Jane Bunnett: Spirits of Havana

Every one of the albums that Jane Bunnett has made, with or without her husband and trumpet/flugelhorn player, Larry Cramer, with or without Don Pullen, is a classic in its own right. However, this 1992 record, Spirits of Havana is one of her most iconic ones. In those days Ms. Bunnett was known as “Havana Jane” a moniker that was given her by those who knew her as being in love with the music of Cuba. This magnificent obsession has put the soprano saxophonist and flutist in a class of her own. An obsessive perfectionist Jane Bunnett has polished these works on Spirits of Havana into gleaming gems. As a composer who also plays two instruments she writes for both idiomatically. She is never flashy, unlike her other, more flamboyant younger contemporaries.

I have practically worn out my copy of Spirits of Havana, a first issue CD that was minted in 1992 for Egrem/Denon/CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Universal Music reissued this classic in 2002. Everything seems right about these polished accounts of Ms. Bunnett’s Afro-Cuban odyssey. The group parleys with the familiarity of old friends—indeed they probably were by that point, after practicing and playing until she got it right, as is her wont—yet their playing always retains that sense of gracious etiquette associated with the Cuban comparsa. Nothing is forced or exaggerated or overly mannered: tempos, ensemble and balance—all seem effortless and intuitively right.

Jane Bunnett’s saxophone and flute sound is lucid. Her voice is sharp and edgy and there’s a similarly enigmatic relationship with tonality, although her language is sometimes more linear and austere. As always there is visceral rhythmic excitement in the songs—especially those on which the folkloric group Grupo Yoruba Andabo perform with her. But there are songs which are sung by the great Cuban singer Merceditas Valdés, who is soft, yet radiates regality. These are among the finest on the album. There are other featured artists who are legends today. One is the percussionist Guillermo Barreto and the other is the great Cuban pianist Frank Emilio Flynn. Of course Ms. Valdés might also stake her claim to legendary status. It is amazing how she lifts pieces off the page by her passionate singing.

This excellent album is like an elegant railway, linking Afro-Cuban rhythms with folk and jazz idioms. But to describe it as such is to give the impression of overcooking when in actual fact the whole process is a masterpiece of subtlety. Jane Bunnett’s take on the cool spacy soprano saxophone is less than conventional here and of course she summons all that is iconic of woodwind tones. Cool also is the playing of Larry Cramer. Both their sounds float benignly over the sound of rhythms—piano, bass and percussion—that in their turn add a rich and not entirely predictable harmonic foundation to the music. And the surprises, when they come, are effective and discreet, especially on my favourite track: Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy”. Close-knit sounds develop from single phrases here. It’s hard to find anything undue with this album. Even the recorded sound balances detail and warmth.

Track List – Hymn; Ochun; Yo Siempre Oddara; Song From Argentina; Quirino; La Luna Arriba; G.M.S (Gandinga, Mondongo, Sandunga); Epistrophy; Yemaya (Asesu); Sweet Dreams; Spirits of Havana.

Personnel – Jane Bunnett: soprano saxophone and flute; Mercedita Valdés: vocals; Guillermo Barreto: timbales; Larry Cramer: trumpet and flugelhorn; Gonzalo Rubalcaba: piano; Kieran Overs: bass; Hilario Durán Torres: piano; Frank Emilio Flynn Rodriguez: piano; Ahmed Barroso: guitar; Roberto Garcia Valdés: bongo; Ernesto Rodriguez Guzmán: tumbas; Grupo Yoruba Andabo: Giovanni Del Pino Rodríguez: director, clave and voice; Juan Campos Cárdenas: chao and voice; Pedro C Farinas Meneses: voice; Oqduardo Díaz Anaya: batá and tumbas; Francisco Hernández Mora: batá and tumbas; Orlando Lage Bozva; batá and tumbas; Justo M. García Arango: shékere and tumbas; Jacinto Soull Castillo: shékere and tumbas; Ignacio Ubicio Castillo: percussion.

Label – Messidor/Universal
Released – 1992/2002
Running time – 1:05:34

Raul Da Gama
Raul Da Gama
Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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