Those who attend Afro-Cuban ceremonies in Brooklyn and the Bronx, or in Union City, New Jersey, experience the power and talent of Pedrito Martinez in a religious setting—“hands like thunder, and a voice like lightning,” as saxophonist Jane Bunnett described it for a Wall Street Journal piece on Martinez that I wrote last year. (She met him at such a ceremony in his native Cuba, before he left to join her in Canada; by 2000, he had won the Thelonious Monk jazz competition and moved to Union City.)
As a percussionist and a singer (as a rumbero) Martinez does seem a force of nature, so powerful is his effect to transform places and moments. Many have been moved by Martinez on midweek nights, when his quartet is in residency at the Midtown Manhattan restaurant Guantanamera. Between the narrow restaurant’s few dozen tables, waiters often compete with diners moved to dance. “At first, we played traditional Cuban songs there,” Martinez told me for a much longer feature in Jazziz magazine. “But then we decided to just play what we love and let people get used to it.” They have. Among the consistent crowd at Guantanamera has been a steady stream of admiring musicians, including Wynton Marsalis, Eric Clapton and Roger Waters.
Martinez’s talent has oozed out on stages and recordings in many contexts. His batá drumming was the first sound heard on pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s latest recording, “XXI Century.” His chanting opened the recent “Today’s Opinion,” from saxophonist Yosvany Terry. A year ago, 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 July at London’s Barbican Theater, he joined Marsalis’ orchestra for a program that included his own compositions. In August, his quartet kept a crowd at the Montreux Jazz Festival enthralled well past midnight. (That festival’s producer, Claude Nobs, fell in love with the band after stopping into Guantanamera.) When pianist Michele Rosewoman reunites her great New Yor-Uba band in New York next month, Martinez assumes the key spot formerly held by a legendary Cuban musician, Orlando “Puntilla’ Ríos.
I can’t wait to hear the quartet CD Martinez has just completed recording for release on the Motema label later this year. For now, we have “Rumba de la Isla,” on the Madrid-based Calle 54 label, on which, alongside standard-bearing musicians from Cuba and Spain, Martinez takes on a tradition that is close cousin to his own, the flamenco-rumba legacy of the Spanish singer Camarón de la Isla. Nat Chediak, who co-produced the “Rumba de la Isla” along with filmmaker Fernando Trueba, experienced the transformative power of Martinez’s talent in the studio. “At first, Pedrito tried to be faithful to Spanish melodies,” he told me, “but he came off sounding like a Cuban rumbero trying to sing flamenco. We asked him to feel free to betray the melody, to approach the songs freely, as he felt them. At this point, the album came alive. Unless you’re acquainted with the originals, it’s impossible to tell where the standards end and Pedrito’s own poetic inspiration begins.”
In his astute New York Times CD review, Ben Ratliff offers just such analysis, writing:
Mr. Martínez doesn’t try to incorporate the rough tremors or hard semaphore shouting of the flamenco cante jondo style into his singing; he’s a Cuban rumba singer, floating unbroken, fluid melodic lines over busy polyrhythms.
“Gitana te Quiero” is a good example of the transformation process. Camarón’s original was a 12-beat bulería, sung from the beginning with fractured passion over percussively strummed guitar and hand claps; the band on “Rumba de la Isla” turns it into a two-beat rumba, woven collectively between tumbadora and bata drums and cajón; as a singer, Mr. Martínez changes the mood completely, making it serene and centered until halfway through, when he starts improvising against a vocal chorus.
As a boy in Havana, Martinez often ditched school to attend Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies. “Instead of keeping notes about my classes, I’d write down the chants and rhythms I heard,” he said. “I felt like I had entered a paradise I could not have imagined. The energy just pulled me in. I told myself, ‘This is what I want to do. This is what I want my life to be.’”
So it is. He also wants his life and his music informed by jazz’s swing, which he said he has only begun to absorb through direct contact, since moving to the United States. “Recordings are different than life,” he says. “It’s one thing to listen, another thing is experiencing. You can talk to the guys: What is the secret? What is the touch? Why does it sound that way for you and not for me, even though I’m a great drummer, too?”
His quartet continues to evolve, rewarding those who return again and again to Guantanamera restaurant. Ariacne Trujillo, who sings and plays keyboard in the group with great distinction, 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.”
Look and listen for Martinez. His is the call of Afro Cuban culture, often voiced in fresh yet faithful ways. And his is the promise of all good jazz musicians: How to innovate with firm footing in tradition?
Image/ Michael Weintrob