Jane Bunnett opens door to new Cuban-jazz fusion

Jane Bunnett

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 4, 2001) – On the face of it, Jane Bunnett might seem an unlikely exponent of Cuban-jazz fusion.

But the Toronto-based saxophonist and flutist – who brings her band, Spirits of Havana, to Club Helsinki (528-3394) on Saturday night, November 10, at 9 -- recalls that as a young girl if she saw an open door she couldn’t help but walk through it.

“There’s always been a curiosity for me about strange things,” said Bunnett in a recent phone interview from Toronto. “When I think back to myself as a kid, if I was walking home from school and there was a door open to someone’s house, I remember walking into the house. Just because the door was opened I wanted to snoop around.”

That same curiosity is what drew Bunnett’s unabashed attention to Cuban music on her first visit to Santiago nearly 20 years ago.

“The first day we were there we were greeted at the airport by a band, and then at the hotel there was an eighteen-piece son group, with trombones and trumpets,” said Bunnett. “It was spectacular. We just kept hearing more music everywhere we went. So a month later we went back to Havana, and we continued to go back and forth and meet more and more musicians and it was just pretty awesome.”

With her musician/husband, Larry Cramer, Bunnett has been back and forth to Cuba dozens of times. As Canadians, it has been easier for them to travel to and from Cuba than Americans, and long before Ry Cooder discovered the Buena Vista Social Club, Bunnett began collaborating with Cuban musicians and bringing them north for recordings and concert tours.

Her latest recording, the lively, upbeat Alma de Santiago (Blue Note), brings Bunnett full circle back to her first trip to Santiago. On the album, her group, which includes Cramer and pianist David Virelles, is joined on various tracks by the vocal group Los Jubilados, 38-member percussion ensemble La Conga de los Hoyos, and the heretofore unknown Santiago Jazz Saxophone Quartet, among other Cuban musicians.

While Bunnett comes to Cuban music as something of an outsider, she brings to it a firm foundation in styles that are technically and ideologically open to incorporating ethnic approaches to rhythm, phrasing and melody. Originally inspired to play jazz
after seeing the Charles Mingus group in San Francisco, Bunnett studied with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and she performed and recorded with Dewey Redman and the late pianist Don Pullen.

“I’ve always been pretty open to music,” said Bunnett, whose early musical training was as a classical pianist. “At the time I first got into Cuban music I’d been working with pretty adventuresome artists like Don Pullen and Dewey Redman, who were explosive players. I wasn’t afraid of powerful sounds and I liked the challenge. And I think some of these musicians who we were meeting in Cuba were equally kind of excited to get involved in a project that was for them a very different kind of thing. To them it was kind of more or less exotic too -- they were meeting someone from another culture who was curious and wanted to play.”

For the first 10 years or so, Bunnett approached Cuban folkloric music as a student, soaking in the rhythms, textures and melodies, and exposing herself to a wide range of styles and approaches. Then in 1991, Bunnett recorded her first album of Cuban music, Spirits of Havana.” Five more albums followed, including last year’s Ritmo and Soul, which won a Juno award, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy Award.

“I have six recordings out with Cuban musicians, all very different, going from a full ten drummers to no drums and just piano and me,” said Bunnett. “Then later I did a couple of recordings with another piano player with a fuller role for me, and another recording similar to Spirits of Havana but more upbeat, with a few originals.

“By the time Ritmo and Soul happened I had incorporated American gospel with the Afro-Cuban folkloric, giving it a more direct link with jazz. That recording was almost all original music. I felt like at that point I’d really absorbed many of the different influences from Cuba.”

When it came time to record Alma de Santiago, Bunnett found herself in the unique position of bringing together musicians from Santiago who had never played with each other.

“Here you have the comparsa group Los Hoyos, they had never played with a son group,” said Bunnett. “And even though the Jubilado group is a strong force there, same as the Santiago Saxophone group, they’d never worked together with Los Hoyos. So we brought all these people together within their own city to record together, working with the tradition that Santiago had to offer and mixing them together to give a very different sound.”

The result is a mix of numbers, some of which sound like the passionate sons popularized by the Buena Vista Social Club movie and soundtrack, mambos, boleros, ballads and congas, but others which are much more experimental, using folkloric Cuban music as a foundation atop which to build a genuine, original fusion of Cuban music and modern jazz. The sum result is a sound unique to Bunnett, an accomplished instrumentalist and improviser – she is heard to great effect on “Mambo Shin Shin” sitting in with the Santiago Jazz Saxophone quartet – who received Down Beat Magazine’s “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” award in its annual August Critics Poll issue.

Bunnett says that being a female bandleader in jazz hasn’t always been easy, and has perhaps been even more difficult working so extensively in the culture that coined the term “macho.”

“I’m fortunate in that my husband works with me,” said Bunnett. “I think if he wasn’t there, it’s hard to know what really would be happening. There’s no doubt about it, you go into Cuban society, I go into the conservatories and work with the students and I meet all these young women musicians in school, but I don’t see them on the bandstands. Fifty percent of the students are women but they’re not getting to the bandstand. It’s because it’s a macho scene. The women are intimidated.

“I’ve had to sort of rise above that, but I’ve also been fortunate in that I surrounded myself with musicians like Pullen and Redman who were very encouraging and gave me that confidence that we are going to play and the only way you get better is by doing it and getting over your nerves and feeling you have something to contribute to the music.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 9, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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