It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Clave: Jazz’s Enduring Afro-Latin Dance

Want to hear the hippest jazz in New York? Follow a Cuban musician. Or trail one from Puerto Rico, or Venezuela. Maybe one born and raised in Connecticut, or in Queens, provided that upbringing involved a deep immersion in Afro-Latin tradition as well as jazz pedagogy.

Last month, I wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the expansive influence of Chucho Valdés. If you sat in his presence through a series of recent Carnegie Hall performances, you heard the Cuban pianist, at 71, utterly fluent in styles from the U.S. and Cuba, still tinkering mightily and in entirely new ways with a formula he began through Irakere, the group he led from 1973 through 2000. With Irakere, Valdés had crafted a blend of jazz, rock, and Afro-Cuban roots music that was both a subversive response to Cuba’s postrevolution rejection of American culture and a seed for the Cuban dance music later known as timbá. These days, he’s focused on his Afro-Cuban Messengers and other small acoustic ensembles, but his concept is no less dynamic. Valdés did an interesting thing last month at Carnegie: Within a series called “Voices from Cuba,” he invited not just a Cuban pianist (the mightily influential Gonzalo Rubalcaba) but also ones from Brazil (Egberto Gismonte) and Panama (Danilo Pérez) to join him during a four-piano evening. That and the further detail that Rubalcaba and Pérez both wrote pieces for a chamber group from Venezuela performing at Carnegie says something about how these traditions bleed across borders wherever musicians are cool and inquisitive, not to mention well-trained.

Most jazz musicians, listeners and critics in the U.S. have long recognized basic signposts to the intersections of Afro-Latin music and American jazz, including: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie‘s work with the Cuban bandleader Frank “Machito” Grillo and with percussionist Chano Pozo in the 1940s; Louis Armstrong‘s 1930 recording of the Cuban song “El Manisero”; Creole pianist Jelly Roll Morton‘s even earlier assertion that jazz had to have a “Spanish tinge” to be authentic. Still, Afro Latin culture had widely been regarded as an exotic “other” despite its elemental value to so much American music. Latin American musicians have celebrated the acceptance in recent years of their music into the broader mainstream jazz canon. Also, jazz is now in some ways a global music: There are virtuoso players from all over the world, and it is increasingly common to hear, say, a Southeast Asian rhythm in a jazz context. Still, it’s important to understand that musical traditions from Cuba, the Caribbean, South and Central America as far more than close cousins. They are elemental to jazz’s vitality and direction.

“I’ve heard people give lip service to Afro-Latin influence in jazz for many years,” said Bobby Sanabria, a percussionist of Puerto Rican descent who leads a dazzling big-band, and who has taught at the New School University and the Manhattan School of Music. That was back in 2003, at the opening of a Smithsonian Institution exhibition, “Latin Jazz: La Combinación Perfecta.” One video within the exhibition showed Sanabria demonstrating aspects of clave—the rhythmic building blocks of twos and threes that undergird all Afro-Cuban music. But rhythmic literacy, the first prerequisite for anyone approaching Afro-Latin music, was not the full point of the exhibition’s conga-shaped kiosks. “After Ken Burns’s jazz documentary aired on PBS, I felt like I needed therapy,” Sanabria said then. “It was as if the Afro-Latin influence in jazz had never happened. And that’s deeply ironic, considering that American jazz was written out of history books for so long.”

I like to think we’re past all that now. And that we’re getting past the idea of a simple and separate category called “Latin jazz.” By now, we can begin to grasp that there are important distinct identities embodied by jazz in the United States — a particular style of swinging rhythm, among other things — as well as to Cuban music and to traditions developed throughout Latin and South America. But there’s also an inexorable braid, a unity. I was struck in 2010, when I made two reporting trips to Cuba. During the first, which documented a residency by Wynton Marsalis and his orchestra, the trumpeter visited Havana’s storied conservatories and demonstrated the distinct features of American jazz. “This is what we created,” he said, “and that everyone can share.” Two months later, I traveled back with anther big band, led by pianist Arturo O’Farrill, the son of Cuban composer and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill. Arturo, who was born in Mexico and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, who rejected his father’s music as a young man and then circled back to the wonders of the clave, visited those same conservatories. He led the students in a chant: “Jazz no es norteamericano, es panamericano!

In a way, Marsalis and O’Farrill are both right.

That duality implies a complex relationship of the richest kind, and invites ceaseless invention. Right now in New York, Cuban musicians are expanding and deepening the ways in which their island’s folkloric traditions exist in the modern world and the manner in which these traditions inform jazz’s forward flow here. And players from all points who have a grasp of these traditions are playing the most exciting stuff around. Nearly all of these musicians studied at conservatories in Cuba or elsewhere in this hemisphere. Most of them either continued their studies at U.S. schools such as Berklee College of Music or the New School University, or have gone on to teach here (or have done both). All of them draw influence (some very directly) from Valdés and Rubalcaba. More than a few have are marked by experience with American alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, whose bands offer a yet different brand of rhythmic rigor and improvisational logic.

The flowerings of these seeds are many and distinct, and they reveal interesting cross-pollination. My favorite CD of 2012, “Today’s Opinion” (Criss Cross), is grounded in both distinct formal traditions and abstract ideas as combined by alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry, who was born in Cuba and moved to New York in 1999. Another recording high on my list is “Continuum” (Pi), by pianist David Virelles, also from Cuba. One that nearly made the cut was “New Cuban Express,” by Cuban pianist Manuel Valera, which features a band including Yosvany Terry. Another contender was “Musae,” from Cuban saxophonist Roman Filiu. Virelles is in Filiu’s band on that one, which was recorded for Dafnison, an independent label created by Cuban drummer (and MacArthur “genius grant” awardee) Dafnis Prieto. Prieto, meanwhile, created one of the most intriguing and category-free projects of the past year — his Proverb Trio, with keyboardist Jason Lindner and rapper/singer Carl Walker, aka Kokayi. Yet another memorable 2012 release, “Rayuela” (Sunnyside), grew from a collaboration of Miguel Zenón (a Puerto Rican saxophonist who lives in New York, and another MacArthur Fellow) and French pianist Laurent Coq. Zenón has been making standout recordings for a decade, some of which have mined traditional music of his native island. His “Jíbaro” (2005) explored the music of backcountry troubadours. “Esta Plena,” (2008) was based on another traditional Puerto Rican musical style of rural origin, plena. Both of those recordings featured pianist Luis Perdomo, from Caracas, Venezuela; Perdomo’s own 2012 release “Universal Mind” (RKM) projects a yet different voice, in a trio that includes drummer (and NEA Jazz Master) Jack DeJohnette.

And all that doesn’t delve into the ways in which these players help shape the sound of New York’s most intelligent and progressive jazz. Perdomo plays piano on half the tracks of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane’s latest CD, “Spirit Fiction” (Blue Note), which was among my Top 10 CDs. One of the most interesting bands on jazz’s current horizon is Us Five, a quintet led by saxophonist Joe Lovano that features two drummers, one of which is Francisco Mela, from Cuba. Mela’s got his own fine band, Cuban Safari, with which he released forward-leaning CD, “Tree of Life” (Half Note) last year. One of the best mainstream jazz CDs of this year, from drummer Ralph Peterson, featured a high-octane, masterly sextet: Its bassist, Luques Curtis, and its pianist, Luques’ older brother, Zaccai, grew up in Windsor, Conn. As young students, they soaked up jazz tradition from saxophonist Jackie McLean, via his storied Hartford-based Artists Collective and then later from Peterson. They got an early and deep immersion in Afro-Latin tradition via the Gonzalez brothers, trumpeter/conga player Jerry and bassist Andy, who are both essential figures in the story of how Afro Latin influence has impacted jazz in New York via musicians of Puerto Rican descent. (Their Fort Apache Band remains one of the best examples of Afro-Latin infused jazz.) The Curtis Brothers made their own terrific 2011 recording, “Completion of Proof” (Truth Revolution), which represented a smart and personal synthesis. (“This is less about Latin jazz than just how music comes out of me,” Zaccai told me. “If it’s a fusion, it’s of me and my brother, and the people we’ve learned from.”)

I’ve not yet even mentioned percussionist Pedrito Martinez, who is just about the most exciting musician in New York. His chanting opens Terry’s provocative new CD. His batá drumming (round-headed drums used in Yoruba-based rituals in Cuba) was the first sound heard on Rubalcaba’s brilliant 2011 release “XXI Century” (5 Passion). Martinez has also been an essential presence on scores of recordings, especially on those by fellow Cuban musicians living in the United States. On “Rumba de la Isla,” a CD for the Madrid-based Calle 54 label due in early 2013, he performs alongside standard-bearing musicians from Cuba and Spain, taking on a tradition that is close cousin to his own, the flamenco-rumba legacy of the Spanish singer Camarón de la Isla. A decade ago, Martinez won the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz competition (the one year the annual event focused on hand-drumming), which helped raise his profile in the U.S. Unlike most of the Cuban musicians who have made an impact in the here during the past 20 years, especially within jazz circles, Martinez didn’t attend Cuba’s elite music schools. And yet he has proven an adept student of many musical styles, with talent and magnetism to appeal to a variety of audience.

In March, Martinez transformed Robert Johnson‘s “Traveling Riverside Blues” into something distinctly Afro-Cuban during a star-studded Rhythm & Blues Foundation benefit at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. In May, he popped up as both headliner and scene-stealing guest on four different stages at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. In June at Lincoln Center, he helped Paul Simon memorably rework hits like “Late in the Evening” in collaboration with Wynton Marsalis. In August, his quartet kept a crowd at the Montreux Jazz Festival enthralled well past midnight.

When he’s not on the road, you can catch Martinez leading his genre-busting quartet at Guantanamera, a Cuban restaurant in midtown Manhattan. (You can hear some of that here.) It is somewhat startling to encounter a musician of Martinez’s caliber and rising stature for no cover charge at a Manhattan restaurant, and it’s unclear just how long that offer will last. “Guantanamera is a workshop,” he told me. “At first we played traditional Cuban songs, but then we decided to just play what we love and let people get used to it. People appreciate that we’re not just messing around. We don’t show off. They already know we can play. We’re here to create.” Then again, the Guantanamera gig has grown into something of an advertisement for Martinez. Among the consistent crowd has been a steady stream of music-industry professionals and admiring musicians. These include players Martinez has worked with for years, such as trumpeter Brian Lynch, on whose Grammy-winning CD “Simpático” he played, and stars from beyond the jazz and Latin worlds. Eric Clapton and Roger Waters have made repeated visits. Most weekends when he is not touring, out of view of fans and tourists, Martinez also sings and plays batá drums at homes in Brooklyn and the Bronx, leading ceremonies for four or six hours at a stretch.

With his trio, Martinez is onto something unique that draws from all these sources. The pianist in his group, Ariacne Trujillo (a noteworthy player and singer herself, who grew up in the same Havana neighborhood as Martinez) explains the dynamic this way: “It’s kind of like a percussive conversation between all of us. Everyone breaks in with whatever they’re thinking. It keeps changing. It’s unique and weird. I guess it’s New York Afro-Cuban music, but we don’t really know what to call it anymore.”

Much of the work of the musicians I’ve mentioned above —  I’ve no doubt left out some worthy players — owes to experiments with like-minded collaborators. Back in Cuba, Yosvany Terry and Dafnis Prieto had been half of Columna B, a quartet of students at Havana’s conservatories. “That band was like a laboratory for us,” Terry said. For Prieto, “Columna B was a way to support each other. We had all this tradition, all this new information, and a desire to create.” In 2000, in Manhattan, Terry began leading an ongoing series, something between performances and jam sessions, featuring fellow Cuban musicians such as players such as Perdomo and Prieto. The band David Virelles assembled “Continuum” features Andrew Cyrille, among the wisest of elder jazz drummers, and perhaps the most fluent in Afro-Latin rhythms: Ben Street, among the most versatile and searching of New York bassists; and Roman Díaz, a Cuban folklorist and poet who is a master practitioner of Cuban religious practices and rhythms.

What’s exciting about all this new music is what’s exciting about the best modern jazz: The thrill of finding new ways to move music forward without losing a firm foot in tradition. Or ways of revisiting the past through a brand-new lens. There isn’t any one stunning innovation defining this moment in jazz, a fact that both distresses those who stand on the music’s sidelines lamenting its death and confounds the marketers looking for easy hooks. Yet there are dozens of subtle and interwoven revolutions going on in jazz, audible mostly just to those on the frontlines, clubs, or at least those invested in deep listening to music by players who aren’t yet dead. More often than not, just as in Jelly Roll Morton‘s days, these revolutions involve a spark — something or someone — of Afro-Latin origin.

There’s a new generation of musicians who are fluent in musical traditions that span much of this hemisphere, just now coming of age. I first heard tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, from Santiago, Chile, as a precocious teenager during a festival hosted by pianist Danilo Pérez in Panama. Now in her mid-20s, living in New York, Aldana has a maturely swinging new CD, “Second Circle,” out on Inner Circle, the independent label founded by saxophonist Greg Osby. The O’Farrill Brothers Band — led by Arturo’s sons, drummer Zack and trumpeter Adam — have a smart new CD coming next month, “Sensing Flight” (Zoho), which doesn’t sound Afro-Latin but swings in unconventional ways. There’s a CD culled from Pedrito Martinez’s Guantanamera performances that you can get at the restaurant: But I’m waiting to hear what he will come up with after he heads into the studio with this band, which should happen next year. Tonight, I’m going to Manhattan’s Zinc Bar for an album-release performance by bassist Yunior Terry, Yosvany’s brother and a member of Yosvany’s band. “Mi Bajo Danzón” (Palo Santo), Yunior’s debut as a leader, focuses on “música bailable” — dance music. “My bass likes to dance,” he told author Ned Sublette, who wrote the album’s liner note. “It’s one more dancer, out there on the floor.”

The connection between music and dance, distanced during the past several decades here, has never been lost in Cuba or anywhere else in Latin America. That’s just one reason the current wave of Afro-Latin influence is so invigorating.

This is a very old musical embrace, never really broken. And I can’t wait for each next step.

Image: (top) Yosvany Terry/© Govert Driessen, (left) Pedrito Martinez/© Michael Weintrob, (right) David Virelles/© EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images

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