fingers like feathers. Virelles might brush a note ever so slightly and yet elicit a tone that speaks like a key turn in a pianistic narrative. And then he might play with traditional tumbao shattering the notion of youth. For Virelles is a pianist with heritage. Despite pursuing a career in contemporaneous musicianship, Virelles has lost none of that link to his great heritage.

On Silvio Rodríguez’ “Rabo de Nube”, that ubiquitous anthem of Latin America, Virelles announces the music with a dazzlingly modern introduction. The chart is played with Jane Bunnett as a duet. Bodies in the back of the band as well as all of the audience are frozen in time. There is not a sound in the hall as Virelles and Bunnett exchange lines. Bunnett’s are long and loping full of excited glissandos, which dart about like rows of frisky gazelles, scurrying about the verdant musical topography; they begin as mightily as ever; they shoot out of her horn and end in soft, almost coy murmurings. Virelles counters with commanding lines that are rich in harmonics and have a gilt-edged majesty to them. The music comes from a place deep within his soul, for the soul swells out of there whenever it is played. Clearly Virelles, despite his young years feels it there and this passes onto his fingers.

Jane Bunnett honours her young and worthy constituent a song she wrote in reverence of the town in Cuba where Virelles was born, Santiago de Cuba. The chart is Alma de Santiago. A coy smile escapes the lips of Virelles as Bunnett pivots on her razor-sharp heel and addresses the opening bars of the song to Virelles, who responds with warmth and great facility. The Danzón is played with affecting tenderness and it is possible that there was not a dry eye in the house as the chart moved from the hands of Bunnett, then Virelles… all this before the song is broken by Alberto’s voice and a joyful rumba ensues. At this point in the proceedings, Bunnett leaves the stage only to return with the majestic comparsa, Iyá Iré, a Toronto-based vocal, percussion music and dance ensemble that began to dazzle from the moment they marched on stage led by Bunnett who was playing what seemed to be a shenai. In fact it was a trompeta china . According to Wikipedia, The trompeta china (also called corneta china), a Cuban traditional wind instrument, is actually the Chinese suona, an instrument in the oboe family introduced to Cuba by Chinese immigrants during the colonial period (specifically the late nineteenth century). The trompeta china is used primarily in Cuban carnival music, particularly in the eastern region of Santiago, where it is an integral part of the comparsa (carnival musical ensemble). The instrument has also been adopted for use in some forms of son. Players of the trompeta china are not necessarily of Chinese ancestry, and the instrument’s playing style is more imitative of a trumpet than of the traditional playing style of the suona or any other Chinese instrument. In addition to its use in Cuba, the Canadian jazz saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett has taken up the trompeta china and uses it with her Afro-Cuban jazz band.

The joyful abandon of this music gave rise to “Comparsa de los Hoyos”. It was during the performance of the next chart that Iyá Iré came into their own. “El Guararey de Pastora”, a changüi song written by the legendary tresero, Roberto Baute Sagarra in Guantánamo (This chart was made famous in Cuba by Los Van Van around 1970, while Ray Barretto made it a gigantic hit in the US and Latin America in 1975). Almost on cue the music stops and Bunnett announces that she has a special guest, who has an association with the band for over two decades.

Koerner Hall is holding its breath as Bunnett introduces the maestro Jesús “Chucho” Valdés. Arguably one of Cuba’s greatest modern pianists, but only if the legacy of his still playing father and mentor, Bebo Valdés, can be completely discounted, which is something that is impossible. Nevertheless Chucho is still one of the greatest living Cuban musicians, a true musical icon of that country. But before even a note is played Bunnett, together with her co-conspirator, Warren Stewart of EMI Canada springs a surprise. Bunnett reaches under the piano where Valdés is sitting, and from an innocuous box she pulls out a gleaming Grammy statuette. This was the Grammy award that Chucho Valdés had won for Live at Newport, when he was at the helm of the legendary Cuban ensemble Irakere. Ironically he was banned from travel between Cuba and the US and so he never received that Grammy—his first ever. In a poignant moment a no doubt, stunned Chucho Valdés was presented a Grammy Award that took thirty-three years to get to him.

The mid part of the first and the beginning of the second set are dedicated to music played with Chucho Valdés and the genius, Hilario Durán (who succeeded Valdés in the legendary “Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna” when he left to pursue a career of his own with a new project: the groundbreaking band Irakere). However, Durán missed his cue on one of the key charts and was substituted by David Virelles. That song was one of the important tracks from Bunnett’s award-winning record, Embracing Voices, and was a dark tune full of foreboding and aching existential angst. The song, “I Hear Voices” was exquisitely negotiated by the pianists. Valdés’ long fingers caressed the keys as he manipulated the myriad and spiritual moods of the piece. The brooding nature of the song was perfect for the changes that both Valdés and Virelles wrought as they carried on a magnificent pianistic discussion.

Durán eventually found his way back on stage as Bunnett introduced the chart by the legendary master himself: “Mambo Influenciado”. Chucho Valdés introduces the tune with a sublime solo cadenza that has him playing dazzling upward runs and, when he descends there are delightful twists, and turns the show up again, to introduce his soli. Here Valdés shows why the piano was simply made for his enormous reach, long, expressive fingers and his classical touch that is so interspersed with percussive passages. Durán, who engaged in conversation with Valdés, was not to be outdone. As in the proverbial and friendly cutting contest, Durán throws fireballs back at Valdés, with his own dramatic arpeggios and fiery runs. Often during the conversations, Valdés raises his hands in salute to the younger pianist, for his brilliantly oblique interpretations of the melody and his sublime tumbao.

Chucho Valdés is enjoying the spotlight and the camaraderie on stage. Often during his set the brilliant dancers, led by Sarita Leyva and Orlando Cardoso sweep across the stage, providing a glittering narrative to a rumba or a tauntingly beautiful story for a valse. Chucho is sometimes transfixed, and justifiably so. Leyva is a magnificent dancer and her interpretations of the music are poignant and graceful. But clearly the evening belongs to Chucho Valdés as he dazzles the audience with his readings of Jane Bunnett’s charts. His tumbao is extraordinary and as The Spirits of Havana’s expressions turn from awe to joy the ensemble relaxes and their virtuosity begins to re-emerge.

The high-point of the evening between Jane Bunnett and Chucho Valdés came when Bunnett introduced the song that brought Valdés’ father Bebo back into the limelight. Bunnett and Valdés played “Lagrimas Negras” almost as homage to the 90+ year old Bebo Valdés. The aching beauty of the chart left the audience gasping and hoping that the recital would go on for a considerably longer time. However, one encore, the curtain dropped on one of the most extraordinary concerts at Koerner Hall—a part of Bunnett’s “30 Years of Canadian/Cuban Explorations”.

While the musicians were being feted in the green room, the Lobby of Koerner Hall came alive with music again. This time it was the trio, loosely led by Argentinean pianist, Gabriel Palatchi, who was joined by the percussion colourist, Jalidan Ruiz, from Iyá Iré, and the bassist from the Spirits of Havana—Roberto Riverón—who picked up an electric bass this time around. The hour-long performance provided ample testimony that Palatchi has the “chops” and as well as that Latin American music is alive and well in Toronto. A brief conversation with Palatchi revealed that he has been travelling considerably between Canada, Mexico and Argentina. What possessed him to gig so far and wide? Fewer opportunities for musicians to stretch out and ply their art in the capital of Ontario are pushing many musicians to practice without opportunity to perform, much less record. It would seem that contemporary music is fighting for a chance to be heard in the Latin and Latin-Jazz idiom. God knows when this will all change so the musical geography of Toronto turn verdant again.

Spirits of Havana:

Jane Bunnett, saxophone & flute
Hilario Durán, piano
David Virelles, piano
Roberto Riverón, bass
Jorge “Papiosco” Torres, percussion
Ahmed Mitchel, drums
Alberto Alberto, vocals
Larry Cramer, trumpet & flugelhorn

Chucho Valdés, piano

Iyá Iré

Yordanis O’Reilly Hechavarria, percussion, vocals & musical direction
Reimundo Sosa, percussion & vocals
Aquiles Magaña, percussion
Jalidan Ruíz, percussion
Ricardo Andrés Echemendia Martínez, minor percussion & vocals
Yosvani Castañeda Valdés, vocals & minor percussion
Sarita Leyva, dancer
Orlando Cardoso, dancer

Photographs by Atael Weissman